The high-end pastime known as “upgrading” comes as naturally to an audiophile as breathing in and out. While no one category can be singled out as the most cost-effective upgrade, cables—so easy to swap—might be the most instantly gratifying. Even though some of my colleagues consider wire-reviewing about as much fun as a sleep-over at Camp Gitmo, I enjoy the process. The cables assembled here, from Crystal Cable, Nordost, and TARA Labs, all have pedigrees that are unassailable. And upgraders take note—they each hit significantly different price points. Please also consider that the cables were tested as speaker-wire/interconnect tag teams. They were designed as partners, and that’s generally how they tend to be sold.
Crystal Cable of the Netherlands describes its wire as “micro-sized,” and it ain’t kidding. Jewel-like, this skinny-mini could be mistaken for piano wire, and if you’re not careful it will tangle as easily as a necklace from Cartier or Tiffany.
Preconceptions about physical size aside, the CrystalSpeak Micro plays big and clean. Like a sonic windshield wiper it sweeps the soundstage clear of dust and grime. Orchestral images snap into focus, and the sensation of pace and speed is immediately apparent. Tonally, the Micro combo is midrange-neutral with a little lift in the treble and lag in the bass. It’s ultra-swift in transient response with a turbine-like smoothness that rhythmically propels the music forward, as if tempos had been increased. There is no blurring or smearing of notes, even when Evgeny Kissin unleashes a series of lightning- strike piano arpeggios or summons a swirl of harmonics from his Steinway during Glinka’s The Lark [RCA].
However, there’s a region in the treble where the Micro suggests a modest coloration. It can be heard in the harmonic structure of a voice like that of a cappella artist Laurel Massé. A bleached, silver quality overlays the fabric of her vocals; it implies “detail,” but unless your speaker is rolled in the treble, the added presence isn’t welcome. Also the Micro’s not as authoritative in the bass as I’d like, and at the lowest volume levels there’s some loss of character in instruments like tympani, bassoon, or acoustic bass.
In terms of soundstage perspective the Micros always sounded as if the microphones were a couple of inches closer to the orchestra or soloist—an impression that slightly diminished the reverberant nature of larger acoustic spaces. Soundstage width was excellent, but, while depth is better than average, I found myself wanting more-complex layering of string sections. On balance, however, the Micros are arguably one of the most transparent cables I’ve heard to date.
As the most affordable cables in the survey the Baldurs performed uncommonly well. They were evenly balanced, with the tonal composure and midrange solidity that I’m so fond of with Nordost wire. Baldur improves on Blue Heaven in every respect,  and by virtue of its greater resolution and transparency draws ever closer to Valhalla. Whereas the Blue Heaven can sound a bit whitish and hair-trigger, Baldur has greater effortlessness, with a welcoming midrange warmth and treble bloom. It imparts a firmer more extended low-frequency undercarriage which benefits a wide range of orchestral material. And with its class-leading low-level resolution I found myself isolating the smallest acoustic details in very specific areas of the soundstage. Baldur also has a buttery way with transients, making them rounder, without etch or hardness. Tonally, Baldur has a small emphasis or “push” in the midrange that can energize violin sections a mite. Also, during Glinka’s Russian and Ludmilla Overture from Reiner’s Chicago [RCA], the violin section pushes forward as if gently spotlit. Soundstaging in general was solid, but the rear of the soundstage lacked some definition, and various orchestral sections often sounded a little crowded together.
Perhaps my most interesting conclusion during this survey was the way each of the cables seemed to emphasize a different treble coloration. For example, when Emmylou Harris hits the upper octave of her range (in her duet with Mark Knopfler from All The Roadrunning [Warner Bros.]), the Nordost closes down slightly, as if there’s a narrow ridge in the upper frequencies where it peaks and settles back down. Likewise, brass sections tend to congeal a bit, and celli had a more wiry character.
All in all, the Baldur may not be as focused as the Crystal Micro or as weighty as the TARA RSC Air 1, but its possesses a rewarding balance of criteria (and extreme affordability) that makes it tough to beat on this playing field.