Honesty. It’s not always the best policy, and in some instances it may be the worst. The calculus of perceived realism in audio reproduction appears, at times, to be predicated more on alchemy than on chemistry. Such alchemy, in my opinion, is born from our own preferred taste in what something should sound like, rather than on the audio reviewer’s unicorn: objectivity. It is, perhaps, presumptuous then to assume that objectivity is even possible when it comes to reviewing audio equipment, for every reviewer’s audial perspective is unique. This truth is liberating and a little depressing. For every vinyl fan there is a staunch follower of the digital path, and for every tube lover there are those who, like me, do not want a tube anywhere near their gear.
The SoundStage! Network’s own writing staff is emblematic of this. When Jeff Stockton reviewed B&W’s CM5 loudspeakers, he concluded by saying that "The best audio products make bad recordings sound tolerable, good recordings sound better, and great recordings sound sublime." With the utmost respect to Jeff, I could not disagree more. The notion that a piece of audio equipment should universally color the music passing through it is repugnant to the search for sonic honesty. The truth is, however, that I suspect that there are many more listeners who, like Jeff, prefer equipment that allows their music to sound its "best," even if such reproduction is not ultimately faithful to the original recording. Arguably, then, honesty is in the ear of the beholder, and its attendant beauty will not reveal itself to everyone.
Aiming for Valhalla, to win Odin’s favor
In Norse mythology, half of those who perish in combat travel to the great hall of Valhalla, where the god Odin has summoned them to join him and other slain heroes. So it is that Nordost, a cable manufacturer based in Ashland, Massachusetts, is perhaps best known for its Valhalla and Odin ranges, which Nordost describes as their Reference and Supreme Reference lines. Coupled with their somewhat less-than-modest prices, the Valhalla and Odin lines are Nordost’s interpretation of the state of the art of cable design.
Apropos of these flagship products is Nordost’s newest offering, the aptly named Leif series of cables. Of Scandinavian origin, Leif (rhymes with life) means, approximately, descendant, and the series’ design philosophy has obvious links to its higher-priced siblings. For the purposes of this review, Nordost sent along their Blue Heaven LS line of cables from the Leif range. These included a 2m run of speaker cables ($699.99 USD per 2m pair), 1m XLR analog interconnects ($349.99/1m pair), a 2m USB digital interconnect ($350/2m), and three 2.5m power cords ($349.99 each).
Nordost claims that the flat design of the Blue Heaven LS speaker cable, used in every speaker cable they sell, is superior to the helical designs of other cable manufacturers. The proprietary process that Nordost uses to space the Blue Heavens’ 16 parallel conductors of silver-plated, 99.9999% oxygen-free copper (aka six-nines OFC) purports to offer greater stability in terms of dielectrics, and to facilitate faster data transfer. The XLR interconnects have four OFC conductors, the power cords three. In their literature for the Leif line, Nordost is keen to list the data-transfer rates of their speaker cables and interconnects; in the case of the speaker cables, that rate exceeds 90% of the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), which lends itself to a fast, open sound.
Every cable Nordost sent me was encased in fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP), an insulating material that is highly resistant to corrosion and yet still somewhat pliable. Nordost is so taken with FEP’s dielectric properties that they encase all of their speaker cables in the material (with varying tolerances), from the entry-level 2 Flat to the top-end Odin model. Nordost’s liberal and pervasive use of FEP, allied with the use of other high-end materials and methodologies that reflect the company’s roots in the aerospace industries, make their cable designs more utilitarian than aesthetic. This belies, however, their revealing nature, which at times bordered on the ruthless.
The Blue Heaven LS set that Nordost sent me took up residence in a system linked largely by second-hand cables. Out went my Transparent Audio Wave speaker cables (hand-me-downs), AudioQuest King Cobra XLR interconnects (eBay), and Ridge Street Audio Designs Poiema!!! R-v3 USB Digital Master USB cable. The stock power cables from my Krell KAV-300il integrated amplifier, Benchmark DAC1 USB digital-to-analog converter, and Apple iMac also made way for the blue cables from Massachusetts.
The spade-terminated Nordost speaker cables snaked their way from my newish Mirage OMD-28 omnidirectional speakers, reviewed in April 2007 by Doug Schneider, to my Krell. From there, the Blue Heaven XLR interconnects linked the Krell to the Benchmark DAC, linked in turn to my Apple iMac via the Nordost USB cable. All of my music is encoded using Apple’s Lossless format and is played through iTunes, with the exception of some 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files that I play through Songbird.
The Nordost cables ushered truly high-end sound into my living room. I do not say this lightly. I remember, when I was younger, going to my local hi-fi store and envying the quality of sound I heard. Yet ten years later, despite owning equipment that matches or surpasses the performance of those components I so fondly recall hearing in the store, I found myself incapable of reproducing similar sound quality. No longer.
While my AudioQuest interconnects and my excellent Ridge Street USB cable, which I reviewed a few months ago, are newer products, my Transparent Audio Wave speaker cables date back to the early 1990s, and are likely at least two generations old. The introduction of the Nordost cables to my system was dramatic. In contrast to the Nordost cables’ blue jacketing, which immediately draws one in for a closer visual inspection, their initial sound made me lean back on my sofa. Way back.
Whereas my existing cables seemed to confine the soundstage to squarely between the speakers, from where it extended vaguely beyond the front wall of my listening room, the soundstage as articulated through the Nordosts grew markedly in every dimension. Not only did instruments seem to be playing well outside where my speakers stood, but also from well, well behind the front wall of my listening room. The sound even expanded vertically.
The best illustrations of this expansive sound were provided by well-recorded orchestral music, such as my new favorite soundtrack, Tron: Legacy (CD, Walt Disney 56720), which combines an 85-piece orchestra with Daft Punk’s synthesizer skills. In "Outlands," a single cello is quietly played in the middle of the soundstage before being joined by a more urgent-sounding cello, both cellos then crescendoing to a thunderously struck bass drum. The two cellos are layered beautifully atop one another, each easily discernible, while the decay of the bass drum lingers in such a way as to highlight the size of the recording hall. Even when a cacophonous array of brass enters the fray a few minutes into the track, the cellos remain faintly audible in a way I had not previously noticed.
Another example was Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1990 recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 (CD, Telarc CD-80120). In the final, choral movement, with bass soloist Robert Lloyd’s voice front and center, the chorus enters from behind to first echo, then seemingly envelop Lloyd. While Lloyd’s solo voice hints at the size of the venue, the booming chorus firmly resonates in Severance Hall.
So, too, with Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (CD, Warner Bros. 48110): In the opening seconds of "The Black Rider," multiple trumpets, snare and bass drums, a bassoon, and a piccolo all appear to glorious effect from deep in the soundstage. Each is easily discernible at different spots laterally across the soundstage, and their collective sound reverberates in a fashion that makes me feel as if my speakers are opening a window on the recording hall: Abbey Road’s cavernous Studio 1.
Beyond the Nordosts’ ability to let my omnidirectional Mirages soundstage like champions, they also excelled in terms of speed and transparency. At first, I gave short shrift to the Leif range’s literature, which touted the "speed" of the various cables as percentages of the speed of light. When I questioned one of the folks at Nordost about the claim, he stated that the faster the cable, the wider the bandwidth, and, in turn, the more open the resulting sound. My initial skepticism has since retreated.
Indeed, my very first impression of the Blue Heavens was that they sounded exceedingly clean and quick. The hated audiophilic "grain" was nowhere to be found, and their sound was immediate. For lack of a better word, the Blue Heavens’ speed made everything sound more organic. Also worth noting was my system’s newly lowered noise floor. While my Krell integrated and Benchmark DAC ensured that that floor was not very high to begin with, the introduction of the Blue Heavens, and likely the power cords in particular, effected a change in the background darkness of my source material. These assorted qualities were not limited to certain types of recordings, but ran the gamut of what I played through the blue Nordosts.
"My Lover’s Gone," from Dido’s No Angel (CD, Arista 74321832742), proceeds with the singer appearing out of almost complete sonic darkness. The Nordosts rendered her voice with the utmost grace, articulating its airiness, flushness, and sharpness all at once, richly filling the void between my speakers. The delicacy required to faithfully reproduce the human voice is substantial, and the Nordosts did so with ease.
Music recorded at a resolution of 24-bit/96kHz revealed the Nordosts’ true potential. "Misery," from Dave’s True Story’s Unauthorized (24/96 FLAC, Chesky), opens with simple brushstrokes on a cymbal, combined with a sparing drum, a softly strummed electric guitar, and a xylophone in the left of the soundstage. It all was perfect fodder for the Blue Heavens. While this unassuming opening would seem easy enough to reproduce, the sheer amount of detail in this recording is worth more than a few hearings. I found myself repeatedly listening to the track’s first 30 seconds, each time further exploring the recording space and the drummer’s technique.
Similarly with the sweet violin of Marianne Thorsen, accompanied by Oyvind Gimse and the Trondheimsolistene, in the Allegro of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major, (24/96 FLAC, 2L): I found myself repeating segments of the movement in which her violin danced unaccompanied on the stage. Remarkable not only for illustrating Thorsen’s deft control of a bow, the Nordosts did utmost justice to her violin’s timbral weight, sharpness, and interaction with the recording venue. This recording was voiced to sweet perfection, due in no small part to the Nordosts’ speed.
A fair comparison of the Nordost Blue Heavens was to cables I received from industry newcomer Dynamique Audio, a UK company whose gorgeous cables reek of quality. Dynamique sent along their Cyclone and Caparo speaker cables, Tempest interconnects, Firelight USB cable, and Horizon power cords. Their Cyclone speaker cables neatly slotted in a few hundred dollars below the price of the Blue Heavens, while the Caparos cost a few hundred dollars more. With the set from Europe costing roughly the same as the Nordosts from Massachusetts, depending on which speaker cable I used, one would imagine the two sets to sound roughly the same.
In terms of aggregate quality, I would say that they did, though each set had its own unique character. The Dynamiques seemed to deliver slightly more resolution, with sparkling highs and more authoritative, controlled low frequencies that the Nordosts didn’t seem quite able to match. On the other hand, the Dynamiques fell short of the Nordosts’ clean, organic presentation, not quite matching the Blue Heavens’ sheer transparency. Both, however, threw out enormous soundstages. It would be unfair to categorically claim that the Dynamique cables were better than Nordosts, or vice versa. Rather, I think both offered excellent overall sound, though each treads a different sonic path in achieving this.
The Nordost Blue Heavens represent fabulous value. Coming into this review, I was of the mind that cables were the absolute last things in my system that I would spend my hard-earned money on. I maintained this stance even after reading Nordost’s own "Foundation Theory," available on their website, which suggests that the foundation of a listener’s system should be not the speakers, amplifier, or source, but the cables. I dismissed such a notion out of hand, probably because it flies in the face of received audiophile wisdom.
Without addressing the merits of the "Foundation Theory," I concede that the Nordost Blue Heavens have brought to my system the greatest jumps in musicality, soundstaging, and transparency that I have heard. Their honesty finds a home in each and every recording I throw at them, and I could not be happier with the results. Secure in the knowledge that these Nordost cables will neither editorialize your music nor unduly burden your wallet, I can offer only my strongest recommendation.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Mirage OMD-28
- Integrated amplifier -- Krell KAV-300il
- Source -- Apple 17" MacBook Pro and Apple iMac, running Songbird and iTunes; Benchmark DAC1 USB DAC
- Speaker cables -- Transparent Audio Wave
- Interconnects -- AudioQuest King Cobra XLR, Ridge Street Audio Designs Poiema!!! R-v3 USB Digital Master
Nordost Blue Heaven LS Speaker Cables
Price: $699.99 USD per 2m pair, spade or banana connectors ($200/additional 1.0m)
Nordost Blue Heaven LS Interconnects
Price: $349.99 USD per 1m pair, RCA or XLR connectors ($70/additional 0.5m)
Nordost Blue Heaven USB Digital Interconnect
Price: $350 USD per 2m cord
Nordost Blue Heaven Power Cords
Price: $349.99 USD per 2.5m cord ($50/additional 0.5m)
Warranty (all): Lifetime, materials and workmanship.
200 Homer Avenue
Ashland, MA 01721
Phone: (508) 881-1116