MIT Oracle MA-X Loudspeaker Cables (Hi-Fi+)

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Musical Interface Technologies (MIT) Oracle MA-X
MIT Oracle MA-X Loudspeaker Cables (Hi-Fi+)

When you contemplate £25,000 loudspeaker cables, several things pass through your mind. This is an awful lot of money for what is, in effect, two pieces of wire. This invites the question whether the concept of value can even exist at such a price point; some will doubtless assert that it can’t, so even raising the possibility proves how out of touch the writer is. Obviously.

Well, it can’t. Can it?

Context is important, of course, so for the purposes of this review, I assembled a system appropriate to the price of the cables. The front-end was a dCS Paganini 3-box CD/SACD player; amplification courtesy of the new David Berning ZOTL Pre One and ZH230 stereo power amp; loudspeakers were the Focal Scala Utopias. Mains and supports by MusicWorks, interconnects also by MIT, and the MIT Magnum MA loudspeaker cables (around £8,000 a pair) for comparison purposes. This is a system where any meaningful upgrade would likely cost upwards of £25,000 in any event, so part of the exercise was to see what might happen if you were to change the speaker cables, rather than any of the boxes.

As a hi-fi system improves, one notices certain things. Firstly, it might be fairly gross changes to things like clarity, openness, soundstaging and imaging. Then we might expect subtler, but no less important, improvements in dynamics, timing, timbre and tunefulness. Assuming we can assemble a system which achieves all these things, to a decent standard of performance, we’ve probably put together something which gets most things fairly right, most of the time. Going beyond this, I’d want to hear my music played on better instruments, by more skilful and talented musicians, preferably who are at their very best. These improvements are probably the most subtle of all but at the rewards, if your system can deliver, are immeasurably important.

One Night in Paris is probably the lovely Diana Krall at her absolute best. Pick a track, any track, "Deed I do" will indeed do, very nicely. Through the system above it is truly delightful: superb musicianship, exquisite timing with real pace and swing, wonderful atmosphere and mood--oh, to have been there on the night. But here’s the thing, substituting the Magnum MA cables with the Oracle MA-X, the previous version is comprehensively outclassed. Suddenly, when Diana Krall sings the line “do I love you - ’deed I do”, nobody is left in any doubt that ‘deed she does. Not only that, but we’ve moved from any old seat somewhere at the back, to the best seat in the house. It’s not particularly a spatial thing, this is all about the connection to the music, all the goodness seems to be focussed onto the seat you’re in.

Another live album, this time Sting: "All this time" and the track Brand New Day. It’s not even my favourite Sting track, but the version on this album has got something. It’s the same sort of ‘something’ the Diana Krall album has--great musicians, great music and a chemistry which just comes together on the night (which is all the more astonishing when you realise it was recorded on the evening of September 11, 2001). With the Oracle MA-X cables in place, the track made me want to get up and dance--not something I’d recommend witnessing--which is a rare phenomenon indeed (I have no illusions about my abilities, so the impulse rarely occurs). Reinstalling the ‘regular’ Magnum MA cables, but upgrading the transport to the dCS Scarlatti was very instructive. It was immediately obvious that the Scarlatti is a significant step-up from the Paganini transport: detailed and involving, it has a degree of self-assurance not matched by the Paganini transport; a grainless, seamless, flawless presentation where everything is in proportion and nothing is overlooked. But, here’s an odd thing: with the lesser transport but the better cables, the music was more visceral and communicative - the urge to get up and dance was there in a way which it simply wasn’t via the better transport with the lesser cables. Scarlatti + Magnum showed just how well Sting chooses his musicians, Paganini + Oracle showed how well they were playing the music.

As a habitual user of Nordost cables in my regular system and as, in some ways, MIT is the antithesis of the Nordost way of doing things, it would be fair to say that I haven’t always found the MIT ‘house sound’ to my personal taste. That said, whatever is in those boxes can bring about some remarkable benefits in the realms of timing and dynamics, compared to more conventional cables at similar prices and I know people who are happy to forego other attributes, such as sweetness or grainlessness, for a taste of what MIT brings to the party. Some criticise MIT’s bass as over-exposed or dominant, others point to a lack of sophistication in the higher frequencies. MIT’s fans reply that these are hi-fi differences, not musical ones; that a great pianist, playing an indifferent piano, will produce a more captivating performance than an indifferent pianist on even the best piano.

It might help to think of music as being made up of two elements: information and energy. The information bit tells you which instrument is being played, at what pitch, and for how long. The energy bit isn’t just how loud, but also the dynamic shifts, the subtle but deliberate manipulation of timing, the inflections and mannerisms which tell you this is being performed by a person, not some sort of musical automaton. The Oracle MA-X cable seems to manage both information and energy better than anything else I’ve heard in a system up to now; it simply makes it easier to perceive the amount of effort the musicians put into their playing.

A recent, and valued, addition to my collection is Joanna Macgregor and the Britten Sinfonia’s Live in Buenos Aires (Warner Classics & Jazz 2564 68475-9). The first three tracks are the Bach Concerto for keyboard and strings in D minor. She plays the piano with a rare physicality, reminiscent of performances by John Ogdon. The interesting thing that came out of this particular Bach performance was not just that the Oracle MA-X cable portrayed the assertiveness of the playing so well, but that when the orchestra played quietly, it was possible to appreciate the ‘held-back’ qualities of their playing, there was a sense of restraint, a pent-up potency which was being deliberately and skillfully kept in check, not merely a bit of quiet playing. If it just sounds quiet, you’ve missed the point. And it is that point which the Oracles are so good at getting across.

The other side of the same coin is shown by the last track on the same album. A keyboard transcription of Astor Piazolla’s Libertango, played at full-throttle by Ms Macgregor. Except that, through the Oracles, it isn’t. The Magnum MA cable gives a hugely impressive rendition, tight, fast and dynamic. Played through the Oracle MA-X cables, it is suddenly much more apparent that this is no hell-bent, pedal to the metal, rendition, but a considered and measured interpretation. There is light and shade, even within the rollicking ride she takes us on, sections which are scarcely less loud, but the energy has nevertheless diminished. This ability to discern subtlety where you least expected it - more than that, to have it shown to you when you weren’t looking for it - is something I’d not heard in the system before.

There are hi-fi benefits, most assuredly. Soundstaging is extraordinarily accomplished and convincing: images are wide, deep, stable and consistent; instruments gain solidity and substance, there is an overall sense of ‘presence’ which eludes many systems, regardless of price. Take the opening track, "Prelude", on the second part of Aerial from Kate Bush, its birdsong suddenly gains a sense of place, a feeling that this is truly open-air, real-life birdsong. There is a palpable sense of open space. Most systems create their sense of space from the subtle reverberant cues from the surroundings. Open air spaces are devoid of such cues, so it is all the more remarkable that the Oracle MA-X manages to convey a more perceptible sense of landscape, than the Magnum MA.

To describe these attributes in such hi-fi terms, however, risks missing the point. Instead, it is as though, once that part of my brain which is responsible for reconstructing the illusion of music is allowed to relax, it becomes able to discriminate those elements of a performance which it was too busy to appreciate when it was having to sustain the impression of music-making. You might think of it as a reduced requirement for error-correction within the brain. Whatever it is, and however it is achieved, I am in no doubt that the addition of the Oracle MA-X loudspeaker cables takes a system forward to an extent which is entirely consistent with the asking price.

The Oracle MA-X has another trick, and that is its adjustable articulation. The output end of each box carries a pair of rotary switches with five different positions. One is labeled ‘Bass’ and the other ‘Treble’ and they permit the user to adjust the level of articulation in the lower or upper frequency ranges. The effect is like a subtle and well-executed tone control. Increased articulation in the treble brings high frequency information a little to the fore, decreased articulation in the bass makes the lower registers recede.

I haven’t compared the MIT Oracle MA-X against any other uber-cable; this isn’t that sort of review. But I am convinced that this is one extremely important element of a high-end system, and one which pulls its weight, financially. The cost difference between Oracle and a lesser cable is comparable to the cost difference between a top-of-the-range high-end CD source and a mid-range high-end model. Both bring significant benefits to the system, but both do different things. If you can afford either, you can probably afford both, and you almost certainly should. One, without the other, is not complete. Which you give the higher priority to is something you can only answer for yourself, but I freely admit, I was surprised at the extra level of vital, musical communication brought about by the introduction of the Oracle MA-X into a system I’d previously thought of as, pretty much, as good as it gets.

So what’s in the boxes?

MIT cables are distinguished by having boxes fitted in the line of the cable. The least expensive cables, whether interconnects or loudspeaker cables, come equipped with boxes the size of a small bar of chocolate; the more you pay, the bigger the boxes. The Magnum MA loudspeaker cables boast boxes the size (and weight) of a house brick, the Oracle MA-X’ boxes are bigger than many monoblock amplifiers. (At least, with MIT, you can see some of what you have paid for). How the boxes work is something of a trade secret, but various white papers on the MIT website do help to explain the rationale behind their use.

In effect, MIT argues that signal propagation down a cable varies with frequency. The ‘skin effect’ of radio-frequency transmissions (which propagate almost entirely down the surface of a conductor) is fairly well-known, but MIT explain that even at audio frequencies, the signal uses different thicknesses of the cable at different frequencies. So low bass (which is close to DC, travels down the cable using most of its cross-section, whereas upper treble (which is closer to low-frequency radio transmissions than to DC) penetrates only part way down from the skin of the conductor.

This affects not only the measured resistance of the cable, but also those reactive properties such as inductance and capacitance, and these properties therefore are understood to be frequency-dependent to an extent which is audible. These reactive properties mean that the phase relationship between low and high frequencies is distorted, leading to smear, time domain distortions and, to use MIT’s preferred term, a loss of articulation.

The boxes contain passive networks which compensate for this by ‘re-timing’ the signal so that the low frequencies arrive at their destination properly synchronised with the high frequencies. These networks can be thought of as similar to filter networks, except that, being passive, the signal does not pass through them. Each network, or ‘pole’ of articulation, deals with a particular frequency band. The better the cable, the more poles of articulation and the bigger the box. More poles means each pole can deal with a narrower frequency range and can be more precisely tailored.

In the ‘MA’ series, MIT have developed networks which also preserve the harmonic structure within tones, so that the normal consonant and dissonant harmonics in a note retain their proper relationships to each other, the amplitudes of any given harmonic more closely resemble those of the original tone. What this means in effect, is that the tonal differences between, say, an oboe and a cello playing the same note, are down to the interrelationships between the various harmonics which make up the note. MIT argue that most cables affect the amplitude, and subtly adjust the frequencies of these harmonics, to the detriment of the sound. The MA technology is designed to minimise that distortion.

Because the boxes are such a large part of the budget in any MIT product, the price depends rather less on the length of the cable than it does in more conventional interconnects and loudspeaker cables.

SPECS & PRICING

The MIT Oracle MA-X loudspeaker cables
Price:2.5m pair £26,000
            3m pair £26,500
            3.6m pair £27,000
            4.5m pair £27,750
For bi-wire versions add £1,800 inc VAT to the above prices.

Manufactured by Musical Interface Technologies
www.mitcables.com

Distributed by Audiobility
www.audiobility.co.uk
0870 777 2991

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