Anyone familiar with Nordost’s bottom-up cable hierarchy could be forgiven for wondering why we should invest heavily in a tonearm cable. Nordost, like most cable specialists, started by promoting the primacy of quality loudspeaker and interconnect cables. And then the Valhalla power cable joined the range, when the sanctity of the mains power link became indisputable. The company’s interconnects and speaker cabling are all justly praised, but if one is upgrading piecemeal, the power cable is demonstrably the place to start.
Several months’ experience with the Valhalla v2 Tonearm Cable + has convinced this listener though that there’s plenty of mileage remaining in nurturing the audio signal at the other end of the system, where voltage levels dwindle from 240 down to microvolts. The care with which Nordost has wrought an extremely well-shielded, low capacitance conduit to pass pick-up cartridge signals from tonearm to phono amplifier ultimately reaped dividends well beyond expectation.
The V2 tonearm cable was relaunched this year with some mild revisions, and is now marked out by an additional ‘+’ sign. Like the rest of the V2 overhaul, the first V2 tonearm cable saw substantial improvements designed to uprate performance, making the V2 series in general a serious performance threat to the original Odin series. In place of the trademark Micro Mono-Filament layout came a dual-filament principle of applying two twisted strands of FEP dielectric, further reducing contact area around the conductor; and likely responsible for the lowered capacitance, from around 72 pF/m to 56 pF/m. Terminating each end of V2 were brand-new plugs, Nordost Holo:Plugs that replaced a generic right-angle DIN plug at one end and locking WBT NextGen phono plugs on the other.
The new ‘plus’ edition builds on all this, and takes a new layout internally, with the left and right channels wound individually as a twisted pair inside their own shield, in place of four insulated conductors all wound loosely together. The new approach is said to minimise any crosstalk and electromagnetic radiation between channels, although conducting copper had to be reduced slightly in cross section from 22 to 24AWG in order to maintain flexibility. That was probably a wise move: some compliance is essential in a tonearm cable that must be carefully ‘dressed’ in a sub-chassis turntable, to avoid unwanted mechanical loading on the delicately tuned suspension bounce. Perhaps tellingly, Nordost no longer trumpets the specification of V2+ capacitance, so this has likely increased in the new twisted-pair configuration.
Also new to this year’s plus-rated cable is a clever new earthing arrangement that allows more options when grounding the arm and turntable. Unusually, the earth lead, or ‘Bond Ground Wire’ does not connect to any part of the DIN plug. It runs parallel to the left and right channels, straight through to the other side (completely isolated in its own FEP extrusion and shielding). In my setup this resulted in the turntable chassis and arm mount being effectively earthed, and in practice was found to be enough to provide totally hum-free operation. There are two whip leads or “Detachable Ground Wires”; one that plugs into the amplifier end, and the other the tonearm end. On the amplifier end, when it is plugged in, this whip connects to the main shield of the cable. On the SME tonearm at least, this could enable the armtube plus cartridge body to be earthed independently of the turntable chassis, such that one earth line could be bonded to phono stage ground and the other to mains distribution ground, for example. For the most part though, the single default ground wire was sufficient and preferred.
Many plug configurations are offered, with prices starting at £4,470 for the simplest 1.25 m length with phono plugs both ends, for those turntables that include RCA outputs. A 90º DIN plug that befits many popular tonearms adds £100, while each subsequent half metre in length is £575. For the holy grail in cartridge wiring, connected to a fully-balanced phono stage, XLR terminations are available at the same price as RCA.
When measuring up for installation, bear in mind Nordost’s ‘over-delivery’ in cable lengths, which are described as mechanically tuned to optimise performance. In the case of the tested 1.25 m cable, this was 110 cm from DIN plug to the metal barrel that marks the stereo cable split, then a further 30 cm to RCA Holo:Plugs, a total of 1.4 m.
Listening tests were with a Michell Orbe SE and SME 309 arm, connected by the Nordost cable to MFA step-up transformer and Longdog Audio Reference Phono amplifier, the latter combination a perfect partner to witness the extreme resolution and low-noise potential of the cable.
Shortly after installation it became evident that my reference vdH Grasshopper III SLA cartridge was showing the early signs of advancing age – now plain to hear through the new cable – so was away for service in the Netherlands for part of the testing. A search through the cartridge spares box turned into a marathon spree to hear every pickup again and afresh, as it quickly became evident how much this augmented front-end was telling me about each cartridge for the first time.
Setting up a cartridge can be considered a chore – that’s certainly been my view at various times – or conversely an odyssey into what’s musically attainable, as more and more fine fettling brings greater rewards. Time spent with this cable reawakened the eternal tweaker in me. Half a dozen cartridges later I realised what an exceptional tool the tonearm cable had become in cartridge setup, as literally microscopic changes in VTA and azimuth were laid bare between (and all around) the loudspeakers. When the sweet spot in alignment is near, the increasing cohesion in sound is usually recognisable as ‘getting better’; here it was simply and unmistakably either close, or bang on.