Words and photos by Rafe Arnott. Image above: Tellurium Q Ultra Black II cable.
Connecting with music playback is critical to properly intuit intent, ability, recording quality, mastering traits and ultimately the chosen storage medium. Whether it is an LP, cassette, CD or online streaming service, hearing everything as the artist and production engineers intended is the brass ring audiophiles invariably grasp at. Sources, preamps, amplifiers and speakers are all key elements to solving the subjective equation of high fidelity, but so are the cables connecting them – and the listener – to the music.
In an analogue-based, or CD-based system, there are only three types of cables required: AC, interconnects, and speaker. Computer, or network/streaming-based systems can add to the cable count. Regardless of what your front end looks like – and unless you’ve gone full wireless – speaker cables are required. And in the context of an average analogue system, after addressing AC cables and then interconnects, speaker cables are arguably the next most important upgrade to facilitate furthering one’s insights into their music. In a new system, or existing one which could be a candidate for upgrades, I start with a power strip/conditioner and power cables first, and then work on replacing or upgrading source cables outward, following the signal path. As with all things hi-fi, YMMV.
Photo above: TelluriumQ Blue Diamond cables.
There are also those who do not identify as audiophile and are simply curious to understand how to see further into recordings. Perhaps an individual desires to get more from gear on hand. An oft-maligned rule of thumb suggests spending 20 per cent of what components cost on cables. There is no science or empirical data to back this up with, and many in the hobby spend far more. It is however, a reasonable sum to ascertain if better constructed/designed cables improve sound quality in one’s subjective opinion.
It is my experience that cables help in extracting more information from an audio signal, the caveat being to spend money on quality components first, and cables second. A high-quality cable can help a less-then-stellar component perform to its limits better, but it is no replacement for a more highly-specified component. Better cables allow quality gear to breathe further life, texture, immediacy and presence into recordings because higher-specified cables are then less of a factor in limiting the transfer of signal information.
I clearly recall going from Radio Shack interconnects to modest Blue Jean ones and suddenly hearing real, air and space around notes..."
Photo above: Tellurium Q Blue Diamond and Black II cables.
To my tastes, the best cables simply disappear from the sonic equation. They neither add colour to, nor subtract information from, the signal fidelity. There’s little more disheartening in hi-fi than realizing how much of the music you have been missing because poor quality cables have not been passing along all the information contained within the audio signal. I clearly recall going from Radio Shack interconnects to modest Blue Jean ones and suddenly hearing real, air and space around notes – particularly decay on high hat or cymbal shimmer, brush strokes on drum skins. It was a revelatory experience and spurred further experimentation. I’ve had the opportunity to try cables worth several thousands of dollars within the context of my systems over the years and like most things regarding the playback of recorded music, there is a point of diminishing returns on investment. What that point is remains up to the individual.
Tellurium Q is a UK-based audio cable manufacturer in the Southwest of England whose focus is primarily on minimizing phase distortion. A problem the company describe “as inherent in all cabling, whoever makes them and wherever and however they are made. The reason it is a problem is simple, all materials (not just cables) in the path of a signal will act as an electronic filter.” This is taken from the National Semiconductor Corporation, who says: “A filter is an electrical network that alters the amplitude and/or phase characteristics of a signal with respect to frequency. Ideally, a filter will not add new frequencies to the input signal, nor will it change the component frequencies of that signal, but it will change the relative amplitudes of the various frequency components and/or their phase relationships.” Tellurium Q does not discuss specifics of their cable construction.
Photo below: TelluriumQ Black II loudspeaker cables retail for $75 USD/meter plus termination. (Prices may vary by region)
This brings us to the review; the TelluriumQ Black II ($75 USD/meter), Blue Diamond ($230 USD/meter) and Ultra Black II ($430 USD/meter) speaker cables. They all come in at differing price points depending on termination and length, but are clearly marketed towards the entry-level, mid-tier and upper-tier hobbyist. This review will discuss how each level acquits itself from one another with the entry-level Black II cable representing a subjective baseline in sound quality. What I like or listen for, others may not.The review system was comprised of a Technics 1210 GR and Pure Fidelity Horizon turntables, Audio Note Oto Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier, Audio Note CD4.1x CD player, previous version Linn Klimax DSM network player and Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE loudspeakers. All cabling other than the TelluriumQ speaker runs was by Audio Note. AC power was routed through a non-limiting SuperWiremold power strip. At no time using the Tellurium Q cables could a change to the basic tenor or tonality of the sound signature of the review system be discerned. Certain subtleties of flavour to that sound were affected; slightly more grain on throaty horns, sharper perceived attack to piano notes, a thickening, or congestion to massed strings, less air and space around notes – all in comparison to the speaker cabling I had in place and was familiar with.
Photos above: From left – Zachary Hay, Anna St. Louis, Mogadisco.
Ohio born Zachary Hay’s ten-song 2019 self-titled LP on the Scissor Tail label is his first solo foray beyond the perimeter of his recording facades Bronze Horse and The Dove Azima, both private-press records with 300 or fewer copies. Through my usual looms of bi-wired Audio Note Lexus copper speaker cables, the American primitive/experimental acoustic guitar work that Hay continues to explore with improvisational caution on this LP leaves one with the unsettled feeling they’re sharing profoundly private moments. This is both an emotionally-engaging collection which musically challenges the listener to keep pace, and a transparent recording/mastering that offers up noteworthy resolution. Alternately lulling and startling as Hay journeys through a dark forest of extemporized guitar playing, the stripped-down nature of the album offers a window onto elemental music making and was a great place to start listening to the Black II cables. The slow-spooling of tape hiss as recording starts a few seconds before Hay’s first atonal plucks on the steel strings immediately relays a sense of intimate proximity to the recorded event, as though the guitar’s body presence is physically tangible in the room. TImbral shading is deeply plum, eloquent and anxiety-inducing in its candour. All these nuances were easily voiced by the Black II in my system. While not as open in the upper registers, tuneful or full-bodied in their imaging as the Lexus runs, the Black II nonetheless proved itself to be an honest translator of both emotional and technical playback attributes.
The cuts on the LP ease or push themselves into the next with a philosophical shrug at times, especially as all are named “Untitled 1 thru 10,” and with the Blue Diamond cables swapped in, one suddenly has a more cerebral discourse available for listening. What seemed to present as an afterthought now carries a deeper inflection to each string’s contribution. The difference in what is registering as space around notes has bloomed considerably. Decay has more hang. There is what can only be described as an uptick in sincerity to the innocence Hay brings to his playing – as though carefully embracing a new vernacular, mindful of faltering. Tentative investigations to his fret and string work convey a poignancy that seems less rounding error and more sly wink now. That guitar body weight and physical occupancy of space in the room takes on a far more palpable pressurization through the Ultra Black II. The vibrations the bridge is transferring from Hay’s dexterous execution lends a more corporeal immediacy to the pace of the recording; less plain speech and more metaphor being conveyed through my system. There is now an equally-large window onto the recorded event matching my Audio Note cables, but the separation between notes has widened further.
Photo below: The Diamond Blue seems to reside in the sweet spot between price/performance of three TQ cables reviewed here.
Much like Scissor Tail, the Woodsist label imbues a damp-black-earth scent to the albums revealed by minimal digging through its catalogue. One such find is Los Angeles (by way of Kansas City and Philly) singer-songwriter Anna St. Louis’ stripped down, debut First Songs (offered on Kevin Morby’s Mare imprint). A pastiche of electric and acoustic experiential folk and country with cultivated flashes of psyche-prog, St. Louis’ lilting multi-tracked vocal harmonies laid over her complex fingerpicking sequences conveys a dispassionate emotional element to the eight engaging compositions therein. Opener “Wind-Up,” follower “Evermore” and shorty “Stray” with the Ultra Black II cables in place presents Mike Tuley’s sustained organ/pedal work as an electric undercurrent of gospel hurdy-gurdy running through their foundations. Demonstrating a vintage flavour to the organ’s harmonic tone, and possessing what sonically presents as infinite gradations of timbral colourations, it is deeply resonant and presented pitch-perfectly. The haunting, melancholy steel slide guitar on “288” almost startles as it rolls out more like Tibetan dungchen from an impenetrable background of darkness to accompany St. Louis’ ethereal voice. Tuley’s close-mic’d and unfailingly articulated stick work on the skins for “Keep Walking” suddenly presents with less detail, punch and definition, however, with the Blue Diamond following up the Ultra Black II. St. Louis’ vocal inflections on “Mercy” also loses some of the air and sense of the recorded space.
It’s always more interesting to hear what detail, subtlety or timbral/tonal shading vanishes when stepping down between components – or cables in this case. The disappearance of what was once heard seems to knit the brow far more than could any raising of the eyebrows from what was revealed. Dropping to the Black II sees the overall sound stage of First Songs further close ranks, collapsing in the X,Y and Z axis along with less realistic tone colour to St. Louis’ strumming, plucking and fingerpicking. Minor-chord instrumental and vocal inflections on the recording have their emotional impact tempered due to the diminished size of St. Louis’ physical imprint in the room through the entry-level Tellurium Q. The tenor of the album drifts more into anonymity than the modal character traits present when the Ultra Black II were translating. The previously clearly defined separation to vocal overdub tracks subtly blur on “Keep Walking” as the Black II struggles to sustain the scale and depth to the audible cues determining the sonic landscape of Junior's Motel in Ohio where several of the cuts were recorded, and which their higher-echelon stablemates easily managed. Listening to the entire album again through the Black II reclaims the enjoyment. While they cannot match the Blue Diamond or Ultra Black II in their directness, presence, texture or the visceral revelations they engender, they still offer a glimpse into the recording free of any impedance-related artefacts or sluggishness, and retain the rhythmic drive of the music.
Photos above: Ultra Black II connected to the Oto integrated amplifier, Right: Black II cables.
Analog Africa helmsman Samy Ben Redjeb travelled to the war-torn capital of Somalia in November, 2016 to investigate and dig through the 100,000+ song archives of Radio Mogadishu with the help of its protector, former police colonel Abshir Hashi Ali and his right-hand man Hamud Ibrahem Hamud. Combing through piles of uncatalogued '70s, '80s and early '90s cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes which Hamud explained staff had been unable to identify, and consisted of “mainly instrumental and strange music,” Redjeb cancelled his return flight to Tunisia.The recordings turned out to be what Redjeb described as “radio jingles, background music, interludes for radio programmes, television shows and theatre plays, [and]… disco tunes, some [of which] had been stripped of their lyrics.” These were the sources culled for the sprawling archival compilation Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu, Somalia 1972–1991. The infectious rhythmic and melodic drive of the 12 vintage, funk-flavoured songs on the double LP seem saturated with a thousand years of cultural textures. The Black II was a capable interpreter of the many disparately-tuned organs, saxophones and modal experimentations the double-LP is rife with. The prismatic timbral and tonal swirl of traditional African regional instrumentation and vocals colliding and blending with western percussion, electric bass, guitar and brass could sometimes blur lines between performers in more congested chorus and bridge sections.
Tracing the thread of individual instruments through a track, while not difficult, was given another dimension of clarity and distance between each player in the mix by moving up to the Blue Diamond. Spectral bloom, decay and shimmer off cymbal and high hat took on further spatial depth, as did supporting horns placed back further in the z-axis of on certain mixes. Vocals and overdubs popped with crisp, clipped intonation on cuts like “Godonimada Jira,” and the sound stage became larger with the scale of instruments and vocals taking on more life-sized proportions within the context of the 3D information available from mic placement. Change-ups in drumming/bass lines on “Geesiyada Halgamayow” took on more propulsive intonation and presence with the Ultra Black II’s heavy sheathed runs in the mix. Every step in the playback change of high fidelity offers an opportunity to add to the realism of a recording’s impact on the listener. It is this further extension of flesh-and-blood tangibility to vocals, guitar/bass fretwork, timbral colour and dynamic inference offered by the Ultra Black II which sets it apart from its brethren; it simply helped put performers in the room.
Photo above: Tellurium Q Ultra Black II offered the ability to 'see' further into a recording than the Blue Diamond or Black II cables.
The opportunity to compare three tiers of cables from one manufacturer does not present itself often. Being able to A/B between cables retailing for several hundreds of dollars and those priced at several thousands of dollars offers insight into a niche portion of the hobby. All else in the hi-fi chain being equal, there were noticeable improvements in resolution, the extraction of further timbral and tonal shadings, and in how a listener was able to emotionally connect to the music with these different speaker cables in play. Each cable also presented a differing path of cognition in listening to albums within their stepped presentations. The further one was able to ‘see’ into a recording, the more intellect became piqued, and what could be intuited of the artist’s intent became less guesswork and more the exchange of knowledge. Whether you are looking to upgrade your speaker cables for the first-time, are taking your sound system to a higher level, or are seeking fidelity to source without financial constraint, these three Tellurium Q cables at their respective price points offer both subjective sonic value for investment, and an opportunity to wrest further performance enhancements from high-quality components.