Argento Audio Cabling & Obscure’s “Big Band” System
Argento Audio Flow Master Reference & Flow Extreme Edition Cables
Specialised cables for hi-end audio systems: a tale of passion, beautiful lies, many pitfalls but also impressive revelations. The last 20 years we have witnessed an explosion in such products, with prices that often reach the stratosphere. People persistently ask for them, in an effort to improve their sound, or at least to differentiate it in a direction that “suits” one’s system. This, in itself, is enough reason to ignore those voices that shout “cables do not matter and those who believe they make a difference, simply persuade themselves so”. On the other hand, audiophilia nervosa around cabling can become really extreme… We have heard of special cables for tube amplifiers, of cables that enrich the sound of transistors or cure the artifacts of digital devices, etc. One is led to believe that all positions in a system are unique and demand their own cable design, thus requiring too much searching, bigger costs etc. In such cases, the middle path is probably the best way to go.
I certainly do not belong to those who feel that cables are plain wire with no sound of its own, provided they are sufficiently thick for the current passing through them. Nor did I become part of that club of music lovers who listen to new cables every month and get obsessed with the changes they introduce to a system. I have no personal interest for changes just for the sake of it, just to refresh one’s interest in a system and I actually find this “game” very confusing. My stable choice all these years of intensive system building is to maintain two major full cable sets with good phase behavior (solid core and unshielded DNM, multi stranded and shielded Ringmat) plus a personal favourite (the excellent coaxial interconnect Mogami Neglex 2497) and proceed with equipment changes, room treatment and various methods of mechanical support and emi/rfi purification. I think that the quality of the aforementioned cables is good enough to let me clearly evaluate every upgrade path I try, in order to get closer to the original space/tone/time of a recording. I believe that a system faithful to these three “parallel universes” of a musical event will never make you get bored and therefore no major changes are necessary for that system. Therefore, if a system is flawed lacking such basic things, we can never blame the cables but the equipment and/or their combinations, the rack, the quality of the electricity or, more commonly, the room acoustics. Any “dramatic” change from cables, in my opinion, is derived from random interaction between the individual design of the cable and the flaws of a system. Coaxials, solid core, multi stranded, all have their own, characteristic way of exposing a system’s weeknesses … but actually possess very little sound of their own.
But given a sophisticated set up, which can differentiate the fine elements of a recording, we can more comfortably clarify the subtle changes introduced by each cable design, and even more so when we fully connect a system with the same design/house sound. The “mix’match” method may have fun but can easily lead to wrong assumptions, especially when a system is plagued with well hidden flaws that can be ruthlessly revealed with state of the art cabling, rather worsening the sound than upgrading it.
Argento’s line of cables is a very good example of such misunderstanding. I’ve read in some forums that they are dull, without much treble, but also the opposite, that they are brittle, maybe because they are silver. Obviously, those listeners can’t all be right! As these danish hi-end cables are not inducing any noise I can perceive in the systems they connected, are fundamentally transparent, tonally balanced and with ultra fine temporal resolution, they simply cannot hide any flaw or can even wreck havoc if a system is really messed up, especially in the time/energy flow domain. Using an interconnect like the FMR in such a hostile environment, you just hear clearly what kind of system you have set up “around it”. You need very good listening experience and patience to listen through these bad sounds that are revealed in the presence of exotic cables and direct yourself to the actual problem of a system. The easy route, of course, is to blame the cable and return happily to an already accepted mediocrity of a flawed system. Ignorance is bliss.
A custom love affair.
The Argento Audio company, located in Denmark, was founded in 1991 by three music lovers and for ten years it was a local interest enterprise, until the Serenity series, debuted in 2003 and followed by the the Flow, made Argentos an international affair. The company produces signal and power cables in three series (Serenity, Flow and Flow Master Reference) as well as a power strip, and recently launched its new premium range FMR Extreme Edition. Common features of all of Argento series are the use of cryo-treated conductors made of silver (with elliptical cross section, at least in Serenity), the custom insulating VDM material based on carbon fiber, lack of conventional shield, custom plugs with aluminum body and contacts made from the same silver as the conductors and, lastly, a custom clamp mechanism for termination instead of solder. The Serenity interconnect is single solid core, then the conductors are multiplied but remain independently insulated as we go up in the range. The FMR has three times as many conductors compared to Flow and the number reaches 800 for the XLR FMR Extreme Edition! The FMR series interconnects include aluminum spacers, as polarities are hosted in their own VDM tube, which leads to better mechanical performance and resistance to “external disturbances”, according to the manufacturer. This design, of course, seems to let the two polarities come close at several points and keeps no strict distance throughout the length of the cable. This happens even more obviously with the speaker cable polarities, which are completely independent and can’t avoid to cross each other at certain points as they ran on the floor. This aspect is very…hmm, interesting, since Argentos are an absolutely top quality and accurate construction, but going up next level in the range one finds that completely independent polarities are prioritised against their coexistence in the same tube, even though there is no particular rigor in keeping the distance stable between them (the mechanical decoupling of the two sides of the signal appears far more important than strict geometry, in order to get the most unhindered flow of energy, which I think is the main objective of the company).
For this review, we were sent a full cable set worth of € 20,000, which includes two Master Reference Flow ic’s (RCA), two Flow power cables and a pair of 2 meters length of Flow speaker cable, terminated with spade lugs. With this set, Obscure Audio keeps the cost of a full Argento connected system at reasonable levels, putting into the equation the magic of FMR where it matters most, at the low level signal, as both the speaker cable and the power cable of FMR would multiply the cost, having much larger cross-sections. To get a more complete picture of the company’s house sound, we had the chance to listen to the top FMR Extreme Edition chez Obscure Audio, a session which added substantially to our prior experience at the biggest Obscure-based system in Athens, the Avalon Isis/Rowland Corus & M925/MSB Platinum/HRS. For these oh-so extreme Argentos I do not have really anything else to add, other than the certainty that they are suitable even for the Tesseract!
These cables look very stylish, with excellent perceived quality and impeccable finish and are fairly light and flexible, thus easily installed even at lightweight devices. Due to the particularities of my large systems (the Ocellia accepts only bare wire, the DIY open baffle is bi-amped), I managed to fully connect with Argento an entry level system under review, the Audiovector QR1 (alternatively, my DIY quarter wave with Fostex FE138ESR) and Integre4 of Lab12. In the big systems I used only the FMR interconnect (fortunately on both of them, between source and preamp) which, thus, had to coexist with cables from Ringmat and Mogami. Starting the test with the entry level system, I first connected the interconnect, then the power cords and finally the speaker cable.
The insertion of FMR in every system was very revealing of the top notch transparency and lack of compression that characterizes all Argentos, with timbre so colorful, smooth and crystaline that it gave me an immediate natural high. The two Flows cut some corners- compared to the Master Reference series- in timbral fidelity and general scale, but nevertheless secure the FMR’s outstanding clarity, resolution, tonal balance and lack of mechanical flow, liberating true power deep down low and producing explosive transients in dt. The highly structured soundstage opens up equally in width, depth and height but, at the beginning, the focus is somewhat soft and the treble remains rather mild. After about two hours from installation, we experience an obvious increase in sharpness, focus is locked on and treble gains in resolution and extension, but still does not sound the “usual” way… That is, it is not “stuck around” the tweeter or the first planes of the stage but, on the contrary, this treble stands a little behind and above the driver producing it – it rather spreads out everywhere – with unusual big volume and width/depth, illuminating an unprecedented three-dimensional stage to perfection with multi-focus powers way out of the ordinary. It feels like pure air, very fine and agile but never aggressive, leaves no hints of electricity involved in its flow, manipulated speed or shorter decays. Thus, the enormous size of the soundstage coexists with unparalleled precision, homogenity and complete lack of dark or overexposed aspects. The predominant feeling is that of a significant obstacle to the sound gone away, much like when you move from a box to a panel speaker or open baffle.
The affordable system that accepted the aid of Argento’s cable set, saw its performance rise up to almost stratospheric levels, making DNM sound rather distant in comparison, without much analysis and treble rather small and too tight (in deep low bass and large dynamic swifts, there was simply no comparison). Whatever cable I compared to the FMR, I found significant differences in favor of it everywhere, but mainly from the mid-treble and up, with main symptoms being upper treble vanishing in the noise (with unshielded designs) or in the darkness (in shielded ones), mid-treble notes with less sustain & decay and significantly less space in the low treble than the midrange and the bass. I even had the unusual impression, listening to my open baffle, that the signal travels … through air, not into metal.
Argentos are an affair of exceptional purity and absolute homogenity. Masters of the eternal flow of energy and with total absence of common flaws in a very wide frequency spectrum. It is thus no surprise that they secure an absolute lack of manipulation at speed level, which is paramount to musical pleasure. Such combination of freedom and precision is, probably, not possible in a single device, only in cables, so the Argentos endow the system with a sense of perfection that must be heard to be believed and which, while addicting, operates in a rather liberating manner for the listener, naturally calling him to feel the music – not the system.
Argentos are a gem for demanding ears and grown up systems, absolutely worthy of their asking price.
Test system: Thorens TD-160 / TP-16 (mod), Gold Note Valore Italian Job / Bobolino, digital sources Gold Note Koala / Dumbo, Line Magnetic 502CA, amplifiers Lab12 Integre4, Bluenote Steroid 1 Sign. (mod), Sansui AU -505 (upgraded), KingRex T20 + PSU, Nexus Tripath 1, preamplifier Primaluna Prologue Three, Ocellia Calliope.30SAG Sign speakers. (Main), Klipsch Klispschorn (mod.), various DIY Fostex based, power cords & accessories Ringmat Developements, Cardas, Oyaide. Custom rack beech, Furman AC-210, Shunyata Research filter.
Argento Audio Flow Speaker 2 × 2m. , Power Flow 1,5m, Flow Master Reference RCA / Phono / XLR (extreme edition).
The presence of Argento’s cables honored my systems in the most direct and effective way I have experienced to date. They raised my consciousness of what those systems really sound like, since they filled up my ears/brain with valuable information during their review period. So invisible yet so revealing of the entire sound chain they are participating in. I will remember them almost as a live experience and certainly as something far beyond the ordinary! A very serious investment in mysical bliss and, to be frank, one of the few cases such products justify their cost.
Obscure Audio Presents “The ‘Big Band’ Avalon / J.Rowland / MSB / Argento Ultra System” !
[The Avalon Isis is finally revealed! Along with Jeff Rowland M925 & Argento Audio Master Flow Extreme Edition]
A year or so ago, Ι had the pleasure of listening to the great Isis of Avalon Acoustics, which proved to be a truly unique experience for me. It was actually the first time I heard such power, dynamics and sheer size combined with ultra pure harmonic structure and excellent regeneration of space, stuff that is usually associated with low power exotic amplifiers and which I never expected to be reproduced by low sensitivity speakers and amplifiers with hundreds of watts, such as class A monoblock MSB 203. The owner of this system was, of course, delighted but not entirely: he felt that the speakers are quite “power hungry” and still do not get enough power from the 200W monos of MSB. Initially, I thought of this as a hyperbole. Along the way, of course, I revised, as in the middle of the year Neil Patel, the designer of Avalon Acoustics, announced the new model Saga which launched an “easier resistance curve” relative to the standard of the company. The Saga is very similar to Isis in its form, but significantly more expensive as it carries much of the company’s flagship technology, the famous Tesseract.
To make a long story short, the owner had already planned an upgrade path for the amplifiers. And the prevailing proposal was that of the top end of Jeff Rowland line of amplifiers, the mighty monoblock Model 925, which are a perfect match for the existing preamplifier in this system, the two chassis Corus from the same company. So it happened and when we arranged for a new listening session this year, the M925’s had already taken around 500 hours of breaking in and were quite ready for this new meeting. However, the “party” that was set up around the Isis this time included another huge surprise! The new top line of danish Argento Audio cables, the Flow Master Reference Extreme Edition, a really extreme version of the standard FMRs with an extreme price tag, upped the cost of an already super-system to three hundred thousand euros territory, but it was their sheer performance in the context of this system that left us with our mouth open! It is one of those rare cases when you wish you win the lottery, even though you do not have the appropriate system to make justice to the… 1.2 km pure silver contained in the 800 clones of each XLR interconnect!
Ncore ala Jeff Rowland
The fine range of power amplifiers from the famous american company include units that, regardless of sales price and power figures, are characterized by very high standards in construction. The one-piece aluminum chassis with the famous “waving” faceplates, the input transformers, minimal solid state circuits and sophisticated power supplies offer that famous Jeff Rowland purity of sound, lack of coloration and a very wide dynamic range from the beginning of the company’s history. On the other hand, Jeff Rowland was never fanatic with a certain type of power stage but was/is always open minded and tries everything that seems promising, from class AB to class D. The current range starts with ICEPower and continues with UcD, somewhere in the middle of the range we encounter designs in class AB and the two top models, the 2-channel M825 and monobloc M925 are based on the famous module from Bruno Putzeys, the Ncore 1200. The M925 are the culmination of the experience of the american company, providing the most pure & massive power, yielding 430W at 8 ohms and 850W at 4 Ohms, with just 0,003 of output impedance. Special ceramic boards, power factor correction in the switch mode power supply, microprocessor control for full protection of the speakers, surface mount components, custom connectors and fully balanced topology are some of the features of the two chassis flagship. These two massive units for each channel are placed one above the other, weigh about 73 pounds and form an almost perfect cube with 40 cm sides. By adjusting the voltage gain between 26 and 32 dB and with an input impedance of 40kohm, the M925 seem a good match even for tube preamps, but it soon became apparent that they are a dream match for Corus, with whom they share the same sound philosophy and together provide a noise floor in the limit of absolute silence. Still, they are ready to “paint” with vivid harmonic and organic color even the faintest of signals and remain stable at listening levels well above safety limits for our hearing, even with the power hungry Isis.
FMR Extreme Edition: The silver highway
Danish company Argento Audio has become known for its perfectionist line of cable, based on silver conductors and, of course, their high price tags, having in its arsenal quite a few special manufacturing techniques, such as custom insulation/damping material VDM, custom aluminum plugs with silver contacts and absence of solder in the termination of the cables (via special pressure mechanism). The silver conductors receive cryotreatment and special polishing and are of high purity 7N. Entry level Argentos, like the Serenity ic, are single solid core, with hypereliptical sectional geometry (quasi ribbon), like a ribbon but with more “core” and smoother edges, while larger models (as well as power and speaker cables of Serenity) use more conductors which are independently insulated.
Argento does not mention about its “twisting” techniques between polarities (or wether they ran parallel) or about conventional shields (except perhaps for grounding of the power cables), and it seems that noise rejection is based on the characteristics of VDM for all things insulation, protection against interference and stability of the geometry along the cable. The Vibration Damping Material is of course an Argento patent, an alloy material, probably based on carbon fiber, and offers great flexibility and light weight despite large cross sections of the cables. In short, we may view the Argentos as an attempt to offer a hi-tech version of a classic design, the unshielded silver solid core insulated with organic materials such as cotton, and indeed they sound like it-extremely fast, clean, open, calm and musical/faithfull to timing and timbre reproduction- but add state of the art silence/absence of noise and colorations, a huge sound stage and an excellent dynamic range. When we move up in the company range and reach the top of the line Flow Master Reference (FMR), apart from more conductors and better plugs, there are additionally independently grouped conductors in their own VDM, per polarity of the signal (that is, three conductors in the XLR interconnect and two for the RCA).
But this time, the danish company went… too far out of the ordinary, presenting the Extreme Edition of the FMR. These cables, which recently appeared in international exhibitions and for which reference is made in the Audioexotics.hk blog, are so extreme (including their price), consisting of 800 silver conductors for the XLR interconnect, which has two conductor groups (instead of the three in the standard FMR). So, logically, it is divided into two VDM, with independent polarity, each with its own ground. A total of 1.2 km silver per 1.5 meter of the XLR interconnect is indicative of the immense conductive “highway” which opens up for the small signal to travel throughout this superstructured Argento. The matching speaker cable is really huge in cross section, with plugs so luxurious in finish, yet is quite flexible and lightweight, making it easy to route it between speakers and amplifiers.
Beyond the limits
We started this listening session with soft vocal music and relaxed jazz, that emphasize on midrange purity. Harmonics were brilliantly sculptured in space and time, like last year, but now the organic color was more intense and deeper, with more vivid colors. A significantly better “black” background highlighted and released, through its “organic” not dead silence, the full range of tonality. This actually means that we are enjoying the correct presence of harmonics in a very broad spectrum, and particularly in deep bass, not only in the core of the midrange. You could now see the bodies of the instruments in front of you, not just as a hologram but with all their vibrating matter and the particular flow of energy endowed to them by the musician’s way of playing. The organic color was literaly everywhere and the soundstage had become a thick, glossy three dimensional “cloth”, a beautiful lace full of detailed folds, with harmonic light not only from within but perfectly spread throughout the soundstage in a perfect 3D, as if we had put a great spotlight that did not leave anything in the dark, but still masterfully arranged so as not to “burn” the information in a whitish manner. That kind of timbre, accomplished equally well in space and time, is highly reminiscent of ultra expensive single-ended triode amps with 300B, silver solid core cables and exotic wide range drivers with alnico magnets (like Ocellia), but with this system everything seemed scaled up and able to cover really huge listening rooms. It was now time to discover how much “grown up” was that timbre…
So moving on to more complex program, it soon became apparent that the development of triode-like timbre was explosive in space and dynamics and happened on a scale that I had not experienced before through mininalist and high sensitivity systems. When sound levels reached safety limits for our hearing, with deep bass and large percussion instruments “moving” our couch as if in an earthquake – without ever losing track of that timbre!- I realized that something in this system behaved way out of the ordinary, it was not just a perfect match between components.
“OK, I know very well the Corus” I thought. “The M925s seem to do justice to this unique preamplifier, they are clearly superior to other Ncore amplifiers and apparently drive much better the Isis. But, what I hear cannot be attributed solely to the amplifiers or their perfect matching with the speaker” The role of the FMRs Extreme Edition in the system was finally revealed due to their not fully “breaking in” status, since the set of serial number No11 had arrived a few days ago in Greece and had not yet come to 100% of its performance. A lesser system with class D amplifiers and silver wires should have given us trouble somewhere, maybe in the form of hardness, dryness or thinning out of transients. However, with programme peaks at mid-high region, the sound sometimes closed up a bit with shorter decays and “excess” focus or, at some other moments, it became the opposite, rather pale and overly smooth, discoloring in both cases the harmonics. This was a typical instability of a component needing more breaking in, not really something to worry about, since the core of the midrange portrayed none of the foibles of lesser quality silver cabling.
Shortly before completing the session, finally, the system went through a rather dramatic change of behaviour on that region: the instability disappeared – as if we had put another spotlight on the soundstage, this time high on the back wall or the ceiling – and what was released from that change was probably the most open, comprehensive and peaceful decays of the midrange notes I’ve ever heard to date, that continued flawlessly with equally full bodied and three dimensional treble.
We were now experiencing a perfectly natural focus, not only on attacks or decays, but throughout a continuously flowing soundstage! This seemed like the perfect optical illusion, that fed not only the ears/eyes of the music lover but directly communicated with one’s heart and feelings- again, that was not the case of a sharply defined but lifeless hologram.
As with last year’s listening session in this system, so this year, the emotions I experienced were so intense due to the very high level of sound quality that changed me forever as a listener of recorded music. It actually made me rethink many of the current choices in my systems. Truth be told, this is not only the best system I have heard in Greece but maybe a sound that I did not thought was possible from sound reproduction, only live music. And this should be attributed both to the amazing nature of Corus and M925s and- equally, if not more so – to these extreme cables, that seem totally immune to typical limitations. I suppose that now, the owner of this unique super system has no reason to complain. The Isis’s true potential is finally revealed!
Speakers: Avalon Isis (93.000 €). Amplifiers: Jeff Rowland Corus (17.900 €) & M925 (72.000 €). Digital source: MSB Platinum Diamond DAC V, Diamond Signature DATA CD and Platinum Power Base V (51.300 €). Wiring: Argento Audio Flow Master Reference Extreme Edition XLR (17.000 € / stereo meter + 7,000 € each extra meter) and Speaker Cable (25.000 € / stereo meter + 14,000 € each extra meter). Rac: HRS SXR.
Representative: Obscure Audio, tel. 211.4037844, 6971.606390