- Category: Full-Length Equipment Reviews
- Created on Monday, 01 November 2010 01:00
- Written by Garrett Hongo
When putting together a new analog system, I, like many audiophiles just starting out, chose my phono cables rather passively. I just used whatever cables came with the tonearms I’d carefully selected. It was sort of like agonizing over which car to buy, then accepting whatever tires came as stock. I fitted my TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable with two arms: a 12" Ortofon RS-309D and a Tri-Planar Mk.VII Ultimate II. The Tri-Planar came with an excellent stranded cable, continuous from cartridge clips to RCA terminations. The Ortofon came with Ortofon’s own phono cable, DIN to RCAs. Both sets have served me well -- I’ve enjoyed hundreds of hours of vinyl listening via each. But when Jeff Fritz proposed that I review Nordost’s Norse Tyr phono cable, I took it as an opportunity to learn the difference an aftermarket set of phono cables might make with my Ortofon arm. It was an education.
Nordost Corporation, an elite maker of high-quality audio cables, makes five different phono cables in three series. In order of ascending price and claimed level of performance, these are the Norse, Reference, and Supreme Reference lines. The Norse Tyr ($1079 USD) sits two models down from the Supreme Reference Odin, which literally costs six nines ($9999.99/pair), and two up from the more modest Norse Heimdall ($429.99/pair).
Featuring dual-monofilament construction (the same topology as in the mighty Supreme Reference Odin), the Tyr is made of solid, 99.999999%-pure oxygen-free copper (OFC) with a silver-plated surface. It is terminated with either RCA or XLR WBT NextGen connectors (phono end) and options of 90-degree five-pin, 0-degree five-pin, or RCA (tonearm end). The Tyr is dual-shielded, with dedicated drain wires for grounding, and comes in a standard length of 1.25m.
Just looking at it, though, the Norse Tyr is perhaps the most innocuous thing in my entire system: a right-angled DIN connection and a basic set of wires in a translucent gray sheath, terminated with WBT NextGen RCA plugs and a ground line. What’s the big deal? What, exactly, does a phono cable do?
With very little descriptive information available online and no information included with the review sample, I wrote Roy Gregory, Nordost’s vice-president of marketing, asking for details about its construction. He replied:
Unlike the other Norse Series tonearm leads, which use micro-monofilament construction to space the conductors in a spiral "cradle," separated from the FEP [Fluorinated Ethylene Propylene] insulation by a virtual air dielectric, the Tyr has the same dual micro-monofilament topology that we use in the Odin. Here, rather than a single spiral around each conductor, two FEP threads are twisted first before then being wrapped around the conductors. This spacing dramatically reduces dielectric effects and the resulting propagation delay. The DMMF construction reduces surface contact even further. It also increases the suspension effect of the supporting cradle.
Essentially, this dual-spiral construction works to interrupt the flow of mechanical energy that would otherwise be transferred directly from the cartridge via the tonearm cable to the inputs of the phono stage, and thence to the other electronics in the system. Gregory explained that the more a tonearm cable can dissipate this mechanical energy, the better the sound; the cables then won’t allow the effects of microphony in the phono stage to be transmitted back into the cartridge generator, energy that might otherwise be reflected back through the cable. The Tyr behaves somewhat like a damping ring on a signal tube, suppressing mechanical microphony and thus keeping the signal pure.
So why not just damp the hell out of the cables with heavy slugs of insulating materials? Because, says Gregory, that would increase the dielectric effect, the propagation delay, and the capacitance -- essentially, it would mess with the electrical signal. The tonearm cable is a direct contributor to the electrical damping on the generator in the cartridge. Too much capacitance kills top-end air and extension. Too little and you get overshoot and peaky highs. Nordost’s design tries to strike a balance between a pure air dielectric (best for electrical reasons) and a heavily damped cable (good for mechanical reasons).
OK, so it’s a wire. Again, what is the big deal?
The review sample came to me already burned in, so there was no waiting for its character to arrive in full. The sonic personality of the Tyr remained the same throughout the review period. Once it was in my system, I heard the big deal: a marked difference in the sound.
The Norse Tyr’s plainness was only on its surface. From the start, in comparison to my Ortofon arm’s stock cable (not bad in itself), there was an immediate upsurge in presence -- a feeling of "aliveness" in the system, a new sensuousness to the music, top-end sparkle, and big gains in intimacy, drama, and scale. Yet there was no corresponding downside that I could hear -- no sense that the Tyr was "hot" or too incisive, no listening fatigue, no imbalance anywhere in the audioband. In fact, balance was one of the Tyr’s leading characteristics.
At first, I listened to a lot of mono jazz LPs, and Coleman Hawkins and his Orchestra (Crown CLP 5181) was characteristic of many of them. The Tyr sounded great right off the bat, with good bass, a wonderfully smooth midrange, and sparkling highs without etch. In "Moodsville," Hawkins’ tenor sax sounded rich and appropriately burnished, but not overly so. When Thad Jones doubled on trumpet with Hawkins on the theme, there was no "incisive" aspect to the sound, no overhang of upper mids, no sharp tang to any of the notes that, though they sometimes shadowed each other, all stopped and started on time and in rhythm. Throughout, there was a fine saturation of tone, and no leanness to any of the instruments that I could hear. I’d almost say the sound was relaxing -- an adjective I would not have thought to apply to Nordost’s products in any of my past exposure to them (which took place exclusively at audio shows), but that seemed entirely appropriate here. The performance was, on the whole, entirely enjoyable, with that fine sense of balance I mentioned.
The sound of the Tyr was, if anything, even more easeful with Ellington’s This Is Duke Ellington (Victor VPM-6042): big-band music at its finest. Ellington’s mono recordings are generally more challenging than combo jazz in terms of timing, variety of timbral requirements, and scale. Side 3 of this two-LP set contains a live recording of the classic "Don’t Get Around Much Anymore" from May 4, 1940. These older recordings often test an analog system’s scale and smoothness; the dynamics are either so compressed as to make the sound tinny, or outsized enough to ruin fidelity and scale. But, with the Tyr in place, I heard only music. Johnny Hodges’ solo on alto sax sailed, but never got searingly hot or overloaded the system. Cootie Williams’ plunger-mute work on his squawky trumpet was explosive and tight. And Tricky Joe Nanton, perhaps the originator of wah-wah on plunger mute, contributed a delicious swagger on trombone. Each horn chorus came in punchy and sweet, with lots of momentum and drive. Ellington’s piano had a nice trinkle-tinkle in its deft punctuation and minimalist accompaniment of the band. Again, there was an overall fine balance to the system’s sound. I tried to listen for any possible muting of specific frequencies, but it just wasn’t there. Everything was as open, clear, and vibrant as live jazz should be.
As good as the Norse Tyr was with mono jazz, I found it especially suited to stereo classical music, I think because of its overall clarity and top-end finesse -- that high-frequency openness produced by the cable’s low capacitance. When I switched to stereo listening and my Ortofon Anniversary SPU cartridge, I put on Brahms’ String Sextet in B Minor, Op.18, by the Cleveland Quartet with the additions of Pinchas Zukerman on viola and Bernard Greenhouse on cello (LP, RCA Red Seal Stereo ARL 2-4054). The Tyr was extraordinarily resolving within the six musicians’ playing, revealing intricacies of interplay and musicianship I hadn’t before heard in this recording. This was especially delightful in the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto. I enjoyed the energetic, sprightly dance of it -- quick, sensuous swells and responsive interchanges among the violins, violas, and cellos. There were a spacious soundstage a bit wider than my speakers; very deep, large images of the instruments; and an overall mellow but lively sound. Violins had bite and rich harmonic complexities, cellos a mordant and occasionally percussive richness in pizzicati. And, throughout, no note disappeared into hashiness or peakishness. This movement -- and the entire work -- was rendered with excellent resolution, speed, and articulation of microdynamics, all demonstrating the Tyr’s outstanding transparency and extremely expressive palette.
So far, I’ve concentrated on the Tyr’s performance with instrumental music on a smaller scale; it was more than adept at rendering a full orchestra as well. Among a few dozen symphonic LPs I played, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, performed by Sviatoslav Richter with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti (LP, EMI/Angel AM-534717), stood out, both for the splendor of Richter’s piano sound and the magnificent scaling of the orchestra. If there is such a phrase as gorgeous clarity, then that’s what I heard. Richter’s piano was absolutely sparkling; each note, whether in a run or a trill, had a special quality of purity. The orchestra came through in marvelous accompaniment, at times rivaling Richter in delicacy, then swelling in lavish crescendos, the full weight of the bass viols and timpani producing complex harmonies and tonal richness. Not once did I feel that the music was pinched or artificially attenuated by any character of the Tyr, which handled with a vibrant equanimity all stops along Beethoven’s famed dynamic range, from the exquisite to the grandiose.
One of my favorite LPs of all time is a recording quite lowbrow by comparison with the Beethoven, but nonetheless demanding for its requirements of transient speed, complex harmonic overtones, and lifelike reproduction of a man singing over acoustic guitar accompaniment. I’m talkin’ ’bout the blues here, and Johnny Winter’s eponymous first Columbia LP (CS 9826), originally released in 1969. "When You Got a Good Friend" features Winter’s raunchy, Southeast Texas voice as he accompanies himself on a bottleneck National Tricone metal-bodied acoustic guitar and, likely, an overdubbed conventional wooden acoustic guitar tuned in open G. What a brigade of timbres! Winter digs into the tune, his dry, ragged voice full of blues melismas reacting to his own sliding notes on the steel strings of his National. With the blues, timing is all, and via the signal as channeled through the Tyr, my system had it -- my head bobbed and my toe tapped to the stresses in the blues measure as Winter variously syncopated and returned to regularity, his authoritative, quavering voice and percussive wooden guitar accentuating the beat and the bottleneck Tricone tailgating off it, slipping just behind in fusillades of metallic sparks and attenuation.
As for female voices, I played records by a variety of opera, folk, jazz, and pop singers ranging from Victoria de los Angeles in Verdi’s La Traviata on EMI/Angel to Judy Collins on Elektra, Sarah Vaughan on Mercury and Pablo, and Laura Nyro with LaBelle on Columbia. With each one, vocal timbres were clean and pliant, with a tonal saturation that impressed me but did not obscure the microdynamics of the performance, as is sometimes the case with digital reproduction or when a cable is overly lush. I could write about any of these recordings, but "Richland Woman," an old Mississippi John Hurt tune covered by Maria Muldaur when she was with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, had a kind of purity and simplicity that sent chills. Brah, I get chikin skin! as we used to say as kids in Hawai‘i when the belly dancer in a Bond flick came shimmying onto the screen. Included on the double LP Greatest Hits! Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band (Vanguard VSD 13/14), this guileless song features Muldaur’s youthful voice accompanied only by two six-string guitars, one rhythmically strummed, the other tastefully picked. Though her later, more flamboyant pop style was bathed in irony and camp in such tunes as "Midnight at the Oasis," Muldaur’s singing here is remarkably unjaded and sincere in this straightforward song of Delta seduction. Via the Nordost Tyr, her creamy mezzo sounded as lithe and natural as if she were in my kitchen crooning "Hurry home, sweet daddy" into my ear.
The Nordost Norse Tyr entirely convinced me of the worthiness of a quality aftermarket phono cable. As someone new to this aspect of the hobby, I thoroughly enjoyed expanding my knowledge of what worlds of difference a phono cable can make in the transmission of the tiny analog signal from my cartridge to my electronics. The Tyr both tutored me and transformed my listening experience. Supremely balanced and natural, its sound is something I won’t do without anymore.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/300 CD player, Apple Mac Mini with Wavestream U-24 DAC
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; Ortofon RS-309D tonearm with Ortofon SPU Mono GM Mk.II (3.0mV), Ortofon Cadenza Mono (0.45mV), and Ortofon Anniversary SPU (0.6mV) cartridges; Tri-Planar Mk.VII Ultimate II tonearm with Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV)
- Preamplifiers -- deHavilland Mercury 3, VAC Renaissance Mk.3 with phono stage, Herron VTPH-2 phono stage
- Power amplifiers -- Herron M1 monoblocks, deHavilland KE50A monoblocks
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
- Speaker cables -- Verbatim Cable with jumpers, Cardas Clear Beyond biwire
- Interconnects -- Verbatim Cable (RCA), Auditorium 23 (RCA), Audience Maestro (RCA), Cardas Clear (RCA and XLR)
- Power cords -- Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Cardas Golden Reference
- Power conditioner -- Balanced Power Technology Clean Power Center, Isoclean 104 II power strip
Nordost Norse Tyr Phono Cable
Price: $1079 USD.
200 Homer Avenue
Ashland, MA 01721
Phone: (508) 881-1116
Fax: (508) 881-6444