Review by Scott Fraser
Reviewing cables isn’t really exciting, nor filled with instant conclusions. Unless there’s a major flaw in the old or new cable, such as using the wrong size or type of wire, cable differences are generally subtle. Some folks believe that if the size, resistance and capacitance are all within the needed specifications, there should be NO differences. There are many such divisive debates in high-end audio and I’m not about to tackle that here. If you are happy using your hardware store zip cord, that’s great. If, on the other hand, you’ve heard the differences, or have an open mind to improving your musical experience, come along!
So many factors can influence your listening session. Music is a very emotional encounter, be it live or reproduced. The only way to approach a critical analysis is to minimize these distractions. Since it’s just about impossible to eliminate everything that can disturb your attention, I try and take a neutral attitude. Eliminate the days with heartbreak, terror or any other extreme excitation or agitation. This can be very time consuming. This, of course, is in regard to the reviewing process for me. These things don’t stop me from listening for enjoyment. I wish I could meditate, as this appears to clear or at least quiet the mind.
Anyway, where were we. Ah – this is about Madison Audio Lab’ E3 Extreme 1 speaker cables, and not my mental health (that would be a much longer article). Madison Audio Lab (hereafter referred to as MAL) is fairly new on the HiFi scene. It was formed as a collective of like-minded audio professionals. As the company history describes it, the founders got together to make the best cable they could. This was first called the Madison Audio Project, it was not initially a commercial endeavor. The most well-known of the participants was Matthew Bond. If you’ve not heard that name, you’re either new to high-end or haven’t been paying attention. For those who don’t know, he was the man behind Tara Lab. He’s been at it since 1984. Although mostly recognized as a cable manufacture, Tara Labs eventually had speakers and other offerings. I still remember the Tara ad in magazines when their rectangular solid core cable was new. A full page ad with a figure with his head in the clouds and the proclamation “…the cable God uses!” This was a bold ad, but I’m sure it got noticed in an overcrowded market. To fast forward a few decades, Mr. Bond eventually left Tara Labs (he still owns a 50% share in the company), and is now a principal at Madison.
MAL is based in Hong Kong, and makes no secret of its’ Chinese manufacture. Nobody is surprised anymore to learn that very expensive gear from western companies is now made in China. Some still go to loopholes and technicalities to try and hide their origin. Now, if your aim is to “buy local”, that is another issue completely. Like many outstanding efforts, this is an international design. Preliminary work and specs are made in the USA. The copper is procured from the land of extreme copper purity, Japan. The copper they decided on for the E3 Extreme is actually 8N, or “eight nines” purity (99.999999%).
Perhaps the cable’s name was partially derived from the extreme purity of the copper they chose. What it said to me was, they went with the best possible copper they could. The copper used is ESC-OF8N. That is; Extended Single Crystal Oxygen Free 8-Nines copper. This is then shipped to China for assembly. The cable is a high-tech complicated design, in a very neat package. That package contains 64 (4×16) helix-grouped ESC-OF8N conductors. This is very special copper extruded in the trademarked Ohno-Continuous Casting process (OCC), a patented process that is licensed to only a small handful of wire manufacturers.
The cables are nicely displayed in a retail box with a nicely made slip-through inner box. Judging from the seals, they are not packaged like so many things nowadays, in a poly heat-sealed package that needs bloody tin snips to open. The box is perfectly preserved after opening. “So what, who cares about the box?” Well, it shows me that MAL has given all aspects the same attention to detail. In the molded felt-like inner layer, there are slots where the included Banana Plugs reside. The cable has spades, but they can be easily unscrewed if your speakers or your preference requires it. It’s a nice deep thread with heavy gold plating for a very snug connection. There has been a trend among some ‘purists’ lately toward extremely light materials of a simplistic design, but there’s something to be said about the heavy, rugged feel of these connectors. The build quality, fit and finish is top notch. I couldn’t find any loose pieces, folded shrink-wrap or even an errant thread. The E3 Extreme 1’s have the aesthetic quality of much more expensive cables. The cable jacket is quite stiff, but should only be an issue for those having very little room around their gear, or really lightweight speakers not properly seated. Even so, with a little planning, it shouldn’t be a problem. If there was any nitpicking with their physical design, it is regarding solo mono cables in a pair, rather than joining the positive and negative in one cable with splits at each end. Sometimes this is a design necessity, depending on their electrical parameters.
My long term speaker cables are somewhat unusual. Both are DIY. The first are made from solid silver that I ordered from a smelter. This was done years ago when the price of silver was about $13 per ounce. Because they were not dealing with neurotic audio people, I had to order by weight and guage, rather than length. I now have a lifetime supply of silver wire. These 22awg strands were then wound together in Teflon and those pieces wound together again. Very easy, very cheap and terrific cables. I’m not sure of the ease or expense of doing this again nowadays (Note, the price of copper has also gone through the roof. -Ed). My other stalwart cables are made with 1940’s vintage Western Electric wire. I do also have some mature Mark Levinson, and some current Furakawa. I have a bunch more, but this could get boring.
I plugged the E3 Extreme 1’s into my amp with banana’s on the amp side and spades at the speakers. I did try all combinations of the spades and bananas and found no discernible difference. Although broken-in, I ran them on my workroom amp after a quick listen on my main system. Just habit I guess. When back to the regular rig I started my critical listening. To anyone who knows me, it’s no surprise that Bill Evans was first on the table. The Analogue Productions 180g repressing of the 1968 concert of the trio’s “Live from Montreaux “, sounded great. Since 1995, I’ve used low-power triode amps. Using amps with power in the single digits, makes efficient speakers mandatory. It should then be no surprise that I live in the midrange. But the bass of Eddie Gomez sounded just so “right”, it took me by surprise. The acoustic bass is so much more expressive than the electric. It’s a demanding instrument though, with its character influenced by humidity and temperature (other instruments have the same type and other concerns). The E3 E-1’s captured the tone, overtones, wood creaking and buzzing so very naturally. Back and forth between my current cables and the E3 E-1’s, had me convinced the E-1’s were better in this regard.
Staying with the bass, I tried Ron Carter’s “Patrao” recording with him as leader and the superior bass was borne out again. The word natural came to mind again. I decided to see if the bass theme continued with digital. I have some strange bass albums I’ve picked up along the way. Mostly trade-ins from Vortex Records on Yonge Street in Toronto. Herb has some CD’s from here and far away I’ve never seen any where else. I picked up Rob Wasserman’s “Duets” as well as his “Trios” but about two years apart. If you’ve never heard of him or these albums, I recommended them. Rob uses a bass viol, a regular electric bass and a combination of the two. On the duet with Jennifer Warnes, they do their stripped down version of “Ballad of a Runaway Horse”. Most know the version of this song done by Emmylou Harris (it’s actually a reworking of a 1979 Leonard Cohen song), but this is my favourite take on it, by far. The lone bass starts out like in most pop music, a timekeeper, but even this sounds terrific through the E3 E–1’s. Without a doubt I found my cables were 2nd best in the bass. If music lived by bass alone, there’d be no question as to what my pennies would be saved for. Alas, music is not just the lower notes and we don’t even have pennies anymore.
Pianos cover a huge part of the classic “20Hz -20Khz frequency range” of HiFi. With solo piano all was great. The job of any HiFi component is to get out of the way of the music. This is what consistently happened during my time with the MAL cables. When trying to listen critically, but finding nothing to really critique, I even started to question my approach. But alas, switching back to any other speaker cable was a definite downgrade. And I hated that. This was a case of “you don’t miss it, until it’s gone”. Re-installing any of my cables, was disappointing. I thought there would be some aspect that the E3 Extreme 1 would falter in. I couldn’t find it. I decided to switch speakers, but it was exactly the same story. The Tannoy Golds were just as happy as the Radians. (these drivers are of similar design, but made about 50 years apart, and their inherent characters are quite different)
It will become redundant here to list each album I tried, because the answer was always the same. The facts are simple, this speaker cable never failed. This was the best speaker cable I’ve had in my system. My only regret is, it’s gone back to the distributor and is no longer in my system.
One can be perfectly content with their Hifi rig, well, some of us can, until something happens to throw a wrench into things. I was content with my cables until the MAL E3 Extreme-1 speaker cables arrived. This is not a cheap cable, but then again, it’s made from the very best parts. The best in anything isn’t cheap. And if these were in my budget, they would be in my system for good.
Cable length 2.5 meters
Price $1840 (Canadian)
Distribution: Charisma Audio