Review by Srajan Ebaen
On March 3, 2002, The Baltimore Sun published an article by Dan Fesperman on Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade. In it, the author recounts Pierre's bad-boy Pentagon past and subsequent spiraling descent into audiophilia and recording studio obsession. Turns out, much of Pierre's pre-audio bio was news to me. Assuming that the same could be said for you, here are a few highlights from Fesperman's comprehensive and fun read. It'll have Pierre rightfully share the lime light with inSound collaborateur Ron Bauman whose background was chronicled in Part I. (All R&D for the combined ClearVIew / Omega Mikro product range is performed at the inSound labs in Washington, DC and manufactured by inSound except for the ClearView power strip. Mapleshade markets the ClearView line through its Mapleshade Records catalogue while Omega Mikro is sold through a dealer network via three distributors, Lloyd Walker, Sidney Goldberg and Fred Kat.) Back to Pierre Sprey.
Called a guy whose name still causes some three-star generals bulging blue neck veins, Sprey's A-10 "Warthog" - nearly too ugly, simple and cheap to see final production - is credited as the single most effective weapon in the lamentable Persian Gulf War. This low-speed, low-altitude bird was designed to support infantry and engage in close-proximity ground combat with enemy tanks and artillery. It could withstand intense punishment and minimized standard pilot casualties. Videotape even captured one hell-bound returnee land his A-10 with holes in the battered wings, dismount in disbelief and kiss the aircraft before ducking for cover. Looking unfashionably bulky and cumbersome, the A-10s became the airborne bane of Iraqi tank commanders. Out of 1,500 immobilized and blown-up enemy tanks, A-10s are credited with a whopping 1,100. They were also responsible for 1,000 out of 1,200 total annihilated artillery targets.
Congressional aide Jaron Burke discovered Sprey through music but now consults him on military affairs. He calls Sprey a radically different thinker who enjoys a different take on everything. Robert Coram, a writer who interviewed most of Sprey's former Pentagon cronies, finds Sprey possessed of the most intimidating intellect he's ever encountered. Spinnet, a one-time partner in Sprey's underground Pentagon rebellion, terms Pierre the ultimate empiricist who attacks things decisively as with a rapier. James Burton's 1993 book The Pentagon Wars details their joint struggles to reform the Defense Department. In the present Baltimore Sun article, Burton paraphrases Sprey's military repute as one mixed of fear and great dislike. Sprey took no prisoners, minced no words and happened to be irritatingly right most of the time.
Genetically pre-wired with a French-German double certainty as Fesperman cunningly puns, Pierre Sprey was born in Nice, Southern France but grew up in Queens, New York when the family escaped the pending Hitler regime. As Yale University alumni, he spent summers working at Grumman Aircraft with dreams of eventually designing his own planes. Smoke-filled evenings were spent hanging with local Jazz cats and discovering Trane and Monk, Miles and Bird, Dizzy and Dexter. Sprey took a master's degree in engineering from Cornell and specialized in statistics and operations research. In 1966, Robert McNamara's Pentagon cleaning effort turned Sprey into one of the whiz kids - young, arrogant and very smart - who was asked to analyze troop movement efficiency. Sprey quickly became unpopular for suggesting that trucks had it all over the then-popular and state-of the-art C-5 transport plane. He was transferred to the NATO group to analyze tactical air detail instead.
This led to working with legendary top gun fighter ace John Boyd on the development of the ill-fated F-15. It eventually caused Sprey to protest bureaucratic pigheadedness and design the F-16 instead. It became notorious as the world's most maneuverable fighter jet of its time before the latest technological gadgets degraded it into a trophy hopelessly weighed down with hi-tech gimmickry. The A-10 mentioned earlier was his next project. It introduced Sprey to Bob Dilger, a closet audiophile who eventually designed turntables under the Maplenoll banner and successfully infected Sprey with the audiophile virus. He now upgraded the amateur equipment he had until then used for his impromptu club recording sessions.
A few years later, celebrated singer/pianist Shirley Horne turned Sprey's wheel of fortune in a new direction. She had played his old 1911 Steinway tucked away in his digs and fell in love with the refurbished instrument. She now insisted she play it on her next record which Sprey would engineer.
Within another three years, Sprey's military consulting business had turned full-time recording studio involvement. Soon the need for his own label arose to assure his master tapes would ever see the light of production day. Transferring his Pentagon-groomed distaste for excessive gizmos to the recording arts, he threw out all the band-aids and convenience measures of modern recording procedure. He transformed the now famous Mapleshade Records technique into the equivalent of his harrowing close-encounter A-10 - practical while perhaps ugly; massively effective while minimalist and certainly unconventional; and producing tangible results he and others with clear eyes to see and acute ears to hear could wholeheartedly condone. That the wiring of his studio would fall under his penetrating gaze and thus prey to wholesale simplification and fat trimming should come as no surprise. His track record is one of despising the redundant and going for the roots of appropriate engineering instead.
Exploding Cable Performance With The Same Gusto
Enter today's review subjects, inSound/Mapleshade's ClearView cables. If you've sympathized with my excitement over their low-level cables in Part I, you should now trade your note-taking pencil for bold gloss-red live lipstick. You see, those previously reviewed interconnects have been discontinued. They've left the building for two new designs that use 1-mil pure copper ribbons annealed via the firm's proprietary protocol. The ClearView Ribbon replaces the ClearView Ultra-Thin and sports a ½-inch wide ribbon about half the thickness of the original Ultra-Thin conductor. Carrying only a minimal surcharge of $30, pricing has moderately increased to $115/1m/pr. The differential for the Plus version remains $55.
The UltraPure Ribbon replaces the Double Helix and employs a copper ribbon half again as thin and reduced in width to 0.3 inches. The conditioning process for the UltraPure Ribbon is more complex and involved than that for the standard Ribbon. The former Double Helix pricing remains effective - $240 for a meter pair, $335 for the Plus version.
Both ICs benefit from new custom RCA connectors that eliminate solder joints in favor of torque screw contacts made from a special alloy. The occasional shell-tightening problems of the earlier connectors are now a faint memory. From a purely visual and handling perspective, these new RCAs equal the very best WBT or Cardas units I've ever used. I'm convinced there's equally good sonic reason why Mapleshade invested in having these exclusive designs made to their specifications.
The transparent dielectric for both cables remains a loosely fitting sleeve that creates less rather than more contact with the conductors. Unlike before, both interconnects now use two discrete conductor legs per channel, the visible difference between the standard and UltraPure Ribbon being conductor width and thickness, the invisible one the extent of the proprietary wave treatment.
Why use live lipstick for your new notes?
Live Munitions And Lipstick Smears
Because you'll want to leave a smooching kiss on the Sprey/Bauman boys. The new ribbon interconnects, stone cold out of their Ziploc bags, improve over the already excellent and fully broken-in predecessors. Rather impossibly, they sound yet more open, immediate, veil-less and communicative. This is not a subtle difference that mandates multiple frustrating A/Bs and a stethoscope to ascertain whether one's heart is still beating. No, it's a "damn that's easy to spot" performance leap.
InSound/Mapleshade's credo revolves around what they term leading edge fidelity. It's not one of those lame marketing floozies that conjure something novel out of the same old same-old. Rather, it's a very keen qualitative description that means exactly what it says. It's about the precision, clarity and vividness whereby sounds - especially those with fierce attacks and explosive rise times - jump out of silence, and how cleanly and transparently they decay. The optimization of these particular traits is readily apparent. The question is merely whether you agree with inSound/Mapleshade over their priority status. Is getting leading edges right more important for the realism of the reproduced event than different qualities such as other cable manufacturers might pursue? By now you know what I think.
Compared to their predecessors that have seen 'round-the-clock service in my system since their review, the new ICs - not surprisingly - are cut from the very same cloth but amp up the originals' excitement factor even further. They also provide subtle while appreciable gains in detail resolution. It's probably got something to do with reduced conductor mass and the rectangular rather than round cross section. But now I'm getting on slippery engineering ground I don't really understand, so excuse me while I hang a sharp U-turn.
Part I comprehensively detailed the ClearView ICs' core qualities. Everything already said still holds true. Simply add a noticeably enhanced "live charge". It's fascinating how successfully the designers could concentrate on this one aspect of performance, distill its character yet further but not affect anything else save for the concomitant resolution enhancement.
If you've been listening to something in the Acoustic Zen Silver Reference vein - slower, thicker, more romantic, weightier but less defined in the bass, certainly less transparent - then you might be surprised at the revitalizing effects of a lowered aural body fat count. It elevates the jump factor in your music.
And there you have it. These new and improved inSound/Mapleshade ClearView Ribbon interconnects are simply phenomenal value for anyone fond of crisply precise attacks, appreciative about de-fuzzed transients with the consequent perception of increased speed, and favoring their overall sense of liveliness, transparency and directness. The maker's 30-day satisfaction guarantee assures ultimate happiness whether they trounce your existing wires or not - and they very well may, unless your resident stuff is plated with 24-carat gold.
You see, considering the overall High-End zeal for escalated pricing, the inSound/Mapleshade ClearView Ribbons unplug the very electrodes from your wallet that others fire up for smelly shock therapy on your paychecks. I put their performance up against anything I've heard over the last 8 years that retailed for up to $1,000/pr (I'm relatively ignorant about cables that cost a lot more). Should anyone remain interested in the firm's four-figure Omega Mikro siblings? Based on the expectations their super-charged price increase suggests, one assumes that they build yet further on the strengths of these "Lowlander" Ribbons. But could they be that much better?
Remarkably, that potentially nagging audiophile irritation -- of needing to hear those reference critters once again for a reality check of what's ultimately possible - that dreaded suspicion has collapsed upon itself. More than perhaps anything else, that's my parting compliment for the new ClearView Ribbons. They seem perfectly well balanced and without any apparent weaknesses. Their obvious strengths point at the very heart of life-like sound reproduction. I see no need to pursue minute but costly incremental refinements beyond what they offer. And that's perfectly valid to these ears within a $40,000+ total system context.
The Other Man/Woman - Ahem, Cables
The ClearView speaker cable, power cord and power strip conductors use high purity, silver-plated copper coated with an ultra-thin, 2/10,000th inch low-loss dielectric. The gold/green colored conductors are tightly twisted into a field-canceling helix. The nude speaker cable looks - well, nude. It's very plain and throws overboard fancy (life) jackets, snazzy pigtails, bulging terminal metal casings or even he-man spades. Termination is stripped raw conductor unless believers in additional materials junctions order the optional copper spade lugs or banana plugs.
The 6-outlet power strip uses inSound/Mapleshade's own power cord and plug and attaches them to a pre-fab housing. It was selected on the basis of its exact plastic composition said to be sonically far more benign than most common equivalents. The conductors are direct-soldered to three copper alloy ribbons for hot, neutral and ground. The nude ribbons are just thick enough to handle and maintain pressure on the power sockets they accommodate. They're mostly surrounded by air, with just enough styrene insulation to support them. Like the power cords, they are treated with surface-charge-control high-voltage fields and chemically altered to enhance the sonic performance of the dielectric. The power strips are directional as all ClearView and Omega Mikro cables and are shipped as the more commonly correct "red" directionality. By request, they can also be shipped in reverse "blue" orientation.
The complete present ClearView line consists of Golden Helix Speaker Cable, Double Golden Helix Speaker Cable, Ribbon Interconnects, UltraPure Ribbon Interconnects, Double Helix AC power Cord, and Double Helix Power Strip. Plus versions undergo a special cryogenic treatment and are afterwards exposed to high-energy electromagnetic fields of undisclosed shape to enhance the musical qualities of the dielectrics and the copper/silver conductors. The Double versions employ two twisted pairs of conductors configured to reduce the fields that interact with the dielectric.
The Double Golden Helix Plus Speaker Cable
To this day, my in-house reference speaker cable is the same affordable Analysis Plus Oval 9 I discovered two years ago. I now run it as a shotgun biwire to the midrange and tweeter horns of the Avantgarde Duos and use a 1.5' Cardas jumper between the central tweeter horn and the subwoofer module below. To evaluate the single run of Double Helix, I opted for a hardwire connection with the midrange horn and -- via the two Cardas jumpers Avantgarde-USA customarily provides for each Series 2.0 speaker -- connected tweeter and subwoofer modules from this upper horn. Despite a likely handicap of added connector complexity, the DH cables gave an excellent showing of the very same qualities whereby the interconnect siblings had already signed off their bill.
Compared to the physically far more substantial and massive Oval 9, the Müsli-fed DH skinnies presented music with more snap and spunk, more energy across the band, more agility in the bass. The Oval 9 is an acknowledged mid- and lower bass weight champ. However, in this comparo, said weight seemed a bit more ballast than asset - the DH was more nimble, with better intelligibility down low. It didn't seem lean but simply more natural. It also removed an overall layer of density (not grime or grit) that the Oval 9, according to this A/B, seems to possess.
One way to describe this layer is to refer to transients as light refracting off shiny objects. The Oval 9 shaded some of these reflections and sounded darker, less sparkly, and less colorful. And while I would never call it ponderous, think of equestrian performance on an obstacle course. On the first go-around, the stallion carries a regular rider, on the second, a Pygmy jockey of negligible weight. While the animal clears the hurdles fine on either run, it does so with more lightness and élan when not burdened down by the added pounds of Mr. American staple diet. Music via the DH cables had more lightness, more fleetness of foot, more apparent speed. I preferred it to my existing champion, but with a smaller mo-betta differential than the ClearView Ribbons exhibited over their Acoustic Zen Silver Matrix counterparts. This confirms my overall perception. Interconnects are more critical to the overall system performance than speaker cable. They transmit more fragile signals that are more readily altered and damaged along the way.
Can you live without ego-boosting he-man snakes but stomach the occasional "Russian surplus" jibe from visiting audio buddies? Then the inSound/Mapleshade speaker cable is another surefire recommendation. It imparts the very flavor detailed at length in Part I, just less of it. Should that appeal to you, begin with your low-level circuits, then add the crowning touch with the high-level connection when funds allow. If Ron Bauman can build me a tri-wire set of these green-yellow twisters to kiss those Cardas jumpers good-bye, I might be sorely tempted to entertain it as a cost-effective and welcome upgrade when I'm liquid enough.
Double Helix AC Power Cord
To get a handle on this funkiest-looking of all the present inSound/Mapleshade ClearView cables, I first removed the Analysis Plus power cord between the cryo'd wall outlet and the Audio Magic Stealth power purifier powering the Art Audio PX-25 and Bel Canto Design Pre1. This would maximize the overall Double Helix effect on the system since it now fed two major components. To A/B required multiple cycles of complete power-up and power-down and thus wasn't an instantaneous swapperoo. Still, there could be no doubt that insertion of the DH pc bestowed once again the same "ClearVIew" effects. If those weren't so welcome to these ears, it'd get boring by now. Before I saddle you down with further variations on the same theme, let's stick with a single opus to say that things clearly sounded louder - and I'm sure they weren't, but the impression of moving closer to the stage and hearing more of everything was pretty acute.
To up the ante, I now committed reviewer's madness. I plugged the Analysis Plus power cord back in and removed my resident Audio Magic Clairvoyant cord that juices the second "digital" Stealth of my source component. In went the DH cord, to A/B against a very expensive state-of-the-art effort.
Was my appreciation for Jerry Ramsey's masterpiece unfounded?
Not quite. For the first time in my endless substitution racket during this two-part review cycle, things went backwards. What's shocking though was the lack of actual distance traversed. The overall effect was one of a small opaque damper on the music, a subtle obscuration of transparency, with a bit less treble sheen. That's it. Considering the enormous cost discrepancy between these cables, the inSound/Mapleshade effort with its two mystery outriggers has nothing to be embarrassed about. While I have never felt that the Analysis Plus power cords were the firm's core competency, they have found quite a few vocal adherents in the press. To their chorus I might now add a new voice that should be taken very serious despite its unconventional appearance.
More so than with the speaker cable, you will have to overlook a distinct throwback-to-the-Cold-War factor. From the soft rubber casing for the power plug to the stiff gold-colored field-canceling outriggers and translucent but slightly stiff and loose dielectric that makes crinkle noises when touched, this cord looks like an odd duck. But, it quacks beautifully.
If sound and not appearance matter to you, it delivers. In fact, if you fall for the ClearVIew sound - and a very recognizable sound it is - you are assured of surprisingly linear improvements with each addition of their cable/power components. In my system, this sequence of potency, from most acute to most subtle, worked out to:
The Double Helix Power Strip
In fairness to the power strip and to make sense of this list, an explanation is required. When used as intended (not as active power line filter with comprehensive surge protection but rather as outlet multiplier), it is very effective in imparting a potent ClearView dose, actually more so than one power cord on its own. It effectively adds the isolated power cord effect in series to all power cords plugged into. However, when compared to the Audio Magic power purifier - a counter-intuitive but gutsy A/B Ron Bauman encouraged during his visit many moons ago - the power strip wasn't as effective in lowering noise, nor did it offer the same uncanny sense of unveiling the innermost details the Stealth excels at.
Of course, only a daft reviewer would even engage in such an insane juxtaposition. The Double Helix Power Strip absolutely annihilated a basic Waber strip I unplugged from my computer station where it fed a table light, cell phone charger, computer speakers and memory card reader. Going straight into the wall is far preferable than strangulating your system with that blasted thing. But what if you needed more outlets?
That's where the inSound/Mapleshade strip comes in. If regular and volatile lightning storms aren't part of your environmental menu that would mandate powerful yet sonically invisible surge protection; if you wanted some of the benefits of active AC line noise filtration without spending a lot; if you wanted a goodly dose of the ClearView sound - I can't see how you could go bloody wrong.
The Fuse Is Lit
In the hoary tradition of final words (I hope I ain't dying soon but this is my last review for this publication), the design team of Pierre Sprey and Ron Bauman has successfully translated their beliefs about the importance of leading edge fidelity into a line of very affordable products. They deliver unequivocally on what's implied or promised.
It's a credit to their engineering savvy that the core qualities addressed remain the same from one product category to the next. This creates additive but linear effects when intermixed. If you try out just one of these - and I suggest one of the interconnects to get started - rest assured that adding more moves you even further in the very same ClearView direction, no detours possible.
Personally, I'm purchasing the Ribbon cables and plan on penciling in a future order for a tri-wire harness of the speaker cable. As the Bridget Jones Diary reminds us, in the end, even dorky folks meet their perfect mate. I'll leave it to you to declare who's dorkier, these products' appearance or your writer's mindset. But hey, weird can be wonderful and in this instance, it most assuredly is.
Golden Helix Speaker Cable: 8' set / $85 ($155)
Double Golden Helix Speaker Cable: 8' set / $280 ($395)
Ultrathin II interconnect: 1m pair / $85 ($140)
Ultrathin II Digital/Video interconnect 1m / $42.50 ($97.50)
Double Helix Interconnect 1m / $240 ($335)
Double Helix Digital/Video Interconnect 1m / $120 ($215)
Double Helix Powercord 4.5 meter / $150.00 ($210)
Double Helix MK.II Powercord 4.5 meter / $225.00 ($285)
Double Helix Power Strip 4.5' cord, 6 outlets / $195
Double Helix Power Strip MK.II 4.5' cord, 6 outlets / $270 ($340)
[Pricing in parenthesis denotes Plus versions - ship charges extra]