Investing in high-end audio equipment should take account of the cables used to connect the various pieces of equipment. It is so easy to upgrade one’s loudspeakers or a source component and neglect to appraise the quality of the interconnects or speaker cable. I have to confess that, using a Hegel H190 which combines the functions of a DAC, streamer and integrated amplifier my cable connections are limited. I do use a variety of HDMI leads to route my various video sources (Blu-ray player, satellite decoder) to the TV, and the occasional optical Toslink cable for an external audio source such as a CD transport. However, the majority of my listening is via Apple AirPlay directly through the Hegel.
This means that my primary cabling is between the amplifier’s output and whatever loudspeakers I am testing, or my trusty Harbeth Monitor 30.1 SEs. It is just a matter of using my usual QED cable and re-connecting the 4mm banana plus each time.
Feeling that I might be able to upgrade from speaker cables which I have been using for what is probably over five years now, I noticed that Black Rhodium specially mentioned their Polka S cables as being intended for enjoying classical music reproduction. Graham Nalty, the company’s founder, sent me a 3-metre pair to try.
The box arrived and my first impression was just how heavy it was. These are clearly ‘serious’ cables, something conferred by the price tag. After unpacking them, I was struck by the proprietary rhodium plated locking 4mm connectors, real heavyweights and a joy to use. They’re a Nalty-special and unique to Black Rhodium.
Polka S sits towards the higher-end of the brand’s range and promises “extremely low distortion levels and design efficiency”. The ‘S’ designation refers to an improved version of the well-established Polka product and boasts increased metal braided screening combined with an RFI filter to lower distortion effects from any high-frequency interference.
The cable is twisted along its length to limit RFI (radio frequency interference) because a speaker cable can act as an aerial to radio signals, especially noticeable if one lives near any kind of transmitter. And, in this day and age, most of us have various transmitters in our homes (the likes of Wi-Fi, central heating systems and mobile phones) never mind any cellular telephone masts outside.
The cable has a rather attractive black braid, there to dampen micro-vibrations which might otherwise affect the audio signal. It also increases the product’s strength while, no doubt, improving perceived value. Polka S is available in factory-terminated 3m and 5m paris with a spade connector instead of the standard 4mm plug available by special order.
Those locking plugs which intrigued me are, indeed, very special. They are heavy-duty rhodium-plated locking plugs intended to provide a strong mechanical connection between the plug and socket. The designer says this makes for a much livelier and more exciting sound. Certainly they gave a good electrical connection, which is the key thing. Extra security of connection between the plugs and the equipment terminals is achieved by simply rotating the threaded cover on the plug, which means it cannot be removed by force alone. Failure to use this feature results in gravity pulling the plugs out, due to the weight of the cables, as I can testify with some embarrassment yet amusement to the listening panel.
It was hard to know what to expect – would there be a chalk-and-cheese difference as we swapped between my everyday cables and Polka S? As the cable is aimed at classical music we began with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (Rudolf Kempe on EMI from 1972). Listeners were pleased to note that the natural balance of the BBC-style monitors was retained, while mentioning a smoothness to the sound and a realism which conveyed the performance’s warmth and sympathy along with the suave playing by solo violinist Peter Mirring which brought home the sheen of the strings and transparency of the work’s texture in a most engaging manner.
A prolonged session of streamed recordings as well as some live material, courtesy of BBC Radio 3, included Elgar’s Sea Pictures with Janet Baker and the LSO under Barbirolli (EMI, 1965). Baker’s annunciation makes every syllable tell; her vocal colouring and shading bring the words alive in a wonderfully vibrant way. We did feel that there might have been a slight compromise here; although the presentation was still sufficient to move the listener it was not as cogent as we remember it with the singer, conductor and orchestral musicians being ‘as one’.
Onto smaller works and Schumann’s Piano Quartet from 1842 (Florestan Trio/Riebl on viola, recorded by Hyperion in 1999). The sound appeared effortless in such as way that there was no evident strain on the system to reproduce the material which flowed into the listening room and created a realistic soundstage of noticeable width, height and depth. The composer’s soft opening was captured well before the eruption into the genial allegro with the piano at the helm. That instrument sounded natural and without any evidence of distortion or unwanted aberrations.
To finish, we turned to Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and a 1999 recording on Veritas featuring the London Classical Players under Roger Norrington. Here, both the acoustics of the recording venue and the extended soundstage of the performers were very well conveyed. The recording’s generous forces and lively spirit had listeners tapping their toes as the pace and timing were portrayed with joyous realism.
We seemed to have a good partnership here, the £3,300 Hegel source, £3,500 loudspeakers and cables at £1,600. The Polka S cable proved worthy of its claim of being a great cable for listening to the magnificent sounds of an orchestra.
It has not come about by chance and is the result of extensive research and testing. Much of this is kept confidential, for reasons of commercial rivalry. But creator Graham Nalty told me how the basic cable is covered in a number of layers of a high-quality screen, selected after very extensive research of different materials. The outer braid has been chosen specially for its ability to dampen internal vibrations within the cable.
One of the things I liked most about Polka S was that not only is the base cable manufactured in England, by a company that has been manufacturing cables for Black Rhodium for over 20 years, but it is also extruded in England by the manufacturer using wire from their own supplier.
All in all, the outlay appears wholly justified to ensure that the investment of quality loudspeakers and high-end sources is not denigrated. No wonder, then, that these cables have won many awards for their low-distortion, high-clarity and natural reproduction of sound. I am happy to give them my endorsement.