I’ve never been fussy about audio cables. When I moved into my present house more than a decade ago, I bought an enormous spool of Monster Cable S14-2RCL, a 14-gauge, two-conductor speaker cable specified for in-wall use. What was important for me was that I could safely run it under floors and through walls to reach other rooms while minimizing the cables’ visual impact. Sound quality? It’s always seemed to me that the main factors responsible for determining a system’s sound are the speakers, amps, and source components.
Given my history, you can imagine my first response when approached about reviewing some speaker cables and interconnects. Gulp. But my second response was, “This could be interesting.” Compelled to sit and listen to cables: the moment of audiophile truth.
The products I was sent to review are mid-level models from Nordost’s mid-market Leif line: the Purple Flare speaker cables ($439.99 USD per 1m pair, $78/additional 1m) and Purple Flare analog interconnects ($269.99/1m pair, $55/additional 0.5m), respectively terminated with banana and RCA plugs. I’d seen Nordost cables at hi-fi shows, where they’re popular among high-end manufacturers, and the Purple Flares’ flatness and eye-catching purple insulation make them stand out in a room. But the unique design of Nordost’s speaker cable also permits unobtrusive installation along floor molding and under carpets. I ran my samples under my rugs.
The flatness of Nordost’s speaker cables is the result of purely technical factors. For the Leif Purple Flare, Nordost uses six 14x26 AWG conductors of solid-core, oxygen-free copper (OFC), plated in silver and insulated with a jacket of extruded fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP). The termination options are Nordost’s Z-plug bananas and gold-plated spade lugs.
A FAQ on Nordost’s website explains the Purple Flare’s design: “The extruded FEP method of manufacturing that we employ allows us to precisely space conductors with a very high degree of precision. This precise geometry achieves very low capacitance and inductance.” Nordost further contends that its design reduces the skin effect, a phenomenon in cables that boosts the resistance of the high frequencies in audio signals. According to Nordost, the bundled arrangement in cables comprising stranded conductors causes them to act as a single conductor, making the skin effect an inevitable problem in such cables -- that is, most audio cables.
The Leif Purple Flare analog interconnects have six 26 AWG conductors of the same metals and descriptions as the speaker cables, but wound in a “minimum cross-section configuration” that omits padding elements, which is why this interconnect is so thin. Insulation is high-grade FEP -- tinted purple, of course -- and the termination options are gold-plated RCA or XLR plugs.
I found the construction quality of both models very impressive. Nordost’s speaker cables are surprisingly flexible, and that flexibility extends to the jacket binding each cable to its banana plug, which permits easy hookups even in tight spaces. The Purple Flare interconnects are similarly flexible, with a solid casing to contain the RCA plug.
I hooked up the Leif Purple Flares and did some casual listening. My immediate response was that the sound was definitely better. Placebo effect, I thought? Maybe.
I used the Purple Flares in my system with satisfactory results for a few months before pulling them out to briefly reinstall and get reacquainted with my Monster Cable and AudioQuest Victoria setup. Otherwise, the components used for my evaluation included a Hegel Music Systems Röst integrated amplifier and GoldenEar Technology Triton Five tower speakers, with GoldenEar Triton Two towers swapped in briefly. Sources were mainly Tidal, HDtracks downloads, and ripped CDs streamed from my MacBook Pro to an Elac Discovery server functioning as a Roon endpoint.
Listening to “Goose Snow Cone,” from Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Superego/Tidal), with the Purple Flares plugged back in, I heard a lively, detailed quality to the sound that made the track’s circling bells float vividly in space. There was excellent separation between the main and background voices, along with a fine rendering of tones in the acoustic guitars and strings. It wasn’t as if, with the Nordosts, the tonal range or soundstage was now drastically different; the effect was more one of greater clarity, which in turn made the sound more focused and three-dimensional.
Another track that clearly benefited from the Purple Flares was “LA Trance,” from Four Tet’s New Energy (16/44.1 FLAC, Temporary Residence/Tidal). With the Nordost cables, this song’s squelchy synth melody had a pronounced, slightly acid crispness that, similar to the bells in the Mann track, created a strong spatial effect. The track’s muscular bass line, meanwhile, delivered a strong dynamic impact. Combined with the granular noises floating at the far extremes of the soundstage, the sound was layered in a way that made it seem at once dense and light.
The same distinctly lively sound quality I was hearing continued when I played “Alabama” from In Movement, by the jazz trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, and Matthew Garrison (24/96 FLAC, ECM/HDtracks). The light cymbal rolls from DeJohnette that begin this track displayed a compelling range of overtones and inner detail. Coltrane’s saxophone sounded natural and full-bodied, with a clear sense of its position in space. Even as the sound toward the end of the track becomes chaotic, the trio playing over one another in full freak-out mode, each instrument retained a distinct presence.
Swapping out the Purple Flares for a few rounds with my regular cables confirmed the impression I’d had of enhanced definition when listening to the Aimee Mann track through the Nordosts. There was also a sense of ease to the sound that helped bring out the harmonic richness of the acoustic guitars and background strings.
In “Alabama,” DeJohnette’s cymbal rolls had a light, effervescent quality with the Nordosts that I didn’t hear with the Monsters. The sax also had improved spatial definition, and the contribution to its sound of Coltrane’s breathing was easier to hear. While I didn’t hear as many differences when comparing the Purple Flare interconnects with my regular AudioQuest Victorias, the sax tone in this track was one area in which I did hear an improvement: a slightly better retention of body and fullness in loud passages.
Listening to Four Tet with the Purple Flare interconnects, it seemed that the bass was also a bit more pronounced, which added to the track’s dynamic impact. That said, the Purple Flare speaker cables conveyed the more significant impact, delivering crisper transients, along with an increase in dynamics and spatial definition.
In at last listening to and writing about audio cables, I feel I’ve crossed a threshold. While the contribution to my system’s overall sound made by Nordost’s Leif Purple Flare speaker cables and interconnects was more subtle than earthshaking, I heard differences almost from the get-go, and those differences were improvements: better resolution of low-level details, and better spatial definition.
The Leif Purple Flares also provided aesthetic benefits. While I mostly ran the speaker cables under my rug, I liked the look of the short lengths of them exposed between the rug’s perimeter and the speakers at the front of the room. Nordost cables lend a touch of high-tech finishing to an audio system that most other cables, particularly affordable ones, don’t. In the end, I was won over by both the sound and the looks of Nordost’s Leif Purple Flares. I guess I am now, officially, an audiophile.
. . . Al Griffin
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro and iPhone 6, Elac Discovery music server, Pioneer BDP-88FD universal BD player, Pro-Ject Debut turntable with Clearaudio Aurum Beta/S MM cartridge, Roon, JRiver Media Center 21, Apple Music, Tidal
- Speakers -- GoldenEar Technology Triton Five and Triton Two
- Integrated amplifier -- Hegel Music Systems Röst
- Speaker cables -- Monster Cable S14-2RCL
- Analog interconnects -- AudioQuest Victoria (RCA)
Nordost Leif Purple Flare Speaker Cables
Price: $439.99 USD per 1m pair, $78/additional 1m.
Nordost Leif Purple Flare Interconnects
Price: $269.99 USD per 1m pair, $55/additional 0.5m.
93 Bartzak Drive
Holliston, MA 01746