If you prefer a short video summary of the full review then use the YouTube video below. Otherwise, scroll down to read the full Iconoclast Speaker Cable review.
A couple of months back I had a project ongoing involving the refurbishment of a vintage pair of Altec Lansing Valencia speakers, discussed here. As part of the project I was looking into replacing the internal wiring, and in doing my research came across a company that I hadn’t encountered before – Iconoclast Cable. [Iconoclast website here].
As often happens, I had an ‘oh look a squirrel’ moment and spent the next day immersing myself in everything I could find relating to Iconoclast Cables. Why? Well, there’s something interesting and somewhat unusual about their cable design philosophy and their manufacturing processes that resonate with my own views on audio cables.
In short, the technical brain behind Iconoclast Cable is the now-retired Belden engineer Galen Gareis. The actual Iconoclast Cable brand name is the intellectual property of Belden, Inc. and the cables are custom terminated and sold by Blue Jeans Cable. So, we have a well-established and regarded manufacturer with the experience and scale of operation to produce a consistently world-class cable, the brains and know-how of a seasoned industry veteran with a proven track record in designing audio cables and steer the manufacturing process, and the agile minds and fingers of a well-respected low-volume cable manufacturer (Blue Jeans Cables) to fulfill custom orders to a relatively small community of audiophiles like us. Could this be the perfect coming together of resources? Let’s find out.
Audio Cable Design Theory
Visit the Iconoclast Cable website via the link provided above, hit the “Design Theory” button, and select “Design Papers” or “Technical Papers”, and you’ll be presented with an absolute wealth of information on audio cable theory. I’m not going to try to replicate it here, or even break it down into summary form. If you’re interested in cable design and theory, go to the link provided and read it for yourself. I read through the information, all of it. While my electrical engineering background (in the distant, forgotten past) allowed me to grasp most of it, there were elements of the theory that were a little above my pay grade.
A while back I wrote a rather sloppily worded thesis on ‘Why Audio Cables Sound Different‘, that created a mini whirlpool of controversy, coming at me in the form of a handful of emails from disgruntled readers of the article, who had strong opinions of their own that didn’t seem to align with mine. In the article, I tried to explain in simplistic terms the operating theory I have that posits, among other things, the question: ‘Should wire be considered an active component of an audio system, in much the same way as a preamp, or source component, etc?’. In my mind, it should. Since all wires have electrical properties and values and since these values impact the signal passing through (or over the surface of) the wire, it stands to reason that the cable’s electrical properties will manipulate the signal in some way and thus impact the sound we hear. Sure, some differences between cables may be so small that we cannot hear them. But, others can be quite large and clearly audible. And, it stands to reason that the more resolving the system components the more chance we have of hearing even subtle differences in the electrical properties of the cables we choose to use.
I’m not one of those who think cables are all snake oil and a piece of lamp cord should do the job. Conversely, I’m not one of those to get suckered into believing the overtly complex and detailed theories that some cable manufacturers put forward to try and justify the exorbitant cost of their particular product. And that’s what kept me engaged, primarily, in the content on the Iconoclast Cable website. There was an element of positive reinforcement of my own theories (I’m self-aware of confirmation biases) along with a whole wealth of theory and technical information that seemed to make a lot of sense.
Anyway, I encourage you to go to their website, read, absorb, and digest, then form your own opinions.
So after deciding that I wanted to try these cables for my Altec Valencia restoration project, I contacted Bob Howard who represents the sales dept. and requested pricing on a roll of cable for a DIY project. Bob wrote back quickly and pointed out the folly of my request:
“We have assisted with internal wiring on a number of projects. Our Iconoclast speaker cables are either 12-bonded/twisted pairs (24 AWG) in the Series I or 24-bonded/twisted pairs (28 AWG) on Series II cables. To prep and terminate “pair” of speaker cables requires the tech strip 192-conductors on Series I and 384-conductors on a pair of Series II. As you can imagine, the labor to strip is very high, mistakes costly and unless you are a “very talented” soldering you can make one heck of a mess. We utilize an ultrasonic welded with custom dies to weld our “also custom” speaker terminations.”.
He’s right. These fingers aren’t designed to strip and terminate 384 individual conductors. I can’t even get the lid off a bottle of Guinness with a bottle opener without depositing some of the contents down my front. So after a series of back and forths, Bob ended up sending me two pairs of finished speaker cables to try in my system with my reference Piega C40 speakers, the Altec Valencia internal rewire project would just have to wait.
Iconoclast TPC Series/Gen II and SPTPC Series/Gen I Speaker Cables
The cables arrived promptly, directly from Blue Jeans Cables in Seattle, WA, a pair of demo sets that go out to folks wanting a trial of the cables with a view to purchase.
I requested two sets to satisfy the bi-wire necessity of the Piega C40. They’re configured with 4 bananas on each speaker and there isn’t an easy way to patch across the connectors without stacking banana plugs and using jumpers, which I prefer not to do.
Series I cables differ from series II cables primarily in the number of conductors used. Let me borrow from the Iconoclast website here, to make my job simpler:
Beneath the plain squared profile of the original Series-1 Iconoclast speaker cable lies a surprisingly complex design. Each polarity leg of an Iconoclast speaker cable is composed of twenty-four 24 AWG conductors. These conductors are twinned into Teflon®-insulated “bonded pairs,” akin to those you may be accustomed to seeing in Belden’s data cable products. These twelve bonded pairs are then braided in a basket-weave configuration and flattened to a rectangular profile. The two polarity legs are then laid back to back, and a nylon braid (red/black for ETP, blue/black for OFE or SPTPC) and FEP outer sheath complete the cable. It’s a bear to terminate, with 192 wire strips per pair of speaker cables, but the electrical characteristics are hard to achieve any other way. [Reference]
What’s interesting about the Iconoclast approach is that they publish the expected electrical properties of each of their cables on the website, but then actually test and document the measurements of each set and include the test results with the shipped cables.
From their website:
- Series 1:
- Capacitance: 45 pF/ft
- Inductance: .08 µH/ft
- Resistance: 1.2 Ω/1000 ft
- Series 2:
- Capacitance: 65 pF/ft
- Inductance: .08 µH/ft
- Resistance: 1.36 Ω/1000 ft
Also borrowed from their website – this explains the differences between Series I and II and the different conductor options available:
There are three options available for the conductor composition in Series 1, and two in Series 2. Note that the difference between these is NOT a difference in design — nothing about the electromagnetic properties of the design is affected by the choice of conductor. Regardless of the material choice, the internal structure is the same, the manufacturing process is the same, and the termination methods and hardware are the same, with the full benefits of Galen Gareis’ design work in each.
The conductor choices for speaker cable are TPC, OFE and SPTPC. TPC is Electrolytic Tough-Pitch Copper, widely used in communications cable of all sorts. OFE is Oxygen-Free Electrolytic Copper (99.99% pure), and we offer this in the Series 1 speaker cable only. SPTPC is Silver-Plated Electrolytic Tough Pitch Copper. The outer jacket color is red/black for TPC, blue/black for OFE or SPTPC.
When the cables arrive with you, this is what you get:
They’re not unique in testing and issuing finished/assembled electrical properties but they’re one of only a handful of companies I can think of that do this. Going back to my opening salvo on cable theory, these numbers matter, they’re what shapes the sound of the cable in your system, so it doesn’t hurt to know what they are.
So far so good. The quality of the cables and connectors is second to none that I’ve used in my system before. That said, I’ve always been somewhat hesitant to spend big bucks on cables. I think it’s more about careful matching than about exotic designs and materials that come with an inflated cost. I justified this in my mind many years back when I replaced a $2500 set of Virtual Dynamics Nite II speaker cables with $100 worth of magnet wire, to very good audible effect. Conversely, I’ve also had loaners of top-of-the-line Purist Audio Dominus cables with a $30K street price, that truly sounded wonderful, hence demonstrating that exotic designs and materials can work well too. Yes, this is all very subjective.
Stuff comes and goes at an alarming rate in my system and I’ve chopped and changed core components many times since the Iconoclast Cables have been in use. From the outset, the system looked like this:
- Basis Audio Debut Standard Vacuum Turntable
- Graham Engineering 2.2 tonearm, later replaced with Graham Engineering Phantom B-44
- Audioquest AQ7000fe LOMC
- Manley Labs Steelhead Phono
- Veloce Audio Platino LS-1 with Lithio battery upgrades
- Veloce Audio Lithio Saetta Hybrid Monoblocks
- Piega C40 speakers
- SMG i5 Sonic Transporter / Sonore UltraDigital / Denafrips Terminator DAC / Denafrips GAIA DDC
- PS Audio P10 (x2)
Other gear of note that has come into the system whilst the cables have been here included:
- Sonus Faber Cremona M speakers
- Moon Audio W5.3 amp
- Lumin U1 mini
- Mytek Brooklyn DAC+
- Lampizator DAC Gen 5 Level 7b
- etc, etc
Cables on hand for comparison include:
- Cardas Golden Cross
- Anti-cables Level 3 biwire
- DH Labs Q-10 signature biwire
The above isn’t an exhaustive list, but I have spent enough time with the Iconoclast and used them with a wide enough variety of gear to get a handle on their strengths and weaknesses and how they sound, overall.
Starting out, I used the Series I silver-plated cables on the mids/high and the Series II set on the bass/woofers.
Here’s my take on how these cables perform with various equipment as listed above. I haven’t found the sound signature of these cables to be ‘quirky’ in any way. Results have been consistent regardless of what amps and speakers I’ve used. This is useful when it comes to creating system synergy.
Frequency response: Out of the gate, my first impression was one of a slightly tipped-up frequency response. The Iconoclast replaced a set of DH Labs Q-10 bi-wire cables which seemed to emphasize more in the midbass and lower bass. The DH Labs gave the sound more of a weightier feel than I was hearing with the Iconoclast cables. Likewise, the Cardas Golden Cross cables emphasized the mid and low bass frequencies much more so than was apparent with the Iconoclast.
The Iconoclast seemed more extended up top, offering a little more air and space around performers and uncovering more in terms of subtle detail and nuance. Initially, I was a little concerned with what I perceived as a ‘leanness’ to the sound of these wires; however, some days later I decided to switch the cables over, moving the silver-plated Series I to the bass and the copper-only Series II to the mids/highs, and I heard an improvement by way of a more balanced and fleshier sound with less treble emphasis. More on this later.
Low bass performance was very good, the cables deliver clean, tight, tuneful bass, with natural tone and timbre. Bass is balanced in proportion to the rest of the audio spectrum, so there’s no emphasis that I can detect in low or mid-bass regions.
Dynamics: The dynamic performance of any component can be quite difficult to assess, as dynamics can often emerge as a virtue borne from deficiencies in other areas. For example, a component or cable that is lean sounding, absent of sufficient flesh and body in the mids and lower frequencies, can often appear to sound more ‘dynamic’, so I was wary of my initial take on the dynamic performance of these cables. They appeared to me to be second to none in the realm of dynamic performance, but given that my initial perception was of a somewhat tipped-up frequency response, I wondered if the impressive dynamic performance was a consequence of problems with balance in the frequency response. It took me several listening sessions to draw a conclusion on the dynamic performance of these cables; several listening sessions involving switching back and forth between other cables I owned, assessing and re-assessing performance in contrast to the Iconoclast wire, and just generally looking for ways to nail down my thoughts and conclusions.
While I agree one shouldn’t have to work so hard to draw a simple conclusion, I’m of a skeptical nature and needed to prove to myself that what I was hearing in the realm of dynamic performance wasn’t being delivered at a cost. I finally concluded that these are the most impressive speaker cables I’ve heard in the areas of micro and macro dynamic performance.
Detail retrieval: These cables do detail retrieval exceptionally well. There’s a fantastic track on the album Crossroads, by Ry Cooder, that I use over and over when assessing component changes. It’s track 8, “Feelin’ Bad Blues”. Against the acoustic guitar, partway into the track emerges a faint-sounding (what I believe is a) Dolceola that gently tracks the lead guitar at some physical distance in the background and off to the left of the stage. Its presence is subtle in the mix, I’ve heard other equipment combinations that leave the Dolceola barely discernible. Not so with the Iconoclast cables. The timbre and tone of the instrument also come through as well as I’ve heard in any system configuration. The distance between the Dolceola and the guitar is so obvious it feels like the two instruments are chiseled into their own space. Fantastic.
Transparency: The Iconoclast cables do an exceptional job of getting out of the way of the music. Poor recordings do not fare well with such a transparent presentation, but good recordings really do excel.
Timbre: A high-quality audio system should be able to capture and recreate every nuance of the original performance, from the rich resonance of a cello to the crisp attack of a snare drum. With faithful reproduction, listeners can appreciate the intricate details and textures of the music, as if the musicians were right there in the room. It doesn’t take much to diminish the illusion of ‘being there’, and components that lack the reproduction of natural tone and timbre can quickly spoil the illusion. With the Iconoclast cables, instruments and voices have a beautifully natural tone and timbre, without any emphasis in any frequency region. Listening to upright bass on Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Capetown Revisited’, the strings resonate with ample body and weight and there’s a nice woody tone and texture to the instrument that’s among the best I’ve heard in any system.
Imaging: The goal of a quality audio system is to create a listening experience that enables the listener to suspend disbelief, that is, to become fully immersed in the music as if they were present during the original recording. Each subtle detail in audio playback contributes in some way to the recreation of that ‘you are there’ sensation. In the case of imaging, I go back and forth on whether or not its relevance should be discounted as an artifice – a clever trick introduced during the mixing stage to create an unnatural and gimmicky effect. I don’t hear ‘imaging’ per se during a live performance, at least not with the same level of specificity that we seem to demand from our audio systems. I’ve heard speakers that do not image particularly well (Horns like the Klipschorn, for example), yet transport the listener to a live event like no other speakers.
On the other hand, it might be argued that imaging in audio playback is not an artifice but a critical aspect of creating a convincing and immersive soundstage for the listener. It involves the accurate placement of sound sources and the creation of a three-dimensional space that allows the listener to perceive the music as if it were being played live in front of them. The specificity of imaging can be influenced by many factors, most critically the placement and design of the speakers, but it can also be quickly undone by poor equipment choices, including speaker cabling. Whatever your take on the importance or otherwise of this aspect of reproduction, you can rest assured that these speaker cables will do nothing to diminish the sense of image placement and the sense of image specificity. They help support an immersive 3-dimensional experience with tight and focused placement of instruments and vocalists in the soundstage.
Soundstage: The physical proportions of the soundstage can make or break the illusion of being present at the performance. A system that can create a wide and deep soundstage, with instruments and vocals clearly defined in their own space, has more chance of empowering the listener with the capacity to suspend disbelief and to become transported to the event. Switching back and forth between the Iconoclast speaker cables and the Cardas Golden Cross, the entire envelope of sound scales down by a few percent with the Cardas. Soundstage width, depth, and height are important when it comes to unraveling large-scale complex music, like orchestral or large choral works. To hear instruments and performers delineated in their own space, you need to give the performers some elbow room. The only way to do that where there are many performers on the stage is for a system to be able to scale the soundstage believably in all directions. The Iconoclast Cables do nothing to prevent this from happening. ‘Doing nothing’ here is key. It isn’t a function of speaker cables to artificially expand or enhance anything, their only function is to get out of the way and do nothing to impede each component of the system from expressing its full range of virtues.
A couple of tracks that were used in assessing changes (switching cables around) were Natalie Merchant’s ‘The Peppery Man’ and Joe Cocker’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’. Here’s a pretty rough video that I took with clips of the two tracks, maybe you’ll get some small idea of what I was hearing:
At the start of my explanation of how these cables perform in my system, I stated that the overall frequency response appeared on first hearing to be a little tipped-up, particularly with the silver-plated wire. A tipped-up frequency response, also known as a “bright” or “forward” sound, is characterized by an emphasis in the upper-frequency range and perhaps a deemphasis in the lower-frequency range. This results in a sound that is perceived as more “crisp” and “clear”, with a greater sense of detail and presence. However, too much emphasis in the upper frequencies can lead to an unnatural and fatiguing sound.
But with the Iconoclast cables in my system the sound was never fatiguing – quite the opposite in fact, I was frequently drawn into long listening sessions where I was repeatedly struck by just how musically engaging my system had become with the new cables.
It does take a while to become accustomed to what these cables do differently from others and to understand it. On the surface, my old set of Virtual Dynamics Nite II speaker cables had many of the qualities of the Iconoclast cables. They sounded open and revealing and rendered detail in spades, but were impressive to listen to for relatively short sessions only, they always resulted in fatigue.
With my Peiga C40 speakers and their excellent AMT coaxial ribbon drivers, it doesn’t take long to hear if something is wrong with the higher frequencies, and I never detected anything overtly harsh or hard sounding with the Iconoclast in the system.
But even more demanding of a pure HF signal are the Sonus Faber Cremona M speakers: Believe it or not, they can quickly cross the line into the realm of being too ‘bright’. It takes nothing more than the wrong filter setting on the DAC, or running the VTA on the Graham Phantom tonearm a little too low on the pivot end, to generate sound from the Cremonas that can quickly become tiring. These are not your typical warm and cozy-sounding Sonus Fabers, they’re far closer to neutral than my Piega C40s. Again, the Iconoclast worked beautifully with the Sonus Fabers.
A Note About The Differences Between The Series I and Series II Iconoclast Cables
With the Sonus Fabers, bi-wiring is not an option, so it was the perfect opportunity to assess the two different Iconoclast cables in isolation from one another.
Starting out bi-wiring the Piega C40s, I used the silver-plated Gen I cables on the mids/high and the copper-only Gen II set on the bass/woofers. (The labels ‘Gen’ and ‘Series’ are interchangeable here. On the Iconoclast website, they refer to ‘series I’ and ‘series II’, yet on the cable spec sheets, they’re referred to as ‘Gen I’ and ‘Gen II’). Obviously, the rationale for that choice was that adding the silver-plated conductor to the AMT ribbon transducer would yield more detail. I don’t believe I heard more information, but I did hear a sound that was a little leaner sounding with slightly less flesh on bone. Switching the cables around with the silver-plated pair on the woofers improved things – the sound became more balanced. But both cables retain what I’ll call an ‘Iconoclast house sound’, for want of a better term. It’s a house sound because it’s actually quite unique to Iconoclast/Belden, at least in my experience. I’ll flesh out this theory in a moment.
So which cable worked best on the more neutral-sounding Sonus Faber Cremona M, with its single-wire-only configuration?
The TPC cable performed slightly better than the silver-plated SPTPC, but they’re clearly cables cut from the same cloth.
The sound of both of the Iconoclast speaker cables can be summarized as being clear, open, and detailed without being harsh or strident. They’re not bright, they’re clear. They’re not forward, they’re resolving and detailed. They’re not warm, they’re neutral. In my experience, these cables are quite unique in the way they resolve information without ever sounding harsh or hard. They walk a fine line but it’s a fine line that you must walk if you want the best of everything.
Of course, you’ll need to consider the above within a certain context that you don’t really have access to. It’s my system, my room, my ears, my tastes, you’ve no idea what any of that amounts to. But if you’re in the market for new speaker wires, I recommend that you contact Iconoclast Cables and pick up a pair on a home trial basis, just be prepared to approach them with an open mind.
CAH April 2023