Morrow Audio Cables

Morrow Audio Cables

December 5, in Hi-Fi Systems Reviews

Specifications:

  • MA4 XLR Interconnects, $599 1m pair
  • SP4 Biwire speaker cables, $729 2m pair, $60

The quickest way to start an argument among audiophiles is to raise the subject of sonic differences in cables. The often hard to conceive cost differences between what are essentially pieces of wire transmitting the signal from component to component tend to draw fire on every audio forum, and it is never long before someone points out the lack of empirical evidence from any well-controlled listening test that can point to repeatably recognized sonic differences between two wires. And heaven help you if you try to explain to a non-audiophile why you spent serious money, sometimes very serious money, on a pair of interconnects. It’s beyond the reckoning of reasonable people that a cable can make much difference. Despite this, the cable industry continues to find new ways of encouraging you to part with your money in return for such innovations as filter boxes, special windings, battery power, proprietary materials, exotic metals, friction reduction, and hosepipe widths. It’s easy to be cynical and to imagine that it’s all a load of hype, that as long as a cable measures fine for capacitance, resistance and inductance, then any differences subsequently heard are in the minds of the listeners. How nice it would be if it were that simple.

Morrow Audio Cables review

I always have real concerns at the lack of firm evidence in the audio listening realm but I confess that I have spent my own hard earned money on better than basic copper wire in my time. For several years I lived happily with a set of self-terminated 12awg copper speaker cables from a DIY store and stepped forward (or was is sideways?) from these only tentatively. A local dealer (remember them?) reacting to my cynicism when I purchased a pre-amp over a decade ago loaned me two pairs of interconnects (entry level Kimber and MIT, as I recall) to compare with my cheap versions and it proved a wise move on his part as, after several nights of back and forth listening where my wife and I tried to discern the differences, I returned only the Kimbers. My memory is that we found the MIT slightly more musical and rounded, though I also felt uneasy at those silly boxes with supposed ‘articulation’ indices and the accompanying graphs of vague meaning. However, I figured I’d spent enough cash on my gear that I should probably make a further modest investment to make sure I was getting its full performance. I suspect this is the motivation of many cabe buyers, peace of mind and a desire not to shortchange their equipment. Over the years since, I’ve spent a bit more as my audio equipment improved, and I have ended up in a place where I can tolerate the idea that cables matter, particularly with highly resolving gear, but have maintained some sense of proportion as to their impact. Anyone who claims without supporting evidence that cables offer black and white, orders-of-magnitude differences in their systems is, it is safe to say, in another camp than mine. However, I have heard and even felt differences a pair of thin speaker cables would actually vibrate to the touch at the speaker terminal end when music was playing, and yes, it was the wire, not the speaker terminal so I don’t subscribe to the view that all wire is the same in audio applications. And certainly, as your equipment improves in resolution quality, those small differences that do exist in cables start to take on increasing importance in your listening room.

Mike Morrow makes his cables himself, by hand, in Kentucky and sells them directly online, even signing his top of the range models on the outer skin. Originally intending to experiment with cables for his own system, he eventually built up a business selling to other audiophiles and has produced along the way his own line of tube amps too, though he now concentrates on cables himself while also selling other manufacturer’s speakers and amps from his showroom. He proudly invites calls or emails and as promised, does respond quickly and helpfully to all. Mike is a believer in solid core, small gauge, thin dialectric designs for reasons he outlines on his site. No voodoo, no proprietary materials, no batteries, the Morrow line is is the antithesis of hype. Instead, they embody understandable principles, familiar-enough materials, and, in this odd world of audio geekdom, relatively sensible prices. Morrow Audio is a small business but Mike reports that his personal touch and customer-fiendly approach is resulting in good sales as audiophiles seek the best bang for their limited bucks in these stretched times.

Having learned about his products through customer comments and various sales listings on Audiogon, I invited Mike to submit his products for review. We may be all about affordable audio here but we do recognize that some of your budget has to be spent on cable so we want to know what a relatively modest investment over and above the ordinary might get you. After listing my peculiar system requirements, Mike constructed a dual set of speaker cables able to span the distances in my Von Schweikert modules and my bridged mono Spectrons, which use only the positive terminals on each amp. And don’t think this is just perk that reviewers get, Morrow Cables is the type of business where the owner will work with you and not demand an arm and a leg in upcharges for anything different than stock. The cables under review here are the recent top of the range SP4 speaker cables consist of 48 runs of solid core, silver coated copper wire, silver soldered to your termination of choice, and the MC4 Reference interconnect, with 24 runs of solid core (now replaced with a new series of even more expensive cables launched while this review was underway). Mike reports there are two different gauges of wire used in this series which he feels provide greater continuity of low and high frequencies. The XLR cables use Neutrix connectors with silver coated pins. Various termination and upgrades are listed clearly on the Morrow Audio site. If you prefer to start at the entry point, you can get into Morrow Cables for the modest entry point of $119 for a pair of the MA1 interconnects, and $189 for the SP1 speaker cables.

Preferring to review cables as a complete set, rather than an isolated link, I used two pairs of balanced interconnects to feed my CD front end to my preamp and the pre to the power amps. From each amp I ran two pairs of Morrow speaker cables for a fully biwired set up. For reference, these cables were compared to my regular PS Audio Transcendence XLRs and custom Elrod speaker cables, dual runs, incorporating the remote sense leg of the Spectron amps, all in all, a set of expensive references that would set you back more than a few thousand dollars if you bought new (which I didn’t), and far more costly than the Morrows. Unfair? Of course, but I want comparisons with the best in order to determine just how much value you can get in the affordable realm.

The cables arrived broken in, a service Morrow Audio provides to owners of any cable, but after discussing with Mike, he recommended a few more hours in my set up for the cables to settle in. The Morrow Audio cables are nothing special to look at, but they are highly flexible, covered in a thin mesh that makes them slip and slide easily around your components (a real advantage if, like me, you have a snake’s pit lurking behind your rack that you enter only at gunpoint, or the recognition of an imminent publication deadline). You get the feeling with Morrow Audio that your money is spent where it matters most, not on fancy packaging, marketing or wrapping. Despite my desire for whole system replacement, I put the interconnects in first and listened to them for a couple of weeks before adding in the speaker cables. I opted for naked terminations at the amp end of the speaker cable, bananas at the speaker end and once everything was in place, I listened as usual to the complete set up for over a month. As is usual for me, I find that the best way of getting an insight into a product is to listen at length, over time, then take it out and compare it again with my reference a couple of times before forming my final conclusions. One problem this presents is that the Spectrons, no matter how brief the turn-off for equipment changes, don’t come back to their full glory for at least an hour after turn-on, so quick changes are not on the cards, though a purist might argue that the time it takes to change any speaker cable is too long for acoustic memory, hence my more leisurely comparisons. That said, to make the comparison’s doable, I pulled the amps out off the racks and sat them on the floor so as to be able to get at the various terminations and connectors without breaking my arms did I mention I hate cable changing?

Do cables really matter?

Despite the desire to listen at length before forming opinions, it’s humanly impossible to ignore changes, even if all you note is no noticeable change. With just the interconnects in place I felt the differences between the Morrows and the PS Audio were slight, but noticeable, and positive, with the former giving the midrange and upper bass a touch more emphasis, resulting in a sound I would characterize as slightly warmer than the PS Audios. In my all-revealing rig, this little extra bass warmth was certainly pleasant. Over time, I began to think that it was more than just warmth, the Morrow’s seemed to give a little more detail too at the upper frequency extremes, most noticeable on the cymbal reproduction of a standard test recording I use, Tord Gustavsen Trio’s Being There. Once I had the speaker cables added to the mix, I spent the next month playing all kinds of music: intense listening to jazz combo recordings, casual blasting around the house of 1970s rock, relaxing with a glass at the end of the day to solo guitar or female vocals, and yes, even reviewer-style craning of the ears to hear everything, which is, frankly, the least-enjoyable way of listening to music in my experience.

So how does one characterize cables and their sonic qualities? For me, there are some fairly basic indicators that I consider important in chosing cables for my rig. First, does the cable make the sound different than what went before, and if so how? I cherish clarity and timbre, an instrument sounding like a real instrument, ideally in a real space. A change for the better or worse in this regard gets my attention. It is usually most obvious at the frequency extremes, better cables give more lifelike quality to the musical elements in these areas but the real issue is if the music is more like music. If so, the cable usually stays. Second, and I guess the attribute that most listen for in any cable swap, is the recognition of known small details on the recording or, more often, the identification of new ones, previously unheard, which is often interpreted as an improvement, though it may not necessarily be so. Cable changes can highlight some aspect of an instrument or a vocal nuance you previously missed, and there can be a thrill to finding such new treasures within your recordings. Obviously, these two qualities are related: greater resolution often gives emphasis to new details and a perception of increased clarity, but it’s often easier to think of these, at least in review terms,
as distinct qualities. Let’s be clear, timbre is not the same as detail, and details might represent the emphasis of one area at the expense of another. Getting your ears round these qualities takes patience but the exercise can be worth it, if only to learn how the sounds you hear please you. I’m all for the mythical absolute sound as a a reference point but since most of the music I listen to comes from amplified instruments and voices, there is no easy reference with a supposed real world equivalent, other than my own experience playing and listening live to such instruments.

The bottom line with the Morrow cables is simply stated, these cables became part of a sweet system that produced music. Indeed, if I had to characterize their sonic signature in a single word, I’d opt for ‘musical’, as that is really what they produced in my system, an engaging musical flow. Others who are familiar with my rig, my wife in particular, never once asked if I’d changed something or commented that something sounded different (which is unusual), though to my ears the sound did change. Instead, just as with my reference cables, people continued to tell me how easy it is to sit and listen to music in my room, as if this were unusual, which I guess for some folks it must be. So, in a casual test of audience reaction, I’d say the Morrow’s scored highly, comparing to a wire set up that costs more than four times its price. Moreover, when I tell you that after a month of living with these in my rig that I began to think I could live with the Morrows permanently, you will begin to appreciate how much enjoyment these were providing. So, if we apply my ultimate test of a cable does it provide a clear and timbrally accurate window on the music signal? -the Morrows are up there with the best I’ve owned. If nothing else, this should give you perspective on the magnitude of any differences I now highlight between these cables and my uber-expensive references.

Early on with the fully wired up rig, I played a couple of familiar recordings I’ve used for years to get my ears around a component, Ronnie Earl’s Grateful Heart and Holly Cole’s Temptation. In both cases, I found something different about the Morrows that gave me pause. Positives first. The Morrows surprised me by seeming to resolve small, previously unnoticed details such as the attack of the plectrum on strings in some of Ronnie Earl’s playing, or the resolution and decay of the Hammond organ in a Bruce Katz flurry. The interesting thing about such resolutions is that you might well hear them again when you then go back to your previous set up but it was the change that introduced, or reintroduced these nuances to your ears. In numerous listening sessions I found the Morrow’s to have this ability to resolve what I refer to as the little sparkles of detail that bring music to life, give you pleasure in listening to old favorites, and in placing instruments in a tangible space between your speakers. This is especially true in the upper registers. I had thought for a long time that Class D amps, even the impressive Spectrons, struggled with the treble reproduction of cymbals, having a harsher, more truncated sound than the best of Class A/B or of tubes. However, time and experimentation has taught me that you can coax excellent upper frequency response from Class D, especially if you get the cabling right. The Morrow cables are among the handful I’ve experienced that work well in this regard and if you have a Class D amp that seems to lack a little in the upper registers you might want to explore these cables seriously, no matter the cost of your existing wire.

For all the yin, there must be a yang. In the case of the Morrow cables, at least in my rig, this upper frequency life came at a slight cost in the increased mid-bass emphasis in some recordings. This manifests itself as bass notes that don’t stop and start as tightly as I am used to with my references. With Holly Cole, that little bit of warmth was a tad heavier than I am used to in my room, masking parts of the midrange and giving the songs a more bottom-heavy tone. On the opening notes of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue album, there is a noticeably heavier bass, slightly boomy and one-noted compared to my references. Yet, on other recordings, Grant Green’s Green Street or Haden and Matheny’s Missouri Sky for example, the bass seemed softer, indeed less articulated, lacking the attack and transient clarity of my references, so it would be a mistake to imagine that the Morrows are a cure for a bass light set-up. I’m not sure how to explain this effect but having labored long and hard over speaker placement with my reference cables, I was not about to wrestle again to learn if this was important with the new cables. The real question is if you would notice such sonic results if you did not have my references with which to compare the Morrows. Even then, let me remind you that this is listening critically to magnify all or any such differences. Is that how you care to listen to your music?

Soundstaging is a property of great audio systems that is often touted in terms that make me wonder if I have the same ears as anyone else. Yes, I can appreciate the solidity of a central image and the relative placement, left to right, of some instruments in some recordings. However, I rarely experience this in the depth dimension as others claim, where a drummer or a bass player is distinctly “behind” other instruments in a palpable manner. That said, I am susceptible to soundtaging and when it clearly fails, as it just does on some 50s jazz recordings which pan instruments to one side, that registers with me. In this regard, my system can present a very realistic left to right soundstage and while cables can help, the real determinant of this effect is speaker placement, at least in my experience. All this is a long way of saying that, as much as cables can help, the Morrows suffer no weakness in this regard, and the presentation of sonic images in a space between the speakers is as good with these as I’ve heard.

To put all this in perspective I reiterate my opening summary point, after a month with a fully Morrow’d out rig, I felt I could live long-term with these wires in my system. Ultimately, this is a tribute to the Morrows; you stop thinking about cable and you listen to the music. If you love to sweat over details or to magnify the smallest differences between wires, worry about skin effects or gauge size, there is room here to do so. However, when I went looking for something different about these cables, I usually ended up just being drawn into the sounds of instruments and voices harmoniously filling the space in which I live.

Conclusion

Interestingly, when I took all the Morrow’s out I decided to play around more with the interconnects and I combined the Morrows with my Elrod speaker cables. Not sure what more I can say than that this combo was truly impressive, preferable even to my reference combo, and has me convinced even more, if I needed convincing, that Mike Morrow has developed a quality cable at a fair price. I tested his top of the range MA4 which offers no guarantee as to the performance of his entry level products, though I note that his designs all share common principles and should sound similar. I still like my PS Audio Transcendents but perhaps all that silver in my Class D loaded rig (the PS Audio preamp is a gain cell design) just lacks the smoother, rounder, fleshier tone of the Morrow MA4s, particularly in the transmission of some upper frequency details and timbre. If this sounds like I preferred the interconnects to the speaker wire, it is only because the speaker wire had to compete with a truly outstanding and expensive cable in the Elrods which were custom-designed for my amps. This takes nothing away from the Morrows. With a 60-day no quibble try out, regular sales, and trade-up options that take the risk out of starting at the entry level and moving up over time, I am hard pushed to say anything other than here is a truly affordable way to explore the benefits of improved cable. You can stop reading and start listening in your own system. If you like them, keep them; if not, get your money back, what could be simpler? If I was building my system from scratch or starting a second one in my study, I think I’d happily invest in some Morrows and not give much further thought to cables. Isn’t that how it should be? There are certainly many other cables out there at this price but why spend your life testing wire when you can purchase these and listen happily to music, safe in the knowledge that you are getting quality performance. It would cost you a lot more money to get a little more improvement and even then, that’s a maybe. Morrow is cable you can live with now and not sweat your decision further. Recommended.

from affordableaudio, By Patrick Dillon

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