The audiophile community is slowly but surely coming to embrace headphones as serious high-end audio components and with this change a market for high-performance upgraded headphone signal cable has emerged. But some will surely question whether such upgrades are really necessary or beneficial, given that many top-tier headphones sound awfully good with the standard cables with which they are shipped. Why, some might ask, attempt to gild a lily when there’s no apparent need to do so?
The answer, of course, is as old as high-end audio itself: we choose to upgrade headphone signal cables to see if it might be possible to make good products better, better products great, and great products sublime, or so goes the theory. But, does this work in practice? As a matter of fact it does, so that in the best of cases previous untapped (even unimaginable) levels of headphone performance are unleashed in dramatic and breath-taking ways. A case in point would be Kimber Kable’s Axios headphone signal cable that is the subject of this review.
The Axios headphone cables use a braided topology that harks back to the design of Kimber’s very first commercial products: namely, the braided 8-wire 4PR and 16-wire 8PR speaker cables. In a recent interview with Hi-Fi+, company founder Ray Kimber explained that the genesis of his cable designs came through a concerted effort to use braiding strategies to create cables that were highly resistant to noise both within and above the audio band. The result was an across-the-board improvement in sound quality that could be observed in music listening, but that also could be verified through measurements (where the cables simply transmitted less noise than competing designs did). Over the years both conductor and dielectric (that is, insulator) materials have improved, but the number one design goal has remained the same: that is, to reduce both audio frequency and high-frequency noise to allow the unobstructed flow of high-purity music.
The Axios cables use a 16-wire braided design that uses, says Kimber, “a very flexible OFHC copper wire braid comprised of 16 FEP-insulated 24 gauge stranded conductors.” Further, Kimber adds, “we developed a new precision hand-braided process, which allows the conductors to seamlessly separate from 16 wires to 8 wires within the transition, eliminating the need for a solder joint.” A quick trip to Kimber’s Axios-specific web site (https://axios.kimber.com/configure) reveals that the firm offers Axios cable sets to fit upper-tier Audeze, Denon, ENIGMAcoustics, Focal, HiFiMAN, McIntosh, MrSpeakers, Oppo, Pioneer, Sennheiser, and Sony headphones. In each case, connectors for the headphone ends of the cables are made of “hand-polished hardwoods to match the beauty of (the) headphones.” In turn, buyers can specify both the lengths and the amplifier-end terminations for the cables they wish to order.
I first encountered Kimber Kable Axios headphone cables when the firm showed the product in prototype form at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest/CanJam event in Autumn 2015. At that event the firm graciously loaned me a prototype set of Axios cables to try on my Audeze LCD-3F planar magnetic headphones. The only pre-condition of the loan, Kimber explained, was that they did not want me to do a formal review of the prototypes, since further running changes were expected before the cables would be put into production. Instead, the idea was that the Axios prototypes would provide a ‘taste of things to come’—and did they ever!
By way of supplying background, I should say that I have always regarded to Audeze LCD-3F as one of Audeze’s most nuanced and expressive headphones, so that in attaching a set of aftermarket cables to the headphones I really wasn’t convinced that much if any sonic improvement would result. But honestly my scepticism proved to be unfounded, as the Axios prototypes immediately triggered a significant leap upward in the overall sound quality of the Audeze, improving overall perceived resolution, transient clarity, dynamics, and especially sound-staging in dramatic ways. I almost could not believe my own ears, because with the Axios prototype cables in place the Audeze LCD-3Fs still sounded very much like themselves, only better—much better.
Seeking independent confirmation, I contacted my friend, fellow Audeze listener, and occasional Hi-Fi+ music reviewer Michael Mercer to ask if he had tried the Axios cables on his Audezes. “Oh yeah, man,” said Michael, “I’ve tried the Axios cables on my ‘cans’ and they’re pretty amazing. In fact, the cables almost made my Audezes sound like they had undergone a full-on design revision.” It was gratifying to see that my favourable reactions to the Axios cable were mirrored by the findings of a colleague, so that the only problem, at the time, was that I was that I wasn’t at liberty to share my observations with Hi-Fi+ readers—a situation that has since changed with the final release of the Axios cables.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, I’m pleased to say that I recently received a full production set of Axios headphone cables configured for use with my reference MrSpeakers ETHER Flow planar magnetic headphones. For my listening tests I listened to the ETHER Flows driven by a Questyle CMA600i balanced output headphone amp/DAC fed by a Lenovo/Windows/jRiver Media Center-based music server loaded with standard as well as high-res PCM and DSD material. During the tests, I compared back and forth between the ETHER Flows as fitted with their standard signal cables versus the same headphones fitted with Axios cables and the results proved very revealing.
While the standard MrSpeakers cable are quite good and give pleasing results, the Axios cables are better still and unlock considerably more of the performance potential of the ETHER Flow headphones. Specific improvements I heard included considerably finer resolution of low-level transient and textural details in the music, more focused and coherent rendition of layering within recordings (sometimes to the point of exposing low-level layers that had not been discernable through standard cables), superior bass control and pitch definition, and across-the-board improvements in soundstaging. Let me supply some musical examples to illustrate these points.
The hauntingly beautiful track ‘Rites’ (which is an excerpt from ‘Glimpses of Tibet’), as found on the 10th Anniversary of Rhymoi, 2003 – 2013 disc [Rhymoi, 16/44.1], features a mix of high percussion, mid-to-low-pitched brass, and very powerful low percussion. The track sounded promising when played through the ETHER Flows as fitted with their standard cables, but I couldn’t help but think that the sound seemed overly dampened—almost as is if listening through a thin, moist piece of cloth. Sure enough, once I installed the Axios cables the entire character of the sonic presentation changed for the better. The brass instruments suddenly had real bite and presence and the sheer richness and complexity of their harmonic structures became much more apparent—and more coherent. Then, when the low percussion came along, I heard a night/day difference where the drums sounded more powerful yet also more taut and focused in their presentation, complete with complex ‘skin sounds’ and that eerie very low frequency shuddering sensation that only really large drums are able to convey. Finally, the high percussion also sounded much better thanks to more sharply focused attack, sustain, and decay, plus the desirable characteristic of high frequency sounds that seem almost to ‘float’ on the open air. But the biggest benefit of the Axios cables involved the way they helped to weave disparate sonic elements together to form a cohesive whole—in the process creating a richer and far more three-dimensional soundstage.
For another example, try listening to ‘Midwestern Nights Dream’ from Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life [ECM, DSD 64]. This track (and indeed the entire album) features Metheny on guitar, Bob Moses on percussion, and the late, great Jaco Pastorius on bass. Given the time period of the recording (released in 1976), part of its appeal draws on the fact that it is at once a showcase for Metheny’s then new ‘fluid’ or ‘liquid’ guitar tone, plus Pastorious’ also then new fretless bass sound with its famous “mwaaaah” tonalities and chime-like harmonics. It also helps that Metheny and Pastorius achieved a rare state of lyrical like-mindedness where two distinct musical personalities played as if with one common vision. This lovely recording sounds fine through most types of equipment and cables, but again the ETHER Flow/Axios cable distinguished itself by showing how Metheny’s guitar tone is not only fluid, but also has an agile, quicksilver aspect that reveals the underlying complexity and sophistication. Second, the Axios cables helped tease out the textural intricacy of Pastorius’ fretless bass notes, and the almost blindingly pure ringing sound of his bass harmonics. But most of all, the Axios cables clarified the brilliant ways in Metheny, Pastorius, and Moses found and exploited a common musical vision and groove.
The bottom line is that Kimber’s Axios headphone cables can and do help high-end headphones be all that they can be—often in quite dramatic ways. The Axios cable is not inexpensive, but it rewards the enthusiast’s investment by really delivering the goods, both in sonic terms and in service of the music. Very highly recommended.
Type: Braided, noise-resistant headphone signal cable.
Conductors: 16 stranded 24-gauge OFHC copper conductors
Lengths/Configurations: Various lengths as required to fit Audeze, Denon, ENIGMAcoustics, Focal, HiFiMAN, McIntosh, MrSpeakers, Oppo, Pioneer, Sennheiser, and Sony headphones. Various amplifier-end terminations are available
Manufacturer Information: Kimber Kable
Distributed in the UK by: Russ Andrews
Tel: +44(0)1539 797300
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