Cable Comparison - Zu Varial, Bolder M-80, Jena Labs Trio+

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Well, here it is. . . Time for another cable shootout.  I don’t know why we do this since “cables don’t make no differnce no way”.  Yeah, well maybe if you’re Slingblade, you can’t hear that well. . .

Nevertheless, let me get down to it.  I had three cables on hand to evaluate.  My good friend Kevin over at Solar Hifi is a frequent contributor here, and also happens to carry Jena Labs cables.  He graciously sent me two to evaluate in my system.  Tsunami also was kind enough to let me try his Zu Varial, and I had my trusty Bolder M-80’s on hand.  I have some Audience AU24 on order, but evidently they are backed up, and that won’t be here until next week.  I had to get these guys’ cable back to them, so the AU24 won’t be in this evaluation. :-(

I realize that these cables are at very different price points, and I am not concerned with that.  They are much closer in performance than one may imagine.  

So here goes the testing. . .  

I used the cable between the DAC and the pre-amp in each test.  Level was never touched during the test.

The first cable up is the Jena Labs Trio Plus.  For round one, we have Alison Krauss + Union Station Live.  This is a great 2 disc set, and I recommend it to anyone who like Alison, or good acoustic music.  

Track one on the first disc showed the Jena Labs cable’s strengths right off the bat.  The sound was very natural, and the bass was great.  The applause was very believable on track 2, and the sound was every bit as natural on the next track.  

I swapped the Jena for the Varial, and started track 2 over.  What I noticed was that there was someone whistling in the crowd 3 seconds into it that I didn’t notice before.  I also was able to hear more of the venue with the Zu.  The Varial was more forward than the Jena, and was clearer as well, but it seemed to be a bit more grainy.  Less smooth than the Jena.  Bass performance was about the same between these two cables on this track.  Vocals were more detailed with the Zu.  You could hear more of the low level detail and texture in her voice.  The soundstage was more holographic as well.

Next we move to the M-80.  What I noticed was that the guitar had a little less harmonic texture, and the Bolder had a slight upward tonal shift.  The M-80 was missing a bit of midrange, but it was more sparkly up top.  One good thing I found was that the M-80 had really great pace, and rhythm.  On track one, it seemed to have more bass than the Zu, but could be a bit more harsh than the Zu.

Next up is Norah Jones track 10.  I like this track because there are quite a few things going on, and lost of different tones to judge cables.  Plus, it’s a good song, and that always helps.  ;-)

Bolder’s M-80 was great on the Norah Jones as well, but again I had a hint more harshness than the other cables.  This is likely system dependant though as I have ribbons, and sit very close to them in a small room.  The Jena Labs were much smoother on this track, as expected.  I could hear more vocal detail, and the voice was sweeter.  The brushing sounded more like brushwork should sound, and I noted a bit more bass with the Jena.

The Varial on this track surprised me.  There was again more detail than the other two cables, but what was cool was a quieter noise floor than the other two as well.  They must have something with that geometry that they are so proud of.  Or perhaps there’s something in that big metal “V”.  ;-)  Vocals were more forward, but less focused, and they seemed larger than with the other cables.  The brushwork was not as natural, but again the quiet background was very noticeable here.  Bass seemed to have more bite with the Zu.

The final track I used to evaluate these was the Acoustic Disc recording of The Pizza Tapes.  I have listened to this disc every day or two for a few years now, and I love it.  It is a great disc to use for shootouts because it is very hard to accurately reproduce an acoustic guitar.  It is very easy to hear differences in gear when you are playing something hard to reproduce.  People, if you don’t have this disc, GO GET IT.  Also, if you haven’t checked out David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label, DO IT.

We’ll start with the Zu cable.  Track 8 is the ever so famous “Summertime”, and is just Jerry, and Tony on guitars with David taking a break.  Here is a track where the quiet Zu cable really shines.  Silence is great at times, and the Zu gets it right.  The M-80 on this track was smoother than the Zu, but also was not as detailed in the frequency extremes.  It began to loose a bit of the tautness in the bass, and I also lost lots of the tonality of the instruments.  Tony’s Martin sort of sounded like a Taylor.  I think this is another example of the slight upward shift inherent with the M-80.  I could hear Tony’s breathing more with the M-80, and that surprised me.  What a heck of a cable for the money!  

The Jena was smooth, as was expected by now.  I could hear more of the body of the guitars.  I could tell that they are dreadnaughts, and that they are the right size.  That was a really nice trick, and worth the price of admission!  I got a better sense of the size, and space of the music with the Jena Labs this time.  Jena’s cable had much nicer midrange presence than the other cables in this comparison, and also had lots of bite at the same time.

This was really all the listening I needed to do with these cables, and I think we can determine that each of these cables have their merits.  The Bolder M-80 is the biggest bang for the buck cable I have ever had in my system.  The fact that it competed with these other cables, and wasn’t shamed says quite a bit about Bolder Cable, and their focus on value for the dollar.  I would imagine that a cryo’d version of the M-80 would give these other cables a better run.  

The Zu cable was a very good performer, and did most things right.  I could easily live with the Zu cable, but it is $500.  It also didn’t do for me what the Jena Labs cable did for me.  I found the Jena Labs cable to be much more natural, and much less like a cable than the other cables in this test.  The Jena seemed to move the signal with the least amount of modification added.  Then again, that’s almost impossible to say really, but I found the Jena to sound the most like live music, and the best match for my system.  

I may be making a deal on the Jena depending on how the AU24 performs.

Here is my system configuration for this test:

Kora Equinoxe pre-amp
Aloia 13.01 amp
Sony DVP-7700S transport
Scott Nixon Tube DAC
Scott Nixon digital cable
Jena Labs Trio + between pre, and amp
47 Labs speaker cabling
Piega C3 LTD speakers
Harmonic Tech, and Bolder Nitro power cords
Wattgate 381, and Hubbel Audio Grade


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« Reply #1 on: 9 May 2003, 05:27 am »
Thanks for the great review. I very much appreciate your balanced perspective on the relative strengths of each cable. There are many great designers of cables on AC, each of which have cables that meet a great price/performance target.  It is up to the consumer to do their research on the desired characteristics of a cable to match their system, and your excellent review will help others do just that.

I do agree that the Jena Labs cables present the most transparent conveyance of the musical signal of any cable I have heard.  Jena Labs have purposefully engineered their cables to do just that in every way possible.  And although I could wax eloquent on this subject, I'll save the technical details on that until I get my website updated... which won't be too long from now, as I am through with purchasing my new house.  One only has so much time to work full time, buy a house, keep a girlfriend, *and* start an audio business :)  But hey it's time to get the website up, so that I can quit my day job (haha) 8).
I am looking forward to letting people know about several of my very unique ideas regarding audio.  One of them is a pair of speakers that I developed in partnership with Jena Labs, which should generate some significant interest on AC and elsewhere (hopefully).  I am quite blown away with the prototype pair.

Hantra, tell me... did you try using both pairs of Jena Labs cables in your system at once?  What did that experience do for you? I have found all Jena Labs cables to be the most natural presentation yet..  :wink: Also, if you want to send one pair back to me now, and save the other for the arrival of the Au24's, that is cool with me.

BTW, since I'm selling these cables, I guess I should mention to everyone else that they cost $330 for a 3' pair, and until my website is up, you can learn more about them at They are the Trio model.


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Cable Comparison - Zu Varial, Bolder M-80, Jena Labs Trio+
« Reply #2 on: 9 May 2003, 06:02 am »
Appreciate your comments -- always had a curiosity about the Jena cables..  When I bought my Audio Magic Stealth, I exchanged quite a bit of emails with the person I purchased them from.  He was selling a number of items and going for either the Valkyre or Pathfinders from Jena Labs.  I'll see if I can dig up his system details from old emails, but he had an absolutely rediculous system -- Walker, Rockport, etc and I believe was a Valhalla fan at the time.  Said that the Jena stuff amazed him.  Granted it ought to at the prices asked for the interconnects and speakers cables at that level, but its great to hear very positive comments on their lowest price pair, where the praise and attributes are similar to the comments made by the guy who was describing their highest priced products...


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Cable Comparison - Zu Varial, Bolder M-80, Jena Labs Trio+
« Reply #3 on: 9 May 2003, 01:03 pm »
Found the email..  Hopefully he won't mind me posting his comments, but here were his comments regarding the Jena cables..

"The cables I'm purchasing are Jena Labs Valkrye and Twin 15.  I love the interconnects (and digital cable) compared to the Silversmith I was using.  I'm waiting for the speaker cable (Twin 15).  I recently directly compared the much cheaper Jena Symphony interconnects with the Valhalla, PureNote Epsilon Reference, and Acoustic Zen.  I also auditioned one set  of Siltech Forbes Lake Gen. 5 interconnects and the Golden Ridge (I think that's the name) digital cable.  I like the Jena stuff better than anything else I've heard (I've listened to a lot of other things in the past)."

Just figured I'd pass on additional comments...


Cable Comparison - Zu Varial, Bolder M-80, Jena Labs Trio+
« Reply #4 on: 9 May 2003, 01:39 pm »
did you try using both pairs of Jena Labs cables in your system at once? What did that experience do for you?


I had one pair in from the pre to the amp during the entire test.  Perhaps some will argue that is unfair, and would skew the results, but it was either that or PBJ from the pre to the amp.  ;-)

I thought that using them throughout the chain made a bigger difference to my ears.  It gave me the full blown relaxed presentation where the cable just disappeared.  Impressive feat for any cable.  

Thanks again!



Cable Comparison - Zu Varial, Bolder M-80, Jena Labs Trio+
« Reply #5 on: 9 May 2003, 02:27 pm »

The Zu Varials can be bought new on EBAY from Zu for $259/m pair.  Here is the link.