Finley Audio’s Cirrus Series Cables by Greg Simmons
Cables of Distinction
One of the job requirements for reviewing hi-fi equipment is that you really like to listen to hi-fi equipment. Otherwise, why would you bother? But we’re halfway through 2021, and this is only the first review of the year. You will all have to forgive me if – following 2020’s COVID-19 shit show – I needed a change of pace. Having spent most of the annus horribilis huddled in the basement listening to music while holding up my end of the social distancing compact, the last thing I’ve been in the mood to do this year is…well…huddle in the basement listening to music. You know that caricature of the computer whiz-kid with zero social skills living his life through the internet while parked in his parent’s basement? That was me, except I own the house, I have fewer computer skills, and there were a lot of Art Pepper records involved.
I’m bustin’ out!!!
January brought a few cracks of light into the gloom. We got a puppy that forced me out of the house every day to go hiking in some nearby woods. As every owner of a new puppy knows – a tired puppy makes for happy puppy parents (To date, no cables have been eaten). By the end of March, through a combination of vaccinations and a general we-can’t-take-anymore- of-this-bullshit attitude, a group of my hi-fi buddies came over to the house for some in-person socializing (and specifically to hear these cables). By late May, my favorite watering hole was open for happy hour. I’ve never wanted to sit at a bar more in my entire life, even if just for a diet coke. I’ve enjoyed the Zoom happy hour with my college buddies (ok, a couple of those “hours” ran past 2 AM), but it doesn’t hold a candle to seeing people in person. I’ve also taken a first small step into gardening.
With newly rediscovered opportunities to do other stuff, finding the time to sit in the basement listening to music has been hard to come by.
But it’s been raining for a few days, so here goes (for perspective, I wrote this line in February. I’m finishing the article in July).
Just so this is out there, the four guys who make up Finley Audio, Dan Halchak, Bill Hanna, Michael Van Voorhis, and Chris Doman, are friends of mine. We’re all members (although there is no formal membership, per se) of a small group of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania audiophiles that have been gathering at various houses to listen to each other’s systems a few times a year for over a decade now. 2020 was a slim year for socializing, of course, and prior to this review, the last time I saw these guys all in one place was in D.C. during Capital AudioFest, way back in 2019. A get-together in between got nixed right about the time it was first pronounced that the Coronavirus was a hoax and, anyway, totally under control (nothing to see here). Out of an abundance of caution and afraid of killing each other with the then-new biological terror, we canceled. It took a whole year to re-schedule, and I suspect we only got away with it because the wives said, “Yes! Yes! Get the hell out of the house for a couple of hours! LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” That was nice of them.
I only mention these social relationships because I’m reviewing equipment – a suite of cables – that is built by these same four friends. This is a review of Finley Audio’s top-tier Cirrus power, interconnect, and speaker cables, and to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time they’ve had a full review. It’s a dodgy thing to be in a position of even potentially having to write something negative about a product your friends have put so much effort into.
‘So, in conclusion, there are better sounding cables holding up the Brooklyn Bridge’…
…will fortunately not be a phrase included in this review.
Can one of you fellas toss Michael some smelling salts?
Finley Audio is a small company. There is no spin-master marketing guy, no warehouse, and no receptionist, just the four guys. Each of whom has regular full-time jobs in engineering, material sciences, I.T., and one commercial airline pilot. (There’s a rumor going around that our aviator weaves power cables out a knitting bag high over the Pacific Ocean, but I don’t know if I believe that). All Finley cables are proudly made to order in the USA from as many high-quality American-made components as they can source, and the four guys do make the cables themselves. It’s a little like a modern quilting circle just, you know, without the quilts. When they get a table at a trade show – whenever that gets going again – they all show up to work the crowd. They are partners in the business, and their efforts are collective.
To be clear up front: this is cottage industry manufacturing, but that should in no way suggest that the finished products are in any way unrefined or amateurish. Several years were spent experimenting with different types of wire, loom patterns, dialectic materials, and terminations. There were many double-blind listening tests – not just on every cable, but on every component of every cable, and no product was finalized until they’d reached unanimous agreement on the best sound. Finley Audio is a boutique business, to be sure, but these are serious guys who’ve put a lot of effort into making serious cables. They are as professionally constructed and well turned out as any cable I’ve reviewed, and as we’ll get to, the sound is commensurate.
Part of the impetus to start building their own cables was the stratospheric prices charged by many of today’s well-known players. More than one of the fellows – and I’m paraphrasing here – said something like, “We’ve seen what’s inside a power cable, those prices are nuts!” an attitude I and I’m certain many other audiophiles wholly endorse. Michael’s impetus was a little more direct. After another manufacturer failed to deliver an order of expensive power cables, he decided to try building his own. What he discovered is, “Turns out that it is easy to make a simple power cable that sounds alright. However, it is very difficult to make an outstanding power cable suitable for a high-performance, revealing system.” Cable manufacturers have been telling us something similar for years, though usually to justify far more outrageously expensive prices – $50,000 speaker cables insulated with the braided tresses of Vestal Virgins and the like.
As the products evolved, Finley remained cognizant of pricing. Keeping the costs reasonably sane was a specific design brief with the target being to deliver something as good or better than current market offerings for less money. On this point, the results are mixed. All of the Cirrus cables proved to be significantly more labor-intensive to build than originally anticipated. The prices do reflect that – they claim twelve man-hours to build a phono cable, for example – but relative to some of the products they’ve benchmarked against, cables representing some of the major industry brands, they are relatively reasonably priced.
The result is not a world-beating $50 interconnect. The three power cables and five pairs of interconnects, phono and speaker cables that make up this suite retail for a little over $13,000, which is real money, but look at the top-tier prices from any of the well-known, established companies and many of their cables are far more expensive. The cost of entry will undoubtedly offend the lamp-cord crowd, but then, everything offends the lamp-cord crowd.
It’s also worth mentioning that a description of the hi-fi industry’s rough guide to retail pricing – four times the cost of materials – was met with peals of laughter.
There are some common audible qualities people look for when they’re selecting wires. The big ones include improved resolution, greater transparency, smoother response, enhanced clarity, and lower noise floor. If you regularly read audio equipment reviews, you’ve read those precise terms – resolution, transparency, response, clarity, and noise floor – a thousand times. Then there are the intangibles – the subjective elements – the ones that might make one cable perfect for your ears and garbage to the next guy’s: the elusive connection with the musical performance, musicality, and emotion, and of course, good old fashioned personal preference.
I’ve got two firmly held opinions about reviewing cables: First, what sounds good in my system may not be someone else’s cup of tea, and you never know which end of that equation you’re on until you do some product testing. Second, cables will do more to change the sound of a given system if they’re taken as a suite. Swapping one pair of interconnects in a five-component signal chain isn’t going to make enough of a difference to really characterize the sound of that one wire. I want to get a sense of what the manufacturer was going for: do the cables emphasize any particular sonic elements; are they organic sounding or are they analytical; were they voiced by tin-eared measurements or by actually listening, etc. How do they change the sound of my systems, and do I like it?
Yes, tests can be done to see exactly how much of the signal going in one end actually comes out the other, and those are valid measurements, but that’s never the end of the story. The sound has to be good when it gets to your ears. One man’s crisp clarity is another man’s nails on a chalkboard.
Ultimately the most important question is always, do these cables improve the overall sound of a high-fidelity system? If cables don’t answer that question affirmatively, they are on the super-highway to Nowheresville.
The Finley Audio Cirrus Cables
Physically, all of the Cirrus cables are very well constructed. Inside they’re heavily insulated with Silicone, aluminum Mylar, and PTFE Teflon. The wire geometry is a complicated, labor-intensive three-dimensional pattern conceived to eliminate – to the greatest extent possible – negative signal transfer interactions. In a former life, one of the guys worked for a government contractor researching how to use shielding, filtering, and masking to prevent EMI and RFI from being used to spy on computers; real spook stuff in that application, but also helpful in building hi-fi cables.
The wire itself is seven-nines OFC copper, which was chosen after extensive blind listening as the preferred all-around choice. Testing included everything from “horrible machine tool wire,” to significantly pricier Ohno Continuous Cast copper. One might have anticipated the highly regarded OCC wire to have been an obvious sonic front runner, but it didn’t work out that way.
Terminations on all of the Cirrus lines employ rhodium over silver-plated contacts. This again was determined after extensive listening. “We built several identical RCA cables with the only difference being the connector material: pure copper, gold, silver and rhodium. We conducted our standard double-blind listening tests with no preconceived expectations for the outcome. At the end of the process however, there was a clear winner: Rhodium. Now we know the scientific measurements do not agree with this. Rhodium is far down the conductivity list below silver, gold, and copper. But in different systems and our different ears, it just sounded better across the board.” There are enough manufacturers using Rhodium terminations to suggest that the Finley guys are not the only ones to make this observation. Terminations can be made in whatever configuration an audiophile might need: RCA, XLR, DIN, etc. All cables are made to order and arrive in substantial ABS flight cases of the sort usually seen in the movies handcuffed to the jewel courier’s wrist as he sips champagne in first class, just before being robbed and left for dead as the thief parachutes into his escape.
The overall construction of the cables is impressive. The RCA terminations are locking, and the power cables have massive, sturdy, milled aluminum barrels holding the IEC and grounded three-prong terminations. The male IEC connections fit quite snugly into my gear, which is not always the case with other power cables I’ve used (I hate IEC jacks). More millwork appears in the form of aluminum lugs that ensure the two speaker terminations can’t pull apart the single main cable, which could compromise the efficacy of the dielectric and insulation. These are pretty beefy cables, too. I haven’t subjected them to the Labrador Retriever test, but they are as sturdily constructed as any wires in my experience. The speaker cables are about an inch in diameter, and the power cables may be slightly larger than that. Having seen a cross-section, it’s a densely packed inch of insulating materials, with the only void being between the three-dimensional weave of the conductors. The interconnects, by contrast, are no thicker than their RCA termination barrels. Despite the girth of the larger cables, the Cirrus family are easy to work with. Reasonable flexibility was also specified in the original design brief, as everyone recognized that overly stiff cables are a pain in the ass. Silicone was chosen as the insulation material in part because of its flexibility. I found the cables to be easy to maneuver through, around, and under other cables, equipment racks, and the like. All of the Cirrus wires are covered in rugged black woven cloth sleeves, which looks high-quality in an understated way.
One Non-Musical Performance Note
The first good test of any cable isn’t musicality; it’s noise. More specifically, the absence of noise, hash, and hum. The Cirrus cables aced this test before I even dropped a needle (which creates a whole lot of noise). The various insulating components are of high quality but not especially exotic groundbreaking materials. The art is how those components are put together, and the Finley guys have put them all together effectively. As much as I try to keep my wires from overlaying one another, I’m never 100% successful. There are just too many pieces of equipment contained in a relatively compact vertical equipment rack, with power conditioners and supplies down low and off to the sides. With all of the Finley wires installed, and given the potential cable proximity problems in my setup, there are plenty of opportunities for inter-wire mischief. There were no audible hums or buzzing, which can be an issue in a system with twenty-nine vacuum tubes. Everything was quiet – a great starting line for any set of cables (at least until one of those aforementioned KT-88s spins sideways).
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