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REVIEW: Grover Ultimate Reference Interconnects

post #1 of 184
Thread Starter 
Why Aren't These Cables $1000?

Got your attention? I know I’m not the first person here on Head-Fi to fall under the spell of these fantastic cables, so that kind of hyperbole may not necessarily sound like an exaggeration to the already-converted. Nevertheless, these cables caught me totally off-guard. For $140, I just wasn't expecting the level of performance they delivered. I am now firmly entrenched on "Team Grover". I have been assimilated!

Test Bed
Sony SCD-555ES SACD player with full sacdmods.com modifications

Ray Samuels Audio HR-2 headphone amplifier

Sony MDR-R10 headphones

How to Order
Grovers' cables are a shocking $140, only available straight from the manufacturer. No web site, just a secret handshake. Go to www.stevehoffman.tv, then go to the forums, and click on the “Contact Us” button and ask about the Grovers. Agents will be dispatched to your address at the stroke of midnight, you will then be blindfolded, driven to a secret location and given Grover’s contact info. Communication with Grover is by carrier pigeon or special courier who travels in an unmarked van.

Previous Cables
I've owned approx. 25-30 different sets of interconnects over the last 7-9 years from around 15-18 different manufacturers. These varied in price from $50-$1200. Before the Grovers, my ICs of choice were the Virtual Dynamics Reference ICs with all the special features VD offers. These were $750 ICs. I also tried the VD Nite ICs, which at $1200 still are the most expensive ICs I've ever owned. For the life of me, I couldn't detect much real difference between these and the References, so I kept the References and sold the Nites.

The VD References couldn't be more different from the Grovers in design. The VDs are incredibly THICK copper ICs (all but inflexible), with extremely heavy-gauge, single stranded copper, surrounded by VD's ferrous material, with big, imposing locking WBTs. The References also have VD’s “Speed of Light” technology, which is essentially a magnet at either end of the cable that they claim improves performance.

Many here on the site have mocked some of VD’s more (let’s say) “aggressive” marketing claims for their cables, but there are an equally large number of converts here who have listened to them and swear by them. I don’t know why they sound so good, whether it's because of or despite any (alleged) pseudo-scientific “innovations”, but they do. That said, really the “science” of cables is still very undeveloped, it’s more of an “art”.

In contrast, The Grovers are shockingly thin, supple, flexible with non-descript RCA connections. They are individually “signed” by Grover on the heatshrink. They are a very basic-looking cable with a cute, personalized “home-made” quality to them. They look like the work of a single craftsman (which they are) instead of an impersonal company with an assembly line.

Digression #1:
There is a cable-maker out there who bases all their marketing around the fact that they only use rigorous scientific testing of their cables to produce designs that measure the best. The company is Analysis Plus, you’ve no doubt heard of them. They’re famous for their trade-show demo that shows how their cables measure much better than some of the much more expensive products from their competitors. They developed their own special cable geometry, the “hollow-oval” that they claim is responsible for the demonstrably better performance of their products.

One thing about the Grovers is that they are a sonic *microscope*, they make you painfully aware of any upstream anomalies. I decided that since I loved the Grovers so much, I wanted to fiddle with the power cabling in my system to achieve a better balance. So, as an experiment, I went from a sort of “faith-based” cable-maker (Virtual Dynamics), to the ultimate in scientific testing and measurement, Analysis Plus. I ordered a pair of the Analysis Plus Oval 10 power cords for my source and headphone amp.

On the plus side, highs were crystal clear and clean as could be. Soundstaging left-to-right was remarkable. They were unbelievably fast. But tonal balance was all wrong. They were bright, forward in the treble and thin. When music got hectic and loud, it all tended to go a little “white” and bleached out.

Those cables may measure extremely well, but (in my system) they did not sound good at all. Honestly (and I know this kind of philosophy upsets many people here) I don’t especially care all that much how something sounds to a machine, I only care how it sounds to my own ears. Give me a well-voiced cable made by a skilled craftsman over a badly-voiced cable that measures well any day. For me, in audio, there’s only “I like” and “I don’t like”, I don’t care if some component lives up to someone else’s idea of “neutrality”. No two people agree on what “neutral” sounds like anyway.

Which is not to say the Grovers aren’t “neutral” or don’t measure well. I have no idea about either of those, I have not toured Grover’s facilities, so I have no idea what tools he uses when he’s verifying his designs. For all I know, his equipment may be even more elaborate than Analysis Plus. What I do know for sure is that Grover has a great pair of ears, which he uses to evaluate if any changes he makes to his design has wrought an improvement. And that’s an “art” and not a science! Before owning the Ultimate Reference cables, I had a pair (briefly) of his previous model, the Silver Reference II. The SRIIs are also fantastic cables, but this latest revision of the Ultimate Reference is something else. I chalk that improvement up to Mr. Huffman’s ears.

I can say the URs are the most “transparent” cables I’ve ever heard, extremely sensitive instruments, they are incredibly adept at showing you how any changes upstream in the signal path can effect the sound you hear. My hunch is that this perceived transparency would be attributable to measuring extremely well, as they don’t seem to let anything impede the signal and they are as clean as could be.

Digression #2:
The Grovers are the first silver cables I’ve ever liked. Of the two dozen different cables I’ve owned, 5 were pure silver and two were silver/copper hybrids. People who praise any given silver cable always seem to do so with the exact same disclaimer—“wow-- these silver cables are great; they don’t even sound like silver cables!” Well, if the only good silver cable is the rare exception that doesn’t sound like a silver cable, why not just stick with good ol’ copper? The stereotype of silver interconnects used to be that they were “bright”, “tipped up”, “edgy” and “forward”. Makers of silver cables are now always quick to tell you that their cables defy that stereotype.

And sure enough, none of the silver cables I tried exhibited these characteristics. Instead, each of the pure silver cables I auditioned were *thin*-sounding with a sort of gauzy, soft-focus Vaseline-on-the-lens, foggy quality. They did lack bass somewhat but they weren’t necessarily bright. They were tipped up in the high frequencies but remained too soft and silky to be objectionable. Yes, proportionately they had more high-end than bottom, but at least the silver cables produced clean, smooth and polite treble response. I would have actually loved for them to exhibit a little more of the crispness and focus that stereotypical silver cables were "supposed" to deliver.

After those experiences, I had given up on silver as a conductor. I chalked it up to a sort of scam perpetrated by cable makers who hoped that gullible customers would assume that since silver is more expensive than copper, it must therefore be a better conductor, and thus get them to upgrade. After all, where can you go really with a copper cable after the $500-$700 price point without arousing a lot of suspicion about how much those cables *really* cost to make? Incorporating silver conductors seems like a useful marketing gimmick to enable $1000 + cables. (Not that that’s stopped cable-makers from producing $5K+ copper cables!) I suspect there are lots of electrical/chemical factors involved in making one metal a better conductor than another, but I doubt that scarcity on planet earth is one of them. I still do get a good chuckle out of the recent proliferation of cables with *gold* conductors, though.

Anyway, my experience with the Grover Ultimate Reference pure silver cable has really changed my mind about silver interconnects. (EDIT: Grover has verified that his latest revision of the UR uses both silver *and* copper, unlike previous versions and previous models that were 100% silver). I now realize that the debate between copper vs. silver is on the same sort of shaky footing as the tubes vs. solid state debate, the CD vs. SACD debate, the speaker cones vs. electrostatic debate—the answer is, *it all depends on IMPLEMENTATION*. A well-executed CD will sound better than a badly-executed hi-rez disc, a well-executed tube circuit will out-perform a badly-executed solid-state device, etc. etc. I don’t know if in the abstract silver is a better conductor than copper, but I do know that the Grovers are the best-sounding cables I’ve ever heard.

How much of that is due to its use of pure silver (or despite it), I’ll never know, frankly no longer care. Still, what’s inside a Grover cable? I suspect only Grover knows for sure, and at the moment he ain’t talking. No web site, no brochures, no marketing bullet points, no graphics showing cross-sections of his cables, no outrageous claims. Just one model, no big product line with multiple upgrade points to cause anxiety and sleepless nights ("would I be happier *if only* I had ordered the next model up?"). You get the feeling that as far as Grover is concerned, the Ultimate Reference is IT, there is no upgrade path, just one cable that represents his best effort, period, and there’s something both elegant and comforting about that.

And the cost of entry is a mere $140. That makes this cable available essentially to everyone. As I’ll explain later, I think that may be a double-edged sword in some ways.

The cables I’m reviewing are (as of this writing) the latest and greatest version of his Ultimate Reference (as of 5 weeks ago anyway). Previously I had his excellent Silver Reference II. For me, this new one is in a different class than the SRII which were still completely excellent.

Early Impressions
I like to take notes as I first get acquainted with any product under review. I find it’s one of the best ways to capture the essence of a new component. These comments represent the attributes of the cables that jumped out at me while my ears were still fresh to the Grover sound, and that I suspect would leap out at you. These are essentially boiled down from many pages of notes taken over a period of weeks. I found I was repeating myself, but just wording things in a different way, which meant that I had essentially nailed their key attributes which I think can be summed up as follows:

1. These cables are all about “air”. Not airy-fairy, light-weight, ghostly or “floaty” sound, but in the sense of providing SPACE around each instrument to breathe. Each instrument occupies its own unique pocket in the soundstage. Individual tracks within the mix stand out from one another without losing sight of the whole gestalt of the music.

2. Lots of depth to the soundstage, you can step right in and walk around back there. Very wide soundstage, too.

3. Very natural tonality, “musical”. Everything sounds very true and accurate.

4. Immaculately clean presentation. No grain.

5. Smooooooth. Does not etch or outline sounds artifically. No unnatural hard or jagged edges that result from distortion.

6. Highs are to die for. Cymbals are never abrasive or jagged.

7. EASE. These cables never strain, everything *flows* in a completely unfettered way. They just disappear.

8. Nimble and quick without being hyper or jumpy. Amazing stability to the image.

9. Does not sound like you are listening to a recording, but witnessing an actual event. You feel like you could reach out and shake hands with the players.

10. CLARITY in the extreme, maximum TRANSPARENCY.

11. Notes fully resolve effortlessly without ringing or overhang. Subtle over and undertones fully rendered.

12. Stereo panning/phasing effects are delightful, special effects really move around in their own space.

13. Pulls no punches, if the recording is flawed, you will hear it.

14. Hearing all kinds of things I’ve never heard before on familiar recordings such as coughing in the studio, breathing of the singer, lip smacks, etc. The Grovers paint a more full and complete picture, which makes everything seem more REAL.

15. Places you *in the studio* as the session is being recorded. Remarkable “you are there” quality, the sound of the space in which the recording was made is revealed.

16. Increased the pure resolution of system exponentially. To use an analogy from photography, t's like going from a 35mm negative to a 4x5.

17. Not a *subtle* or sublime or colored cable, it’s all about being transparent and resolving. It’s an open window on the signal, and that can be unforgiving. Won’t “gloss over” flaws in your system. Does not hold you at a polite distance. Shines a bright light on all the dark corners of every recording.

18. Are these cables “bright”? Or, is this what happens when you take the “brakes” off the sound that other cables are subtly applying? Stripping away all the veils you didn’t even know were there, eliminating all resistance or bottlenecking in the cable?

So, Why Aren’t These Cables $1000?
It’s that last comment in my listening notes that I puzzled over for some time, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that they may be somewhat tipped up in the highs. But this could be due to the extreme clarity across the frequency range, and that might be creating the illusion of extra treble, or possibly even showing a bias in my source signal from my CDP. Since I liked everything else about the cables, I decided to see if swapping power cables might resolve the question.

Removing the new Analysis Plus Oval 10 power cords from my system and trying various other models from other makers solved the question about the treble, and revealed something else about the Grovers—they are *extremely* sensitive to changes upstream, moreso than any other cable I’ve tried. The problem turned out to be the new Analysis Plus cables I was auditioning; the Grovers just allowed me to hear more clearly what they were doing to my source. The effect was not so good. With proper power cabling installed, my source sounded like its old self again treble-wise.

This I think is their blessing and their curse. In the wrong system, they’ll just show the “wrongness” of the upstream components in stark relief. The Grovers give your source nowhere to hide. In my case, I was lucky in that by tweaking the power cabling of my source, I was able to achieve a more balanced sound. The Grovers are well worth tweaking your system’s power cabling to accommodate them, or, more accurately, correcting upstream problems that the Grovers reveal instead of simply giving up on them. As I said, they’re a sonic microscope and that can cut both ways.

They are priced so low, my suspicion is that they might tend to be put in systems that “can’t handle the truth”, so to speak. I can see some budget systems being revealed a little too harshly under the Grover’s eagle-eye gaze. I can see some people incorrectly blaming the cables for the sins of their source, pre-amp, power cabling, or their power conditioning. As I noted previously, when I had the wrong power cabling, the Grovers showed it to me-- clearly. They are sensitive instruments and must be fed accordingly. You get out of them *exactly* what you put in.

The low price also means they may not always end up being placed in the kind of high-performance systems that can more easily sustain such close scrutiny. They may get overlooked as being mere “budget” cables by people with the sort of systems that don’t need to use cables as tone controls or as filters on their sound to smooth over or cover up upstream flaws. That’s a shame, but it’s their loss.

For me, the Grovers prove that top-level performance when it comes to cables does NOT need to cost several grand to achieve. They just shame all the other cables I’ve ever owned especially when you factor in price. The Ultimate Reference cables are in my top 10 audio purchases ever (which is saying a lot given the hundreds of pieces I’ve owned so far). I feel they’ve taken my system to a whole new level in almost every area, with one notable (or un-notable) exception.

In re-reading all my notes about their sound, and pondering it some more, one thing struck me—in all my rantings and ravings, I made no comments about the Grovers’ bass performance one way or the other. Compared to my previous cables, the Virtual Dynamics References, the Grovers lack a smidge of the solidity and warmth the VDs impart. That’s not to say the Grovers have “bad” bass response, it’s extremely tuneful and defined. It’s anything but one-note bass. But the VD cables add an extra foundation and firmness to the bass that the Grovers miss. Is that a coloration of the VDs that the Grovers just don’t have? Or is that a minor shortcoming of the Grovers? I don’t have the answer. In any case, it obviously didn’t bother me particularly because I never wrote a disparaging comment about the bass, although I didn’t rhapsodize about it either.

In any case, if your system is lacking in bass, the Grovers probably won’t make up that deficit. If your system is harsh or grainy or edgy, the Grovers won’t round off the edges for you, and make it sound tame and polite. System matching is essential with these, I’m not sure they belong in every audio chain. They may just tell you something about your system you don’t want to hear.

For everyone else-- way recommended!
post #2 of 184
Just think of all the money you could have saved if you had Grover UR cables years ago.......time to exit the cable merry-go-round!

BTW you can contact Grover directly and tell him what you want to buy and he will reply quickly with info:

post #3 of 184

great review markl!

but argh - you've let out our secret! now everyone will want grover ICs!

fwiw though, is this UR ver1 or ver2?
post #4 of 184
I just had my UR II upgraded by Groover and the according to him, the latest version uses silver and copper.
post #5 of 184
Thread Starter 
fwiw though, is this UR ver1 or ver2?
As far as I know, it's the latest and greatest, I received it near the end of June. At that time, he told me these wre the "new" version. But it could have changed again since then, no idea. I'll ask Grover to verify which version I got.
post #6 of 184
Thread Starter 
Yes, Grover has confirmed my URs are the new copper/silver hybrids.
post #7 of 184
Great review. Well constructed and thought out. It was a fun read and my interest has peaked for buying these interconnects. Though you scared me a little with the warning about system matching since my rig is really mid-fi level.

One item that was not mentioned in the review was the degree of sibilance sound. Did you notice any faults in this area?

Related Observation: It seems like everyone who writes about these interconnects in different threads that I have come across had a sip of the Grover Cool-aid or something. Everyone writes about Grover like he is our audio savior or something. Don't get me wrong, I think I'm about ready for a taste myself!
post #8 of 184
Thread Starter 
Hi MonkeyButt, If your source recording is sibilant, you will hear it. It's not gonna round that stuff off. If the source material is clean, you'll get a clean sound.
post #9 of 184
Gotcha. In essence, the Grovers tell it like it is. Any faults will be magnified just like the positives are enhanced. Am I reading you right?
post #10 of 184
Thread Starter 
Exactly. And really, isn't that just about all you could ask of a cable?
post #11 of 184
I just wanted to add in my 2 cents about Grover's service. I bought the older version of the UR from markl recently, and I asked Grover if there was a current version. He said that there was, how pleased he was to hear from me and make my acquaintance, and offered to send me a set of his new UR version, just like that! I sent him my address and got it the next week, he didn't ask for money or anything, just to listen to them and compare with his old version. He's awesome to say the least.
post #12 of 184
Originally Posted by recstar24
I just wanted to add in my 2 cents about Grover's service. I bought the older version of the UR from markl recently, and I asked Grover if there was a current version. He said that there was, how pleased he was to hear from me and make my acquaintance, and offered to send me a set of his new UR version, just like that! I sent him my address and got it the next week, he didn't ask for money or anything, just to listen to them and compare with his old version. He's awesome to say the least.
Grover is a very friendly, amazing guy and has done something similar for me as well. He's my favorite person to deal with, bar none, in the hi fi biz.
post #13 of 184
Grover just got back to me: the old URs are all silver, BUT the new URs have a hybrid silver/copper return.

Upon receiving my enquiry regarding the new URs, Grover offered to immediately replace my cables for free! He even threw in free international shipping! Tell me the man isnt a class act!
post #14 of 184
Any pictures of those ICs?
post #15 of 184
To allay anyone's fears that a mid-fi system will not sound good with the UR IC, both my computer audio and offline rigs have never sounded as AMAZING as they sound with the Grover UR IC. If you look at the modest components in my rigs, they are solid performers, but most definitely NOT high-end audio. I HAVE found that the UR brings out layers of subtlety in my recordings that I now hear easily that I either did not hear before the UR or had to listen with substantial effort to hear. At the same time, I have NOT found that the UR narrows the range of recordings that I enjoy. So, for me and my rigs, the UR has significantly increased the depth and subtlety of the sound that I am getting in ways that my ears greatly enjoy, without narrowing the selection of recordings in my collection that I enjoy listening to. The UR has been all upside for me.
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