TRANSPARENT XLR CABLES - 3 GENERATIONS COMPARED
Reference, Reference MM and Ultra XL
Also read:

Transparent Filtering explained
What constitutes the Transparent house sound and what do the network boxes do

Transparent compared to Symo LS4X and LS5 SX

Transparent Ultra vs Synergistic Research

A Cable and its Jacket
Sleeving has a large influence on the sound

Transparent Reference vs Reference XL
Two interlinks compared

Transparent has always had a very recognisable house sound, even troughout their various ranges. Recently they introduced the MM series. I've always wandered if these cables would still sound like Transparents. I now have the chance to compare a recent Reference MM to my old Reference and cross-compare with the newer, but still older than MM, Ultra XLR. Read on to find out how they compare!
Why Compare?

Well, the main reason lies in Transparent's claim that the new MM series outperform the older XL series. They also say that the MM Super beats even the XL Ultra, which was in a higher class. Then I heard stories about individually insulated litzes and I head the MM series at a show during which I found that the sound was quite different than what I was used to hearing from Transparent. This was enough to trigger my interest. Then along came a friend who had just bought them and asked me if I wanted to have a go. Of course I would!
System synergy

System synergy is everything. In a well-balanced system it is difficult for a new product to find its place immediately since the system has been carefully balanced and tuned using the current cables and such. A new cable is likely to perform "less" than the cables that are normally part of the system.

But of course there are exceptions and that's why I keep trying new stuff. You never know when you're going to hit the jackpot. I had doubts about Wadia and Levinson but I tried them nevertheless and both stunned me. Especially the Levinson, it slipped right into my system and made itself at home - no tweaking required!

The MM series cables are probably better for systems that tend to the dark and could use some "kick". Transparent seems to have left their old "rolled off" sound behind and are aiming for a more neutral sound.

The system of the owner of this cable is endowed with tube amps, and it is in that setup that I believe that the Transparent will perform flawlessly, adding attack where needes, while maintaining a healty dose of Transparent magic.
REFERENCE MM - CONCLUSION

It seems that Transparent have chosen a different route with the introduction of the MM series. I haven't heard the MM2 series but I guess that they will have the same sonic signature, maybe even more so. The new MM sound still recognisably have the Transparent house sound but less so. It could be that the lush richness and that creamy, room filling soundstage are actually side effects of the filtering used and that Transparent is now striving for a more neutral character. The new MM's are more detailed, forward and neutral but less cuddly, luxurious, spacious and less creamy and ultimately for me in my setup: less magical. There's still Transparent magic, but less so.

Even though they sound very neutral, they also sound ever so slightly more synthetic. Just why this is I can only guess. But I know that both the cable and boxes are different from before: the cable is has different dieelectrics and the boxes are mad of plastic, not metal. It could also be that the cables were so new that they needed even more running in than the continuous 100 hours that I gave them. With the MM, plucked instruments have more of a peaky upper mid quality whereas the older reference gives the sound body and substance, ensuring that you hear that a guitar also has a wooden body, at a loss of some attack and speed. Maybe plastic is not the best choice for the 'boxes? My personal biases aside, I think that the new Transparent sound will appeal to a wider audience simply because the cables are more neutral, less "rolled off" than previous incarnations. I happen to like to super-luxurous and creamy, enveloping sound of the older Transparents but I know that a lot of people find that the Transparent sound too soft and rounded. Well, not anymore! Now you can have a portion of Transparent magic and still have excellent dynamics, transients and speed.

Effectively, Transparent seems to have mixed in some Cardas virtues, making for a livelier, more speedy cable than normal for the Reference Series.
CD's used:

Peter White - Glow
Norman Brown - Just between us
George Duke - Snapshot
Pat Metheny - One quiet night (solo bariton guitar)


The system in detail:

Current Setup
Digital Front End:

Mark Levinson no 360s dac (with PC source)
Mark Levinson no 390s cd player

Power Amplifiers:

Jeff Rowland model 6 monoblocks

Preamp:

Jeff Rowland synergy


Default Cables:

Transparent Ultra XL XLR (cd-preamp)
Transparent Reference XLR (pre-power)
Transparent Reference XL speaker cable
Harmonic Technology Pro ACII powercables
Belden powercables for Rowland m6

Guest Cables under review:

Transparent Reference MM XLR


Speakers:

B&W Nautilus 804

From left to right: the new Reference MM,  the old Reference and the Ultra XL
From top to bottom: Ultra XL, the old Reference and the new Reference MM. Notice how small the network boxes have become? They are also made from plastic, not metal, so more easy to manouevre around than the older heavyweights.
Running in the cables

The owner of the MM's told me that the cables hadn't been used a lot. They were secondhand so there's no telling how much playing time they had actually had. Therefore, to be on the safe side, I played them in some more using a tuner into an AD converter into the Levinson 360s DAC to which the MM's were connected, to prevent laser wear from continuously playing cd's. I left this combination running for 3 whole days and nights. Whether the cables are now fully run-in I cannot say but more could not be done since the cables weren't mine.
Now featuring lighter, smaller and more organically shaped network boxes, the new MM cables are much easier in use. They now almost handle like a regular cable.
The previous Transparent House-sound

Before the introduction of the MM series, Transparent cables have always been on the yin side of things. The sound before MM was always fluid, relaxed, Spacious, room filling, very well resolved but in a totally unassuming manner and there always was this unmistakable luxurious feel.

The high frequencies have never been rolled off, but many people did think so. I think this is because the mid-high area sounds very natural i.e. the opposite of forward. Actually, Transparent is airier than most cables but so very well behaved that you might miss it. Transparent cables were always (and to some extend still are) very smooth and never in your face, therefore you might be tricked into believing that the highs are muted.
Reference MM Compared to the older Reference
When connected between preamp and poweramps

After running in the MM cable I connected it between preamp and poweramps and listened to it for a couple of days, without comparing. The new cable most definitely still carries the Transparent house sound, that's something you can hear even without directly comparing it to other Transparents. There are differences though. After some swapping with my older Reference cable the new MM turns out to be a lot faster and agile. Bass is better articulated and still deep. The presentation is more lively and also slightly more detailed. Or at least it sounds like that, perhaps because of the moe forward character.

So the new MM is all good? Yes it is, but because it deviates quite a bit from the older Reference, it doesn't fit my system as well as the older cable. It doesn't have the same lush, rich, creamy and superspacious feeling that the old Reference has. The MM has magic but less so. It seems all the new dynamics and detailing and dynamics lead to more tightness and also a bit more control in the sense that the soundstage doesn't free itself from the speakers as much as the old Reference did.


Reference MM Compared to Ultra XL
When connected between cd player and preamp

The Reference MM was also compared to an Ultra XL from the previous generation, between cd player and preamp. Here the differences were even more distinct, but not as you'd probably expect. Again the MM was more detailed, tighter and more articulated in the bass, as well as being more upfront and specific in the mids and lower highs, but the Ultra XL was quite a bit more lush and mellow while maintaining excellent detailing. The Ultra XL was also more spacious and roomfilling. This was strange since the Reference is twice as expensive as the ultra and considering the previous Reference-pedigree, is supposed to sound more majestic that the Ultra, not less.
A bold claim

Word has it that the new MM series are so much improved that a super MM sounds as good as an old ultra XL.

Until this review I had no idea what this constituted exactly but now I think I know how to interpret it. You see, earlier affordable Transparent cables were very musical but not very detailed and could easily sound muted in the wrong system. You had to get at least the ultra to get the openness that other cables offer on top of the fluidness and magic that Transparent always offers.

With the introduction of the MM series, it seems that Transparent are now looking to offer a more neutral sound that is more detailed. In this light it could well be that the new Super is more detailed than the old Ultra.
From top to bottom: Ultra XL, Reference and Reference MM
From top to bottom: Ultra XL, Reference and Reference MM
The Reference MM


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