Ladies and Gentlemen! In this corner, the world renowned Graham IC-70 tonearm cable. And in the other corner, the equally famous Hovland Music Groove 2 tonearm cable. Yes, folks, here are the two best tonearm cables in the world, fighting DIN and RCA to win your hearts as the new World Champion! This is a fight to the death; winner takes all. The bell is about to ring, so take your seats and get ready for… The Fight of the Titans!
Kind of an exciting way to start a review, wouldn’t you agree? I am sorry to say there will be no blood or body bags today. These cables are considered to be the best, and if you think one or the other actually earns that singular title, you are correct. Where one has a better right hook, the other’s left jab scores equal points.
The contenders were auditioned with a Graham 2.2 arm on a Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable. Cartridges included a Sugano Sr.-vintage Koetsu Black and a Shelter 90x, the latter sporting a 4mm Marigo Dot. (Yes, boys and girls. These things work!) Since this is an evaluation of relative strengths and abilities, I could have used a Shure V15 with similar results. Other components included a Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2 phono stage with Jensen transformers, BAT VK-31SE and CJ Premier 17 preamps, ARC VS-110 and CJ Premier 12 amplifiers, and Magnepan 10.1 and Fostex S-168 speakers with Perfect Subwoofers. Other cabling included Oritek, Mogami, Tara Labs, PS Audio, Nordost, and Acoustic Zen. Power was massaged by Shunyata and PS Audio.
When the final bell rang out on this competition and the fighters returned to their corners, both were tired and humbled. Both cables put up such a good fight that the judges are still arguing over which cable won. Expecting a TKO at any minute, let’s recap the fight and see why the decision is proving to be so difficult to reach.
ROUND 1. Forget the rumors that Hovland has a warmer sound that accentuates the bass and midrange more than Graham. That character was NEVER heard. On the contrary, the Graham’s very low bass had more power and greater resolution, with more of the resonant quality to the far left side of the piano that also provided a more substantial feeling of a large acoustic space. This was a one-two punch and the round was over. Point: Graham.
ROUND 2. The upper bass, from about 50 to 100 Hz, had these two fine cables throwing punches all day without a clear winner. Due to the relative deficiency of low bass weight, the Hovland seemed to have an edge in the upper bass. This was a psychoacoustic effect which let the strings from an acoustic bass or a mallet hitting the drum head be heard more clearly. Bass notes seemed to have an edge in impact with the Hovland, but this was, again, an effect of the seeming roll-off below about 40 Hz compared to the IC70. Point: Graham due to the more consistent balance with the low bass.
ROUND 3. Both cables presented the lower midrange with an equal, and equally involving, presentation of male voices and lower-register female voices. All sounds in this range were clear, articulate, highly resolved, and highly enjoyable. Point: draw.
ROUND 4. The midrange, the holy center of all things music, lived and breathed with either cable. Both fighters received a standing ovation from the audience. Point: draw
ROUND 5. In the upper midrange and lower treble, the fight was getting interesting. The two cables showed their individual characters more clearly than in the lower frequencies. This range is difficult to do properly. It requires high resolution with a balance that is consistent with sounds both lower and higher in frequency to not become a significant weakness. This range is where many otherwise fine components lose points, and often suffer knock-outs.
As we move towards the right side of the piano and include the brass section of the orchestra, the MG2 demonstrated why many people prefer it to the IC70. The Graham cable is smooth and even, but relatively polite and not as incisive and sure footed as the MG2. The Hovland presents the right three octaves of piano and all stand-up brass with a realism that is scary. The fundamental notes are handled similarly by either cable, but the upper harmonic content is honored by the MG2. The only other time I have heard brass have the crisp, sometimes hard – but NEVER harsh – blaring sound of a live trumpet, trombone, or sax, is when listening to a real instrument played live. Not direct-to-disc. Direct-to-ear. Spectacular! Point: Hovland
ROUND 6. The IC70 continued its steady and even display with very high resolution in the upper treble. Cymbals had a tactile quality that made it clear when a drummer hit a cymbal with more or less force, and the resulting sound had more or less shimmer and resonant trail as a result. The MG2 was a bit crisper, presenting just a bit more of the fading ringing. This was also very apparent on bells, especially the triangle. The sound lasted longer with MG2. Point: Hovland.
ROUND 7. Soundstaging. The difference between these cables was small, but apparent on extended listening. The Graham cable presented a deeper soundstage that was filled with instruments farther back and into the rear corners of the stage. It traded a small amount of individual instrument specificity closer to the front of the stage for a larger, deeper apparent stage. The MG2 put a spotlight on a solo violin or other solo instrument more obviously than IC70 did, and when instruments were in the front half of the stage, presented each one a bit more specifically than the IC70.
The judges had a tough time picking the winner of this round. On orchestral or large group acoustic music with a large and natural stage, the IC70 was preferred. On studio or small group acoustic music, the small edge enjoyed by the MG2 in front-of-the-stage image clarity won points. When the votes were tallied, the win was awarded to the cable which more accurately presented the more difficult environment of a large hall with a greater number of musicians. This may not be relevant to you if your choices in music differ. Point: Graham.
ROUND 8. Dynamic agility. This round was the toughest battle yet. The Graham’s win in Round 1, low bass, gave it an advantage for overall strength in power and dynamics. Not to give up without a fight, the Hovland’s win in Round 6 for more clarity and micro-dynamic ability in the upper frequencies kept the MG2 in the running. Again, the judges weighed both cables strengths and weaknesses. Heated words were heard during the deliberations.
The decision in this round came down to this: these cables are at the pinnacle of phono cables today. As such, the winner should be decided on not how well either is able to present the gross or easy tasks. The winner is chosen based on an apparent gain in refinement, low-level or small improvements, or other state-of-the-art characteristics. When the decision came down to very small improvements in the micro-dynamic presentation, the power of the wind through a flute, the pluck of a violin string, or something else as small and as trivially significant, then… Point: Hovland.
ROUND 9. The final round. Recapping the scores so far, we have Graham IC70 winning three rounds, and Hovland MG2 winning three rounds. Two rounds were dead even. Tie score. The required tasks are done, and now the two fighters have to impress the judges with their style, their grace, their ability to make the audience – you – believe that they deserve to win. It is time for you to vote, and with the score tied so far, your vote will determine the winner. Whether you are in the nose-bleed cheap seats or front and center, the decision is up to you.
Here is a recap to help you. The Graham’s presentation is more even from the lowest bass to the highest treble. Its sound stage is deeper. The IC70 will probably be a better match for a cartridge or system that is neutral or on the brighter side. The Hovland shows its pedigree in having a more clearly defined, but smaller, sound stage. The MG2’s more detailed upper midrange and low treble will be a better fit with cartridges or systems that tends towards warmth or with fuller bass. Having a lot of previous experience with warmer sounding cartridges such as Koetsus and Benzes, I suggest the MG2 would be preferable in that company. If your cartridge is leaner, like the Clearaudio Insider Gold that visited my system last year, or if you prefer a richer, more resonant sound, you will probably prefer the Graham IC70. These are outstanding cables, and which one is actually the best is irrelevant because only one will be the best in your system.
This has been a great fight between two equally great, but different, contenders. They both deserve to be considered for the title of Best Cable. Each is worthy, but only one can get the prize based on the way it performs in your system and with your music. Happy listening!
Excuse me? Which cable did I choose? My preferences tend towards neutrality. With the honey warm Koetsu Black, I slightly preferred the Hovland. But in the company of the far more neutral Shelter 90x, I enjoyed the Graham more. I could be very happy living with either one.