Listening #193: Nordost Flatline cables Page 2

Both cables, but especially SuperFlatline, sounded clarion-clear and pleasingly upfront in my system of the day, which included Spendor SP-100 loudspeakers and a variety of amplifiers of low to moderate power. I praised both Flatlines for their ability to conduct music with superior flow, dynamic ease, and "vibrant" tonal colors, and confessed that I preferred these entry-level Nordost speaker cables to a more expensive Nordost model that had also been submitted for review. In the years since, other models of Nordost speaker cables and interconnects, including some far more expensive ones, have impressed me, but to my mind, the Flatlines endured as their highest-value products. So imagine my surprise when, in 2009, Nordost discontinued both Flatline models.

But last summer, Nordost's founder, Joe Reynolds, visited me and brought along a surprise: a pair of new SuperFlatline speaker cables, fresh off the assembly line. Although Nordost has no plans to revive the basic Flatline, they've reintroduced the SuperFlatline at $299/2m pair, terminated with banana plugs or spade connectors—just slightly more than its 2009 price of $289/2m pair. (In 1996, the same cable sold for about $200/2m pair.)

Superficially, the new SuperFlatline looks identical to the original, with 16 flat conductors per channel. (According to Nordost's website, each conductor is equivalent in mass to a 23AWG wire.) But the original's Teflon dielectric has been replaced with a chemically similar fluoropolymer, fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP). My review pair were 4m long, terminated at both ends with gold-plated, low-mass banana plugs.


Before trying them with my Shindo electronics and DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers, I decided to give the new SuperFlatlines a whirl with some humbler gear: my Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated integrated amp, which I bought not long after reviewing it for the October 2013 Stereophile, and our lingering review pair of Wharfedale Diamond 225 stand-mounted speakers, used on open-frame metal speaker stands I've had so long that I've moved house with them at least four or five times and have zero recollection who made them. (But I know who repainted them: My daughter and her boyfriend, art minor and art major, respectively, recently gave them a psychedelic finish that would not have looked out of place on the set of The Monkees.)

Compared to the 8' pair of Kimber Kable 8TC speaker cables I'd been using with this gear (can't remember where they came from, either—sorry!), the SuperFlatlines did not, at first, distinguish themselves: With the Nordosts in place, the system sounded a hair duller, not more vibrant, and there wasn't as much bass as before. On the plus side, the soundstage was somewhat wider, which I enjoyed. Still, with the Borodin Quartet's 1961 recording of Borodin's String Quartet 2 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 6036), there was less bounce from the bowed strings, less pluck from the pizzicato notes, and the cello, in particular, lost its rich, dark colors.

Disappointed, I nevertheless set about trying the Nordosts in my main system—but not before going back to read the whole of my Listener review from 1996. I was brought up short: In it, I noted that the Flatlines sounded dull at first, and needed just a little bit of running in.

It was as if 42-year-old me had reached across the years to poke 64-year-old me in the eye: In the intervening 22 years, while growing more open-minded about some things—heavy turntable plinths, shawl collars, broccoli on pizza, and Jethro Tull—I admit having become increasingly skeptical that audio-frequency cables require run-in. Mechanical devices such as loudspeakers and phono pickups? Sure. Capacitors? Absolutely. Of the technical explanations I've heard as to why cables should be run in, none have convinced—yet I now renewed my efforts to remain open to the possibility.

When I first tried the new SuperFlatlines between my Shindo Haut-Brion amp and DeVore O/93 speakers, my reaction was much the same as the one described above: With the inexpensive Nordosts in place of the much more expensive Luna Red speaker cables ($3300/2m pair) I'd been using in recent months, my system sounded a little less loud, a little less interesting and compelling—but, again, a little wider. After just one cut—"Don't be Denied," which begins side 2 of Neil Young's 1973 live album, Time Fades Away (LP, Reprise MS 2151)—I was anxious to switch back to the Lunas.

But I didn't. I set about listening to the rest of the side, and in another 10 minutes or so, the sound began to open up—just as I'd experienced in 1996 with the original Flatline speaker cables in place.

I did what anyone would do: I put on side 1 of a three-LP set—in this case, Cavalli's L'Ormindo, with Raymond Leppard conducting the London Philharmonia (3 LPs, Argo ZNF 8-10)—and played all six sides, without paying a great deal of attention to what I heard.


After L'Ormindo, I went back to Time Fades Away and again listened closely. Previously with the Nordost cables, the sound of Young's electric guitar in the opening measures of "Don't Be Denied" was constrained—"it sounds like he's holding back," as I put it in my notes. Now I heard more of a loose-armed swing behind his right hand, the chords seeming to have more force behind them. Similarly, the kick drum, though obviously compressed in the recording, itself sounded more forceful, with less of that dully unreal, thumb-on-open-mike sound I heard from it the first time around.

For the rest of that day and a few more days to come, I left the SuperFlatlines in my system and repeated the pattern of listening to a short piece of music on my warmed-up system, letting the cables cook with a few sides of background music, then replaying my earlier selection. The Nordost cables continued to sound clearer, more open, and, especially, more colorful—up to a point. If they exhibited additional performance gains beyond their second day in my system, those distinctions were too subtle for me to report, hand on heart, as real. I dare say they did most of their running-in within the first few hours of near-steady use—and the degree of that change was laugh-out-loud surprising.

In that system, the new SuperFlatlines never performed as well as the Luna Reds—the latter endure in their ability to let my system sound even more forceful, more nuanced, and just plain louder and more attention-grabbing—but the Nordosts got the essentials right without leaving the sound dull or the music lifeless. And when I brought the SuperFlatlines back to my Croft-Wharfedale combo, music through that system was once again compelling: Borodin's String Quartet 2 sounded present and lively, and "A Song for Europe," from Roxy Music's Stranded (LP, Atco SD 7045), which had sounded murky and flat the very first time I tried the SuperFlatlines, was now more intelligible and altogether easier to enjoy.

I can offer only the same conclusion I wrote in Listener 23 years ago: "If you ask me, the Nordost Flatline is great stuff, and you should investigate it without delay."

Malcolm Steward
The UK-based hi-fi critic Malcolm Steward has been a hero of mine since the late 1980s, when he first broke ranks with his perennially pro-Linn colleagues at Hi-Fi Review and declared that the Roksan Xerxes turntable was competitive with Linn's LP12: a gutsy move, and one that people were still talking about in 1990, when I first visited London and its more savvy hi-fi shops. Steward's subsequent recommendations of Naim's Aro tonearm and various Mana Acoustics accessory platforms cemented him in my mind as perhaps the most courageous audio critic in England, and over the years his pieces for Hi-Fi Choice, Audiophile, HiFiCritic, and other publications always showed the reviewer's craft as its best.

These days, Steward and his wife, graphics designer Philippa Steward, are drawing from deeper reserves of courage: following a horrific automobile accident in July 2015, Malcolm remains confined to a medical facility, dependent on around-the-clock care.

I wasn't until 2014 that I finally got to meet Malcolm Steward—we were both in Munich to cover the High End show and staying at the same hotel. I found him to be every bit as warm and sharp-minded as his prose suggests. I also learned that he's a fellow guitarist, and a fellow former hi-fi salesman—although his alma mater, London's legendary The Sound Organisation, far outshines the miniature shop where I worked, which was long ago torn down to make room for a Rite-Aid.

Malcolm Steward's work has had an impact on me, as both a writer and a hobbyist, and surely many of you feel the same. I can think of no better time of year than now to fire off a card to him at: Mountbatten Nursing Home, 82 Trull Road, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4QW, England, UK. If you chat electric guitars, bear in mind that, like all sane men of good intent, he favors Fender Telecasters.


Charles E Flynn's picture

The burning of some types of plastics produces soot that is not only annoying, but is corrosive as well. If the soot is not promptly removed from metal surfaces, they can be permanently damaged. I learned this after a fan in a router in a closet failed and filled half of the floor of a large building with soot. It took weeks for a team of people equipped with Nilfisk vacuum cleaners to complete their task. They had to clean thousands of objects while keeping them in order.

I was expecting you to discover that the cause of the fire was a failed fan. I once asked a maker of expensive hard drives that were intended to be as reliable as possible if they had particularly reliable fans, and was informed that "there are no suitable fans made in Switzerland".

Once you have had a fire, your relationship with fire is forever changed.

Anton's picture

My first recollection of Art in the Hi Fi publishing business is 1985.

He's probably been into Hi Fi even longer than that, but I will run with 1985.

In the past 33 years, you've had one flaming mishap.

If you pretend this never happened and keep doing things as you've always done, odds are the Grim Reaper will have discovered an alternate method for calling you home long before you'd experience another flaming amplifier.

If you really want to stack the odds in your favor, have Oswald Mills make you a slate amplifier platform and the worst that would happen is you end up making a sacrifice to the old Gods.

Glad you are OK!

tonykaz's picture

Amp designers are often talking about prototype amps burning.

Jason Stoddard is willing to regale us with his schiity design failures.

I hope you didn't inhale those toxic plastics.

Tony in Michigan

ps. Schiit Amps that I've owned don't catch fire or sound bad, they're quite good sounding, the Asgard 2 is OUTSTANDING!!!

AaronGarrett's picture

Del McCoury tells that story on Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza I think.

Ortofan's picture

... the amplifier's manufacturer, then would he be more willing to mention the brand of capacitor that failed?
Also, is it possible that the cap was installed backwards?

jmsent's picture

....could not possibly do so with a backward installed electrolytic capacitor. They simply will not function if reverse polarized and the capacitor would self destruct within seconds. There's not enough info here to ascertain what actually happened, and without actually seeing the amplifier, nobody can know for sure. Having worked on the technical side of the audio business for many years, I've seen my share of amplifier failures. Especially in the early days of high power solid state when failures were so common that compainies like Phase Linear were given the nickname "Flame Linear". But those failure were almost never from electrolytic capacitors. They were almost always due to failure of a transistor, causing a chain reaction of failures in the circuit, and burning up a few resistors along the way. They could certainly cause a small fire on the circuit board, and the stink was pretty intense. However, carbon resistors are seldom used today and transistors are way more reliable, so you would not normally see these kinds of failures anymore.
One issue that has cropped up in recent years is the growth of counterfeit components, including electrolytic caps. Ebay is overrun with them, and they sometimes even sneak into the inventory of trusted electronic distributors. Here's an interesting article (one of many)

CG's picture

You've got that right!

Part of my day job is to do forensic engineering on equipment that fails in testing or in the field. A "one of" failure out of a zillion units usually isn't of much concern. You explain the statistics and move on. But, more than that one is an issue.

I'd say that after soldering errors in manufacture, electrolytic failure is the next most common malady.

Like most electronic components, electrolytic cars have more subtleties associated with their care and feeding than you can imagine. These are all described in the data sheets, right there in the large section everybody skips over. There's application notes galore. You can easily spend a solid week learning about proper electrolytic capacitor use.

Running electrolytic caps at an elevated temperature really degrades their life span. Same for running them too close to the specified voltage maximum. Presumably the amplifier manufacturer has taken all that into account.

But, that counterfeit cap thing is a very real problem. (It's not just caps, either... Semiconductor fakery is BIG business.) Sometimes what you find is a cap that looks right from the outside, with the right labeling, the right physical appearance, and is the right physical dimensions. But, if you take a can opener to it you find a much smaller cap inside that is wired to the proper can terminals. Smaller usually means lower capacitance, higher ESR, and maybe lower maximum operating voltage. All of those can conspire to let the cap overheat, sometimes to the point of catching on fire.

Or, it could just be bad luck for that one cap...

John Atkinson's picture
jmsent wrote:
I've seen my share of amplifier failures. Especially in the early days of high power solid state when failures were so common that companies like Phase Linear were given the nickname "Flame Linear".

Back in the mid-1970s, our band had 3 Phase Linear amplifiers: 1 for the left PA speaker stack; 1 for the right speaker stack; 1 being repaired from the night before.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be that's the reason why you (JA) became an audio equipment reviewer, who also does measurements .......... May be we should thank Phase Linear for that :-) ..........

jimtavegia's picture

Planning ahead is always good.

Ortofan's picture

... backward installed electrolytic capacitor will "self destruct within seconds", regardless of how much - or how little - voltage is applied to it?

jmsent's picture

1. A rather large capacitor, given how much smoke filled Art's house when it failed.
2. The large capacitor having considerable voltage across it and considerable current being dissipated through it when it failed; e.g. a filter capacitor.
A small electrolytic capacitor installed backwards with low voltage across it would be highly unlikely to fail in such a spectacular manner.
It's all speculation anyway, and given the small amount of info, we can't even know if it was a capacitor that failed.

Long-time listener's picture

I recently bought an Audioquest Diamond coaxial digital cable. While I've had components that benefitted from break-in, I thought that the dialectric biasing system would probably render that unnecessary. So when I first connected it I was terribly dismayed at the bright, harsh, metallic sounds I got. But it really did break in over a period of about 20 hours, and now sounds fine.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be AD was playing Rap music too loud for too long :-) ..........

rschryer's picture

A week ago, my son and I were listening to Eminem's "Killshot" (a blisteringly fun retort to Machine Gun Kelly's "Rap Devil", a song in which MGK has the audacity to challenge Eminem's rapping skills) on my system when the bass driver on one of my speakers gave out.

BTW, I'm proof that you don't have to (generally) like rap to recognize rapping talent. For anyone curious enough, may I suggest checking out MGK's track on Youtube, then Eminem's. Eminem is at his best when challenged.

Just don't play the music too loud. :-)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Rap music is capitalistic ......... It is aimed at making money" .......... A Rap music fan :-) ........

tonykaz's picture

I thought it was Outlawed & Banned throughout Polite Canada. Egads!

Maybe you snuck over the Seaway to some Sleezy US listening post.

My own ears have nevah gotten any closer than a Way Too Loud Car on the Expressway.

I guess Rap explains the messy hair is the little photo, hmm. ( I hope that tilt to the Right isn't permanent damage from dubious Live Performances).

Lets hope JA doesn't penalize you for this "confession".

Tony in Michigan

ps. I once listened to Inna Godda De vita, after which I washed my face & hair with Holy Water & and said 3 Rosaries. ( that was before I became a Proud Pagan )

rschryer's picture

...from my last AWSI, Dr. Alyson's second rule: "You let your family decide what music to play." This includes rap. And it can still be fun and rewarding.

Oh, and my hair isn't messy; it's wavy. And that head tilt to the right has nothing to do with any damaging effect rap has had on my brain; it's just me striking my "casually confident" pose so people think I have my act together.

(I do hope that last admission won't hurt my chances of becoming President of an International Organization Recognizing Excellence in Audio Engineering.)

Charles E Flynn's picture

Two excerpts from :


Shortly after a fire, the effects of smoke damage are visible on walls, ceilings and surfaces, appearing as stains and discoloration. Within a few days, walls and flooring may begin to turn yellow; however, this yellowing affect doesn't show right away. Plastic surfaces/appliances and wood can also become discolored and warped. Several hours after a fire, metal hardware can show signs of rust and corrosion. If you have countertops, tiles or other surfaces that contain porous stone such as marble, granite or travertine, they usually become permanently discolored from the acidic residue found in soot. This residue can also permanently tarnish metals.


When smoke particles are ionized - or have an electrical charge - they are attracted to certain surfaces. Smoke produced by burning plastic carries a stronger charge than smoke from wood, paper or cotton. This causes smoke residue to form in clusters that look like cobwebs in the corners of rooms where walls and ceilings meet.

HammerSandwich's picture

I understand that this failure is an exceptional case & very probably not a design or build issue.

But hasn't JA stated that all products submitted for review will be reported on? How does Stereophile now align that policy with the current lack of disclosure? What is the (new?) policy on exceptions to the general rule?

Charles E Flynn's picture

Back when Roy F. Allison was vice-president of Acoustic Research, the products came with this disclaimer or one very similar. I wish I had saved a copy.

"Acoustic Research products, in common with all made-made objects, can develop defects in transportation, storage, or use."

jimtavegia's picture

Fire and smoke are the worst clean up ever. People don't realize what has to be done.

I had my condenser pan in the whole-house AC fail last summer and water flooded my man-cave, luckily in the basement. Once cleaned up and new carpet, paneling, etc., back in operation. Water, if contained, a much easier job. No black mold luckily.

Hope the equipment mfg is helping. Your new place seems very nice.

Howard's picture

If an amp (or another piece of equipment) is in standby mode, does that protect one from this kind of nightmare, or is powering down completely the only way to be totally safe? Thanks.

jimtavegia's picture

The only safe way.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Exploded view (album) ........... Exploded view :-) ............

romath's picture

So are you telling readers that for the past 22 years you haven't been running in cables before reviewing them? Everything needs burning in, adjusting to new surroundings. No matter what manufacturers or developers say, cables typically take at least 400-500 hours to realize their potential, although sometimes around 300 one can have a good idea. It's hard to fathom that a writer for Stereophile doesn't know this...

rschryer's picture

...are a breath of fresh air, in the subjective sense.

Anton's picture

Everybody says they can hear cables break in, but nobody talks about the other end of their lifespan.

Most cables start to phone it in after an additional thousand hours, or so. 'Oxygen free' is not an eternal state. Silver starts to oxidize, cables get older and the crystalline structure changes, micro-fractures occur ever time they are handled. Those stupid things can have shorter life expectancies shorter than some cartridges.

I know people who've had the same tonearm wiring for decades. The thinner the gauge, the shorter the lifespan. Just ponder how often they have to move! Don't even get me started about the wire wrapping, insulation, etc.

Home wiring can be given a 100 year life expectancy, but high end audio isn't the same big gauge crude stuff like they use for plain old home wires.

This topic is rarely addressed, but is not less valid than cable break in.

How often to do you change out cables?

romath's picture

Perhaps it's not talked about because it is not common! Sure, there's oxidation over time, but that can be cleaned - even replugging can do wonders. And sometimes there's maybe some poor quality plastic that leaches, although with better stuff that's rate. But one will search a very long time to find anything remotely backing your "not less valid" claim.

Anton's picture

To paraphrase Dirty Hi Fi Harry, a man’s gotta know his cable’s limitations.

The hip kids will catch on and the discussion about the other sonic end of cable life will become a given. Do you think cable simply stops changing after your 500 hour claim?

It’s a bell shaped curve, with some cables being able to stretch their peak time vs. others.

Happens with many audio parts, I wouldn’t think it would be controversial. After break in, does anyone think gear enters an indefinite period of suspended animation?

romath's picture

No, after 500 hours it keeps getting better! Interesting that you've yet to cite any sources except "I know people."

Anton's picture

I heard the same argument from people who said wires didn't make a difference back in the day.

Keep listening, you'll get there! What breaks in, breaks down.

If you want citations, where is you data regarding "it keeps getting better after 500 hours?"

Is this an infinite progression for you?

I guess we should be buying cables from the telegraph days?

romath's picture

Still waiting for your evidence...

Anton's picture

Do you have some sort of objective measurement that shows your cables keep "getting better" up to or after 500 hours, or did you come across that by listening?

My advice: don't quit listening for break in and then quit in contented satisfaction expecting an eternity of "improved." Keep your critical faculties tuned for other changes over time.

Works with capacitors, tubes, turntable belts, cartridges, I said: "If it can break in, it can break down."

If you are able, simply start with Google and check changes in micro-crystalline structure, tensile behavior, etc. as wires age.

romath's picture

Ah, here we go... Scratch a cable cynic and out comes "objective measurement." But this time rather on the front end, it's the back. LOL. Good bye.

Anton's picture

As I pointed out, I listen.

I can hear an aging cable, you apparently cannot. You demand citations...then what citations do you have for ongoing improvement after 500 hours of break in?

I think the tail is wagging the dogma with you. You believe as "citations" tell you, but don't bother to keep listening?

Feel free to hear as you are told. I would advise you to listen in the longer term.

How old is your oldest cable? Do yours keep improving indefinitely? If not, do you think they peak and remain there for a century or two?

I find your premise ridiculous, and it smacks of you having learned to parrot what others tell you without listening with your own ears.

All I ask is that you question whatever "citations" you are relying on and listen. You say cables can only improve over time, but never diminish? That's a little bit funny.

There is ample "old fashion" materials science that shows wiring and metals change over time, why would you dispute that or call it cynical?

Are you at least careful not to keep bending and rebending your cables? If so, why?

I think we have run into a dogmatic rule based audiophile who runs with some rule based dogma about cables.

Think, my friend!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AD is saying (singing) ...........

"I'm Alright" ........... Kenny Loggins (Theme from 'Caddyshack') :-) ..........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Go 'wire-less' ......... Start listening to Bluetooth/wi-fi speakers :-) ...........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Breaking bad? :-) .........

"Breakdown" ........... Tom Petty & The 'Heartbreakers' :-) ...........

"Breakdance" ............ Irene Cara :-) ...........

Relayer's picture

The Breaks- Kurtis Blow

irrelevant's picture

"unfortunately for manufacturers, Stereophile's policy is to review products that appear to be working as received, and if units with a below-par performance have slipped through the manufacturer's quality control net, then we assume that that can happen to readers also.​"

This is a quote from John Atkinson, January 1987 (Vol.10 No.1). Has Stereophile changed its policy in the intervening years, or just made an exception for this recent incident?

Zavato's picture

I had the same thought and had long believed it was Stereophile’s policy to report all experiences with gear in for review. Yes, there have been times when Stereophile deviated from its policy but years back JA assured readers that Stereophile would never again throw a well-reasoned policy into the wind (Vol. 15 #9). If an amp caught on fire in ADs home it can happened to any consumer buying the same amp. Whether it’s statistically unlikely really isn’t the point.

John Atkinson's picture
Zavato wrote:
I had the same thought and had long believed it was Stereophile’s policy to report all experiences with gear in for review. Yes, there have been times when Stereophile deviated from its policy but years back JA assured readers that Stereophile would never again throw a well-reasoned policy into the wind (Vol. 15 #9).

Art discussed this with me when we were preparing the January issue and did explain in this column why he felt an exception to our policy was justified.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions" ........ Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. :-) ............

Nootje's picture

I am a bit surprised that you compare the Nordost cables with Luna Red speaker cables in your main system. You used to listen to Auditorium 23 speaker cables many years. I think that would be a more interesting comparison if you look at the price.

13DoW's picture

Art & John,
did you receive a failure analysis from the manufacturer of the flaming amplifier? As you have kept their name secret they certainly owe you an explanation. Then you must decide whether to pass that explanation on. Was the fault categorically identified and have measures been put in place to ensure it can never happen again? If not, you should put reader safety first and tell us who to avoid.

13th Duke of Wymbourne