Synergistic Research Atmosphere Cable, Level 4
by Neil Gader
The Atmosphere line of speaker wire and interconnects from Synergistic Research (SR) represents the brand’s latest thinking on cables. Comprising four distinct models with ascending levels of performance, Atmosphere is perhaps SR’s most ambitious offering to date and the summit of the brand’s efforts to bring the full weight of its innovative conductor, isolation, and anti-resonance technologies from its premium, actively-shielded range into a less costly “passive” design. For this review I spent the lion’s share of the time listening to the Atmosphere Level 4.
First, let me say at the outset, I’m no stranger to Synergistic Research. Hard to believe, but it was nearly ten years and one hundred issues ago (Back Page, December 2006) that I interviewed its chief designer and owner Ted Denney III. Soon thereafter I spent an afternoon touring the Synergistic factory, and listening to the just-released Tesla Series cables. Denney then (and still) remains an outspoken and creative designer. In my conversations with him I noted a curiosity that bordered on obsession about the reproduction of three-dimensional soundspace, immersiveness, and ambience in recorded music. This quest inspired Synergistic to develop Uniform Energy Field (UEF) technology that has yielded a collection of products and accessories aimed at resonance control, room treatment, and the elimination of RF/EMI distortions. Synergistic’s actively shielded cables have been available since 1998, but with their thick DC wires and mini-power-couplers (MPC) they demanded not only a higher level of commitment from owners but also enough AC outlets to plug in each cable’s MPC. The key goal of the Atmosphere Series was to achieve comparable performance without that burden. The company now believes it can build non-active cables with performance levels that are only surpassed by its Reference Galileo LE Active cables.
Each gradation of Atmosphere adds increasingly sophisticated runs of conductors and proprietary shielding. But the real fun begins with Levels 2, 3, and 4, which are equipped with SR’s Ground Plane Technology (described further on). Additionally, for Levels 3 and 4 exclusively there are special terminations for Atmosphere Tuning Modules: small red or blue cylindrical “bullets” that users can freely substitute to fine-tune a system—red tuners for “warmth, liquidity, and musicality,” and blue tuners for “refinement, detail, and focus.” I swapped out tuners at various times over the course of this evaluation, and though I’m still in the dark as to how they work I found myself consistently settling on the blue tuners in my reference system.
In sonics, Atmosphere Level 4 performance was instantly familiar to my ears as a Synergistic product. It carried over the same high degrees of tonal neutrality, inner detail, and dynamic authority that have marked my SR experiences over the years—experiences that include the actively shielded Tesla and Element Series. Atmosphere is not a gee-whiz, shout-out-loud attention-grabber for superficial listening, however. Rather it’s an honest, even conservative purveyor of sound, designed for the perceptive listener with a highly resolved and nuanced system. Atmosphere revealed the dark-wood cello resonances, detail, and low-level intricacies of the Bach cello suites [MA Recording], inviting me to listen deeper than ever before into Martin Zeller’s well-measured performance. The cable’s superb transients also provided new insight into the bracing immediacy and bloom of Lew Soloff’s trumpet in the Manhattan Jazz Quintet [King Records]. Tricky vocal sibilance combined clarity and speed without veering into bright sizzle territory. The wires also had an innate vitality and gravitas that infused the mids and lower mids with a darker natural authority, releasing the resonant energy of cello and bass viol, baritone sax and bassoon. In the upper mids there was a delicate bloom and a slightly warmer, unconstricted harmonic range that were the polar opposites of thin, papery textures and whitewashed timbres.
More than any single parameter, Atmosphere imaged each instrument in its own ambient space. I didn’t just hear the deep guttural pitch of the baritone saxophone during Jen Chapin’s cover of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” [Chesky]; there was also the shimmer of ambient air reverberating in the recording hall. Atmosphere also doesn’t manufacture false fore-and-aft dimensionality by suppressing frequencies to create a depth effect—in perspective this cable is as neutral as they come. I often listen to the Laurel Massé’s deceptively simple recording of “I Am the Mountainy Singer” from Feather & Bone [Premonition]. Recorded in the vast Troy Savings Bank auditorium, the folk song is voice and violin only. But there is a second phantom “accompanist” to Ms. Massé, and it’s the vast reverberant sound of the venue. When everything else in the playback chain is working properly and a loudspeaker like the Vandersteen Treo CT (review this issue) is anchoring the system, I began to pick up cues regarding the volume and height of the space, the amount of sustain and decay, and most specifically how the singer gradually closes in on the microphone. She begins the song at a more distant perspective than where she finishes. It’s an effect that makes her sound as if she is indeed descending from the mountain and approaching the listener.
The line that separates good wire, even very good wire, from the great is an ability to reproduce symphonic music. While every genre of music provides clues about a cable’s performance, in the end it’s classical music’s complexity, broad tonal spectrum, wide dynamic range, inner detail, and ambient acoustics that makes it the final arbiter of a cable’s potential. It’s also the strongest reason to consider auditioning Atmosphere Level 4. As I listened to Solti’s reading of the Beethoven Ninth [Decca], I sat transfixed as I experienced the specificity of section layering across the entire orchestra—the array of the large chorus, the placement of the soloists, the texture and skin resonances of the timpani positioned deep in the percussion section. Similarly, and if your speaker system and listening setup is optimized, you should be able to locate cellist Pieter Wispelwey sitting in a discrete place onstage, taking a measured breath during the Bruch Kol Nidrei [Channel Classics].
I also had an opportunity to listen to the SR Grounding Block. To paraphrase Synergistic, “it connects the cable’s shields and noise directly to ground and not through a component’s power-supplies or speaker crossovers as is normally the case.” Not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes, the SRGB is fitted with a copper top plate, and plugs directly into a wall outlet. It’s equipped with eighteen mini ground connections. The SRGB package includes four 4" ground wires for Atmosphere interconnects and two 8" ground wires for Atmosphere speaker cables. Although it was engineered to improve ground performance on all SR products with external ground plane connections, any system component with an unused input or output can also be integrated. I began by linking the speaker cables and interconnects to the SRGB and then moved on to individual components, using an available RCA or XLR input on that component’s back panel.
Inserting the SRGB into the system was in all candor a surprise—the cynic in me did not expect this level of sonic improvement. As I settled into a recording of the Mozart piano sonatas on DG, there was no question about an overall shift in the system’s character. At first blush there seemed to be a slight darkening overall, but as I listened further I became more aware of the noise floor having significantly dropped and the soundstage having further stabilized into an unyielding brick-and-mortar foundation. Imaging stability improved while individual notes and chords firmed up in texture. There was a greater density of color beneath and behind each note—plus more authoritative soundboard energy and resonance from the grand piano. My takeaway was that the SRGB drilled deeper into the recording and uncovered detail at the lowest discernible levels. The effect was also cumulative with the addition of each component to the SRGB. It quickly became a mandatory option in my view and is cost effective, to boot.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can confer on a cable is summed up in three words: “Cable? What cable?” The transparency of Atmosphere continues what has become for me an SR tradition of expanding the boundaries of soundstage dimensionality, pursuing every microdynamic cue, and resolving the lowest-level details. Aptly named, Atmosphere elevated the listening experience with every spin of a recording. A must-audition component.