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PW Audio Orpheus: The Summit

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A cable is only as good as the IEM you connect it to…or something like that. I’ve always said that the IEM is the first and most important part of the audio chain, followed by the source and amplification, and only then the cable. 

While I don’t think Orpheus changes my mind about any of this, regardless of how good it is, what it does do is unequivocally cement the importance of cables in fine-tuning and maximising the performance of the chain. 

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that if you’re a cable sceptic or worse, non-believer, hearing any of your IEMs with Orpheus will at the very least give you pause, and more than likely change your world view. 

But I digress. I say all this because in the time I’ve had to spend with Orpheus so far, it’s made a notable difference to all the IEMs I own. Notice that I didn’t say it makes all my IEMs ‘better’, because subjectively I still very much appreciate what the stock cables of these very good IEMs are able to achieve. 

Orpheus unapologetically colours the sound, and while I believe the improvements in technical performance are unanimously positive, tonal changes are far more open to subjective debate, in my opinion. As such, I spent a full day just listening to each of my IEMs with Orpheus, and then taking some notes directly comparing Orpheus to stock.

FiR Audio Radon 6 ($3,299, reviewed here). This one was my pick of the bunch. Not only do I consider Rn6 FiR’s best IEM, it’s also one of my all-time favourites and, like Orpheus, is virtually flawless in what it does. If there’s one criticism I often hear levelled at Rn6 is that it’s not the last word in technical performance at its summit-fi price tier, something I don’t personally agree with, but granted I shy away from today’s high-end super-technical all-BA and non-DD IEMs.

All the good stuff you’ve read about Orpheus to this point is basically cut-and-paste from my Radon notes. If you are one of those that feels Radon lacks something technically, Orpheus will ‘fix’ it. Want a deeper stage – check. Want a darker background – check. Tonally too I feel Orpheus and Rn6 make an ideal pairing. Want smoother treble – you got it, deeper and more detailed bass – sure, why not? An even lusher midrange – done.

That’s not to say Radon’s excellent silver stock cable doesn’t have its own merits. For one thing, it gives some music more bite than Orpheus, which for many users will be a plus. It also doesn’t spoil the broth when it comes to Radon’s resolving power; you’re maybe buying a few more percentage points of detail, if that, switching from stock to Orpheus. 

I’d say tonally the two cables are more different than similar, the stock being cooler and more transparent, Orpheus warmer, lusher, with more body and a bigger sound. This works well with Radon’s balanced tonality; nothing is pushed too far south or north with either cable, and so the ‘changes’ are more about flavour than introducing potentially problematic tonal shifts. 

FatFreq Maestro SE ($1,900, reviewed here). Another recent favourite, this IEM is the de-facto bass lover’s dream machine, with a 20dB sub-bass shelf that’s expertly balanced with the rest of the FR for a surprisingly balanced sound overall. If I was to point out some ‘issues’ in MSE’s performance, treble spice would be one, midrange note thickness – or lack thereof – would be another, and technically it’s not quite summit-fi (but still very respectably high-end). 

Pairing MSE with Orphy goes a long way to mitigating each of these issues. The spicy treble and occasional sibilance is virtually eliminated. In fact, I’m yet to hear sibilance with Orphy on any IEM. Vocals sound fuller, warmer and weightier, but not unnaturally so. And technically, Orphy at the very least maximises MSE’s inherent abilities, further expanding its stage (which isn’t huge to start with), killing any residual noise floor, and taking resolution up a notch. 

The best thing I can say about this pairing is that MSE is the best version of itself with Orpheus in tow. As with Rn6, MSE’s stock cable is very well matched, but does little to hide the tonal and technical issues I mentioned above. It’s also quite large and luggy, with the most awkward-looking modular plug system I’ve seen on a cable, so ergonomically Orpheus is a step up from stock. 

To be fair, I wouldn’t be buying Orpheus specifically for MSE, but for anyone who owns MSE as part of a larger collection, I can confidentially recommend Orpheus as a synergistic pairing.

FiR Audio Xe6 ($3,699, reviewed here). This is one of the most popular high-end IEMs and for very similar reasons to Orpheus: an ability to sound detailed and technical despite a warm, analogue tonality. Unfortunately, this also makes the Xe6/Orpheus pairing way too much of a good thing for my taste. 

It’s not even that Orpheus radically changes Xe6’s already thick tonality, and if anything, the slightly wider stage gives the boosted midbass and lower midrange notes more room to breathe. But I just don’t feel that Xe6 benefits from Orphy’s technical improvements, at least not to the degree I hear with other IEMs, and tonally it’s just more of the same. 

On the upside, it just proves the point that sometimes you get an IEM with a stock cable that works perfectly well for its tuning and technical ability, and Xe6 is one such IEM. Unless you’re looking to ‘tame’ Xe6’s sound profile to make it more balanced, a cable sway doesn’t really make sense. And if that is what you’re trying to do, there’s a better, less expensive, ready-made alternative in Rn6 anyway.  

Sony IER-Z1R ($1,900). Considering this is my all-time favourite IEM, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the pairing of Sony’s reigning flagship with Orpheus was less than ideal for my taste. It was also a revelation that no matter how good the cable – or any link in the audio chain for that matter – synergy is everything, and if synergy isn’t ideal, the sound will be off. 

That’s the case with Orphy and Z1R. My main issue with the pairing is Orphy’s slight upper midrange boost, that pushes the perfectly-tuned Sony midrange a few decibels over my preferred limit. This makes the upper registers of some female vocals, and the lower registers of cymbal crashes and snares, sound a touch too shouty and splashy respectively.

That said, this ‘mismatch’ gives Z1R even more energy, so those who find the Sony a bit too polite for their liking might find more to like here than I do. I also didn’t find that Orphy does too much for Z1R technically. Stage-wise, Z1R is already massive with the stock cable, and while Orphy does stretch it slightly, the difference is subtle. Resolution also improves  fractionally, but no more than I managed to improve it with Khanyayo’s Cardas Clear cable (see below). 

As such, this is another pairing I wouldn’t specifically recommend buying Orpheus for, especially since it already sounds so accomplished with one of the best stock cables on the market. Also, since Z1R uses mmcx connectors, you either have to use adapters, or buy an Orphy with mmcx connectors, and I generally wouldn’t recommend doing either (unless you have other mmcx IEMs you want to use Orphy with). 

BLON BL-03 ($28). Ok, so this one’s a bit of a meme, and an inside joke with some of my fellow enthusiasts, but bear with me here. Of course you’d have to be insane to pair one of the cheapest IEMs on the market with a cable that costs more than 200 times as much, but we live in a world where anything is possible, and so, why not give it a go – in the name of science. 

The famous little BLON caused quite a storm when it was first released and hyped up the wazoo, but to this day it stands as a testament that a clock is always right twice – in this case, whoever tuned the BL-03 struck audio gold. While it might not be the most technically accomplished IEM, as if that needs saying, it’s tuned incredibly well, with very respectable bass quality and no obvious tonal issues. Treble can be a bit splashy at times, but even then I’m nit-picking with an IEM that costs less than its international postage.

I was startled just how much of Orpheus’s character came through in this pairing. It’s as if the entire FR is tightened up, the rough edges smoothed over, stage expanded in all directions. Listening to Ethel Cain’s House In Nebraska, I swear I can hear her vocal echoes decay further than I did with the Z1R! Of course there’s no serious comparison to be made between the BLON and the Sony, but when synergy works, it sometimes works surprisingly well. 

I’ll leave it there, but for anyone who wonders how good the BLON can sound, and happens to have an Orphy handy, don’t be shy, give them a try. If nothing else it’ll put any of your underperforming IEMs on notice.       

Alternate options

I mentioned earlier that this wasn’t going to be a comparative review, for the simple reason that I don’t have an arsenal of high-end cables available that would make a comparison with Orpheus meaningful. I have some very respectable copper cables on hand, including Effect Audio’s excellent entry-level Ares S 4-wire and 8-wire cables, and Khanyayo’s upcoming Assegai II, but other than the similar base material, neither are really playing on the same field as Orpheus. 

The one cable I do have available is Khanyayo’s Cardas Clear, a virtually identical replica of PW Audio’s own The 1950s cable, which is reputedly the precursor to Orpheus itself. This is the exact same cable that was compared to Orpheus in this excellent review by my friend SteveK, and my findings tally closely with Steve’s.

Where we differ is that I find the Cardas Clear’s bass focus is shifted slightly more towards sub-bass than mid-bass, and its upper midrange isn’t quite as forward as Orphy’s. I also find the Cardas goes toe-to-toe with Orphy for noise floor, and its resolving power is not too far behind either. Treble is also slightly less relexed with the Cardas, so if you’re looking for similar performance with a sparklier treble in a more affordable luxury cable, give the Cardas Clear a try. 

There are, of course, several serious alternatives to Orpheus. I’ve linked to Tokpa Korlo’s review in the intro, and that’s where you’ll find the best resource for comparing how these cables hold up against Orpheus and each other.      

Continue to closing thoughts…

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Picture of Guy Lerner

Guy Lerner

An avid photographer and writer 'in real life', Guy's passion for music and technology created the perfect storm for his love of portable audio. When he's not playing with the latest and greatest head-fi gear, he prefers to spend time away from the hobby with his two (almost) grown kids and wife in the breathtaking city of Cape Town, and traveling around his native South Africa.

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