Stereolab and The Black Cat
I get nervous talking about cables. And actually writing up a review? Sheesh. The problem is that there’s still a rather tenacious debate going on in audiophile land about whether or not cables can make any difference at all to the sound quality of the system they’re found in. They can get quite … ah … loud. Nasty, even.
I’ve pontificated enough about it. In short, I think the a priori arguments are all junk. The ones arguing from personal experience are worse. But it remains a fact that not everyone will hear the difference a cable might make.
Maybe it’s a matter of system resolution. Maybe. I do know that when I borrowed a suite of cables from The Cable Company one Christmas holiday, I was wholly disappointed — I heard nothing at all that differentiated $30 speaker cables from ones 100x more costly. But is that all of it? No, probably not. I suspect that one of the hidden issues here is one of education. The more you listen, or rather, the more you learn what to listen for, the easier it becomes to hear small differences. Practice, as they say, makes perfect. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Learn too much and you run the risk of becoming dissatisfied with your more affordable cables.
But getting back to me. I’ve been practicing. Unfortunately. And as a result, I’ve heard too many seemingly obvious and glaring differences in too many different systems to continue to dismiss the contribution cables can make. That said, I will follow that with this: those changes are subtle. Sometimes very subtle. But not always. And performance is not a reliable measure of cost. Some of the costliest cables I’ve ever tried have sounded far worse than cables costing a fraction of their price tag. Complicating matters grossly, I’ve heard cables that sound like crap in one setup sound magical in another. And vice versa. Which blows.
But whatever you think and feel about cables, and whether or not you believe they can make a positive change in your system’s sound, do us both a favor. Trust no one. Do it yourself. Beg, borrow or steal some cables — and just try them out. And not just at home, either. Take them to a dealer — or 3 — and try them there, too. And if at the end of your tests, you’re still unconvinced, you can safely save your dough. Simple.
The problem with cable reviews is that they tend to devolve into either a love-fest of hyperbolic literary excess — and still actually saying nothing — or they become shootouts, with results that are only relevant to the systems doing the comparisons. As I mentioned above, different systems sound different (duh), but they also place different demands on the cables — and like it or not, sometimes the effects come dangerously close to what purists might call “tone controls”. And when they do, the color that one cable presents to one system may well change when that same cable is placed into another.
Well, okay, that’s the theory. And I say that all in advance so that you don’t take my results too seriously. Obviously, you’re going to need to do your own trials. Okay? Okay.
So, I’m using my Plinius rack to push the current. I have a Plinius SA-Reference amp fronted by a Plinius Tautoro preamp. Digital tunes come from a MacBook Pro by way of a Legato S/PDIF converter from Analog Research Technology and on into my Berkeley Alpha DAC. Base cabling is Blue Jeans: 10-White on the speakers, LC-1 on the single-ended interconnects from sources, Belden 1800F for preamp-to-amp.
I also have a couple dozen different wires from different manufacturers on loan, including Cardas Clear & Clear Light, CRL Silver and Bronze, Clarity Cable Organic, WyWires, Audience Au24e, and Anti-Cables.
This post is not a shootout. In fact, I’m not going to compare the various cables at all, except to each other. Rather, I’ve used the cables mentioned above singly and in sets in order to isolate the sonic contribution of the Stereolab & Black Cat wires. For the preamp-to-amp wire, for example, I’d wire the entire rig with end-to-end Stereolab/Black Cat, and then swap out everything else but the interconnect in question. Then, I’d reverse that process, starting with a different loom, and swapping in the interconnect and then the rest of the Stereolab lineup.
Not every loom gave a clean comparison. Sometimes, the sound was too similar to sort out. In those cases, I’d try a different loom. Sometimes, the sound was different enough that it’s character was immediately apparent, but usually, the sound changes were relatively subtle. In some cases, wire changes were performed by a third party, but no attempt was made to keep me in the dark as to what was going in where. I don’t really care about DBT and cables anymore, so if you do, feel free to argue with me as to why I should care.
Cruising with the ‘Cat (& Friends)
So, it was in the spirit of exploration that I called Chris Sommovigo of Stereolab and Black Cat. He very kindly sent me some of the cables he had on hand and let me try them out. I’ve got two different versions of his (still to be released) Black Cat Morpheus speaker cables, a pair of Studio line Draco XLR interconnects, and a 3m pair of his Reference LS-700 speaker cables. All are wonderful cables.
The build quality on the Stereolab Reference cables is what you’d expect it to be for this price. They’re very touchable. In fact, the opalescent sheen of the sleeve might be something of a problem — you’re going to want to touch it. Stroke it. Roll your thumbs over it. Yeah. Okay, moving on. Ahem. Both the Reference and Studio lines ship with specialty connectors from one of Chris’ sidelines, Xhadow Precision Connectors.
They’re dainty little things that grip well and feel very robust and well made. They’re just little. Not a lot of waste here — the emphasis is clearly on providing a strong electrical connection. Between the sheathing and the specialty connectors, the References look and feel like they’re costly bits of audio jewelry. Pricing starts at $3750 for 1.5m.They’re also thin and rather easy to work with, unlike, say, the fire hose that is a CRL Silver cable. And the sound? In my two demo systems, the sound was clear, clean and extended. Great treble detail. Great slam in the bass. More linear in the midrange than, say, a Cardas. Most interesting was the sense of 3-D space that I heard from both systems with this cable in the chain. It was eerie and immediately apparent. If I wasn’t so uncertain of my choices in speakers (for example, will the Merlins stay or go?), these would be a no-brainer. I have never had my Merlins sound better and that’s a fact.
Moving to the Stereolab Draco interconnects will lose you some of the bespoke look and feel of the Reference. Obviously. Gone is the silky sheath, to be replaced by a still upscale but more familiar black sheathing. The connectors, however, are still Xhadow instead of the ubiquitous Neutrik. I think these fit more snugly into the ports on my gear, and as a bonus, they also have a very pretty mirror & matte finish. In my system, which is all Plinius gear, there’s an obvious bias in favor of XLR connectors that isn’t eliminated by simple level matching. The amp & pre just seem to like being hooked up this way. And the Dracos have been the best interconnect I’ve had the pleasure to test in this setup. Oh, they’re also $995 a pair. Swapping through half a dozen other cables of similar type I was able to characterize the sound as being very linear, extended, and delicate. Perhaps not as 3-d as the Reference, but with greater specificity and air than anything else I’ve tried. I’m going to be really sad to see these go back.
Next but certainly not least is the forthcoming stereo speaker cables from Chris’ more affordable Black Cat label, the Morpheus. I have both the “base” version and the “XL” version of these “budget” speaker cables — and they’re anything but sleep inducing. In fact, with the XL, I have a new reference for “affordable” cables.
A quick aside about those zap-quotes. The terms ‘budget’ and ‘affordable’ are utterly relative. In this context, I’m simply comparing them to their stablemates and not making some kind of comment about the industry, oddball pricing practices, or anything of the sort. The fact is that when you’re talking about almost $4k for speaker cables (the Reference), then $400 or less will seem like a screamin’ deal. That’s it. Okay? Okay.
I liked the Morpheus (somewhere around $300/8′) cables right from the get-go, even though Chris warned me that they require “prodigious break in”. Enter the Audiodharma Cable Cooker. 2 days worked a trick on these cables. The midrange was as liquid as I could have asked for and the treble was a fair approximation of the sparkle that the Reference cables had so much of. While the eerie 3-D effects weren’t present, the instrument placement was clean and clear, and the sound stage seemed very obviously and appropriately delineated. The overall presentation was more linear than my Blue Jeans cables, which, by comparison, seemed to be a bit warmer in the mids and a bit rolled in the treble. Swapping out to the Morpheus XL, which are targeting the $500/pair price point and carry twice the conductor mass, the bass reproduction on my Merlins and the Joseph’s suddenly gained depth and definition, but they readily maintained the overall sonic character of the “base” Morpheus speaker cables. I’m smitten. I may have to get me some of these when Chris finally starts shipping them.
Morpheus XL is far, far better than it’s modest targeted price point might suggest. In fact, of the bunch, it was obvious to me that the entire Black Cat line is the “steal me now” offering Chris currently has in his bag. This goes doubly so for the Morpheus XL. They do everything I want them to and leave nothing — that is, no frequencies — on the table. End to end, the sound is just great. Aside from the inevitable drop in connector quality (sadly, there’s no Xhadow connectors on any of the Black Cats, a move which would probably totally blow out the price point Chris is trying to hit), I have no issues or wants with this cable. And if I could swap the stock bananas for some of those slinky little Xhadow banana connectors, I feel pretty confident that Chris could sell the very same wire for twice the cost and no one would even blink.
Is that too much hyperbole? I hope not.
Note: no oscilloscopes were harmed during the creation of this blog entry. Take this offering as what it’s worth, one man’s experiences. I really like the Stereolab cables. And the Black Cats? A steal.