By Lee Scoggins
There is a huge smile on my face. After several years of rebuilding my system so I can get that elusive musicality and resolution, I have found the final missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle – a digital cable. Yep, this humble piece of wire that connects my beloved Sony SCD-777ES player to the amazing LH Labs Pulse Infinity has created a natural way to enjoy my collection of CDs that I started collecting in 1983.
I’ve been upgrading the system so I can write in a way informed by a system that has sufficient resolution, musicality and neutrality. My goal is simply to write reviews that are accurate and helpful to the reader. To this end, I upgraded from an Audio Research Ref 3 preamp to a Ref 5 SE and from a Modwright SWP 9.0 phono stage to an Audio Research Ref Phono 2. My Audio Research VT-100 was modded to fit KT-120s which improved both bass and midrange, and hopefully tube life. Speakers remain the same at Magnepan 1.7s but a big change is planned for January 2017. Power conditioning is handled by a variety of Shunyata power cords and a PS8/Defender combination. The LH Labs Pulse Infinity DAC I got in six months ago (super special secret-sauce update: it’s also really quite special, and I’m finishing a review on it soon). However, I wasn’t quite feeling that I had a 100% of the digital I needed for my CDs. I really wanted the whole package. I wanted resolution. I wanted musicality. I wanted a sound I could listen to and not want for hirez or LP playback.
It was damn good. It was just not quite “there” yet.
One day, I get a call from Chris. Would I be interested in hearing his latest design? Sure. Absolutely. When are you sending it Chris?
“Chris” is my friend Chris Sommovigo, a designer who now lives in Japan building artisan cables by hand with parts exclusively of his own design, woven on his own braiding machines. It’s not the most economical way of making cables, but based on my listening it may be the most musical.
Let’s cut to the chase. This new Stereolab Digit 75 SPDIF cable (from $550US) is simply the finest digital cable I have heard in my system.
I’m not sure why a cable that carries 1s and 0s sounds different from design to design and brand to brand but it does. The better SPDIF cables seem to get out of the way and let the music breathe.
How good is it? With a good DAC, the Digit 75 massively narrows the gap between 16/44 and high-resolution digital. Ironically, I am listening to a recording by Todd Garfinkle, recording savant at MA Recordings. Garfinkle makes some of the purest and best sounding recordings one can buy. He uses omnidirectional microphones in natural spaces recording in 2x DSD into a highly modified Korg analog-to-digital converter and perhaps even more importantly, Garfinkle seems to find some of the more interesting performers. It’s interesting to note that Garfinkle uses Sommovigo’s new cable designs for his recording.
Take Garfinkle’s incredible recording of the Bach cello suites performed by Martin Zeller on cello. You can hear the sound of every aspect of the instrument. I have this in CD which I am listening to now and hirez files, also available from MA Recordings. But the combination of the Digit 75 with the stellar LH Labs DAC is very, very close to hirez. I don’t say that lightly. I am not a huge fan of 16/44. But nowadays, the technology is getting such that we seem able to wring every last nuance out of 16/44. And in my view, 16/44 has gone from ‘tolerable’ to ‘quite good’ in sound. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer LP, DSD, and 24/96 … but good ole “Redbook” is close.
Moving to the next CD, I cue up “Orange Colored Sky” from Nat King Cole’s from the Steve Hoffman Gold CD. “Orange Colored Sky” starts off soft but quickly has sharp, slightly bright, big band dynamics that just jump into the mix. The transients are super-fast and dynamic as hell. Unfortunately, many CD players dull the entire effect. But here, it’s as though someone is spotlighting Cole’s vocals. And what glorious vocals! It’s the sort of full-throat mellifluousness that any meticulous audiophile is dying to hear. And the big band accents the sound like a full collection of individual instruments, and not some washed out, homogenous wave of sound. I feel like I’m probably hearing what Hoffman was going for in sound, which is to let those magical Capitol tapes flow through to the listener. Moving to track 1, “Unforgettable” is so smooth. Every detail of phrasing is heard. Cole is between the Maggies. There is depth and width to the space. The decay on the notes is lengthy and just fades to black naturally. The tone of Cole voice is warm but not artificially so. Perfect. Dare I say it sounds analog?
Moving to the DCC “Gold Disc” version of Frank Sinatra’s 57, “The Lady is a Tramp” is punchy, the live audience creates the right ambience with clapping and laughing at Frank’s jokes. Frank’s voice is svelte and the backing band is fast with the accents. Leading right into “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, it’s hard to focus on the gear. I’m lost in the Seattle concert in 1957. “I Won’t Dance” may the best track on this disc and it just swings.
I want to point out something else that is special about this cable. Chris has created new XOX connectors that have a highly polished chrome-like finish — it’s gorgeous. The cables come with BNC adapters, so those with BNC-ready connections are in luck. The square-ish connector bodies are similar to the oval-indented Stereovox connectors of years past. The jacket is a finely woven black with nicely contrasting red dots from the red woven strands. It’s a spectacular look, befitting of a reference cable.
The smoothness of sound, the detail that is pulled from my compact discs, the depth and width of the soundstage, and all around musicality is new to me since I connected the Digit 75. I did not have this with the other SPDIFs in my possession. This was what I was missing on digital playback. As fine as the new DAC is, this has elevated the sound to reference quality. The Digit is the best cable I have heard from Chris. This is an absolute must audition for those in need of a reference SPDIF. The Artisan of Kanagawa has reached a whole new level of magic.
I sent some questions over to Chris to answer for more insights into this cable.
This cable really improves on prior SPDIF cables. What have you done to make it sound so good?
Whereas the Silverstar! 75 SPDIF cable is electrically precise, it doesn’t begin to address factors beyond electrical precision. One of those factors is RF noise, which emanates from within digital components. TRØN employs a combination of RF absorbing interstitial layers to address any potential issues pertaining to leakage from the cable or from the components when it comes to this manner of radiated noise. What was proven with TRØN was thereafter applied, in “lite” form, to Digit-75.
- These connectors are really beautiful but do they contribute to the sound quality?
The XOX BNC to RCA adapters that are included with the Digit-75 are simply very well-built adapters with direct-gold-plated pure copper signal pins. What is ordinarily available on the general market for adapting from BNC to RCA is usually some very cheap junk. It was my aim to make something outstanding, and then include it for no extra charge on Digit-75 and TRØN so that my customers would have the ability to switch between BNC and RCA uses without sacrificing performance.
What is next for Stereolab?
Black Cat Cable will be introducing a very high performance line in the fall. This line will be called “INDIGO” and it is a statement series, such as Nordost’s ODIN is their statement series. That is what is next for Black Cat Cable.
For STEREOLAB, as a separate brand, there are some hush-hush projects underway that require a lot of time and also collaboration with some other designers – however, part of what Stereolab is up to will answer your 5th question, and tis has to do with recordings and using Stereolab as the label name.
What has the move to Japan done for your brand? Are you breaking into the local audiophile community?
The Move To Japan: There are so many levels to this, it would be difficult to describe them all completely. This began with a visit to my in-laws with my wife and kids back in March of 2014. We were here for three weeks, during which time I was sort of overcome with the notion that I needed to raise my children in Japan. Factors contributing to this feeling were overarching safety in society for them (extraordinarily low crime here), good public schools, longer childhood (period of innocence, which is still somewhat of an abstract idea but nevertheless obvious upon encounter), and a host of other factors related to their safety and health. Layered over this has been my career-long fascination with Japanese artisanship – especially in the audio arts, my desire to live near the ocean (nailed it – we’re 600m from the Yoshihama shore), and the opportunity to travel around Asia easily and simply.
Japanese culture – not just historical culture, but the cultural atmosphere in which I am now living – is richly complex, and it is fascinating in the way it continues to unfold into and interlace with modern life. Even now, as the Summer begins to peak, we have seen the resurgence in style of the traditional Yukata (which is a manner of light kimono-style robe for both men and women). We’re talking Henan-era clothing here (1,000 AD or so) that remains alive in the culture, and expressed in public by ordinary folks. We were walking around Kamakura yesterday with my nephew and saw many people dressed in Yukata, young and old, but – mostly young! As well, interspersed with modern buildings are myriad shrines and temples from ages past, still functioning, still visited, still respected and interfaced with by modern people.
Occasionally along the streets one might also see a group of Jizos, which are little stone guardians of various shapes and forms, usually “dressed” with some manner of clothing. The group of Jizos nearest to us appear to be women with headscarves, for instance, and it isn’t uncommon to see someone there imploring for some kind of help or intercession or protection.
This intermingling of the ancient and the modern is one thing that makes Japan, indeed many spots in Asia, incessantly interesting.
I see you are working on recordings…what’s the plan for them? Do you have balanced cables now for recording engineers?
The recordings are going to fold into the plans for Stereolab’s re-emergence, as it will act as the “label” for the various recordings I hope to make and release. I’ve made some microphone and balanced cables specifically for these purposes, and I may also sell them to colleagues under the Stereolab marque. These will be simple, live recordings based on my variation (or modification) to the M/S recording technique and processing.
One of the possible projects I’ll be approaching will be some Franck and Fauré violin sonatas, but I’m also looking at material from Poulenc, Ravel, and Debussy to round out the French stream, and then Granados, Albeniz, de Falla, Turina, Rodrigo, Mompou, and Sarasate … big plans! Hope that I at least get to do a reasonable fraction of them.
About the Author
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Lee got interested in audio listening to his Dad’s system in the late 70s and he started making cassettes from LPs. By the early 80s he got swept up in the CD wave that was launching which led to a love of discs from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Later while working on Wall Street in the 90s, Lee started working on blues, jazz and classical sessions for Chesky Records and learned record engineering by apprenticeship. Lee was involved in the first high-resolution recordings which eventually became the DVD-Audio format. Lee now does recordings of small orchestras and string quartets in the Atlanta area.
Lee’s current rig consists of Audio Research Reference electronics and Magnepan speakers fed by a VPI Scoutmaster and Lyra cartridge and several different digital sources.
Lee is a serious music collector with a tendency toward first pressings for LPs and he maintains a large library of import and gold CDs.
Financial interests: none.