Chris Sommovigo of Stereolab, which makes the Black Cat line of cables, had a table near CanJam showing off his latest affordable cables named Coppertone. I’ve been impressed with Chris’ designs in the past and was curious what he was now doing with Coppertone so I followed up with Chris after RMAF and he graciously agreed to meet at a nearby taco place. Chris is an intelligent, deliberate person and he’s always been good about sharing his knowledge on cables and electrical current flow in the past so I wanted to get the full scoop in person. I have tried his previous Morpheus and Lectraline products and have been wowed so I was curious to hear what his latest approach was. I had met Chris in Atlanta a while back but he moved his family to the Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan for a few years; now he has moved back to Atlanta and is conveniently close to me in the suburbs of Atlanta. Before writing this article I got a chance to listen to the Black Cat Coppertone interconnect ($199.95 per meter pair), USB cable ($149.95), and speaker cable ($299.95 per 2.5 meter pair). I was very surprised how well they performed for the reasonable money they cost. Now I would get a chance to grab a Tropicalia beer with Chris and find out how these cables were made right here in my home town Alpharetta, Georgia.
Chris explained that he pulls from higher-end work for Coppertone but distills it into easier to make cable using more affordable materials, cutting some margin as well with the goal to sell more. Chris uses a “nami” process which puts a wavy conductor inside an air tube: he calls this the airwave conductor. Nami in Japanese means wave. The idea here is to substantially suspend or float the conductor in air. This dates back to thinking by the audio legend Alan Blumlein. Blumlein figured out how to maximize bandwidth by floating the conductor in air by shaping the conductor with kinks periodically but Blumlein’s method only worked for straight wires and we need wire to bend for real-world audio applications. Thus, Chris decided to create “waves” of conductors in the tube so even when flexed, they would maintain a suspension, meaning. that the conductor would not get too close to the side of the tube which would cause electrical degradation. In interconnects, capacitance is the big issue and this method lowers capacitance, a good thing, and it doesn’t hinder velocity or, in other words, the signal is not slowed by the dialectric. Chris worked with Chris Hildebrand of Fern & Roby to build a machine to create waves in the wire. In Coppertone, the wire uses helically wound, tin-plated copper shielding and the conductors are 24 gauge, solid core copper. Chris builds the wire from scratch, so to speak, using his own customized looming machines at his factory. This is a labor-intensive way to do things so it is even more remarkable that Chris can offer this price point. In many ways, I view his operation as the small-batch distillery approach to cables. In my early experiments with the Coppertone cable in my desktop system, the cable created a very detailed yet music sound. Organic is a word I would use, even if that is overused in audiophile land.
The Coppertone speaker cable at the price of $299.95 for a 2.5 meter pair is made up of tin-plated copper conductors. Chris focuses on “skin effect”, the signal migrating to outside of conductor as frequency increases. Even inaudible frequencies affect everything that happens below them. So what happens is that outer portion is being used on conductor when skin effect is in play. When the flow is on the outer edge, you get less conductor mass and thus higher resistance. Low frequencies use the entire conductor, higher frequencies use less of a conductor. The Black Cat solution is a micro-tube of copper. These tubes are made out of smaller, thin wires and skin effect is effectively solved. The other issue is proximity effect which occurs when two electrical wires are too close to one another. Tube conductors must be co-located so the only solution here is coaxial positioning. So you keep the tubes close but insulated enough by a nylon insulator and then keep it round by having a teflon tube former in the middle. With this design, there is no chance of current concentration. Conductors are fully saturated. To terminate the cable, Chris carefully uses precision tools to break out the red and black wires (positive and negative). Chris thinks a lot about connector quality as well, having designed the popular XOX connectors, for instance. At this price point, he uses bananas that are pure copper with heavy gold plating. The connector shaft has coarse threading. In the manufacture, conductors come into contact with coarse ridges with heavy crimping. This creates something that is as close as possible to a very intense weld. By using intense pressure with wires on the shaft, there are no contact losses in these bananas. And again it shows in the the openness and musicality of the cable.
I also had a USB cable from the Coppertone line which connected my new MacBook to the Mytek Brooklyn Plus DAC which I am using to do Tidal and Qobuz listening. A beautiful black cable with red accents, this USB is very flexible to use and sounds good even with only 24 hours on it. Chris tells me it will improve even more as we get 50-100 hours logged. Coppertone USB is a standard twisted pair design with his: “Quietex” shielding: bare copper and carbon fiber which absorbs the RF leakage coming out of the components. Does Chris know USB? Oh yes! Chris got the first Cosecant USB DAC off the line from Gordon Rankin so he has literally been building USB cables since the very beginning.
Chris also is building some pretty cable lifts in gold and black metal which he showed off in Denver. At ten lifts for $74.95, these are among the more affordable lifts out there. Chris says, “If you’ve got carpets, many people think that cable lifts help to neutralize the influence that carpets may have on the dielectric signature of the cable (especially power cords and loudspeaker cables). The XOX Cable-Cars are not capacitive, and present vanishingly low inductive influence (because of their hyper-thin profile) – so they’re about as invisible as I can make them, in terms of interaction with the electrostatic or electromagnetic fields emanating from loudspeaker cables and power cords (primarily).”
Given the history of Black Cat and Chris’ expertise, I could not keep myself from exploring what Chris has done on the affordable end. The sound is just sublime. I cannot wait to hear what Chris can do with his reference lines. Chris is a bit of a well-kept secret among some corners of audio. At this level of performance, he shouldn’t be and won’t be for long.
This is yet another example of reference level work informing the more affordable lines. It’s a great time to be a new audiophile!