Reviewers: Marja Vanderloo & Henk Boot
Sources: CEC TL5100 CD transport with ultra clock; Linn Unidisk 1.1 universal player & Linn Sondek CD12 [in for review]; Audio Note DAC-2 Signature, modified, no digital filter
Preamp/integrated: TacT RCS 2.0 room control system; Audio Note Meishu, modified, with AVVT 300B output tubes; Avantgarde Acoustic Model 5 [in for review]
Speakers: Avantgarde Acoustic Duo, internally wired with silver; Audio Note AN/Jsp, silver wired
Cables: Audio Note AN/Vx interconnects; Siltech Paris interconnects; Gizmo silver interconnect; Qunex 75 reference interconnect [in for review]; Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Reference interconnect, CrystalDigit S/PDIF RCA/RCA and RCA/BNC, CrystalSpeak Reference, CrystalPower Reference AC-Eur/IEC [in for review]; Gizmo silver LS cable
Power line conditioning: Omtec PowerControllers
Sundry accessories: IAR carbon CD damper; Denson CD demagnetizer; TacT RCS calibrated microphone and software; Exact Audio Copy software; Compaq server w/Windows Server 2003 and XP; Wood, brass and aluminum cones and pyramids; Gizmo's Harley Davidson cap; silver Buddha head
Review component pricing: 1 meter CrystalConnect Reference RCA or XLR - $1699; 2 meter CrystalSpeak Reference including splitters - $3699/pr; 1.5 meter CrystalPower Reference - $1499; the standard line equivalents start at $899 for a 1-meter interconnect while the Video line begins at $239 for a 1-meter 3-in-1 component cable
This past week, we have remembered the fallen soldiers of WWII. A day later, we celebrated Liberation Day. Each year, the festivities around these days have a special theme in Holland. This year it's Kiezen en Delen, literally Choose and Share, a variation on the old Dutch Kiezen of Kabelen. As you can see, the latter part Kabelen has a strong resemblance to the English word cable.
The original kabelen means something along the lines of 'parceling out'. The whole saying stems from an old Germanic ritual. In archaic times, robbers and thieves abided by a code of honor wherein one party selected the stolen goods and piled them up on two stacks, the other party had the right to choose a stack - no hassle and fights. The whole action was preceded by the question "Do you want to choose or parcel out?" Later the same procedure was introduced to divide an inheritance.
With the Liberation festivities in full swing, we are now going to talk cable, that most controversial aspect of our audio industry and as such one filled with myths, unyielding opinions and hissy snake pits. Let us talk about the new Dutch Crystal Cables from a very subjective standpoint. Let's start with why there's yet another player to enter the cable market.
Enter Gabi van der Kley, managing director of Crystal Cable. Gabi was born in Hungary and started to play the piano at the tender age of 4. A mere four years later, she already performed with a large orchestra. At age 14, Gabi began her formal conservatory education while continuing a busy schedule of concert tours. The first time Gabi performed in the then 'free' West was at 16. It appears she was very talented.
The downside of all this practicing, studying and performing was, naturally, a lack of a normal childhood. Gabi missed her freedom and wanted to break out of the vicious airport/hotel/concert hall/hotel/airport cycle, make something different of her life. She did finish the conservatory studies but then moved to Holland to make a living as a piano teacher.
It was in Holland where Gabi would meet her husband. He too had a strong musical background but on the clarinet [and he runs famous cable company Siltech - Ed.]. Gabi, now a mother of four kids aged 8 months to 12 years, still regularly plays the piano. Simply put, music remains her passion. Gabi thus is a musician first, MD of Crystal Cable second. [The basic design idea for what was to become Crystal Cable outgrew from a particular branch of Siltech's R&D but couldn't be implemented in Siltech's lineup, hence this second and completely autonomous company was formed - Ed.].
Crystal Cable is different, very different. All of its offerings, from the mains via the interconnects to the speaker, FireWire and video cables, are variations on the same ultra-thin theme of ca. 3mm diameters. And, all Crystal cables exhibit a silvery appearance that telegraphs through a transparent but very tough outer jacket.
It is a rather revolutionary step to enter the high-end cable market with a product this different. Over 90% of all other cable makers follow the trend wherein good/better/best equates to thick/thicker/thickest, wherein their best offerings boldly veer past the garden-hose format into sewer-sucker pipe territory. Perhaps it required a woman to really think outside the box and combine two different technologies (aeronautic/space and metallurgy) to achieve her admirable goals of combining highest possible quality with the physically smallest possible package?
Every modern airplane and of course all space shuttles, satellites and interplanetary probes are filled with miles and miles worth of cable. These cables must be strong, lightweight and shielded as powerfully as possible. They have to survive the physical vibrations of the planes and the temperature extremes of space travel. Every ounce of weight saved from plane or probe can be converted into payload. Cables, especially complexly shielded ones, used to be heavy. Yet shielding in these applications is hyper crucial - just imagine the potentially catastrophic effects of EMI or RF interferences affecting just one of the countless on-board computers. For these reasons, heavy industrial research has led to cable insulation and shielding that employs exotic materials like Dupont's Kapton and Peek foils and Carbon fiber. These materials and specific applications thereof meet the needs for lightweight, ultra-strong and heavily shielded cables. Hence that's one of the technologies employed within Crystal cables.
The other one concerns itself over conductor material. The audio industry is rife with experiments in that regard. From ordinary copper, one proceeds to oxygen-free copper to avoid internal corrosion. Molecular deformation is countered with extrusion methods that are gentler on the poor grains, the molecules grown longer to lower the granularity of the material. Besides copper and silver, there are gold and Palladium and certain alloy mixes to become conductive choices, each with its own sonic signature and inherent pros and cons. On the very exotic edge of conductor materials, we find pure carbon and even amorphous metals. [To indicate just how exotic amorphous variants of standard materials can be, consider that the unit price for Dupont's normal Teflon as used by every upscale cable manufacturer is $7. The equivalent amorphous version -- same material, same quantity, zero grain -- carries the astronomical price tag of $20,000. Astronomical. Outer space. Bleeding edge. Get it? - Ed.].
The conductor of choice for Crystal Cable is gold-injected silver. In non-disclosed fashion, an advanced metallurgical process combines both materials in -- again undisclosed -- proportions. Carefully extruding raw wire from these gold-injected silver ingots, the resultant naked solid-core conductors are then covered by Kapton and Peek foils and a Carbon layer before the silver-plated braid shield is applied. Once the transparent outer jacket is added, a basic unterminated Crystal Cable is ready. And yes, that makes it a coaxial cable.
All manner of studies report on the influences that dielectrics and outer jackets have on a cable especially in an audio environment where complex harmonic signals are the rule. These signals aren't currents but more akin to shock waves. Air is said to be the best dielectric but, like a pure vacuum, not very practical. Interaction between whatever dielectric is chosen and the conductor itself can cause audible alterations. In the security business, such effects are exploited in a trigger wire. Fences around a protected object are equipped with a cable where the interaction between dielectric and wire core is used deliberately to generate a current. Once that current is detected by a monitor, a guard knows that someone is tampering with his security fence.
Something similar is happening in many audio cables, albeit on a smaller scale. A cable dangling freely can be struck like a guitar string to generate signal distortion as a result of friction between wire core and dielectric. This behavior adds to the distinctive but unwanted sound of a cable. By the way, signal does not flow through a wire like water through a pipe. It merely travels 'on' the conductor like a train 'on' its tracks. And that same dangling cable also goes through and generates various electromagnetic fields and is affected by radio-frequency interference as well as electromagnetic interference from neighboring components. Transformers and power lines are additional sources. And how about the fields formed by our very homes?
Our own Rotterdam apartment is built from steel-enforced concrete, with the steel reinforcements hopefully properly grounded to earth. We once had a large television on the floor and were unable to obtain a proper image. The image was completely skewed to one edge the way a cathode ray gun monitor reacts when you hold a magnet in front of the screen (don't try this or you stand to ruin your monitor). With such possible effects, now you are routing your precious cables across the floor and next to your walls. And RFI pollution is getting worse and worse. Everybody wants to be connected and walks around with a cellphone. Receiver-transmitters are mushrooming faster than the weeds in the garden. Add your oh-so-convenient microwave (but don't use it to boil water or said water could explode into your face when you remove it), your indispensable PC and -- if you're lucky -- your digital high-definition TV and satellite radio signals.
It must be clear by now that a non-reactive (passive) dielectric plus the best-possible EMI/RFI shielding is mandatory to insure that our audio signal is transported through the system without any external or internal influences. This often results in very inflexible and monstrously thick contraptions with occasional add-on devices to slay all sorts of audio vampires. The dear Dr. Gizmo called these practices Complexzilla.
Crystal Cable goes about these common challenges its very own way and invests in super-shielding with foils. In the close-up picture of the stripped center conductor above, you can see a brown strip. That is exposed Kapton. This Dupont material is very expensive when compared to the ubiquitous Teflon but very hard, very strong and an even better dielectric. The reason it isn't used more often? Next to expense, it's the practical difficulty of applying these foils to a wire as thin as Crystal Cable. [As our own Chip Stern knows, JPS Labs' Kaptovator power cord is both very expensive and rather thick, presumably exactly because it employs Kapton for a superior dielectric - Ed.].
Now we arrive at a length of cable that is heavily insulated and shielded - but Gabi goes one step further still. Instead of simply cutting off a desired length from one of her custom spools to attach some top-grade WBT connectors, she adds a uniquely practical feature to her speaker cables. Inside its next-to-nothing 3mm (1/8") diameter, it actually already houses 4 individual conductors to be primed for bi-wiring. Preceding the terminations, you'll find a 4-pin screw connector. Hey, wait a minute, there's a redundant connector in the signal path? This is like swearing in church - reason for instant excommunication. But what if these connectors were of the highest quality? Could you still hear them? Not, as we will see later on. These clever connectors allow the attachment and swapping of so-called splitters. These splitters can either be single- or bi-wired and terminate in spades, bananas or a combination thereof to transform this very thin loudspeaker cable in true Medusa-heads fashion into whatever the occasion demands. Converting from single- to bi-wire is child's play, avoids cutting or soldering and requires a minimal extra investment of another splitter tail. A small ridge on the splitter's sleeve assures correct orientation during connection. Who else but Gabi could have conceived of combining all of these different concepts into one very flexible, handsome yet true high-performance cable?
Crystal's interconnects use top-line Furutech or Neutrik connectors. It's funny to see a standard-size RCA plug on such a thin, lightweight cable. The twisted-pair mains cables are necessarily a little thicker (4mm or 1/6") but still incredibly thin compared to other power cords. This means you don't have to steal outside at night and grab some bricks from the road to weigh down your equipment because your cables are dislocating them. Crystal Cables are simply fabulous when it comes time to actually deploy them, to run them across a room under a rug while causing zero problems when stepping or even dancing on them.
Gabi van der Kley supplied us with a full set of cables to rewire our entire system. Her cables arrived in a big box filled with film reel tins. Each tin housed a single or pair of cable. After all the above theories about materials and connection concepts, the truth is in the listening of course. Let's open the tins and start listening. How does Crystal sound? To be frank and as objective as subjective can be, they don't sound like anything at all.