Sunday, April 30, 2017

Black Cat Cable - The Tube Extreme RCA cable


A very long time ago when I was a wee little audiophile, there lived a cable designer. His name was Chris Sommovigo and he designed a really famous digital cable that become the go-to cable for SPDIF use - The Illuminati D-60. 

Now, wee little audiophiles don't have a lot of money, especially ones that did not have a part-time job, nor rich parents. Hence, I never got that D-60, and after much sleepless nights worrying about signal reflections as a result of impedance mismatches, I took the cheap way out and purchased some 75 ohm coaxial cable used for TV aerial use and soldered some RCA connectors on them. 

Illuminati eventually got acquired by Kimber cable, and Chris ended up starting a few other companies such as Stereovox and Black Cat Cable. I finished school, got a job and can thankfully now afford some audiophile toys for myself from tome to time.

Recently, Black Cat Cable offered a limited run of a modestly priced RCA cable, "The Tube" with the very sexy XOX connectors. To a weak-minded audiophile like me, this was like dangling fish before a very hungry cat. My brain is programmed similarly to that of a cat, and I never say no to food. 

A short while later, a package arrived and the unboxing ceremony was an event in itself. I am very fond of Japanese packaging, and as far as I am concerned, this cable box could very well pass itself off as a presentation box for my many beautiful Japanese fountain pens.

I ended up loving this cable as much as my many fountain pens, except that this cable actually cost much less ! 

Black Cat Cable - The Company  

I had read about Chris's move to Japan - a small seaside town in Kanagawa prefecture. A move from an American city to a small town in Japan - that's really quite a change ! 

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and here is his verbatim reply (except for obvious typo corrections) - 

Q - Chris, your approach is really different from other industry participants. You choose to run your own winding machines, and even terminate all your cables yourself. This is really different from the new world order of getting an OEM manufacturer to fabricate a cable for you in bulk. Any insights as to why you choose to pursue this route that is a lot more difficult - both in terms of resources and scalability ?

A - The traditional methods of manufacturing cable from the industrial segment rely on big thermoplastic extrusions being squeezed out over bare wires, and this more or less limits the expressions of design that one can indulge in. There’s nothing inherently terrible about that approach - 99.9999% of cables sold in the consumer electronics industry are produced in this way.

The industrial model relies upon routine processes, and so when it comes to cable designs most companies have to shoehorn their intentions and desires into the existing paradigm of the industrial routine. I wanted to do some unusual things that were not really plausible from within the industrial model of manufacturing, so I had to figure out how to do them in my own workshop by creating and adapting processes and machines for my purposes. This has taken several years of continuous development, and evolutions in my thinking about how to approach the basic architecture of building a cable from raw materials. I’m at a point now where I’m satisfied that the processes are fine tuned and I can express my design motifs confidently.

In terms of scalability, these processes can be scaled up, but I’m not certain that I want to expand too much. My intention is not to be fighting for market share in all the top distributors and dealers around the world. To do that effectively and compete against the well known brands you have to do what they do: offer 80%+ margins, spiffs, free product, and on and on. I’m just a little guy … I can’t play those games. I can’t get in that race to the bottom.

What I do is highly specialized, and so I think it is better to keep the scale modest. Yes, there is room for some expansion, but this is High End Audio … not general consumer electronics. For my own philosophy, I think that there needs to be a degree of art and artisanship in what we do. We have to earn our keep in this way by producing authentic and specialized products for people who appreciate fine things. By the nature of that philosophy, this can’t be done on a large scale and it can’t be done cheaply. 

Q - I feel that your move to Japan really resonates with your product ethos. The culture there really believes in pride of workmanship, regardless of whether the job is simple or complex / highly skilled. Any comments ?

A - I think of Japan’s traditions of artisanal expertise coupled with the reputation for precision as a kind of ideal mix of characteristics. There’s a world of extraordinary craftsmanship here that connects past and present in ways that are really quite nourishing and enriching to the soul. I don’t dare think of myself in these terms, but I deeply appreciate and somewhat idolize people here who have mastered their crafts and who preserve their traditions. I’m in an environment that suits my way of thinking when it comes to my products and my art, and it’s quite nourishing to be immersed in this world.

Q - You are one of the very few in the industry to use proprietary in-house designed connectors. The Lovecraft and XOX connectors. Could you tell us a bit about these connectors ? I noticed that you don't follow the current trend of low-mass designs.

These are neither low mass not high mass, really. They are suitable for what I need them for, and there is an advantage to the way in which I execute the pin designs: they are a direct-gold plated copper hollow pin with a set screw. There are raised edges inside the pin so that when I use the set screw to tack down the conductor, the edges bite into the conductors and ensure a very low contact-resistance. I then flow solder into the joint so that there is some strain relief and also so that it forms a proper hermetic seal.

This approach is fundamentally excellent for making electrical connections such as these, but I never found any connectors available that had all of these attributes together. So I designed my own. These are quite a departure from my old Xhadow designs. Most obviously I am not using silver-plating any longer. I do like it better than gold plating, but the problems of tarnishing over time were problematic and erased the benefits of using silver plating. Although I retain the set-screw approach that I designed into the Xhadow connectors, the obvious departure is the hollow pin and the raised internal ridges (which I think is original and a bit clever). 

Q - Your geometries are quite complex. I guess that simple geometries didn't quite cut it for you ?

A - Simple geometries are effective to a degree, and they certainly fit into the industrial routines. I had different ideas that I really wanted to express, ways of ensuring high velocities inside the cable, and ways of making certain that they weren’t suffering from skin effect and proximity effect. The Matrix and The Matrix Mk. II are probably my most complicated builds that are in production, but upcoming will be my Super-Reference “Indigo” and that adds a new dimension of complexity to the approach I use with The Matrix.

But there’s also something positive to be said about distilling ideas into very simple and elegant forms, and to this end I have a project, called “AIRWAVE”, that is based upon the distillation and simplification of something that was designed during the Indigo development cycle. It’s not nearly the same as what’s being done for Indigo, but it benefits by the approach and allows me to create something very good and yet quite inexpensive. I’m quite excite about AIRWAVE because it’s going to bring some seriously high performance to folks who want entry-level products. 

Q - Any chance we will see power cords in the future ? 

A - Perhaps. Probably. Possibly. I don’t know … lots of folks ask me about them. Maybe it’s time.

The Tube Extreme Cable

The XOX RCA plug up close. Puts most connectors out there to shame.

Since we are on the topic of artisan works of art from Japan, here is a picture of my Nakaya Piccolo Arai-shu fountain pen. Ebonite body and Urushi lacquer finished.

The Tube Extreme is a special model that was launched as a limited run for lucky audiophiles that were fast enough to click on the "Buy" button. It is essentially the Tube Mk II terminated with XOX RCA plugs instead of the usual Lovecraft RCA plugs used in the Redlevel RCA cable range.

The Redlevel RCA cable range is based on a thin-walled hollow Teflon tube that is shielded by pure copper strands, and then covered by a multifilament nylon jacket. All this is done in-house by Chris using his own machines. Do take some time to visit Black Cat's Facebook page to view some videos of the machines in action - it's a sight to behold.

The center conductors vary according to the model. The Tube (which is the entry level model for Redlevel) uses a hollow dead-soft annealed copper tube with 0.008" thick walls. This tube is formed in an undulating wave pattern before being hand-run into the Teflon tube. Climbing up the ladder gets you more complicated center conductors with exotic weave patterns, and in some cases - pure silver conductors.

Despite the copper tube running through this cable, it remains flexible and easy to route.

The Tube Extreme has an organic and pleasing glow to it. Music flows forth naturally with a presentation that is laidback and not jarring to the senses. Like many of the other Black Cat cables, there is more emphasis on flow than leading edge. 

Tonally, the Tube Extreme could be described as a warm sounding cable with good tone density, timing and detailing. If you like your cables lightning fast with very sharp edge definition, this is NOT the cable for you. 

To be continued ...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Nagra BPS Phono Stage - Brief Impressions


As luck would have it, a kind soul lent me a Nagra BPS phono stage for a week to conduct an analog workshop for a small group. The BPS was handed over to me in a small plastic flightcase, which was a refreshing change from the equipment I have had to handle recently (which could double up as weights in the gym !)


The Nagra BPS is slightly larger than the palm of my hand, and operates from a single 9V battery. It has a variety of loading and gain options, which should make it easy to mate with a variety of cartridges. MC gain is partly accomplished using in-house wound transformers.

The top cover of the BPS removes easily using the supplied hex key, giving access to various jumpers and the loading board. A separate hatch allows you to swop the 9V battery easily without having to open the top cover. 

The front panel has a single toggle switch with three positions, "on", "off" and "test" (for battery life). The rear panel has two pairs of RCA sockets and an incredibly small grounding post. A DC socket allows you to use the BPS with an external power supply (7-10 V DC). I used this feature only to keep the circuit warmed-up and switched to the battery for listening sessions.

Gain is a very healthy 53 db for MM and 64 db for MC. Jumpers allow you to attenuate the gain by 16 db if you require. The resistive load settings for the BPS are 100, 150, 220, 330, 470 and 1000 ohms. 

I was a bit concerned about battery life in use, but the manual states that the battery life is 100 hours, and in the 4-5 hours that I used the unit, the dealer installed battery held up fine.

Sound Quality

I tried it first with my high output MC cartridge, a Sumiko Blackbird. The high frequencies were distorted, but using the 16db attenuator fixed all of that. Compared to my Whest Two phonostage, the Nagra had a lighter and faster tone. 

The workshop host was using a midrange Pro-ject deck with an Ortofon 2M Blue MM cartridge. The differences between the Nagra and Whest were clearly audible, with some members of the audience preferring the more linear and extended sound of the Nagra and some preferring the more romantic tone of the Whest. The Nagra had a more neutral tone, with a very tight and fast bass line, and a drier but more extended top end. I also felt that the Nagra's soundstage presentation was more distant, but with better separation and more precise imaging.

Moving the Nagra back home, I tried it with my main rig, a Soulines Kubrick DCX with Jelco SA-750 tonearm. I tried a Hana SH cartridge - a high output MC cartridge (review coming) and a Shelter 5000 MC cartridge. I used my Graham Slee Reflex M and Elevator as a comparison phono stage. The Nagra sounded quite different in this setup. On both cartridges, midrange had a more laidback and subtly creamy quality to it, while both frequency extremes were clean and tightly controlled. The Graham Slee had a much more dynamic presentation, with a more vibrant and tonally dense delivery. Staging wise, the Graham Slee projected a more three dimensional stage, with a greater sense of depth and height. In comparison, you could describe the Nagra as being subtly expressive, but with a more restrained delivery.


Performance wise, I would put the Nagra to be on par with the Graham Slee duo, although their tonal balance are quite different. As a matter of reference, both phono stages are in a similar price bracket locally. Assuming that you like a more neutral tone, the Nagra is an impressive phono stage.