Black Cat Chris Sommovigo has been designing and manufacturing cables for the high-end audio industry since 1992. In his words, he has been "running in the opposite direction of what most audiophile cable companies seem to be doing. When others offered to the audiophile community "big, fat interconnect and speaker cables loaded with unnecessary conductor density", he marketed "slimmer cables that had conductor density that was more appropriate, and addressed issues such as proximity effect, skin-effect, and velocity". When all the other cable companies began offering digital cables, he recalled that "these were actually what most would consider analog cables, but they simply repackaged them as digital. But I marketed impedance-critical, super wide-band cables that met the digital specifications precisely". And when others started selling what he calls "cable sausage", that was "squeezed out of huge industrial thermoplastic extruders", he countered with "high-tech insulators that had to be braided and knitted onto the conductors in order to achieve best performance".
He went on to say that since old habits dies hard, the demand for big, heavy cables with "shiny jewelry attached" remains attractive to many audiophiles. He had even been asked by some dealers and distributors if he would be able to manufacture "giant anaconda-like cables", because this would help them market his cables. He said no, because he wanted "to preserve my own integrity and the integrity of my design philosophy. From my perspective, there is a right way and a wrong way, and this is something that has been clear to me, if not to anyone else". After email exchanges and speaking over the phone with Chris Sommovigo a few times, it also struck me that he has more technical knowledge with regard not only to cables, but audio in general, than any cable manufacturer I've ever met. His cables might not look fancy, but it seems as if he has many good reasons to design them the way he does. And spoiler alert: his cables sound like it. I've had some very pricey cable in my system, and even though his cables cost much less, the Black Cat Series 3200 cables can compare favorably to many of them. And sound better than many of them, too.
Black Cat 3202 Interconnect
A benefit of this new geometry was an "extraordinarily low" capacitance, which is very desirable when it comes to interconnects. As a small company with his own methods and machines, Black Cat is able to explore these ideas without having to engage subcontractors. When he ran a small batch of these new cables with the 32-element matrix on the outside of a hollow, Teflon tube with a small twisted-pair of "Airwave" magnetic wires suspended inside the air tube, it was obvious that he was onto something. Replacing the cables in his system with this new design, he had a revelation, making him want to redefine the definition of "resolution". He said that "effortlessness" would be a better term for what he heard with this new cable. According to Chris, this effortlessness means that with the 3202 interconnect "there is no sense of strain, the music emerges whole, unsullied by artifact, and the system itself fades away".
3232 Speaker Cable
Digital And USB Cable
When offered to review the Black Cat cable, and
again just before I was sent enough of their interconnect and speaker cable to
rewire my entire system, I warned Chris Sommovigo. I let him know that I just
finished a review
of the very impressive Accusound's XD interconnect, Digital Link, and XD
loudspeaker cables. These cables are on average seven to eight times the
price of the Black Cat cables that I was being offered to review. I told Chris
that I was willing to try his brand of cables, as long as he didn't get too
upset if I said in my review that I wasn't blown away by the Black Cat cables
when compared to the more expensive wires. He agreed. So, when the Black Cat
cables arrived, out came the older cables, and in went the Black Cat. I ran a
one meter balanced interconnect between my reference Pass
Laboratories X350.5 power amplifier, and the preamplifier I was
currently using, an extremely transparent, full-function Mark
Levinson No 523 preamplifier.
Although, I wasn't using the fine phono
preamplifier in this component, instead using my Pass
Labs XP-15 phono preamp, snaking an unbalanced RCA interconnect between
it and the Levinson. I didn't need to run a cable from my turntable set-up to
the phono preamp because my Tri-Planar 6 tonearm is hard-wired with its own
unbalanced RCA-terminated interconnect. It is now using an Urushi Etsuro
Bordeaux phono cartridge (review forthcoming) that in turn is mounted on a Basis
Debut V turntable. I ran a 1.5-meter balanced interconnect between an EMM Labs
DA2 digital-to-analog converter to an input on the preamp. I installed between
the power amp and a pair of Sound
Lab Majestic 545 full-range electrostatic speakers a four-meter pair of
3202 speaker cables. The speaker's low-end was augmented with a pair of SVS
SB16-Ultra 16" 1500-Watt subwoofers (review forthcoming) which have recently
replaced my Velodyne 15" 1250-Watt subs. I didn't bother requesting a four-meter
pair of cables for the subs. Maybe next time.
The Black Cat cables were not broken in prior to their arrival in my system, so I tried not to be too judgmental about their sound. Especially since Enjoy The Music,.com recently published a review of the much more expensive cables. But you know what? Even before the Black Cat cables were fully broken in, they sounded very good. More than very good! In fact, I was very impressed with their sound. I was proud of myself, because once I thought the cables were fully broken in, I took the time to replace the more expensive cables that were previously in my system, and after a while re-replaced the Black Cat cables one by one, to see how each contributed to the overall sound.
At first, I thought the 3232 speaker cables were the most impressive of the bunch. I felt as if they were a bit more transparent than the Black Cat interconnects and the digital cables. I'm not saying that I think the others aren't transparent. They are, but I was struck by the amount of transparency that the Black Cat speaker cables presented with certain material. As time went on and I started to discover more positive traits of the cables, I thought that these interconnects sounded pretty darn good, too, especially considering the price discrepancy between the two brands of cables. And so, I started my evaluation over. I was starting to become accustomed to the sound of the new cables in my system. After hearing the more expensive cables again and re-installing the Black Cat cables, again, I became surer of my conclusions: there was a difference between the more expensive cables and the Black Cat cables, but there wasn't nearly as big of a difference in their sound as I would have expected. And certainly not as big a difference as their price would indicate.
During the Black Cat cable's review period I
listened to many different types of music, sourced both digitally and from my
analog front-end. The takeaway was that Chris Sommovigo's description of his
cables having an "effortless" quality when it comes to sound reproduction is
spot on. I hope I'm not accused of using this term instead of coining my own to
describe what I heard. The term "effortless" has been used before, especially
when describing a signal that remains undistorted during loud passages. But the
Black Cat cable went further. This might be a bit of an over-simplification, but
this trait resulted in not allowing any of the frequencies that they reproduced
to draw attention to themselves, which can distract the listener from the other
frequencies. This was especially true of the midrange frequencies, a
characteristic which may not impress some as much as hearing a super-extended
bass or treble, but this is where the majority of the music lives. And
therefore, it became easier to focus on those frequencies, as well as the rest
of the music.
Classical pieces were an excellent way to spend
time luxuriating in this midrange, and just about every other sonic trait, so I
played some of my favorite classical albums during this period. One of the
standouts was an LP of a 1960 Decca recording of Dvorak's New World
Symphony re-issued by Speakers Corner in the early 1990s. Istvan Kertez was
an expert at conducting Dvorak, and with the Vienna Philharmonic it pretty much
guarantees this to be an ideal version of this work. On its cover Decca calls
this Dvorak's 5th Symphony, but since then it has been
re-named as the 9th (don't ask). Whatever one calls this work,
it hardly matters, as it remains one of Dvorak's best-known works. It is a sonic
blockbuster of a recording, made at Vienna's Musikverein, and was a totally
immersive experience when I played it at "realistic" levels. Admittedly,
the reason it sounded so good through my system was because what I was hearing
was not only the Black Cat cables. This is one of the tricky things about
reviewing cables. Is one hearing the cable's contribution or something other
than the cables? Removing and reinstalling the cables as I did a few times with
the previously installed cables, and other brands of cable, too, helped isolate
the contributions of the Black Cat cables, but a good amount of time elapsed
between changes that I don't think I'd be totally honest if I said my memory of
what came before was perfect. Yet, it was obvious that the Black Cat cables had
many likable sonic traits.
It was also obvious that as usual, I was having a
great time listening to vinyl, and also the reason everything sounded good was
because of the analog front-end, the components and the speakers that the cables
were connected to (not to mention all that also had gone into setting up my
system in my dedicated listening room). There is no question that I was hearing
the benefit of good interconnects and speaker cables in the system, because
components are going to sound their best when they aren't hindered by cables
that aren't letting every bit of signal pass through them. When playing this
Dvorak LP, the Black Cat interconnects and speaker cables let me hear the
majesty of the mighty Vienna strings and horns, the marvelous way that the
orchestra members think as one, and how this piece was led by an expert
conductor. The transparent midrange was a big part of this "effortlessness" that
I was hearing and that was discussed before, sounding as if each component of my
system was drawing very close to what I might imagine being connected to each
other with no cable at all. Well, at least no cable that would draw attention to
itself and lead me to believe that I wasn't hearing all that I could.
The soundstage of the Black Cat cables was also very impressive. One of the qualities of the more expensive cables that they replaced was the extremely deep and wide soundstage that was evident on just about every record I played. I think that hearing this fine soundstage was also due to allowing the signal pass through it unabated, that is, the signal that is responsible for allowing the wide and deep soundstage to develop in the first place. I admit that my sonic memory will not allow me to compare the details of the width and depth of soundstages-past that I've heard with different cables, but I will say that a fine soundstage existed with the Black Cat cables, and that alone impressed me. I will attest to hearing some lesser cables in my system that stunted the size and extension of the soundstage, and the Black Cat cable came nowhere doing that. I was taken aback by the drawn-to-scale soundstage that came through my speakers when playing the Dvorak LP, as if I was hearing a symphony orchestra in miniature, my system becoming a sonic time machine, bringing me back to Vienna in 1960 when the recording was made.
I also had a good time, to say the least,
listening to music on digital throughout the review period, both sourced from my
music server and by spinning more than a few silver discs played on an OPPO
UDP-203 used as a transport. My computer-based music server was connected to the
EMM Labs DA2 DAC using a Black Cat DIGIT-USB and the OPPO transport used a Black
Cat Digit 75 Mk. II connected to the DAC's coax input. Most memorable was the
Miles Davis I spun during the review period. I listened to a DSD file of his
album In A Silent Way, where the Black Cat DIGIT-USB cable replaced a
Furutech USB cable I've been using for the last few years. Again, it was
immediately apparent that this cable was more transparent than I was used to,
and again, the term "effortless" came to mind. This surprised me, not only
because it took me quite a while to be open to the fact that the USB cable one
uses not only makes a difference but can make a big difference in the
sound of one's system.
And so, when using the Black Cat USB cable, I
heard an "opening up" of the sound, as if the music signal flowed easier though
this cable. This is a digital signal, not an audio signal as in an interconnect
or speaker cable, so perhaps that's why I had a tough time explaining to myself
that a good USB cable is important to the overall sound quality. I was hearing
the proof because I heard more. More of everything. This was also true of the
Black Cat digital cable that ran between the OPPO transport and EMM Labs DAC.
This digital cable replaced a more expensive cable that I was using, and so the
Black Cat digital cable sounded more in line with what I heard with their
interconnects and speaker cable. I spent hours listening to the discs from the
three CD box set of Miles Davis' The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions
and although there might have been a tad less extension than what I was
previously accustomed to in the very, very lowest bass frequencies, there was
still that "effortlessness" that I've been speaking about throughout this
review. There was a sonic ease that was definitely audible... with a digital
cable, no less!
In the meantime, audiophiles should take
advantage of this situation, and seriously consider sacrificing the ability to
dazzle their audiophile friends with cables that are as thick as a garden hose
with flashy external appendages, and instead suffer the humiliation of having to
show them their thinner, more refined looking Black Cat cables. But they can say
that the Black Cat cables have the approval of Enjoy the Music.com Senior
Editor Tom Lyle and they will have the experience of hearing with the many sonic
benefits these Black Cat interconnect, speaker, and digital cables will impart
to their systems. Recommended to all.
3232 Speaker Cables: Coincident 'lattice' conductors formed by 32 bare copper 30 AWG conductors braided around an 8mm cotton cord, nylon multifilament braided yarn interstitial insulator, and the same conductor lattice again. Overall nylon
jacket. Terminated to XOX direct gold over pure copper banana plugs.
DIGIT-USB: twin, precision 45-Ohm micro-coaxial cables in a Teflon/air tube. 32-element Matrix braid over the tube breaks out for two poles: one for power, one for ground. Overall nylon
jacket. USB 2.0 A and B connectors.
Digit 75 Mk. II : Precision 75 Ohm coaxial cable utilizing medium-density
"QuieTex" RF/EM absorbent layers. Terminated with 75 Ohm BNCs, includes Black Cat-designed BNC to RCA adapters.