We Ask 10 Questions For High-End
During Enjoy the Music.com's very special 25th Anniversary we're asking various high-end audio manufacturers to answer the same ten questions. Their answers may surprise you! This month we're featuring Chris Sommovigo, Designer And Engineer At Stereolab. In 1992 Chris Sommovigo introduced to the world the first truly precision-made 75 Ohm digital coaxial cable under the brand name ILLUMINATI, and has since designed more than a dozen other digital cables for the market – either for the Illuminati brand, for Stereovox, or for other brands (such as Kimber Kable and i2Digital). His digital cable designs remain among the most sought after and popular designs in the world, and reasonably so: he has proven himself as an effective designer producing positive results.
In 2000, he introduced a new brand: STEREOVOX. Under this marque he examined new concepts in analog signal transfer for high end audio systems, very purposefully exploring the brute-force aspects of mitigating Skin Effect to extremes. The result of that expedition was a catalog of cables that met with 10 years of critical acclaim for their extraordinary performance. His original SEI-600 and LSP-600 were considered among the very best in the world at the time.
Q. What is your first memory of falling in love with music?
A. My first deep experience of and connection to music was when, in 7th Grade, I bought my copy of Pink Floyd The Wall. That's back in 1980s, if I recall correctly. I wore that album out. David Gilmour's solo on comfortably numb is still burned, note for note, in my brain. It coincided with my parents buying a Sony all-in-one receiver / speaker set for my 13th birthday. It had a cassette player, a record player, and an AM/FM radio. The speakers are attached by the RCA connector, strangely.
I would place the speakers on the floor, facing each other, the tops tilted in to rest against each other such that a kind of "tent" was formed. I'd put my pillow between them, lower the stylus into the groove, and then lay down in that concentrated sound field between the speakers.
The Wall was an utterly dystopian anthem, giving voice to my inner turmoil as a teenager trying to deal with the institutionalized homogenizing force of public education that I felt was scraping away at my skin. Later, in High School, the film adaptation with Bob Geldof would be released and I would be transported, once again.
The Wall also introduced me to prog rock, we swept me into Rush, Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, Moody Blues, Kansas, Supertramp, Genesis, and on and on. Before my teen years, I mostly dug bands from Zeppelin to Kiss to Queen to Aerosmith to Bowie to Elton John to Molly Hatchett to Lynyrd Skynyrd. I read Creem magazine and they mostly told me who to like... and that's actually how I found out about The Sex Pistols.
Factoid: As a pre-teen, I wanted to emulate Gene Simmons, which is why bass was my first instrument. My first band was a bunch of 12 years olds from school, "Satin Steel" — we played easy covers, like (duh) Smoke on the Water. Funny enough, never had the compunction to imitate Roger Waters. But Geddy Lee? Oh yesss... once I discovered Rush, he became my bass-guitar spirit animal.
Q. How did you first get introduced to high-fidelity audio gear?
A. A schoolmate's dad had some Nakamichi gear. Never heard of them, was pretty enthralled with the sounds I heard. A couple of years later I wandered into Peter McGrath's Sound Components where Bill Peugh, knowing full well that I was ought but a penniless piker, demo'ed the Wilson Watt / Puppy / Whow system driven by Goldmund electronics with a Goldmuncd Ref. TT doing the honors. That was a truly pivotal moment because a fundamental shift in my trajectory took place that day. While I was studying film at Uni, my mind was mostly fantasizing about audio and music. I still had a band at the time and we were doing a little bit of recording, both at Sunnyview Records and a few other places.
I remember a meeting we took a meeting with the proprietor of Sunnyview — it was myself and our drummer, Scott Cohen (R.I.P.), as we were being offered a modest record deal. This is the guy that put K.C. and the Sunshine Band on the map. But the guy, I forget his name, told us we needed to use drum machines. DRUM MACHINES. Like, what balls to tell a real live drummer to use a drum machine? Scott wasn't just a great drummer — he was a brilliant drummer. He was the one to introduce me to Rush when we were in 7th grade. Scott and I looked at each other, thanks but no thanks, and walked away.
Q. What is your favorite piece of vintage hi-fi, and why?
A. Not certain it qualifies as "vintage" yet, but maybe Be Yamamura's Dionisio horns. I don't remember what they sounded like, specifically, but I remember succumbing to something overwhelmingly seductive in that moment. It was almost narcotic. The sensation remains imprinted with me.
I don't even recall which show I heard them at, but it might have been a show at the Waldorf in NYC, maybe 1996'ish? Could have been CES, also. Hard to say, so long ago. But I remember the glow of music invading my body and soul, transporting me to some inner-space. What more could one possibly want?
Some day, if I've ever got the spare change, I'll hunt down a pair of them and buy them for my audio inner sanctum.
In terms of truly, deeply, and especially madly vintage, it would be the Western Electric 12A / 13A / 597 system (with subwoofer by J.C. Morrison) that I heard at Silbatone's HQ in Seoul. In fact, it is that system which did my head in so completely that — upon returning home - I didn't listen to my system for a while, as it could never come within several zip codes of what I heard there. Driven by their top-line 300B integrated, can't recall the record player, I was thoroughly evaporated by that system. Nothing in my experience before or since made such immediate, effortless, and ideal music. Should Jeff Bezos leave me in his will for a substantial portion of his fortune, I'll do what it takes to acquire that system.
Q. When did you decide to start a high-end audio company?
A. During 1991 and 1992 after having a weird experience with a "digital" cable that shouldn't have made a difference. I wanted to know why, so I found some mentors in the RF/mm-wave industry to help me understand some things. I thought, from that tutelage, I had the precise and only reason digital cables would/could make a difference, and started on a quixotic quest to bring something into the world as an answer. That's how Illuminati got started, and at the time I was partnered with one of my mentors who thought it would be an interesting side-gig.
That company was launched with a cheesy brochure mailed out to magazine subscribers from a list I purchased from the magazine owner. Actually, I think they sent pre-printed labels. Hundreds were sent out, 25 people came back with checks, and that was the start of Illuminati... and was the first serious detour I took away from my intended path in the film industry.
Within two years, and after a little bit of coverage in Positive Feedback and The Sensible Sound, I received a telephone call from Ray Kimber. He had heard about my product and brand somehow, liked the story about how it was an impedance-critical cable, and thought it might make a nice addition to the Kimber Kable roster. So he asked me if I would send on to him to try, which I did, and then it wasn't much longer before we agreed that Kimber Kable would be my global distributor. That was my first and strongest "leg up" in the industry, and I owe it to Ray. I suspect a lot of people owe some of their success to Ray... he's among the nicest and most generous people I've ever met.
Q. What, and when, was your company's first product?
A. Which company? For my present company, it was the Black Cat "Veloce 123" which was a four-foot standard 75 Ohm digital S/PDIF cable. 2010, if I recall. It was a ‘side-gig' to try and explore the direct-sales motif without being a threat to my dealer-base (or what was left of it). I envisioned a hybrid model, whereby I would sell direct but also have dealers on board for a truncated margin. Bob Stein at The Cable Company agreed to try it out, and that's how Black Cat Cable got its start.
As it turns out, Illuminati's first product was also a 75 Ohm digital cable. Fancy that...
Q. What challenges did you face during those early years?
A. Economy was shyte, my ongoing business (Stereolab) was almost completely to zilch, dealers had abandoned my little brand for more established marques, money was getting super tight, I had two very young children and a wife to support, and it seemed like - when it came to our industry and coverage, etc - I couldn't get arrested.
We had elected to move from our big loft in midtown / Poncey Highlands at The Telephone Factory (where Western Electric used to manufacture telephones and switchboards) for the less expensive option of owning a home about 14 miles from the lofts. While I had 3200 soft in the loft, which made both manufacturing and importing a bit easier, room -wise. You may recall that I introduced Continuum Audio Labs to the world, and also was importing Peak Consult, Vitus, German Physiks, Davone, et alia at various times. The house was considerably smaller, and I had to build my workshop onto the side of it by expanding and enclosing the carport and building up the workspace with benches, machines, etc.
It was quite a difficult time then, and I thank G*d that my wife's income from teaching violin and performing with the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra was ample enough to get us over the line each month. By 2012 or so things were picking back up, thankfully.
By 2014 we were making plans to relocate... which was another huge challenge because it was going to be to Japan. Moving to Japan, getting ourselves settled in and established in our small town, and me working from there was VERY challenging for many reasons, not the least of which being that I didn't speak Japanese! My wife did (she's native-born), my kids were fluent for their age thanks to a Japanese school they attended in Atlanta, but my facility with the language was poor to zero. Nevertheless, we made the best of it, as we had made this move for the sake of the kids.
Japan was just a safer place to raise children, a place where childhood lasts through the end of high school, where drug use and alcoholism among teens is exceedingly low, and where kids could quite simply play outside without having to be hovered-over. Despite my struggles there, I wish we could have stayed, but with my father passing in 2017 leaving my mom to live alone (with some medical ailments, to boot!), we made the difficult decision to return to the USA and put our family around her. It was a good decision, and truly a great opportunity for my wife to come closer to mom and my kids to live with the influence of a grandparent around them. They won't really appreciate that part until they're adults, though...
Q. How have your products evolved over the years?
A. I'm always, always experimenting, iterating, seeking ways to shave heaviness and restriction from the sound of music coming through the hi-fi. To detail all the many ways in which I have adapted, iterated, and otherwise innovated would take longer than I care to imagine at this moment.
I think that the biggest turning point for me was — when after two years of very frustrating development, during which times my children learned a lot of new words that they're not permitted to say, I finally determined the best way to insulate my cables and break free of the limits imposed by having to subcontract industrial third parties. Once I developed and tuned-in the AERON process, that was huge for me because it meant Liberty. It meant that I could express things in ways that couldn't be emulated at the industrial level, and that began a course of unique cable developments associated with specialized processes and materials that really sets Black Cat Cable apart, not just from my colleagues, but from all of my old designs for Illuminati and Stereovox.
Q. What is your company's most popular product(s)?
A. Probably my digital cables, owing to my history with them. Next, I would say Coppertone products because they are inexpensive products that punch way above their weight. In the top tier, the new Graceline L2 is gaining speed.
Q. What is your next planned product offering and its' features?
A. Not saying... but something wicked this way comes (wicked cool, that is!). There's something being trickled down from the magical world of Unobtainium that will occupy the philosophical space where Indigo used to be. Everyone needs a flagship to demonstrate what is possible... and so this is where I'm headed. I'm toying with names, but I haven't arrived at anything to encapsulate and characterize it... to be cliché, words just fail.
Q. What advancements do you speculate high-end audio will offer ten years from now?
A. Streaming will have otherwise completely decimated the landscape for optical disc physical formats, with factories being shuttered for lack of demand. It's not even the music industry causing the shuttering, but the computer industry. Programs that used to come on CD ROMS or DVD ROMS are now downloaded, often by subscription. Some are even remotely hosted! Larry Ellison predicted this 20 to 30 years ago, and he was spot-on.
Vinyl will remain the most viable physical format for music simply because the means of production are far less expensive to operate and maintain than those for optical media. It will also be the only way to guarantee you can access music that is otherwise not available on streaming services. Here's a cautionary tale of sorts: Whether it was on Tidal or Qobuz, titles I had in playlists would sometimes come up as "This title is no longer available." WHAT?!?! Well, at least I have the record....
August 2022 Update