Crystal Cable CrystalConnect Piccolo Interconnects and CrystalSpeak Micro Speaker Cables
by Vade Forrester
From huge companies like Monster Cable to individuals working in their garages, there must be hundreds of manufacturers of audio cables today. If every online and print audio publication did nothing but review cables, theyd never make it through them all, at least not before everyone quits reading. Cable makers offer proprietary explanations for why their cables sound good -- it's the connectors, metallurgy, insulation, geometry, or black magic. As Marc Mickelson observed in a recent cable review, "hyperbole is abundant."
My view? If cables sound good, they are good. Im comfortable with the notion that there is no single way to make good-sounding cables, and I relish encountering innovative designs. I believe most cable manufacturers are not in business just to make a buck. Manufacturers I know personally are passionately interested in making hi-fi systems sound better. Of course, making a buck is nice, too.
There are divergent, strongly held, and sometimes entertaining views on whether cables sound different. From my experience, in a system with sufficient resolution, differences between cables are usually obvious. However, low-resolution systems can mask differences in cable sonics, perhaps causing suspicion of collusion between manufacturers and reviewers who sometimes claim to have epiphanies when auditioning cables. Cable performance can be system-dependent, especially in systems with tubed components, where impedance-related interactions can affect the sound. But while cables may sound a little different in different systems, their intrinsic sonic signatures will be evident in most systems.
Dutch cable manufacturer Crystal Cable believes that smaller is better. This company's cables are physically dwarfed by most competitors' products, but that doesnt mean their performance is as well. Ive used small-diameter speaker cables successfully in the past; however, I should note that my electronics are tube-based, and my amp is a SET design that doesnt put out much current. Crystal Cable president Gabi van der Kley informed me that "The power rating for an 8-ohm speaker is 2000 watts, continuously carried current 12 amps with 30 amps peak." So Crystal Cables should work with even big Krell amplifiers.
I received for review two pairs of Crystal Cables CrystalConnect Piccolo interconnects ($399 per meter pair) and one pair of CrystalSpeak Micro speaker cables ($1950 per two-meter pair), the lowest-priced cables in Crystal Cable's product lineup. According to Joe Shanaphy, Crystal Cable's US distributor:
The 1.5mm-diameter Piccolo interconnect looks delicate and jewel-like, but its actually quite sturdy. I dont recommend disconnecting it by grabbing the cable and yanking the RCA connector out of contact, but then thats a bad idea for any interconnect. The Piccolos 0.3mm-diameter conductors have a capacitance of only 154 picofarads and a resistance of 224 milliohms per meter. That means interaction with just about any conceivable component will be minimal. The Piccolo uses proprietary RCA connectors with no locking collars. They snapped tightly onto every RCA jack and didnt seem to lose their grip over time, even as I moved them from connection to connection.
The CrystalSpeak Micro speaker cables are even more innovative. They are modular -- a central section connects at the ends to modules called splitters. At one end are the actual connectors that fasten to the speakers, and these may be either spades or bananas. At the other end, a tiny military-specification airtight connector fastens the splitters to the central part of the speaker cable, and a rugged metal housing screws together to hold the connectors tightly in place. This design lets you change terminations on the amp or speaker end without buying new cables or having existing cables reterminated. You can even use the inline connectors to add a length of cable to the Micro if you rearrange your system. Crystal Cable believes the connectors impose minimal sonic degradation on the sound.
The 1.9mm-diameter Micro speaker cable actually contains four wires, so you can use them for biwiring. All you need to do is attach a biwire splitter at the speaker end, and you have a biwired speaker cable. Thats a very user-friendly design concept. The Micros 0.7mm-diameter conductors (just under 21 gauge) have a capacitance of 343 picofarads and a resistance of 46 milliohms per meter. Amplifiers shouldnt have any trouble driving these speaker cables.
The sound of audio cables usually changes during break-in. Ive had to rewrite cable reviews (three times for one set of cables, in fact) because I jumped the gun with my evaluations, only to hear the sound of the cables change further. I dont have a definitive explanation why this is so, just lots of personal experience listening to cables going through break-in.
So part of my review process is to determine (from manufacturers, if possible) how long cables take to break in, and then install them in a separate system and play them continuously for at least twice that long. I use the Purist Audio Designs System Enhancer CD to burn in cables, which seems to be very effective. If speaker cables are involved, I terminate them with resistors rather than speakers, so I wont have to listen to the odd sounds on the System Enhancer CD. For power cords, I use an adapter to connect the cord to a lamp.
I installed the Crystal Cables in my burn-in system and let them play 24 hours a day for over a week, well beyond the 100 hours of recommended break-in time. I then moved them into my main system, replacing Purist Audio Design Venustas interconnects and speaker cables, which are my main cables. The difference in cable size was dramatic; the thick black Venustas made the Crystal Cables look quite insubstantial. The Crystal Cables continued to improve in sound during the next month of use, especially the highs, which sounded smoother. Because the Crystal Cables are nondirectional, I didnt have to worry about connecting the "proper" end to the source.
I really appreciated the Piccolo's small diameter when connecting it to the side-mounted RCA jacks of my Audio Note preamp, which are positioned rather closely together. Mrs. van der Kley advised me that the speaker cables dont need to be elevated off the floor; their excellent insulation prevents interaction with the carpet.
I observed an unexpected advantage when using the Micro speaker cables: They are so tiny that they are almost invisible from my listening seat, and their silver color blended with my beige carpet very well. This could enhance their spousal-acceptance factor, which was certainly the case in my home.
How do they sound?
The Crystal Cable Piccolo and Micro do very little. They dont emphasize bass, treble, or midrange; they dont dynamically compress music; they dont smear or obscure detail; they dont flatten out the soundstage. But best of all, they dont make listening to music boring. Instead, they present music so that it lives and breathes naturally, drawing you closer to the performance. I could not reliably identify any significant sonic characteristic of the Crystal Cables. Just when I thought they might emphasize the midrange, along came equally emphasized bass and treble. They did have a very lively sound, perhaps a result of superb micro- and macrodynamics -- their ability to convey small and large shifts in volume.
I love Eva Cassidys Live at Blues Alley [Blix Street Records G2-10046], but if a product has any tendency to emphasize high frequencies, this CD will aggravate it. The Crystal Cables passed this test. "Fields of Gold" and "Autumn Leaves" (my current favorites; has anyone ever sung "Autumn Leaves" better?) were presented smoothly. Although its obvious that these recordings have energetic highs, they were not at all peaky through the Crystal Cables. Microdynamic shadings made the nuances in Cassidys voice exceptionally clear, and her masterful phrasing came through very deftly. If you have friends who think that "spending so much money on mere cables is insane," Live at Blues Alley is a good demonstration of the value cables can add to an audio system, especially the Crystal Cable Piccolo and Micro.
The rich opening panorama of percussion makes "The Panther," from Jennifer Warnes The Well [Cisco SCD 2034, CD layer], a favorite test for high-frequency response. The Crystal Cables passed with ease. The coruscating chimes that open the piece sounded very extended; however, at first I thought they might be a little smeared. Then I realized that I was hearing the notes hang suspended in air longer before they completed their decay. The ultra-transparent instrumental palette rendered details with clarity, but integrated well into the overall musical structure. The relaxed presentation invited long listening sessions, which was just fine with me.
The Crystal Cables shone just as brightly with classical music as with pop. Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestras Bolero! [Reference Recordings RR-92CD] "Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture" is an exciting recording that really wrings out a system. Bass dynamics accurately conveyed orchestral power, triangles were delicate but extended, and the clarinet in particular impressed me with its accurate tonal color. On "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez," by Jordi Savall and associates on the CD La Folia 1490-1701 [AliaVox AV 9805], when the percussionist struck the opening cascabels, I could tell he really whacked them hard. Similarly, the bass drum, which extends quite low in frequency, was really walloped. The harp and guitar, which can sound somewhat similar through some components, were tonally distinct and easy to follow as they wove their parts into the intricate musical tapestry. Dynamics were spectacular. I didnt hear any new musical details in this ultra-familiar piece, but its overall coherence was as good as Ive ever heard -- thanks to the Crystal Cables.
To challenge the Micro speaker cables ability to handle current, I briefly installed them in a friends system. His Apogee Scintilla speakers have a ravenous appetite for current, and should provide an acid test of the Micros ability to pass current. The Micros passed with flying colors, showing no sign of choking current up to the point that the amp ran out of steam.
For some time, my reference cables have been Purist Audio Design Venustas interconnects ($1425 per meter pair) and speaker cables ($2460 per eight-foot pair). Their design is totally different from that of the Crystal Cables, although their goal is similar: produce the quietest cable possible. Purist uses different techniques to implement that philosophy, including a powdered substance called Ferox to insulate the cables from both electrical noise and physical vibration. The result is quite audible; youll first notice it as lots of musical detail without a smidgen of high-frequency emphasis.
The Ferox insulation material in the Venustas is applied in a thick layer, making the cables quite large and heavy. The Venustas interconnects actually outweigh the phono stage I use, and would drag it off the shelf if I didnt anchor it in place with a heavy Mapleshade brass weight. The Venustas speaker cables 8-gauge conductors are quite large and stiff. The end sections, which connect to amplifiers and speakers, may be difficult to position for best connection. I have to really twist the binding posts on my Art Audio amplifier extra hard to prevent the Venustas from slipping loose.
The Venustas had a slightly more extended response, both in the highs and lows, than the Crystal Cables. Detail through the Venustas is excellent, from deep bass up to the highest frequencies, and unlike some cables, they dont fake detail by accentuating high frequencies. On "The Panther," the chimes sounded slightly more extended, although the Crystal Cables were scarcely deficient in the highs. When I played "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" through the Venustas, the bass drum went very deep and had lots of power, but the upper-bass frequencies were not as well defined and had less impact than with the Crystal Cables.
The Crystal Cables and the Purist Audio Design Venustas both have strong points, although they dont sound exactly alike. But the Crystal Cables are less expensive, and the Venustas speaker cables must go back to the factory if you need them reterminated, while the user can just screw a different splitter end onto the Micros to reterminate or even lengthen them.
Thin is in
Small in size, huge in sound, the Crystal Cables Piccolo and Micro look gorgeous and are immune to obnoxious electrical activities going on around them. Dynamic, delicate (sonically, not physically), detailed, distortion-free, these cables didnt just make my audio system sound better -- they made my music sound more alluring. Several times, I found myself engrossed in recordings I had previously written off as uninteresting but which suddenly sounded appealing through the Crystal Cables.
Did I experience an epiphany? Well, no. However, these Crystal Cables far exceeded my expectations given their string-like thickness and reasonable price. There are certainly many companies making audio cables these days, but Crystal Cable's Piccolo and Micro deserve time in your system if your budget permits -- and even if it doesnt. They may lead you to reprioritize your audio expenditures. And keep in mind that these are the budget models in Crystal Cable lineup; the more expensive ones may be significantly better.
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