2018 HIFI NEWS CCi
Crystal Cable Integrated
Seen for several years at international hi-fi shows as the Crystal Cable ‘Cube’, this novel
amplifier has been consolidated still further into its current guise as the ‘Integrated’
Review: Cliff Joseph Lab: Paul Miller
Crystal Cable is, of course, best known for its high-end audio cables, although the company has occasionally extended its reach into other areas too, resulting in products like its eye-catching Arabesque speakers [HFN May ’16]. The integrated amp we have here is also very distinctive, having been a work-in-progress since 2012.
A more compact, cube-shaped prototype was demonstrated at a number of shows in recent years, and introduced simply as the ‘Cube’. However, this final production version has adopted a taller ‘chimney stack’ design that provides improved heatmanagement, and now goes by the more unassuming acronym of ‘CCI’, or Crystal Cable Integrated.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
The design is certainly eye-catching – and so is the price, starting at £17,995 with an alloy chassis and basic black finish. However, the model pictured here has a more exotic plumage, with goldanodised metalwork bringing the price up to £22,195 (a proposed 24k goldplated ‘luxury’ edition has yet to go into production). That striking design is further enhanced by the dramatic, glowing ‘CC’ logo that is embedded beneath the front panel – whose ridged surface continues around the sides and doubles up as a heatsink. You can even change the colour of the logo and adjust the brightness to suit your taste. It’s not just a pretty faceplate, though. The design of the CCI is actually very practical – not least as the unit stands barely a foot tall, measuring 215x300x225mm (whd) in its pretty golden socks. It’s not quite a ‘bookshelf amp’ – especially weighing in at 10.6kg – but it’s compact enough to sit neatly on the floor, or on a stand beside your DAC, phono stage or other pieces of audio kit, without needing to rearrange the entire room around it.
More important is the fact that extruding the original cube design into a taller ‘chimney stack’ offers improved cooling and allows the amp to run completely silently under most normal listening conditions. According to Crystal Cable, the amp relies on passive heat dispersion all the way up to 48oC, without needing to activate the forced-air cooling fan that occupies the base of the chassis. The fan will only reach full speed – and should still be barely audible – at 60oC, and then the amp will simply shut down at temperatures above 65oC in order to avoid damage.
Needless to say, it’s important to provide good all-round airflow to help keep the amp cool, and Crystal Cable particularly stresses the importance of good ventilation for the vents in the top and base of the unit. Certainly the fan was never noticeable during the entire time that I spent with the CCI, and the side-panel heatsinks never felt more than mildly warm at any time. The controls and connectors are fairly straightforward – which is just as well, since Crystal Cable’s ‘manual’ does little more than tell you how to turn the amp on and then change the colour of the logo.
The back panel provides access to the power socket and six sets of inputs – three single-ended RCA and three balanced XLR – along with outputs for your speakers, a preamp, and subwoofer. The front-panel controls are equally unfussy, with a simple strip of buttons running down the frontright edge of the unit, starting with Power, Mute, Volume Up/Down, and then six more buttons for input selection.
There is a detachable Bluetooth antenna included in the box, which can be connected to the back of the unit, but don’t be thinking the Integrated is any sort of digital streaming hub – it’s not, because there’s no DAC stage on board.
ANDROID APP... AND PHONE
This is an analogue-only amp, through-andthrough. Instead, Crystal Cable provides an Android smartphone with the CCI, which uses an app and the Bluetooth connection simply to offer remote volume control and input selection. Intriguingly, Crystal’s explanation is that its engineershaven’t yet finished the iPhone version of its app, so it provides an Android phone for users – like me – who are Apple-centric. That, of course, begs the question of why they didn’t simply provide a conventional remote control, but if you’re paying circa £18k for an amp then the cost of a smartphone could, I suppose, be considered something of a trifle. So there’s no digital connectivity or Wi-Fi networking and thus no ability to stream music from Spotify or any of its audiophile rivals, such as Qobuz or Tidal.
Crystal Cable will be fitting a recognisable USB port to the amp (currently it’s the 5-pin XLR on its rear face, see p59) for
charging the bundled Android smartphone. But, once again, with no DAC stage inside, this USB port cannot support digital audio.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
The CCI’s ‘silent running’ might sound like a marketing boast, but it proved its worth – and helped to justify its price – as I listened to ‘My Lagan Love’ by Kate Bush [Hounds Of Love; EMI 7243-8-57978-2-8]. This simple, unadorned track consists of Bush’s solo voice, singing a cappella, with only a gentle echo floating in the background for accompaniment. Any extraneous noise at all would have been immediately noticeable and distracting but, with the CCI sitting right between my Opera speakers, her voice hung lightly in the air, with nothing to detract from its richness of tone, or the sad stillness of the song. The higher notes rang out crystal clear, alternating with a deeper, more sensual warmth in the lower register, as Bush sang – ‘my loves have come, my loves have gone...’. There was a great sense of space too, with that voice unfolding and reaching out into the room, almost conveying the sense that Bush was wandering through a vast, endless forest in search of her beau.
On the same album, ‘The Big Sky – Meteorological Mix’ is a complete contrast, perhaps the closest Bush has ever come to the Phil Spector wall-of-sound, laden with cascading drums, guitars and multi-layered vocals on the chanted chorus. The CCI lost none of its clarity, though, keeping an eye on the gentle tambourine that skipped between left and right speakers, even as the avalanche of drums piled up towards the end of the song. But that wealth of detail also revealed a slight weakness, as the slap-bass didn’t have quite the firmness needed to keep it from being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of drums and percussion. To be fair, the CCI can dig deep when it needs to. It was able to reach down and embrace the subterranean, electronic depths of Max Richter’s ‘Shadow Journal’ [The Blue Notebooks; Deutsche
Grammophon 479-4443] very effectively – some lesser amps and speakers that I’ve listened to can sound as though they’re physically struggling to contain such a deep sound – yet even here the bass felt a little soft and nebulous at times, lacking the ominous presence that this ambient track is able to evoke. Other aspects of the sound were
more impressive, though. Again, the CCI opened up an imposing sense of space, keeping real distance between the deep bass and the lighter electronic keyboards floating above, while the sharp, keening notes of the violin added a more organic, emotional texture that cut right through the electronic cloud.
Wall Of Sound
But, for a full-on wall-of-sound, it’s very hard to beat The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance [Reprise 9362 4427-2], with its Queen influenced multi-tracked guitars wedded to a more aggressive, contemporary sound (that some sceptics might want to dwell upon before dismissing the entire punk canon out of hand).
The guitar fanfare of the title track rings out with stadium-filling force and scale – appropriate for the album that propelled the band into the stratosphere of rock success – but also pulling out the little Brian May-esque counterpoint guitar flourishes from the left and right speakers. But it’s the take-no-prisoners thrash of ‘This Is How I Disappear’ that most effectively combines energy and aggression with a taut, powerful melody.
The CCI doesn’t disappoint in either respect, for it’s precise when it needs to be, placing the drums firmly front and centre so that they both anchor the sound and drive it forward, while Ray Toro’s thrashing guitar riffs cut through the air like a series of sonic daggers. And then the CCI rolls up its sleeves and lands the final power chords with a force that could snap a headbanger’s neck, before launching headlong into the final manic chorus. Arguably, a little more presence in the bass wouldn’t go amiss, but this certainly isn’t a fatal weakness. There’s no doubt that the CCI is an extremely capable amp, delivering clarity, pace and warmth when tackling most musical genres.
HIFI NEWS VERDICT
They say silence is golden, and the silent operation of the goldanodised CCI may win admirers of more delicate musical styles. It can handle more dense and imposing music too, with only a slight lack of presence deep down in the bass to give owners of big floorstanders pause. At this price, the CCI makes a hearty contribution to the diversity of high-end audio, combining both visual and sonic flair.
HI-FI NEWS VERDICT
Sound Quality: 80%
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