2019 AUDIO BEAT REVIEW ULTIMATE DREAM
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Crystal Cable • Ultimate Dream Interconnects, Speaker Cables and Power Cords
"If you've never quite connected with the Crystal Cables, listening to Ultimate Dream could (indeed, should) change your mind."
by Roy Gregory | Dec 26, 2019
From the start, Siltech’s selling point has always been metallurgy, and with the advent of silver-gold alloy conductors, the increased conductivity and low resistance of the new material opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Suddenly, cables didn’t necessarily need to be as massive and as bulky as they’d always been -- at least in high-end circles. The emergence of minimalist, solid-core cables in the mid-1980s had already created cracks in the edifice of the "bigger is better" cable movement -- typified by the likes of Transparent, MIT and, you guessed it, Siltech -- and the new metallurgy promised the possibility of really high-performance, low-mass, low-volume designs. The problem is, marketed under the Siltech banner, such cables would have undermined or at least caused market confusion around one of the most successful existing cable brands. So little sister Crystal Cable was born: chic, petite and way more elegant than her bruiser of a bigger brother.
If that was all, then this would be a simple story, but it soon became apparent that there was more to cable performance than conductivity, and ever since day one, successive Crystal Cables have been putting on weight, even if in any comparative sense they are still definitely on the slim side for high-end cables. That’s down to the fact that you can increase conductor cross-sectional area without much impact on overall size, as long as you stick to your low-volume guns. One of the things that has always characterized Crystal Cables is the incredibly high ratio of conductor to insulation or filler. In fact, most of them have entirely eliminated the filler found in so many audio cables. Just as Crystal Cable has come to appreciate that there’s no substitute for cross-sectional area when it comes to conductor material, it has also learned that the old mantras of "less is more" and "quality counts" apply with a vengeance when it comes to everything else. Unsurprisingly unwilling to forego the obvious benefits of their low-mass, low-volume philosophy, the brand has developed a unique set of products, with a distinctly different approach and some extremely unusual elements. For me, Crystal Cables really achieved critical mass (in every sense of the term) with the arrival of the then-flagship Absolute Dream. It’s worth pausing to examine those cables in detail, because today’s Ultimate Dream is their direct descendant, grown out of the Absolute Dream experience and performance.
Absolute Dream cables use a twisted-quad construction based on four identical conductors. Each is a single solid monocrystal silver conductor wrapped in an incredibly thin layer of Kapton insulation -- the same material used as a former for high-end-loudspeaker voice coils, because of its very low dielectric coefficient and excellent rigidity. But Kapton is also extremely hard, making it difficult to work with or trim accurately, which probably explains why, despite its advantageous electrical and mechanical properties, Crystal Cable is the only cable company (that I’m aware of) using it. Look at the cross-sectional diagram of a Absolute Dream conductor and the reason becomes clear. Despite the PEEK outer layer and twin shields, this cable is pretty much all conductor. I don’t have numbers, but between them, the twin shields and the central core must add up to around 65% of the cable’s cross-sectional area -- a vast number in comparison to a typically bulky, high-end competitor. In turn that adds up to a reduction in undesirable mechanical damping, dielectric absorption, capacitance and unwanted electrical influence. In this case, less really is more.
There are always compromises on any design path, and Crystal Cable’s low-mass, low-volume approach is no exception. The main challenge is in the area of shielding. The further a circumferential shield is placed from the conductor carrying the signal, the more effective it is, but clearly that flies in the face of Crystal Cable’s design philosophy. The company’s response has been to use those twin woven shields, the inner one formed from gold-plated monocrystal silver, with the outer layer in silver-plated monocrystal copper. Their effectiveness is then further enhanced through the use of a tightly twisted construction. The result is an inherently quiet, lucid and communicative cable that excels in the areas of musical phrasing and flow, without the clumsy, exaggerated bass or florid colorations of bulkier competitors. Majoring on subtlety and nuance, those musical qualities are present in the twin-conductor Dreamline Plus just as they are in the four-conductor Absolute Dream, the latter adding weight, dynamic wallop and dimensionality to the equation. Even so, the four-conductor cable still lacks the dramatic contrasts, bass extension and easy sense of scale that come from a cable like Nordost's Odin 2, a realization that opened the door to the creation of the Ultimate Dream.
It would be easy to conclude that Ultimate Dream is simply a six-conductor version of the Absolute Dream, but there’s rather more to it than that. Ultimate Dream breaks new ground in two critical areas: geometry and connectors. One implication of the six-conductor twist is that it creates a natural void in its center, the space that in so many cables is filled with a fibrous material that looks uncommonly like string. Of course, this central core has the marketing benefit of increasing a cable’s bulk, but it also introduces spurious material into the construction -- and that material is going to impact the sound one way or another. However, it also offers an opportunity, if carefully managed. One side effect of twisting conductors is that you create undesirable field and mechanical micro-distortions -- one reason why the Absolute Dream cables take so long to settle once they are installed. By choosing the dimensions and material of the core around which your conductors are wound, you can precisely define the topology to minimize such distortions and control both dielectric and damping effects. After doing their sums (and investing considerable time in virtual performance modeling), Crystal Cable has chosen a carefully dimensioned Teflon tube to achieve these multiple goals (it’s a silver/gold-alloy ground conductor in the power cords) -- and if the resulting performance is anything to go by, they’ve got those sums right.
Since they first arrived, Crystal Cables have always been terminated with elegantly minimalist, monochrome connectors created in conjunction with Furutech. They certainly look the part, but over the years, as increasing attention has been paid to connector design and more and more companies have taken the serious decision to create their own connectors, the suspicion has grown that the Furutech plugs may be limiting ultimate performance. So perhaps it is no surprise that it is the Ultimate Dream that is the first Crystal Cable to exchange Furutech terminations for the highly regarded Oiyade alternatives. They may not look as pretty -- unless retro is your thing -- but as somebody who has spent way too much time in comparative listening to different connectors, I can certainly attest to their musical abilities and influence. Given the almost obsessive care that cable manufacturers -- including Crystal Cable -- lavish on the materials and construction involved in their conductors and cables, it might seem odd to suggest that something as prosaic as an AC plug can have a profound effect on overall performance, but it is a proposition that has finally been widely accepted. These days it’s become a well-worn saw that the smarter a connector looks, the worse it probably sounds. The Oiyade plugs may look distinctly 1970s in appearance, but those low-mass barrels and the carefully chosen contact materials and surface plating have a readily audible influence on the sonic and musical merits of the cable they are soldered to. In an ideal world, the interface geometry, termination path and strain relief are all individually matched to the cable in question -- the main benefit that makes "building your own" worth the considerable effort and challenges involved -- but if you want an off-the-shelf solution, then Oiyade is the one I’d choose.
For this review I received Ultimate Dream interconnects (XLR and RCA terminated), speaker cables and power cords. The new range doesn’t include phono cables for tonearm connection (where the heavier, six-conductor geometry conflicts with the low-capacitance requirement) or digital cables (with their specific impedance demands). For those, users should rely on the established models from the Absolute Dream series, cables that crucially share the same conductor construction and materials as the Ultimate Dream designs. As I already have those to hand, it was easy to wire complete systems and multiple sources with a coherent Ultimate/Absolute Dream loom, without diluting or diminishing the performance of the new flagship cables.
Absolute Dream has long been one of my go-to cables, remarkable for its natural, unforced sense of musical flow and phrasing. Where so many high-end cable pretenders seem intent on exaggerating musical punctuation and capitalizing letters, Crystal Cables have always focused more on the words and sentences. Their inclusion has always made for engaging and entertaining systems, long on the musical performance, short on sonic spectacle. Yet that deft, musical subtlety has also made them a harder sell outside those listeners familiar with and looking to re-create the sense and communicative nuance of live acoustic music. Compared to the bass slam and dynamic pyrotechnics of so many hi-fi cables, Absolute Dream sounds positively self-effacing, with an almost unreasonable expectation that it is the musicians that should be doing the work rather than the system. As with many products that take a little time to really grow on you, their glory lies in their fluid timing and grain-free midband, while you can point a finger at their bottom octave and overall transparency and resolution if you are looking for weaknesses. These perceived failings can express themselves as a lack of presence and immediacy -- so often the very qualities that stand out in the competition.
Well, Ultimate Dream seems set to change all that -- in a big way. The new cables offer increased conductive cross-section, reduced distortion and lower connector-related losses; combined, those changes add up to a significant step up in performance -- a step up in all the areas that one might criticize in the Absolute Dream -- without any reduction in that cable’s significant musical and expressive strengths. In fact, owners of the already impressively musical Absolute Dream may well be shocked by the direct comparison with the new Ultimate Dream.
To experience just how great the difference in presentation is, look no further than the most familiar of acoustic instruments, normally guitar or piano, the very material on which Absolute Dream excels. On the opening of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto (Martha Argerich with Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker [UHQCD UCCG 40086]), Absolute Dream turns in its expected, confidently musical and contained performance, full of movement and color. But switch to Ultimate Dream and the music simply seems to explode into the room. The soundstage is bigger and better defined in all dimensions -- and you are several rows closer to the performers. Instrumental colors and textures are more vivid, but it is with the piano that you really notice the difference. The instrument is bolder and much more dimensional, with more weight and authority -- and a far more agile player. The rapid sprays of notes are both more clearly and more vividly defined. It’s not that the leading edges are crisper or cleaner, or that the decay is more clearly resolved. It’s almost as if each note has filled out from within, greater body and energy bringing a more clearly stated shape and purpose. The dramatic left-hand passages are simply that much more dramatic -- with added weight, texture and, again, that increased sense of musical purpose propelling the music onward. Nor is this just a case of wham, bam, thank you, Martha. Note spacing and placement are up to the exceptional standards of Absolute Dream, but there’s delicacy in abundance too.
The second movement andantino is a perfect example, the poise and precision of the right-hand melody underpinned by the quietest of left-hand accents. Relative levels and key weight are portrayed with an unforced clarity and confidence that seem to flow directly from Argerich herself. You don’t appreciate how important those bass notes are, or that you are actually all but missing them, with the Absolute Dream, until you hear the same passage through the Ultimate Dream. This isn’t a case of that old cliché, hearing stuff you never heard before. This is having the sense and balance of musical energy restored -- and emphatically so; not so much, now I can hear stuff I couldn’t hear before but more now I can hear why it matters. The musician’s intent becomes far more apparent, with the result that musical performances are rendered more natural, more engaging and much more convincing. What you get here is more music that makes much more sense. What you get is much more Martha.
Switching to the minimalist recording and complex, low-fi production of Aimee Mann’s Lost In Space [Mobile Fidelity MFSL UDSACD 2021] rams home Ultimate Dream’s superiority even more emphatically. Exactly the sort of recording where ultra-definition cables excel, with their spot-lit presentation and super separation, it is also the sort of recording that has always given Absolute Dream kittens, as it tries to balance the intimacy of the vocals with the heavily layered backdrop. Here, Ultimate Dream’s influence is musically transformative. On a track like "This Is How It Goes," the vocal steps front and center, with impressive body and dimensionality, subtlety to the diction and space around and behind it. The acoustic guitar also becomes more substantial, and both stand proud as the backing curtain drops behind them, its multiple layers and musical elements carefully woven but audibly distinct. From a voice struggling to emerge, we graduate to a confident singer backed by a carefully crafted arrangement, the acid import of the lyric aided and abetted by its disturbing intimacy and off-hand nonchalance, the band’s contribution and the intentionally grungy production. Yet, once again, there’s nothing clumsy, overt or obvious about the presentation. It’s just easier to understand why the track has been put together that way, and that makes it a much better track.
This is not a small change in performance, either sonically or musically, and, like so many such changes, it starts in the bass. You’d expect all that extra metal to add low-frequency control. What it also adds is extension, weight, authority, definition and texture -- and just as with a good subwoofer, you hear those benefits right up the range. You hear them in the added clarity, intra-instrumental space and dimensionality in the midband, in the solid presence and projection in the treble, in the clearly defined soundstage and the precisely placed instruments within it, in the richer, more distinct and more natural instrumental colors and textures.
Of course, if making a great cable was as simple as throwing more metal at the problem, then everybody would be doing it. Actually, lots of people have tried just that -- and come horribly unstuck as a result. What Ultimate Dream demonstrates in no uncertain terms is that the metal you add, as well as how, how much and where you add it are all crucial considerations if you want to maintain or extend the musical balance. Preserving the articulate phrasing and natural temporal coherence of Absolute Dream while significantly extending energy projection at bandwidth extremes is no mean feat -- one that owes a huge debt to the minimalist conductor construction, the low-mass materials used and the carefully calculated geometry. Get any of those things wrong, and along with the extra weight and wallop you get a host of other less desirable additions that blur, distort or simply bend the musical picture out of shape. Ultimate Dream avoids those common pitfalls, and the results are spectacularly successful.
Although I’m loathe to ascribe genre-specific capabilities to products, there’s no escaping the fact that Absolute Dream’s strengths and expressive range were most easily appreciated with acoustic music, smaller-scale classical and jazz pieces, often delivering astonishingly engaging results. Ultimate Dream knows no such limitations. Whether it’s the driving rhythms, raw attitude and explosive drumming of Elvis Costello’s "This Year’s Girl" (from This Year’s Model [Radar Recordings RAD 3]), or the synthetic soundscapes and haunting brass of Nils Petter Molvaer’s Khmer (the recent LP release [ECM 1560 774 2658]), the big Crystal Cables deliver the energy demands with deft control and a light touch. The attractions are all bustling presence and spiky attitude, Molvaer’s trumpet punches out of the complex layers of synth backing with a haunting directness and substance. Orchestral bass notes are secure in terms of pitch, texture and timing; slapped bass on jazz tracks takes on a new clarity but also an easy sense of shape and direction that settles into and establishes a clear groove.
If Ultimate Dream has a weakness, it lies in the demands it places on the rest of the system. If you want to hear the added clarity, dynamic discrimination and sense of musical authority and purpose that this cable can deliver, you’ll need to pay serious attention to the niceties of system infrastructure and setup. When you run a complete Ultimate Dream loom, the benefits of proper system supports and grounding arrangements become shockingly apparent; and rarely have I heard such a dramatic improvement in the noise floor, locational precision and focus, instrumental tonality, texture and harmonic decay when inserting the CAD Ground Control GC1 into a system.
This also hints at the Ultimate Dream's outer performance envelope. Despite the obvious increase in bass extension and weight, so much of what this cable does concentrates at the micro end of the scale, on subtle shifts in note weight, textures and spacing, rhythmic catches and pauses, all revealed with an effortless clarity. The dynamic discrimination extends up the volume range, but the Ultimate Dream still lacks the remarkable jump factor, projection and high-level intensity of Nordost Odin 2 or the massive low-frequency weight and slam of the latest AudioQuest cables. Instead, Crystal Cable has concentrated on extending the envelope without disturbing their cable’s holistic musical nature. The very naturalistic quality Ultimate Dream possesses is what places such a heavy burden on the rest of the system. Any attempt to fudge or slide is immediately apparent, and Ultimate Dream adds no padding to soften the blow. In that regard, it takes exactly the same, uncompromising approach as the Odin 2, and familiarity with the draconian performance demands of that cable (when it comes to system setup) stood me in good stead when it came time to work with Ultimate Dream. Absolute Dream is both sweet and forgiving. Its bigger brother ain’t so cuddly.
Product naming is a dark art, with so many Signature, Reference and Special Editions out there that the terms have become almost meaningless. But here we have a product where, for once, the implied performance suggested by the name is more than simple hyperbole. Ultimate Dream earns its moniker the hard way: by delivering performance that easily exceeds that of the company’s existing, already impressive flagship -- by delivering performance that places it toe to toe with the very best cables available. Ultimate Dream represents a substantial step up in the musical results possible from Crystal Cable, substantial enough to more than justify the also substantial increase in price over Absolute Dream.
The essential problem here is simple: the monocrystal silver conductor is expensive and the low-mass, Teflon/Kapton construction is difficult and time-consuming to work with. Add half as many again conductors to the mix and you add 50% to the material and build cost. Compare the prices of the twin-conductor Dreamline Plus, quad-conductor Absolute Dream and the new Ultimate Dream and you’ll see that they track that equation remarkably closely. But the good news here (assuming you have extremely deep pockets) is that Ultimate Dream laughs in the face of the law of diminishing returns. Quantitatively, there is no question that it delivers materially more than Absolute Dream, but, qualitatively, it’s in a completely different league. A third as much again in price, it’s more than twice as good. That places Ultimate Dream squarely in the big league, both in terms of price and performance.
If you’ve never quite connected with the Crystal Cables, listening to Ultimate Dream could (indeed, should) change your mind. If you are already sold on the Absolute Dream’s considerable musical appeal, take my advice: don’t listen to Ultimate Dream unless you are prepared to pony up the difference in price. The world according to Crystal Cable didn’t just change -- it tilted on its axis.