The Ultra cables themselves are of course, virtually identical, aside from their terminations. The single-ended leads employ the excellent Furutech RCA plugs while speaker cables can each be terminated with two or four, rhodium plated spades or 4mm Z-plugs. The balanced wires employ Neutrik XLRs and there’s even a tonearm option with an IEJ 5-pin connector. Incidentally, Crystal also offer a rather natty iPod lead, which makes a great deal of sense if you want to connect your portable hard-drive to your main, Crystal-wired system. As normal, I made sure that I had sufficient cabling to wire the entire system, regardless of configuration and including mains leads and distribution blocks. It’s the latter where things start to get interesting. Even with three conductors twisted together, the Crystal Ultra power cords are thinner and far more flexible than most, a stark contrast to the springy awkwardness or sheer bulk of competing products. It’s a compact neatness that carries over to the distribution block, a beautifully constructed oval composite of milled aluminium and Perspex, internal channels carrying the meticulously dressed and star-earthed conductors from the 15Amp input socket to the six Schuko output sockets. The use of European type socketry might seem obtuse, but not only do Schukos sound better than 13Amp UK sockets, they enter vertically, making cable dressing significantly easier, and allow easy reversal of mains polarity, an oft overlooked but vitally important part of system set up. Taken together, a Crystal power loom thus consists of a 13Amp plug to 15Amp IEC lead which feeds the Powerstrip, together with as many as half a dozen Schuko to 13Amp power cords to feed the system. With all the plugs being genuine Furakawa and providing a good, positive fit, it’s a neat, easy to handle and easy to dress set-up that allows you to keep your power leads well away from the audio signal. However, there is one glaring omission: where’s the earth terminal on the distribution block? A simple addition, connected to a clean earth it would lift the performance yet another notch.
According to Crystal the leads need little or no burn-in. I put them on the Vidar anyway, but comparison with a virgin sample kept to one side indeed showed a smaller than expected difference. The same cannot be said of settling and dressing. In fact, I’ve never used a cable that responds so badly to being moved about or carelessly placed. Plug them in, sit back and you’ll be greeted by a disappointingly compressed, grainy and congested sound, dull and grey, flat and lifeless. Leave them for a day undisturbed and you won’t credit the improvement. Leave them for three days and you’ll really start to hear what these cables are about. Likewise, simply trail them along the floor and you’ll hear that too. Careful dressing of the cables, keeping them clear of walls, racks or other structures becoming clear, but just in case… pays real dividends, as does supporting them clear of the floor on wood or Perspex risers. I used Quadraspire silencers with good results, and later the Ayre maple blocks proved even better. Why should the Crytal Ultras prove so susceptible to settling and placement? I suspect it’s down to the minimal amount of mechanical damping inherent in the structure. The dielectric material is kept to an absolute minimum, while the incredibly thin and hard Kapton will provide little or no damping at all. Add to that the twisted construction (which only applies to the Ultras) and each time you move them the separate conductors will be pulled into tension, a tension that will slowly relax over time, but a process that involves many, tiny mechanical shifts and jerks as the whole structure settles. And that’s as close as I can get to any sort of explanation… the effect however, is hard to ignore.
Which I guess is good news and bad news. Attempt a quick AB comparison between Crystal Ultra and another lead and you’ll conclude, wrongly, that the Ultras are expensive rubbish. Instead you need to take them home, plumb them in, listen after a couple of days. Then you need to take them out and replace your old cables. That’s when you will hear exactly what these cables do – or rather don’t.
If I had to describe what the Crystals do as they settle, I’d say that they step away from the music. When you first put them on they constitute a serious barrier to listening pleasure, but as time (and signal) passes they become less and less obstructive, allowing the system to become less obstructive too. So now that we’ve got the settling in period dealt with, let’s just concentrate on what they deliver when they’re singing, the musical access they offer…
You can hear it on anything, but on the whole the harder the music the more obvious it will be. Blue Note’s superb recent issue of the Thelonius Monk Quartet at Carnegie Hall, featuring john Coltrane is a case in point. This is not easy music and it’s not easy music to reproduce. Too many systems render it stark, angular, disjointed and discordant. It’s a disc I’ve been playing a lot recently, on a lot of systems with different components and cables. But slip the Crystals into the equation and a common quality emerges. Take the performance of ‘Epistrophy’ as an example. It’s a rhythmically complex track, with different tempi superimposed, a confusing and interruptive instrumental structure. Yet the Crystals impose a relaxed poise and calm on proceedings. Even the frenetic cymbal work locks into the pattern of the bass and piano parts. And pattern is the word. The sheer fluidity and shape of Coltrane’s phrasing creates a logical progression in his shifts and developments, revealing the landing point even as he jumps. Monk’s sporadic, often staccato interjections become subtle prompts and hints, the little nudges and bubbling up of excited anticipation they really were, so that when he steps forward, his long flowing line becomes a simple extension of the submerged thread that you now realise he’s been teasing you with all along. The expression in his playing, the range of weight and placement with which he invests his notes lifts the melody away from the mechanics of the instrument, instead flowing it straight from his fingers.