The notes fit, the parts fit, the music makes perfect, glorious sense. It pulls you in and it’s a pleasure to be pulled, simply because it’s so effortless. This isn’t a great recording – a Voice Of America live broadcast from 1957 – but it is a great performance of what is undeniably great music. What the Crystals do is fasten your attention on the music, the playing of the band, the way they interlock to create a single coherent whole, against which issues like bandwidth (minimal), stereo (it’s mono) and dynamic range (limited) recede in importance. It’s a little like reading an ancient text. Often a fair copy is easier to follow than the illuminated and curlicued artistry of the finished page, the sense and passion in the writing submerged behind the formality and ornate intricacy of the finished page. Sometimes hi-fi systems get so wrapped up in the means of delivery that they forget the meaning of the message. Sometimes it might as well arrive in hieroglyphics!
The Crystal Ultras’ musical integrity is built on balance. There’s an innately natural, unforced and unexaggerated quality to their musical delivery. Tonally they’re sweet and devoid of edge, while dynamically they are quick and crisp if not massively wide of range. Likewise transparency, staging, dimensionality and acoustic presence are all present without standing out. It’s the very evenness of their achievement that elevates their ability to communicate. Imagine yourself looking across a perfectly flat plain; it’s difficult to judge distance without landmarks, it’s harder to see a dip than a hill, a gentle depression than a stark mesa. Most cables (most components for that matter) draw attention to themselves because of standout qualities that disturb the sonic landscape, the stage on which the music appears. If the Ultra’s have a standout attribute it’s the musical independence they allow individual instruments, something that sums them up perfectly simply because it depends so completely on the correct balance of all the other contributing virtues.
So, when you listen to Julia Fischer’s Tchaikovsky on Pentatone, you are aware of the sharp tempo of Kreizberg’s opening and the contrast it creates with Fischer’s measured delicacy, the unhurried, confident maturity of her reading, the natural presence and scale of her instrument. Likewise you hear the balance between that instrument and the orchestra, rather than noticing the depth of the soundstage, the spread of the players, you hear the patterns and contrasts rather than the positions of the different instruments, the insistence of the winds asked to underpin the graduated crescendos rather than marvelling at the air around them. It’s what you hear rather than what you notice that matters and the crystals lead you unerringly towards the performance, away from their (actually very impressive) hi-fi attributes. It’s the whole that matters and it’s a whole that the Crystals deliver.
As such it comes as no surprise that they are also heavily interdependent. Remove one element of the whole and you diminish the effect dramatically. However, given that few of us are in a position to purchase a complete loom of Crystal Ultra outright, the all too audible benefits of adding each element to the loom as a whole are an absolute boon. They’re also big enough to establish just which order you should take them in. I’ll save you the lengthy and detailed expose – just start with the mains and then go from the front of the system. The first cable to buy is the one that comes out of the wall. Without the mains loom in place, the interconnects and speaker cables struggle to achieve the same level of unflustered calm and musical insight. With the power cords doing their thing, the impact of the other cables becomes a lot more obvious and a lot easier to both appreciate and forget – if you see what I mean.
Are Crystal’s Ultras the perfect cables? No, but they are as conceptually elegant as anything out there, while top-notch materials and precision termination carries them an awful long way. For sheer musicality they are hard to beat, but that artistic integrity isn’t won at the expense of smudged edges or limited resolution. They time beautifully and integrate copious amounts of detail. There are bolder, bigger and in hi-fi terms ultimately better cables out there. Of the ones I’ve heard none are cheaper and only the Valhallas match and the Odins exceed the sheer musical access offered by the Ultras – the latter at a fearful price!
It seems invidious to mention Nordost so repeatedly in a Crystal review, yet the conceptual similarities, the coherence of the approach and results are such that it sis almost inevitable. What’s more, the mono-filament cables have set the benchmark for so long that comparison is equally inevitable given the Crystal’s performance. It’s unobtrusive excellence makes it comfortable in such exalted company, while its distinctly different balance will appeal to those who describe the Nordost cables as “obvious” or “lean” (the ones who describe them as “bright” either haven’t listened to a properly runin set or don’t like what the cables tell them about their tweeters!). But the real lesson to take from the Ultra experience (besides a note to investigate the company’s more affordable options) is just how clearly they underline the importance of a coherent approach to cabling your system, and where the priorities lie within that strategy. I have loved listening with these cables; their ability to lift the musical performance free of the system is exactly what hi-fi should be about. They offer no panacea for poorly assembled or matched components, they offer little or nothing of themselves save an imperturbable musical poise. They are both refreshingly simple and simply excellent. Allow them a little time and that excellence will unlock the musical performances you’ve already paid for.