October 2006Cobalt Cable Ultimate Interconnects and Speaker Cables
by Mack Khan
Ive come to grips with the fact that 18-gauge speaker wire, lovingly referred to as "good ol lamp cord," and the familiar red-and-black frail interconnects have all but disappeared from audiophiles' systems. As with everything audio and video, the science and art of signal transfer has undergone significant transformation. One cant ignore the fact that cables are now considered by many an integral part of a good-sounding audio system. But at what point is the added expenditure of expensive cables worth the cost? Do they truly improve sound enough to command the prices that some budget components cost?
My experience has been that audible changes are usually subtle, and it can often be a crapshoot to differentiate one cable from another. Blind tests have proved this as well. So when I was awarded the opportunity to review the Ultimate interconnects ($74.95 USD per meter pair) and Ultimate speaker cables ($140 per eight-foot pair) from Cobalt Cable, I only hoped that it would be quick and painless. And it was.
Cobalt Cable, now in its sixth year of existence, is a manufacturer of audio and video cables located in Spokane Valley, Washington. The company has a well-laid-out website that includes a no-nonsense FAQ dedicated to debunking many myths about high-end cables. Cobalt Cable designs and manufactures its products in-house, thereby enjoying certain economies of scale and dedicated quality control that are hard to realize otherwise. Cobalt Cable takes pride in its ability to customize cables for individual needs. As added reassurance to customers, Cobalt cables are hand assembled and bench tested, and they come with a "no questions asked" lifetime exchange policy, including a 90-day money-back guarantee. The company has an impressive list of professional clients, NASA, NBC News, the Canadian Broadcast Company, and Georgia State University among them.
The companys Ultimate speaker cable is a proprietary two-conductor design that is said to provide ultra-high definition and low-loss performance. It is equipped with a very flexible pair of 10 AWG, densely stranded oxygen-free-copper conductors. This design is said to keep resistance to a minimum while maximizing damping factor, allowing for tighter control of speaker drivers at high volumes. The Ultimate interconnects are an improved version of the companys original series and are said to provide unmatched signal purity and ultra-low capacitance. They also use copper conductors, and their gold-plated locking RCA connectors provide a tight fit with a simple twist. Cobalt Cable claims their cables can compete against the $500 offerings currently available, even though they cost a fraction of this amount.
The review samples of the Ultimate speaker cables and interconnects arrived individually packaged in durable, sealed plastic sleeves. Their appearance bespeaks the highest quality of materials and workmanship. I was impressed by how heavy they felt upon unpacking, yet they were very flexible, sort of like a Python (not that I have ever held one). The spade connectors were easily the most pliable I have worked with, making connections between the speakers and amp a cinch. The barrels of the locking RCA connectors are finished in beautiful cobalt blue and have gold pins. Included with the cables were individual polarity and solder test results.
When I had finished hooking up all of the cables, I couldnt help but admire how good my system looked -- even powered off! But would the Cobalt Cable interconnects and speaker cables make any meaningful difference in sound?
I must thank Cobalt Cable for one thing right off the bat: The company does not subscribe to any certain burn-in period for their cables. I found not having to dedicate anywhere between 100 and 500 hours to breaking in cables a welcome change.
The speakers used alternated between a pair of Infinity Reference Kappa 8 four-way floorstanders and a pair of B&W 602 S3 two-way minimonitors. The Infinity speakers are good at delivering clean, thumping bass with great impact, and the B&Ws are excellent for gauging imaging, transparency and overall accuracy. Amplification came via an upgraded Odyssey Stratos. An older but highly regarded Adcom 565 preamp was used for phono, and an Audio Refinement Pre-5 performed line-level duties. A YBA Lecture CD player and SOTA Comet turntable with Rega RB250 tonearm and Clearaudio Classics cartridge were used as sources. Finally, Echo Buster absorption panels were employed throughout various locations of my room to prevent any soundstage smearing.
The first area where the Cobalt cables made a profound impression on me was their delivery of some "feel it in your gut" bass. I have always felt that my vinyl setup was lacking the punch that my digital playback delivers, but with the Cobalt cables in place, bass frequencies from LPs had startling weight.
Thus, it was immediately apparent that excellent cables can help bridge the gap between the analog and digital mediums. I spun Leonard Cohens Ten New Songs LP [Columbia Records 85953]. "By the River's Dark" is a hauntingly beautiful track, and it sounded stunning via the Cobalt cables, which delivered a rich, juicy sound. There was great silkiness to Leonard Cohens deep baritone as it hung suspended between and to the sides of my speakers. Not only was the sound holographic, but it was as plush as velvet. Still, voices were clearly understandable and had abundant detail. "The Tea Break," from the Sinatra at The Sands CD [Reprise 9 46947-2], is a monologue halfway through the performance. Amidst occasional lip smacking and tea sipping, Sinatra entertained the audience that evening in 1966, and it was all revealed with a fertile transparency. This sort of retrieval of delicate and subtle nuances makes a live recording especially involving.
The soundstage the Cobalt Ultimate cables cast was deep and wide, situating me mid-section of the auditorium. I did, however, detect a slight reduction in the upper midrange on a handful of recordings, but without any chestiness that can usually accompany it. This stole a bit of sparkle from bright recordings, such as the Dixie Chicks' Home LP [Columbia C 86852], making the performance sound a bit veiled on the whole. I would have preferred a slightly livelier presentation, especially on the string section, and with a little more bloom, but I am splitting hairs here. In general, the Ultimate cables' high frequencies were all there -- smooth, detailed, and without any harshness.
As mentioned, the bass was all there too. It was deep, clean and devoid of bloat. The kick drum in the opening segment of the Eagles Hotel California CD [Geffen GEFD-24725] came across with immense authority and impact, making the wood floors of my listening room rattle. Higher up, on "Shoo Fly Dont Bother Me" from the Bluesiana Triangle CD [Windham Hill, WD-0125], the drum sticks brushing the cymbals sounded absolutely sublime through the Ultimates. I detected no exaggeration or sibilance in the higher frequencies whatsoever. Had there been any, my Infinity speakers would have shamelessly revealed it.
As I began taxing my Odyssey power amp to insane volumes, there seemed very little deterioration in sound quality, albeit without any significant increase in loudness either, with the Ultimate interconnects and speaker cables in my system. As I passed the noon hour on the preamps potentiometer, compression did begin setting in, but the sound remained rich and coherent for the most part. It was as if the Ultimate speaker cables were preventing a catastrophe in the making. I have been known to feed enough distortion in the past to watch voice coils in speakers melt in front of me. Also, my Infinity speakers are not an easy load for amplifiers, even high-current ones, with steep variances in their impedance. Cobalt Cable touts their speaker wire as having the ability to prevent excessive movements of drivers at high volumes, and this proved to be no idle boast. My audiophile brethren with speakers of higher efficiency and uniform impedance should experience even better results.
Another area of excellence with the Cobalt cable was their ability to throw a very deep, believable soundstage. Live recordings sounded live, with a "you are there" quality to them. A great recording for this purpose is an Etta Jamess Live From San Francisco [On The Spot 01005-82125-2]. It is a close-miked recording of various remakes of famous blues, with healthy audience participation throughout the performance. It was uncanny the way the Ultimate cables captured James -- with thrilling three-dimensionality and precision. It was easy to follow her as she moved around on stage. On the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall LP [Columbia C2S 826], the piano had powerful heft between each key strike with excellent rise and decay between notes. Everything hung suspended in my listening room.
The scale of the presentation was also impressive through the Cobalt cables. "Riverdance," from the Celtic Pride CD [Retro Music RIV00902], featuring the Irish Ceili Band, is a robust recording of the worldwide phenomenon with the same name, and it came through with tremendous impact, as did the crash of the crescendos on the opening segment of the "Mongolian Traditional song" from Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Journey CD [Sony Classical SK 89782]. I found myself listening to both of these albums in their entirety, relishing the ambience of their recording venues and the performance of the orchestras. That speaks volumes for Cobalt cables, as over the years I have amassed a fair number of CDs bought on a whim, only rarely to listen to them with much interest aftwards.
As I mentioned, Cobalt Cable claims its cables are designed to compete in the $500 range. At that price point, you are competing with some highly acclaimed interconnects and speaker cables. In applying the rule of diminishing returns to high-end cables, I find it hard to fathom that there would be a difference of night and day between reproduction of all frequencies through the Ultimate cables and those costing considerably more. As a matter of fact, I would rather own the Cobalts, knowing that they are maximizing the performance of my system within a fraction of their more expensive brethren and saving me money that I can spend on music.
But that's a personal choice. I can say, however, that in swapping my acclaimed DH Labs BL-1 Series II interconnects ($99 per meter pair) with the Ultimate interconnects, there was a noticeable but a subtle improvement. To be sure, I alternated between both cables throughout the review period. The most obvious difference was that the DH Labs interconnects sounded (and looked) somewhat anemic in comparison to the Cobalt interconnects and had a much narrower soundstage, albeit with a bit more silvery sheen in the upper frequencies. The Cobalt interconnects, on the other hand, elevated the performance of my system as a whole. They were just as transparent as the DH Labs interconnects but with an added dose of velvety-ness to the sound.
As for the Ultimate speaker cables, it was a tossup between them and my reference Paul Speltz Anti-Cables ($80 per eight-foot pair). The foremost difference was that the Cobalt speaker cables increased the expanse of the soundstage, creating a more holographic presentation, with more bass and a richer, heftier sound that did decrease clarity a bit in relation to my reference cables. Also, this tendency toward a heavier sound through the Ultimate speaker cables affected the presence and impact a hair more than the Anti-Cables deliver.
It is important to keep in mind that these results reflect performance in my system only. Synergy is just as important when choosing audio cables as it is with any other component. Most cables require a certain amount of burn-in time that can, in turn, have a "grow on you" effect, not to mention outrunning any allowed refund period. Neither of these applies to the Cobalt Ultimate cables.
Audiophiles with bright systems devoid of richness and good bass will probably love what the Cobalt Cable Ultimate interconnects and speaker cables would do in their setups, while those with systems already leaning toward a warmer presentation may find that the Ultimates represent too much of a good thing, subduing sound a bit. But whatever your system's sound and listening preference, when it comes to Cobalts offering, the company manufactures no snake oil. What you get is an honest, "proof is in the pudding" approach at a very reasonable price. Cobalt Ultimate interconnects and speaker cables provided me with some captivating moments during their time in my system, enabling me to lose myself in whatever music I happened to be playing. They get an enthusiastic "thumbs up" from this budget-conscious audiophile.
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