Ultra Interconnect Cable

Stereo Times Review

I’ll be honest. I do not like interconnects. Faced with auditioning a snake pit of interconnects writhing in serpentine frenzy, is it unreasonable to yearn for the rosy nostalgic days of all-in-one compact stereos and integrated amps? Audio gear that, while it denied the possibility of improving the sound by use of the proper interconnect, also instilled the peace of mind that one could not ruin it either?

I hated the cheesy gray interconnects that were included gratis with cassette decks. The flatulent pronouncements from turgid flat earth societies that the sonic differences among interconnects are imaginary compounds tedium with odium. Similarly loathsome are the ultra expensive boa-constrictor-with-rigor-mortis interconnects with connectors that bite like lock-jawed pit bulls. Most of all I hate auditioning them. An informal survey I did a few years ago with reasonably priced ($500 per meter is reasonable?) interconnects yielded the all-too common Goldilocks in Hell syndrome: the interconnects were either too bright or too dead, too detailed or too opaque, unable to dance or boogie, or all too often, they did one thing right at the exclusion of all else. None were “just right.” Ultra expensive interconnects are not immune from this phenomenon either, heightening the frustration by adding huge expense. I’m less tolerant of the flaws in ultra expensive products: a supra-thousand dollar interconnect had better let me hear the Voice of God without speech impediments!

My personal aversion not withstanding, the need and application for interconnects have proliferated, along with the number of brands on the market. As contemporary systems get more and more atomized with outboard phono sections, separate D/A’s, not to mention the interconnect demands of home theater systems, the choice of interconnect can make or break a system. The constant sprouting of new companies with new products along with continual revamps of products from the established firms, leads to a kind of faddishness and a difficulty in keeping abreast of what’s available. Factor in the cost variation of the almost free roll-your-own interconnects to the vertigo-inducing prices bandied in the high-end, and Joni Mitchell’s line about “the crazy you get from too much choice” takes on new significance.

Take a look at the price of the Ultras. No it’s not a typo. 100 smackers a meter. Origin Live is committed to producing extremely musical products that the average music lover can easily afford: their modified Rega RB250 tonearm I rate as the biggest bargain in analog playback. My sympathy for affordable high performance gear has run throughout my 30-year audio career: as a music lover, retail salesman/manager and reviewer. A high income is no guarantee of musical passion, nor is musical passion a signifier for a high income. Indeed the inverse is more commonly true. The equation of high-end with high-priced I find unfortunate: high price is no guarantee of musical satisfaction, as many before me have commented.

The Ultras cosmetically resemble the tonearm cable Origin Live uses on their Rega tonearm re-wires and feature the same phono plugs. Available exclusively by mail order, they feature a money-back guarantee. Mark Baker of Origin Live recommends a 6-hour burn-in before forming final conclusions. They are flexible, easy to use, and didn’t interfere with the Aurios isolation bearings that form the foundation of my system. Nothing fancy in appearance and, thankfully, no resemblance to tumescent pythons.

The immediate impression I had of the Ultra interconnects was the supreme ease of entering into the music. Turning off the critical listening apparatus was a snap: a good sign in my experience, indicating that there were no musical or sonic sore thumbs sticking up in their presentation to draw attention away from the music and towards the sound. There is nothing of the spectacular in their presentation: no “Wow!” or “Omigod!”, so those looking for sonic thrills might overlook their musical abilities. The Ultra’s strengths are subtle, but only a little reflection crystallizes their true-to-the music qualities. I had to consciously turn on my critical listening mindset. Punctuation, phrasing, and rhythmic integrity and drive were exceptional, equating to fine low-level detail, accurate starting and stopping of notes, along with preservation of their temporal and harmonic structure. Without these crucial abilities, reproduced music is like prose written with no punctuation, capital letters, and spaces between words.

Violins were rendered without the common harsh steely edge. Piano was without artificial harsh clang. These two instruments are often poorly recorded and added harshness and clang can seriously mar the enjoyment of classical music. Lyric intelligibility was also excellent. Since the midrange contains most of what is of musical value and lies in the range of our hearing’s greatest acuity, strong performance here leads to deep musical satisfaction.

It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to characterize the Ultras as offering the neutral tonal balance and somewhat self-effacing presentation of the best BBC-inspired English speaker designs, coupled with the dynamic and rhythmic coherence and musical aplomb of the classic Scottish turntables. I’d call it an excellent recipe for musical enjoyment. Except for a slight softening and simplification of high frequency percussion and a loss of ultimate transparency, detail was very good and was always in service of the music. Multiple percussion instruments had their highest harmonics tied to their fundamentals, so were easy to identify as separate instruments rather than washing into an amorphous mélange. Hard, fast transients did not turn harsh or grating, and multiple instruments playing hard and fast maintained their identity as individual voices. The Ultras were not tripped up by fast tempos and complex rhythms. Nor were slow movements threatened, their excellent phrasing and reproduction of nuance and inflection kept the music flowing in even the slowest of tempos.

Perceiving melodies in the bass (the famous Linn “playing tunes in the bass”) was particularly easy as was identification of each instrument when multiple bass instruments played together. The Ron Carter Quartet recordings, featuring Carter’s piccolo bass along with Buster Williams’ slightly lower pitched and physically larger bass were rendered in a way that allowed new understanding of their interaction. Instrumental images were precisely positioned and stable: stereo artifacts were never intrusive. String quartets, whose four instruments one would suspect to be a snap to physically place, are often vaguely painted by many components. The Ultras presented a firm anchoring of the images with no wander, eliminating an enormous distraction to listening.

The Ultras never got in the way of the music, which for me is a prime virtue in any hi-fi component. I found myself melting into the listening chair consistently, moved by the music without distraction from its reproduction. One of my acid tests is whether Pharaoh Sanders’ sax playing on Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda [Impulse AS 9203] can create a lump in my throat and bring tears to my eyes. There’s an ineffable sadness in it that merges with a spiritual yearning and steady flight of the soul that too many components fail to deliver. The Ultras captured it: those who value emotion in music above all else should take heart.

Like many superb budget components, the Ultra’s flaws were of the subtractive kind. While I have heard interconnects that could outperform the Ultras in ultimate detail, the Ultras always passed enough musical and sonic detail to allow the easy formation of musical gestalts. Percussion, rhythm and drone instruments were always readily identifiable and easy to differentiate (no confusing maracas for tambourines here), so the slight loss of sparkle and harmonic extension in the upper octaves did not create confusion or inhibit musical understanding.

While not perfect in any one audiophile category, the Ultras are very good in each of them and offer an adroit balance of all of them, with the all-important communication of the music’s message their greatest success. Successful design consists largely of knowing what to trade-off and how to create a balance of strengths that serve the ultimate goal, and I would agree with Origin Live’s decisions here. I wouldn’t trade the deeply satisfying musical coherence of this cable for a fraction more detail, as many very expensive cables are wont to do.

If wading through the snake pit of interconnect choices raises the unpleasant specter of looking Medusa straight in the face, these interconnects merit serious consideration. Those eager to avoid the interconnect merry-go-round will find much to like with the Ultras. If access to the music is of higher priority than some of audiophilia’s non-musically significant concerns, the Ultras are a deeply satisfying musical product and a supreme bargain.

Components used in audition:

– Sound Lab Dynastat and Infinity Qb speakers Meitner PA6i PLUS+, Hegeman HAPI 2, AMC CVT 1030 (tube) preamps. Musical Surroundings Phonomena Phono Stage with Battery Power Supply. Meitner STR 55, EICO HF89 (tube), Rotel RB 980 Power amps. Linn LP 12 w/ Origin Live RB 250 arm (2): one with basic motor drive, one with Origin Live DC motor. Origin Live Basic Kit Turntable w/ OL RB 300 arm. All with Ringmat. Shure V15 V xMR, Audio Technica AT OC9ML, Goldring Eroica LX, and Talisman Boron phono cartridges. Analysis Plus Oval 9 speaker Cable. Aurios PRO isolation bearings under all components except turntables.

Paul Szabady,August 2001