“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation…” Joseph Conrad
There’s nowhere quite like New Zealand; surely the world’s most beautiful country, and an unforgettable experience for any traveller. Now cemented in the popular consciousness as the location where Middle Earth sprang to life, its picture postcard terrain is home to a greater number of sheep than humans (feel free to insert your own joke, but if those critters ever get the vote there’ll be some changes …). Yet you must now cast from your mind those widescreen images of snow-capped peaks and circular front doors – for we are headed instead to the North Island metropolis of Auckland, there to catch up with one of the most intriguing audio companies anywhere on the planet.
Antipodes Audio is the brainchild of Mark Jenkins, and Mark has a passion for audio cables. I know nothing of him beyond the fascinating correspondence we’ve exchanged lately, yet the man’s sheer obsessive focus is apparent in every sentence he writes and every detail of his products. I like obsessive personalities; if not always the best life partners (wife Sonia may have something to say at this point!), they’re certainly the best people to buy audio gear from. Much the same could be said of many other designers and builders, though – what makes Mark special? Well, Antipodes Audio have been operating since 2004 and, as you might imagine, the market for specialist cables in New Zealand isn’t huge; added to which, until a few short months ago, their product range consisted solely of analogue interconnects. While that strikes me as a recipe for commercial suicide, it’s entirely indicative of their commitment to excellence; only when the potential in those interconnects had been fully realised was Mark prepared to consider expanding his line.
Antipodes has a couple more trump cards up its sleeve. One is a dedication to customer service – as evidenced by glowing customer feedback on Audiogon – and the other is some truly original thinking on the topics of signal transmission and cable construction. If the science of cables interests you – and it certainly does me, if only because it is generally so conspicuously lacking – then I highly recommend the very readable Technology page on the Antipodes Audio website. Mark modestly omits to mention that his theories have attracted considerable academic interest, with several university research projects currently probing them. Those theories are fully realised in all of the company’s interconnects, yet it’s the way this is achieved that justifies the plaudit in my opening paragraph.
You see, Mark believes that electrical resonances within the wire are the reason why the commonly-used conductors (copper, silver, gold) each exhibit a characteristic sound. These resonances can be controlled both through physical damping, and by manipulating the wire’s crystalline structure in a very precise way. In this respect, the mono-crystal wire used in some high-end cables is felt to be far from optimal; more than highly resonant, in Mark’s words “it rings like a bell”. His solution was to do something that only the barest handful of cable companies in the world attempt; Antipodes Audio buy raw ingots of silver and gold, melt them down and draw their proprietary SenzaVoce (meaning “without voice”) wire themselves. A microscopic coating of natural oil is then applied to the finished wire, for damping and corrosion protection. A substantial quantity of natural, unbleached cotton – again, using a proprietary weave to incorporate a greater proportion of air – is employed as the dielectric, achieving a measured value close to air itself while also performing useful mechanical damping. Even the robust black fabric used for the outer jacket is a proprietary formulation! Finally, the cable’s conductors are configured in the company’s unique “Antipodal” geometry, which is claimed to yield several important benefits; these including noise rejection superior to shielded cables without employing shielding (generally damaging to a cable’s sonics), supreme phase coherence and a reduction in the electrical synergy issues that make cable performance so unpredictable in real-world systems. Amen to that!
Without wishing to labour this technical stuff, there’s one point I really need to establish. In terms of their construction and materials, these cables are distinctively different to anything else available on the market. Mark also makes a singularly bold claim for their electrical and sonic efficacy; that they “mate components in a way no other design can”. Let’s see, shall we.
The Komako Interconnect
Occupying the middle position in the range, this is the company’s most recent interconnect design and was conceived to offer the technology from the flagship Reference cable, at a much more affordable price. The top model’s gold conductors have thus been replaced with SenzaVoce silver – as they are in the base Katipo interconnect – but the use of some sophisticated metallurgy sees both gold and platinum employed strategically in the Komako, to aid in controlling silver’s characteristic resonance. Priced at an online direct US$670 (including postage) for the 1m RCA pairs with which I was supplied, a 30 day money-back guarantee is offered. Incidentally, “Komako” is the name of a native songbird in the indigenous Maori language – that’s saved you some Googling!
The cables arrived double-boxed in sturdy, foam-lined packaging, with a nicely written set of instructions doubling as an owner’s certificate. Physically, they are surprisingly rotund, with that firm-yet-soft feel of tightly wadded fabric, and while not exactly inflexible you may find yourself needing a fractionally greater length than usual in extremis. Their impressively chunky Xhadow silver RCA plugs also require that the components’ chassis sockets be generously spaced; be sure to measure this before ordering, because if there is less than 17mm centre-to-centre (as was the case on my Meridian CD player) then Xhadow’s smaller variant can be supplied, itself similar in size to an Eichmann Bulletplug. Construction is very neat, as you’d expect, and held in hand they certainly give the impression of being decent material value for money, which is not common for cables in this price bracket.
Burn-in is an issue that needs to be explored. The company warn that these cables require more of it than virtually all of the competition, because their antipodal geometry does not work the wires as hard as conventional designs. The good news, though, is that the assembled cables are “de-stressed” for 10 days prior to despatch using a multi-phase preconditioning process; while this doesn’t reduce the ultimate timeframe required to achieve full burn-in, it allows the cable to sound more acceptable during it. In practice, the advice given is that they will settle down with just 3 weeks of average use, if left undisturbed in your system. I have to say that the Komakos – I ended up burning in two sets independently – had obvious sonic deficiencies when first installed … and then took me on a roller-coaster ride, their sound fluctuating wildly and almost daily, passing through phases of reticence, harshness, boominess, general incoherence and every combination of the same before it all unequivocally came together at the 3 to 4 week mark, much as promised. They have continued to improve thereafter, and not by a small amount either, so take this as fair warning; the Komako certainly does not admit of snap judgements.
I have spent a lot of time with cables over the past couple of years, gradually working my way through the range offered by New York-based MAC and, in the process, gaining a healthy respect for that company’s products and for the importance of the role that cables play in determining a system’s sound. Mark Jenkins states that “cables can make or break a system as easily as any other component”, and that is my experience too. My initial approach to Antipodes was, however, solely to request the loan of a digital interconnect; when Mark proposed sending over some Komakos, at first I declined. I was delighted with the front-rank performance of my MAC Reference and Mystic cables and, with prices comparable to the Komako, failed to see how they could be surpassed to any worthwhile degree. I was also concerned that dropping the Komakos into an all-MAC cable loom might unfairly disadvantage them. And, truth be told, I’d also had an absolute gutful of burning cables in! Mark’s gentle persistence won the day, though – and I’m very glad it did.
Normally, at this point, I’d ease into the evaluation, keep my cards close to my chest and try to keep you guessing. That’s not going to work here; the simple truth is that, almost from the moment they were installed in my system, the Komakos pretty much spun me out! As wild as their behaviour was during burn-in, they immediately demonstrated some compelling strengths that we’ll get to shortly. For now, let’s start with the basics.
The Komako’s essential character is smooth and full-bodied, yet crisp and with plenty of bite when required. Both frequency extremes are notably extended, particularly the top end; this achieved a real transformation in my system which, for all the years I’ve owned it, and whatever equipment has passed through it, has always previously been rolled-off in the high treble. The bass offers power with accuracy of pitch and a lack of overhang, contributing to a nicely balanced, very open feeling, free of undue emphasis in any part of the musical spectrum. Exceptional speed and articulation through the midrange does a good job of cleaning up those congested, muddy pop/rock recordings, and made it possible to discern the individual notes in very fast piano glissandi (Debussy’s “Feux D’Artifice” springs to mind) that were previously lost in the wash of natural reverberation. Soundstaging is also very fine, noticeably wider and deeper than I had been used to, with a ‘carved from stone’ stability and focus to the imaging. The Komako’s levels of transparency and sheer resolution are simply astonishing, which must to some degree be a consequence of the high order of noise rejection claimed for its geometry. In the most positive way, this superb detail resolution is the only aspect of their performance that could betray the (predominantly) silver conductors; they exhibited not a hint of the negative traits commonly attributed to silver cables. More than just supremely resolved, they also endow music with gloriously authentic colours and textures, presenting a delightfully nuanced view of the subtlety and complexity of live sound and its harmonic structure.
Now that’s all well and good, and unquestionably places the Komako at the forefront of its market sector. Yet what really jumped out of the speakers and grabbed me, right from the get-go, was the music’s palpability and liveliness. The attack and decay of notes is startlingly natural, the leading edge clean and fast; this is one area where audio systems always seem to fall short of the live experience, and the Komako took mine one big step closer to reality. Beyond that, their extraordinary transient ‘snap’ conveyed an impression of speed and pent-up energy, endowing music with a sparkling & effervescent quality that I found quite irresistible. Macrodynamics were equally well served, the system’s ability to swing huge transients with absolute ease taken to a level of which I had not imagined it capable. Ultimately, though, it was the innate coherence of the presentation that was so convincing; a sense of ‘correctness’ definitive enough that the only valid reference point was live music. The usual audiophile adjectives seem woefully inadequate to convey how the sound burst free of its electronic confines, the sheer clarity of the musical message causing even familiar pieces to be heard in a new way. With the finest recordings, the sensation of actually being there in the concert hall could be almost alarming!
The fundamental key to the Komako’s exceptional soundstaging, dynamics and expressiveness could be heard, once my ear attuned to it, to lie in its elevated level of phase coherence – in simple terms, maintaining a correct relationship between all of the frequencies comprising the musical signal. This is claimed to result directly from the Antipodal geometry used in the construction of Antipodes Audio interconnects; Mark Jenkins believes that all of the common configurations, most particularly the twisted pair, are responsible for distorting phase relationships. It is not a topic that’s often raised when cable performance is discussed (though I have touched upon it in previous reviews), yet so confronting were the improvements the Komakos wrought that one is lead inevitably to conclude that lesser cables must indeed be screwing up the signal’s phase integrity. That being the case, you might wonder whether the ability to preserve phase coherence is dependent upon it being there in the first place?! Well, the Komakos do indeed seem to find an extra gear with naturally-recorded acoustic music, including most classical discs, in rendering a believable facsimile of the original musical event. Yet what they do with multi-tracked rock recordings (commonly lacking overall phase coherence) is scarcely less convincing in its vividness and energy. The Komako is a very ‘unfussy’ cable, sonically-speaking, at home with every type of music and highly tolerant of ‘poor’ recordings, which always sounded much better than I was expecting. This is an aspect of performance I invariably monitor closely, as a ‘superb’ component that makes 50% of your music collection unlistenable is somewhat akin to having the ‘best’ compound fracture in the ward! Incidentally, while my testing was mainly conducted with two pairs of Komakos, from CD to pre and pre to power, their unusual capabilities were readily apparent (though less fully realised) with just a single set in place.
So, high praise indeed … yet, when a cable’s properties are as unique as this, surely there’s a downside? Well, I’ve already mentioned the burn-in issue; while more protracted than most competitors, taking several months to achieve its ultimate performance, four weeks of normal use will have it operating at a high level, and that’s not unacceptable. Another quirk is that the cable does not like being moved (ie. having its connections broken) during the break-in period, a phenomenon that Mark recognises and explains as the need for it to re-establish conductive paths. It can perhaps best be conceptualised as the cable burning into the system; all I know is that the Komakos took many hours to regain their sense of coherence when briefly swapped out for comparative testing, and a good couple of days after a week’s lay-off. Antipodes Audio do claim greater electrical compatibility than the norm for their interconnects, but also recognise that highly phase-incoherent systems are less likely to benefit, while any pre-existing earthing problem will be exacerbated. In terms of the sonic performance, those who subscribe to absolute tonal neutrality as the benchmark (a view with which I have some sympathy) may note disapprovingly the hint of warmth and a silky, seductive quality to the presentation. Knowing that Mark is able to exert an extraordinarily high degree of control over the cable’s sonic properties by manipulating facets of its geometry, I suspect he has deliberately voiced it this way; to my ear and preference, it’s spot on! My only real criticism is that, while the cable’s bass performance was certainly good enough to surpass my previous reference, in absolute terms I felt that it lagged a little behind the level of excellence otherwise achieved, occasionally (and it was only occasionally) sounding somewhat diffuse and unfocussed. That said, the bass was the very last element of the sonic jigsaw to fall into place as the cables burned in and, even after four months of daily use, I still harbour a lingering suspicion that I’ve not heard the best of it yet.
Those with the preconceived idea that cables can make only a modest contribution to a system’s sound are in for a shock. Antipodes claim that the difference in electrical terms between their cables and the competition is “very significant” – and everything I heard, from the Komako’s extravagant initial burn-in to its palpability, coherence, energy and sheer believability, tended to support that assertion. I have no doubt that the cables I was previously using are among the leaders in this market sector, and stand by the praise accorded to them, yet the Komakos have comfortably surpassed them in all respects, most notably in the areas where they already excelled. Every aspect of the Komako’s performance harks back to the naturalness of live music; there is a quality to their presentation that my ear instinctively recognises as “correct”. The elevated level of phase integrity they offer opens a window deep into the heart of the music, and invites you to enter.
Starting with some unique theories on the science of signal transmission, Mark Jenkins has spared no effort to see them realised in a cable of exceptional quality – including producing his own wire from raw ingots of silver, gold and platinum. By the standards of the market, a price of US$670 for a 1m RCA pair (US$940 for the balanced XLR version) is eminently reasonable for what the Komako is, and downright cheap for what it does … though be warned that the abnormally labour-intensive nature of the construction process means additional length commands a relatively high tariff. After years spent perfecting their three models of analogue interconnects, the company has now branched out into digital interconnects and power cords, with speaker cables promised in the near future.
The Komako interconnect represents a distinctively different approach to interfacing audio components. Combining innovative science, uncompromising parts quality and fanatical attention to detail, it offers an exhilarating level of performance that surely places it amongst the world’s finest (that ultimate accolade being claimed by Antipodes for their Reference model!). While purchasing any cable is essentially a leap of faith, the potential benefits on offer here are too large to ignore … and the safety net of an unconditional money-back guarantee further sweetens the deal. Very highly recommended.
[It is with great pleasure that we award The Audiophilia Star Component Award to the Antipodes Audio Komako Interconnects. Congratulations! - Ed]
Andy’s observations of the Komako are spot-on. Our product is fundamentally about offering superior phase accuracy, which delivers a natural liveliness without peakiness. The side-benefit is that our cables sound the same in any system. All other interconnects cause slightly different phase problems depending on the interfacing components.
The Komako has performed beyond our initial expectations, and we now have several customers that have replaced ‘cost no object’ interconnects with the Komako. So a few months ago, we decided to work on closing some of the gap between the sound of the Komako and the Reference while keeping the price down.
As part of this we decided we had to develop our own connectors. The unusual physical nature of our interconnect cable means we are limited in the range of connectors we can practically use. While the Xhadow connector was the best off-the-shelf solution, it created three problems – two of which are identified by Andy in his review. First, that the Xhadow is too fat in some installations, and second, that the mass of the Xhadow results in a slight softness and fatness in the bass when used with the Komako. The third issue is that achieving reliable strain relief is difficult with our cable and conventional connectors, affecting reliability with rough handling, so we decided we had to design a connector from scratch to suit our cable.
This work will soon deliver a new version of the Komako, using our own slimmer, lighter connectors. We have also re-designed the physical make-up of the cable assembly to achieve tighter manufacturing tolerances on a slimmer and more flexible cable. It is not so much a change in design as a better implementation of the Komako design. The sound character is the same, but it is noticeably cleaner, faster and tighter. The new Komako will be available in the near future.
Antipodes Audio Limited
The Antipodes Audio Komako Interconnects
Manufactured by Antipodes Audio Limited
16 Bingley Ave, Epsom, Auckland 1023
Phone: +64 9 6244244 or +64 27 4545004 (Mobile)
Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Meridian 507
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre and power
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics
Cables: MAC Reference & Mystic interconnects / MAC Shotgun speaker cable / MAC Burly, HC & Digital power cords
Accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance isolation platforms (on each source component) / Target & Sound Organisation stands / Aerolam & RATA Torlyte shelves / Herbie’s Audio Labs isolation products / Eichmann Toppers / Caig ProGold /Belkin PF40 power conditioner