Let’s face it – interconnects are sexy, and speaker cable isn’t. While often dismissed as a mere function of wire gauge versus current-handling, my own past experience had revealed that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, speaker cable can have every bit as large an influence on a system’s sound as the interconnects. And I continued to hold that opinion, right up to the point a year or more ago when New Zealand-based Antipodes Audio’s astonishing Komako interconnects rocked my world. So dramatically does their performance surpass cables selling at even several multiples of their price, and so profoundly did they improve the sound of my system, that there was no way a speaker cable could compete. Just no way, simple as that.
Mark Jenkins, Antipodes’ resident designer, had cause to regret setting the bar so high. Despite the pressing commercial imperative to offer speaker cable, it took four years of development and experimentation for this product to come to fruition. Mark’s research confirmed that, while the electrical environment is quite different in each case, the unique proprietary elements used in the interconnects would still be effective for the same reasons, but they had to be combined and configured in a different way. To recap, those elements are:- high purity silver wire, manufactured in-house from raw ingots to achieve the required crystalline structure and utilising small amounts of gold and platinum to disperse silver’s damaging fundamental resonance; a microscopically-thin coating of natural oil, to prevent corrosion; a proprietary cable geometry, claimed to eliminate the system-dependency of conventional designs; and natural, unbleached cotton dielectric with a proprietary outer sheath, to most closely simulate an air dielectric while avoiding the colourations introduced by plastics. The guiding ethos is shaped by Mark’s conviction that most audio ills result from distortions in the signal’s phase or time domain; a belief that the performance of the interconnects goes a long way to substantiate.
Mark’s initial calculations were based on an optimal, uncompromised realisation of his principles, and the cable that resulted is now the Reference model. The sheer amount of silver utilised – and the cost of those raw ingots has tripled in recent times – necessarily dictated a price band higher than Mark had hoped; but he then found that halving the number of wires whilst retaining the same construction and geometry preserved most of the cable’s performance at a much lower cost … “except in high-current applications”. The open question then was whether or not my situation – using a Modwright KWA100SE MOSFET amplifier to drive hybrid electrostatic speakers – represented such an application! Before we move on to examine it further, bear in mind that the price for a 2 metre (6’6”) terminated pair of the Komako speaker cables is just US$1080, including worldwide freight – a lot less than the earlier list of ingredients, the fine finish and labour-intensive construction process would lead you to expect. As the plan for this review was to assemble the most economical overall cabling solution for my bi-wired speakers, I ignored the Komako’s bi-wire and shotgun configurations in favour of a set of Antipodes Audio’s new Jumpers. Manufactured from the Reference grade of speaker wire, the Jumpers cost just $120 per set of four, terminated with spades or bananas.
Unusual in offering a physically separate run for each pole, rather than the more common conjoined pair, each channel of the Komako speaker cable resembles nothing so much as a pair of the interconnects – similar diameter, tactile consistency and appearance. In place of the RCA plugs are attractive alloy end-caps and slender lead-out wires, terminated with sensibly-sized generic connectors sporting heavier than usual gold-plating. The supplied instructions suggest that each channel’s two runs of cable be twisted together once or twice per metre to maintain a close physical proximity, with the option of increasing the number of twists to “constrain the cable’s liveliness”, though lively works for me so I didn’t try it. Although the twisted assembly ends up being satisfyingly bulky – we all subliminally associate thick cable with good performance, and perceived value is extremely high – it is highly flexible and very easy to offer up to the amp and speaker terminals, thanks to those lead-outs. I did notice that this method of construction, along with the natural damping effect of the dense cotton dielectric, results in less vibrational energy being pumped back into the cable by the speaker than is the case with stiffer designs, which can only be a good thing. Little can be said of the jumpers; reasonably slender, supple and very neatly finished, you order the length you need, fit and forget.
One topic that can’t be avoided when discussing Antipodes cables is burn-in. According to the company, their proprietary geometry causes the wire to be worked less hard than in normal designs, which would tend to result in very protracted burn-in. To address this, all finished cables are put through an intensive 14-day conditioning process at the factory, which greatly accelerates burn-in once installed in your system. There is no need to put vast numbers of hours on them either; ordinary daily use over the course of a month or so is recommended though, as with the interconnects, continuing improvement over the first three months of use is predicted. Unlike many brand new cables, which (in my experience) tend to sound the same over protracted periods and then improve suddenly, the Komako was a roller coaster ride from Day One, its sound achieving a satisfactory tonal balance quite quickly but still obviously changing by the day until the bass attained a good level of integration around the five week mark. Subsequent improvement over the weeks following was more noticeable than had been the case with the interconnects, until ……. well, read on.
Even recalling the dramatic changes that the Komako interconnects had gone through during burn-in, when I fired up the system a few moments after first installing the speaker cable and heard a bandwidth-limited version of what I’d had before, I admit it had me worried. As the hours and days rolled by, though, the Komakos changed … big time! While I avoid listening to primary reference material during burn-in, several traits quickly became confrontingly apparent. The system’s noise floor had dropped to a startling degree; low-level sounds I’d never heard before were now clearly resolved, while reverb trails apparently tailed off into infinity. A layer of low-level grunge and glare had been removed, which I suspect is a common feature of typical heavy gauge multistrand designs; being harmonically related to the signal, you’re not aware of it as such but you certainly notice when it’s gone. There was also an effortless precision and clarity to the presentation, the result of a wildly superior dynamic capability. Most dramatic of all, though, was that the tempo of just about every (classical) disc I span appeared to have substantially quickened – a taut, propulsive rhythmic drive that actually rendered some discs hard to recognise! This transformation of tempo was only really apparent with naturally recorded acoustic music, much less so with studio rock which typically exhibited a blistering PRaT factor instead; on reflection, I found myself distinguishing along similar lines when assessing the Komako interconnects, and my speculations on the cause perhaps apply equally here. The Komako speaker cable also shares and extends the interconnects’ ability to make supposedly inferior recordings sound very much better than I’d imagined they could. Overall, I really can’t think of any other system change that has more strongly conveyed the impression of listening not to improved renditions of familiar discs, but to completely different recordings … the same pieces but played faster, and with greater precision, by a more proficient (or sober!) bunch of musicians.
At this point, I’m probably expected to talk about tonal balance, treble extension, soundstaging and all that stuff. Easier said than done – anyone familiar with the sound of live music will instantly recognise just how comprehensively that normally elusive live listening experience is conveyed by the Komako. The sense of excitement coupled with serenity, the innate softness with which even loud sounds strike the ear, the way harmonics mingle in the air, the sheer smoothness of a sound untainted by electronic artefacts … all of these qualities transferred themselves directly from the concert hall to my lounge. As such, the Komako almost defies analysis; it just IS, so self-evidently correct that neither my ears nor brain felt the need to second-guess it. But that list needs checking off, so here goes. The soundstage was expanded in width to well outside of the speakers, and positively cavernous in depth when the recording required it. More impressive still was the stability and palpability of the images it constructed. The bass extended deeper, and with greater authority, than I have heard before in my system, and certainly than the slender lead-out wires had suggested it would; if there were to be compromises from the reduced wire gauge then I somehow expected to find them here, but never did. While the timbre of bass notes was a little ‘wooden’ until late in the break-in period, they did ultimately attain the same degree of textural and timbral sophistication as the rest of the frequency range. At the other end, the treble was supremely clean, extended, smooth and sweet – utterly perfect to my ears, though that very cleanness will make it seem fractionally rolled-off to some. The midrange was open, transparent and natural to the highest degree; it simply felt less like the reproduction of music, and more like its liberation! I can detect only one mild departure from neutrality in the Antipodes cables – a ‘house sound’, if you like – and that is a seductive hint of warmth and silkiness that serves to emphasise the sound’s refinement. A positive enhancement to listening pleasure, I can’t imagine any but the most puritanical advocate of absolute neutrality objecting. Finally, in response to those initial concerns that the ‘slimmed down’ Komako wire might not have sufficient mumbo for my rig, let me say that I have been unable to detect any clear indication of compromised signal handling right up to what I believe to be the speakers’ volume ceiling, even with the most demanding material (heavy metal and soprano voice, by my reckoning).
One of the commonest opinions I encounter on speaker cable is that, sure, it makes a difference … but not like changing a component. It is a viewpoint that, unwittingly, I put to the test. I already had the wonderful Modwright LS100 preamp in house (review pending), which had established a good margin of superiority over my own preamp in earlier A/B comparisons. Dumb curiosity saw me try a different tack and pit my own preamp, plus the Komako speaker cable, against the Modwright used with my previous speaker cable; on both technical and sonic levels, the result was a comfortable victory for Team Komako. Emphatically, the benefit of the speaker cable change had exceeded the effect of a major component upgrade – and that alone takes it well outside the common experience. There’s more to the story than that, though. Repeating the A/B comparison of the preamps with the Komako speaker cable in circuit, the relative extent of the Modwright’s advantage increased hugely. This is important, because reconciling these observations suggests that the Komako cable’s success lies in its ability to create an electrical environment that allows all system components to give of their best, but the best of them to excel. In fairness, Mark Jenkins’ own assertion that his cables work best with components that are already phase-coherent perhaps makes a similar point more concisely … while selling short their considerable capabilities with components that are not!
Whilst faithfully recording my experiences with the Komako speaker cable, the fact is that throughout the evaluation period I had only used it in combination with its matching interconnects. Given that products as individual as these might be expected to enjoy a special synergy, I wanted to establish how they would fare in isolation. Returning to a cable loom from my pre-Antipodes past (talk about a reality check!) to compare the effect of installing either both pairs of interconnects or the speaker cable (each alternative having a roughly equal retail price), I felt that tonality was the biggest casualty when the Komako interconnects were removed, with pace and coherence suffering most when the speaker cable was taken out. Most tellingly, the sonic magic I’ve become accustomed to of late simply evaporated in both scenarios. There is, indeed, a high degree of synergy at play, in that the combination of the Komako cables well exceeded the achievements (considerable though they be) of either in isolation. I expect this is all that existing owners of the interconnects have been waiting to hear!
When I thought I finally had its measure, the Komako speaker cable saved its biggest surprise for last. I have owned my hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers for nearly two decades and, for what they do well, always had to forgive the fact that the bass and midrange were never quite at the same party. It wasn’t chronic – I recently heard a globally-revered, megabucks 3-way floorstander that was much worse – but as my system’s overall sound improved I was increasingly distracted by the slow, unfocussed bass, plus unevenness and incoherence through the crossover region. Still, that’s hybrids for you, right? One morning, three months after installing the cable, I fired the system up and, within a few notes, realised that something major had changed. Over the several weeks since, I have been utterly entranced by my “new speakers”, which now exhibit not the slightest trace of those old shortcomings. In a final, majestic burn-in event, the Komakos (or maybe it was the Jumpers?!) have coaxed from my loudspeakers a level of bass performance and seamless, top-to-bottom cohesiveness that should, realistically, be impossible. Nothing I have ever heard, nothing I have ever read has suggested such transformative feats might lie within the compass of ‘mere’ speaker cable. I cannot rationalise it, can still scarcely believe it … but find myself forced to use a word I’ve never applied to audio gear before; what the Komako speaker cable has achieved in my system is little short of miraculous.
If I had any concerns that selecting the cheapest speaker cable solution Antipodes Audio could provide might expose the compromise, its stratospheric performance has banished them. The company has set its store by the elimination of phase and time-domain errors in signal transmission; the challenge of implementing those principles in a speaker cable apparently surpassed the interconnects, yet has been met every bit as successfully. Far from a peripheral issue, it becomes clear that therein lies the explanation for any number of subjective audio phenomena whose variability has stubbornly resisted analysis by conventional measurement techniques; stereo imaging, tonal imbalances such as brightness or leaden bass, the PRaT factor and more are all crucially determined by the degree to which the signal’s phase integrity is preserved. That cables are passive devices simply reinforces the point; what Antipodes Audio’s products have eliminated is only the errors that lesser cable designs introduce. So fundamental is the difference that conventional audio cables are obviously doing a very much worse job of linking components effectively than is commonly realised. With the Komakos, I am hearing for the first time what my system components have been capable of all along – and I’m still coming to terms with the shock!
Flies in the ointment? A couple, perhaps. The high cost of construction means that the price of Antipodes’ cables increases almost proportionately with length, so you will want to keep them as short as possible. Further, the perception of phase distortion falls into the realm of psycho-acoustics, and some individuals will be more sensitive to it than others. So, while the Komakos’ electrical properties are claimed to eliminate much of the system-dependency that has dogged conventional designs, it may be that they have replaced it with a degree of user-dependency! The company’s sixty day money-back guarantee covers any concerns here … and I’m encouraged to hear that, since my enthusiastic recommendation of the interconnects a year ago, there has been not a single cable returned.
Just as with the interconnects, the Komako speaker cable’s sound is not that traditionally associated with silver; adding small amounts of gold and platinum during the drawing process succeeds in totally eliminating the brightness and harmonic thinness that many complain of, while harnessing silver’s enhanced resolving power. What is so difficult to capture in words is the experience of listening to a system with the Komakos in it – the liveliness, openness, sense of suppressed energy and the total lack of any perceptible electronic signature providing a whole new dimension of sheer naturalness, which no lover of live music could fail to appreciate.
Strange as it may seem, a friend suggested that some audiophiles would not take the Komakos seriously because they don’t cost enough. Perhaps there’s truth in that; Mark tells me that he sells as many sets of his Reference cables as the Komakos, despite their much higher prices. Realising that I am being slowly consumed by curiosity, he has kindly offered to send over a set of Reference cables for comparison, and I look forward to reporting back in due course. Whatever the outcome, it cannot diminish the conclusion from this evaluation. That such performance as the Komako speaker cable offers is available at all is astonishing enough; that the combination of a 2-metre pair plus a no-compromise set of jumpers costs just US$1200 will, if there is any justice in this world, see large queues forming at Antipodes Audio’s door. For those of us with limited funds available to pursue this wonderful hobby, the Komako cables (both interconnects and speaker) may very well be the finest audio products we can actually afford.
[We are proud to award the Antipodes Audio Komako Speaker Cable & Jumpers an Audiophilia Star Component Award. Congratulations! - Ed]
Source of review sample: Manufacturer loan.
Analogue: Linn LP12 / Lingo PS / Ittok LVII / Audio Technica OC30
Digital: Audia Flight CD Three
Amplification: Custom-built AC Magnum dual mono P200 pre, Modwright LS100 / Modwright KWA100SE (review pending)
Speakers: Acoustat Spectra 1100 hybrid electrostatics
Cables: Antipodes Audio Komako 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 / Herbie’s Audio Labs isolation products / Caig ProGold /Belkin PF40 power conditioner / Granite Audio Phono Burn-in CD