In Conversation: Chris Sommovigo of Black Cat Cable
September 5th, 2017
Review by Fairhedon
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In the first of our series “In Conversation“, we are fortunate enough to feature Chris Sommovigo, legendary cable designer, free thinker, and artisan. Sommovigo several years ago moved his family and business overseas, and we got up to speed on his current state of affairs.
Fair Hedon: Chris, I understand you have been living in Japan for the past several years, and you have continued to pursue the art of cable design relentlessly. What are your current projects?”
Chris Sommovigo: This year I took on some major expenses in order to have two custom machines built for me here in Japan. Together they allow me to continue making the products that I have been making for the last two years on my old machines, but they also have given me some new capabilities for things that I have wanted to make but couldn’t with the old ones.
Zoltán Matrix / ZMX
One of these new ideas is a conductor that I call “Zoltan Matrix” – which is an outrageously complex conductor that I use in my ultra-reference Indigo line.
One of these ideas is something far simpler and less expensive: Ghostwire
Although I’m a one man manufacturing operation, I have products that span from the reasonably affordable to the mega expensive. I build them all here in my workshop, and I even make a part of the packaging here using handmade washi-paper that I buy from a 350 year old shop.
FH: Let me say I have always had a huge amount admiration for small, artisanal hifi companies that invest in their business, to produce products reach for the state of art, as daunting as that can be, instead of spending money on ads, trade shows, and other expenditures that add nothing to the quality of the product. So by investing in these machines and things as far out as washi paper, you clearly are not compromising.
I have to say, am always intrigued by cable geometry. How do you come up with the geometries, do you visualize them? Do you use computer aided design? Pen and paper? And once you build a prototype, do you have a process to listen for specific things?
CS: There has been an evolution in my work between the industrial model and the artisanal model I presently rely on:
I started this adventure back in 1992 when I founded Illuminati to make what some have called the first “true 75 Ohm” SPDiF cable. At that time and up until around 2010 or so, I was always reliant upon a subcontractor to run my cables. I found a specialty subcontractor through connections that I had in the microwave and RF world – folks who run small to medium sized jobs for military, aerospace, and surveillance – and I leaned on them for their precision abilities. They still make the precision cores for my digital cables, but those are worked into designs that I enhance and modify in-house.
The impression that I have is this: 99.99% (or more) of the all of the cables made in the consumer electronics industry are what I called “cable sausage” – designs compromised by the need to fit into an industrial model that squeezes cables out of thermoplastic extruders like sausage. I understand and appreciate the need to be able to manufacture cables in lengths measured in miles instead of meters – you have to supply lots of distributors and resellers, and you’ve got to be able to terminate these cables in-house rather quickly, because labor is expensive. This manufacturing model meets a need, but it also requires – as I mentioned – a kind of compromise that shoehorns any cable design into the standard capabilities of industrial subcontractors.
Keep in mind, though, that some subcontractors have some pretty wild capabilities – things that most folks don’t even imagine – so I’m not totally knocking the idea of subcontracting. But this is an important inflection point when comparing what I am now doing to what I have done in the past (and what almost everyone else still does).
My own manufacturing abilities began initially as a way to explore how I could produce quality cables almost entirely in house (I don’t draw the raw/bare conductors themselves, but source them from others and then work them into my designs). I wanted to do this because I felt the need to be able to design and express designs at-will without having to run 1,000 feet of this or that just to test a new idea. That’s an unsustainably expensive way to develop products, and I wanted to try some things that were not within the capability-envelope of the subs that I knew.
So this started back in 2006 or 2007, when I obtained my first machine – a small used braider that was originally designed to make catheters for the medical industry – and started the work to make the micro-braided tonearm cables for the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn/Cobra record players.
Various Black Cat Cable machines
Projecting from there, over the course of the last decade, I’ve acquired tools and machines to help me express, test, and manufacture design ideas that would be naturally rejected by subcontractors because they would fall outside of their regular capabilities.
The design process begins as a thought, usually as an articulation point away from something that I’ve already done and toward an iteration. “What happens when I change this or that element?” – because I have in-house capabilities, I can run 25 feet of a test cable and find out, even if the new idea is complicated. So it begins with something that is already proven to be worthwhile, and it articulates in iterative experiments away from an established, core idea.
This gets tested in the ‘big rig’ and also, where possible, in the headphone rig. For instance, when I’m messing about with USB cables, I listen in the big rig and again through the DAC/Headphone systems that I have here, and try to draw parallels between them.
Sometimes these new designs are merely iterative evolutions, sometimes they are complete bastardizations. For instance – recently, I decided to try something “wrong” with an interconnect design – that is to say, against cable engineering conventions and habits. It was just a “what if” scenario, so I made a small run and tested in the big rig. When testing, I tend to use less than a handful of recordings that I know extremely well.
My go-to recordings tend to be from Todd Garfinkle’s “MA Recordings” label because his are purist, two-mike recordings done extraordinarily well and in very reverberant spaces. Natural acoustics help me to track differences between components, because this is a very complex series of radiation patterns that help to create the illusion of space (as emanating through the sound system) that is captured by two microphones and emanate through two loudspeakers. I typically use “Sera Una Noche: La Segunda” and also “Calamus: The Splendor of Al Andalus” as my main references, because I know these recordings intimately.
Listening to Al Andalus with the ‘wrong’ (heretic!) design was a shock. Same music, same recording, same space … but it seemed that the presentation was utterly different. There was an effortlessness to the presentation that boggled my mind. I hadn’t expected anything like this, and – in truth – it has got me thinking in new ways. The only other times I’ve been this surprised by the element of effortlessness was when I first heard my Berning Siegfried (which I still use), and when I first tested Zoltan Matrix.
This wasn’t at the same level of Zoltán Matrix by far, but it was enough of a surprise that I couldn’t stop “testing” … repeating track after track from the two albums, then stretching into other types of recordings – even studio recordings with artificially derived reverb – to see where the design would fall apart. Lots of ordinary music-sourced break-in, also subjecting it to my own break-in track, and then re-listening.
So sometimes designs begin as moderate articulations away from a known and established design theme of mine, and sometimes they are more like a rebellion away from an established design theme. In this case, the rebellion was worth the deflection. Most times it’s a disaster. I’ve got a “cable graveyard” full of expensive disasters.
Now, in the case of Ghostwire, I was just looking for a way to distill a simple but very effective design motif into something more affordable -and- something able to be produced and used in long runs. This is a special circumstance for me, because most of my designs do not really lend themselves to manufacture in long lengths. There is a hand-made aspect to them, and it’s just not easy to hand-run something 15 meters long. I did this once for someone here in Japan. They wanted a 15m run of my Matrix interconnect. It was extremely difficult to do. Swore off ever doing that again. The whole Black Cat Redlevel line has a lot of handcraft in it, so I don’t think I’ll ever really want to run anything longer than 6 or 8 meters of one of those designs.
And here is where we get into an aspect of my business that is poorly understood by folks outside of the manufacturing segment, because they tend to think that if they are buying a very long cable that it should be cheaper by the meter to them. They understand this idea because the industrial “cable sausage” model teaches us that things become cheaper in quantity, and that we should be looking at these things as commodities subject to an economy of scale. The opposite is true in terms of what I do, and so I cause some confusion (and a little bit of dyspepsia) when I say that it will be more expensive per meter to do a long run than a short run, because the increase in labor is substantial.
Ghostwire was designed and manufactured to mimic the commodity-model a bit more closely. I have no problems doing a 15m run or a 30m run of something because the labor involved is the same as it would be for a 1m run, and the terminations are also less involved. The capabilities I had built into the new machines as a custom consideration enabled me to cut, in half, the machine time required to make the Ghostwire product.
So these in-house capabilities that I enjoy enable me to create many inflection points in the catalog, from the entry-level to the radically complicated, and I can do all of these as a one-man operation. I’m not unique in that way, generally speaking, but my in-house capabilities are pretty rare.
The downfall of this model is that I will only be able to grow to a certain point before hitting a wall. I won’t be able to expand if I want to remain a one-man operation, or else I would have to hire and scale up to expand. For now I’m content to be the only one touching these products – from raw materials all the way through to the packaging – as it lends me a kind of satisfaction that the industrial and quasi-industrial models lack. I approach my work as an artisan, artistically if you will, in that the ideas expressed in these cables are the products of my own hands and they fall far away from the limitations that the industrial model superimposes on ordinary cable design and manufacture.
This is therefore not a business, in the ordinary sense. It is much more like a self-indulgence that happens to have the side-benefit of helping me to feed my family.
FH: That is a remarkable overview of your evolution. There is no doubt what you say is true concerning the standard industrial model of cable “sausage” making. There are some brands where every conceivable length and termination of every cable type is in stock either at the warehouse, or in the big box stores. There is no other way it can be done, and I agree there is an inherent compromise.
In your case, it is a bit ironic that a longer run of cable is more costly, but it is clear why, as you explain, it is very labor intensive. Consumers are used the pricing model of: add X dollars per extra meter. It simply does not apply with bespoke cable products.
You use the phrase unsustainably expensive, and I think the reason many artisanal businesses fail is because they go down this path as a badge of honor. This applies to everybody from pickle makers to micro brewers.
I find absolutely fascinating your can do wild experiments and even break every normal design rule to see what the result is. This is sort of venturing into the unknown, but I would have to think it keeps your brain firing on all cylinders and opens up new potential methods, maybe by accident.
To say your in-house capabilities are pretty rare would be an understatement. I would venture to say that there may not be another sole proprietor cable artisan on the planet with your investment in machinery and materials. While there may ultimately be a limit to what you can do by yourself, it has to be incredibly satisfying to ship a cable half-way around the world when it is done.
I also wonder how you are finding running a business in Japan as opposed to the USA, and how this artisanal way of life may be part of the fabric of Japanese culture.
CS: There’s no doubt that Japanese culture and the pervasive respect, in Japan, for artisanal work has had a tremendous influence upon me while I’ve been here – I feel more at home in this atmosphere, for instance, than in the strict mercantilism and industrialism that seems part and parcel of modern Western business culture. There is a value that the artisan brings to their work, an investment of self, that is missing from the purely commodified approach – the Walmartification – that we usually encounter.
That said, there remain artisans in our industry – even in the West – and I don’t mean to exclude them in my attribution above. But there seems to be a struggle of identity that remains, in my estimation, because there is pressure to somehow ‘win’ market share. This places a kind of pressure on a business toward consistent expansion. It’s not enough that you might make one of the best thingies in the world – the impulse to try and dominate that segment of the market seems characteristic of ordinary business-thinking. No one runs a race with the intention of coming in 2nd place.
The impulse to win market share dominated my thoughts, at least when I was younger. As a 25 year old entrepreneur, I intended for Illuminati to become a dominating force in the market. I had a better “thingie” and I thought that I would grow the company as something to be reckoned with – to spread my concepts and philosophy far and wide by gaining dealers and distributors and … and … and …
It has taken a lot of rough road, skinned knees and bloodied mouth – and finally some wisdom, in the form of a business allegory – for me to see the folly in my distraction. I refer on my website to the allegory of the Mexican fisherman under the link: Let’s Get Small
When I first read this, the wisdom of it overwhelmed me. There was a choice to be made, in a very literal sense, between my life and my business. Chasing more and more money (or recognition, or market domination, or influence, or power, etc) seemed to be a trap that can rob one of their life. Imagine amassing millions or billions or trillions and then, at the last moment of one’s life, not being able to purchase a millisecond more of time alive on this earth – even for the price of one’s entire fortune.
It was also a choice between doing things the way that they have always been done, as a strict matter of business, or doing things that way I wanted to do them.
I made a choice, and I’m blessed to be able to feed my wife and children, to shelter and clothe them, and still be able to do what I do in the way that I want to do it. Not concentrating on chasing money or dominating market segments allows me to make what I think of as very special products for the few people who also think that they are special.
In this way it becomes a curiously interesting and rare circumstance whereby I can earn my living without threatening the status quo, without being “competition” in some economic battle for market share against my colleagues, and so there’s really been none of the overt sniping that sometimes happens when two or more philosophies collide in a marketplace. No one is gunning for me because I’ll never be large enough to threaten their market share.
It’s a rare circumstance, and I’m deeply grateful to my customers for making this dream possible for me. I’m able to personally make every cable that leaves here, and this is just not possible when you require deep and wide distribution to support a family of employees in an industrial – or even quasi-industrial model. These are fundamentally different things – not better or worse in this way or that – but certainly different from each other.
I’m an artist living by the sea making cables one set at a time, and each one is something that I am personally responsible for from the initial gathering of raw materials to the final packaging. There are only a few folks like this in our industry, and I think that it’s a lovely and satisfying way of doing things, and I think of this approach and these artisans as precious. But in order to venture down this road one first has to accept that this is hardly a road to riches.
I’m typing this to you as I sit at the dining room table with my kids and wife. The kids are on summer break, and we’ve just had some lunch together. They are learning to play poker and cracking themselves up into hysterics with all the funny “winning hands” they have created, with no regard for the official rules. I’m in shorts and a T-shirt doing some emails before getting back to to my workshop to complete some cables that are on order.
It’s not a shabby life …
FH: I have to admit I always though of your approach to cable design as very much in the Zen tradition. I have been to Japan once, and from what I understand, there is no quick path to master status. For instance, a sushi chef can spend as much as six months to a year just perfecting rice, or tamago, the egg omelet, before they can move on to anything else. This weeds out those without singular focus. This would be unacceptable in the West, where instant expert status and gratification have become pervasive.
To your point, I have never seen, it may have happened, I just am unaware, a small company make near perfect products for their purpose then move into “expansion” mode and have the products remain identical. I have just never seen it. The story in your link is just devastatingly great.
What I find interesting, aside, is that most of the great scientific breakthroughs that led to millions of new products being developed, were not discovered with profit as the main motive, if was people with an unstoppable drive for knowledge. I can give endless examples from Tesla, to the ’69 moonshot. Many free market people like to argue that the private sector drives all. But in fact, the United States government put a man on the moon. And that in turn spawned innumerable private enterprises. Same for what we now call the internet: it started as a government communication system.
Pivoting slightly, one thing about you that always amazed me was your ear for exotic hifi. I would always hear about a really cool Italian amplifier, or some interesting speaker or headphone amp. Can you tell me what your current systems are comprise of? Anything you have taken notice of recently?
CS: Exotic HiFi: I tend to look for the outliers, and then from among them the ones that are playing with compelling and interesting ideas. HiFi is overfull with people making the same thing, over and over again, and putting it in a new package. I’m not knocking that: 90% + of loudspeakers in our industry pivots from Thuras’ bass-reflex idea, which he patented for Bell Telephone in 1930! But it’s also nice to explore comparatively modern ideas, and so I’ve had my time with Lincoln Walsh-style omni speakers, plasma-tweetered speakers, speakers with modern enclosures (the bent-plywood designs of Davone weren’t only beautiful – they were also quite functional).
Right now I’m running a system that isn’t so exotic (save for the Continuum Audio Labs “Caliburn” system with a Soundsmith Strain Gauge cartridge) – Soundsmith Monarch loudspeakers (which never cease to unhinge my jaw), and some amps: a Soundsmith-modded Tandberg amp, a pair of Klimo “TINE” mono blocs, and also my trusty Berning Siegfried SET OTL. Preamp is the “Merlino Gold Plus” from Klimo. Digital is a truly outstanding DAC/server combo from Clones Audio in HK: HOST server and ASHER DAC, and I’m running Roon. Fantastic stuff, and it rolls in at a price that’s far below its performance envelope, in my opinion.
Soon I’ll be taking delivery of a set of Altec 844A monitors, as well. Completely different thing, but there is something supremely satisfying about VOTT-style presentation. As well, I’ve been saving my shekels to buy a Western Electric 16A reproduction that’s made by my friend in South Korea. These kinds of things fall away from the strictures and expectations of the “high end” but they don’t fall short on producing sublime musical experiences.
I’ve also been getting back into recording again, slowly, as time permits. My wife is a classical violinist, Masters in performance from New England Conservatory, and we’ve recently set up to do some Franck and Fauré in a local performance hall with a pianist-friend of hers that also graduated from NEC. I found these extraordinary ribbon mics handmade by a Russian fellow in Utah, really quite stunning transparency. I also recorded a live gig at a Jazz club up in Tokyo called the Pitt Inn. This was a performance of Satoko Fujii in two ensembles – the first was a quartet, and the second was her ‘orchestra’ that consisted of mostly brass (maybe 19 or 20pcs?), an amplified acoustic bass, and a drummer. WAY OUT stuff – from collective improvisation in the first ensemble, to more of a Schulleresque “Third Stream” crossed with Coleman’s Free Jazz … highly energetic, visceral stuff – but not for the feint of heart.
Hinoki Chariti Concert Hall: Yugawara, Japan
I make all of my mic cables, of course – a variation on the Matrix build in a product that I don’t really sell ‘officially’ called “Phox” (don’t even recall why I named it that). It distills the Matrix approach into a cable that can be made for very long runs if needed. Doesn’t have the advantage of an air dielectric, but it’s better than cable sausage. Perfect for mic cables.
FH: I think you are saying that there is really not much innovation going on in hifi, just repacking of tried and true in a new veneer for marketing purposes, along with tons of product churn, and “MK II” and “MKIII” designations that really not evolutionary, but done to appeal to the restless audiophile market.
Well, your systems sound exotic to me! My father had a Tandberg integrated amp and tuner in the early 80s…FYI, for my desktop system I have a CLONES Audio 25p power amp I use under my desk driving a pair of Spendors. I love Funjoe’s products and I hope to hear the new server. I also run Roon.
Sublime musical experiences you say? Sign me up! I have also dabbled in recording, but the trick is to find musicians, but you seem to have solved that problem..I have even have four Revox reel decks, one a 15 ips 2 track. How did you make the recording in the jazz club? Portable digital rig?
CS: I think that innovation is dangerous to an established business interest, even if the business began with innovation. Take Jim Winey’s planar-magnetic loudspeaker. Wow. You know, my first truly “audiophile” speakers were a used set of Magnepan MG-2B that I bought from Peter McGrath’s in Miami. Drove them with the Adcom 555 – didn’t know at the time that Nelson Pass designed it! But getting back the planar-magnetic design – something quite novel in that day. Magnepan has made a wonderful reputation with that operating principle, and very little has changed since JW’s first product. Winey created something innovative and valuable, and the business has been iterating on that theme ever since.
There is nothing ethically, morally, philosophically wrong or even distasteful with basing a business on tried and true principles – it’s business! Take my obsession with very old tech from the Western Electric era, and later the Altec-Lansing era. In the right circumstance, this stuff raises goosebumps unlike anything else I’ve listened to. How far have compression drivers really evolved since Wente and Thuras designed the 555 receiver for WE? Not much at all.
But sometimes the sameness gets boring for me. Makes me itchy. I’ve mostly stopped reading the trades, the usual suspects, because it’s just a lot of recycling of old ideas and old prose to talk about old ideas as if they’re new, exciting, and “the best” – Groundhog Day. It’s not that these things aren’t delivering compelling performance – many of them are, and they deserve accolades for their performance. But much of it has ceased to be interesting to me, so I wind up directing my attention elsewhere.
The Pitt Inn recording was done with a handheld pair of spaced ribbons (Fig 8) and a Sound Devices 702, with some FetHead inline amps for the ribbons. Peter McGrath turned me on to the Sound Devices stuff some years back – nice high-resolution recorder, although I’d prefer better mic preamps. But when you’re sitting in a tiny jazz club cramped against others in the audience … not much room for a “rig” of any consequence. I’ve also got an over/under XY large diaphragm condenser that’s decent – but it’s no Manley Gold Reference Stereo … I just don’t have the dosh to buy one of those. Heck – I don’t even know if Manley’s still making that one.
I’m still in the process of editing the Franck and Fauré (and the solo piano Debussy material I did with the pianist in the same hall). Hoping to do some more things this autumn and winter, and yes – you’re right – finding musicians isn’t easy. I’m especially interested in doing some out of the ordinary 20th Century classical stuff, and it’s near-impossible to get any classical musicians to knuckle-up and try something outside of their comfort zones – especially in Japan, where traditional repertoire is the only thing rewarded with attendance. I can’t blame the musicians – it’s hard enough to make a living playing classical ‘greatest hits’ for a mostly frugal audience … imagine trying to get an audience for Schoenberg, Scriabin, or Ginastera?
It’s the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk. I tried to recruit some pianists to do something in honor of his birthday. Nope. Nada. Zip. You know who’s doing something for Monk’s 100th Birthday in Japan? WONK – (I guess if you invert the M to W you get WONK) – but I haven’t heard of any jazzers stepping up to the plate. That’s a sin. But maybe it’s also an indicator of a kind of pervasive conservatism that seems to govern Japanese culture. I’m no expert … maybe I’m just not hanging out with the right people!
FH: Chris, this has been very illuminating, and tremendously thought provoking. What is next on the horizon for you?
CS: I recently played with an interconnect idea with the intention of doing things the ‘wrong’ way, against conventional wisdom and accepted ‘best practices’ – indeed, against my ordinary habits of cable development. The result was astonishing.
While it wasn’t close to the Indigo in terms of ultimate performance – Zoltán Matrix (ZMX) is, so far, completely untouchable – it stood in the family of ZMX in that it presented the music with a kind of effortlessness that I’ve only otherwise heard from ZMX and also my Berning Siegfried.
Awhile back I introduced a direct-only product called Airwave, and it was essentially a way to deliver a cable that was simultaneously high-performance and entry-level, which meant simplifying a process I developed for Redlevel’s Mk. II series cables (The Tube, Lupo, and Matrix) called “nami” (波) which is Japanese for “wave” (as in ocean wave) – the tool I had made for this process (shout out to Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby for machining the tooling for me!) is a hand tool, and the conductor has to be run by hand into the cable’s body.
The Airwave products were intended to make use of a form of Nami processing, but not involve nearly as much handwork, and be able to sell for a more accessible price. It borrows some from Black-Cat Redlevel, but is simplified and distilled. It doesn’t approach the performance envelope of Redlevel too closely, but for the price I don’t think it can be touched.
The new design is a cooperation between my 32-element Matrix braid and the internal (simplified) Nami conductor of the Airwave, in an unconventional, counterintuitive relationship to each other.
This has also lead to developments in the loudspeaker-cable end of things, and I’ve decided to let these things, which will also be part of the 3200 series. I’ve just got a funnel page up to gather the email addresses of people who might be interested in the 3200 series once it’s released: http://www.3200series.com– I don’t expect to be able to release these products until late Autumn, slated for November 14 launch.
At the moment I’m working on how to express this in production with a reliable consistency. Getting from prototype to production can be time consuming, which is why I don’t foresee the release until the verge of winter. Won’t be cheap! Won’t break the bank …
Cable “X” … something for the future
Black Cat Cable
Sommovigo’s End Of Summer Albums:
Stravinsky: Firebird (1910 ver) / Song of the Nightingale (Boulez/NY Phil) – 1975 recording
Dead Can Dance: Into The Labyrinth
Stan Getz : Getz Au Go Go
Wilco : A Ghost Is Born
Oliver Nelson: The Blues and the Abstract Truth