Darwin Ascension Plus Interconnects and Ascension Speaker Cables
I recently had the pleasure of spending a day at the Capital Audio-Fest held in Silver Springs, Maryland. I went down with a hi-fi buddy, and we met up with a bunch of our other hi-fi buddies. We had a really great time checking out the exhibits, buying used vinyl, and even drinking some beer. I also spent a portion of the day texting pictures of ever-larger speakers to my wife, frightening her with threats that I was going to bring a pair home with me, though most of them would not have fit in the car.
The systems we heard were illuminating, but not in the usual “I heard things I’ve never heard on that record” way, although there was certainly some of that. The beauty of a show like this is that it offers the opportunity to hear so many different approaches to hi-fi in one place. Where else could you listen to massive power on massive speakers (Tidal) in one room, and then step across the hall to moderately-powered OTL amps (Atma-Sphere) on high-efficiency speakers in the next? Certainly not at Best Buy.
There was a bit of schadenfreude as we watched some exhibitors who should have known better try to shoe-horn massive equipment into tiny rooms (I’m talking to you, dude with the Apogees and huge class A amplifier in a tiny un-air conditioned room), and all of us had plenty of sympathy for the exhibitors who brought great equipment only to be faced with rooms that seemed specifically constructed to sound bad under any circumstance. Dan Wright of ModWright graciously asked our opinion on seating in his awkwardly laid out room, which really seemed to be giving him trouble. Conditions were nowhere close to ideal, but the exhibitors who thoughtfully brought equipment – speakers in particular – that was appropriately sized for their rooms fared the best.
The thing that was most illuminating to me was how multiple systems with totally different approaches to sound reproduction – and such different sonic presentations - could each, nevertheless, make truly compelling and ‘right’ sounding music. The aforementioned Tidal speakers were magnificent for scale and tons of detail, while in a much smaller room a pair of Harbeth 30.1s – a modestly sized, old-school rectangular box – were every bit as compelling driven by a modest tube amplifier. Perhaps my personal favorite was one of the Déjà Vu Audio rooms that featured what appeared to be re-constructed vintage Western Electric amps driving mixed component homemade horns to deliver a lusciously beautiful sound: maybe not the most detailed or accurate – there were certainly systems with more detail - but musically compelling at the highest level. Given enough cash I could have packed up any of a half a dozen systems from the show and been happy for the rest of my life.
Best of all, at least among the systems that were sensibly constructed for their environment,there were very few true klinkers in the building, regardless of what approach they took. The equipment was, by and large, excellent if environmentally challenged. Based on my experience at the Capital Audio Fest, my conclusion is that there are a lot of right ways to make great music.
Right about now, Tony Bender of the Darwin Cable Company may be thinking, “Come on! Get on with the review!”
Fair point: What does any of this have to do with a cable review?
In the past two years since I began reviewing equipment for Stereotimes I’ve reviewed (including the Darwins) four sets of interconnects and speaker cables, and truth be told, I’ve been impressed with all of them. They’ve run the gambit in price from ‘modest and affordable’ to ‘massive and insanely expensive’ and a couple of points in between. But in some way shape or form, they all sounded musically compelling even as they each approached signal transmission with slightly different emphasis on a variety of musical characteristics. There was not, to paraphrase myself, a klinker among them.
I’ve also been impressed that the small manufacturers I’ve dealt with have come to the table with well thought out design parameters and a vision for what they want to accomplish. All of them could articulate exactly what they think makes a great cable, and how they’ve gone about trying to meettheir technical and sonic ideal.The result – and this is great news for us audiophiles - is that the guys who are really serious about what they’re doing make some pretty darned good cables at price points, levels of refinement, and sonic emphasis to suit just about anybody. Not everyone will love every cable, but everyone should be able to find a cable that they love.
Alright Tony, here we go:
I’m adding the Darwin Ascension Plus interconnects and Ascension speaker cables to my growing list of great, reasonably-priced cable favorites. The Ascension Plus Interconnects are $795 for a 3 ft. pair, and the Ascension speaker cables start at $1795 for an 8 ft. set. That’s not exactly cheap, per se, but by today’s standards they’re a good value. And, much like the big-power vs. OTL comparison I mentioned earlier, the Darwin’s bring yet another compelling perspective on the ‘right’ way to transmit a signal between components, and you can’t have too many ways to do something right.
Darwin Cables feature some very distinct design features that the company believes enhance the accurate transmission of the signal between components. Their cables all feature cryogenically treated silver wire and low-mass designs, and they’re be heavily invested in the idea of using an air-dielectric, meaning the wire passes through a tube of air to minimize contact with external non-transmission related insulation material. They’ve also taken the unusual step of designing and manufacturing their own RCA jacks to better fulfil their desire to maintain low-mass through the transmission chain. Silver wire is used because Darwin believes its faster signal transmission offers superior, uncolored sound.
Darwin’s interconnects consist of a single strand of wire that “floats” though a sturdy transparent Teflon tube. I’m not sure how buoyant that wire is within the tube, as I imagine it must make contact with the sides in places as the cable bends, but the wire clearly is not coated in plastic insulation and is readily visible except at the termination points.
Forewarned by being able to see that single wire within the dielectric, I took care to not twist the cables into position, installing them instead by pushing them straight onto my amplifier. I was genuinely concerned that a twist might damage that single strand of wire. Of course, like any other interconnect, once they’re in place they’re stable and immobile, making them safe enough.
Darwin does offer some rationale behind the single strand wire. According to Bender, “We believe skin effect from heavy wires is a leading culprit in many cable designs with high frequencies arriving too soon. It is counterintuitive, but when it comes to producing the intimate detail and realism of music, a finer, high quality wire offers superior balance — again when properly constructed of the right materials. We also believe there is something to the Maxwell Effect, which, in a nutshell, suggests that a thinner conductor produces more effective bass, a phenomenon our cables exhibit.”
Though they claim to be low mass, I found the Ascension’s terminations to be robust and well constructed. They slid on and off my amplifier easily enough, but with enough resistance to instill confidence that they were making good contact.
The Ascension speaker cables also feature Teflon dielectric for their single transmission wire, but the entire cable is then sheathed in a second Teflon and braided steel exterior jacket. Darwin’s website claims that the jacket provides additional damping to the cable, and I have no reason to dispute that, but I also noted one other practical benefit: That steel braid is among the most rugged cables coatings I’ve ever seen. Unless your Mastiff decides to have one for a snack, it is unlikely that normal household use will ever result in any damage.
My review samples came terminated with spades. One unexpected feature, especially on a cable with such a stiff, heavy-duty exterior covering, is that there was a great deal of flexibility under the rubber covering between the spade and where the wire sheathing begins. The flexibility at the terminations made it a little easier to connect the cables to my amp and speakers.
So, do the Darwins represent the *ahem* evolution of hi-fi cables? (I couldn’t resist)
My listening notes had a lot of one-word descriptions: fast, crystalline, incisive, pure, defined, focused, and so on.
The Darwin Ascension cables are indeed very fast, have a tremendous amount of detail, and – in my system – did a good job of helping to delineate individual instruments within the recorded soundstage. Their treble extension was very clear without becoming hard or harsh, though perhaps missing the last iota of silken refinement that I’ve heard in my system with some far more expensive cables. The soundstage is very well illuminated and physical space is audible.
Take note that words like warm, lush, or romantic did not appear in my notes. If the Ascension cables have those qualities they weren’t in evidence while I was listening to them. Even with my all-tube system – which, by its very nature, has all of those qualities - it was clear that the Darwin cables lean towards an analytic transmission of the signal. My amp and preamp are already warm, lush, and romantic sounding, and I think they generally sound best with cables that do little too enhance those qualities. I once had a set of gold cables, for example that proved to be far too much of a good thing. The Darwins – perhaps more than any cable I’ve listened to recently, really seemed to be transmitting a neutral signal.
During the review period I swapped out a full tube set of power tubes on my Cary V12r amplifier from KT77s to 6550s. The 6550s are cleaner and more linear top to bottom, and have more punch than the KT77s (or EL 34s) ever did. The Darwins were very revealing of system changes, and even the break-in period of the new tubes revealed audible changes to the sound that were really quite dramatic. As the tubes opened up, the bass went lower and the soundstage got significantly deeper. This would have been audible with many cables, but the Darwins really put those changes into high relief.
But of course, what really matters is what they do for music playback.
One of the recordings I return to over and over as a reference is Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya’s Sotho Blue (editors note: this is one of my favorites as well Greg). This record is a bass and lower mid-range paradise with truly deep, powerful acoustic bass, and heavy representation from the tenor and baritone saxophone with the trombone filling out the bottom. Moreover, Ibrahim doesn’t neglect his left hand on this one, using the sheer weight of the piano’s lower registers to great effect. Best of all, it was really well recorded by Klaus Genuit at Hansahaus Studios in Bonn, Gernmany. With the Darwins in my system all of those instruments are tight and focused, and that focus is especially important because it allows instrument timbres – the wood body of the acoustic bass for example – to shine through. I’ve had far more expensive cables here that didn’t quite exhibit the image specificity – the lack of smearing – that the Darwins have.
The Darwins also perform admirably at the other end. Treble extension has the same high definition as the bass with crystalline clarity. Cymbal taps were hung precisely in space with flutes and guitars clearly delineated within the soundstage, again without any smearing. Tonal balance in the treble also seemed very accurate allowing, for example, the reproduction of subtle woody piano soundboard reverberations on high notes, something that is far easier to capture in the mids. The Darwins did seem a little brighter in the treble than other cables I’ve used, which is not to say that the treble was over-hot or piercing: my conclusion is simply that the highly resolved upper registers may create the illusion of treble emphasis, though I suspect that there’s no actual manipulation of the signal taking place.
I compared the Darwin Cables with the Zentara Reference cables, which I also recently reviewed, and doing so took me right back to my earlier comment about there being a lot ofright ways to make greatsounding music. In my system the Darwins had more precise image specificity and ultimate clarity, but the Zentaras had slightly smoother treble and a richer tonal palate. The Darwinsemphasized neutrality, while the Zentaras were a hair more romantic. The Darwins are a very thin cable, while the Zentaras are as thick as my thumbs. We’re talking small degrees of separation here. Both are excellent cables, with each emphasizing different qualities in sonic presentation. Both are priced within spitting distance of each other, and either would be a fine choice depending on listener preferences and associated equipment. Choices, choices, choices! It’s great to have choices!
More so than other cables I’ve had the pleasure of listening to recently, the Darwins emphasize precision and clarity. If those are the qualities you’re seeking in a cable than I’d strongly suggest a listen to see if they’re your cup of tea. They’re thoughtfully designed, they sound great, and at their price point they’re right in the sweet spot of some high-zoot for the dollar competition: another excellent option in the never-ending search for everyone to find a cable that they love.
I no longer believe that there is any such thing as the “best” or “perfect” cable because any product’s performance is always going to be so intertwined with external factors like equipment, musical taste, and the listener’s ears: and no single set of cables can be all things to all listeners in all circumstances. But I do believe – strongly – that there is an ever-expanding list of high-quality cables from small manufacturers available to meet the needs of almost any audiophile. The Darwin Ascension Plus interconnects and Ascension speaker cables fall squarely on that list as another excellent product worthy of an audition. Well done.
The Ascension Plus interconnects:
Teflon air dielectric
Proprietary RCA terminations
Ascension speaker cables:
Teflon air dielectric
0.12 ohms resistance at 8 ft.
0.27 dB decibel loss at 8 ft.
Price: $1795 bare wire. Add $100 for spades or bananas.