Review sample supplied by Mad Scientist Audio
Retail price in US Dollars at the time of review:
1 meter $799 (+VAT)
1.2 meter $899 (+VAT)
1.5 meter $999 (+VAT) (as reviewed)
2 meter $1199 (+VAT)
From Black Magic to Black Magic ULTRA
The Black Magic ULTRA USB is the high-end version of the original Black Magic USB cable I reviewed in 2018. After four years, the Mad Scientist decided to update their best-selling Black Magic cable. They took the basic ideas from the original cable and re-designed it from the ground up. Unlike the original, it’s hand-built from the wire up. In addition, they added the complex 8-fold screening system that was developed for the new speaker cables. The below picture shows the two cables side by side, the original Black Magic on top and the ULTRA underneath.
The following is taken from the Mad Scientist product page:
Before USB there was Coaxial (SPDIF) digital. This suffers from the technical problem that the clock is recovered from the data stream, a technique that produces more jitter than is desirable. Then came asynchronous USB, where the DAC controls the data rate, so a high quality, low jitter clock can be used in the DAC. This should sound really good. But it didn’t.
In fact, it sounded worse than using a Coaxial cable connection. Some blamed noise on the 5V line. Others blamed noise on the ground line. Various techniques were used, in the form of add-on boxes and dongles; Galvanic Isolation, regeneration, noise filtering. These often gave some improvement but at a high cost; they also often left their own footprints on the music.
But now, with Black Magic ULTRA, USB sounds as good as it should do – which is a whole lot better than any SPDIF connection. (In our opinion!)
One could say “marketing blurb”, but I have to say that all this does actually resonate with my own findings. I, too, consider the theoretically better USB format to be unpredictable and highly dependent on the quality and interaction of the interfaces on both ends. And I, too, consider AES/EBU to be a generally more robust or at least more predictably performing format. The question is, will the Black Magic ULTRA make the difference?
The core of the main system in which the Black Magic ULTRA will be reviewed consists of the CH Precision C1 DAC and L1 preamp, with the A1.5 power amp, Grimm MU1, Antipodes K50, and Taiko Audio Extreme Music Servers, and Magico S1 MkII speakers. For speaker cables, I use the Mad Scientist Black Magic.
Four years ago, I recommended the Black Magic USB cable for its rich, smooth, and lush, yet powerful sound. At that time, it served very well to make the music server sound more organic and more in line with how my best swing-arm CD transports tended to sound. Meanwhile, more recent reviews of USB cables have illustrated that there have been great advances since. Invariably though, the cables that sound significantly better also demand a much higher investment of anywhere between 2 to even 10 times the Black Magic’s modest 400-euro price. As a point in case, my current favorite USB cable is the Final Touch Audio Sinope which costs 1470 euros in a 1,5-meter length.
After reconnecting the original Black Magic USB cable to the Taiko Extreme server and having played a few familiar tracks, I could see, or rather, hear again why I liked it. The cable has a decidedly non-technical delivery with great smoothness and fluidity. However, it is not quite as precise as I am used to from hearing my digital front end these days. For instance, the Sinope USB cable betters the original Black Magic with a tighter, faster, and more impactful delivery with more expression and more immediacy. For its direct crispness, though, some people might find the Sinope to be a little dry, something the Black Magic can certainly not be accused of. While I won’t claim that the Sinope is a particularly smooth-sounding cable, my take is that it is mostly just very precise. But of course, this will also be a matter of taste and system synergy. But before I dive too deeply into this particular comparison, let’s see how the Black Magic ULTRA performs, shall we?
Going from Black Magic to Black Magic ULTRA, the new cable performs on an entirely different level. The ULTRA is not only much more open and expressive; it is also more linear and transparent. And while the original Black Magic remains a compellingly smooth performer, the ULTRA makes it very clear that the original cable’s smoothness comes at the cost of a good amount of bass incisiveness, midrange communication, and overall crispness. In fact, the new ULTRA sounds so good that it reminds me of the Sinope!
Swapping to the Sinope confirms that the Black Magic ULTRA has indeed picked up a couple of that cable’s strong assets, interestingly, whilst retaining a large portion of the original Black Magic’s most alluring quality: its liquidity! The biggest difference between the original Black Magic and the ULTRA is in the solidity and expression and this is clearest in the bass and midrange. When compared directly with the Sinope, the ULTRA has indeed come significantly closer. Ok, so it does have all of the Sinope’s incisive transient sharpness and dynamic expression but its fluid delivery and more organic nature make up for this. Part of me prefers the drier and more direct sound of the Sinope while another part of me can’t deny the ULTRA’s immense musicality. But all in all, the Black Magic ULTRA performs on a similarly high level.
The cable is quite stiff but still flexible enough and allows some torsion if needed.
The Extreme music server does not have an AES/EBU output but the Antipodes K50 music server does. However, its AES and USB outputs sound too different from one another to draw reliable conclusions.
In a nutshell, the K50’s USB output typically sounds more technical and stilted than its other outputs. For instance, the inherently clean and tight-sounding Jorma AES/EBU cable still sounds smoother and more free-flowing with the K50 than very nearly any USB cable with that server, while the Jorma cable’s true nature is much more evident with the Grimm MU1 or a CD transport as a source. Thus, I will refrain from making direct comparisons between these two output formats.
But I wondered, would that not be the perfect test case for the Black Magic ULTRA?
So, after swapping to the K50 using Roon, I compared the original Black Magic with the ULTRA and the FTA Sinope. The Taiko Extreme is a tough act to follow but starting with the Black Magic Ultra, I have to say I was very happy with how the K50 was performing. The sound is ballsy, upbeat, and beautifully expressive. Although its USB connection sounds more business-like than the Extreme, with the Black Magic cable, it is still very enjoyable. I think much of this has to do with the cable being so enthusiastic. Swapping to the original Black Magic cable, I knew what to expect in terms of dynamics and rhythmic engagement, but I did not expect the musicality to also take a hit. Sure, the Black Magic is beautifully fluid and refined but after having enjoyed the ULTRA, it just sounds too mellow and restrained for these spoilt ears.
So, does the Black Magic ULTRA sound better than a good AES/EBU connection? Well, I’m afraid that I cannot ascertain this with a direct comparison as the Extreme does not have an AES/EBU output and, as mentioned, the Antipodes K50’s AES and USB outputs sound too different from one another to draw reliable conclusions. But after having heard so many USB cables that are either smooth and relaxed but not very articulate or expressive, or those that are articulate and precise but also quite controlled and technical, I’m happy to report that with the Black Magic ULTRA, we now have a cable that is smooth and liquid as well as tight, upbeat, and expressive.
The Black Magic ULTRA manages to combine smoothness and liquidity with a toe-tappingly upbeat, lively, and expressive performance to arrive at a cable that threads the perfect middle ground between lushness and precision. A very nice bonus is that this cable costs less that the nearest competitors. It’s not 3000 euros, not 1500, but 999+VAT. Ok, perhaps not exactly cheap, but it’s worth it!