Laurence Borden speaks with Mr. Steven Huang of Audio Sensibility, a Canadian audio cable manufacturer. In this interview, we will learn not just about Mr. Huang’s design philosophy and uniqueness of his products, but also his family’s tie with the very Dr. Atsumi Ohno himself, the inventor of the OCC process that bears his name – Ohno Continuous Cast.
LB: Steve, welcome to Dagogo. Please begin by telling us about your background, and your interest in high-end audio.
SH: I have an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering with specialty in Metallurgy and a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in robotics. I went through a cooperative engineering program alternating school and work terms in the early eighties, which helped pay for my education and audio passion. At the end of each work term, I would reward myself with an audio component. First a set of Harbeth loudspeakers, then a Mission power amplifier, then an Oracle turntable, and so on…
LB: Your expertise in metallurgy would certainly make you uniquely qualified to manufacture audio cables. Did your studies stimulate your interest in manufacturing high-end audio cables, or vice versa?
SH: My undergraduate studies definitely laid the ground work. My first job out of school was with a steel manufacturer and I was involved in automating the cooling process in the hot strip mill. By varying the temperature profile for cooling, you can dramatically affect the crystal structure of the steel, resulting in grades of steel with different metallurgical properties. The slower the cooling rate, the finer the grain/size of the crystal structure. My graduate studies taught me how to think in a more original way, in undergraduate engineering you are just trying to survive.
Cryogenic treatment is actually a form of heat treatment, but dealing with the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. I used my work experience in the hot strip mill in working out the methodology for determining the best cooling temperature profile to use in the available cryogenic treatment unit. Note: Many industrial cryogenic treatment facilities are primarily involved with tempering of metals to increase hardness so aren’t necessarily set up for the optimal cryogenic treatment of audio cable materials.
LB: When did you begin Audio Sensibility?
SH: Audio Sensibility is a fairly new company having been established in 2008. However I have been building cables professionally for the past 10 years, and have another (older) cable company which works with a dealer network and also produces OEM cables for boutique audio companies.
LB: What is your role in the company?
SH: I am involved in all aspects of the company, R&D, marketing, supply chain, and manufacturing. In the manufacturing area my primary responsibility is training and supervision of technicians who do most of the cable assembly. I build all the cable prototypes, work out the manufacturing steps for the finished designs, and build the cable fixtures used in production.
LB: What is your business model – dealer network or direct sales?
SH: Audio Sensibility sells directly to the end user. The Internet is a great mechanism to link us to customers from all corners of the globe.
LB: Direct sales of course keep prices lower for the consumer. Is there a mechanism in place to allow customers to try the cables in their own home, with their own system?
SH: Ensuring system synergy is important with any component and especially cables. There is no better guarantee of satisfaction than a home trial, so all cables come with a 30 day money-back guarantee. Much of my business is through customer referral so the guarantee is more of a security blanket.
LB: Your company offices are in Toronto; is that also where the cables are manufactured?
SH: Yes. Primary production is done in Toronto with the remainder of work (CNC manufacturing, cryogenic treatment) done within the immediate vicinity.
LB: Tell us about your different products and product lines.
SH: We have three model lines with a wide assortment of interconnects, power cords, and speaker cables, which should cover 98% of customer needs.
The Impact is our entry level cable line for the beginning audiophile.
The Testament cable line is suitable for the music lover who wants a good long term cable investment at a reasonable price.
The Statement cable line is targeted at those who have a substantial investment in their audio system and provides near-state of the art performance at a sensible price.
LB: Let’s turn now to the cables themselves. Despite cable’s apparent simplicity (compared to preamplifers, amplifiers and DACs), there are divergent ideas regarding the cable composition, how it is drawn or wound, the coating dielectric, as well as the terminations. What criteria guide your designs?
SH: Our goal is to offer cables with tonal neutrality, transparency, and low coloration.
In our experience the factor which most influences the cable quality is the type and quality of conductor material. We have tried a wide variety of materials including exotic materials like plated silver/gold/copper wire and carbon fiber. In the end we found the best results with ultra-pure copper and silver manufactured using the Ohno Continuous Casting (OCC) process.
OCC Copper, 1 Crystal per 125 meters
Oxygen Free Copper, 5000 Crystals per 1 meter
OCC metals have a very long crystal structure, 1 OCC copper crystal can be up to 125 meters in length. In contrast oxygen free copper has approximately 5000 crystals per meter. Because of the very long crystal size, there will be no crystal grain boundaries for a typical section of cable to interfere with signal flow, resulting in the lowest distortion possible.
Dr. van den Hul (of van den Hul cables) calls this Cross Crystal Distortion (CCD) and mentions the audible side-effects like sonic harshness and masking of spatial information. Interestingly enough, van den Hul uses CCD as the justification for the development of their Linear Structured Carbon technology.
OCC copper and silver condusctors are being used in the top models of a growing number of cable companies. Audio Sensibility is unique in offering OCC conductors across its entire product line, not only the more expensive models. No company offers better value for OCC based copper and silver cables.
LB: Is there anything else you would like to mention about Ohno Continuous Casting?
SH: There is a fair bit of information on the Internet about the OCC process itself. We have aggregated much of this information on our web site.
However there is little information about Dr. Ohno himself and the history of OCC, beyond the fact that Dr. Ohno developed the OCC process at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan and patented the process in 1986.
Dr. Atsumi Ohno received his Ph.D. degree in Metallurgical Engineering from the University of Toronto, Canada in 1963.
Dr. Huang visits Dr. Ohno in Japan in the early 1980s.
My father was also working on his Ph. D. degree in Chemical Engineering at the same time in the early sixties (Dr. Robert Huang became a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He passed away in 2009.) My father who is from Taiwan, spoke fluent Japanese and became a lifelong friend of Dr. Ohno, and would visit him whenever he travelled to Japan.
When Dr. Ohno returned to Japan in the mid 60’s, he took a position at the Chiba Institute with the simple goal of establishing a metal casting research program.
The rapid development of the electronics industry in Japan in the 1970’s led to the aggressive miniaturization of electronic components. This in turn drove the demand to draw wire of increasingly fine gauge. It became evident to Dr. Ohno that it would be necessary to develop metal materials with no casting defects or crystal grain boundaries to continue the miniaturization.
This became the motivation for his research which led to the patenting of the Ohno Continuous Casting process in 1986. Actually Dr. Ohno was granted five patents related to his continuous casting process between 1985 and 1981.
By using a heated mold with the temperature profile carefully selected, and drawing the material at a very slow rate it is possible to cause the solidification process to start from the inside-out resulting in the formation of very long crystals in the metal, rather than the many short crystals that form in conventional casting when the material cools from the outside-in.
Because of the requirement of very high purity metal (to prevent premature crystallization) and cast at very slow speeds, the cost of manufacture of OCC product is much more expensive than using conventional casting.
The OCC process was initially licensed to Furukawa Electric of Japan.
It soon became evident that the metallurgical properties of OCC copper were also advantageous for audio applications. The initial use of OCC copper wire in audio began in 1988 by a company called Furutech (no relation to Furukawa Electric) with Audioquest soon following in 1989 with its cables using Perfect Surface Copper (PSC).
The OCC process made a small fortune for Dr. Ohno, and in gratitude to his alma mater he made a generous research endowment to the University of Toronto in 1989.
University of Toronto OCC Research Lab
The UofT Department of Metallurgical Engineering established an OCC research lab in recognition of the donation. Today the Chiba Institute of Technology and University of Toronto remain the two leading OCC research centers in the world.
Dr. Ohno who is now in his mid eighties, is a Professor Emeritus at both Chiba and Toronto, and continues to keep in touch with researchers at the two institutations on a weekly basis. He remains in good health and was fortunately not affected by the recent earthquake in Japan.
Today there are three companies who cast OCC metals and an ever increasing number of audio companies using OCC copper and silver in their very best cables.
LB: Are there any established products that particularly influenced your designs?
SH: I have a great respect for Ray Kimber (Kimber Kable). I have met him a number of times in person. He is obviously a great designer and businessman, but most importantly he is an exceptional human being. Humble, compassionate, and generous – a great audio ambassador. Ray also contributes to the audio community. I always look forward to his Isomike recording exhibit at the CES. Like many other cable companies we are also Ray Kimber customers purchasing cable supplies from his Wattgate and Heatshrink subsidiary companies.
LB: Is there a direct correlation between parts and sonic attributes? When designing a product, how do you integrate theory with actual listening? Have you ever had any surprises in this regard?
SH: In many cases, there is a strong correlation between materials used and the sonic signature. I find that copper connectors consistently perform better sonically than brass connectors, whether talking about RCA connectors, spades, banana plugs, or AC plugs. In cost sensitive applications brass connectors are appropriate, and their performance is consistently improved by cryogenic treatment.
In designing a new cable, there are certainly guidelines to follow. Utilizing an insulation material with a high dielectric strength (low dielectric constant) is always desirable (where cost is not a constraint) since you can get by with a thinner insulation thickness. Very often you will find two insulation materials available for use with a similar dielectric constant. Polypropylene (PP) and Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) have an identical dielectric constant value of 2.2. In this case a series of listening tests would be entirely appropriate to help determine the insulation of choice.
There are always exceptions to the rule regarding theory. In the case of insulation we have found in certain (rare) cases where an insulation with a higher dielectric constant outperforms an insulation with a lower dielectric constant in listening tests.
LB: You have some very striking metal ends on some of your audio cables. Can you tell us a bit about these?
SH: The connector shells are made out of polished non-magnetic 303 stainless steel and are produced on aerospace CNC lathes at LJT Manufacturing just outside of Toronto. We developed our own shells in order to optimize the mechanical interface between the connector and its intended cable. We machine the shells with over-size through-holes to ensure that the cable fits like a hand in a glove. This ensures the best mechanical integrity since it is not necessary to modify the cable to fit through the stock connector shell hole or bind the cable in an outer heatshrink/tubing straight-jacket. The connectors also provide very good mechanical energy damping capability.
This is especially important for our speaker and power cables.
Inspecting the quality of our CNC machined connectors.
We are particularly proud of the design of our AC power plug shell. It uses a collet mechanism to clamp the plug to the cable. As the cap is tightened pressure is applied evenly 360o around the cable. Virtually every other power cable and certainly any commercially available AC plug uses a bar where two screws are tightened to squish the cable, deforming the cable geometry at the crucial cable connector interface point.
LB: Furutech produces a series of very high-end audio connectors which also use stainless steel shells. Do you have any comments on what Furutech has done?
SH: We happen to mate Furutech connector bodies with of our stainless steel connector shells, so Furutech gets business regardless. We ended up throwing out so many of the Furutech shells in the beginning which was a shame, so now Furutech just supplies us with the connector bodies having met minimum OEM quantity requirements. A bit of savings on the connectors, but more important much more environmentally friendly.
Please understand that our goal is to maximize connector price/performance while Furutech’s goal is to provide a cost-is-no-object connector performance. Through careful selection of great sounding/lesser-priced Furutech connectors and our custom engineered stainless steel shells, we think we have significantly narrowed the performance gap at a fairly modest cost.
LB: Which is your best selling cable line?
SH: Definitely the Statement line. This actually surprised me, as I assumed that it would be more skewed toward the lower cost Impact and Testament lines. Most of our customers are actually looking at enhancing their existing two-channel audio systems. They are typically starting with lower models within existing brand name cables and want to take the next step or two up in performance. They may have paid $200.00-$400.00 for an RCA interconnects a few years ago and now find to move significantly up the chain with the brand takes an investment of $1000.00 or more. Spending $399.00 for our top of the line Statement OCC Silver RCA interconnects is deemed to be a manageable expense.
LB: What is your company’s biggest challenge currently?
SH: Managing the price increases for copper, stainless steel, and especially silver. The price has gone absolutely nuts in the last 14 months. Connector and wire prices have increased. The raw price of silver has increased 345%. The cost for our OCC silver wire used in our Statement interconnects rose by 40% from 2010 to 2011 and we expect more price increases for 2012. That being said, we are trying valiantly to hold the line on all our cable prices, at least for the shorter lengths.
LB: While there are many extremely expensive products in high-end audio, the pricing of wires in particular seem to have increased beyond all reason. Having tried your interconnects in my own system, I found them to offer impressive sonics at very fair prices. Would you care to comment on the current state of the industry, and how you view Audio Sensibility’s place in the market?
SH: Audio Sensibility’s goal is to provide the customer with cables that offer great value from a company that really cares.
For those with infinite funds, there will always be a place for $10,000 cables (think China). But in these economic times, many people are dealing with a limited budget and more and more are having the open mind to deal with a relatively small company like ours. Our job is to be able to educate people on the actual technology of cables and understand the value that our cables provide so they have the confidence to give them a try.
LB: Are you going to introduce any other products into the market?
SH: We have just come out with a set of loudspeaker and audio component Grounding Devices, which are designed to expand the music soundstage and allow better presentation of low level detail. These devices are made from ultra-pure fine Litz wire and contain no active components (resistors, capacitors, or other circuits).
The devices are available commercially from a number of sources, however we believe that our implementation of these devices provide both exceptional performance and value. The Groundside Electrons diyAudio discussion thread started in May 2007 describes the construction and effects of these devices.
We are also coming out with a high performance power distribution box. It is an open design which will allow our customers to select AC outlets from different companies (Hubbell, Furutech, Oyaide, etc.) and even mix different AC outlet models from the same company.
GEM Ultra Turntable
In addition we work with TTWeights, www.ttweights.com, (a subsidiary of LJT Manufacturing) on the development and manufacturing of their line of high performance turntables. We provide the motor control box and associated cables for the turntables and help with some of the testing activities.
LB: Steve, on behalf of the Dagogo readers, I would like to thank you for taking the me to speak with us. I wish you continued success, and look forward to trying your other products.
SH: Larry, it was my pleasure.
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