Review: Darwin Ascension Speaker cable

Category: Cables


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 fulfill 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 Tony 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 of right ways to make great sounding 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 Darwins emphasized 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.

Product Specifications:
The Ascension Plus interconnects:
Silver wire
Teflon air dielectric
Proprietary RCA terminations
Cryogenically treated
Price: $795
Ascension speaker cables:
Silver wire
Teflon air dielectric
Cryogenically treated
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.

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