Product: Eichmann Bullet & WBT Nextgen phono plugs
Manufacturer: WBT Germany, Eichmann, Australia
Price: (approximate for set of 4) Bullet: £30, Nextgen: copper £75, silver £125.
Reviewer: Maarten van Casteren - TNT UK
Date: September, 2006.
For many of us the idea that cables are an important component of the reproduction chain is still questionable. I do have to say that I too have my doubts sometimes, especially about cost effectiveness. I have heard differences between cables, mostly between speaker cables actually. But even the fact that, under certain circumstances, you can hear a difference, an improvement perhaps, doesn't necessarily mean that meaningful and financially effective progress is being made. So, the idea of actually considering different connectors to be used with cables must be very doubtful, if not completely futile.
It does seem so, when you first look at it. But think about it and you'll perhaps agree with me that a continuous bit of metal conducting a signal is really a much simpler situation than transporting that same signal over two bits of metal that are only in contact with each other. And that is just the beginning, as the cable also has to be soldered to the connector, introducing yet another possibility for things to go wrong. And, finally, the signal has to pass through the body of the connector, which is usually made to be strong and reliable, not to conduct delicate electrical signals. So, in fact it isn't that illogical to assume that connectors could be a bit of a bottleneck in the whole signal chain.
The first company to challenge the established ways of connecting up phono leads was Eichmann. Their famous Bullet plug revolutionised the cable world. It uses a ‘single point of contact’ principle for the earth connection. This is said to prevent eddy-currents, thereby keeping the signal clean and free of time smear. I've used them for a while now, and have to admit that they make a difference. A clear difference, in fact. But, sadly, for many purposes this was no more than a proof of concept, as the Eichmann Bullet plugs have a bit of a problem. Their construction isn't very robust. Plugging and unplugging them is something that has to be done with great care, especially as they are quite tight. On top of that, soldering the cable to Bullet plugs can be difficult. The lugs provided for that are very tiny, especially the one that connects to earth. And earth is precisely the side where the shielding of most cables has to be connected. You end up with a large piece of copper (o silver) that has to be soldered to a bit of metal about a tenth the size of it. It is possible, but it certainly isn't very practical. I have once damaged one during soldering, although it was still usable after that.
As a result of this the Eichmann Bullet plug hasn't been very popular with cable manufacturers. They need their products to be easy to produce and reliable in use, and the Bullet plug is compromising both. So, despite the sonic advantages of the Bullet plug, many excellent cables are still only available with 'normal' termination. This is a shame, as Bullet plugs actually represent a real bargain, offering substantial sonic improvements over other plugs for a relatively modest investment.
Enter WBT with their new Nextgen plug. Clearly inspired by the Bullet plug, using the same ‘single point of contact’ principle. But there are a few differences between them too. To begin with the Nextgen has the WBT fixing collar, where you put the plug on the socket and then turn the housing to make it grip the socket tightly. Removing it is done by first unscrewing the collar after which the plug comes away very easily. Although this can be a pain if you don't have much space, it does prevent too much force being applied to the delicate connectors, while ensuring a very good connection at the same time. In addition, the whole construction is much more robust. It certainly makes the impression of being able to survive a lot more (ab)use than the Bullet plug. For a reviewer this is a clear advantage. Another big difference are the lugs to which the cables have to be soldered. These are nice and solid with the Nextgen plugs, and are formed in such a way as to make soldering much easier, with he lug in the shape of a little V, in which the cable fits nicely. A big advantage, certainly for a DIY guy like me. The only real disadvantage is the price, which is 3-4 times higher than the Bullet plugs, sadly.
So, clearly the WBT Nextgen plugs seem to have a few things going for them. To see how things would work in practice I asked for some samples and was send 4 copper and 4 silver plugs. The copper ones are gold plated and the silver ones are even platinum plated. I'm not sure if that is better than gold, but it certainly looks very nice. Construction overall is very impressive anyway. They do feel much more solid and over-engineered compared to the Bullet plugs.
I already had a pair of interconnect with copper Bullet plugs on them. They were made with Shark pure silver balanced cable. This means that the cable has two conductors inside the shielding, instead of the standard single conductor. I had connected them in 'semi-balanced' mode, using one conductor for signal and the other one for earth. The shield is connected to earth at one side, but not at the other side. In that way it is earthed, but not part of the signal way. This construction was advised to me by a friend and seemed to work very well. I use the side with the connected shield on the source side, the CD player in my case.
To make the comparison fair, I decided to order more of the same cable and make two more pairs of interlinks, one with the copper Nextgen plugs and one with the silver ones. The cable was bought at Maplin, as was the 4% silver solder I used to make the interconnects. All cables were just over 50 cm long.
Soldering the Nextgen plugs is much easier than the Bullet plugs. But I had a few minor problems nevertheless. Firstly, my cable is 9 mm which is about the maximum size allowed. With thinner cables you can actually take the plugs apart and solder everything together outside of the plug itself. But my cable wouldn't go all the way through the back of the connector, so I was forced to solder it together as it was, which was a bit more complicated. Perhaps a thinner cable would be advisable. I did try to take one plug apart, though, and have to admit that I broke it doing so. Luckily it turned out that the damage wasn't a problem, but I would advice you to be very careful when trying to take them apart.
Once soldered together, everything feels very solid and looks really good. Attaching them to a pair of phono sockets is really easy, and they do grip very well. The only problem is that you do need a bit of space around the plug to be able to turn the locking mechanism. Amplifiers with many phono sockets very close together are a bit of a nightmare. On my Micromega stage 3 CD player and Anatek A50 integrated amp I had no such problems at all.
I started by replacing my existing Bullet plug cables with the cables build with the copper Nextgen plugs. And I did hear a difference. Music was more lively and detailed, but also a little bit more metallic. Dynamics were a bit better and I had the tendency to play louder than before. These differences are not limited to the higher frequencies: mids and bass also had slightly more drive and presence. Reproduction as a whole is a bit more sibilant, but also more present and realistic sounding. My wife even commented on the improvement, unprompted! That really is a rare thing to happen, I can tell you! Overall I was very impressed with the difference. In spite of accentuating a little bit more sibilance the whole picture also seemed cleaner and more open. This was not bad. And, remember, the only difference were the connectors, the cable and solder were identical.
After a few days, I tried the cable with the silver Nextgen plugs. Initially I didn't hear much difference. Perhaps things were a bit cleaner and a bit more refined, but it wasn't as pronounced as when moving from copper Bullets to copper Nextgens, I thought.
To be sure I first used the silver plugs for a few days and then I spend an evening switching from one cable to the other, playing the same music on all of them to get a clearer picture. Initially this was a bit confusing, but once I knew what to listen for things became quite clear.
The copper Bullet plugs are a bit softer in their presentation than both Nextgens. They work very well with voices for that reason, as they seem to have a more fluid, warm and 'singing' character. This is at the cost of some liveliness and sparkle. They do seem to add a little bit of grain, but they will never sound 'hard'. Because of that grain, and because they have slightly lower resolution, the whole presentation is a bit flatter and has a little bit less texture. But tonality is excellent and the overall impression certainly is very good.
The copper Nextgen plugs are clearly more dynamic and lively. They produce more texture and space, making the sound stick less to the speakers. But they are also a little bit hard in the treble and have the tendency to sound a little bit metallic from time to time.
The silver Nextgen are my favourites. They even have marginally more texture, detail and space than the copper ones, but without the hardness or the metallic character. Sibilance is much better controlled than with the other two cables. And when the recording is hard or sibilant, this cable is more able to keep things in focus: instead of hearing a voice in the middle and sibilance from the tweeters, almost everything is coming from the middle, making it clear that it is all in the recording and not the reproduction.
My overall impression after comparing these cables was that the copper Bullet plugs and the copper Nextgen plugs are of a comparable sonic quality, but a different character. The silver Nextgen are in a class of their own, almost combining the best properties of the other two. The fact that I didn't hear much difference when I switched to them initially is probably caused by the refinement and subtlety of this plug. The other two are much more different in their presentation, but after some time you find shortcomings with both. The silver Nextgen are unimpressive at first, certainly compared to the copper versions. But listen a bit longer and closer, and you will find that they are actually the better connector, and the difference is really noticeable.
But, at the same time I do have to admit that these differences are not enormous. It takes careful and concentrated listening, with the right recordings, to hear them. And it takes a while. On the other hand, once you know what to listen for it is quite clear and going back to a lesser connector can be a bit of a disappointment. Not really the sort of thing you will notice in a 10 minute demo in a shop or on a show, but more something to try out at home for a few days.
That only leaves the question of cost effectiveness. Clearly the Bullet plugs are much more affordable than the Nextgens. Specifically if you like a softer, warmer sound, the copper Bullet plugs are by far the best value. But you will have to be careful and not change them too often, to prevent breaking them. Their sound and price also makes them the best choice for budget systems. If you like a more lively sound then the copper Nextgen can be a good choice. But for the ultimate in refinement, you will have to spend even more and go for the silver Nextgen plugs. It's a lot of money, but I think you won't regret it, provided they are used in a system that is able to bring out their qualities.
The missing part in this whole comparison are, of course, the silver Bullet plugs. I didn't have them available, and I didn't feel much like adding yet another cable to the test. Perhaps I will be able to try them out in the future. I'll certainly let you know, as the silver Bullet plugs could well be an excellent and more affordable alternative to the silver Nextgen plugs.
© Copyright 2006 Maarten van Casteren - www.tnt-audio.com