There seems to be a new USB DAC launched every other day in the audiophile world. The sheer selection and variety available can be daunting; especially if there is no way to audition them before choosing. To make matters worse, much worse, audiophiles have figured out that different USB cables can make rather large sonic differences for their DAC's, bringing yet another royal headache to the already-migraine-inducing audiophile world. The situation is becoming increasingly similar to the Wild Wild West that was, and is, the S/PDIF digital cable world where virtuosity and snake oil muddied the waters together while prices climbed to Everest heights.
With the advent of asynchronous USB DAC's, USB cables should not make significant sonic difference, which is what many people initially thought. However, at this juncture in time, the combined experience of audiophiles have pretty much ascertained that USB cables do make a difference, even with asynchronous USB DAC's, and yes even when the USB DAC does not even use the 5V power from USB bus. DH Labs Silversonic, Cardas Clear, and Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7.0 USB cables were compared on Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus, modified with DEXA discrete Op-Amps all around and the tube taken out. Digits were generated by C.A.P.S. v.3 Micro Zuma music server, either with SOtM USB card or JCAT USB card.
DH Labs Silver Sonic USB Cable
Further elaborating on this matter, DH Labs literature states, "At these frequencies, it is very important to maintain the very tight control over the insulation thickness, and we also cable (twist) the conductors on a machine that runs slowly and with uniform (constant) tension. These techniques combine to maintain a highly uniform characteristic impedance, which minimize signal reflections (and thus cable induced jitter). At Megahertz and Gigahertz frequencies, cables behave as wave guides. Dimensional discontinuities - such as inconsistencies in insulation thickness or non-uniform spacing between the conductors - are a major reason for poor digital cable performance. Finally, we use 100% shield coverage (the shield is also wrapped at constant tension, to avoid "VSWR spikes") and top quality connectors."
Compared to the all-copper Cardas Clear USB cable reference, DH Labs exhibited a little more heightened apparent texture detail especially in upper midrange and a bit higher in frequency, which resulted in upper end of female voice, top hats, and cymbals cutting through air a little more clearly with a tiny more sparkle and metallic verve. In many tube based systems, especially single-ended triode, this may be a welcome characteristic by complementing tubes' tendency not to obviously highlight the high frequencies. However, if playing "hot" recordings on a somewhat bright system, DH Labs USB cable may not help much to alleviate hard and bright upper frequency transients or close-mic'ed sibilants. In that case, a more forgiving and "natural" presentation of Cardas may certainly be more pleasing to the ear. Bass taughtness and dynamics were very good, albeit with a tiny tendency for a forward soundstage presentation and not as Herculean depth perspective. Compared to a stock USB cable that ships with computers, DH Labs is miles ahead in terms of detail resolution, dynamics, and overall solidity of sound.
Cardas Clear USB Cable
What all this translates sound-wise is a pellucid naturalness in midrange tone, texture, and micro-dynamics. Voices and instruments are rich and bold with immediacy, just floating in a sea of liquidity. Refinement does not obscure the tiny, subtle inflections and nuances in the music. In fact, they are magnified and presented to the listener with rich harmonics intact, the true glory of the best Cardas cables in general.
Compared to DH Labs, Cardas seems to deliver more mid-bass quantity and wallop with more powerful bass transients and more, although possibly not as tight. Compared to the better consumer USB cables, DH Labs could be said to have bass quantity more in line with the norm while Cardas has more. DH Labs presents the upper-mids with a bit more apparent texture and detail, but Cardas renders a little more "clear" acoustic harmonics. The real calling card here for Cardas is a deep-toned, resonant, and chesty male vocals that project out into the room more energetically. The image size is perhaps larger than life and certainly a bit more diffuse compared to some other USB cables, but the overall effect is quite pleasing. Some listeners and systems may prefer the DH Labs for a little more traditional image size, more neutral bass contour, and a bit more of a upper-midrange sparkle, but the Cardas truly is a great USB cable as well. DH labs is also a real boon to cash-strapped audiophiles, selling for only $70.
Now, sooner or later somebody will complain that USB cables cannot possibly make a difference in sound quality and that a generic cable will do just as well.. Belkin Gold USB cable is often recommended as an affordable cable of decent build quality, with better sound characteristics compared to no-name skinny USB cables one may receive as a freebie with a printer. It sports gold-plated connectors with better materials than a generic cable, and at around $7, it is extremely affordable for the audiophile starting out in USB audio. If auditioned in isolation, the Belkin certainly does nothing overtly wrong. However, when directly compared to better USB cables, such as the Cardas or DH Labs, Belkin shows that it lacks a degree of subtle detailing and microdynamic life, which makes voices and instruments sound a little flat and grey in color. The Cardas cable especially exhibits a beautifully natural yet colorful sound with bubbling microdynamic life that is very addicting and attractive, especially with unique vocalists like Katie Melua and Tom Waits.
Both Cardas and DH Labs have much firmer and delineated bass and an entirely higher level of detail resolution in addition to an uncanny ability to burn through haze and smear. Theoretically, with asynchronous USB DAC's I have been using such as Weiss DAC202u and Eastern Electric Minimax DAC Plus modified with discrete op-amps, USB cables should not make much of a difference in sound quality, but as usual with audio, everything seems to make a difference including USB cables. Moreover, the differences are not even all that subtle or difficult to hear in a high resolution system. If multi-kilobuck USB cables offend your sensibility, do try the Cardas Clear or DH Labs Silversonic USB cables. At $134 and $70 respectively, they are serious bargains, and either one will bring significant improvements over the generic USB cables. Both are highly recommended.
Wireworld Platinum Starlight 7.0 USB Cable
Further reading reveals that Silver Starlight uses silver-clad signal conductors while Platinum Starlight differentiates itself with solid silver signal conductors, of which both cables use six, compared to the usual two conductors in generic USB cables. More numerous signal conductors are said to create 8 "efficient paths for electromagnetic energy. Four times more than conventional USB". Combined with patent-pending, symmetrical helix arrangement, Wireworld claims the Platinum Starlight 7.0 is the first USB cable to exceed 10.2 Gbps transmission speed.
Another important design detail is the power-carrying conductors, which are well separated from the signal conductors and shielded independently, with some sort of noise-absorbing material used around the conductor. Wireworld finishes off the substantial design with beautifully crafted carbon-fiber USB connectors at cable ends, ready to play.
In comparing USB cables, what is puzzling is how similar materials and designs carry over the sound signatures from analogue cables to USB cables even though the frequency of signal and type of information carried seem to have nothing in common. For example, Cardas Clear's pure copper design does represent well the traditional analogue world's prediction of rich tonality and ample bass while DH Lab's silver-coated copper still has a hint of that "sheen," or extra detail, in upper-mids that is thought to be common in silver-plated designs. Will Platinum Starlight 7.0 follow the same unscientific trend?
Well, it turns out the answer is more yes than no. Using 23 AWG pure silver conductors to make analogue interconnects often predictably results in a cable with very fast transients, precise localization and soundstaging, wonderful sense of air, and clean purity. In the USB application, that is exactly how the Platinum Starlight 7.0 sounded. This cable's calling card is precision and space, which is better than any other USB cables I have tried so far; it just sounds like it has a ridiculous amount of transmission speed in reserve and is using only a tiny fraction of it to feed the DAC. Space opens up all round the room, with previously-vague voices and instruments precisely and solidly located in proper places, well separated from each other without blurring or overlap.
Many audiophiles seem to associate silver with "bright," but this must be a vestige of days when poor-quality silver-plated, stranded copper wire gave silver a bad name. Often, quality silver wire, especially solid core, sounds smoother than copper with better control over peaky frequency deviations and less blurring. This is the case here with Platinum Starlight 7.0, which is ultra-smooth, even creamy in texture, with that recognizable lilting quality to vocals which is so addictive. Percussion starts and stops like laser, and there is absolutely no bloat or mushy veil over the musical soundscape. Sense of PRAT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) and drive is top notch here, without blurry overhang anywhere.
What's the catch? Well, the largest one is obviously the price, and sonically, there is still no guarantee that a given audiophile will find this cable to be the proverbial Holy Grail in a particular system. For example, true to the low-gauge, low-skin-effect, silver lore, the overall sound is not as warm as some pure copper designs, and the bass, while super-defined and impactful, does not subjectively sound as bassy as some others. So systems that already err on the wrong side of the warm-cool line and sound too squeaky clean to begin with may not be the best complement for the Platinum Starlight 7.0. Then again, for more neutralish systems or ones that veer a bit too much to the warm and fuzzy side, this cable may just be the ticket to musical bliss.
Between the all-copper Cardas, silver-clad DH Labs, and pure silver Wireworld, there is surely a USB cable that will serve most music lover's preferences and biases.
Manufacturer And Ratings
Voice: (386) 418-0560
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Wireworld Cable Technology
Voice: (954) 474-4464