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High-priced boutique USB cables: worthwhile, or a waste?


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For many of us, USB DAC’s are the cornerstones of our systems, so a good cable from the server to the DAC is essential. I know this has been discussed ad infinitum, but it is still a murky, confused subject to me.

 

There is a seemingly irreconcilable disparity between those that say that there is no audible difference between a generic USB cable and a boutique one, versus those that extol the sonic virtues of a 3-foot piece of wire that cost them many hundreds of dollars.

 

Personally, I hear a difference between a $50 WireWorld Ultraviolet (copper) and a $150 Kimber Ag (silver). The question is, do the uber-expensive USB cables sound that many more times better, or is it just, at best, a slight improvement with diminishing returns, or at worst, marketing snake oil and/or expectation bias?

 

A recent thread where a few members were debating the differences between several USB cables ranging in price from $500 to $1,000 certainly has me wondering if all this is all a joke, or is it the real deal?

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Basically, the better cables are trying to reduce the amount of RF/EMI that gets through to, and can affect the USB device.

Improved isolation of the USB device from the computer's internally generated noise is more cost effective and will result in improved results over just improving the noise rejection of a USB cable.

 

How a Digital Audio file sounds, or a Digital Video file looks, is governed to a large extent by the Power Supply area. All that Identical Checksums gives is the possibility of REGENERATING the file to close to that of the original file.

PROFILE UPDATED 13-11-2020

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For many of us, USB DAC’s are the cornerstones of our systems, so a good cable from the server to the DAC is essential. I know this has been discussed ad infinitum, but it is still a murky, confused subject to me.

 

There is a seemingly irreconcilable disparity between those that say that there is no audible difference between a generic USB cable and a boutique one, versus those that extol the sonic virtues of a 3-foot piece of wire that cost them many hundreds of dollars.

 

Personally, I hear a difference between a $50 WireWorld Ultraviolet (copper) and a $150 Kimber Ag (silver). The question is, do the uber-expensive USB cables sound that many more times better, or is it just, at best, a slight improvement with diminishing returns, or at worst, marketing snake oil and/or expectation bias?

 

A recent thread where a few members were debating the differences between several USB cables ranging in price from $500 to $1,000 certainly has me wondering if all this is all a joke, or is it the real deal?

 

Like you said, It seems there will never be a consensus on that matter. The best way for you to find out as you guess it, is to try for yourself.

 

As for me, I heard major differences in performance between generic/entry level USB cables and much more expensive ones. I tried about 8 different cables and generally speaking, the performance of most of the cables, matched the prices. I ended up with the most expensive one. It was clearly and by a good margin, the best of the bunch. I am now considering to give a listen to a cable nearly twice his price.

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My purely anecdotal take is that the better the USB implementation then the less difference it makes. To me the law of deminishing returns always prevents me from looking at big-time cables. When you get into big bucks (four figures) I start thinking I would be better off upgrading the DAC for something newer or changing some other aspect of the system.

Roon ->UltraRendu + CI Audio 7v LPS-> Kii Control -> Kii Three

Roon->BMC UltraDAC->Mr Speakers Aeon Flow Open

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My replies to these threads has become pretty repetitive. In regards to analog interconnects, speaker cables and power cables I do hear a difference, an improvement. My budget though dictates modesty. I have once paid $500 for a cable but typically I am in the $50 to $200 per meter range.

 

With regard to digital cables, USB, FireWire,SPDIF and the like I have not heard the benefits. But way too many experiences with system problems at work, within my system and within friends systems with poor connections or failure from the "freebie" throw in cables has lead me to also purchase and recommend decent quality aftermarket digital cables. I do not hear an advantage but take no issue with those that can.

"If you fly a flag of hate you are no kin to me"

Ry Cooder

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There is a seemingly irreconcilable disparity between those that say that there is no audible difference between a generic USB cable and a boutique one, versus those that extol the sonic virtues of a 3-foot piece of wire that cost them many hundreds of dollars.

 

Why should we expect agreement?

 

There are those here who have an open mind and are at least willing to listen for themselves. These folks have systems that vary significantly in terms of transparency. In the more transparent systems, the USB cable (or any cable or component) can have a great impact. In the less transparent systems, not so much. So disagreement should be expected. I think the answer really comes down to "it really depends". And that's true of most things in this hobby.

Digital:  Sonore opticalModule > Uptone EtherRegen > Shunyata Sigma Ethernet > Antipodes K30 > Shunyata Omega USB > Gustard X26pro DAC 

Amp & Speakers:  Spectral DMA-150mk2 > Aerial 10T

Foundation: Stillpoints Ultra, Shunyata Denali power conditioner, Shunyata Alpha and Delta power cords, Shunyata Alpha interconnect, Shunyata Sigma Ethernet, MIT Matrix HD60 speaker cables, ASC isothermal tube traps, Stillpoints Aperture panels

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Why should we expect agreement?

 

There are those here who have an open mind and are at least willing to listen for themselves. These folks have systems that vary significantly in terms of transparency. In the more transparent systems, the USB cable (or any cable or component) can have a great impact. In the less transparent systems, not so much. So disagreement should be expected. I think the answer really comes down to "it really depends". And that's true of most things in this hobby.

 

So if it is only the more transparent systems that might benefit (does that mean more expensive) are the manufacturers of these cable selling proverbial "snake oil" on the less expensive end of their product line since they may not be "transparent" enough to reap any benefits in many systems.

 

Remember, i buy decent cables and feel there is value to them. I just have not heard sonic benefits from digital cables.

"If you fly a flag of hate you are no kin to me"

Ry Cooder

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So if it is only the more transparent systems that might benefit (does that mean more expensive)

 

No it does not necessarily mean expensive. What matters more is how the system is put together and the approach that was followed.

 

For example, some people purchase signal cables as if they were tone controls - they see cables as a means to add fullness or to add bass. They'll mix and match cables to tune their systems to their liking. There are others who look for cables that just get the heck out of the way - they seek cables that do the least harm at a given price point and they tend to stick with a single manufacturer and employ the same technology throughout. The former approach will produce unpredictable results - it becomes a crap shoot. But the latter approach will improve the odds that one ends up with a transparent system.

 

are the manufacturers of these cable selling proverbial "snake oil" on the less expensive end of their product line since they may not be "transparent" enough to reap any benefits in many systems.

 

No not at all.

 

A friend has a system wired with one of the more affordable wires in Nordost's Leif series - not very expensive stuff. He followed Nordost's directions and used Leif throughout - including power cords. I heard the difference the Nordost Blue Heaven USB cable made in his system and it almost gave me a whiplash. It was a HUGE improvement over a stock USB cable. And this was in a very, very modest system. "Everything matters" in this hobby and my friend got that. And as a result his system was far more transparent than a system that affordable has any right to sound.

 

Remember, i buy decent cables and feel there is value to them. I just have not heard sonic benefits from digital cables.

 

If a well-regarded USB cable didn't bring the same level of improvement as others have reported, I would look to the rest of the cabling (starting with the power cords) and try to find the weak link.

Digital:  Sonore opticalModule > Uptone EtherRegen > Shunyata Sigma Ethernet > Antipodes K30 > Shunyata Omega USB > Gustard X26pro DAC 

Amp & Speakers:  Spectral DMA-150mk2 > Aerial 10T

Foundation: Stillpoints Ultra, Shunyata Denali power conditioner, Shunyata Alpha and Delta power cords, Shunyata Alpha interconnect, Shunyata Sigma Ethernet, MIT Matrix HD60 speaker cables, ASC isothermal tube traps, Stillpoints Aperture panels

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I recently picked up a new usb cable that made a substantial difference in sound. Improvement was similar to a component upgrade. I don't claim to understand it but the change is there...for the better. Now I am looking at power cords.

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These cable discussions always turn out the same. Some hear a difference and some don't. I use Bekin usb cable in a short run and it's just fine. There is no scientific reason for fancy cables to do any better job in a short runs. I find it funny that those who hear a difference always find the more expensive cable the best.

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Some very good points by folks here. Here is my summary and take on this -

 

It all depends on -

* Is the USB device Async or not ? (nowadays I gather most are)

* Does the USB device use the DC supply from the USB connection ?

* Are there some extra buffer management/jitter suppression mechanisms implemented in the USB device ?

* How long is the cable ? (shorter the better or put it other way differences will be noticeable in longer runs of the cable)

* How transparent the system is ? If the distortion level in the system is high, the jitter artefacts are going to be relatively insignificant and so the effects of the USB cable will not be noticed.

* It is quite possible the pricier the cable better the performance. We have to accept many manufacturers are well qualified and know their subject. They put a premium on their better performing models, even though it might take only a few dollars more to build,

In terms of features of the cables here are my current requirements -

* Separate DC and signal runs (if your device uses the DC line)

* Shielding

* HIgh quality soldering/connectors

 

Personally, I believe (like Kelly) it is not worth spending that much on cables if your DAC or USB device is not at the high end of the spectrum. Even professional reviewers are claiming that they are unable to tell the difference say, between $100 cable and much pricier ones. So it might be worth taking a look at the system as a whole instead of getting OCD'ed on one segment of the chain.

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Or get a music server like the Sony HAP-Z1ES. No USB Cables required at all - the music is stored on the server! :)

I agree with you. To those people who believe that it is worth spending several hundred or even thousands of dollars on a usb cable set up a music server instead and completely eliminate the usb connection. This solution would probably be much cheaper in the long run. Then it would be impossible to have any "usb connection" issues sonic or otherwise.

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As for me, I heard major differences in performance between generic/entry level USB cables and much more expensive ones. I tried about 8 different cables and generally speaking, the performance of most of the cables, matched the prices. I ended up with the most expensive one. It was clearly and by a good margin, the best of the bunch. I am now considering to give a listen to a cable nearly twice his price.

 

I was using a fairly expensive AQ Diamond USB cable ($835 for the 1.5M in Canada) and switched to the cheaper Revelation Audio Dual Conduit (I think I paid $349 on the 'gon). To the OP's question, I find that USB cables sound dramatically different.

2012 MBP (OSX 10.11 and Amarra Symphony w/IRC)-> Revelation Dual Conduit USB -> Berkeley Alpha USB -> Verastarr Silver Signature AES -> Devialet D250-> Siltech 550L -> KEF 104/2 (Steve Nugent Custom).

 

Power conditioning Audience Adept AR2p -> Verastarr Grand Illusion, Siltech Explorer 270p and Crystal Cable Standard Diamond

Analog: VPI Classic 3, Sumiko Pearwood Celebration ii, Siltech 770i RCA

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In various USB threads, the Mapleshade Clearlink Plus has been acknowledged by several people as a "giant killer," at $135 besting pretty much anything else under $500. It also has a 15 or 30 day satisfaction guarantee. Makes it fairly simple to try it and send it back if you don't hear a significant improvement (give it a good 100 hours break-in; no need to have amp/speakers on, just put your collection on shuffle and let it go).

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 DAC -> Spectral DMC-12 & DMA-150 -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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In various USB threads, the Mapleshade Clearlink Plus has been acknowledged by several people as a "giant killer," at $135 besting pretty much anything else under $500. It also has a 15 or 30 day satisfaction guarantee. Makes it fairly simple to try it and send it back if you don't hear a significant improvement (give it a good 100 hours break-in; no need to have amp/speakers on, just put your collection on shuffle and let it go).

 

Last time I called them to order one of those, they were out of stock and back ordered. I asked the young lady when they would be available, and she told me that the owner's brother makes them in his garage when a sufficient number of orders come in, or when he feels like it, whichever comes first, so no ETA. This was not what I had hoped to hear.

I also have read that they are flimsy and tend to pick up extraneous noise. Any truth to that?

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I am unfortunately one of those persons who can hear differences between USB cables. I figure this is largely because I am using an Audiophilleo which draws 5v via the USB and seems to be profoundly affected by how it is powered.

 

In fact my interest in different USB cables is rather recent, and brought upon entirely due to the changes in sound quality I have heard from the Audiophilleo when it is powered directly from the computer, via a powered hub, battery, or via the IFI IUsb power supply.

 

After trying out a few boutique USB cables I am beginning to wonder if they are actually distorting the signal rather than improving upon it. Just by changing impedance or voltage you can introduce jitter and perhaps change the sound of some USB devices. Curiously enough it seems that a lot of the basic specs on some of the more common cables such as impedance values are not published.

 

To my ears there almost seems to be a similar characteristic in the sound among the better USB cables I have tried. Wouldn't it be wild if the improvements everyone thinks they hear are just some sort of sympathetic distortion? In my case I have found that I am generally not finding the changes made by more expensive cables better. There are differences it seems, but I do not think they are always genuine refinements.

 

I would love to see someone who knows what they are doing do some top to bottom measurements on all of these cables, there is something simple going on that everyone is missing it seems.

JRiver -> NAD M51 -> Questyle CMA800R -> HD800 - LCD-X

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In various USB threads, the Mapleshade Clearlink Plus has been acknowledged by several people as a "giant killer," at $135 besting pretty much anything else under $500. It also has a 15 or 30 day satisfaction guarantee. Makes it fairly simple to try it and send it back if you don't hear a significant improvement (give it a good 100 hours break-in; no need to have amp/speakers on, just put your collection on shuffle and let it go).

 

I have to second your comments about the Mapleshade Clearlink Plus, Jud. I tried it because of what you wrote about it previously and I've been meaning to thank you.

 

I wanted to wade into audiophile USB cables without spending a ridiculous amount, so I tried the Mapleshade and am very happy that I did. I found it to be clearly superior to the generic USB cable I'd been using. There is definitely a difference in the sound of USB cables.

 

Recently, my local dealer was kind enough to loan me the highly regarded Audioquest Diamond USB cable ($699), which I'd always been curious about. I was concerned by the dealer's confidence in the Diamond, thinking that I'd wind up spending the $699.

 

I was intrigued to find that the Diamond did sound different than the Mapleshade. The Diamond has more pronounced high frequencies, which to some ears will register as "better" sounding, particularly if your system could use a little air at the top. But I found myself preferring the Mapleshade. It offered a much more organic, musical presentation, in which the open, extended, and clear yet relaxed treble blended much better with the smoother and more present mids and superior bass - as compared to the Diamond.

 

So now, I'm very happy to be happy with this modestly priced audiophile USB cable.

 

Last time I called them to order one of those, they were out of stock and back ordered. I asked the young lady when they would be available, and she told me that the owner's brother makes them in his garage when a sufficient number of orders come in, or when he feels like it, whichever comes first, so no ETA. This was not what I had hoped to hear.

I also have read that they are flimsy and tend to pick up extraneous noise. Any truth to that?

 

The design of the Mapleshade is highly unusual - even to the eye. It doesn't even look like a USB cable, except for the connectors. The "flimsy" design (thin mesh sleeve and thin separated internal wiring) contributes to the sound - according to the manufacturer. You need to handle it with a bit more care than the average USB cable, but I have had zero issues with noise. Just great sound.

 

I'd give the cable a try. It's worth the wait.

Roon Server: Core i7-3770S, WS2012 + AO => HQP Server: Core, i7-9700K, HQPlayer OS => NAA: Celeron NUC, HQP NAA => ISO Regen with UltraCap LPS 1.2 => Mapleshade USB Cable => Lampizator L4 DSD-Only Balanced DAC Preamp => Blue Jeans Belden Balanced Cables => Mivera PurePower SE Amp => Magnepan 3.7i

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High-priced what ever USB cables are a complete waste of money unless your DAC is utter crap.

Well engineered DAC's will reject/suppress/filter out all noise unless it changes 0's into 1's.

 

Also, an USB -> AES3 converter is much more efficient in cleaning the signal, should you insist on keeping a crappy engineered DAC.

Promise Pegasus2 R6 12TB -> Thunderbolt2 ->
MacBook Pro M1 Pro -> Motu 8D -> AES/EBU ->
Genelec 5 x 8260A + 7271A sub
Genelec 8010 + 5040 sub

iPhone SE 2 ->  Sennheiser PXC 550 II
Blog: “Confessions of a DigiPhile” at http://www.computeraudiophile.com/blogs/digipete

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Well engineered DAC's will reject/suppress/filter out all noise unless it changes 0's into 1's.

 

Even good DACs struggle with noise from a USB cable as it is a conduit that couples AC mains with other noisy components on the same system. Bit flipping, changing 0 to 1 is so extreme, there's no output anyway and will most likely involve hardware failure.

AS Profile Equipment List        Say NO to MQA

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High-priced what ever USB cables are a complete waste of money unless your DAC is utter crap.

Well engineered DAC's will reject/suppress/filter out all noise unless it changes 0's into 1's.

 

Also, an USB -> AES3 converter is much more efficient in cleaning the signal, should you insist on keeping a crappy engineered DAC.

 

The utterly minute amounts of noise that register as jitter in a DAC chip would amaze you. ESS claims noise at a -140db level in the design of the SABRE DAC chip specifically in order to try to minimize (though not eliminate) jitter. Jitter of course has an effect without having to change 1s to 0s and vice versa.

 

If you ask the actual DAC designers rather than reading material from their marketing departments, they will tell you how tremendously difficult it is to make a DAC immune to noise.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 DAC -> Spectral DMC-12 & DMA-150 -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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High-priced what ever USB cables are a complete waste of money unless your DAC is utter crap.

Well engineered DAC's will reject/suppress/filter out all noise unless it changes 0's into 1's.

 

Also, an USB -> AES3 converter is much more efficient in cleaning the signal, should you insist on keeping a crappy engineered DAC.

 

I've owned and auditioned some of the most highly regarded DAC's out there and there's no question that (properly functioning) USB cables don't all sound the same. It was worth it to me to try the Mapleshade at $135 (with the option to return it, of course) to see if I could hear *any* difference. I can.

 

Whether any cable is worth $700 to thousands of dollars is a matter of opinion and a separate discussion, but if you're saying that they don't make a difference, I strongly disagree.

Roon Server: Core i7-3770S, WS2012 + AO => HQP Server: Core, i7-9700K, HQPlayer OS => NAA: Celeron NUC, HQP NAA => ISO Regen with UltraCap LPS 1.2 => Mapleshade USB Cable => Lampizator L4 DSD-Only Balanced DAC Preamp => Blue Jeans Belden Balanced Cables => Mivera PurePower SE Amp => Magnepan 3.7i

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Last time I called them to order one of those, they were out of stock and back ordered. I asked the young lady when they would be available, and she told me that the owner's brother makes them in his garage when a sufficient number of orders come in, or when he feels like it, whichever comes first, so no ETA. This was not what I had hoped to hear.

I also have read that they are flimsy and tend to pick up extraneous noise. Any truth to that?

 

The thing about noise sounds like someone seeing a lack of the usual shielding and speculating. I've never had the least problem.

 

Re flimsy, if you are sensible enough to follow the directions and not grab the cord in the middle to try to yank the end out of your DAC or computer, you should be fine. I have a laptop that's used for many things besides music, so the Mapleshade gets plugged in and pulled out daily or more often. After a year or more of this, no problem.

One never knows, do one? - Fats Waller

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. - Einstein

Computer, Audirvana -> optical to EtherREGEN -> microRendu -> ISO Regen -> Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 DAC -> Spectral DMC-12 & DMA-150 -> Vandersteen 3A Signature.

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