We are all familiar with the humble USB cable. It charges our phones, connects our printers and other personal devices. It is a fairly versatile protocol, and the various uses for USB are vast. it even connects medical peripherals, enabling potentially life saving scans and diagnoses to be performed anywhere. But its’ greatest feat (in my mind, at least) is transmitting audio to High Fidelity sound systems. Beyond passing audio along to other devices, it also passes data – like metadata (track names, album title, artists, etc.) and technologies like MQA that aim to fix timing issues that arrive during the digitization process. There is a lot of talk and differing opinions on the pros and cons of USB Audio, but I can’t think of a more versatile, or game changing technology to have hit the market since MP3’s brought us file based audio in 1998. SPDIF and its derivatives are still in use for transmitting audio to DACs, but USB cables deliver Hi-Res audio at higher bit-rates and incorporate new technologies (like MQA). If you haven’t heard of or aren’t familiar with the magical world of DAC’s (Digital to Analog Converter), read more about them here.
USB cables today can cost anywhere from $10 to $10,000. They are typically copper wires with two parts, the data lines and the power lines. There wasn’t much to see here until the audio guys got hold of it. When USB became a viable method of transferring music, suddenly, every single piece of the construction of a USB cable mattered. Now you can find cables made from pure gold, silver, rhodium, and we bet any number of other rare earth metals are currently in testing to find their sonic capabilities. Making audio components is in effect a lot like the memorable part of the Hippocratic oath: Do No Harm. The art and aim of high fidelity audio manufacturing is creating a component that faithfully moves the music through your system with absolute transparency. Audience and WireWorld are two examples of companies that know what they are doing when it comes to making extreme performance cabling. Their products are backed by science and thousands of hours of R&D. We own them, we revere them, we use them. Every day.
But it’s just bit and bytes!
It isn’t. This is a divisive topic, but we will weigh in with our practical experience. Any number of bad things can happen to the digital signal on its way down the cable to its destination. Electromagnetic and Radio Frequency Interference can degrade the signal, and therefore the sound. This can happen by running power cables next to USB cables, daisy chaining USB cables through hubs, running it across other equipment and etc. Audiophile USB cable makers mostly use pure copper (some even go with silver), high grade shielding and top end connectors to maintain the integrity of the signal from end to end. So it isn’t just bits and bytes, and I pity anyone who says they can’t hear a difference. Some might be unwilling to accept the cost of costly cables and so ridicule those who subscribe to the idea of high end cables of any type. I used to be in the ‘just bits and bytes’ camp, but then again, at that time I had only middling hardware, and as the quality and sensitivity of my equipment grew, the differences between no-name copper and good design became a giant chasm. But don’t take my word for it, or even your buddy across town who proudly declares his lamp wire the best he’s ever used. Listen for yourself.
Back to the future
You might have noticed that all of the cables and technologies being referenced are USB 2.0 while out in the world USB 3.0, and even 3.1 Type C are the hot items in use and in stores today. We’ve been conditioned with technology to think that if is older, it is somehow less good. That’s not the case here. USB 2.0 can push a theoretical maximum of 480 Megabits (60MBps) per second, and though the reality is more like 30-40MBps, 30-40 is plenty of bandwidth to push even multi-channel Hi Res audio to your system. Check with your Receiver/Amplifier manufacturer to see if you have the capability to use USB audio with your system as it sits now. If you can’t utilize USB, consider purchasing a DAC next, and be amazed by just how much better your system can sound.Choosing the right cable is an important step. USB and HDMI cables are what connect your the Wolf to the rest of your system, and having the right cables can make a world of difference.
Price and performance are, and even aesthetics can be major factors in your decision of which cable to buy. Here are some ground rules that we think should help to get you started.
1. Do NOT buy a USB cable from a big box store. The hype is strong, but the results speak for themselves. Avoid at all costs. They may claim to be beasts or monsters, but they are just critters.
2. Talk to a reputable audio shop about your current component setup and any purchases you would like to make down the road. Their experience can steer you in the right direction.
3. Read reviews. Look for cables that were tested with gear similar to your own setup. We can’t eliminate all variables, but we can get a fairly close approximation and develop realistic expectations through research.
4. Don’t overspend. If your amplifier costs $800 and your speakers $500, plan to spend a max of $200 on your cable. You will not hear any benefit from a $1000 cable. It would be analogous to putting a racing spoiler on a ’73 Pinto.
That being said, we will offer a shortcut. Audience of San Marcos, CA and WireWorld of Florida make some really great products at fantastic price points. I will happily tell you that I use Audience USB, Speaker Cables, Power Cables, and Power Conditioners. I have used WireWorld’s USB and HDMI (so far, but more on that later) We have tried other companies products, but the build quality of Audience’s cables and copper is a lot better than cables at much higher price points. In fact, we worked with Audience in our research into power-line and data efficiency and incorporated their copper into our products. That is a pretty big vote of confidence if you ask us.