USB Cable Shootout

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JLM

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USB Cable Shootout
« on: 15 Jun 2015, 01:24 am »
As a retirement present wifey put money towards a laptop (after quickly deciding a tablet wouldn’t support my plans to do part-time consulting).  As I’d bought an iMac the year before to support moving to computer based audio, the natural solution (as it was on sale) was a MacBook Air with 4 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD, left USB, and right USB ports.

My mancave is 8 ft x 13 ft x 21 ft with the front dedicated to audio and the back to my office (where the iMac is located).  Unfortunately that leaves 30+ feet to stretch a connection from the iMac to the audio rack.  But thanks to Monoprice, their $6, 35 ft optical cable has done the trick with nary an operational glitch.  However it’s not terribly convenient to get out of my listening chair to access the iMac in the back of the room and I fretted about sound quality.

So the plan is to run the audio off the MacBook (thanks to a rather small music library everything still fits on the 256 GB SSD) that I can still use from my listening chair for other applications.  This spring I picked up my first USB DAC, an Emotiva DC-1.  I’d looked at better DAC/pre/headphone amps, from Oppo HA-1 up to Benchmark DAC2, but when I realized that I really didn’t need DSD or DXD I saved thousands and dropped down to something the otherwise functional (and according to the blue collar reviews - sonically) equivalent.

Overall I have a simple system (detailed in the systems section).  The room and nearfield speaker/listening position layout is ala Cardas.  It is well insulated with a good HVAC/electrical design.  Six GIK 244 panels are set up at first side wall and front wall locations as well as in the front corners.  Channel Island Audio D-100 (original) 100 watt monoblocks feed large single driver transmission line floor-standers (the raw Fostex F200A drivers are rated 30 – 20,000 Hz).

Anyway, being my first USB audio foray I did some homework, including asking for advice here at Audio Circle (thanks again) and ended up doing an in-home comparison.  Wanting to keep the cable price inline with the Emotiva I limited my cable budget to $300.  My other constraint is still cable length: a 3 meter/10 foot cable is needed to reach from listening chair to the rack.

It came down to 9 cables: a 10 ft “Cables To Go” data cable (borrowed from a friend); Blue Jean (so cheap I splurged and for $14 got the 6 ft, 10 ft, and 15 ft cables, delivered); Straight Wire 3 meter USB and USBF (F stands for filter); and thanks to the Cable Company and their lending library 2-meter Cardas Clear, 1.5-meter Shunyata Venom, and 2-meter Voodoo Magic Buss (at their recommendation).  The Straight Wire was based on homework and AC recommendations.

There were three rounds of testing: first to see if they worked (duh), secondly to narrow the field based on sonics with a final round to select the best (to my ears on my system).  Three of the cables didn’t work: somehow the “Cable To Go” wouldn’t work on the left USB port on the MacBook (worked on the iMac); somehow the 10 ft Blue Jean wouldn’t work on the left USB port on the MacBook either (note that the Emotiva has a USB 2.0/1.1 adjustment and it did work on the 1.1 setting that is meant for legacy gear); and the Straight Wire USBF didn’t work on the iMac or left USB port on the MacBook and suffered dropouts on the right port.

After letting Straight Wire know about the problem with their cable, Steven Hill (President and Owner) called to discuss my results.  He mentioned that the filter is a “soft” filter and this shouldn’t be happening, so upon them receiving the cable back they gifted me their base 3 meter USB cable with the understanding that I’d get back to them on how the USB cable worked out.  Note that I had auditioned the USBF cable with nothing invested except the return shipping cost, thanks!!  Boy how I wish every company could function like that! 

I’d also like to thank the Cable Company for establishing their lending library.  It took a few weeks before all 3 cables were available and in the mean time the Straight Wire USB arrived, so I broke it in (not knowing how break-in affects USB cables or how much the Cable Company lender cables had been used).  Note also that I happened to catch a no deposit/no cost shipping (both ways) deal!

So that left 6 cables to compare sonics: Blue Jean 6 ft & 15 ft; 3-meter Straight Wire USB; 2-meter Cardas Clear; 1.5-meter Shunyata Venom; and 2-meter Voodoo Magic Buss.  I used short (2 – 6 minute) cuts from a variety of mostly modern recordings taken from 36 albums, all different artists, mostly jazz but included several female pop vocalists and some classical.  For round one I developed two rating schemes, a two or three comment summary and an overall audio enjoyment impression (great, good, so-so, and poor). 

The Cable Company recommended allowing each cable to “settle in” overnight with signal without physical movement, which I don’t understand but followed.  They also advised relaxing and listen to the music, “The right cable will maximize your system’s strengths and minimize it’s weaknesses.”  Obviously this couldn’t be a blind or double blind test, but with “settling in” such testing of this many cables would take a week and much help from others.

The results from round one: while the Shunyata, Voodoo, and Straight Wire had more positive attributes the overall the best two were Voodoo and Straight Wire; with Shunyata and the Blue Jean cables not far behind; and pulling in a solid last place was the Cardas.  Interestingly my initial impressions of the Cardas, Shunyata, and Voodoo cables would have exactly reversed the order of finish. 

Gleaning from my notes lack of horn harshness or lack there of, degrees of resolution, how forgiving of poorer recordings, the amounts of observable stridency/sibilance/shimmer, and of course overall enjoyment were the primary factors.  Also a major element was bass lightness, noting that I normally use EQ to replace baffle step circuits in my speakers (which I’ve pulled to have a more pure/direct connection between drivers and mono-blocks).

For round two (Voodoo Magic Buss versus Straight Wire USB) I chose 4 different albums/artists to represent pop/rock, older/classic jazz recordings, small ensemble classical, and larger classical genres and tested with and without EQ.  In a fairly close race the winner was Straight Wire USB with better dynamics, detail, and bass (with a list price of 1/3rd of the Voodoo).  The Voodoo comparatively sounded enclosed/dull, but exhibited more violin bite.  EQ made a more subtle difference than I would have guessed.


P.S.

While I wanted to like the Cardas (I do use their room and setup recommendations) they don’t offer a 3-meter length.  I have to admit to being cheap and already own the Straight Wire and Blue Jean cables.  And while the Shunyata appeared to be the beefest/best made cable, it was so stiff it would be a hassle in my 3-meter/laptop application.  Thanks again to the Cable Company and Straight Wire for their generous help.

Flinx99

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #1 on: 15 Jun 2015, 03:42 am »
Thanks for this.  I have been looking at upgrading my USB cable.

Zero

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #2 on: 15 Jun 2015, 05:55 am »
Thanks for taking the time to strum up a detailed comparison JLM.

JLM

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #3 on: 15 Jun 2015, 12:10 pm »
Good advice from The Cable Company: 

Relax and enjoy;

You are the expert of your own system;

Cables are passive and just help synergize the components; and

All results are local (your ears, your room, your gear).


Can't say any of the cable differences were huge or life changing, but for obsessive audio nuts it's worth comparing for yourself.

Bob2

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #4 on: 15 Jun 2015, 01:23 pm »
JLM,
thanks for reviewing the cables. I will probably be looking at USB fairly soon. My PC is showing it's age so the next upgrade will involve USB for music.
Bob2.

WGH

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #5 on: 15 Jun 2015, 01:30 pm »
In a fairly close race the winner was Straight Wire USB with better dynamics, detail, and bass...

Schiit Audio sells the 1 meter Pyst USB cable for $20, it is exactly the same as the 1m Straight Wire USB sold for $50, it even has "Straight Wire" printed on the ends like in the photo.
http://schiit.com/products/pyst-cables



Wayne

Phil A

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #6 on: 15 Jun 2015, 01:35 pm »
Thanks for all the info

mcgsxr

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #7 on: 15 Jun 2015, 01:37 pm »
It takes a lot of time to setup and test, and document etc.  Appreciate your sharing JLM.

Cool that you were able to select a piece that you like best.

bacobits1

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #8 on: 15 Jun 2015, 03:06 pm »
Thank You JLM very good info.
It does take a lot of time to do this.

ACHiPo

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #9 on: 18 Oct 2015, 02:17 pm »
Schiit Audio sells the 1 meter Pyst USB cable for $20, it is exactly the same as the 1m Straight Wire USB sold for $50, it even has "Straight Wire" printed on the ends like in the photo.
http://schiit.com/products/pyst-cables



Wayne
JLM,
Thanks for the great review!

Wayne,
Thanks for the tip on the Schiit cable!


bacobits1

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #10 on: 18 Oct 2015, 03:03 pm »
I finally settled on a well recommended 3 Meter Supra USB In my system sounds very nice for $69!
Right up my budget. Supra is one of the few that spec the cable at 90 ohms USB protocol.

ACHiPo

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #11 on: 23 Oct 2015, 12:51 pm »
Schiit Audio sells the 1 meter Pyst USB cable for $20, it is exactly the same as the 1m Straight Wire USB sold for $50, it even has "Straight Wire" printed on the ends like in the photo.
http://schiit.com/products/pyst-cables



Wayne

Well my cable arrived, and while it looks quite impressive, it doesn't work for some reason between my Aurender and Oppo 105, so I'm back to using the Belden Gold.  Does anyone know if Straightwire or Schiit does something weird to their USB like not include the 5V?

JLM

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #12 on: 24 Oct 2015, 03:00 pm »
Well I had 3 of 9 cables that suffered dropouts or wouldn't work, including the top of the line Straight Wire, but I was running up to 15 feet.  I've heard that USB cables can be "iffy".  Note that I didn't try replacements.

ACHiPo

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #13 on: 24 Oct 2015, 03:03 pm »
Well I had 3 of 9 cables that suffered dropouts or wouldn't work, including the top of the line Straight Wire, but I was running up to 15 feet.  I've heard that USB cables can be "iffy".  Note that I didn't try replacements.
This one is only 1m.  I'll play around with it this weekend, but it seems like I got a bad one.

JLM

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #14 on: 24 Oct 2015, 07:10 pm »
Lots of tiny wires, so it's possible.  Are you able to try it in different applications/sockets?

Jon L

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #15 on: 24 Oct 2015, 09:34 pm »
Just goes to show USB cables are just like other cables.  End result can depend heavily on the overall system balance and listener preferences.  :D

I have the Cardas Clear, a few reputable USB cables made of silver-plated copper (like Straight Wire USB), and pure silver (like Voodoo), and a bunch others, and in MY system, the Cardas Clear is a very nice-sounding, warm yet pure sounding cable..  Some of the silver-plated USB cables tend to render more apparent detail and bass punch but can be somewhat edgy with certain electronics/speakers.  Pure silver ones can sound very clear and smooth but can be not as rich or warm when matched with certain other components, etc, etc..

JLM

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #16 on: 25 Oct 2015, 07:30 pm »
The Cable Company says the same:  You are the expert of your system in your room.  YMMV

Starchild

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Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #17 on: 25 Oct 2015, 08:45 pm »
I'm using a YFS Reference data only USB cable to great effect.  If your dac doesn't need the 5v from your computer, it works great.

ACHiPo

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #18 on: 25 Oct 2015, 10:13 pm »
Star,
Unfortunately my DAC needs 5V.
AC

Johnny2Bad

Re: USB Cable Shootout
« Reply #19 on: Today at 01:51 pm »
If you are having issues with a certain port on a computer, you should try to ascertain whether the USB Bus is used for something else as well (shared).

On a Mac go to (Apple Icon; top leftmost) > About This Mac > [More Info] > [System Report] > Hardware > USB
With your audio device plugged in to a USB port and powered up you should see it in the list. Insure it's the only device listed on that bus; if not use another port until you find one that isn't shared. Apple's more expensive computers will have more independent buses and fewer shared ports (EG: with a MacBook Pro, there are no unpowered USB ports and each USB port is an independent bus).

You can also try the USB Prober Utility (download it from Apple) although it's a little hard to find. It provides even more info.

Windows PCs tend to have more shared buses and sometimes all the available USB ports are shared, so your only recourse is to not have anything else plugged into a USB port aside from your DAC. It boils down to cost (or cost cutting) so YMMV.

If you need to use an external drive (maybe your music is on one) it's best to use a FireWire or Lightning drive, as they are independent and self-managed (no CPU cycles required to function, unlike USB).