Hapa Ember USB Cables Listening Tests September 23 & 26, 2021
My writings are known to trigger TLDR, for the summary skip to last paragraph.
• Media server ASUS motherboard Win10 JRiver Media Center 28 and Lenovo laptop + JRiver
• DACs Soekris Engineering discrete R-2R dam1941 and PS Audio Gain Cell DAC
• Preamp PS Audio Gain Cell DAC
• Electronic crossover Marchand Electronics Inc. (https://www.marchandelec.com/index.html
• Amps Audio Crafters Guild 2A3 SET (driving ribbons) 1000 series (driving woofers)
• Speakers Audio Crafters Guild Fi16vx Purifi Neo 3 prototype bi-amplified configuration
In the long week the Hapa Audio Ember and its iFi iSilencer+ and iPurifer3 dongle mates were in my system the first weekend and Monday through Wednesday were lost to family obligations and then a head cold that cost me three days of work. Before the bug took me out I did do some preliminary listening and begun to get a handle on the cable. Fortunately by midweek I had the bug in retreat for Thursday HiFi Night. Most Thursdays Leo, Michael, and I get together for Bar-B-Q then onto my house for HiFi and music. With Ember in the house the 23rd was listening to USB cables for maximum audio nerd geekout. For the Thursday session the Soekris dam1941 was used. For a long follow up solo session on Sunday I switched to the PS Gain Cell DAC.
Thursday HiFi Night September 23 with Michael L and Leo M
Single blind listening session, Norman knows cable identities, Michael and Leo just told ‘A’ & ‘B’. The following notes I have changed ‘A’ & ‘B’ to the cable’s names, while listening and discussing we used ‘A’ & ‘B’. We listened to the track or tracks noted on both cables then discussed. ‘A’ & ‘B’ took turns going first for each comparison. Cable swaps were fairly quick although in one case the PC had to be rebooted when USB plug-n-play (plug-n-pray) left it Windows befuddled and unable to detect DAC.
A – LH Labs
B – Hapa Audio Ember and its iFi iSilencer+ (iPurifer3 added after single blind sessions)Hapa Audio Ember with iFi iSilencer+ and iPurifer3E-MU (clear jacket) and LH Labs (yellow jacket)
Bluette by The Dave Brubeck Quartet on Time Further Out 44.1k/16 bit
April in Paris by Thelonious Monk on Genius of Modern Music Volume 1 44.1k/16 bit
Mike – LH Lab smoother, not as bright, more full bodied, preferred for extended listening due to less bright. Ember is brighter, cleaner and more detailed, notes more distinct but with less body. Ember has brightness bordering on cringe factor.
Norman - Ember is more filigreed and open compared to LH Labs.
Leo – No comment on this round.
Singing Winds, Crying Beasts by Santana on Abraxas DSD
Norman - LH Labs is quite good, but I prefer Ember as it is more transparent presents more detail with musical lines better teased apart. All the tiny percussion details this track is a go-to for are better delineated by the Ember. Ember has a more ‘wide screen’ presentation of imaging.
Leo - Preferred the Ember cable also saying instruments better delineated and separated apart.
Mike – The Ember is more detailed than LH Lab with the airy details better reproduced by Ember. Neither was at all harsh.
Copland by Eiji Oue on Reference Recordings, Appalachian Spring Suite (~first 12 minutes)
Listened to B (Ember) first then A (LH Lab).
Norman - It’s subtle but am I hearing the ‘fuller’ sound with LH Lab that Mike mentioned in first track? Remains that to me LH Lab sounds more closed down and ‘sat on’ (whatever that means!) than Ember. LH Lab does a very good job with the deep bass around 12 minutes.
Mike – Ember is cleaner and more detailed with the really light ethereal passages the Ember just floated in the ether with greater emotional reaction. LH Lab’s heavier reproduction pulled it down to be more anchored and failed to ‘float’ as this ethereal passage should. The passages with bass drum Ember had plenty of clean articulate bass while LH Lab’s bass was a little bloated and smeared not as clean and detailed. On this cut prefers Ember by a wide margin, now Ember is pick despite its slight harness or hint that it might get harsh with the jazz cuts.
Leo - Preferred Ember for the lighter presentation, better instrumental separation throughout with a better ‘spring tone’. Ember did a better job of conveying the idea of ‘spring’. LH Lab was ‘ok’ and workmanlike but failed to convey the soul of the music. Both Mike and Leo agree LH Lab sounded a little louder.
Revealed identities of A & B, discussed.
Added iFi iPurifier3 to Hapa Ember plus iFi iSilencer+ then re-listened to some of Appalachian Spring Suite & then Singing Winds, Crying Beasts.
Norman with iPurifier3 added detail and emotional impact consistent with lower jitter levels. On Copland Mike heard less detail while Leo remarked it was easier to hear that different instruments were playing as a chorus. On Santana Norman enjoyed the transparency and PRAT, Mike thinks while louder on my dam1941 DAC it took away some of the nuance while sounding louder. Leo heard a bit of a haze added with iPurifier3.
Sunday September 26, Norman’s solo listening, first test Ember vs Emu clear.
Hapa Audio Ember with iFi dongles vs EMU clear
Copland by Eiji Oue on Reference Recordings, Appalachian Spring Suite (full suite)
St.James Infirmary by Hugh Laurie off Let Them Talk
Emu clear first, then Ember, level 35, driver PS Audio WASAPI
The Emu is no slouch, surprising detail and bass depth. Left wondering ‘haven’t I heard this track before with greater inner detail and instrumental textures?’ With Ember+iFi stack that inner detail was present along with better more defined bass transit leading edges and PRAT.
Armageddon by Wayne Shorter off The Music of Wayne Shorter by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra 96k 24 bit
Ember first, then Emu, level 32, driver PS Audio WASAPI
Close but the Ember brings greater presence to Wynton’s solo and again drum hits exhibit greater definition and ‘snap’. Could the Ember be held back by using front panel USB port while Emu gets direct to motherboard connection on back side of media server?
Indus by Dead Can Dance off Spiritchaser 44.1k/16 bit
Emu clear first, then Ember (rear plug), level 40, driver PS Audio WASAPI
With source USB port equalized the delta between Emu clear and Ember + iFi stack is greater. It’s a cliché but from the first minute with Ember in path sound was immediately clearer, cleaner and more spacious. The dark foreboding that is present throughout the track is more apparent. The kaleidoscope of indigenous and strange unknown instruments in use are reproduced in greater relief and the deep deep DEEP bass flourishes that make this an audiophile go-to do their best to pressurize the room. Thrilling compared to the more curtailed and ‘sat on’ reproduction when Emu is in the signal path.
Maazo Maazo, Enter Ye the Mystery School, Ave Verum by Jon Anderson off Toltec 44.1k/16 bit
Ember first, then Emu, level 40, driver PS Audio WASAPI
The subtleties Jon Anderson and Chief Ernie Longwalker’s ‘Toltec’ is full of make an ideal palette to demonstrate how the small differences an advanced USB cable bring can make a disproportionate difference to the listening experience. With Ember in use during the children’s’ choir singing “Maazo Maazo” (which never fails to melt my heart) I noticed deep in the mix an adult (Chief Longwalker?) can be heard occasionally adding a ‘Yeee’ exclamation. This was both more noticeable and it was placed as if he was standing behind the choir adding his joyous reaction to the moment. Then as “Enter Ye the Mystery School” starts and the sounds layer on and build and grow. Well this is an audiophile cliché but it really happened I looked down as the Goosebumps moment happened and all the hairs on my forearms stood up. To me this signals one is having a psychological reaction beneath the intellectual aspect of music listening. Personally I count that as a good thing. These three tracks are also an audiophile prog-rock treat because they feature some nice DEEP bass flourishes and again the Ember showed with bass where both depth and definition are desired it’s a great tool to bring.
Sunday September 26, Norman’s solo listening, second test Ember with and without iFi dongles.
Johanna, Not A Day Goes By, Being Alive, and Move On by Bernadette Peters off her Live at Carnegie Hall album 44.1k/16 bit.
If you follow the American Musical Theater you are certainly aware of the monumental partnership between Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters. The second half of her Carnegie Hall concert Ms Peters dedicates to Sondheim after asking him to stand to thunderous applause. This playlist is all Sondheim and when properly reproduced should be full of both the technical perfection that is Bernadette Peters’s instrument and the love she feels to her collaborator. As a audiophile bonus the concert features full orchestration backing Ms Peters.
As a baseline I listened to the Sondheim play list on the Emu clear. Then again with the full iFi iSilencer+ - Ember cable – iPurifier3 stack in place. The by now familiar increases in detail, air, were apparent. I also noticed when Ms Peters introduced a song or later Stephen Sondheim while she spoke the traces of the sound of Carnegie Hall’s reverb bouncing back into the vocal mic was more apparent. Another gain specific to this type of music was when she hit the high notes at the top of her range with that ‘show stopping’ energy and intensity the sound was naturally sharp and intense while not being piercing or harsh.
Next removed the iPurifier3 leaving just the iSilencer+ - Ember cable in place. As the playlist started with Johanna it was soon apparent in this situation I much preferred the simplified signal path. At this point we are considering tiny changes, but the emotional impact was greater with the iPurifier3 removed. Enjoying the rest of the play list was just an exercise in joy and bliss.
Final configuration test using the Ember cable alone was over quickly. Without the iSilencer+ in the USB signal path the Win10 media server would not detect the PS Audio’s USB DAC had been connected.
Sunday September 26, Norman’s solo listening, third test Ember with and without iFi dongles between laptop and PS Audio’s USB DAC. Now late at night Meze 99 Classic headphones driven by Gain Cell DAC.
Armageddon by Wayne Shorter off The Music of Wayne Shorter by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra 96k 24 bit
Baseline LH Lab USB cable then onto full iFi iSilencer+ - Ember cable – iPurifier3 stack. Ember and friends improved high frequency definition, bass instrument definition, inner details and PRAT. The multiple colors of the jazz orchestra stand out in better contrast.
Removed iPurifier3 leaving iSilencer+ - Ember cable in place. Preferred to previous configuration due to more subtle contrasts between instruments’ colors and textures. Like a display when the black levels and color temperatures are perfectly set this reproduction was simultaneously less flashy yet with greater contrast and natural detail.
Final configuration test using the Ember cable alone again was over quickly. Without the iSilencer+ in the USB signal path the laptop would not detect the PS Audio’s USB DAC had been connected.
After sending the Ember onto the next tour participant I contacted Hapa about the connection issues using Ember without iSilencer+. They are aware of this issue one of those that arise when a new product goes to market. Apparently this is unique to the 1.5 meter length as used for this tour and only with some combinations of USB source and DAC.
I will admit to signing onto this tour to explore the effect of USB cables on my system’s performance at its present state of development. The answer is when listening intently the quality of the USB cable can have a small effect but in the context of the high-end HiFi pursuit the small icing on the cake changes tend to make an outsized difference. It was interesting as my friends and I zeroed in on the changes brought by different cables and how a consensus developed. That consensus unanimously favored the Ember making it an easy recommendation.