Cables vs. other things

There is something to be said for universality. The 3.5mm jack plug is fairly universal. Is there something better? Perhaps. I assume that it’s probably better for me to connect DACs to my laptops with the USB cables than it is to use an analogue connection. Is there a noticeable difference in the quality of the sound from using a USB cable? Probably not, although I’m sure there are machines which can produce graphs that show the sound improves.

I thought that USB might replace the 3.5mm jack plug, but it never has, being typically confined to the function of supplying power rather than data. In fact, I believe I have more USB lights than pieces of sound equipment. In addition to this, there has been talk about USB C displacing the traditional 3.5mm connection. Paint me sceptical, but I somehow doubt that’s going to be happening any time soon. As far as the phone crowd go, Bluetooth has won that battle.

Bluetooth seems ridiculously overrated beyond very short distances and direct lines of sight between the transmitter and receiver. It may get rid of real cables, but there are still the limits on virtual ones, and the effects of walls which can so easily disrupt the signal. My X300 Bluetooth speaker can pick up the signal from my iPod Touch from the bedroom so long as it’s outside the door to the study, but once it’s in here, the signal either splutters or dies.

The removal of the 3.5mm socket from the iPhone 7 is worrisome if everyone else follows Apple in assuming that the 3.5mm jack plug is passé. As I said at the top of the post, the 3.5mm jack plug is still fairly universal. All of my DACs use it; a number of speakers I own (even the three Bluetooth ones) use it (and the rest use RCA cables). My Huawei Honour 9 has one alongside a USB C socket. Analogue cables can be used across several devices unlike Apple’s lightning cable which is one of those annoying proprietorial connections.

Perhaps, as I said above, the 3.5mm jack plug doesn’t transmit the best sound, but at what point does better sound cross over from reality to marketing to the gullible? My Sony MDR-1aDAC headphones have both 3.5mm and various digital connections, but an unscientific test with my iPod Touch doesn’t have me leaping out of my seat when I switch from analogue to digital. Frankly, it’s all electronic. The musicons (which are music-bearing particles [Really? –ed.]) travel along the metallons (which make up the wire; this is scientific fact [In whose delusional world? –ed.]) to the metal connector (also made of metallons; I’m sure I saw this on Wikipedia) whether you’re using a jack cable or a lightning one. Again, if there is a difference, I aver that it’s only something a machine could distinguish. Well, that or one of those people who like to imagine they can hear the difference.

Apart from hardware failure, I expect to be using my current range of kit for a long time to come, 3.5mm jack plugs and all.

Cables and connectors.

My dealings with cables began with the splitter which came with the H5s. Noticing that the sound from the right-hand speaker had been fading, I traced the fault to the splitter. My attempt to get a replacement led to first, a second-rate Y splitter and then a female-to-female RCA-to-3.5mm cable, with the gap being breached by a double-ended 3.5mm cable. I wanted a “clean” solution (i.e., a single cable) instead of some hybrid answer.

Having signed up to JingDong, which started in electronics and now flogs all manner of gear in competition with, say, TaoBao, I bought a Vention cable that seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately, the RCA sockets are recessed, which meant that the cable didn’t connect well with the RCA cables from the H5s, and I brief had to revert to the old solution. Besides, the Vention cable is very short. I replaced that with a Choseal one, which was rather cheap, but which bridges the gap between the speakers and the laptop much better because of the length of the cables. (Ironically, the female-to-female cable I mentioned above was, I recently dis­covered, also Choseal). ¶ This latter cable is quite useful because I can use it to connect my headphones to my DVD player. Initially, it was in place of a male RCA to male 3.5mm jack plug.

I also bought a 3.5-to-3.5mm Vention cable, bound in cotton. Now, 3.5-to-3.5mm cables are two-a-penny things and I can count in my head about ten of them in my possession, but I wanted something nice, with a nice feel. Yes, lambast me for my shallowness. A cotton-wrapped cable is much more flexible than some plas­tic coated thing which seems forever stuck with its original bends.

To go with that, I also bought male-to-male RCA-to-3.5mm cable, also bound in cotton which has that same pleasant texture. The quality of sound transmission is most acceptable.

I added a 3.5mm male-to-male Philips cable to my collection (SWA5511/93B). There were two reasons behind this. One was the MDR-1A headphones, which have an analogue cable with a collar at the base of the plug. With­out the collar an ordinary 3.5mm jack plug will slide straight out. I discovered, though, that one of the Ven­tion cables does fit the socket because it has a collar, which had me wondering about getting a somewhat better cable to use with those headphones. The other half of this story was a different method of payment so that I wasn’t limited to gear which was solely CoD.

Thanks to WeChat pay, the whole CoD business is history, and I was able to buy a Vention P460AC-H150 3.5mm male-to-male cable with a collar that actually fits the socket of the 1As. It’s not an entirely snug connection, but it does work, and the cable is a good deal better than the flimsy thing that Sony provides with the headphones.

I should also point out that both cables fit perfectly with my Audio-Technica MSR7s. Score one for Audio-Technica.

Another purchase which was contemporary with the preceding one was one of those so-called pro audio cables (15cm), 3.5mm, male-to-male. This one was listed on JingDong among the entries for ifi gear, but what piqued my curiosity was the branding – it said Audioquest. I am reasonably familiar with their range of cables, but had never seen such a cable among their lineup. What I got appears to be an cable manufactured by Aune, quite possibly something which has been sitting around in some grubby warehouse in Guangdong because the metal around the collar was tarnished and the coating on the plug is incomplete. It doesn’t appear to affect the quality of the sound, but you only have to wiggle it slightly to get crackling in the signal.

There’s another cable in this lineup which has the Sennheiser brand name. On the pages specific to both cables is a certificate of AVTHORITR [sic!] and a statement in Chinese assuring customers they’re getting the real deal. Paint me duly suspicious and sceptical.

I’ve now partly replaced the fake cable with a proper one, the FiiO L17, which is a short, pro audio cable with L-connectors, which sits snugly in my pocket when I have it connected to the HA-2 SE. Does it enhance the sound? Possibly even if I am a bit of a sceptic about the efficacy of cables.

SPDIF

Having bought an ifi micro BL, I find myself wondering about SPDIF and what the point is. I think every DVD player I’ve ever owned has had a SPDIF connection (and a toslink one), and yet that’s it. The E17K has a SPDIF adaptor, which is meant to offer a sample rate of up to 192Khz, but I’ll probably never hear music through it at that level. If I had to judge this sort of connection, I’d say it’s zombie tech because Sony and Philips decided that they had something better (or more likely, licensing fees fluttered before their eyes) which has never gone anywhere. I have a way of using it, I have tried it, but it appears to offer no real advantages. 3.5mm jack plugs and RCA seem to be entirely adequate.

Better sound?

I’m not a big believer in the efficacy of cables. I suspect that the cables produced by Audioquest are merely expensive without necessarily producing any audible difference over stock cables. My purchase of the cables above was pure indulgence, and the 3.5-to-3.5mm cable produces no better sound than the Edifier cable which, I think, came with the Aurora speakers. Mind you, that said, a single cable sounds better than linking together cables with 3.5mm plugs and the appropriate male and female RCA connections. Yes, I did it for a laugh, but the sound from my iPod was less clear.

I’ll make this observation. Which cables are best for your system? A Nordost cable costing £5,499 (no, I’m not kidding; there is one that does cost that much) isn’t going to make my P3s sound 32x better. In fact, the Choseal cable connecting the P3s to my FiiO K5 cost (at current rates of exchange) £2.76. Do the P3s sound horrible because the cable is 1/1922nd the value of the Nordost cable? No. Would a more expensive cable result in audibly better sound? I very much doubt it.

My next question is if your audio gear costs X, how much is it worth spending on cables? Can such a figure even be quantified? Let’s say I bought a Chord Dave (£7,995) and wanted to connect it with the Nordost cables. In equivalent terms, that would be like me spending ¥850 to ¥1450 on cables for the E17K or the HA-2 SE, which seems a trifle excessive.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.

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