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 better for me to connect my E17K to my laptop with the USB cable than it is to use a double-ended jack cable plugged into the auxiliary input of the DAC. 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 do have a pair of Logitech USB headphones (H330), but the earpieces don’t produce especially good sound. The signal from the laptop may be better, but if it’s not being played through better kit, it doesn’t matter. ¶ I should add as an aside that that particular pair of headphones are designed for Internet telephony, but at the time it seemed that everything was going USB.
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.
Bluetooth seems ridiculously overrated beyond very short distances and direct lines of sight between the transmitter and receiver. It gets rid of real cables, but there are still the limits of 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 three of my DACs use it; a number of speakers I own (even the three Bluetooth ones) use it (and the rest use RCA cables). Such cables can be used across several devices unlike Apple’s lightning cable which is one of those annoy proprietorial connections.
Perhaps 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.
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 solution.
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 cable, 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 recently added a 3.5mm male-to-male Philips cable to my collection. 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 my attempt to use WeChat to pay for stuff from JingDong, which sad to say didn’t work (only works with credit cards?), but I got the cable (CoD) anyway. Sad to say again, the collar on the cable doesn’t fit the sock on the MDRs.
My other recent purchase 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, 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. It doesn’t appear to affect the quality of the sound, and this cable combined with the Philips one produced acceptable results.
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.
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 something 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.
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.