Listening to audio is a subjective experience. But we all have one thing in common: we all want the best listening experience possible. Some of us are music purists and for them cables are an important component of a HiFi sound system. AudioQuest is one of the suppliers of some of the best performing cables available. They also carry digital interconnects in their product range. I tested two USB cables that are supposed to improve sound and open up the soundstage in a digital audio setup: the Cinnamon and Carbon cables. The sceptic that I am, I was in for a surprise.
You would think — I did — that a USB interconnect between your DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) and computer only carries bits having zero effect on sound quality, but cable manufacturers and audiophiles want to convince you that’s wrong. Even Apogee Electronics, the makers of digital recording (ADC/DAC) equipment such as Duet and Symphony, has a white paper explaining that for USB audio “speed” is crucial as time relationships within a digital stream are critical to the reconstruction of the analogue wave form that brings the sound into the analogue world.
Time-based “damage”, also known as “jitter”, negatively affects the experience of sound by making it sound flat, small, harsh and “foggy”. Your DAC — even an inexpensive one — has a USB chip on board that will correct for data loss (loss of the actual bits), but it’s the computer’s and DAC’s internal “word clock” that must prevent jitter from corrupting the timing. That’s easier said than done and Apogee has even developed an expensive rack-sized device, Big Ben, specifically for the purpose. Big Ben is a word clock that takes care of jitter when recording audio and it too uses a special cable to ensure no jitter is introduced along the way.
When playing audio, however, you’re depending on the DAC and the computer’s clock to avoid jitter. But because your DAC is connected to your computer via a cable, the cable itself can have an effect as well. That’s where audio-quality USB cables such as the AudioQuest Cinnamon and Carbon come into play. AudioQuest has even higher-end cables with a “Dielectric-Bias System”, a patented system to “create a strong, stable electrostatic field which saturates and polarises (organises) the molecules of the insulation to minimise both energy storage in the insulation and the multiple nonlinear time-delays that occur.” However, I specifically asked AudioQuest to provide me with only “mainstream” cables as that’s what most people will ultimately buy. AudioQuest’s high-end system may have won Awards, but at the end of the day, these cables are too expensive for anyone to buy but audiophiles.
My target audience — you, the reader — for this article was to be the audio enthusiast who is prepared to pay a premium but not any premium. In that respect, the Cinnamon and Carbon cables were the obvious candidates for a review. The AudioQuest Cinnamon cable has solid silver-plated conductors to eliminate inter-strand distortion and digital audio conductors controlled for direction. In addition, the AudioQuest Carbon cable has silver-plated contacts for minimum distortion.
The technologies used in these cables should ensure a better listening experience by preventing them to pick up time-delaying energy from outside the cable. I wanted to know whether these cables would make a clearly audible difference. Not by measuring with scopes — I’m sure they’ll perform better on a technical level than a five cents Chinese cable — but by listening to the music I’ve been playing for over a decade using several DACs and cables (including Musical Fidelity, Audioquest’s DragonFly AudioEngine and the Apogee Duet FireWire and iPad/Mac on the DAC side as well as interconnects from QED to Supra and Van den Hul).
After having listened to a dozen of my most played CDs with different USB cables one after the other, I cannot but conclude that an audio-quality USB cable does make a difference — no matter how odd that may seem. I started with the Cinnamon cable, which is the cheapest of the two. The Cinnamon uses a lower percentage of silver and no silver-plated contacts. I could hear a difference between the Cinnamon cable and the stock USB cable I used before, but the difference wasn’t clear-cut — let’s say it confirmed my scepticism in that I thought the difference was to be purely psychological.
But then I tried the Carbon cable and there was no denying: the difference was a lot more outspoken — to be frank even between Cinnamon and Carbon. With the Carbon USB cable the music was more detailed, there was a slight increase in bass in some recordings and the sound was more balanced with less harsh treble. In Beethoven’s sixth I could stage instruments as when I was listening with my Denon CD-player in the nineties.
All that transparency and balance magically disappeared when I changed cables back to the stock one again. The Cinnamon cable was better than the free stock cable, but transparency and sound stage differences were much less audible.
I’m no longer a sceptic because the difference was too obvious, but if you’re going to buy a better cable anyway, I would recommend the Carbon USB cable above the Cinnamon.