USB cable debate Awaste of time
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Author:  TubeDriver [ January 18th, 2019, 1:58 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

I hear differences between USB cables. There was an article published few years ago that tested various USB2 cables. They tested some cheap ones and some audiophile ones. Some of the cheap ones failed and were not USB2 compliant. What was more interesting was that a larger number of the $$$ audiophile cables were non-compliant. So this may well account for audible differences? The non-compliance measurements don't really explain why a cable that can't handle a full 60MB/s sounds different since audio requires far less but they do measure differently.

Author:  doug2761 [ February 5th, 2020, 10:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

Apologies for the long post. Writing a shorter one would have taken longer...

I've spent a lot of time over the past couple of months playing around with my new music server/streamer computer, new DAC, my old Squeezebox Touch, a variety of digital output methods (USB, coax, optical), Roon, JRiver, Squeeze Server, and a variety of audio file formats. I wrote briefly about this in another post earlier this year. From the experience I've reached a number of conclusions about computer audio that are relevant to this thread and for anyone spending far too much time worrying about this stuff. This may be old news to many of you but it was fun playing around first-hand.

The goal was to replace my Macbook Air with a headless computer but it got a bit bigger as I went along. I wound up replacing my built-in DAC on my McIntosh C48 with a Chord Qutest. The PC I built uses an Asus thin ITX board with a Celeron G1840 (2.8 GHz dual core 53w TDP) set up in a fan-less chassis using a 6TB USB drive for music storage. For grins I tossed in a Matrix Audio Element H USB 3.0 pcie card so that I could isolate USB output to the DAC from the rest of my computer. The board can be powered by an external power supply. I installed Windows 10 on the PC and for playback I installed JRiver 26, Roon, and Logitech Media Server. I really wanted to compare Roon and Jriver. Logitech came along when I was playing around with my old Squeezebox Touch.

Long story short, I can't hear any difference between USB output between the Matrix Audio board and the native USB 3.0 ports on Asus motherboard when playing the same music track. I also can't hear any difference between USB cables between Monster Cable, the unbranded USB 2.0 cable included in the Qutest, and a Blue Jeans USB 2.0 cable. The Monster cable was 6 feet, Blue Jeans 3.9 feet, and generic cable was 4 feet.

While I was at it I also bought a coax to BNC cable from Blue Jeans so that I could compare optical and coax SPDIF output from my old Squeezebox touch. I also installed a third party app on the Squeezebox that lets me use the USB port as an async USB output to my DAC. Now I have a set up that lets me compare coax, optical, and async USB into the Chord DAC using two different platforms although the PC is limited to only async USB.

Playing the same track over async USB, coax, and optical sounds the same to me through the Chord Qutest. There were times when I felt that coax was sounding better than optical on extended casual listening only to find out that had optical selected. The reverse sometimes happened too. To be clear, all delivery paths sound fantastic and with high def audio files each path is equally excellent.

With async USB I can hear no difference between USB from any of the PC USB ports, the Squeezebox touch (using the third party digital output app), or the legacy Macbook Air. Each sounds super good. I also can't hear a difference with the fancy Matrix Audio USB hub even if I'm powering from battery or any difference if I power the Qutest DAC from battery. I'm superstitious about the consistency of async USB so that's what I use for normal listening.

I initially noticed differences between JRiver, Roon, and Logitech MS but those differences went away once I made sure that I normalized how audio files were processed. Each app has its own view on how it wants to equalize sound levels. It not surprising that Roon sounded slightly better because it tended to playback with slightly higher sound levels. Once I turned off sound level equalization there was no longer any difference between playback software.

At the end of all this experimenting and playing around I feel pretty strongly that if you have a well engineered DAC then async USB will provide a consistent experience from a pretty wide variety of streaming devices. You'll also get terrific, if not the same, results using coax and optical.

I don't hear any reason to segment the music server computer into separate server and streaming end points. The PC and the Squeezebox touch sound the same playing the same tracks. There's also no audible penalties for doing so if that's a more convenient configuration.

There's also no reason to go big with a music server. Mine is built around 4th generation Celeron processor that cost me $40. My entire PC build was less than $700 and $250 of that was wasted on the Matrix Audio USB card. Another $200 went into the chassis but that made the PC build really easy to execute with the included heat sink and pipes so that seems well spent.

If I were to do it all over again I would either use a mid-range Intel NUC or build again on an ITX board with a fan-less chassis for the music server. I would not waste any money on hi-fi audio specific USB cards. I think the Chord Qutest sounds fantastic regardless of how it's fed. I also wouldn't waste any money on expensive music streamers. RasPi solutions are about $50 and if I can't hear a difference between the various async USB connections I tried then I'm skeptical that spending more money will yield a benefit. Same goes for fancy power suppliers including batteries.

Where I did run into problems was with playing back some high resolution DSF files. JRiver on my Macbook Air can't seem to cope with those files and the Logitech MS / Squeezebox Touch combo had some problems with these files too. With Roon and JRiver on the new PC there are no problems. Maybe I'll replace the Squeezebox touch with a RasPi and touch screen as a future project.

I'm happy to host anyone that wants to give a listen to the different delivery paths. I hope folks find this useful. At the end all this experimenting I came across the blog post that agrees with what my experience: http://archimago.blogspot.com/2017/03/musings-computer-audio-part-ii-basics.html.

Author:  Jim G [ February 6th, 2020, 10:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

Doug's post might be worth starting it's own thread for?

Doug, I certainly wouldn't doubt what you're saying you're hearing, or not hearing in the computer audio chain in your system and I'd like to hear what you have. However, several of us recently had a meet and compared multiple laptops, a nuc, a diy server, usb cables, and dacs (including the Qutest) and found remarkably obvious differences from changing any one of (or combinations of) these devices in a member's system with consensus about the change. I will concede the differences were rarely heard as timbre/tonality, but as atmospheric, and engagement, but again, with consensus, and far larger than any amplifier change I've ever heard. The worst combination of server and cable for example, were simply unlistenable after hearing the best combination, and yet we all took home our pieces and put them back in our systems. ;-)

I would personally disagree with much of the blog poster's assertions.

Author:  Stuart Polansky [ February 6th, 2020, 10:41 am ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

The purpose of this thread, especially the first and last posts seems to be one of guidance: listen to me, you are wasting your time, in this endeavor. Doing anything in the audio world, except for listening to music could be called a waste of time. Experimentation to determine if improvements can be made in a given system is an educational experience. Not all results are positive, but we can learn from them all.

Sharing individual results is helpful, blanket statements are not.

As Jim G. mentioned early on, take your cables to Charlie's house and compare there. IF there are differences, they'll be immediately revealed.

The weakest link analogy is always a good one: I keep changing this one link, but the chain continues to fail with the same tensile load applied.

As Paul stated in another thread, none of this is really important in a life context. Just have fun and enjoy.


Author:  doug2761 [ February 6th, 2020, 11:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

Sounds like that meet up on digital stuff was pretty interesting. I'd like to hear more or be part of a next one. Apologies on any blanket statements in my post. Any blanket statements should be qualified as relating only to my personal experience and perceptions working on that project and with the limited comparative equipment I used.

Definitely agree with, "just have fun and enjoy". Doing those comparisons with the equipment on hand got me past my tendencies to optimize and it was fun. Listening to lots more music now and happy that I was able to get some clutter out of the way that was bugging me.

Author:  Roscoe Primrose [ February 6th, 2020, 11:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

Stuart Polansky wrote:
The weakest link analogy is always a good one: I keep changing this one link, but the chain continues to fail with the same tensile load applied.


I prefer to think of a stack of window panes, but the idea is the same. The problem with audio is often figuring out which link is the weak one...


Author:  tomp [ February 6th, 2020, 12:30 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

I was one of the people at the meeting Jim mentioned at Charlie’s house and I will say that the sense of space and depth of his system is amazing. Lots of work to achieve that. For all the years that I have been testing acoustic frequency analog cables I have never heard a difference. However, this is the second time that I have heard differences in digital frequency cables. It makes sense that the higher the frequencies the more stringent the requirements.

I cannot give any technical reason why different USB cables would make a sound difference rather than just not working and having dropouts if not capable. But the differences were not insignificant. As Jim mentioned, they were not timbre related nor were they dynamics related. Rather they were in spatial presentation. It makes no sense to me but I would put money down that even if we could do a double blind test, I could identify the differences. Note that I am not saying that what I heard was reflective of what was on the original recording but only that the difference was there. Perhaps it was a true rendition of what was on the recording or a version of “sonic holography”.

I have noticed that when viewing the output of certain phono cartridges on a scope that are playing a mono record many of the cartridges that have the most sense of “space” have added phase shifts that prevent the expected straight 45 degree line to appear. Rather, the trace looks more like a stereo mix.

So, in conclusion, I did hear significant differences in the cables but have no way to attribute then to any specific technical reason. It reinforces that we listen with our brain and regardless of the understanding of how sound works, at the end of the day the ultimate arbiter is a listening session.

Author:  TubeDriver [ February 6th, 2020, 1:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

DaveR - "there will be no difference in the sound no matter how much you spend on a cable or how pretty it is to look at"

JimG - "Take all those USB cables to Charlie P's house and you'll hear differences between them, and his."

This is where it always goes. Audiophiles arguing how many angels are on a pin. You have one side arguing the merits of measurements, theory and the neg result of some test they conducted or found somewhere. On the other hand, you have the side that suggests it takes a "SeaCliff" reference system and golden ears to perceive some difference between what is being evaluated.

I find both sides of this argument equally off-putting. One side suggests that I am completely a prisoner of expectation bias/placebo effect, I am in effect......delusional. The other side suggests that my hearing and system suck.

I would argue that any component that offers a discernible difference in one system, will be discernible in most of the systems that folks here have (albeit to a greater or lesser degree dependent on the specific system's characteristics).

This group is filled with engineers, IT folks, doctors, scientists who get that some things theoretically just should not sound audibly different. But........... sometimes they do?

TomP and I could not be further apart on the spectrum of how we build/assemble or what we value in an audio system but I find myself in agreement with him more often than naught.

TomP - "So, in conclusion, I did hear significant differences in the cables but have no way to attribute then to any specific technical reason. It reinforces that we listen with our brain and regardless of the understanding of how sound works, at the end of the day the ultimate arbiter is a listening session."

Author:  Jim G [ February 6th, 2020, 3:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

Not at all what I'm saying, Pete. Definitely not condemning anybody's stereo. Systems are different and capable of different things. Like the day you and I listened to our dacs at Charlie's. Until that moment I never realized how poorly my dac soundstages in 3 dimensions compared to his (or yours). But Charlie's dac in my system didn't soundstage any better than mine because my 2 way horn system can't soundstage like his. The dacs were very similar in my system. Charlie's system also has shortcomings too, like everyone else's.

I think the caveat should be, "in my system, I can't/can hear a difference between "x" and "y" with the understanding it may be different elsewhere.

Author:  Pelliott321 [ February 6th, 2020, 4:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: USB cable debate Awaste of time

DAC technologies are really progressing to the point that one can hear these differences. I know most audiophiles and specifically the DIYers find these differences important. It is what drives the industry. Ten years a good a $500 DAC was a big deal. Now its $2k before you get to a high level. A DIYer get to that level for $300. I know a manufacturer's $2k DAC has about $300 in parts and case work. There has to be that kind of mark up or more to be a viable product.
This is why DIY is a thing. There is nothing wrong with "I can do better for less" attitude. I like building like the rest of you.
I do not think we should put down the commercial products, most people have trouble changing a light bulb. If you kept account to the time we DIYers put into our systems and paid ourselves a living wage you will see where the commercial prices come from.

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