Its fairly easy to make the assumption – and I did – that just because a computer is involved that cables won’t make any difference and as I have found out that assumption would be totally wrong. There are those that argue, as there also are in traditional audio circles – but for different reasons – that the quality of cables only need be good enough and so it is that most computer owners be it of a desk top, laptop, Mac or PC variety only use what came with the computer or some modestly priced after market cable from say the likes of Advent or Belkin.
Well I pretty much fell into this way of thinking early on in my recent and ongoing exploration of computer audio and I mostly accepted (1) what appeared to be the prevailing thoughts online that the USB cables supplied with most equipment were probably good enough. The irony is that I still used expensive audio interconnects and mains leads as part of my ongoing project but just basic USB cables carried the signals from the laptop to the DAC.
However despite using these basic cables there was an itch that just would not go away and that itch was a simple niggling thought, what if USB cables do matter and just as much as other cables do in the audio chain? I read as much as I could in print and online and there appeared to be more folks saying it didn’t matter than it did (cable wars here too) but my niggle would just not go away. In fact from initially thinking that the USB output cable to the DAC mattered I began to also suspect that the connecting cable between an external Hard Drive to the laptop/PC must also matter. My logic was that keeping the data path consistent from beginning to end would pay dividends as it does with conventional audio signal paths.
A long time ago I had heard for myself that not only do digital cables sound different and different types and quality of cable make an appreciable improvement in sound quality but even the type of termination used on the cable made a difference as well. This was in the main down to how closely the connector came to the 75ohms that redbook digital required, something RCA connectors didn’t do that well (until WBT introduced their Nextgen plugs) and the AES/EBU XLR did do well but only by following a different specification.
Having a great deal of first hand experience – at the time they came out originally – with various early CD transports and DACs I knew that coax digital cables and the quality thereof was important (still is) but not having much experience with computers I had no real appreciation that USB cables are just as crucial to the final sound in computer audio applications as coax digital cables are in redbook CD based systems.
A USB termination and its implementation is of course quite different to a redbook coax digital data cable in that part of a USB cable transmits power from the computer to power an external device such as a DAC but also carry audio signals and regardless of whether their is a device connected that requires power the power is there all the time. To my mind this is crazy, as running power right alongside a signal cable, as happens in a USB, runs contrary to all my years of dressing audio cables so that at the very worst a mains lead should only ever cross a signal cable at 90 degrees but should never run parallel to it. In all USB cables, power runs for the whole length of the cable, beside the delicate audio signal. It seems to me that USB cables are flawed right from the get go.
However despite being ignorant and to an extent accepting of the prevailing opinions a wee voice cried out that USB cable quality probably did make a difference so to explore this proposition I bought some well regarded Belkin Gold USB cables and low and behold I could hear a difference from the basic cables supplied with the computer/hard drive. Using the basic cables there was a lack of dimension and tonal colour but this short coming was only exposed after I replaced the basic cables with the Belkin’s but the question burning in my mind was, is this as good as it gets? The answer as it turned out was no but if I say more at this point I will be getting ahead of myself.
The difficulty with any new audio experience is not having a base line performance level to work from and my assumption was that I was hearing the particular DAC I was reviewing (the AMR DP777 DAC – review coming soon) via its USB input to as good a standard as I thought was possible. While evaluating the DAC in red book mode I was using high quality digital coax cables from the likes of PAD and XLO as I would with any DAC review but for USB input I was just using the bog standard cables I had to hand.
The simple fact is I was not entirely sure I was hearing everything the DP777 could do re the USB input. I was happy and content re the other cables (long term references) I had and was using as part of the review but I had no reference point re USB cables.
As mentioned above the Belkin cables sounded quite a bit better than the basic cables I had to hand but I strongly felt I needed something better to do the review – to become my reference. More investigation both in print and online pointed towards American company Wireworld as being a possible USB reference point for the review. I approached Wireworld UK and after speaking to them they agreed to supply a number of cables to be used in the DP777 review but also to be the subject of their own review – the article you are reading now.
After speaking with Wireworld four USB cables arrived the next day. The cables I had requested were two 1m Ultraviolet Type A to Type B USB2 cables and two 1m Starlight USB cables Type A to Type B with one of them being a USB3 cable.
There will be those reading this review that may feel I should be publishing the AMR DP777 review along side this one and in an ideal world that would be the case but recent events, my being ill and the death of my father have delayed the completion of the DP777 review. However rest assured that it will be completed and published soon.
This what Wireworld say about their USB designs….
‘There is a fundamental difference between the transfer of computer data and digital audio signals. Computers are able to transfer digital data without loss, because the data moves in the robust form of blocks, which do not depend on specific timing between the sending and receiving devices. However, digital audio signals are continuous streams of data, which are quite fragile, since the digital processor must remain perfectly locked onto the timing of the signal to avoid data losses. (2)
The Limitations of digital audio processors and cables create timing errors known as jitter, which remove portions of the audio signal and replace them with noise and distortion. Cables tend to round off the square waveforms of the signal, making them less clear to the processor, thus increasing jitter. This rounding effect varies greatly among cables and a truly superior digital audio cable can make great improvements in sound quality.
Wireworld digital audio cables utilize unique designs specifically developed to minimize jitter by providing sharper, cleaner leading edges on the digital waveform. At each price level, they provide the lowest jitter available, producing distinct improvements in clarity, image focus, smoothness and dynamic range.
Wireworld USB cables feature a unique flat design that allows it to function over significantly longer runs (3) than conventional USB cables and provides improved sound quality in media server, PC audio, and other digital music applications.
All models exceed the USB2.0 High Speed specifications.’
Wireworld say this about the Starlight USB cable and the new USB3 version of the cable….
‘Utilizing the Symmetricon® design, derived from Wireworld’s award winning HDMI cables, Starlight USB provides higher ﬁdelity than round USB cables selling for much more. Compared to the Ultraviolet, the Starlight’s sound is richer and more three-dimensional. Starlight also functions well over longer lengths than other USB cables, while enhancing the clarity, depth and dynamics of media server, PC audio, and other digital music applications.’
‘Another exclusive feature of the cable is an isolated power conductor for quieter power that improves signal purity.The Starlight USB 3.0 SuperSpeed cable is a flat and highly flexible cable that utilizes proprietary conductor geometry and upgrade materials to improve sound quality. To increase transmission speed and reduce jitter, Starlight’s Symmetricon® design utilizes twelve signal conductors in place of the nine conductors used in other USB 3.0 cables. The cable’s oversized conductors are made of silver-clad oxygen-free copper, providing increased efficiency and natural tone quality.
Starlight USB 3.0 cables are available in both A to B and A to microB configurations in lengths of 0.5m to 5.0m. The 1.0m lengths of both configurations will sell for £119.95 when they become available in January 2012.
Wireworld Cable Technology, which was founded by renowned designer David Salz in 1992, is the premier provider of leading edge digital and analogue cable technology for home audio and video, from HDMI and DisplayPort technologies to state of the art high-end interconnects and speaker cables. The company has an unmatched reputation for producing superior cables based on the use of objective perceptual testing, innovative patented designs, premium materials, and exceptional manufacturing quality.’
Specification: The Starlight® USB was the first true ultra-high performance USB digital audio cables in the world … Read more Silver-clad OFC 4 Signal Conductor Symmetricon™ A to B or A to Mini B’
Wireworld say this about the Ultraviolet USB2 cable……
‘Ultraviolet USB utilizes the same advanced design as the Starlight USB, but with less silver to save cost. The cable’s unique ﬂ at proﬁle is only 3mm thick, for extreme ﬂexibility and easy concealment. Ultraviolet’s surprising musicality proves that Wireworld’s superior designs produce the best value and sound quality in USB audio cables.’
Specification: The Ultraviolet™ USB utilizes the same advanced cable design as the Starlight™ USB but with less silver … Silver-plated OFC 4 Signal Conductor Symmetricon™ A to B or A to Mini B.
An other interesting feature of the Wireworld USB cables right through out the ranges, which appear to be pretty unique to Wireworld is that they have been designed with the voltage transmission element – part of the USB standard – separated from the signal carrying elements but keeping both in the one cable (3). To achieve this the Wireworld cables are all flat.
All the cables came well packed and beautifully made and are fairly flexible in use. I should however point out though that the Starlight USB3 cable because of its almost double width – compared to the standard USB2 Starlight – will require a little more care re dressing and positioning as it is quite a bit more springy than the standard model.
During the period of the review the cables all performed flawlessly despite being plugged and unplugged quite a bit.
My main system for the review comprised of the following: a Balanced Audio Technology VK300SE integrated amplifier, Anthony Gallo Reference SA amplifier, AMR DP777 DAC, Acer 1810TZ Notebook or Sony VPCEB4E4E laptops (5), J River media engine, Anthony Gallo Reference 3.1 speakers. Cabling was Atlas Mavros RCA to RCA, XLR to XLR, Belkin Gold USB, Wireworld Ultraviolet USB2 Starlight USB2 and 3, Atlas Mavros speaker cable, QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cable. Mains cables were Audience AU24, Analysis Plus Power Oval 2, Mark Grant mains distribution block (all computers and hard drives were hooked into this) EC Audio Pandora’s Box mains conditioner/RF filter laptops hooked into this. Equipment tables Clear Light audio Aspekt racks. SSC isolation platforms and Sound Mechanics M8 isolation cones.
All the USB cables were run in for a few days before use and I did not notice any significant improvement after that time.
Dead Can Dance – Into The Labyrinth 24Bit/88.2 khz
Stanley Clarke – 1, 2, To The Bass 16Bit 44.1 khz
I started off listening to the Wireworld Ultraviolet USB cable feeding the AMR DP777 DAC from my Acer laptop with a Belkin USB cable taking the signal from an Iomega hard drive. The music was the wonderfully haunting and moving I Shall Not Be Moved from Stanley Clarke’s album 1,2 To the Bass.
This track outlines the history of black Americans from the time of slavery to the present day and it is based around the poem by Maya Angelou’s, as read by Oprah Winfrey. The mix is dense full of instrumentation and it was very interesting how the various USB cables affected the musics structure, ebb, flow and dimensionality.
I decided to start with the Ultraviolet simply to allow me to back track to the Belkin Gold and then jump upwards to the Starlight.
With the Ultaraviolet there was good dimension and depth to the musical image and Oprah Winfrey’s voice stood fairly clear in the mix with presence and dimension. It was possible to pick out all the instrumentation, to focus on individual elements or just listen to the music. I enjoyed what I was hearing so much that I listened all the way to the end of the track.
Adding another Belkin Gold as the output cable to the DAC was a revelation but not in a good way. The soundstage had collapsed back into its self and the music had become more homogenised, losing definition and clarity. There was also a loss of tonal detail with the music becoming somewhat brighter, thinner and lacking in musicality.
Oprah Winfrey’s voice was now to an extent lost in the mix and no longer existed within its own space. In fact the best way to describe the way the music sounded is to imagine it squashed flat against a virtual wind-shield.
I was quite shocked by what I was hearing, as many online advocate the Belkin Gold cable as being as good as one needs to go to. What was quite evident from this early part of the reviewing process is just how much more one can gain by just spending a wee bit more on a Wireworld Ultraviolet USB cable.
Before trying the Starlight I decided to listen to another piece of beautiful music in the form of the track The Carnival is Over from Dead Can Dance’s album Into the Labyrinth. With the Ultraviolet replacing the Belkin once again Brendan Perry’s haunting vocals had dimension, space, clarity and air. The music ebbed and flowed in a way that was totally organic and effortless, it breathed.
Switching the Belkin Gold back in resulted in exactly the same issues as had stood out like a sore thumb on the Stanley Clarke track. The music flattened, losing a great deal of depth to the image, instrumentation lost its clarity and separation. The overall tonality became thinner and somewhat brighter than with the Ultraviolet. In away the best way to describe this is it was like the audio equivalent of an overexposed photograph with all the depth of colour etched away.
The shock for me here is that I had previously quite enjoyed listening to the set up with the Belkin Gold cables in place but now I was aware of just how poor the performance was compared to having the Wireworld Ultraviolet cable in the set up. Now I knew what was missing there was no going back.
Musing over what I was hearing I decided to go back to the Ultraviolet and have a quick listen and all I had heard previously was restored, so happy with that, I then removed the Belkin Gold from the hard drive and fitted a second Ultraviolet USB2 cable and listened to Dead Can Dance again.
There were clear very distinct gains in sound quality doing this with improved clarity, dimension, soundstage depth, bass weight and overall musicality. Now the gains were not quite as big as those achieved via using the Ultraviolet to the DAC but in my opinion they were significant enough to really make it a no brainer to use a second Ultraviolet USB cable if you are already using one to feed your DAC but using a basic cable to take the signal from the hard drive to your laptop/desktop/MAC.
I sat on listening to various pieces of music before I decided to move onto the Starlight USB cable.
Keeping the Ultraviolet between the hard drive and the laptop I switched in the Starlight and listened to the Dead Can Dance track and my jaw nearly hit the floor at the jump in sound quality over the Ultraviolet which was almost as significant as that of the Belkin Gold and the entry level Wireworld USB cable.
Listening to The Carnivals Over with the Starlight offered an improved acoustic, wider deeper soundstage, more openness, detail, delicacy, bass, weight, scale and all this without changing the tonal balance which was pretty neutral, being neither bright nor overly warm in fact being just right within the context of my system.
Instruments now had more body (not that they were lacking body with the Ultraviolet) and dimension existing within a very clearly defined acoustic with Brendan Perry’s vocals gaining a three dimensional existence within the music. One marked difference between the two Wireworld cables as it had also been the case with the Belkin over the Ultraviolet was the way Brendan’s voice kept clarity and dimension during the closing part of the track where his voice loses clarity and becomes more blended with the music compared to the rest of the track. With the Starlight in place Brendan’s spoken words gained extra clarity during this part of the song and this was not a subtle improvement over the Ultraviolet cable – as good as it had been.
I listened to the Stanley Clarke track again and using the Starlight brought about improvements in the same areas as it had on the Dead Can Dance track, heady stuff indeed and very enjoyable.
At this point I swapped to what is now my primary hard drive a Freecom quatro which is fitted with a USB3 output. As I have the same tracks on this as I do on the Iomega I hooked up the USB3 (6) Starlight from the Freecom to the laptop and sat down for a listen. It was pretty obvious within seconds that like using the two Ultraviolet’s together that using two Starlight also brought improvements to the music in similar ways as I had heard by swapping the Starlight for the Ultraviolet.
I have no doubt now that keeping the USB cable signal path the same from hard drive to computer to DAC is very much worth while doing despite the fact one is paying double to do that.
I would encourage anyone either beginning to explore computer audio or who has been for awhile, but believed that the cheap free with the kit USB cables or the likes of a Belkin Gold are as good as any USB available should open their minds and ears to the fact that these cables can be improved on (7) and that improvement in music reproduction is very marked indeed. In my view the best way to do that is with the entry level, but not entry level performance Ultraviolet USB cable from Wireworld at £49.95. Compared to the Belkin Gold generally regarded as being an excellent cable at its price the Ultraviolet is significantly better in performance.
If you have an Ultraviolet and want to upgrade your USB cable but want to keep the tonality similar then I would strongly recommend the Starlight at £100 which will significantly improve the quality of your computer audio experience and gain you whole new insights into your music whether it be redbook standard or HD tracks.
The next step is to upgrade your hard drive linking cable too and during the course of this review it was obvious based on my listening experience that using the same USB cable as the output cable was the way to go. Of course if you have an Ultraviolet and upgrade to a Starlight and have not been using a quality cable between your hard drive and computer then using that Ultraviolet in the short term will result in gains but not to the same level as a full loom of Starlight will.
I think it fair to say that I have been on a very step, almost vertical, learning curve with my exploration of computer audio so far and my experience with USB cables and the Wireworld USB cables in particular has been very interesting indeed, in fact quite remarkable and as a result of that experience I thoroughly recommend both the Ultraviolet and the Starlight USB cables which in my view at their respective price points offer excellent value for money re their level of performance.
I must confess to being very curious as to how much further the other USB cables in Wireworld’s product portfolio would take the computer audio experience – quite a lot further I would guess.
Source of Product Loan – Wireworld UK.
Ultraviolet is available in 0.5 m £44.95, 1m £49.95, 2m £61.95, 3m £71.95, 5m £91.95, 7m £111.95 and also as A – mini B: 0.5, 1m, 2m at the same prices as above.
Starlight USB2 is available in 0.5m £89.95, 1m £99.95, 2m £124.95, 3m £144.95, 5m £184.95, 7m £224.95 and also as A – mini B: 0,5, 1m, 2m at the same prices as above.
The Starlight USB3 is available as USB A-B in the following lengths and prices: 0.5m £104.95, 1.0m £119.95, 2.0m £149.95, 3.0m £179.95, 5.0m £239.95
And as A-micro B (as opposed to the mini-B of the USB2s) 0.5m £104.05, 1.0m £119.95, 2.0m £149.95
Wireworld UK http://www.wireworldcable.co.uk/
Wireworld America http://wireworldcable.com/
(1) Up until very recently I was pretty ignorant of all things computer and computer audio related. Truth is I had a pretty much closed mind re it and I had either avoided or skipped over any related information as I was just not interested. However my recent very step learning curve born out of wanting to review the AMR DP777 fully and properly has led to me scurrying about all over trying to play catch up on several years worth of related computer and computer audio information and USB cables and there role/function has been a part of that.
(2) Something the AMR DP777 has the ability to deal effectively with but even with this technology it was still very easy to hear the difference between USB cables.
(3) This is not something I tested as all the cables I reviewed were 1m long.
(4) I have seen some companies split the power and signal cables into two separate cables reunited at the USB plug but this to me is an inelegant design solution that could well cause some cable dressing issues.
(5) While not mentioned in the review the results using the Sony Vaio were identical to using the Acer laptop.
(6) Both of my laptop are USB2 only.
At the minute the Wireworld Starlight is probably the only audiophile high quality USB cable available in USB3 form. I would have no doubt though that Wire World will at some point in the future offer their other cables as USB3’s.
(7) These cables are good at their price point and are better than the freebies but they are not as good as it gets and spending what I consider a modest amount more will – in my experience while doing this review – transform the quality of music reproduction upwards and by quite a large margin.
© Text and Photos Copyright 2012 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio…..except for Wireworld product photos and album covers. Copyright belongs with their original publishers.
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