Although I have long valued the role of audio cables in the home listening experience, I have been skeptical about the sonic importance of USB cables. My untutored reasoning was essentially that although interconnects, speaker cables and power cords produced easily audible sonic differences, a USB cable was simply transmitting digital information – zeros and ones – that the DAC then converted into musical signals. Under that assumption, the DAC was the key to good digital sound, not the USB cable.
My first attempts at computer audio were limited to ripping CDs onto my Macintosh, and then playing those files through a 15-foot USB cable into a DAC. That sounded pretty good, and sometimes I found the ripped version could sound a bit cleaner than the source CD. But iTunes was such a clunky and unsatisfying program that I eventually gave up and went back to playing CDs. In either case however, I still greatly preferred listening to my analog system. Of course in those days I had not yet experienced any truly high-resolution digital audio.
Things began to change when I reviewed the LampizatOr Level 4 Generation 5 DAC. That review discussed the DAC when playing CDs via a transport. The completion of that review – also in this issue – covers its performance with high-resolution PCM and DSD computer files. Initially I connected the computer to the DAC via an inexpensive (15 feet/$60) generic USB cable. Using the high-resolution computer files yielded impressive results, far better than I had gotten from ripping CDs onto iTunes. Compared to a CD, now I typically got wider frequency response, much more impactful dynamics, and typically far more realistic imaging and soundscaping. But still, I found myself much more fully involved with the music when playing LPs. So I began to wonder if my generic USB cable was limiting the capabilities of the LampizatOr DAC. While he was visiting me during the Spring 2015 AXPONA show, my friend Jeff Wells, designer of my Innamorata Signature power amplifiers, kept insisting that a better USB cable would be a significant upgrade. Jeff suggested the DanaCable USB. At the same show, I talked to LampizatOr designer Lukasz Fikus and North American distributor Fred Ainsley, who also recommended the DanaCable USB, which they were using for the show and are recommending to their customers.
I needed a longer-than-usual cable, as my computer setup is on a table 4 feet in front of my equipment racks. Designer Dana Robbins agreed to build me a 12 foot USB cable that would work in my configuration. Anything longer, he said, would deteriorate the quality of the sound, especially limiting frequency response. I also spoke to Vinh Vu of Gingko Audio, distributor of DanaCable, who confirmed that I could audition the cable a month and return it if if I was not satisfied. About a week later the new USB cable arrived.
Description And Technical Overview
Experiencing The DanaCable USB
Reference Recordings’ Britten's Orchestra, brilliantly interpreted by Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony, has long been an artistic and sonic favorite; I gave the original CD a Blue Note award. A year ago I misplaced my CD, and asked Janice Mancuso at Reference Recordings to send me another copy. The CD was out of print, but she sent an HRX disc. That was not playable on a CD player, but as a .wav file, it was downloadable. It was one of the first things I listened to as a PCM file. So I have experienced this recording in three formats: first as a superior-sounding CD, then as a PCM file through my original USB cable, and finally through the DanaCable USB. Although I had always praised its soundscape and dynamics, I was unprepared for the stunning improvement contributed by the DanaCable USB. In the Young Person's Guide To the Orchestra the soundscape not only grew wider and deeper, but each section of the orchestra was firmly placed within that stage. Violins took on a silky sweetness I had not heard before; low strings became more guttural, allowing me to hear wood as well as strings. Woodwinds had that breathy, "reedy" timbre that is so difficult to record, and the brass had the "bite" that I hear in live performances. The massive drum strikes that open the Sinfonia da Requiem felt like physical punches. (If your system is vulnerable to amplifier clipping, or has less-than-robust woofers, turn down the volume before you play that passage!)
The Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony No. 2 with Otto Klemperor leading the Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus is one of the greatest Mahler recordings. The sound on the American Angel LPs was thin and constricted, and the subsequent CD versions were all inadequate to convey the essence of this massive work. But my 1962 EMI LPs have for decades been one of my most useful demonstration recordings, even though those LPs are more than 50 years old. A few months ago my colleague Max Westler covered that past history in his review of the DSD download. I had done a comparison of the EMI LPs and the DSD files a few months ago, when I was still using the initial generic USB cable. Although it was a fairly close call, I preferred the LPs, which sounded more harmonically rich and simply more musical than the DSD version. But with the DanaCable USB, I find that the DSD files have much more sweetness and musicality, and of course the background is much quieter than my EMI LPs.
Patricia Barber's Modern Cool and Nightclub are among my favorite jazz recordings. Barber's great voice, brilliant vocal and piano phrasing, and masterly arranging for her combo make her one of the great jazz artists of our time. (One benefit of living in Chicago is being able to hear her live any week when she's not on the road.) I have those recordings on LP, on original and remastered CDs, and in DSD files. Again, the LPs have been the closest approximation to her live performances, but I now give a slight edge to the DSD files after hearing them with the DanaCable USB and the LampizatOr DAC.