Once Hi-Fi+ Issue 123 hits newsstands in June, readers will discover that Nicholas Ripley has done a fascinating survey in which he compares three mid-priced USB cables—from AudioQuest, Gutwire, and Nordost—versus a standard, non-descript, freebie USB cable. I won’t spoil the fun I’m sure you’ll have when issue 123 arrives, but suffice it say that our Mr Ripley did hear consistent differences between each of the mid-priced cables, both in comparison to each other and to the freebie. So much for the ‘bits is bits’ theory, at least for high-performance audio purposes.
If we turn back the clock a number of years, I would have to confess that I was at one point a confirmed USB cable sceptic. My reasoning was that, since cheapo USB cables almost invariably manage to transfer data successfully from PCs to outboard USB hard drives or printers and the like, why would there even be a need for upscale ‘audio-grade’ USB cables?
I maintained that stance right up until, some years ago now, I was loaned a couple of specialty-grade USB cables, only to discover that, lo, higher-quality USB cables really did offer readily discernible sonic benefits (and not the kind you have to work to hear, but rather the kind where you wind up thinking, “Oh man, the sonic benefits of those USB cables seem pretty darned obvious…”).
While the exact data transfer mechanisms at work might be subtle and difficult for those of us who are not engineers, physicists, and/or data transfer theoreticians to understand, the fact that good USB cables can and do improve sound quality is easy to observe and dirt-simple to grasp. You listen to your digital audio system with and without good USB cables in play, and note your own reactions to the music. If you’re at all like me, you may find you have a clear-cut, unequivocal preference for the sound with higher-performance USB cables in play. Case closed, end of story.