Reviewing cables is tricky. Very tricky… It depends on quite a lot of factors and sometimes the differences are quite subtle. Reviewing cables in the digital chain is even more difficult. Especially with ethernet and usb. Here we are talking about data packages: not ‘normal’ digital transmission. So how can there be audible difference? Well… there are. So yes: these cables can make an audible difference. As long as your system is transparent enough. We listen to the Shunyata Venom, Alpha and Sigma USB
We’ve seen a lot of interesting developments around usb and ethernet in recent years. Many enthusiasts had noticed that there were audible differences. But where do these differences come from? It is not in the data flow.
We at Alpha Audio have regularly demonstrated that. No packet drops, no data corruption or ‘re-transmits’. So it must be in the transfer of noise (power supply noise, noise via the grounding, emi/rfi via radiation, etc). That would also explain that a cable with better shielding sounds better. Or that a cable with a filtering effect can bring more calmness in the presentation.
Now there are already some studies online that confirm the suspicion. Including a whitepaper of the EtherRegen. In this paper it is substantiated that noise – especially ground plane noise – has an influence on the reproduction. One of the reasons is that the clock will show deviations and that the reference voltages can get deviations. And these are things that can influence the reproduction. Note: without data corruption being measurable.
Now we use almost no USB cables in our playback chain. We stream everything via Ethernet and go from the streamer via I2S to the dac. This I2S connection is via an Ethernet cable and designed as a whole by Metrum Acoustics. Partly because of this design, usb is no longer needed. Although we do use an usb-dac for our headphone measurements.
USB has – like most connections – advantages and disadvantages. It’s broadband, so every format ‘fits’ when it comes to bandwidth. This makes it possible, for example, to play both 32-bit PCM and DSD in all forms. It is also a balanced signal and quite universal.
A disadvantage is that usb – connected – to a PC suffers from power supply noise. The usb ports of a PC (or laptop) are far from ‘clean’. If you don’t do anything to stop or reduce this (mostly high frequency) noise, you will notice that you are treated to an restless and somewhat ‘glassy’ presentation of the music. The whole doesn’t feel ‘smooth’ or real.
And although we have the feeling that many cable manufacturers did not know at all about the core of the problem (some claimed that the bits remained better intact…): they did notice that a better cable resulted in an audible better processing of music. And look at the countless types, versions and tastes we now see in the shops. Models of a few tens, or a few thousand euros.
We have three Shunyata models in this review. The reason is that we are curious about the improvements within one series and brand. Let’s start with the Venom. A very affordable cable. And this should be the biggest upgrade someone can make after replacing a standard usb cable.