What About Digital Cables?

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Do digital cables matter? In many respects this is even harder to grasp than the differences in performance with analog cables. After all, they are just one’s and zero’s, right? What could go wrong? Lot’s as it turns out.

The same issues apply to HDMI cables, where it affects both sound and video quality but I’m going to limit this to digital audio, in particular USB. The argument that it’s just 1’s and 0’s is valid but only to a point. When you’re transferring a spreadsheet or a JPEG photo, any cable that is not defective will perform fine. There is literally no difference. Buying a better cable is about quality of construction and reliability. However with audio the timing of those 1’s and 0’s is ultra critical, unlike other formats. The errors in timing are referred to as jitter and has long been acknowledged to be a major factor in digital playback.

According to Gordon Rankin, the person most responsible for developing very high performance asynchronous USB transmission, jitter related to cable issues is most objectionable where the signal is being converted from digital to analog or analog to digital. Gordon goes so far as to include an Audioquest USB cable when you purchase any of his DACs. He goes to great lengths to minimize jitter through his Wavestream Asynchronous protocol, licensed by a number of high end manufacturers including Ayre and DCS. He doesn’t want his work undone by the use of an inferior USB cable.

It’s easy to test. The first time I substituted a modestly priced AQ USB for a generic one the difference was instantly noticeable. Better clarity, more open, more space. I try to never sell a USB DAC without one.