Everything Matters: A Tale of Two (Digital) Cables

Yes, everything. Power, network, network player, DAC, cables, system, room. Everything.

Once upon a time, people believed digital music replay was perfect. But that was on paper. Listeners of early CDs and CD players knew better. We knew that CD replay sounded like freeze-dried crap compared to our records. What was wrong? Everything.

Great strides have been made in understanding digital music replay. Perhaps the two areas which have seen the most improvement are digital filters [footnote 1] and noise. While playing a piece of vinyl on a turntable is by no means ‘perfect’, it typically sounds like music. Sure there are things in vinyl replay that may get added like noise, but if you take care of your records and your turntable setup, playing records can be as silent as digital only better. When music blooms from a record’s silence, you are getting what’s on the record. When music blurts out from CD’s silence, you may be getting added digital artifacts in the music that have nothing to do with the music. That’s not good.

Digital filters and noise can add these artificial artifacts and make music sound like freeze-dried crap. If you look at the Twittering Machines list of Select DACs, you will find two DACs that use the digital filters that come with the DAC chip—the AudioQuest DragonFly Black & Red. Every other DAC either skips the filter—Border Patrol DAC SE, HoloAudio Spring DAC LEVEL 3 “Kitsune Tuned Edition”, totaldac d1-tube-mk2 DAC—or implements their own—Chord Mojo, dCS Rossini. You can make of that what you will but in my experience this is the way DACs go—I tend to prefer the atypical approach to digital filters, meaning none at all or magic bits.

The manner with which a DAC turns bits into analog matters. So does the manner in which you deliver the digital part to the DAC.

If you look at my system, you’ll see that the audio section lives on a separate power leg and power conditioner than my network bits (router, switch, NAS, Ethernet filter). Further, the digital signal from the router passes through the GIGAfoil digital filter riding on AudioQuest Ethernet cables. Why? Noise. In the world of mixed signal systems, it’s common knowledge that digital is not immune to noise and a hifi with a DAC is a mixed signal system (Digital to Analog converter). The level to which these things matter depends on your environment your system and you. The same goes for cables.

I can “see” one other WiFi network from my listening room. If you can see more than say, 30, I would suggest we have different environments when it comes to noise that may infect our mixed signal systems. One approach is to use unshielded Ethernet cables because the ground in a shielded Ethernet cable can act as a highway for noise to travel from point A to point B. No shield, no highway. Another method is to use shielded Ethernet cables and an Ethernet filter. I have found that the latter works best for me in my system and in my environment. YMMV. By separating network gear that use (cheap) noisy switching power supplies from my hifi by plugging them into separate circuits and using power conditioners on both helps reduce any noise pollution from getting into my hifi on the power lines.  Simple but effective.

Did I hear someone ask what proof do I have? I listen. I also have done a fair amount of reading about noise in mixed signal systems so I have a basic basis for understanding why these things can make a difference. If you don’t believe any of this, i.e. bits are bits, then I suggest you either ignore what I’ve written to save yourself the aggravation or give these things a try (or read about noise in mixed signal systems. Google is your friend). You never know, you might find yourself enjoying your music even more.

The following quote is from The Electronics Handbook, Second Edition edited by Jerry C. Whitaker:

Noise In Mixed Signal Systems
It is also common, however, as stated earlier, for electronic systems to begin and end as analog circuits, but in between have digital logic subsections. Such a system is called a mixed signal system, and noise is a concern both at the input to the system and at the output. Noise at the input is converted into errors in the digital logic circuit; the data then picks up further errors as it is processed within the digital logic circuits, and when the conversion from the digital to the analog domain is finally made, these accumulated errors become noise once again at the digital logic circuit’s output. There are some mixed signal systems that combine digital and analog circuits on a single semiconductor strip substrate, and these can produce crosstalk, which originates within the digital logic circuits and creates noise within the analog circuit section. The most common of these are power supply noise and ground bounce.

But digital-to-analog converters used in this process are subject to all of the noise problems of analog circuits since they themselves are analog devices, and rely on resistive components, which have thermal noise limitations; thus, the digital information necessarily enters the digital system with noise present.

A Tale of Two Cables

I took to the East, heading to Alex Halberstadt’s place to listen to the review sample totaldac d1-direct paired with my dCS Network Bridge. This was a for-fun trip as I was very eager to hear the d1-direct, the latest creation from Vincent Brient at totaldac. I own and listen to his d1-seven every single day and I’ve been in love with his DACs since the very first time I heard one in-barn (2012).

I’ll let Alex talk about the details, again this was for fun for me, but putting the dCS Network Bridge into his system improved it by a very wide and readily apparent margin. The difference was painfully obvious (especially if the Bridge hurts one’s budget). I also brought along my Tellurium Q Black AES cable just in case. I knew Alex was attaching to the totaldac via USB so bringing an AES to connect the Bridge to his totaldac  was just insurance. I prefer the AES input on any totaldac especially when paired with the Network Bridge. Turned out Alex has his own AES cable.

We listened to Alex’s system with the dCS Network Bridge for a while using his AudioQuest Diamond AES cable. During our listening Alex’s friend and amp-builder Oliver arrived and joined us in the listening. As my interior geek is wont to do, at some point I suggested we try my Tellurium Q Black AES cable—even though Alex’s system was sounding really lovely.

It took Alex all of a minute to make the swap and it took the three of us all of a minute (or less) to recognize that the sound of Alex’s system had moved in the wrong direction. Within a few seconds with the Q in place, the music sounded duller and less alive. Less exciting. As we all know, music is supposed to sound exciting so we all knew that the AudioQuest AES cable was doing things more right than the Tellurium Q cable. I suspect it has something to do with a) how each cable is made, and b) Alex’s system.

On that last note, I got in touch with AudioQuest, from Alex’s place, asking for a review sample Diamond AES cable, as my interior geek is wont to do, all impatient-like. It arrived in-barn within the week and when I heard it in my system I heard the exact same kind of improvements as I heard at Alex’s place, only not quite as dramatic. Still, we’re talking an obviously and easily recognized improvement where my music sounded a bit more alive, a bit less dull, and generally more exciting to listen to.

The AudioQuest Diamond AES cable is staying in the barn, in my system.

Everything matters.

1. see What are Digital Filters and Why Are They Required In Today’s Audio DACS? by Resonessence Labs Technical Staff

AudioQuest Diamond AES Cable
Price: $999.95/1M

Company Information

Irvine, CA
Telephone: 800.747.2770

Tellurium Q Black Digital XRL Cable
Price: £390.00/m

Company Information

Tellurium Q Ltd
The Willows
Bonds Pool
TA10 9QJ
Telephone: +44 (0) 1458 251 997