The Cable Effect: Musings On Aftermarket Upgrades

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Premium cables – Probably the single most controversial category in audio. Unless we count some of the more dubious “tweaks” out there like magic rocks and green CD pens. However, only a very small contingency of folks actually believe in those types of things – upgraded cables are far more mainstream.

It’s easy to write people off who rabidly believe (or disbelieve) in cables making an audible difference. Some of these people bring it on themselves, practically becoming caricatures in the process. “I can only stand to use solid silver cables with 4 figure price tags in my system. Nothing else will do!” says the cable extremist. “I get all my cables at Home Depot. Anything more is for suckers!” replies his counterpart on the other side. Likely not realizing that his “enthusiasm” for debating the topic is equally annoying. Meanwhile the average audio enthusiast falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

I, myself, have wavered back and forth on this topic over the years. I started out by using expensive cables – as nice as I could afford – from companies like Shunyata. That’s just “what you do” when you have a high-end system right? Eventually I started wondering if all my expenditures were adding up to a worthwhile improvement. I realized I had been blindly following this line of thinking just because it came naturally to the hobby and that I had never really examined it for myself in depth. I started looking into the history of the cable industry, reading the different viewpoints and looking for evidence as to why cables should matter or not. I also spent a lot of time listening and comparing cables. After much time and effort I came to the conclusion that I could not really hear the massive differences that I originally assumed I was hearing. This was difficult to admit at first because it really had seemed like at least some improvement was occurring with each upgrade.

My research into the industry left me with the impression that there are several different types of people out there trying to sell you cables. One group, the worst kind, is clearly aware that they are scamming people out of large amounts of money. They count on the fact that audiophiles are often willing to try anything to get some tiny improvement. They also have a great understanding of marketing and know how to build up their reputation to the point that people won’t dare question the effectiveness of their products. Having accomplished that they are free to charge practically whatever they want. I’ll call these folks “Type A”.

On the opposing end of the scale, there seems to be another group who are genuinely convinced that their cables are effective upgrades. These folks tend to downplay the role that their cables play and offer them as sort of a “last 5%” type of upgrade. They also tend to keep their costs on the lower end of the scale as far as aftermarket cables go (relative to comparable cables from the big name brands). Let’s call them “Type B”. It is my opinion that everyone in the cable business seems to fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Similarly, there are corresponding types of people who use aftermarket cables. On one extreme, you have what I refer to as cable snobs. These people are highly interested in aftermarket cables, to the point where they will list their cables as some of the key highlights of their system. They are quick to judge someone else’s system as inferior due to a perceived cable deficiency. They can often be seen on forums recommending expensive cable upgrades to people, even when it is clear that the person would be better served by upgrading their speakers or another component instead. These are the folks who will spend a fortune to recable a mid-level headphone and then proclaim its superiority over flagship headphones from the same brand.

On the opposite end are the minor cable fans. These people think cables probably make a difference, but only a minor one. They use them as a small upgrade and don’t spend obscene amounts of money to do so. They never try to push cables or cable theory on people, and are perfectly fine with using stock cables when they need to. Aside from people who absolutely do not believe in cables at all, everyone else falls somewhere between these two extremes, which I’ll again call “Type A” and “Type B” respectively.

My journey has taken me from being a staunch cable believer (by “default” I guess you could say), to being fairly cable agnostic or even downright hostile towards cable upgrades and then back again to somewhere in the middle. It’s been an interesting journey and it’s one I think more people should endeavor to take for themselves. In my experience it leads to more Type B cable users who I think we all agree are far less annoying.

A few interesting things I’ve picked up along the way. First, I have re-confirmed my earlier findings about the lack of any real scientific proof that cables make a difference. It would be convenient for me if I could find some reliable data that explains why better cables should sound better. But I simply can’t. There are some wild theories floating around and then some more reasonable ones that are fairly interesting. However, nothing definitive that helps the cause.

Second, I’ve discovered that there actually are numerous well-respected and highly-intelligent people in the audio industry who do have some level of belief in audible cable differences. Really smart guys like Gordin Rankin (WaveLength Audio), Steve Nugent (Empirical Audio), Demien Martin (Constellation Audio, Rockport) and the late Jim Thiel (audio legend) among others, give some degree of credence to the idea that cables can make a difference, despite possibly not having an exact explanation for it. And none of these gentleman is currently in the business of selling their own cables (that I’m aware of) so we can’t explain away their opinions as mere greed. There are also plenty of folks in the reviewing game who I highly respect such as Tyll Hertsens who have taken a moderately affirmative stance with regards to cables. It’s easy to dismiss people you might see posting crazy night/day hyperbole on some forum, but it’s quite another thing when a reliable and reasonable person, with whom you tend to agree about most things, says they can perceive a difference – however small. Ultimately nobody can decide this issue for you but no matter which side you fall on you can be sure you’ll find yourself in good company (along with some more annoying company of course…. that’s unavoidable).

For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy having reasonably priced aftermarket cables in my system. No top level Nordost or Audioquest with a 5 figure price tag or anything of that sort. In fact I tend to shy away from the Type A cable brands altogether, in favor of small companies – often of the “one man show” variety, and all of them of the Type B variety. So my reference system now features AC cables, interconnects, and digital cables from Cabledyne, a small firm that sells what I consider very high quality cables for relatively affordable prices. Cabledyne doesn’t make headphone cables, and I have more than one system that needs connecting, so I also use models from ideologically similar companies like CablePro, Toxic Cables, Signal Cable, Beat Audio, and Charleston Cable Company. My definition of “reasonably priced” may differ from yours, but generally speaking I think the cost of cables should always be less than that of the component they connect to, and should probably be one of the last upgrades you do once you have all the other components at the level where you’d like them to be. I find that I appreciate my system when using decent cables more than I did before, and usually get an improvement in ergonomics and appearance too. Do I actually “hear” a difference? Most times I feel like I do, though sometimes it isn’t clear. And I’m still not convinced that the improvement I perceive is always related to the sound actually changing. What I am convinced of is that the knowledge of a more expensive cable combined with a far nicer appearance might probably be enough to sway my opinion about what I think I hear. Either way, I figure the ends justify the means regardless of the actual reasoning behind it. Like comparing two similarly excellent DACs, the differences in character between cables can be very difficult to put into words. But then again most people don’t call you crazy when you do compare two good DACs and find them slightly different.

The changes I “hear” when using a good cable remind me of how the right picture frame can really add to the enjoyment of a piece of art hanging in a room, despite not actually changing the piece in any way. The right frame can make the colors of a picture or painting seem to “pop”. How does it do that without altering the picture itself? I find it very interesting how my impressions of cables tend to line up with their physical appearance. A more (physically) colorful and vibrant cable tends to sound more exciting. A (physically) complex, thick, sturdy cable, black in color, often sounds thicker, warmer, smoother, more polished and refined. The sound fits with the appearance. Coincidence? Maybe. It doesn’t always pan out this way but it’s something to keep in mind.

There are plenty of good examples we can think of where appearance factors in to perceived sound – would you pay $1000+ for a headphone that sounded like an HD800 or LCD-3 but looked and felt like a Koss Portapro? Would you be able to enjoy it? Because I probably wouldn’t. Should high-end firms like Pass Labs, Krell, Audio Research, Accuphase, etc. start selling versions of their amps in plain black enclosures, complete with cheap binding posts, for a fraction of their typical prices? A few of us might go for that but the reality is that the target market for an amplifier with a 5 figure price tag demands a certain level of aesthetics, and many people wouldn’t sacrifice that even for a substantial savings. JOB Audio claims to do this very thing and while their gear is somewhat popular, it’s certainly not putting other more expensive brands out of business. But at this point it becomes something of a philosophical discussion – like discussing politics, religion, or your favorite band, there’s usually no point in trying to convince someone to think differently than they already do. At least not without a direct connection and ongoing involvement in their lives, on a personal level. But over the internet? It doesn’t usually work out.

So – having said all that, will I ever get to the point? Is this a review or a think piece? And will I still manage to make some people angry despite everything I’ve said? Probably.

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The actual product on review here is a collection of cables from Effect Audio. Based in Singapore, Effect has been around since 2009. Like many others in the audio industry they started out small time, essentially working from home. As business grew via word of mouth, they expanded into their own space and began reaching out to the international market – initially via eBay, then through their own website. By now Effect is a well respected brand in some circles, even if they aren’t a household name.

Effect is somewhat unique in that they specialize in headphone cables and related accessories…. and not much else. While mainstream cable brands are just now getting on board after realizing the headphone thing is here to stay, Effect got their start making cables for headphones – and never really strayed from that specialty. Even more unique, they historically focus on cables for in-ear monitors, though certain full sized headphones also get some love these days. There’s also a small selection of interconnect cables for portable audio devices – think mini to mini cables for connecting a DAP to a portable amp. It’s almost unheard of that a cable company doesn’t make traditional stereo interconnects and AC cables, but Effect does not offer any of that on their website. It appears that just isn’t the focus. Refreshing, or limiting? You decide. Personally I think it’s great to have a laser-like focus on our market, and as stated earlier I appreciate the value that accompanies these smaller cable makers.

The specifics topic of this review is the new Eros line. The various Eros models sit, price wise, in the upper midrange of the lineup. Going by IEM cables alone – which again is where Effect got their start and therefore has the largest selection – at time of writing there are more models below Eros than above it. Eros is a hybrid design using cryo treated UPOCC 7N copper mixed with UPOCC 5N silver. Effect uses Mundorf Supreme solder and pays very close attention to detail – up there with the absolute best headphone cables I’ve experienced. Despite that, the price is not at all stratospheric, with the IEM cable going for $199.

Effect’s Eros IEM cables can be had in a variety of configurations: on the one end, termination can be straight or right angled (both using quality 1/8″ plugs), or RSA balanced, or the 2.5mm TRRS balanced plug used by Astell & Kern players. On the IEM end, Eros can have connectors for Shure, the new Westone style (MMCX, also used by Sensaphonics and some others), the older Westone style (also compatible with most custom IEMs on the market), Sennheiser IE8, UE TF10, and others as well. Basically they have something for nearly everyone, and if your IEM is not on the list I suspect they would be able to take care of it regardless. 4 wire braid is standard – an 8 wire braid is available at a higher cost, but for me seems overly cumbersome for portable use.

I mainly used the Eros cable with my Noble Kaiser 10 , JH13 FreqPhase, and Lear LCM-BD4.2 . I used it on the go with a variety of DAPs including the AK240, Calyx M, Sony A17, and HiFiMAN HM-802. I also listened on quite a few home rigs ranging from the simple – Parasound Zdac v2 fed by a MacBook Air – to the far more complex – Aurender music server, Resonessence Labs DAC, Violectric V281 amp, complete with fancy power conditioning and premium cables all around.

I won’t insult your intelligence by saying the Eros offered anything like a “night and day” difference. That sort of transformative improvement is best achieved by simply getting new headphones. From there, the source and amplification play smaller but still important roles, and so on down the line. Cables are low on the to-do list as far as I’m concerned.

Having established that, I’m willing to risk credibility in the eyes of some of my readers and proclaim that I did in fact enjoy the experience more with the Eros in play. Across all three of these flagship (or former flagship in the case of the JH13) in-ear monitors, I felt an improved sense of spaciousness, slightly better low frequency texture and an overall greater sense of ease (for lack of a better word). Using the Eros as opposed to a stock cable just felt more right. Keep in mind I’m not one of those people who insists stock cables are worthless – I actually quite like the typical braided CIEM cable as used by Westone et al. Lear and Noble both give a somewhat more premium stock cable that takes it one step further than the stock Westone. But the Eros looks, feels, and yes, sounds, better in my experience. Weird? Maybe, but I stand by my impressions.

These aspects were universal for the most part, though improvement was not necessarily equal from one IEM to the next. I thought the Noble K10 benefited most in terms of sounding more open and airy. The JH13 had the largest perceived improvement in low frequency depth – not more bass, but slightly cleaner, more delineated impact. The Lear, an extremely resolving hybrid armature/dynamic design, was oddly the most difficult improvement to discern. Gains were small but the cumulative effect was pleasing – I found it easier to listen for longer sessions without fatigue, which is a good thing on these HD800-like CIEMs.

These admittedly small differences were best experienced when listening at home. Not that a portable system is necessarily inferior by any means – it’s certainly possible to assemble a very high caliber portable setup these days. Something, like an AK240, has enough resolution to highlight these improvements. For me, it comes down to usage. On the go, I’m far more likely to be in a noisy environment. Custom IEMs isolate well, but some external sound will inevitably come through. That’s just not the type of scenario that lends itself well to critical listening. I also find that my attention span is a huge factor – at home, I’m typically sitting there doing nothing but listening. That allows me to focus my full attention on the music and the subtleties involved in its reproduction. On the go I’m usually distracted thinking about my destination or any number of other things. In that situation I personally wouldn’t bother with a cable upgrade unless it was based around some aspect like durability or flexibility.

The next cable to discus is the Eros for full sized headphones. This $399 model is similar to the IEM version but uses a thicker gauge of cable as befitting a larger headphone intended for home use. Aside from that it’s the same hybrid construction and the same excellent build quality. Standard build comes with the 8 wire braid and a 16 wire braid is available for a price increase – looks like Effect no longer offers the 4 wire braid on this model. This time around Eros can be configured to work with HD650, HD800 HiFiMAN, Audeze, K701, and – notably – Mr Speakers Alpha Dogs. That last one is still somewhat rare in aftermarket cables, and that’s the option I went with. The opposing end can be terminated with quite a few different options. I went with 4-pin Neutrik XLR for use with my balanced amps.

I’ve been using the recabled Alpha Dogs with a variety of music ranging from Tidal lossless streaming to high res PCM and DSD tracks. With the new cable in place, I notice a somewhat different result as compared to the IEM version. In this case, the biggest difference is top end clarity. The Alpha Dogs, as much as I love them, fall short of the best out there when it comes to treble refinement. They do a good job for the most part but when I switch to an HD800, or HE-6, or especially an electrostatic model from Stax or Kingsound, the Alphas sound lacking in comparison. Am I going to say the Eros cable completely fixes this issue and moves them up to an entirely higher tier? Nope. What it does do is allow them to do is seemingly breath a little easier – treble seems less grainy, or edgy, or whatever term we might use. With that barrier removed it becomes less obvious as a point of weakness separating Alpha Dogs from the big boys.

Note – I’m not claiming this cable relaxes the Alpha Dogs at all. Treble remains equally prominent. It’s just more convincing and therefore doesn’t stand out as being objectionable. If you truly do find the Alpha treble bothersome in terms of quantity, a better route to take would be the $15 “Doggy Treats” tuning kit which allows one to tame the treble in incremental steps. I’ve messed with the kit and actually decided I like the overall balance without it, despite my reservations with the treble. So for someone like me the Eros cable is just what the doctor ordered.

Interestingly, Dan Clark – Mr Speakers himself – agrees with the idea of cables changing the sound of his product. “But my experience is cables make an audible difference, sometimes good and sometimes bad, and sometimes can’t hear a difference.”  Like me, he’s not interested in arguing about it, but that’s his stance in case anyone wondered. I’ve heard similar from a wide variety of headphone designers, though to be fair I also know some of them disagree. The bottom line is that we need to decide for ourselves, and we need to respect other’s decisions even if they don’t line up with ours.

The last cable to discuss is actually not an Eros but rather a copper version of their Thor model. The silver Thor sits above Eros in the lineup while the copper version sits below. I got this one in a similar configuration as the Eros – 8 wire, 4-pin XLR balanced termination – but this time I got it for connecting my Audeze LCD-2/LCD-3. Prices start at a reasonable $199 for the 4 wire version, moving to $299 for an 8 wire setup or $499 for the massive 16 wire configuration. Effect offers this cable in black or silver, and you might possibly talk Effect into mixing the two colors as they did with mine.

I normally run a Thor of the Silver variety on my LCD-2, as it helps fill out the top end a bit – it’s still a buttery smooth Audeze house sound, no question, but a little extra air up there is always welcome. Switching to the Copper Thor, I lose a little of that air in favor of a slightly thicker tonality… which is not really something I chase after on my LCD-2. Recall Dan Clark’s line about “sometimes good and sometimes bad”? This would be an example of what I consider a bad match. Not that it sounds terrible, mind you, but I think I prefer the sound with stock cable intact. Have I mentioned the stock Audeze cables are quite nice these days? Far better than the thick, unwieldy version they initially shipped with.

Anyway, switching to the LCD-3 proved a better match for the Thor Copper. The LCD-3 (Fazor version) is very impressive, with a more liquid midrange and better treble extension than my pre-Fazor LCD-2. I love it. However…. I do sometimes feel it lacks that certain “something” which caused me to fall for the original LCD-2 in the first place. It’s definitely more even handed and accurate. As has been the trend with each successive refresh. However, at times, I wish for a little more “kick” – a little less polite, a little more dynamic and lively. The Thor Copper helps scratch that itch just perfectly. Does it change the fundamental nature of the LCD-3? Nope. Just as a pinch of salt can season an already delicious meal. So, too, does the right cable upgrade add just a hint of extra flavor to an already excellent headphone. Could I live with the stock cable? Of course! But on a $2,000 headphone being driven from a very resolving (and expensive) system…. $299 for the Thor Copper does not seem particularly out of place.

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Final Thoughts

I don’t often put thoughts to (digital) ink on the topic of cables. It’s divisive, and frankly not all that fun to write about anyway. I feel cables are something that everyone has to hear – or not hear as the case may be – in order to make up their own minds. Sure we can talk theory all day long. But, as with anything else, the best way to know for sure is to seek first hand knowledge. Thankfully, trying out some cables is not particularly difficult. Local dealers can be a good resource. As can the better online sellers who will happily loan you something in exchange for a deposit. Many of the small time cable firms have excellent return policies too. So there’s typically very little to lose during this whole adventure. Why not try it if you have yet to do so? You’ll either discover something new and exciting. Or else solidify your pre-existing opinion. Neither of those seems like a waste of time from where I sit.

From a macro perspective, and regardless of your stance on the matter, it seems to me like we all need to just calm down a little and stop being so overzealous. Cable naysayers should relax and let others enjoy themselves. What harm does it do to you personally if someone spends their money on something you consider unwise? It is, after all, their money. Do you enjoy being on the receiving end of that scorn when Joe 12-Pack insists his Bose table radio is the best sound money can buy, and anything beyond that is a ripoff? No, I didn’t think so.

The flip side of that – rabid cable enthusiasts should show restraint when describing night and day improvements wrought by expensive cables. That’s a sure fire way to build unrealistic expectations leading to disappointment when folks hear a cable “only” making a modest improvement. It’s hard enough for the mainstream to take us seriously. Why give them more ammunition for dismissal? Sure, spend whatever percentage of the budget you want on cables. Just don’t ridicule others for not following suit. Follow the same rules you’d expect from others when discussing politics or religion, and we’ll all be a lot better off.

We have to recognize that everyone has their limits. For some, it’s aftermarket cables of any type. Others draw the line at fancy USB or Ethernet cables. Some folks are willing to go all out on a DAC, but feel the transport makes little difference – bits is bits right? Some accept most anything short of magic rocks and Tice Clocks. While some embrace those too – anything for the slightest possibility of a boost in sound quality, regardless of the logic involved. Wherever you draw your particular line, just recognize that nearly everyone else feels the exact same way. Just with a different cutoff point. We should all be comfortable in our choices. After all, this is a hobby. As in something to do for fun in our spare time. Do it the way you want to, not to please some strangers on a forum. Listen for yourself and be confident in what you hear. We all do that. We’ll be just fine.

As for Effect Audio? I find their cables to be a very good value. They aren’t the cheapest available, nor the most expensive. That said, to my ears and eyes they offer an excellent mixture of form, function, and usability. The broad lineup means there’s a little something for every budget and desired sound signature. They don’t do AC or standard interconnect cables. If you find yourself wanting an upgraded headphone cable I say keep Effect Audio on your shortlist of companies worth investigating.

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  • Ernie Kower

    John,

    Your cable ‘conversation’ makes many of the points lots of us bounce back and forth in our own heads about the myriad of cable choices. As you know, businesses like Blue Jean Cables make money from those who want affordable, well made audio/video cables without the helpings of suspicious claims. Disclaimer: I use no Blue Jean Cables currently in my system, but may in future buy their relatively affordable HDMI cables for AV purposes. Off topic – Any chance a follow up your excellent Aurender X100 review with one for the Aurender N100?

    • John Grandberg

      Blue Jean Cables are interesting in that they seem to be accepted by a wide range of objectivists – even though realistically we can find competition at Monoprice (among others) doing theoretically the same thing for less. I recommend the Signal Cable Analog One for those looking for a cheap interconnect (similar price as Blue Jean) that looks more “audiophile”.

      I’ve got an Aurender Flow that I intend to review, but maybe their newer servers are worth checking out as well. We’ll see.

  • Dubstep Dude360

    Wow, this is the best article I’ve every read regarding cables. I, like you, go back and forth in my mind about them being worth my time. But at the end of the day, I do hear a difference AND I also like the way the nice ones look (hey, since you admitted it, I will too lol). Nice job, Grandberg 🙂

  • Anthony Kimball

    Thank you for taking the time to delve into this potentially polarizing topic. I have always been on the fence about the value of wires. It seems that they have the ability to change the sound, but how much and whether or not for the better seems to be a hot debate. I will say that I recently won a set of IEM cables from Plussound for my Shure 535s, which was an Ideal way to check it out for myself. I found, much as you reported, that it did change the sound…not transformative, but, to my ears beneficial (somehow seems to ease the treble, while retaining detail). I have to agree that it can be well worth investigating (especially with “online sellers who will happily loan you something in exchange for a deposit.”…I haven’t heard of that.)