Can DH Labs Solve the Audio Cable Conundrum?December 24, 2016
Is it performance? Is it pride? Or is it placebo? When it comes to audio cables, and the impact that they may or may not have on your hi-fi system, you can be sure that conversations will get contentious—particularly when it comes to digital cables that “only” have to send some 1s and 0s from one device to another.
The Spirited Uncle M, for my main example, is a downright cable connoisseur, a pure cable junkie if you will. From bare wire to the most expensive and esoteric offerings from cable companies like the notorious Synergistic Research, he has tried it all—and swears that distinct differences can be heard between each and every cable. Some of the most in-depth experimentation that goes on in his Sound Lab revolves around A/B testing numerous cables between each piece of gear to find which ones invoke the perfect “synergy” in his current setup. Keep in mind that he’s generally running a separate transport, DAC, pre-amp and amplifier—that’s a whole lot of cables fighting for their proper place in his two-channel speaker and headphone system.
I, on the other hand, have far less patience for such practices. Perhaps that’s why I am just the lowly Sound Apprentice. While I have attempted to do some cable shootouts in the past, and I have tried several custom aftermarket headphone cables with various high-end headphones, like the Audeze LCD-X, Sennheiser HD800 and Hifiman HE-500, inconsistent results, along with the haranguing I receive from zealots from dueling cable camps, have seen my conviction wane for what a cable can and can’t do.
In reality, cables shouldn’t be such an issue. All we audiophiles really want are well-built cables, made with materials that will deliver the best signal possible and hold up well under long-term use. Is that really so much to ask?
I think not. So rather than continually second guessing myself—or falling victim to what all of the cable connoisseurs and cable crappers have to say—in my personal journey to #AudioNirvana, I’m sticking to the mentality that a high quality cable made by a company that’s more concerned about its engineering, R&D and customer satisfaction than its marketing lingo and ad spending is good enough for me.
So whose cables am I talking about? DH Labs’.
This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch; rather, it’s a reflection on my experience with the company. I first learned about DH Labs from none other than The Spirited Uncle M. As much of a crazed spendthrift audiophile he can be, he has no time or patience for cheap, unreliable crap or over-priced products that under-perform. So the fact that he trusts in both DH Labs’ most affordable and most expensive cables—and won’t scrutinize me for using any of them—is a testament in itself.
But when I started digging into what DH Labs is about, I found that the company isn’t just another cable company trying to convince consumers that only its most expensive and proprietary cables can make their music magical. Sure, DH Labs, like every cable company catering to this industry, has its ultra-high-end overbuilt statement pieces, but it also has a full host of no-nonsense, get-the-job-done-right wire for us with more conservative budgets and approaches to good sound.
Founded in 1992 by chief designer and engineer Darren Hovsepian, DH Labs was one of the first cable companies to experiment with silver—the best conductor of electricity—for its conductors. Today, DH Labs is one of the best in the business, serving as an OEM cable manufacturer for many others in the industry and the supplier of internal wiring for more than 25 speaker and component manufacturers worldwide. What’s more, DH Labs cables are used exclusively in several top recording & mastering studios. I mean, they must be doing something right.
So what makes their cables and connectors so appealing?
For me, I appreciate the build quality and variety of finished and bulk cables, and I like the fact that virtually all materials are sourced, manufactured and assembled in the USA. For those with far more technical interests, DH Labs’ electrical engineers focus on researching, developing and sourcing materials manufactured under stringent specifications that optimize electrical efficiency, noise canceling and overall acoustic transparency (check out this interview). They actually measure and aim to better things that matter for current delivery and signal performance, like capacitance, inductance, resistance and more.
What’s more, the people behind the company are simply genuinely nice to work with. Have a question, need help, want advice, all you have to do is shoot them an email or give them a call and they’re happy to offer insight no matter if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line pre-built cable, a cable made to your custom specs, something entry-level, or just some high-quality bulk wire and connectors for a DIY project.
For the fun of it, I built my own power cords using the Power Plus bulk cable. I use the Air Matrix, BL-1 and Sub-Sonic interconnects, T-14 speaker wire, and Silver Premium HDMI cable. I’m also currently experimenting with a couple of new offerings: the Silver Sonic HP-1 headphone cable and the Glass Master Toslink digital cable.
SILVER SONIC HP-1 HEADPHONE CABLE
Having become such a headphone enthusiast over the years, I was always interested in the prospects of DH Labs producing an aftermarket cable. Now that they have, I obviously had to try it. The HP-1 is available factory terminated or in unfinished bulk form for DIY cable builders.
I’m currently using a factory terminated version for Sennheiser headphones with a 4-pin balanced plug, but it’s also available in mini 3-pin XLR at the cups (Audeze-style) and with 1/4" stereo, 1/8” stereo or RSA/ALO mini 4-pin balanced plugs. I must say that the medium gray braided jacketing DH Labs chose for this cable matches my HD650 nicely....
But back to the point, the finished build is of typical DH Labs quality: robust (albeit slightly on the stiff side). The HP-1’s flexibility appears to be limited by the fact that it is a flat cable, with two parallel runs of wire. So while it bends up and down easy enough, side to side movement is limited. For me, this is a non-issue because I’d only be using it in my home listening room where mobility is not really a concern and ultimate resolution is the top priority, but I could see others being a bit more picky here.
Transparency is always the goal of DH Labs. Here, the HP-1 achieves its sonic performance through two parallel runs of two 28awg OCC copper wires each with a PE dielectric and a braided silver-plated OFHC copper shield. This configuration actually makes the HP-1 a very easy cable for the DIYer to work with. In fact, if I were to do this again, I’d probably buy the bulk HP-1 cable and fire up the old soldering iron. DIY obviously allows for more flexibility in terminating the HP-1 into headphones that don’t use 2-pin Sennheiser or mini 3-pin XLR plugs, and I think I would also prefer to use a lightweight paracord sleeving across the entire length of the cable versus the heavier braided jacketing DH Labs uses from the amp end plug up to the Y-splitter. For my cost-conscious followers, the DIY route also saves a large chunk of change as it’s priced at $7.30 per foot. For those with deeper pockets, the DH Labs factory terminated cable is priced comparably to other aftermarket offerings from cable gurus like Double Helix Cables, Moon Audio and WyWires.
Sonically, the HP-1 does what I have come to expect out of every DH Labs cable—it gets out of the way of the music and resolves all that the source has to offer. Versus the stock Sennheiser cable, I feel there’s a slight advantage in overall detail retrieval and better tonal clarity. This is simply a cable that you won’t have to question whether you’re hearing all that you’re supposed to or as accurately as intended. DH Labs cables are specifically designed to deliver the signal in its truest form.
Now here’s where things get real heated—the 1s and 0s.
SILVER SONIC GLASS MASTER TOSLINK CABLE
For some 16 odd months, DH Labs painstakingly researched and developed its new Glass Master Toslink (optical) digital cable. For this particular cable, DH Labs ultimately sourced its proprietary true glass fibers from Germany in order to make a cable with the tight bend radius desired while avoiding any compromise to signal transmission or fracturing of the strands during use. The end product uses 300 strands of high-purity proprietary glass fibers to deliver the widest bandwidth and frequency responses of any digital optical cable measured in the industry.
Some of the testing behind this cable includes a refractive index profile, fiber geometry inspections, ensuring tensile strength, bandwidth capacity, and attenuation at different wavelengths, including chromatic dispersion and numerical aperture. In other words, this isn’t any old optical cable.
Capping off the ends are custom machined gold-plated connectors with precision-polished optical-grade lens surfaces at the connection points to ensure jitter is a non-issue.
In full disclosure, I usually use entry-level Straightwire Toslink cables that are mostly plastic. In comparison, the Glass Master is a real treat, albeit a far more expensive treat ($195 for 1 meter). Everything about the Glass Master exudes high-end. The internals already mentioned aside, the machined ends grip the optical jacks of my devices like no other. On my Schiit Yggdrasil DAC, the Straightwire connector slips in and out without much bite, but the Glass Master grips like a vise, ensuring a secure fit and perfect alignment for light transmission. The machined barrel ends are also robust and add strength and a nice tactile feel to the cable. Of course, the black and purple Techflex sleeving makes for a nice presentation if you’re concerned about that sort of thing. I know that for some, having fancy cables is all part of the experience—so no worries with this one.
Sonically speaking is where the lines can get blurred. The audio performance of Toslink versus USB or Coax often comes down to the implementation of these connection points in each piece of gear and its respective hardware. Yes, a crappy cable can result in data transmission errors that audibly upset your DAC, but that’s guaranteed to be a non-issue with any DH Labs product. So my disclaimer here is that your results may vary.
DH Labs states that the Glass Master will unveil deeper resolution and more pronounced dynamic peaks versus its peers. Putting the Glass Master up against my Monoprice and Straightwire Toslink cables, and for kicks a Monster 75-ohm digital coax cable, I felt that subtle differences could be heard with critical listening. On my Sony DVP-S9000ES, I think I actually preferred the Glass Master over my standard choice of tapping the coax output. Generally speaking, coax is a simpler and more direct connection to make between devices, but I felt that the Glass Master had a slightly fuller sound to it while also seemingly capturing a hair more detail with a blacker background—a tall order considering that the S9000ES is already a detail machine. It is worth noting that the coax and Toslink cables do have to pass over many other power and interconnect cables and around multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices on their way to my DAC, so that could be one reason that the Glass Master outperforms coax in this instance.
I don’t doubt that DH Labs has achieved something special with the Glass Master. No company would put the effort into creating something like this if it wasn’t going to best what’s already available. If your system relies on optical connections, I’d say give the Glass Master a try. For all of the real cable connoisseurs out there, this is likely to be a treat to hear and handle. To the deep-pocketed audiophile that simply wants to buy the best they can, there’s no question that this cable is it. To my conservative readers, decide the route to the best signal delivery within your system. Even if the Glass Master isn’t right for you, DH Labs product line will have what is.
My closing tip is this: invest in quality the first time around. When you try to do things on the cheap, you end up paying more in the end. This has been the case in nearly every one of my hobbies, from bikes, to 4x4s, to golf and more. By no means will I put a price tag on performance. But if you want quality audio cables that you can trust, DH Labs will deliver at every one of its price points.