HifiZine
The enthusiast's audio webzine

Audioquest USB cables

The computer audio revolution marches forward… and I’ve got my marching boots on. 

Stephen Mejias of AudioQuest contacted me following my review of their DragonFly 1.2 to see if I was interested in reviewing some of their USB cables. He thought it a good idea to send three different cables so I could hear and contrast the differences. I thought this a good idea as well. Stephen sent me the Forest, Cinnamon, and Carbon USB cables which sit in the middle of AudioQuest’s USB line. There is one entry-level cable called Pearl that sits below Forest and then Coffee and Diamond come after Carbon. AudioQuest sells their digital cables at a standard length of 0.75 meters though I thought I needed the cables to be longer so Stephen sent all three in 1.5 meters. In retrospect, I think 0.75 would have been long enough. Regardless, prices for 1.5m lengths are $39 for Forest, $79 for Cinnamon, and $169 for Carbon. 

AudioQuest USB Cables

Forest consists of solid 0.5% silver conductors that are protected by “air-filled Foamed-Polyethylene Insulation.” Cinnamon uses solid 1.25% silver conductors and also uses the air-filled Foamed-Polyethylene insulation. Though with Forest, the outer part of the cable is some sort of rubber material and with Cinnamon it’s the standard, audiophile, coarse, woven material. I assume this air-filled Foamed-Polyethylene Insulation that AudioQuest is referring to is the insulator directly around the conductor. I’m not sure if the outer portion of the cable (the part you see and touch) has any effect on the cable’s sound. Lastly, Carbon utilizes solid 5% silver conductors and also employs the air-filled Foamed-Polyethylene Insulation. According to AudioQuest’s website, Carbon also uses a “Carbon-Based 3-Layer Noise-Dissipation System.” I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what this is so I’ll just plagiarize the site: “100% shield coverage is easy. Preventing captured RF Interference from modulating the equipment’s ground reference requires AQ’s Noise-Dissipation System. Metal and Carbon-Loaded synthetics prevent most RFI from reaching the equipment’s ground plane.” The outer portion of Carbon is also the woven material common with Cinnamon. Forest and Cinnamon are terminated with gold-plated plugs and Carbon’s plugs are silver-plated.  

I came to this review after months of listening to digital files through the DragonFly 1.2/Sydney combo. Honestly, I wasn’t really excited to go back to my Schiit Modi as my last experience with it left a bad taste in my mouth using it with an off the shelf USB cable – which kind of sucked compared to the DragonFly 1.2/Sydney set-up. But obligation forced my hand. Listening through Modi with the crappy cable was as I had remembered it – edgy, cold and hard compared to the DragonFly.

I intended on doing the obvious and beginning my evaluation at the bottom of the alleged quality totem pole with Forest. For whatever absent-minded reason, I initially swapped out the generic cable with Cinnamon. It was after about fifteen minutes of listening that I realized my mistake and swapped Cinnamon with Forest. Before I did, however, I noted a leap in presentation over the generic USB cable. Bass was warmer, images more real and less hard-etched in space. Timing was better and there was less digital glare. I’ll get to Cinnamon more here in a second.

So I swapped Cinnamon out and put Forest in its place. I noted a subtle but immediately noticeable downgrade from Cinnamon. Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself but just to start fresh, I put the generic cable back in to sort of cleanse my palette. Back to square one and an even bigger dip in quality than there was between Cinnamon to Forest. This baseline musical presentation was digital, cold and edgey. Though listenable, musical drama and texture was lacking and bass was flat and sort of an afterthought. 

So back in went Forest. I immediately noted a bump in warmth to the music. The soundstage became slightly larger and more natural and imaging was less cold and hard etched in space. Highs were less harsh and bass more present and warm. I listened to Forest for quite a while as I felt content with it in my system. Its overall sonic attributes and musical presentation are really similar to the VUE VU-1 USB cable that I did a recent follow-up review on. Digital files were just more right with it in my system.

After extended listening with Forest in place, I decided it was time to put Cinnamon back in my system to see if it was how I remembered. It was. The presentation of the music was more natural and less etchey. Bass was warmer and highs more forgiving. Images were more natural. I listened to Sonic Youth rip through “Silver Rocket” from Daydream Nation and if their raping of guitars can ever sound forgiving, Cinnamon was a step in that direction. Though the wailing guitars had a less compartmentalized, my space/your space quality as they did with Forest, they were easier to decipher from one another, even during the feedback/noise “solo” section of the track. Good stuff.

The devil’s in the details as they say, and details are what we are primarily dealing with when comparing things like USB cables. I feel that the differences between Forest and Cinnamon were made most evident when listening to acoustic, minimally instrumented music such as duos and trios. Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden’s masterpiece Beyond the Missouri Sky is a prime example of this. This is where you these details are perhaps magnified a bit. String plucks, breathing, space between instruments and the tone of those instruments were richer and more defined with each step up between USB cables.

Jumping from Cinnamon to Carbon was more of the same in terms of quality. Was Carbon obviously better then Forest and Cinnamon? Yes. It is a noticeable leap from Forest and a bit more subtle of a quality improvement over Cinnamon. Of the three, it obviously is (as you would expect) the best cable. Simply put, in comparison to all other USB cable’s I have heard (5), it makes music the most musical. Texture and timing are more precise as are spatial cues. The only time I felt that Cinnamon and sometimes even Forest bettered Carbon was with synthetically made electronic music. Stuff that has never breathed in a real space. I was listening to Oval and was switching between cables and noted that with this type of program material, the sharp and rigid imaging qualities of the lesser cables lent themselves to the sharp, rigid nature of the music. Of course, this came with an overall sharpening of everything that could also make the music a bit harsher and more glaring. That said, when I put Carbon back in my system, the benefits never had me wanting sharper imaging at their expense.

If you apply cost to performance, is Carbon 4 times better than Forest? Or twice as good as Cinnamon? That’s a tough one. I realize that we are talking high-end audio here and the law of diminishing returns definitely applies. And in terms of high-end audio, the land where multi-thousand dollar cables exist and do so with little to no scrutiny, these cables cost next to nothing. Of the three, Carbon is clearly the best cable. Of the three, it’s the one I wanted to listen to the most. It is funny though to consider the fact that a $169 cable was the link between my laptop and $100 DAC. Maybe that matters and maybe it doesn’t.

Analogy time. I like beer – a lot. Craft beer to be more specific. Like pretty much the rest of the craft beer drinking world, I really enjoy IPA’s (India Pale Ale). To those who aren’t aware, IPA’s are a kind of beer with a high hop content. There are numerous different kinds of hops and the degree to which their flavor is present in IPA’s varies. IPA’s are an acquired taste, but once that taste is acquired, you never look back. When I first delved into the world of IPA’s, I could smell the hops and I could taste the hops – but that was where my sophistication ended. The more I got into different IPA’s and learned about how and when the hops were added during the brewing process and what form of hops were used, my palette and nose became more informed. This was in part from education, but to a greater extent, through experience.  I’m now slowly getting to the point where I can decipher different hop varieties just from taste and smell – something that seemed like a long shot when I first got into IPAs.

So, what’s the analogy? I spent a number of weeks swapping out these USB cables and comparing the differences a number of times over to confirm what I was hearing. One day I was mentioning to my wife what I had been doing. I asked her if she wanted to hear the differences, and to my utter surprise, she said yes. I sat her down in the sweet spot and began to play some music – I think it was Natalie Merchant. I started with Forest in place then switched to Cinnamon. After 30 seconds or so, I looked at her for a response and she said it didn’t sound any different to her. “Seriously?!?!?” So I then swapped out Cinnamon with Carbon and played the same track. Again, after a minute or so she claimed to hear absolutely no difference. During this little demonstration, I was sitting behind her and to the left and not at all in the sweet spot, yet I was hearing clear-cut differences each time I switched a cable. She then asked me what differences I thought she should be hearing, to which I briefly described the qualities I stated above for each cable. She still claimed to hear no difference. At this point, I was beginning to feel like the mad scientist that had to prove his theory. I figured the most drastic comparison I could make was to go from Carbon back to the cheap, generic cable. I did and started the music waiting for a reaction. You guessed it. Nothing. I threw my hands up in the air and gave up.

So what’s this have to do with beer? To Amy, it was all hoppy beer. No differences between any of it – but then she doesn’t sit down and listen to music on a daily basis in front of my stereo. She has no informed context of how my stereo really sounds, other than as background music during dinner. And even then, I’m sure half the time she’s just wishing I would turn off whatever music I’m listening to.  To me, the cables made a big difference, but then I know every sonic nook and cranny of my system and the room it’s in. 

All cables, USB cables included – and specifically these three AudioQuest USB cables – will make a difference in your system. To what extent you notice or care is dependent on you and how attentive you are to such things. I found their varying levels of sound quality enticing and well worth the time taken to decipher what they had to offer. Coupled with the fact that the cost of admission is low, especially in audiophile terms, you owe it to you, your ears and your DAC to check out what a new/different audio-specific USB cable can do.

-As a side note, after extensive listening to these three USB cables, I put back in the DragonFly 1.2/Sydney combo that I had been listening to prior to this review and preferred it to my Schiit Modi with any USB cable. To compare it in this setting would be apples and oranges but I’ll say this: at this price point, it makes more sense to me to have a small USB DAC vs. a standalone DAC connected via a USB cable. It takes out an element of the guessing game and makes things simpler. And simplicity is good.

 

System 

  • Toshiba Satellite C855D-S5103 laptop running Foobar2000/WASAPI
  • Schiit Modi DAC
  • Transparent Audio MusicWave interconnect and speaker cable
  • Luminous Audio Axiom II passive preamp
  • AMC 2100 power amp
  • Magnepan SMG-C


Readers' comments

    Very useful and practical review, especially bringing your wife’s experience into it. I certainly don’t know every nook and cranny of my system, so small and even not-so-small changes do not ever jump out at me, as much as I am trying to be an audiophile. I get by, and I’m very happy, knowing that I have pretty good equipment and so I am hearing music as well as I can and with good quality, but I really wish I could experience ‘wow’ moments more often. Thanks for the review.

  • I am a musician and an ‘audiophile’, have been some of both for going on 40 years, have seen a lot of good stuff come and go, and have a pretty good set up. Wires and their ability to transmit sound ‘better’ than other wires has always been a border line snake oil industry in my view. And I have tried better quality speaker cables, interconnects and ac lines. I can appreciate how much better they look, but I have quite some trouble discerning between sound quality. But the notion that different USB cables – purveyor of digital ones and zeros – make a difference to sound quality …. well that’s really pushing the boundaries of reality. ( see this link for a rational explanation on why USB cables simply can’t make a difference : http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f6-dac-digital-analog-conversion/universal-serial-bus-industry-standard-cables-connectors-and-communications-protocols-between-computers-and-electronic-devices-cable-myth-11711/ )

    I understand very well that like a chef that has to train his pallet and has to try many different combinations of things, and he really has to make it an art to taste the subtle differences and textural nuances between foods and flavours, a reviewer must do something similar. And I understand that to hear the differences in quality of equipment, your sound is only as good as your weakest piece of equipment, so it’s no good listening to different pre-amps if all you have are old Radio Shack speakers. But the claims being made by the wire companies, and especially those of the digital wire companies are a part of what really ruin this industry altogether.

    • Hi Dave, I confess that I hadn’t noticed that the audio industry has been ruined. I see much diversity, activity, and innovation at all price levels. I see people having fun modifying Class D amps that cost a few tens of dollars. I see manufacturers competing to bring high-res playback down to a price that anyone can afford. Every week I use (audio-related) software tools that I couldn’t have even afforded 20 years ago; now some of them are free! I see people experimenting with (and yes, arguing about) different types of speakers; with multiple subwoofer configurations; etc, etc. So much variety and richness.

    Interesting review/article. However, did you ever blind test the cables? That is the only way to truly know if the difference is noticeable. Otherwise, the placebo effect is all you get. Or the your desire to verify the most expensive cable as the best one. Is it possible for you to do a blind test and then to add your experience to the article?

  • I have a pro card running through a high end DAC and some very high end speakers. I was using the AES connection and not liking the card. Just for the heck of it I switched over to the Spdif connection- Wow! What a difference! I was stunned! Suddenly I was immersed in glourious sound!

    That got me interested in exploring why there was such a difference.

    It turns out that it was mostly down to the cables as far as I can tell. I was able to improve the AES connection by using some different (also shorter) cables. Likewise, I was able degrade the Spdif connection by switching to different cables.

    My system sounds pretty darn good now but the whole experience has made me consider trying a more high end cable just to see if it would further improve things- which seems unlikely since it sounds so good, but who knows?

    The differences I heard were in 3D soundstage, panning/position of instruments, clarified deep punchy bass, and a better, more focused midrange. Highs were also greatly improved- from being harsh/metallic to sounding smoother and more transparent and natural sounding.

    I used to be a cable sceptic, but no more!

  • In my system where I have the USB cable between a Bryston BDP and a Benchmark Dac, the Forest is actually better sounding than the Carbon. Instruments are more separate, there is a wider soundstage and it is more detailed. I wonder if Audioquest was going for more of a LP type sound with the Carbon as it is quite mellow sounding.
    I love the Forest but of course, being some level of audiophile, still searching for something even better that is affordable.

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