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Alt-USB Cables: The Missing Ear Candy

12-22-2020 | By Bruce Kinch | Issue 112

Yes, I know. It's traditional to cite recordings used in an equipment review (and illustrate them with the cover art), but featuring even some of the music that used to evaluate four very different USB cables meant the review would run far too long. Ultimately, I had to cut all the window dressing. You can find that review HERE.

While the cables were breaking in I created a playlist of challenging recordings that would be easily repeatable across all the tests. After finishing the review, I realized that readers might also explore the playlist if they had a streaming service. I use Qobuz with Roon rather than Tidal because contemporary classical music seems better supported, and the Qutest doesn't do MQA. So here's a Qobuz-sourced mix of familiar audiophile approved tracks, less well-known personal favorites, and some stuff "Roon Radio" was just so sure I'd like. Tidal probably has most of it, too. I tried to keep all the tracks under 5 min, but in some cases that was impossible; the sometimes awkward editing is courtesy Qobuz. My criteria were basically technical: timbre, resolution from top to bottom, bass and treble extension, transient attack and decay, dynamics from micro to macro, soundstage width and depth, but the tracks had to be worthy of repeated critical listening. There are recordings both natural and manipulated, from studios, concert halls, sound tracks, and the great outdoors. Sorry, not much familiar pop, rock or jazz, mostly to avoid my own personal preferences. I ended up with these 26 items, total time just over 90 min:

I printed out the playlist in order to make notes during play on the main system using the Roon Nucleus/ultraRendu combo. On my studio desktop and workroom systems I played selections straight from Qobuz over Wi-Fi. After the first time through, I found I would often hear new details on replay using three very different systems.

Some additional comments:

1. This is there to illustrate how effectively a system replaces the listening room acoustic with a real recording studio ambience. The guitar player may sound familiar, but watch the bouncing finger snaps.

2. The Lucia aria is actually from The Fifth Element soundtrack (see also 15). There should be a definite change in the perceived size of venue from the studio in 1 to a large hall here.

3. Cavernous acoustic, low bass and piano, locate and map the distant cymbals. I set the playback volume for the entire playlist at the point where the low-level percussion is just clearly audible. Louder at your own risk.

4. Aaron Neville from Rob Wasserman's Duets album. Follow, locate, and distinguish the backup vocals.

5. Drums and deep bass, sure, but the woofer you need to listen for is the dog doing a low level Keith Jarrett imitation in the background.

6. I've loved Rachmaninoff's Vespers since I studied Russian in High School. There are many versions on Qobuz (worth sampling just for the different venue acoustics). This one is a real Russian chamber choir, not a massed chorus singing phonetic Russian, and you should be able to distinguish individual voices.

7. Stockfish Records may be the last refuge of topical singer-songwriters. I grew up picking along with early Dylan and Phil Ochs, and it's almost Christmas as I write this.

8. At the last pre-covid RMAF, my small pack of swag included a CD sampler from Rhymoi records (Google Chrome will translate). The Chinese play such a huge role in high-end manufacturing, I was keen to find out what Chinese audiophiles might listen to (besides Diana Krall), and I got hooked. Mirabile dictu, Qobuz had at least several of the Rhythmoi recordings available, although searching for Chinese recordings in English is a challenge. Here's a short additional playlist if you are also curious.

Locate but please don't shoot at the geese or swat at the bugs. The entire album was recorded live in front of the Great Wall, another great test of low level resolution.

9. Rob Wasserman again, solo from his Trios album. Long live Rock & Roll.

10. Evelyn Glennie playing the Cadenza before the first movement of John Corigliano's Conjurer Concerto. One of the best transient "tests" I've ever heard, but stay for the whole piece if you like. My favorite deaf female Scottish percussionist, no contest.

11. Is actually a Meredith Monk piece. Locate and distinguish the vocalists. If you have willing collaborators, this is a neat piece to use while positioning speakers for imaging, not deep bass.

12. Just a snippet of my man Matt Haimovitz playing Bach on (hyper)cello, with sensors on his bow arm, and computers reprocessing the results in real time. The full disc also includes Tod Machover's concertos for HyperViolin and HyperViola. Again, worth listening to the whole thing.

13. You can't consider soundstage construction without including something engineered by Daniel Lanois. Here Emmylou sings in a lower range than usual, so her voice can be colored by upper or lower midrange emphasis. One of several selections on the playlist that image around and behind the head in my system.

14. Arnold's brief orchestral showpiece has been an audiophile favorite for years. This is also a tip o' the hat to Reference Recordings, masters of recording orchestras in real acoustic space.

15. A remix from The Fifth Element if 2 sounded too much like opera for your taste.

16. A closely miked bit from one of my favorite dystopian future flicks. The bass finale is special, too.

17. Some bloody deep bass here. Spoiler alert: mayhem ensues, sequel after sequel.

18. Take John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma, add some Gyuto throat singers, and you can't miss.

19. Clean voices and plucked strings, plus a very slow fade to silence to check the noise floor. "Have you really loved a woman?" Play this for her.

20. Bollywood on the big soundstage. Step away from the mixing console, sahib.

21. Jennie without Lennie. Enveloping 3D soundstage, but the intelligibility test here is how well the system resolves "Cagney" and "Continental", which she uncharacteristically slurs.

22. Another deep soundstage test. Dig the echo. If sound travels 1100 ft/second, how big is the studio?

23. Wheee! Do not play this with toddlers around, it's an ear-worm for pre-verbal mimics.

24. Harry Pearson had Harry Partch on the Super Discs list forever. "Pray for me" is the mantra for all audiophiles.

25. Thelonius's middle name was Sphere, as in Music of the. Heavenly, all those notes between the notes.

26. Ry Cooder goes deep for Wim Wenders in Paris, Texas

Repeat four times with different cables, and pity the poor reviewer.

That's all folks!