At some point in the recent past, I got a wild hair up my netherwheres about headphone cables and spent a few weeks wringing my hands about the relative impact that stock cables make on the performance of their attached headphones.
Starting a sentence with “Everyone Knows” is usually an invitation for trouble, but Everyone Knows that manufacturers don’t routinely go out of their way to include high-quality cables with their audio components. I know many kilo-buck audio products that ship with crappy power cords, so why would any particular headphone company seriously invest in a high-grade headphone cable? I mean, sure, some do, but assuming that all would as a matter of course would be as foolish as saying that those bulky black stock power cords were all hand selected to particularly match with that $30k amp. They’re just thrown in there for basic connectivity, to meet code or some regulation, but included with the full expectation that the purchaser will be using their own anyway. Seriously, why would headphone cables be different?
Audeze includes pretty basic cables with their headphones. I’m sure they’re fine, but there’s really nothing about them that stands up and screams “Keep Me!” Sennheiser is the same way and AKG cables are obviously an afterthought. Comparing them with an extreme example, the Abyss AB-1266 headphones are made by JPS Labs, underscores this all rather profoundly. Of course, Abyss is made by JPS Labs, a well-known and well-regarded cable company. The Abyss headphones, perhaps not surprisingly, ship with a full set of JPS Labs’ cables. They’re interesting and clearly not an afterthought. But they also make significant use of atypical materials (in this case, aluminum). Not necessarily anything wrong with that at all, but now I right back at the beginning, wondering if these super-cables (just like the throwaway cables) “did things” to the sound. How would I ever know? Better still, how would I know what part of the sonic signature was a result of the cable, if any? And if there was a contribution being made by the cable, what if I was missing something because of the boringly average wire or connector that might have come with the headphone?
So, off my imagination went. Asking “why” my imagination does these things isn’t terribly helpful — let’s just say I’m a bit OCD sometimes and leave it at that.
Assuming for a moment that such things matter, I wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to appease just about any reader’s particular baggage-train by simply standardizing on a set of wire. That is, one wire for all my headphones. That way, the impact (again, assuming there is one) can be separated and teased apart. I mean, why not? It’s only money. Insert gasping noises here.
Unfortunately, standardizing is harder than it sounds as every headphone manufacturer seems to have and leverage a proprietary set of their own connectors. Let’s call that Pet Peeve #2,976 and attempt to move past it — but seriously, folks, can’t we figure out a more intelligent way to do this? Maybe use a standard or something. Yeah, that’d be different.
But given that challenge, I suppose it’d be possible to create some kind of universal cable with adapters at both ends to accommodate all the different types of headphone inputs and match them up with all the different types of amp outputs, but I’m always leery of adding adapters unless there’s just no way around it. Besides, adapters adds weight, and that’s no good at all with headphone.
I bought some very interesting headphone cables from Double Helix, their Complement², on the basis of a set of recommendations coming out of the crew at Audio360.org.
I got sets for Audeze (for use with the LCD-X and LCD-3), for the Sennheiser HD800 and a set for the Abyss AB-1266. That is, I had a full set of the exact same cables, same termination, same everything — well, except for the headphone connectors, which were unique and specific to the headphone in question (of course).
Each cable in each set is terminated in an XLR plug — that is, there’s a physically separated and completely dedicated cable for each channel. In addition, and somewhat crucially, I also got a very clever high-quality straight-through adapter called “Ultrashort” (absolutely minimal path, with no extra wire) that I could use in the ¼” jacks of any single-ended amp that didn’t have a balanced out, and another to use with the amps that carried standard 4-pin balanced outputs.
The Complement² is not the least expensive cable in the DHC lineup, but falls somewhere north of the median with prices starting at $499 a set. Definitely not entry-level, but there are more affordably priced models starting at $179/set, and prices do range up to sets that cost north of $2k. Peter offered that the Complement² might be his best value in the cable lineup, providing the best blend of quality for the money, so that’s where I went.
As for features, this is what designer Peter Bradstock had to say about his wire in the Complement²:
The Complement2 features DHC’s most neutral and accurate wire. The DHC “Peptide” wire is only available here and is a custom type 2 litz construct. It features more than 100 ultra-fine strands of individually enameled ultrapure Ohno continuous cast copper, with multiple sub-bundles in a type 2 “bundle of bundles” arrangement. This strand arrangement and individual strand insulation is thought to reduce AC losses and minimizes skin and proximity effect, offering an improvement over conventional stranded wire. A practical benefit of DHC “Peptide” is that it will stay beautiful forever as each strand is sealed in clear enamel. “Peptide” has an intricate rope-like appearance from the complex of strand bundles inside, with a flexible polyethylene jacket that keeps the type 2 litz construct inside rigidly locked in its configuration, ensuring a lifetime of reproducible service. DHC “Peptide” is the first PE-insulated type 2 litz OCC copper wire in the headphone world and is the highest-performing stranded wire we know of.
To make the Complement the best performing cable as well as the best value it can be, the standard termination is the Valab pure copper and rhodium XLR plug with carbon fiber trim. It features hollow pins for enhanced surface area, made of tellurium copper (a hard, machineable copper variant with traces of tellurium metal to enhance its machinability and strength) plated heavily with rhodium.
The build quality is extremely high and may actually outpace the build quality of some of the headphones I’m using it with. The flexibility is a little stiff, with a wide bend-radius. This could make use with portable systems problematic — which is why they’re not recommended for that (the more flexible Molecule or Symbiote line would probably be a better fit). There’s a little issue with the cable carrying the sound of itself rubbing against your shirt, say, and the cable is stiff enough that laying flat may require an assist.
As for how they sound, I will say is this: with the DHC Complement², there were improvements and those improvements were heard across the board. With the DHC, the sound floor appeared to be quieter, which was very welcome to all three headphones with which I used with these cables — all three presented better detail retrieval and recovery against that quieter background, and perhaps because of this, all also presented with greater dynamics.
More interestingly, perhaps, was the impact on tone. There was no “thinning out” some cables have shown, but also no attenuation to frequency extremes. I expected a down-shift, a focus away from the top-end to one that emphasized the bass, but that’s not what I found. To my ears, the entire audio band felt fuller and not “warmer” and both frequency extremes also sounded more precise, with a surprisingly noticeable improvements to air on one end and texture on the other.
All in all, not only did the DHC cables move each set of headphones a bit higher up the performance chain, running balanced really does seem to greatly enhance the performance of certain headphones. Take the Sennheiser HD-800. These headphones have a well-known tendency to sound incredibly precise from the mid-range and on up to a superlatively clear top-end, even if that best-in-class performance does come at the cost of a healthy, hefty and impactful bottom-end. Run balanced with the Complement² cables from DHC, these reference-grade headphones enjoyed a tonal shift downward; the top-end remained as transparent as ever while the bass gained weight and contour, balancing out the overall signature in a way I hadn’t heard before. Folks that have looked past the HD-800 before this are in for a surprise.
Aftermarket cabling may seem like gilding the lily, and if you’re a happy owner of a $300 headphone, the very notion of plunking down that much or more on cables is outright silly. But if you do happen to be exploring the world of “flagship caliber” headphones, aftermarket cabling makes more sense. Happily, there are more and more to choose from these days, including new offerings from Cardas, WyWires, Moon Audio, ALO and others. Of these others, I’ve only had some exposure to WyWires’ new “Red” line, and it’s a solid alternative. As always, I strongly suggest a try before you buy — the changes a cable can make are not typically profound, but rather a subtle collective that can add up to seriously enhanced sound.
For me, I’m very happy to be using DHC cables with reviews that involve my flagship headphones. They’re just too good not to use. Oh, and did I mention how pretty they are?