[Editor’s note–I’d like to welcome to Graig Neville to the tricky, sometimes treacherous but ultimately necessary world of cable reviewing. As Graig fine-tuned his system into a reviewer’s reference, he chose an AudioQuest assortment to address his immediate needs because he’s used these products–and enjoyed them–in the past. This is his story.]
Not Just Another Cable Review, or Wire We Doing This?
Cable reviews are polarizing for most audiophiles. Can you hear cable differences? Is it all just voodoo? Is the Emperor wearing new clothes? If you think that all cables sound the same, then don’t waste your money on voodoo snake oil and stop reading now. Are you still reading but skeptical? Good, then read on about the AudioQuest assortment of cables and other devices that I received.
When Stephen Mejias reached out to me to see if I would be interested in reviewing an AudioQuest assortment, I emphatically said yes! I was once a firm skeptic regarding cables in my early hi-fi days. I vividly remember standing in a showroom at a dealer in the Chicagoland area listening to some great speakers–Avalon or Aerial, my memory is sketchy back 30+ years. There was a gentleman standing in the room who was frantically listening between two sets of RCA cables and was trying to decide which to buy. As a budding 19-year-old audiophile listening to $5000 speakers with comparable electronics in 1990, I was just enjoying the music, listening to what was possible, and wondering how I would ever afford the gear!
As an engineer with a basic understanding of physics, I was extremely skeptical that swapping between $300 (circa 1990) RCA cables would result in any meaningful or audible differences. Even to my somewhat less trained ears at the time, I immediately noticed a difference between those two cables, and I wasn’t even sitting in the sweet spot. Personal experiences like this define our journey and understanding of audio. I’ve made it a point to always have at least a modestly priced set of cables in my system and I am always looking for a value proposition cable to add to my system.
In my experience, don’t cheap out on cables. On the other hand, don’t buy a more expensive cable just because it’s more expensive. It has to add meaningful value to the auditory experience at its price point, and that’s how I approached this AudioQuest assortment of products.
Which AudioQuest Cables, Graig?
AudioQuest sent several toys for my listening enjoyment: a pair of Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO (ZERO + BASS) speaker cables (starts at $3580/8ft pair), a Rocket 88 speaker cable with 72v Dielectric-Bias System (starts at $1199.95/8ft pair) in a single to bi-wire configuration (AudioQuest calls this “Single-BiWire”), Cinnamon (starting at $89.95/0.75m) and Carbon (starting at $169.95/0.75m) USB cables, Yukon RCA and XLR cables (starting at $394.95/0.5m; upcoming models will cost $390/0.5m RCA and $4250/0.5m XLR), and two JitterBug USB Data and Power Noise Filters ($69.95 each; new JitterBug FMJ with improved RF shielding will be released next month at a retail price of $59.95).
I spent some time listening to a variety of configurations on several different systems with the AudioQuest assortment just to get some experience with them and let them burn in a bit. As I did this, I spent some brain space on how to go about a meaningful cable review. I also thought about the science behind cable design and fabrication.
Before you call “voodoo marketing mumbo-jumbo”, most cable design theory is based on electrical power transmission theory, which is based on science, physics, and engineering, and is very relevant to electrical power transmission. I personally consider cable design theory an offshoot of this. I live near Fermi Lab and skin effect and other cable factors are considerations for many of the experiments conducted at the particle accelerator laboratories. How a cable is constructed can have impacts on signal timing and transmission, and even frequency can be a factor.
The timing of the quantum-level events studied at Fermi Lab occur in such a short period of time that these factors can have a statistical impact on their results. So, to me it’s not such a stretch that cable geometry and material properties can affect something as complex as musical reproduction.
AudioQuest Assortment Level One
Ok, enough science-y stuff. Let’s get to it.
I decided to start at the lowest level I could. For all the folks that say that cables do not make any difference to the sound quality, I started with a pair of Monster copper stranded speaker cable from the early 90s. The jacket was still intact (there were some bunny nibbles, but it never penetrated the jacket, and keeping pets from chewing on cables is a challenge) and there was no evidence of corrosion. I cleaned up the ends and freshly terminated the cables.
I had some Best Buy RCA cables on hand (Rocketfish) that were not the bare minimum RCA cable you would get with cheap electronics, and a Belken USB cable. I would use this as my reference and see if higher quality made a difference. With all the cables I had on hand the possible number of combinations was over 150. I like Trio Globo’s “Steering by the Stars” from the album of the same name, but not that much! I set the volume control to a reasonable listening level and listened to a selected number of tunes.
After getting a good handle on the sound of the reference system, which was honestly better than I expected, I decided to start with the cheapest product from the AudioQuest assortment, the AudioQuest JitterBug USB Data and Power Noise Filter. USB ports have to perform double duty, transferring both data and power. This JitterBug purports to reduce the noise inherent to USB ports, enabling a cleaner USB signal.
Here’s how AQ describes the approach:
While JitterBug is designed to work with Low, Full, and High-Speed USB, it’s optimized for audio devices, which are built to work at Full and High-Speed. Most of today’s computers have USB 3.0 SuperSpeed ports, which have two interfaces built in—a Low, Full, and High-Speed set of pins, as well as four more pins that make up the SuperSpeed portion of USB 3.0. Therefore, the JitterBug can be inserted into any available USB port, including USB 3.0 ports of an audio device and USB ports of any device that works at Low, Full, and High-Speed USB.
However, when partnering JitterBug with hard drives that use the USB 3.0 interface, performance will be decelerated to High-Speed USB. If you are using this type of hard drive to store your music library, then it would be best to forgo the JitterBug altogether so that the hard drive takes full advantage of the USB 3.0 speed.
USB-C is a new connector format that includes up to two USB 3.0 ports and a Low, Full, and High-Speed USB port. Additionally, it includes power and alternates for the USB 3.0 interface, such as video and Thunderbolt. If you use a USB-C DragonTail, the JitterBug can plug into it and then into your USB DAC for optimal performance.
With one JitterBug, the system clarity significantly improved, which surprised me. The treble had more sparkle. To my ears, this sounded like a cable upgrade. As I continued to listen to the single JitterBug, I was more impressed at what it did to the Belken cable. The beauty of the JitterBug was that its sonic benefits affected all the other cables as well, regardless of the price point. I had more than just the Cinnamon and Carbon USB cables on hand and the JitterBug was a significant improvement, basically a cable upgrade, for all of them. For under $70? I was highly impressed and plugged in the second JitterBug.
With the second JitterBug, the sound smoothed out a bit, the effect was definitely subtle, but the imaging of the system definitely improved as did articulation of vocals, especially ‘cha’ and ‘the’ were clearer. It wasn’t as dramatic of an improvement as the single JitterBug. Kind of a half cable upgrade.
I cannot stress enough how impressed I was with the JitterBug, the first product I chose from the AudioQuest assortment. As a value proposition, I’m getting two to put in my personal system. I think they are that good.
Going back to the AudioQuest assortment, I then installed the Yukon RCA cable from the River Series. I will explore the XLR separately below as the voltage difference between RCA and XLR made a direct comparison tough. With the Yukon RCA, the bass definitely got tighter. Imaging was improved so that instruments could be defined in space. With the reference wires, instrument placement was not really present, but the Yukon, even with all the other stock cables, resulted in a solid center image and created a sound that wasn’t present before. Vocals were clearer and the Yukon made me tap my toes and want to turn up the volume (but I resisted). The longer I listened, the more I appreciated the Yukon.
Moving back to USB cables from the AudioQuest assortment, I tried AudioQuest’s Cinnamon USB cable both with and without the JitterBugs. As with the RCA cables back in my youth, I was skeptical of how much difference a USB cable could make. It’s just 1s and 0s, right? Well, after playing with a variety of USB cables, I’ve changed my mind. I dug into digital a bit to try to understand why this might be. Now this is my unscientific hypothesis based on my limited understanding of digital. So, for those knowledgeable in such things, I’m happy to learn something new.
Here goes: Digital musical reproduction is complicated. Yes, it may be a reconstruction of 1s and 0s, but there are several opportunities for things to go awry. Between data packets, voltage thresholds, jitter, radio-frequency interference, and other things, there are plenty of opportunities to get something wrong. Discussing this in-depth with Grover Neville, our ‘technical editor’, we posited that there are similarities between cables transferring digital signals and cables carrying analog signals.
My hypothesis is that anything that blocks out stray voltages or prevents voltage drops or keeps voltage swings from slowing down, helps clean up the signal and avoid erroneous digital signal errors or omissions. Hence, improving the sonics as the correct bits are sent more often for processing by the DAC.
I think the Yukon cable had more sonic improvement than the Cinnamon cable by itself. But I think paired with the JitterBug, the Cinnamon/JitterBug combo was on par with the Yukon. I think by itself the Cinnamon was different, but about equal in benefit to a single JitterBug, but I think the double JitterBug with the stock USB cable sounded slightly better. Sonically, the Cinnamon provided better attack on the snare drum but did not provide as much imaging benefit as the double JitterBug. Imaging was improved from stock, but still a bit fuzzy.
When one JitterBug was added with the Cinnamon, the maracas were clearer and snare drum attack further improved on Trio Globo’s “Steering by the Stars.” Music was more engaging and imaging significantly improved. Cymbals and high-hat had more pphsht and music had more body and life. Vocal imaging and focus improved. Bass improved slightly, but still not as much as the Yukon cable by itself. With this combination, I felt that I was hearing into the recording space. Decay on the instruments was better. This was such a good combination that I would recommend this combo over a more expensive cable.
I added in the second JitterBug from the AudioQuest assortment to the Cinnamon combo, and the air and weight of instruments further improved The two JitterBug/Cinnamon combo gave me a similar impression that you get when increasing the volume by 0.5 to 1dB, which, psychoacoustically, makes music sound better. Soundstage depth improved and the treble response seemed to be better. I could hear nuances and subtleties more clearly and the center image further solidified.
Back again to the AudioQuest assortment. I’ve been using a Rocket 88 cable with the 24v DBS in my system for several years. I added that into the system before comparing it to the newer 72v DBS system. With the remaining cables stock, the Rocket 88 provided the most dramatic improvement to the sound across the board. The Rocket 88 had the best bass and the most presence. Treble improvements were as good or better than the Cinnamon with both JitterBugs.
The Rocket 88 hinted at that disappearing act where a great system can divorce the speaker location from the music. Maybe the Yukon cable had a hint more rock to the music than the Rocket 88, but it was close.
The JitterBug/Cinnamon combo may have been as good or slightly better on vocal clarity but was nowhere as good as what the Rocket 88 did across the board. Music had a more emotional connection, the bass was deep and effortless. Several times I just stopped critically listening and was drawn into the music.
Next, I added all the above cables into the system to see if the sum was greater than the parts. All the best qualities of each cable came through, but what I heard did not seem to transcend what any particular cable did best. Now of course this was a great improvement and I really enjoyed having all the best characteristics coming through the music. After extended listening, I did notice whispers in the background on Chris Isaaks’ “Baby Did a Bad Thing” from Forever Blue that I didn’t hear with any of the other cables by themselves. Instruments in space were more focused and easier to pick out of the soundstage. Decay on instruments was great, so, after I listened longer, I realized that the sum was greater than the parts.
AudioQuest Assortment Level Two
Moving forward through the AudioQuest assortment, I replaced the Rocket 88 24v DBS with the new Rocket 88 72v DBS. The difference with the 72v DBS was subtle, very subtle. The center image tightened up slightly and the music had a touch more presence and air. I have been impressed with all AudioQuest DBS implemented cables. I had a pair of Columbia RCAs with DBS and was very impressed with them as I was with the Rocket 88 24v DBS. I honestly can’t say I would replace my current Rocket 88 24v with the newer Rocket 88 72v DBS, but I will emphatically recommend the Rocket 88 cable.
I know it isn’t cheap, but I personally think the sonic value for the cable is worth the price. I replaced the Cinnamon USB cable with the Carbon, the next cable up the USB line in the AudioQuest assortment. I kept the JitterBugs in the system. With the Carbon, I noticed more air around the instruments. Pianos gained more body and the attack on percussion, like snare drums and cymbals, improved. Perhaps the Carbon removed a little harshness in comparison to the Cinnamon, as well, and the soundstage moved a little forward. The improvements over the Cinnamon cable were noticeable, but not dramatic.
AudioQuest Assortment Level Three
Finally, I reached the big boy speaker cable in the AudioQuest assortment. The AudioQuest Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO (ZERO + BASS). The Robin Hood cable is hefty. The BASS cable (for midrange and bass signals) and ZERO cable (for treble) are separated right after the banana speaker connection to the amplifier, so you have two separate jackets going to each speaker.
The cable costs more than many integrated amplifiers and bookshelf speakers, so associated equipment is a consideration. I immediately noticed that the soundstage increased. Both depth and presence/air were better with the Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO. The character was very similar to the Rocket 88, but it just did more. The body of instruments further improved as did clarity. There was a pizzazz to the snare drum that didn’t exist on the Rocket 88 cable. On Trio Globo’s “Steering by the Stars,” instrument placements in space were so precise I could hear the height of the drum kit and I could tell when the drumstick struck a higher or lower part of the kit.
Pinpoint precision was within inches, the resolution was so good. It was really on another level from the Rocket 88.
A Balancing Act
The AudioQuest assortment included a Yukon XLR set of cables for comparison to my old set of Mackenzie XLR cables I had been using for a few years. The Mackenzie is still a current product for AudioQuest and they wanted me to compare the Yukon. I fired up the reference tunes I had been using for the other cable reviews with the Mackenzie plugged in. Once I had a good reference for what I was hearing with the Mackenzies, I swapped in the Yukons. I heard similar things with the Yukon XLR as I did with the RCA.
The Yukon XLR had a more forward and defined soundstage. It had the pace and toe-tapping vibe of its RCA counterpart. Instruments had a more natural decay and just sounded more like real instruments. I was a bit surprised by how significant the Yukon cable upgrade was—it’s a really good cable. I would recommend saving up a few more bucks to get the Yukon over the Mackenzie if at all possible.
A Second Listen
I happened to be vacationing in California and had the opportunity to play with Grover’s electronics using the AudioQuest assortment. In this system, we confirmed most of what has been identified, above. Grover felt the AudioQuest cables had a slightly darker presentation but had better imaging than the cables he currently had in his system. He liked what the JitterBugs and the AudioQuest digital cables did in his system and confirmed the dramatic improvement of the AudioQuest Robin Hood speaker cable in his system.
As Grover said, “You bring me nice toys and then you take them away?!” Grover especially liked the new Yukon RCA cable over the out-of-production Columbia DBS RCA cables.
AudioQuest has been manufacturing cables for a long time, over 40 years, and they have learned a thing or two with their decades of experience and engineering acumen. This is just a personal opinion, but, when shopping for gear, I keep a portion of the budget for cables. I don’t have a fixed percentage, but I would not go lower than 10% unless you have an exceptionally expensive system and would set an upper limit at 30% or so.
I know I didn’t do any ABX testing or double-blind listening with the AudioQuest assortment, but as impartial and scientific as those methods are, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is always warranted when listening to any audiophile products. I know folks that literally cannot hear, or are so removed from caring to hear, the difference between a cheap low-fi bookshelf and a well-designed full-range floorstander. For them, I say, save your money and don’t spend it on equipment in which you can’t hear a difference. For those that can hear a difference, don’t stress over cable A versus cable B. If either will make you happy, buy the better value.
For the products in the AudioQuest assortment, I was mighty impressed with the JitterBug. Get one. It’s that good. The second JitterBug is good, and I’ll keep a second in my system, but the improvement isn’t nearly as dramatic as the first. The cool thing about the JitterBug is its value to sonic improvements. The financial risk is so ridiculously low for the audible rewards makes it a no-brainer in my book. I think it should be obvious that I highly recommend it.
I have to extoll the Rocket 88 as highly as the JitterBug. Yes, the Rocket 88 is not a cheap cable, but it isn’t mega-bucks either. With the DBS system, which I have heard with other speaker cables and RCA cables, I can also highly recommend the Rocket 88 cable. It is a cable that can begin to compete at a high level in hi-fi in my opinion. Also highly recommended.
The Cinnamon and Carbon USB cables are good, especially paired with JitterBugs. If you are using a no-name stock USB cable from your local department store, you should really consider an upgrade. Both are reasonably priced and a good value for what they do. I’d really like to listen to the DBS-enabled Coffee to hear what it does to see if that system has an impact on digital.
The Yukon RCA and XLR cables from the AudioQuest assortment were impressive and really got the toes tapping and let the system rock. I think Yukon is definitely a good cable, and worthy of being at the top of the Rivers line from AudioQuest. It contributed sonic benefits in my system that the other cables in the review didn’t do that contributed to improved sound quality. I’ve heard better cables in my system, but at considerably higher prices. The Yukon is solid at its price point and also recommended.
The Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO (ZERO + BASS) was a welcome treat to listen to, but the differences from the stock Monster Cable to the Rocket 88 were more dramatic than the Rocket 88 to the Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO. The Robin Hood Bi-Wire COMBO (ZERO + BASS) is a great cable for more expensive systems with components getting into the five-figures range.
The Robin Hood is a solid performer and is definitely entering into the lofty hi-fi realms with its levels of transparency, image resolution, and bass performance. If you have a system that warrants it, definitely worth a listen.
I’ve used many AudioQuest cables over my years in hi-fi and I am not aware of any other cable companies that have the depth of choice or the variety and breadth of cabling solutions along with price points for nearly every budget. This AudioQuest assortment reinforces my opinion, and I will continue to use them in my system.