Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Vodoo continued: my final Statement on USB cables

This article here is the final sequel to "Hot Vodoo: Audio differences between USB cables - yes, they do exist" and "More USB cables - more differences". So before you read this one go ahead and scroll through the other two.

Almost one year has passed since my last article concerning USB cables and their sonic signatures was published here. Truth is that I ran out of steam: I didn´t want to do it since I was afraid that I had been measuring the effects of ground loops only. But before I start with the embarassing truth I´ll tell you about the stir those two USB articles created. The articles I refer to (linked above) were written almost a year ago and since then they have been popping up constantly in several online forums. I´ve received visits from Russians, Germans, Americans, Norwegians, Japanese or Chinese citizens to name but a few. Sometimes the participants of these forums made fun of me, sometimes they tried to find out how I was doing things, sometimes I was accused of lying or imagining things and on some occasions people actually tried to help me. It fascinates me to this day that 99 % of all those people didn´t comment here on my blog but only in their respective habitat, forums I´ve never heard of before. Since I´m the most gleefully cunning person I occasionally registered there just to take part in their discussions... and boy, it was delightful to witness how fast participants there transformed from being bullies into polite, elaborate people upon myself unexpectedly taking part in those discussions. Without me it was 'chic' to mock me - so why did people stop when I suddenly entered? I love mockery, especially when it´s about me (I tend to be too self-centered sometimes). This wasn´t restricted to one country, no, it was a trait exhibited by people coming from all around the world. For all those who were doubting me throughout the last year I assume this article will be a field day which is perfectly alright - yet it saddens me that people generally seem to ignore transparency and truthfulness. But let´s start, eh?

USB cables revisited: only the Belkin and the Audioquest were used
In the last article I compared five different USB cables, for the article you are now reading I used only two of them: the Belkin which performed the best & the Audioquest which performed the worst. Since the measurment differences between those two were the strongest I assumed that they´d be the most likely candidates for also showing differences today. Likewise, I used my Creative Labs Soundblaster X-Fi HD USB again... BTW, that was the most peculiar thing... because in those forums I mentionend above I was attacked for measuring cheap hardware 'on my kitchen table'. Well, of course I did, that was the whole point. What good would my test have been if I would measure with expensive boutique hardware (which I don´t own, thank you very much)? I wanted to show results with everyday hardware, something people would actually buy. That way my results would (hopefully) be more comprehensible. Furthermore, assuming that something more expensive is behaving in a superior way is audiophile bullshit. One word about the 'kitchen table' comment... I will ignore it since it reveals opinions much too conservative for my taste. Just something to think about. Back to topic: I had to use the X-Fi HD USB and my ASUS Xonar Essence ST again since I wanted to compare possible differences between one year ago and today. My testing methodology may have changed / improved during the last year, yet I still have to make sure to repeat testing circumstances exactly as before to obtain reliable results.

Creative Labs Soundblaster X-Fi HD USB was used again
For that reason my testing chain then and now consists of the X-Fi HD USB connected via the Audioquest King Cobra RCA cable to the Xonar Essence ST. The last time both soundcards were powered by my desktop PC and since that obviously created the problematic grounding loop I now took a slightly different approach. This time I used my nine year old laptop, an FSC Amilo 1425 which was used to power my X-Fi HD. Naturally this laptop is able to run on batteries, it completely avoids grounding loops that way. Everything else was the same though: the Creative still was connected to the ASUS with exactly the same RCA cable. The laptop uses Windows XP as its OS so I had to utilize the Kernel Streaming plugin for foobar2000 to avoid potentially harmful resampling (one year ago: WASAPI direct connection on Windows 7). Another difference to the older test is that I decided to show you the results of ten test runs (five for every USB cable). I also did five test runs for the last test but I sadly failed to disclose their results. So, let´s have a look at the facts, shall we?

For comparison: Old results, one year ago, both interfaces run from the same PC

Belkin USB cable, two different PCs, one running on batteries,
five different test runs which have been averaged for this table

Audioquest Forest USB cable, two different PCs, one running on batteries,
five different test runs which have been averaged for this table
Shit! You now can see that one year ago I indeed measured the effects of a ground loop caused by using the same PC for both interfaces. With one interface running on batteries and by that removing the ground loop I also removed the measurment differences between the two USB cables, the lower resistance of the Audioquest is not important anymore. Yes, the X-Fi HD USB now measures EXACTLY the same with two different USB cables. Which probably means that 1. differences between USB cables don´t exist or 2. that I indeed can´t measure them with my limited hardware or 3. that I need more and different measurments. In any way, two things are now crystal clear: the X-Fi HD USB is a gorgeous performer on its line-out while the Xonar Essence ST boasts an equally impressive line-in. With measurment results as fantastic as these it´s hard to imagine that more expensive soundcards can do much better; you also have to keep in mind that both cards are relatively cheap and are far away from being hardware for demanding professionals. Just take the noise levels: they have improved by roughly 12 dB - Creative was indeed telling the truth by claiming a noisefloor as low as -114 dB for the X-Fi HD. Back to the USB cables: the only differences I was able to find were so small that they are truly insiginificant:

X-Fi HD USB, Belkin USB cable
X-Fi HD USB, Audioquest Forest USB cable
Click on the upper of those two pictures, that way you can scroll between them using your mouse wheel - only then you´ll see that the X-Fi HD USB has a very, very slightly improved high frequency performance with the Audioquest. That´s it. You could now say "Hey, there is a difference!" Erm... no, there isn´t. It is way too tiny to be of significance. Maybe distortions are able to reveal something else?

X-Fi HD USB, THD & Noise, Belkin USB cable
X-Fi HD USB, THD & Noise, Audioquest USB cable
Again, click on one of those two pictures and scroll between them with your mouse wheel and you´ll see that nothing changes - again. If at all, only the noisefloor seems to reveal a slight tendency in favor of the Belkin so I won´t bore you with additional non-existing differences between two pictures. Today I´ve learned two things: ground loops are evil & USB cable differences cannot be measured when using my approach. Phew, now I´m embarrased: I wrote two articles that were basically describing the effects of a ground loop! Stupid, stupid, stupid. But wait, has the sound changed? That´s where it gets interesting because it hasn´t. The X-Fi HD USB still sounds its best with the Audioquest Forest USB and the worst with the Belkin. Let me point out that the sonic differences are indeed small, I assume that they won´t be audible to 90 % of all people. But I started this article with an emphasis on being honest and truthful (which I always am - and which is painful here) and therefore I´ll tell you that I had doubts about my ability to hear things; I was afraid I might have encountered a prime example of a placebo. So I did what I usually detest, namely a Double Blind Testthe results of which you can see below:

foo_abx 1.3.4 report
foobar2000 v1.2
2013/01/09 02:54:00
File A: RAM-Disk:Audioquest.wav
File B: RAM-Disk:Belkin.wav
02:54:00 : Test started.
02:55:31 : 01/01  50.0%
02:56:05 : 02/02  25.0%
02:56:27 : 03/03  12.5%
02:57:05 : 04/04  6.3%
02:57:18 : 05/05  3.1%
02:57:28 : 05/06  10.9%
02:57:45 : 06/07  6.3%
02:58:01 : 06/08  14.5%
02:58:19 : 07/09  9.0%
02:58:33 : 08/10  5.5%
02:58:48 : 08/11  11.3%
02:58:59 : 09/12  7.3%
02:59:17 : 10/13  4.6%
03:00:01 : 11/14  2.9%
03:00:17 : 12/15  1.8%
03:00:35 : 13/16  1.1%
03:00:51 : 14/17  0.6%
03:00:54 : Test finished.
Total: 14/17 (0.6%)
I had occasional problems making out differences. It took me 17 trials during roughly seven minutes to find out if I was imagining things - but now I´m at least confident that my ears (and brain) are still fully functional. I´m no so-called 'Golden Ear', those are a myth. Audiophiles often claim that they are able to hear more than, say, skeptical people relying purely on measurments - which isn´t true. The only thing that´s valid to state is that there are people out there who have trained themselves to hear differently compared to others. I only hear this because I know what to listen for, nothing more. I´m also proud of my (perhaps imaginary) ability of not falling for typical placebo effects. "How can Marlene be so arrogant and full of herself?" you ask... maybe you´re right, look what being conceited brought me: grounding loops! All kidding aside, the situation of most of the time knowing what to listen for really isn´t the easiest thing to live with. I sometimes wish to have the gift of blissful ignorance because everytime I hear an album I immediately spot errors or defects & I cannot enjoy the music until they are gone. This might sound contrived to you but it prompts me to ignore bad sounding albums, even if the music is engaging. Imagine the time I could save by not being obsessed with these things. Enough with the cocky self pitying and back to topic!

Measures extremely well on its line-out: Creative Labs Soundblaster X-Fi HD USB

I´m afraid there isn´t that much to conclude. I still hear the effects of different USB cables, yet I´m unable to measure them; the centuries old dilemma of audiophiles. It all leads to you and the decisions you make, dear reader. Are you a believer or a skeptic? I hate to exploit this common prejudice but I started measuring USB cables through external soundcards as a means of diminishing troubles between those two groups - I thoroughly failed. The only thing I did was creating a lot of hot air. Shame on me. I did however learn a few things: more expensive cables have less resistance causing ground loops to leak through more easily, that I cannot measure everything, that ground loops hamper effective resolution and that the X-Fi HD USB is a great performer on its line-out. But where is the benefit for you?

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