The bits-are-just-bits committee would like you to believe that digital audio transmission is just ones and zeroes and that all data traversing a cable will sound the same because it always arrives in tact. The corollary to such thinking is that all digital audio cables sound the same. This chimes with the average audiophile’s sense of fiscal responsibility. A truth that lies more in convenience than reality?
The signal that moves along a USB cable isn’t digital – it most definitely is NOT ones and zeroes – but an electrical-pulse representation of those ones and zeroes. This analogue signal is therefore prone to disturbance from EMI emanating from the host computer and electrical noise arrive over the air, otherwise known as RFI. Greater vulnerability to noise can degrade a cable’s ability to do its job: transfer data from computer to DAC.
Digital audio transfer from computer host to DAC uses the isochronous transfer method that doesn’t specify the error-correcting data packet resends of the bulk transfer method used for moving files i.e. when data packet arrival timing is inconsequential to the outcome.
In the digital audio world, meeting the USB cable specification is only part of the ‘better sound’ equation. The cable geometry, materials used – the conductor, the dielectric and termination plugs – and shielding all influence the cable’s immunity to electrical noise pollution, the rise times of the electrical pulses being carried and the arrival timing of those pulses.
Rob Woodland, former manufacturer of the Eichmann RCA bullet plug, knows this all too well. He reportedly spent twelve months honing the design of his Curious USB cable.
From the Curious website: “From a previous career as an audiophile cable and connector manufacturer, I had plenty of wire on hand to start the experimental process. I left no stone unturned. I tested different diameters of wire, different metallurgy, shielding, dielectrics, ground techniques, how to deal with the 5V power leg and so on. All the time listening.”
Seeing Woodland’s Curious USB cable promo video below you’ll note his watchword is ‘dimension’, a quality he finds lacking in many modern USB cables, even this reviewer’s current reference: the Light Harmonic LightSpeed.
Some you will need to turn a deaf ear to Woodland’s comment about “Delivery of music rather than just data”; a phrase rooted in emotional / promotional appeal. Obviously, without data there is no music.
Like the LightSpeed and iFi’s Gemini, the Curious USB cable’s geometry is based on a physical separation of data and power. The thinner copper-coloured line on the Curious carries the voltage and beneath the white-striped black sheath sits data+ and data-; yes, USB data transmission is a balanced affair.
Digging deeper: the power leg is made from fully shielded mini-coax whilst the data line is pure silver. Very close attention was reportedly paid to grounding.
When Woodland first contacted me about a review my instinct was to take a pass. The review queue for the next few months already stretched beyond November and I don’t much enjoy reviewing cables, least of all digital cables where reader comment backlash often proves the existence of Godwin’s Law.
Readers are politely reminded that neither measurements nor blind testing are part of this site’s modus operandi – so please refrain from asking. If you cannot live without either then there’s probably very little of value to you beyond this sentence.
To confirm proof of life and to know first hand that it didn’t sound awful, I had Woodland send me a standard length of the Curious USB cable: 0.8m sells for US$340. Extending his fellow countrymen the gesture of price-parity, that same length sells for AU$340 (+ 10% GST) in Australia. Woodland manufacturers the Curious at his home in Queensland.
The DAR coverage plan was set: a quick substitution for the LightSpeed interceding between MacMini and Schiit Gungnir and/or Aqua La Voce D/A converters before shooting photos, penning a quick news piece and returning to the review schedule proper. On loudspeaker duty a pair of KEF LS50. Headphones? HiFiMAN’s HE-1000. Amplificartion for each came via the Vinnie Rossi LIO.
Alas, it didn’t play out that way.
Pulling out the LightSpeed and dropping in the Curious saw no loss of vitality. None of the ground marked detail delivery was surrendered by the Aussie newcomer. If anything, there was even more being served up. More for less? Gadzooks!
I phoned a friend who then dropped by to play the subject in a blind A/B comparison. He preferred the Curious wire. “Better animated percussion” on the Belle and Sebastian cut (“The State That I Am In”) was one positive observation among many.
Now I was properly curious.
A week of better extended A/B-ing took hold: a day with the LightSpeed followed by a day gone Curious. Results were verified on the desktop with a 2014 Macbook Air feeding a Resonessence Labs INVICTA driving HiFiMAN HE-400S.
The difference mainly a matter of tone, guitar strums on Air’s “How Does It Make You Feel?” sound more like a synthesized sample via the Light Harmonic wire but more like the real thing via the Curious.
The Curious plays a keener game with layer separation too, especially top to bottom in the vertical plane.
On depth, Woodland’s wire is also more generous with inner spaciousness. A good visual analogy might be lower glassy ocular distortion when pushing one’s nose up against the wall of a fish tank. Again, these differences are small but to some listeners they will matter hugely. Such deltas can grow ever wider on more resolving systems.
On cymbal shimmer and micro-dynamic vigor the Curious takes it. Hooking in a Black Cat Silverstar USB cable as a control doubly reinforced the Curious’ talents in making music sound less condensed, less murky; essential qualities for more reserved- or polite-sounding systems. Against the comparative backdrop of Light Harmonic and Curious, the Black Cat’s presentation lack that last ounce of conviction (but I can see why some folk might dig its audible heft).
During a second listening session with old mate playing confirm/deny, it was concluded that the Curious had an almost spooky ability to remove mixdown congestion – especially during more complex passages – and extend decay (even on bass notes). With the finer details that paint in that last soupcon of ambience and texture the LightSpeed came up a few degrees short. As such, it sounded a little flat next to the Curious.
Flipping these findings on their head, the Curious opens up the spaces in and around the drum kit that rollicks through New Order’s “Everything’s Gone Green”. Nice work if you can get it.
And if all this talk of qualitative hair splitting has your thought process bent ouf of shape from a mental game of Twister then allow me to simplify: to these ears and this brain, music sounds more enjoyable through the Curious than the Light Harmonic LightSpeed or the Black Cat Silverstar. And if more enjoyment equates to better then yes, the Curious bests its two rivals.
Those complaining that their digital audio setup sounds a little lacklustre will likely enjoy what Rob Woodland’s design brings to the table: more jump factor and holography.
Adding AudioQuest’s JitterBug to the Curious brought differences too small to call. On the other hand, the Schiit Wyrd improved piano tone density still further. In this scenario, the Lightspeed introduced the Wyrd whilst the Curious took it home to the La Voce.
When you learn that for the price of a single Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cable (US$999/0.8m) you can attain a better sounding result from buying a pair Curious cables (US$680) AND a Schiit Wyrd (US$99), you’ll see exactly why this cable – a USB cable no less – earns a DAR-KO award. ‘Strayaaa!
Further information: Curious Cables