The efficacy of cables, and in particular USB and digital cables, is a much debated subject in the audio world. However, Dan Worth, Hifi Pig’s resident computer audiophile is convinced of different cables’ bringing benefits to the overall system. Here he tries out The Chord Company’s Signature Tuned Aray USB cable costing £400 for a 1m length.
The market today is awash with USB cables from various companies. It wasn’t so long ago where people would turn their noses up to the idea that a USB cable could influence the sound quality of the protocol when running a PC or dedicated streamer into an outboard DAC or clock. The hobby still contains its usual sceptics of cables, but many of those with the foresight and open mindedness to try different cabling and make their own relative decisions have concluded that cables, and more to the point USB cables, can have a profound effect on overall sound quality and performance of their systems.
The simple answer is within your budget. At each level or ‘pay grade’ there is a range of electronics, speakers and cables to suit budget. So don’t be shy, go to your local dealer or hit the secondhand market and start trying a few to gauge where the sweet spot in the price range strikes a chord.
The Chord Company with their extensive knowledge and years of experience with cabling have a good range to suit the end user’s budget. With a company such as Chord you can rest assured that build quality and the all important value for money is at the forefront of their expertise. Yes they do offer cables with a price tag that would make your dog weep but then these cables are produced to cover the top end of the spectrum, supporting systems running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Back here in the real world they still have an extensive range of cabling in clearly designated ranges to guarantee excellent performance for even the most basic and modest systems.
I myself have been on a long journey with cabling in hifi, starting off many years ago hooking up equipment with whatever I could lay my hands on – bell wire, power flex, joining odd pieces of cable together to increase length and getting a few shocks along the way. When more specific (to audio) cabling began to be more plentiful I began to experiment and soon found that cabling had a quite profound effect on my systems and it soon became an integral part of the whole.
When computers first started to become a more useful tool in music playback within the hifi system, mainly due to Apple Music and streaming services, I was already a very long term user of computer based music, using Mac and PC for many years, hooked up via various sound cards using spdif to DACs, but it’s only been in recent years (since 2009) that USB has become the main protocol for this method of playback.
One of the earliest USB DACs I remember using was based around Phillips’ TDA1543 chip, using the Dir 9001 USB chipset which was shared with optical and the two would require switching dependant on input. At the time there was absolutely no USB cables around apart from the typical ‘printer’ cable, so that’s what I used. Being a firm believer in the importance of cable in a system I trawled the internet time and time again searching for anything that would (on paper) have superior conductors and geometry, there wasn’t anything.
Back to today and the vast availability of USB cables on the market. What makes a USB cable good? In my experience of creating my own designs, it’s not an easy standard to get right. High or low capacitance plays a big role in chip compatibility, extensive or no shielding, separated for data and power with dedicated power supply and conductor type and size, like any cable, play a huge role and more crucially so where digital is concerned in my opinion.
In Chord, I think we can trust that what they have to offer is going to be of excellent construction and vigorously tested for quality control and performance, so we could say – it’s not a bad place to start. From the C range, through to Shawline, on to Signature and finally the range topping Sarum, Chord will accommodate the budget conscious as well as the larger spenders with their range of USB cables.
I’ve already reviewed the Sarum Super Aray USB, stating quite openly that it is the very best USB out there today, to my knowledge and I’ve tried most. Today is the turn of the Signature Tuned Aray, second to the top of the range and coming in at £400 for a one metre length, a respectable middle of the road price, not as expensive as the £1000 Sarum Super Aray and I suspect there margin in expense will soon be filled by another option under the Indigo Plus banner? Admittedly £400 isn’t exactly budget, but it’s a middle of the road cable with superior performance making it a worthwhile cable for closer examination.
I will endeavour to obtain USB cables from the other ranges from Chord in due course, but for now after my glowing review of Sarum and the Signature being based on Aray Technology, sharing key construction aspects with the Sarum it’s something I personally wanted to try next. I have had very positive initial listening tests with Signature Tuned Aray and need to assure myself that Sarum Super Aray is worth the extra outlay.
Fit and Finish
Chord have paid particular attention to the strain relief of the conductors on the ever so delicate USB plugs, which is the cable types nemesis and I am shocked that nobody has had the foresight yet to redesign the plugs specifically for more sustained use in the audio world, where more complex and heavier gauge cables are apparent. The overall finish of the cable is neat and visually appealing, keeping in line with the designated red colour scheme of the new Signature range. Packaging is very strong and protective with nice visuals, not that it’s makes much of a difference as it’s a cable after all, but still nice to see that Chord offer good attention to all aspects.
Wth the Signature Tuned Aray (STA) in my system between Mac and Hydra Z, replacing the Sarum Super Aray (SSA). Relaxing into a live Derrin Nuendorf album, the sonic signature of the STA clearly speaks volumes of similar design techniques with that of the SSA. What really stands out well about the SSA is that its retrieval of ambient information maintains a realistic flow to the music, Signature TA offers an intelligible and informative amount of spatial awareness reflective of its extremely low noise floor through Aray Technology also which makes live music very convincing in naturalness and clarity.
The acoustic guitar work of Nuendorf is often commented to be let down by his vocal, but for me, I enjoy the duet. Derrin produces very complex string work, lots of very small string rubs, small tweaks and raps on the body of the instrument which, without an extremely low noise floor smear, masking depths of decay with layered leading edges. Signature TA has a fantastically black background which in turn increases breadth of soundstage.
Playing some big band music allows for that typical cliché of individual placement of band members and space around instruments to be denoted, but what surprised me more at this lower price point in comparison to my SSA was how fluid and fulfilling the music cohesively sounded, whilst still being able to determine individual placement well throughout a soundstage that was large and palpable.
Layering of instruments during more conventional four to five member bands such as Fleetwood Mac covered great depth and forefront layering, whilst keeping individual tonality and instrument timbre very true and really quite natural, falling short of Sarum’s abilities by not too great a margin at all in main information conveyance, allowing for vocals to stand strong and projected without over-masked clarity, forwardness or liberal interpretations of unrealistic tone. SSA does give a larger a more intimate soundstage with the finest micro details and dynamics concluding the ultimate in realism of a performance.
To break down each tonal area of the cables sonic signature is something which I generally find very easy to do, however with Sarum and Signature I would hesitate to call neutral, it would be easier to convey what they offer to an individual performance or piece of music, but then we all listen differently and have different systems and rooms. I think the most informative way to describe STA is to say that it has hardly any bottleneck on the frequencies of all music types I’ve listened to with it in my system. If Sarum Super Aray was to have extremely minimal resistance on signal, then Signature Tuned Aray has a performance that will in fact leave Chord scratching their heads a little when or indeed if they were to produce a USB cable that sits within the Indigo range between the two.
Bass guitar sounds full, playful and bouncy with great extension. Midrange is solid, transparent and has enough clarity to really engross me into sultry vocals and ‘see’ through the soundstage. Top end performance reflects great ambient information and interacts organically with tonal qualities befitting the material played. I still don’t like to say neutral, as for me, a lot of the time neutral can be boring or lifeless, the Signature TA is the total opposite, it allows the digital signal to resonate with the listener in a non digital way and allows the music to effortlessly flow and ride the waves, hanging ten at opportunities of aural excitement and doing equally well with intimate detailed listening at lower volume levels, maybe we could say it’s less resistive and allows more information throughput, the systems tonal balance remains but it’s abilities to communicate more increases.
We have to remember that most things in life are relative, although there are always exceptions to be had, the general rule of thumb is you get out what you put in and the whole is only as good as its weakest link. You wouldn’t put a lorry driver in an F1 car or wooden wheels on a carbon fibre bike; skill levels, quality of parts and implementation is key and most usually relative.
So, would I take the Sarum still over the Signature? Yes I would, but only if I had the funds to allow that choice to be a choice in the first place and my system was really quite high-end. If my Sarum was to leave the building would Signature keep me so engrossed in the music? In my main system I would notice what I’m missing, this is mainly in small special cues and the smallest of micro and macro detail, but it’s what I’m used to after all. Placing the STA into two other lower priced systems I have here really brings them to life and Sarum was unable to obtain more due to the nature of the limit of the electronics, which are still very good. There needs to be some seriously resolute equipment in the system for Signature TA to cause any resistance to musical information and what it achieves will give the majority listeners absolute pleasure.
If I hadn’t of heard the Sarum SA I would say that the Signature TA is up there with some of the very best USB cables I’ve heard.
In fact I’m going to buy the review sample for my active system as I’ve now realised that the setup has more to offer after this review.
Build Quality – Solid, with great strain relief and attractive styling
Sound Quality – Extremely well tailor, transparent, effortless sound
Value For Money – Price/Performance is great for a cable
Pros – Exceptional sound quality, with very low background noise and a transparent and effortless sound
Cons – Er…
Price: £400 / 1m