I have used virtually every major high-end USB cable on the market and although I have been incredibly impressed with many, I still had one major issue
and that was the centre focus. I have been talking with others at Hifi Pig, dealers, distributors and friends regarding many of the cables I have heard and how they have a tendency to trade the solidity of centre focus for openness. On critical analysis over many months of listening tests with various USB cables I decided to design my own.
This was a very lengthy and tedious process as the guy who built it for me will attest to, but finally I found a combination of materials and dielectrics that offered a cable which gave that solid, full bodied sound and vocal that also had a beautifully open and wide soundstage, this conclusion was arrived at through multiple listening tests by myself and others in my room, with my system and with others in their own systems, I was finally happy…
A passing acquaintance mentioned to me during a conversation about USB cables that he had, after many vigorous listening hours, purchased a Chord Sarum Super Aray USB and said he would allow me to borrow it for a couple of weeks ‘you have to listen to one’ he said. I thanked him and said ‘if it’s that good I I’ll contact Chord’s PR people’.
So I put in a call to Dan George of Dan George Communications and former editor of Hifi Choice Magazine, briefly after the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB landed on my doorstep.
After a burning in period on the Blue Horizon Proburn I placed the cable in my system and from the first note I was completely captivated – that was some 6 hours ago now and I am still transfixed to the music, telling myself I must get some sleep soon.
It’s ok to get excited about a product I tell myself, but at the same time this statement has to be met with realism and the ability to shake off the ‘different factor’, now usually common sense does tell me that much more time is required to make a more educated decision before putting pen to paper, but in this case the pen is firmly placed on the pad and my experience tells me that this cable is something special, a real treat.
What stands out with the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB is how prominent clarity positions itself throughout the soundstage, from the centre focus to the very edges of the enormous soundstage produced by the cable. Notes on the boundaries of the stage are as thick and clearly defined as the centre focus and the centre focus has as much definition as the boundaries.
My want for completeness in the sound of a USB cable had been somewhat realised by my own design, but when comparing to the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB I recognise my own design and how good it is, but that it just isn’t a match for the Chord in overall definition, resolution and texture. Although I pat myself on the back for what I believe has been achieved from the geometry of my own design, I defer to the Chord for superior conductor choice and overall build specifics and understanding of the criteria for a superior USB cable.
Every single note has its own position in the soundstage now which is so stable it feels almost liberating. It’s like that sigh of relief at the end of a busy day when you kick off your boots, grab a drink and relax. A completely unforced sound that fills the room so clearly with no grain and the vocals are just so sweet and pure.
Previously, vocalists with other USB cables I have had I now judge as flat and smeared. With the Chord Sarum Super Aray USBin place it’s as if the singer has taken one small step forward into freer space in the venue, giving them more focus and clarity, which translates to better expression of the vocal and more depth to the surrounding band members, allowing the listener to focus on the music more easily.
If you build it they will come – should I be so bold to say something like this for a piece of wire? Maybe not, but as I feel my system has reached a point where it is, or was, exactly where I want it to be and then a cable comes along and tickles me in a way a carefully selected front end or preamplifier upgrade could only achieve I have to be honest and convey the experience in what I hear.
What is all this really all about if we’re honest? It’s about our love of music and how it can affect our mental state, from happy and energetic to relaxed and entranced. If a cable can enhance this experience it should be given as much credence as any other part of the system.
I have had similar experiences in the past but as I’m sure you all know they really are few and far between. Some fall into our laps and others we strive to search for, hoping that the synergy will be complete from component to component whether in a high end system or a more modest setup, with the goal of connecting us to the music sincerely. One of my own was really seriously looking at my electrics from a new consumer unit onwards to a balanced mains supply and really honing down the grounding in my system. Another was redesigning the crossovers of my speakers. These things on the grand scale of things were inexpensive and easily implemented but boy they have really made a difference.
Although the Chord USB is far from cheap it’s been the cherry on the cake for me personally in my current setup, maybe without all the combination of my recent redesigns it wouldn’t have had as much purchase on the overall ability of the system, or maybe recent changes have allowed me to appreciate the cables real influence, I’ll allow you to decide but for me it’s an absolute winner and will take a hell of a lot to better.
Build Quality: 9/10
Sound Quality: 9.4/10
Value For Money: 8.7/10
Price at time if review: £1000
Having scored so highly the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB is eligible for second review and possible Outstanding Product Award. So over to Dominic Marsh the cable went and here are his findings.
I have reviewed a USB cable before for Hifi Pig (From JIB in Germany as I recall), so I am no stranger to their sonic characteristics, even though it runs through my mind that 1’s and 0’s are still just that and the absence of either puts a real spanner in the works, never mind an enhanced or otherwise sound quality from a digital stream. Do you detect a small sceptical note there? You would be right. My personal feelings locked tightly away in a box, reviewer mode switched on, dust off the DAC, connect up the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB cable to my PC and system, fire up the tunes and see what transpires.
No construction details were supplied with the cable, so it becomes very difficult if not impossible for this reviewer to reconcile the sounds heard with whatever physical build attributes the cable possesses, so I’m afraid the review will consist entirely of my perceptions of how this cable sounded to me.
I remember clearly how I was utterly gobsmacked when I first heard the JIB Silver Arsenic USB cable and even that experience paled by comparison when I first heard the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB and there isn’t a huge price gap between this cable and the JIB Silver Arsenic. I wasn’t at all prepared for the sound coming from my speakers, the first thing I noticed was how the sound had appeared to leave the speaker cabinets and was entirely hanging in mid air, perfectly centered, spread widely well beyond the speaker boundaries and with a stunning three dimensionality depth-wise. It wasn’t being thrown forward into the room though, it was like being at a stage play in a theatre where there was no microphones or amplification being used and you could pinpoint exactly where each actor was placed, with clear limits determined by the boundaries of the stage itself. Maybe not the best analogy, but it’s my best effort.
As Dan also says, he and I both noticed a lack of grain in the sound and I can add to that a lack of hiss too. Dynamics had a razor sharp leading edge with no smearing that I could detect and delivered with full force and power too. Snare drum strikes had a tautness and vibrancy that sent a shiver down the spine so drum solos had real drive, weight and impact to them. I was particularly impressed too at how guitar riffs weren’t just a chord, but each individual string of the guitar could be heard which forms the chord and that is something I haven’t heard before from any cable, let alone a mere USB cable that purportedly only carries 1’s and 0’s. That should give you some indicator of the performance available from the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB and to say I was impressed is an understatement.
All of the music I listened to through this cable had immediacy and vibrancy running throughout, with fast lithe dynamics and perfect timing when it was there in the recording, which for once didn’t actually fatigue after many hours of listening which was most surprising of all, as music with high dynamic content can wear you out pretty quickly and those listening sessions are generally much shorter than with more mellow softer music.
I had in mind when I started this review that I was in no hurry to go it all digital to streaming because I still value my hard copy library of music. This cable might just make me change my mind about that, but if I did my backups, will have backups of backups and a spare backup just to make sure, so I don’t have the misery my poor friend endured when his computer turned its toes up and died.
I still keep wincing at the price of the Chord Sarum Super Aray USB, but like all good things in life there is a price to pay. I have no idea what goes into it’s construction either, but by the same token I don’t ever go busting into a restaurant’s kitchen to remonstrate with the Chef about the recipe when he has cooked me a superb meal that I thoroughly enjoyed and happily paid the bill. Look at the Sarum USB cable in that light and suddenly it all makes complete sense.
Take a listen for yourself and see if you agree.
Build quality: 8.9/10
Sound quality: 9.5/10
Value for money: 8.7/10
When I first started to listen and become obsessed by music, there were two ways to listen – one was radio and the other was vinyl. Any radio I had access to had a single rather small speaker and if I played records, it was on a mono system that my father had built – he was an electrical engineer, first at Mullards and then Phillips. He came home one Friday night with a turntable and a box of bits and over the weekend built an amplifier, plinth and speaker cabinet that also served as a bookshelf. The reason for mentioning this is that I – like a lot of other people my sort of age – grew up listening not to hi-fi, but to music. Everyone knows the limitations of transistor radios but the argument you can make for them is that whatever they aren’t, they do tend to be coherent. That is – they allow you listen to music with a real sense of rhythm and timing and the same was true of most vinyl systems as well. Later on came a stereo system and I can still remember my utter astonishment at hearing the guitar solo on “Yours Is No Disgrace” from the Yes album – each individual note bouncing from speaker to speaker. Music was a magical thing and that’s the way it should remain.
Much later on I learnt to play music and discovered the utter joy and thrill of making music with other people. A guitarist friend lent me his bass and we played together for about seven hours – we would have gone on but my fingers were bleeding. I still play in a band and it’s still wonderful – and on occasion, when we all get it right – almost transcendental. Once you’ve experienced this (and whisper it quietly, but on occasion it’s better than sex) you begin to understand what makes some of the music you listen to so special. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Elmore James, Parliament/Funkadelic, John Coltrane, Pentangle, Fairport Convention – and I’ve not even scratched the surface – there is so much good music out there to be explored and experienced.
Then at the end of 1989 I met and starting working for Sally, the founder and owner of The Chord Company. At that point in time CD didn’t even register with me; I had a turntable and there were five record shops in Salisbury, all of them full of vinyl. These days there’s only one and if I want anything other than Jazz, Blues or Classical I need travel, usually to Marlborough where there’s one of the best record shops for miles.
When I first met Sally she threw a cable to me to take home and try; up until then the choice of cable had never crossed my mind. I put it into the system at home and everything I loved about music got better; I got fascinated and 26 years later I still am.
Working for Sally meant meeting lots of people in the hi-fi industry. It meant getting a better system – a new turntable, a pre and power amplifier and bigger, better speakers – and that meant I got to hear even more; my favourite albums were a revelation and listening to music became an utterly joyous experience.
Then came digital. Slowly at first and then very quickly CD was the only way to buy music. If you loved music you couldn’t just stop buying it because it wasn’t available on vinyl any more. That meant getting a CD player and I was pretty lucky. My first CD player was a Micro Mega Solo – at the time, one of the more musical CD players available. That’s when the serious experimentation began. It still amazes me that something machined onto a 12 inch piece of plastic can sound so good – especially when it’s played on a machine where a rubber band connects an electric motor to a platter so that it revolves. That a needle dragged through the groove in the plastic should do rhythm, pitch and timing so well – and that is where the magic is.
So we experimented, we researched, we visited dealers, we talked with manufactures, musicians and reviewers and we listened and listened. We begged, stole and borrowed, we experimented and we learnt.
One of the really important things we learnt about was the importance of shielding – particularly high frequency effective shielding. We started building interconnect cables with high frequency effective shielding in the late 90s and at the time, they were a revelation. They were a revelation because they made music sound more like music: more coherent and more enjoyable, more revealing and ultimately there was so much more sense of coherence and rhythm. Fundamentally it put some of the magic back into music.
We learnt about the tonal influence of insulation materials in relation to conductor materials, we learnt how different types of solder behaved and influenced the performance, we learnt about plugs and termination methods. We learnt about all of this because it had a direct influence on the ability of cables to carry a coherent musical signal. We did a lot of blind testing – we used a whole mix of people: musicians, music lovers and hi-fi enthusiasts – and we found that the results were remarkably consistent.
The experimentation with high frequency shielding continued and in 2004 we produced our first high frequency shielded speaker cable. We did this for exactly the same reasons that we were using high frequency shielded interconnects – the shielded speaker cable made music sound more coherent and more involving and it revealed levels of detail, particularly in terms of timbre and dynamics. It also helped to put the groove back into music.
One of the problems with hi-fi is that it’s very easy to forget why you first bought a hi-fi system, and in the pursuit of seeing ever further into the music that you love, you end up destroying the thing that made you love it – you break it.
Over the past five years a lot of things have changed. First of all, digital sources have got a lot, lot better. There are now more ways to listen to music than ever. You can stream, you can rip your music collection to a hard drive, you can download, there’s a huge resurgence and interest in vinyl and you can download high resolution files and stream CD resolution music. This is one of the most exciting times I’ve experienced in my 26 years in the industry. Over this time, we developed our first Tuned ARAY cables. We used our then flagship Sarum cables to do this and what we produced was a cable that wasn’t just transparent in terms of detail and timbre but critically was capable of carrying a musical signal far more coherently than anything we’d produced before. As music lovers it was, for us, transformational. The first Tuned ARAY cable we developed was a digital cable. We had, for a long time, been using DACs – both at home and in the demonstration room. The effect of the Tuned ARAY technology was, we felt, so musically profound that we went on to experiment and develop the same principle for, first of all, our analogue Sarum cables and then the Sarum power cables.
Around this time, we also got hold of streamers and USB DACs – partly out of curiosity and partly to start playing around and listening to high resolution music. The thing is that for so many years, we’d been waiting for high resolution music. Like many people we believed that digital music wasn’t really going to come good until the sample rates were high enough. By now though, the work we’d done with the Tuned ARAY cables had made us realise that actually, standard CD sample rates were capable of producing really good, coherent, exciting and involving music. So what was high resolution going to offer musically? We had streamers, we had USB DACs. The streamers were using RJ45 plugs and Cat cable; the USB DACs were using USB cables. We’re a cable company – it was only natural that we would be curious about these cables. In particular, given the fact that whilst we could hear some of the very obvious benefits of streaming, we were struggling once again with all those things that make music so special for us – and not just special for us, special for pretty much every music lover as well. What we were getting was hugely detailed, but ultimately and frustratingly lacked emotion and soul. So we experimented. We had the Tuned ARAY principles, we knew about high frequency shielding, we knew about high frequency signals and it was only natural to apply this thinking to both USB terminated cables and RJ45 terminated cables. I am deliberately avoiding calling these cables either Ethernet or USB – they’re not. They are cables that we built to carry a digital audio signal in a way that produced a more coherent and realistic musical performance. They carry an electrical signal, just like our analogue cables and our digital coaxial cables. They have very high levels of shielding and they have either our Tuned ARAY or Super ARAY tuning technologies applied to them. We think they help a system to produce music that sounds more detailed, more coherent and ultimately far, far more involving and enjoyable – which in principle is what a hi-fi system should do, be it vinyl, CD or streaming. We think that the way these cables help music to sound is something that anybody with a love of music will find easy to hear.
The computer industry and the hi-fi industry are not necessarily easy bedfellows. We had no idea of the controversy and the degree of anger producing these cables would cause. We simply set out to see if we could make a better musical experience and we did it in the way that we’ve always done – by experimentation, blind testing and ultimately, listening. It is, after all, all about the music.
Nigel Finn (The Chord Company)