A Thesis on Custom Cables and Subjective Audio Improvements

Introductions –

I’m not going to lie, my first impression of custom cables always comes down to their aesthetic; bespoke cables are just so visually pleasing, especially EffectAudio’s latest cables which include their custom CF connectors. Humans are inherently drawn to the elaborate myriads of lustrous silver, gold and copper, and these cables seem almost like jewellery compared to the stock, opaque sheathed cables provided by manufacturers. But beyond looks, sound is definitely levied as the biggest aspect of the custom cable “experience” and also happens to be the most controversial. In my experiences, cables do make a difference, but it’s not the day and night difference some would have you believe and cable upgrades are ultimately not cost effective. It doesn’t help that many custom cables are simply unwieldy and ergonomically subpar.

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EffectAudio Thor Copper

EffectAudio opened my eyes with the Apollo, it wasn’t a sound upgrade to my ears, any differences were incredibly subtle, even non-existent; but ergonomically, the cable was among the best. It was when I moved up to the Thor silver that the sound differences became more pronounced, in what way? I can’t go into too much detail, it’s been a few years since I last used it. Unfortunately, whilst the Thor did sound appreciably better, ergonomically, it was a mixed bag. The cable was springy and a bit stiff, it transmitted a lot of microphonic noise and weighed down the earphones. With the new Ares II line-up, EffectAudio seek to provide a happy medium between both cables, combining the suppleness of a stock manufacturer cable with the sonic benefits of the Thor. Since I have difficulties justifying this article as a review, I will instead present this as my thesis on custom cables using the EffectAudio Ares II+ as an example.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank the staff at EffectAudio very much for their generous cable giveaway from which I received the cable completely free of cost. There is no monetary incentive for any positive comments and I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my audio evaluations.

 

About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases

I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.

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My experiences and thoughts on cable upgrades –

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When I first purchased my Westone W30’s, I almost immediately switched from the stock Westone cable to a UE900 remote cable, the remote functionality was simply more convenient and the stock Westone MFI cable was pretty junky. It took a considerable amount of time, about 2 months for me to notice any sound changes as it never really occurred to me that the cable was affecting the sound in any way. I actually only noticed the sound differences when I switched back to the Westone cable, not immediately, but I found I wasn’t the earphones quite as much. After a few days, I switched back to the UE900 cable and spotted the differences; I noticed that the sound had become slightly brighter, slightly more open but also a little more granular? I’m not quite sure how to describe the high-frequency changes, but high notes had become a little crunchier. So even these stock manufacturer cables have their own signatures, some working better with certain earphones. While not a transformative difference, a difference was there to be found and I’m certain it wasn’t due to placebo since cables weren’t even on my mind when I was listening to the W30; I simply found the brighter sound with the UE900 cable more suited towards my preferences and the darker sound of the stock cable less pleasing.

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Now, the differences weren’t large, I’ll put emphasis on that, they’re ultimately about as small as that between good sources, maybe even less so. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t spend $300 on a cable for a $400 earphone, I would rather buy a $700 earphone, but for a $1000 earphone, that $300 cable suddenly isn’t such a crazy idea. Unfortunately, the ie800 is the only earphone I have around that price and its cable isn’t fully detachable, so for the sake of this article, I’ll be examining the differences between the stock and Ares II+ through 4 variously priced earphones. At the lower end I’ll be testing the $100 (AUD) Shure SE215, in the middle, the $200 Westone Adventure Alpha, and at the high end, the very accomplished $400 Oriveti Primacy and New Primacy. With these various earphones at several key performance/price brackets, I hope to illuminate the effectiveness of cable upgrades and evaluate the Ares II+ in a more objective manner.

 

Design –

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Of course, sound is not the only reason why one would buy an aftermarket custom cable, there are several other factors, and how much custom cables appeal to you will similarly rely on your satisfaction with the stock cable of your current earphone. In the Shure’s case, the stock cable is beefy and strong but also terribly heavy, quite microphonic and the thick memory wire has never settled well with me. My first custom cable, the EffectAudio Apollo, was mainly an ergonomic upgrade; it was much, much thinner, lighter and the heat shrink ear guides were a huge improvement over Shure’s memory wire system. This is especially pertinent since I frequently used them for running, the stock Shure cable was unmanageable, whilst the Apollo almost disappeared.

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Apollo – Ares II+

The Westones tell a similar story. Though the stock cable is far thinner and lighter than the Shure cable, almost as light as the Apollo in fact, it is also scratchy, prone to tangling and incredibly microphonic. While the larger MMCX connectors on the EffectAudio cables are not the best match to the slim ports of Westone iems, the ergonomic benefits of these cables cannot be denied. The Ares II+ is similarly quite ergonomic. It is a very thick, very heavy cable, but just as the enormous Sennheiser HD800’s can achieve comfort, the Ares II+ achieves an ergonomic fitment through its masterful design. Of note, the II+ is just a lower gauge Ares II, I suspect a lot of buyers will actually prefer the slimmer Ares II over the heavier plus model.

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The heat shrink ear-guides are perfectly formed for almost every over-ear monitor style earphone, they don’t flick over the ears and comfortably conform without the pressure induced by comparable memory wire systems. The cable is also incredibly supple for its size, much more so than any of the stock cables I have on hand and EffectAudio’s own Thor Copper (though the design may have since changed). It is similarly compliant as the exemplary 8-Core cable on the New Primacy however, the Ares II+ doesn’t have the same rubbery texture, it is smooth and doesn’t catch on clothes at all. Suyang is employing varying gauges of copper wire to achieve a nuanced sound and the transparent sheathing allows the buyer to view the lustrous copper strands intertwining along the length of the cable, it really is a striking visual experience. While I can’t confirm whether this really makes a sonic difference, I can say that over my two months of usage, I have not experienced any discoloration of the transparent outer sheath nor oxidation of the copper inside.

dsc08626I usually judge the compliance of a cable on its ability to coil and the Ares II+ is one of the only cables that will retains its shape when coiled over 4 fingers. And where the Apollo and Thor were a little rough around the edges, the Ares II+ is a much more complete product. Of course, EffectAudio’s earlier cables themselves were attractive, but no-one would mistake their plastic terminations for pre-moulded oem components. The Ares II+ is now using custom metal and carbon-fibre EffectAudio jacks and y-splits. They are absolutely striking, polished in looks but also retaining that industrial DIY vibe sought after by audiophiles going down the custom route. The y-split also has a nice plastic chin slider though the cable is already very resistant to microphonics.

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It’s worth noting that EffectAudio use OEM earphone connectors as well. For example, their MMCX connector is actually an official Shure component resulting in reliable audio transmission. That being said, I do feel like manufacturers have really tightened up the tolerances on their MMCX connectors, my SE535 used to be very intermittent both with the stock cable and EffectAudio Thor, but all of my more modern MMCX earphones have been rock solid, even the SE215.

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The connectors are quite large, but suit the thicker cable well, the jack also has adequate protrusion to fit in even the bulkiest of smartphone cases. I would have liked to see some sort of strain relief on the cable, but EffectAudio have assured that all terminations have adequate internal reinforcement and such a thick cable is less susceptible to stress than thinner cables anyway. The thick cable and metal connectors do weight the cable down at times, it is most definitely not suitable for exercise but does well for home listening and general commute. On the more finicky Oriveti Primacy, the cable can compromise the seal and stability, but on the deeper fitting Westones and Shures, the cable hardly affects fitment at all and increases wearing comfort.

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So overall, the level of finish really is remarkable for a custom cable; each side is exactly the same length, the two pieces of heat shrink that wrap around your ears are both perfectly matched and the transparent sheathing allows the buyer to admire Suyang’s innovative multi-gauge wire setup.

 

Comparisons & Sound Analysis –

Before reading EffectAudio’s excerpt on the sonic benefits of the ARES II+, I did a little listening of my own to kind of gain some unbiased subjective impressions. Honestly, my impressions did line up with Suyang’s claims (although they are very vague) and did I see pretty consistent sound changes among all of my MMCX earphones. Suyang states that the Ares II+ produces:

“Immersive and alluring, intimate vocals, visceral bass punch, while removing that veil in the highs… Offering more balance, more treble extension and more vocals allure.”

In my two months of testing, I found that the Ares II+ provided a more textured, defined bass response and a more forward midrange with more clarity. Treble is least affected though it still receives notable if less immediately discernible changes. Higher treble notes are brought slightly more forward in the mix and I do generally hear a more forward sense of detail as well (though this could also be a result of the increased midrange clarity produced by this cable). Overall, it is a great match to darker earphones, opening up the sound and tightening up the bass, these more congested earphones tend to sound more separated and airy when paired with the Ares II+. Brighter earphones experience similar increases in sound quality, ie. Increased bass definition, detail and separation, though I do not necessarily agree with the tonal changes which can often ere on over-brightness, but more on that below.

 

Shure Se215 ($100) –

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I personally think it is ridiculous to even consider spending almost $300 on a cable for a ~$100 earphone, and I think the vast majority of readers out there will agree. For instance, the $400 New Primacy is a far better sounding earphone than the SE215 equipped with Ares II+, even the marginally more expensive Westone Alpha sounds better (both stock). Instead, you can take this as an example of the extent of the sound changes that cables can produce.

The SE215 fits into that darker category of earphones, they have a forward, bloated bass response and recessed upper mids. The treble response is relatively neutral but rolls off quite quickly, sapping the sound of detail and that sense of openness that you experience from higher end earphones. They have brilliant ergonomics ruined by an overly bulky, rigid stock cable; it’s really no wonder why people are in such a hurry to replace it. I’ve been using the SE215 with the Effect Audio Apollo for several years now and the Ares II+ is just as ergonomic since the stable fitment of the Shure’s counteracts the cable’s heavy weight. Despite this, the cable is much more comfortable and supple than the stock cable, it is also far more flexible than the springy Apollo.

The sound changes are also very positive. From bottom to top, bass remains forward and full, but also more impactful and less tubby, there is more definition as a result. Mids are still recessed but to a lesser extent and the earphones sound more balanced overall. Lower mids remain similar, maybe slightly less warm and upper mids no longer sounds so recessed and veiled though female vocals still sound slightly truncated. The high end also sounds considerably more open and airy, the cable doesn’t alleviate the high-end roll-off but does well to bring the higher details that are already there to the fore. I definitely prefer the sound of the Shure’s with the Ares II+ but the outright sound quality (not tonality or balance) still does not match that of the slightly more expensive Westone Alphas (stock cable), the Westones still provide a more textured, extended listen.

 

Westone Adventure Alpha ($200) –

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The Alphas have quite a dark sound with a recessed midrange on account of their intended usage as a sports earphone. They sound somewhat similar to the Shure SE215 but have an even more tamed treble response and more of a sub/low bass boost rather than a mid/upper bass boost, sounding less tubby as a result. Given that the Ares II+ grants a more forward midrange and more clarity, I found it is a fantastic match to the Alpha. Of course, being a sports earphone, I wouldn’t really recommend buying it with the intention of using it with a custom cable, but if you already have an earphone like this, the Ares II+ will likely give you the same kind of positive results.

Bass improvements were subtle, the Alpha already has a pretty accomplished bass response even if the tuning is a little forward and muddy. The Ares II+ retains this signature whilst adding more definition and tightness to lower and sub-bass notes. The Westone Alphas actually have a reasonably linear midrange, even if it is recessed. They are less veiled sounding than the Shure’s and the increased midrange presence created by the Ares II+ sound much more pleasing. Both lower and upper mids are brought forward, granting more balance and slightly more clarity. Though treble was still behind in the mix even with the new cable, the high end had more clarity and details became more forward.

I should also note that the cable was very difficult to install and remove from these earphones due to the design of the housings which only permits very slim MMCX connectors, the Shure style MMCX connectors on the Ares II+ just fit but were so tight that they were unable to rotate and very difficult to remove. Despite this, sound was reliable but I would guess that long term usage with the Westone could damage either the cable or earphones connectors. EffectAudio do provide Westone specific connectors that are slimmer and have that shorter MMCX connector. I feel that the Ares II+ has great synergy with all of Westone’s earphones including the Alpha, W30, W40 and Um 50 Pro since they all have a darker tonal balance.

 

Oriveti Primacy ($400) –

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The Primacy is a much more balanced earphone than the Alpha and SE215 though it is still one that has some deviations from neutral. It carries a u-shaped sound that could benefit from increased midrange presence despite already having a slightly brighter tonal tilt. Mids have great quality and lower/sub bass definition and treble roll-off were my biggest complaints.

When equipping the Ares II+, I immediately noticed more high-end presence, both upper midrange and treble. I did AB extensively with the stock cable to affirm my gut instinct and found that, while subtle in the grand scheme of things (they don’t sound like a different earphone), the high end had definitely opened up more. In particular, female vocals sounded slightly more forward, which was questionable on the already forward sounding Primacy and treble was more prevalent and thus, details sounded more forward, which was more of an upgrade given that the Primacy has a more relaxed treble response. The low end received a few positive changes too. To my ears, lower mids were identical but bass had more definition and was perhaps a little tighter.

The cable had nice synergy with the Primacy overall, but for my preferences, upper mids became overly forward on certain tracks. Fitment also suffered drastically, the Primacy comes with a very light weight UE900 style cable and the lower fit stability of the Primacy combined with the heavy Ares II+ greatly compromised fit reliability. While I did prefer the sound with the Ares II+, the Primacy became unstable, often losing seal and the heat shrink ear guides on the cable were not tall enough to clear the top of my ears, producing a hotspot over time.

 

Oriveti New Primacy ($400) –

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The New Primacy is probably the best earphone to test the sound differences of the Ares II+ since it is extremely neutral, allowing for any deviations in tonality to come to the fore. I do personally prefer a slightly more u-shaped sound, so my experiences with the neutral New Primacy and mid-forward Ares II+ were a little more polarising than with the other earphones. That being said, the New Primacy also experienced the least pronounced changes off all the earphones in this comparison, perhaps the stock cable is already very good, which I can attest to from comparison to the original Primacy cable.

As expected, the New Primacy sounded cleaner with the Ares II+, it also sounded more detailed. That being said, for the already very clear, slightly mid-forward New Primacy, I actually found the sound to be overly mid forward. I also found the stock cable to provide a more textured bass response than the Ares II+ though this could also be due to the more mid-forward sound of the EffectAudio cable overshadowing the low end. Sub-bass with the Ares II+ sounded fuller but the stock cable sounds bassier overall. Soundstage was noticeably better with the Ares II+ aiding separation as well however for my tastes, the sound was simply too forward.

So honestly, I would take the sound signature with the stock cable any day even if the quality of the midrange isn’t quite as good and details don`t sound so crisp. I guess this becomes a comment on synergy, either the Effect Audio cable is more transparent than the stock cable or perhaps it is more coloured? Regardless, this cable will not be a definite audio “upgrade” for every earphone nor every listener. In terms of ergonomics, the vastly more stable fitting New Primacy in addition to the slight change in connector angle result in a relatively reliable fitment even with the custom cable. There were times were the thicker custom cable would cause the earphones to seal and the shaping of the heat shrink is still not ideal for this kind of earphone, but comfort remained fantastic with no hotspots forming at the top of my ear. Visually speaking, it’s a pretty striking combo as well!

 

Summary –

The Ares II+ doesn’t create detail and extension that is not initially there, but rather brings out the intricacies that get overshadowed due to poor tuning choices. Treble and bass extension, for instance, don’t improve, but any roll-off that was present when stock is less prevalent with Ares II+, resulting in a greater sense of low-end slam and high-end detail and resolution. Buyers also have to take into account that the more expensive Primacy and especially New Primacy likely include better quality stock cables than both the Westones and Shures which is why those earphones actually benefit less and in some cases didn’t benefit at all from the Ares II+.

My objective measure of these sound changes came from differences in volume as these are immediately noticeable when comparing between two pieces of equipment. I did notice that the majority of earphones were actually more sensitive with the Ares II+, which probably had an impact on my impressions of more detail and upper midrange presence; louder generally sounds better to most people. On the contrary, the New Primacy was actually slightly less sensitive with the Ares II+, quite strange. So, like many things, it also comes down to where you came from, not necessarily where you’re heading. For instance, I preferred the sound of the Primacy with the Ares II+ over the stock cable more than I preferred the ergonomics of the stock cable over the EffectAudio one; I preferred both the sound quality and ergonomics of the Shure SE215 with the Ares II+ when compared to the stock cable and I actually preferred the stock cable in both ergonomics and sound on the New Primacy over the Ares II+. Was the sound upgrade worth $300 AUD? The answer is ultimately no. The cable rather provided just a little extra for all of these earphones, most of which are already very good sounding earphones in their price range, and the cable upgrade alone was not enough to make the earphone comparable to those in the price range above.

But on the flipside, I can see how people might be willing to go down this path, even if they don’t have a $1000 earphone. It can also be quite intimidating to let go of your current earphone, however much it may cost, and purchase a higher-end earphone purely based upon the accounts of other users on the net; an earphone whose tonality you may not even enjoy as much as your current earphone which you are comfortable with
(not everyone has access to retail stores that allow demoing or returns). With custom cables, the buyer can improve the sound quality of their current earphone whilst retaining the same essence. For instance, I’m not a huge fan of the Shure SE846 due to the fitment but I have no issue with the SE535 and enjoy it’s sound quite a lot. So suddenly the SE535 with Thor Copper becomes more viable than the SE846, not only did the cable improve the sound quality, it also improved the ergonomics too; it was the only step up while remaining in my comfort zone. Some could say that the thrill of this hobby is to upgrade and sidegrade until you reach your endgame, but not everyone has that kind of mentality (or budget) and for such consumers, custom cables can be a great way to achieve improvement relatively risk-free, just understand the extent of the improvements you will receive.

Perhaps a more ambiguous question, some may wonder whether cables make a bigger difference than a source upgrade? To my ears, it’s similar, and it relies heavily on how good your current source is. For instance, the Ares II+ made a bigger difference to the sound quality of my SE215’s than swapping from my HTC 10 to my Oppo HA-2 ($340 AUD). But if I was upgrading from my laptop’s integrated sound card to the Oppo, then the differences would undeniably be larger than those invoked by the cable upgrade. The same goes for stock cables, some of which are vastly better than others. Ironically, the more expensive earphones in this article received smaller benefits. If I had a set of Westone W80’s for instance, the $300 cable would of course, be more justifiable, but also less necessary since the W80 comes with an 8-core ALO Audio custom cable anyway. In the end, it is wise to call this a custom cable, not a cable upgrade, as the sound changes are all relative and sound quality is just one facet of the custom cable experience; as far as ergonomics and visual are concerned, the Ares II+ is far more impressive than any stock cable I’ve seen on an earphone under $1000. Buyer’s going down this route also have bespoke options which allows for tayloring to the users specific preferences and needs.

 

Verdict –

So ultimately, does it really matter whether cables make an objective difference? In my eyes, if the cable has made a subjective transformative difference to you, whether or not it actually affected audio performance in any way, then your purchase was worth it. But problems do arise when newer, less experienced listeners first come to Head-fi or other forums and hear about the amazing effects of cables, spend the majority of their hard earned cash and very possibly walk away unrewarded. It is important to stay grounded about such things, don’t  overstate the effects look into more expensive earphones over cheaper earphones with a custom cable.

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But there still remains something charming about this business, so should it be called; the romantic ideal of a single university student hand-making cables from some of the finest materials in the world and eventually blooming into an internationally established business (then providing competitions where people such as myself may experience these efforts first-hand!). So whilst cables are, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, a highly subjective medium; I for one, think that the passion, workmanship and ultimately, end user subjective performance improvements, are all very welcome in the audio community.

 

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