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No. 98 July 2012

Don’t let them fool you or why the cheap and the expensive HDMI cables are NOT the same

It is rare to see such a foolish and unprofessional (amateurish) text as the article on the portal (Krzysztof Pielesiak, Don’t let them fool you or why the cheap and the expensive HDMI cables are the same published on May 11, 2012; text HERE). The author does not try to verify anything, does not offer any of his own comments, regurgitating rubbish from another, even more bizarre article in CNET by Geoffrey Morrison titled Why all HDMI cables are the same (published on April 26, 2011; available HERE). Shortly speaking, Mr. Morrison’s point is that there is no difference between the cheap and the expensive HDMI cables and hence buying specialized cables of this kind is foolish and their manufacturers prey on this foolishness.

Why do I think these articles are foolish and unprofessional? Well, it’s because both authors, Geoffrey Morrison in the first place and Krzysztof Pielesiak by regurgitating him, without trying to examine the subject or to substantiate their arguments, make authoritative claims about things they have no idea. It’s as if I reviewed Beethoven’s late quartets only because I’ve heard their rendition at a few concerts.
In case of HDMI cables the examining is trivial and fully organoleptic: all it takes is to check some cheap, stock HDMI cable that comes with a satellite receiver or a Blu-ray player against a dedicated, quality cable, on a good plasma TV or a good projector, and have some basis to draw conclusions. Neither of the authors did that.
Yet the difference I’m talking about and which both authors deny to exist is clearly and instantly visible!!! More than that – good cables can transmit signal that gives much clearer, sharper and deeper picture. Not to mention the sound.
Instead simple inspection, what does Geoffrey Morrison suggest? Some rubbish on the signal transmission theory. I’m actually exaggerating; it’s no transmission theory at all. Let’s have a look at a text fragment to see what I’m talking about:
“If it's so unlikely, why do I bring it up? Because it's important to understand that it is impossible for the pixel to be different. It's either exactly what it's supposed to be, or it fails and looks like one of the images above. In order for one HDMI cable to have ‘better picture quality’ than another, it would imply that the final result between the source and display could somehow be different. It's not possible. It's either everything that was sent, or full of very visible errors (sparkles). The image cannot have more noise, or less resolution, worse color, or any other picture quality difference. The pixels can't change. They can either be there (perfect, yay!) or not (nothing, errors, boo!).”
The author also mentions that in digital signal processing ‘0’ is always ‘0’ and ‘1’ remains ‘1’. Doesn’t it remind you something? Wasn’t it back in the 20th century that the engineers had already dealt with that rubbish? Haven’t there be enough presentations and experiments clearly showing that it’s like a blind man talking about colors?
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Has the media really gone to the dogs and all we get is such rubbish? I believe that it’s not true and that it’s just a slip of the tongue…

My point is that the author is wrong in nearly everything. Firstly, the signal transmission theory clearly says that each transmit degrades signal, to a more or less extent, but inevitably. Regardless of whether it’s digital or analog signal. Secondly, it is commonly known that digital transmission introduces errors known as jitter. The issue is well researched, with concrete measures taken against it. Jitter is what CHANGES the digital signal in such a way that it degrades. Jitter can be introduced for example by poor impedance matching. In case of digital signal transmission, which by nature is of high frequency, proper impedance matching is the key to preserving signal integrity. The main problem with cheap cables is connectors and conductors themselves, rarely securing the required 50 Ω or 75 Ω. This results in signal reflection, changing it definitely. The other cause of jitter is problems with timing or clock of the transmitter signal. Slope broadening, impulse shifting etc. are the next indications of jitter. They all change the signal. And lastly high-frequency noise induced in cable, the result of poor shielding and interference between individual conductors. The noise generated in the digital signal introduces high-frequency distortion . That always changes the transmitted signal. Enough? And this is just the tip of the iceberg which is the problems with cables in general and HDMI cables in particular.

Let’s go back now to our fundamental question: why neither of the authors did a test called ‘inspection’? The test that would consist of coupling a few sources via several cables in controlled environment and formulating own conclusions based on the results of such experiment. Is it so hard to do? Or it is perhaps easier to write some unfounded rubbish, knowing that there are always people out there who will seize it and lit up their torches to do some ‘witch hunting’ or those who will simply regurgitate it. The basic journalist’s responsibility requires that in addition to his or her own opinion some external reliable sources are consulted and presented. It involves gathering materials, talking to engineers, manufacturers, and to perfectionists – audiophiles and videophiles. In the audio industry the basis consists of measurements, auditions and theory. We operate in this triangle, trying to do justice to all three of them. It is not always possible and the final jury is human ear (and sight). And they often turn out to be most reliable. The next time you read another ‘genius’ radical nonconforming article, think about its author’s expertise, his or her qualifications and motifs. I can guarantee you that most such ‘gems’ will seem ridiculous. Just as in both above examples. And what about the fact that lots of people who read it will believe it? Well, the world is not ideal and gullibility is one of the most common human traits. Neither me nor any of my articles can change that. Still, it’s worth trying.


After this ‘general’ introduction it’s now time for something more ‘specific’, at least from the audiophiles’ and music lovers’ point of view (one of our readers has recently written that an ‘audiophile’ is simply an ‘enlightened music lover’ so let it be). Time for a few things from our own backyard.

USB – an open project
As I mentioned in my reportage from this year’s High End show in Munich, one of the fastest growing segments of the audio world is the one associated with computer audio. And for now the only commonly accepted method of signal transmission from the computer to the external DAC is USB – Universal Serial Bus. FireWire is a niche format, limited almost exclusively to recording studios). The USB standard, officially introduced in 1995 defines cables, connectors and ports as well as communications protocols used in transmission lines connecting computers and peripheral devices.
Initially, the latter were mostly printers, scanners and modems. Only after some time audio devices were added to the list, e.g. keyboards. USB cables not only transmit the signal but are also used to power the peripherals (5V DC). Nowadays, USB is used to charge smartphones, hook up game consoles, external hard drives, flash memory, etc. What is of interest to us though is its use in audio signal transmission.

I will not delve into technical details or the history of USB application in audio, not this time. Instead, I would like to have a closer look at the current state of affairs. What we see is that nearly every new DAC, many CD and network players, even amplifiers and preamps are all equipped with a USB port, enabling them to be fed by signal from a computer, usually a laptop.
What transpires from my conversations with manufacturers as well as from your correspondence it is still quite a problem what kind of signal should be fed to a device with the USB port.
It used to rather straightforward – all external DACs worked with a signal of sampling frequency 32 to 48 kHz and a bit depth of 16 bits. A document available on the USB organization website dated March 18, 1998 and titled Universal Serial Bus Device Class Definition for Audio Devices. Release 1.0 (available HERE), says on page 17 that “The USB is very well suited for transport of audio (voice and sound). PC-based voice telephony is one of the major drivers of USB technology. In addition, the USB has more than enough bandwidth for sound, even high-quality audio.”
As it turned out the CD quality signal that is 44.1/16 was just a prelude and the USB specification 1.1 with all revisions (authored by Geert Knapen from Philips ITCL) soon became outdated. The scene welcomed new ‘dense’ formats, meaning 24-bit signal of sampling rate 96 and 192 kHz.
However, that kind of signal requires much higher transmission rates than USB 1.1 can provide. Hence, in January 2000 a new 2.0 protocol was released, bringing transmission speed of 480 Mbit/s (see “EverythingUSB”). It has been called ‘Hi-Speed’. USB 2.0 enables audio signal transmission far exceeding the 24/192 standard (document describing USB 2.0 titled A Technical Introduction to USB 2.0 is available HERE).

It would seem that everything’s OK and the rates are satisfactory. But yet… The question that I have been recently asked most is where is the end of our needs; what are the USB limits. While just a while ago the 24/192 port seemed everything you could have wished, today it becomes outdated. For what’s knocking on the door is 32-bit audio files with a sampling rate of 384 kHz (see the D/A M2TECH Young review HERE) and DSD files.

On the latter subject, see the interesting article by Andreas Koch, the owner of Playback Designs and a well-known engineer and DSD specialist, titled DoP open Standard: Method for transferring DSD Audio over PCM Frames Version 1.1 (available HERE). Amarra software from Sonic Studio already allows DSD playback and DACs from Playback Design and dCS offer USB port handling DSD signal, including the one with double sampling frequency.

Therefore, my answer is that for now the 24/192 files and USB ports accordingly seem perfectly adequate. However, as it happens with computers and after all USB is a computer related protocol, tomorrow is totally different from today and progress is the driving force behind the changes. Hence, in my opinion if we want to be prepared for the future, a high quality USB port should be programmable, so it can easily accommodate newly developed standards and capabilities.

After all, USB receiver chips are usually specialized DSPs, programmable by definition. Unfortunately, I know of no device offering programmable USB. It seems that we continue to be taken by surprise with the next growing USB sampling and bit depth rates. Despite that I suggest to remain calm and make no sudden moves. 24/192 is perfectly adequate for now.

Remaster „Made in Poland”
Some time ago First Impression Music began a large scale project of remastering and reissuing Telarc CDs. After Telarc’s takeover by Concord Music Group the new owner dissolved the recording division and began making use of the purchased catalog. However, there has been no consistent re-edition program (that I know of) and hence no plans to show the world how brilliantly you can bring together high fidelity sound with the best music renditions. It therefore raised my curiosity to hear the news from Winston Ma about a year ago. He wrote to me that under his First Impression Music, or more accurately under its sub-label Lasting Impression Music he intended to issue selected Telarc discs. Carefully remastered, gold editions. Beauties! I just received a note from DHL about a parcel for me from Mr. Ma. The FIM’s owner has been seriously ill for a long time and manages his business between the subsequent stays in the hospital. He says he is getting better and is back in business. We wish him full recovery!!!

Let me now take this opportunity to have a look at something else and tell you a bit about the Polish school of remastering. For against all odds, as seen in numerous examples from recent years, we are actually quite good at it.
I have mentioned before a few times the Polish Jazz series, remastered by Mmes. Marta Szeliga, Joanna Szczepańska and Karolina Gleinert, and Mr. Wojciech Marzec. I have been highly impressed by their professionalism and dedication to work, especially after an interview I had with Ms. Gleinert.
And yet we cannot forget another wonder kid, Mr. Damian Lipinski, responsible among other things for Savage’s reeditions ((HERE; interview HERE). Using LPs as a source and 32-bit remastering process he achieves something that is absolutely world class quality.

Yet it is not only them to show that the Polish school of remastering is something real. I have been buying for quite some time, mislaid in EMPiK, MediaMarkt and Saturn stores, various records with Polish music issued by Polskie Nagrania (‘Polish Recordings’) and Muza (I rejected them with contempt when they first appeared – my huge mistake!) as well as remasters by Metal Mind Productions.
The former, as you may remember, came initially in two editions – as classic digipacks, still available, and as Limited Edition mini-LPs under Klub Plytowy (Record Club). I have to admit that most of these are fantastic. The sound is exceptionally good! Breakout, Cugowski, Homo Homini, No To co, Kombi all sound better than on original vinyl. Each time when I sit (usually) with my headphones on I am surprised by the sound quality. Especially the treble quality which used to be pathetic in earlier Polish recordings. The midrange is also nice, deep and saturated. The dynamics is on a little weaker side as is the bass saturation (not even in terms of quantity as much as quality). Clearly, there is no good remedy for that and it depends on the quality of the master tapes. Yet it is not only the mini-LPs that sound good. My recent purchases, although issued several years ago, the remasters of records by Tadeusz Wozniak, Anna Jantar etc. are also very nice. These are digipacks so they lack that Japanese taste of the mini-LPs featuring true 1:1 replicas of the original cover art, but they are not bad at all.
I also mentioned Metal Mind Productions. Their remasters were a bit of a surprise to me, especially that the remastered records by Exodus, Wladyslaw Komendarek (Przebudzenie przeszłości - ‘Awakening the past’), SBB and Jozef Skrzek are really very good. It turns out that we (I mean Poles) have in our archives incredible supplies of good music. It may not be the Champions League, but it is a solid First Division.
Hence, I encourage all music lovers, especially the younger ones who think Polish jazz, pop and rock music is an embarrassment, to these recordings. You will be surprised not only by the music quality but also by the quality of remastering.

But there are also clear failures. One of them is Siekiera records reeditions. Stanko’s jazz also received a very bad treatment at one point. In 2008 Metal Mind Productions issued a 5-CD box limited to 2,000 numbered copies with Stanko’s records from 1970-88 1988 (Metal Mind Productions, MMP 5 CD BOX 006, 5 x CD, 2008). It consist of such titles as Music For K. I compared that CD with a Polish Nagrania remaster by Wojciech Marzec and the original vinyl LP and am sorry to say that it is a very poor remaster. The MMP box recording has flattened dynamics, limited frequency range and sounds ‘dull’. I do not recommend it!
However, it’s not the only recent example of a lost chance. Here for my birthday I received a debut record of Wilki. I still remember the crazieness associated with it; back in the days I went to their concert at the Krakow’s Korona club. I used to listen to this record witm my friend over and over again. When MJM Music, the Wilki’s record label, announced that they had remastered the whole Wilki’s discography and would issue it, with the debut record in the form of a 2-CD box, I was really happy. I waited anxiously and it so happened that in the meantime came my birthday for which I got the record.
Imagine my profound disappointment, after a short listen. The sound is shallow and bright. There is no hint of bass to it. The midrange seems plastic, as if it were first compressed and then artificially ‘expanded’. It is probably the worst Polish remaster I know. And I don’t think the whole blame can be attributed to the source material quality, since proper tonal balance can be adjusted no matter what source we have. Evidently, during production there was nobody to give it at least one critical listen. I do not recommend it!!! !!! (Wilki, Wilki, MJM Music archives, MJM Music, MJM5236D, 2 x CD, 1992/2012).

For sale
Finally, I have some reviewed components for sale, either my own or offered by companies that after my reviews prefer to sell them here, in Poland, rather than ask me to send them back. Here’s my ‘for sale’ list:

1. KingRex UD384 + U POWER USB DAC with a battery power supply, asking 250 USD (originally 479 USD) + 150 USD (originally 189 USD). review HERE.

2. KingRex UC192 USB DAC. Best offer.

3. Acoustic Revive RAF-48 isolation platforms (air floating; under CD players and amplifiers). I have two for sale, brand new, still in original boxes. Came straight from Japan. I personally use two of these in my system. The review can be found HERE. Catalog price 6,200 PLN, asking 4,000 PLN. There is also one used, in mint condition for 3,500 PLN.

4. Wireworld Platinum Eclipse RCA-RCA analog interconnect, 2 m long. Catalog price 22,390 PLN, asking 10,000 PLN.

Wojciech Pacuła

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"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

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