Written by Jude Mansilla
One of the first headphone cable upgrades I ever made--around ten years ago--was with a few rough prototypes Cardas Audio (www.cardas.com) sent me to try out with my Sennheiser HD 600. I wasn't sure what to expect, but the improvements I heard had me ordering their first production headphone cable the moment it was released.
Since that first headphone cable upgrade ten years ago, many headphones in addition to the HD 600 have been released with removable cables, like the Sennheiser HD 800 and HD 700, Audeze LCD-2/3, the HiFiMAN HE-series planars, and many others. In addition to Cardas, many other companies have started offering high-end headphone cables, like Moon Audio (www.moon-audio.com), ALO Audio (www.aloaudio.com), and Toxic Cables (www.toxic-cables.co.uk).
In addition to sonic tweaking, custom headphone cables can also solve the connectivity conundrums that have become commonplace in the world of Head-Fi. On the headphone side, there's no single standard for earpiece plugs. Just looking around my desk, I see at least five different types of headphone-side plugs for full-size headphones, three different types for custom in-ear monitors, and there's even more of a variety in the market than that. And then there are the amps' connectors to contend with. For example, in the portable world, there are at least two different connection standards for balanced drive, in addition to the common unbalanced 3.5mm mini plug. For balanced desktop amps, there's dual three-pin XLR, and single four-pin XLR standards for balanced drive, in addition to the common unbalanced 6.3mm (1/4") plug. At Head-Fi HQ, we keep our favorite cable makers on our speed dial, as we constantly deal with the seemingly limitless combinations of all these headphones and amps, and all the different plugs involved.
Moon Audio is often the first company I call for custom headphone cables, especially when I need something of the more unusual, more custom variety. (I was actually Moon Audio's first custom headphone cable customer, many years ago.) So far, Moon Audio's Drew Baird has not turned down any custom cabling challenge I've put in front of him--he'll even tackle the replacement of non-detachable cables, performing whatever surgery necessary to make the new connections. He's also a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide headphone geek, so the moment he buys himself a headphone for personal use, it won't be long before he's fabricating the plugs necessary to accommodate that headphone with Moon Audio cabling.
One of the most recent niche cable upgrades I needed from Moon Audio was for the far-from-common FitEar in-ear monitors (an ultra-high-end Japanese crafter of handmade IEMs). I knew Drew was also a FitEar customer, and, much to my amazement, he'd already made a custom over-molded connector specifically for FitEar IEMs; so I ordered a Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable for the FitEar MH334 Custom, and also a custom Silver Dragon cable for the upcoming Shure SE846 while I was at it. (See the photo of both of these IEM cables.)
Something that ALO Audio, Toxic Cables, and Moon Audio are doing that I absolutely love (and that saves me a bunch of money) is making and selling what I call universal headphone cables, which are cables that have detachable adapter ends that allow the headphone to be used with just about any amp made without having to swap out the main cable. Mini plugs, 1/4" plugs, dual 3-pin XLR, single 4-pin XLR, the proprietary plug required for use with the SR-71B / F-35 Lightning / Rx Mk3--I use all of these. More and more of my headphones are being switched over to universal headphone cables by these makers, so that they can share the adapter ends with each other, for plugging into any amp. (See the photo of the two Audeze headphones with universal cables by Moon Audio and ALO Audio, with a variety of detached adapter ends.)
If you've got a custom cabling need, contact any of the above cable makers. I've found all of them will bend over backwards to help me optimize the sound of my systems, as well as to solve any connection issues I've got. Also, all of the ones I mentioned make cables of all types, not just headphone cables.