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Headphone Cables item created by project86, Nov 15, 2012
Pros - Beautiful build, great sound, high quality all around
Cons - Some people may wish for memory wire (other will love the fact that it has none)
93spec pure silver CIEM cable
Premium cables - probably the single most controversial category in audio, unless we count some of the more dubious "tweaks" out there like magic rocks and green CD pens. But only a very small contingency of folks actually believe in those types of things - upgraded cables are far more mainstream.
It's easy to write people off who rabidly believe - or disbelieve - in cables making an audible difference. Some of these people bring it on themselves, practically becoming caricatures in the process. "I can only stand to use solid silver cables with 4 figure price tags in my system. Nothing else will do!" says the cable extremist. "I get all my cables at Home Depot for as cheap as possible. Anything more is for suckers!" replies his counterpart on the other side, probably not realizing that his "enthusiasm" for debating the topic is equally annoying. Meanwhile the average audio enthusiast falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
I myself have wavered back and forth on this topic over the years. There was a time when my entire system was cabled by expensive brands like Shunyata. Then came the realization that they didn't make the improvement I assumed (and had been assured) that they did. So I switched to basic stuff - stock power cables, cheap interconnects and digital cables, basically anything slightly above the level of a free patch cable that comes with a new DVD player (I actually would have no problem using those if not for the extremely high failure rate I've encountered with them). Before long I was wiring my fairly expensive system with $40 worth of cables. As I did more and more reviews, folks sometimes pointed out to me that they perceived me as less credible due to my cable choices. I wrestled with the matter for a while and have since made some new conclusions.
First, I have re-confirmed my earlier findings about the lack of any real scientific proof that cables make a difference. It would be convenient for me if I could find some reliable data that explains why better cables should sound better. But I simply can't. There are some wild theories floating around, and then some more reasonable ones that are fairly interesting, but nothing definitive that helps the cause.
Second, I've discovered that there actually are numerous well-respected and highly-intelligent people in the audio industry who do have some level of belief in audible cable differences. Really smart guys like Gordin Rankin (WaveLength Audio), Steve Nugent (Empirical Audio), Demien Martin (Auraliti, Constellation Audio, Rockport, NuForce) and Jim Thiel (speaker legend) among others, give some degree of credence to the idea that cables can make a difference, despite possibly not having an exact explanation for it. And none of these gentleman is currently in the business of selling their own cables so we can't explain away their opinions as mere greed. There are also plenty of folks around here who I respect such as Kunlun, Staal, and of course Average Joe, who have all taken a moderately affirmative stance with regards to cables. It's easy to dismiss people you might see posting crazy night/day type hyperbole on some forum, but it's quite another thing when a reliable and reasonable person, with whom you tend to agree about most things, says they can perceive a difference, however small. Ultimately nobody can decide this issue for you but no matter which side you fall on you can be sure you'll find yourself in good company (along with some more annoying people of course.... that's unavoidable).
For myself, I've come to the conclusion that I enjoy having reasonably priced aftermarket cables in my system. No top level Nordost with a 5 figure price tag or anything of that sort - in fact I tend to shy away from the bigger cable brands altogether, in favor of small companies - often of the "one man show" variety. So my system now features AC cables, interconnects, digital cables, and headphone cables from companies like CablePro, Toxic Cables, Beat Audio, NuForce, and Charleston Cable Company. My definition of "reasonably priced" may differ from yours, but generally speaking I think the cost of cables should always be less than that of the component they connect to, and should probably be one of the last upgrades you do once you have all the other components where you'd like them to be. I find that I appreciate the system with decent cables more than I did before, and usually get an improvement in ergonomics and appearance too. Do I actually "hear" a difference? Most times I feel like I do, though sometimes it isn't clear. And I'm still not convinced that the improvement I perceive necessarily has anything to do with the sound actually changing. I am convinced that the knowledge of a more expensive cable combined with a far nicer appearance can be enough. Like comparing two similarly excellent DACs, the differences in character between cables can be very difficult to put into words. But the again most people don't call you crazy when you do compare two good DACs and find them slightly different.
The changes I "hear" when using a good cable reminds me of how the right picture frame can really add to the enjoyment of a piece of art hanging in a room, despite not actually changing the piece in any way. The right frame can make the colors of a picture or painting seem to "pop". How does it do that without altering the picture itself? About a year and a half ago I wrote more about my theory HERE, though in retrospect I think I've moved a little farther out into subjectivist territory in my conclusions since then. But scroll down towards the bottom to read how my impressions of the cables tended to line up with their physical appearance. A more (physically) colorful and vibrant cable tended to sound more exciting. A (physically) sophisticated, thick, sturdy cable, black in color, sounded thicker, warmer, smoother, more polished and refined. The sound fit with the appearance. Coincidence? Maybe.
There are plenty of good examples we can think of where appearance factors in to perceived sound - would you pay $1000+ for a headphone that sounded like an HD800 or LCD-2 but looked and felt like an SR60 or Portapro? Would you be able to enjoy it? Because I probably wouldn't. Should high-end firms like Pass Labs, Krell, Audio Research, Accuphase, etc. start selling versions of their amps in plain black enclosures, complete with cheap binding posts, for a lot less money? A few of us might go for that but the reality is that the target market for an amplifier with a 5 figure price tag demands a certain level of aesthetics, and wouldn't sacrifice that even for a substantial savings. But at this point it becomes something of a philosophical discussion - like discussing politics, religion, or your favorite band, there's usually no point in trying to convince someone to think differently than they already do. At least not on a forum like this.
So - having said all that, will I ever get to the point? Is this a review thread or a think piece? And will I still manage to make some people angry despite everything I've said? Probably.
The main focus here, aside from the tirade above, is the new 93spec custom IEM cable from Stage93. The Singapore based company has been making custom IEMs for a while, and has also acted as regional distributor for other brands including Dunu, EXS, and Audinst. They also sell aftermarket IEM cables from popular brands such as Whiplash and Moon Audio. Being a growing company, they decided to venture out and build their own quality cable to sell alongside their 3, 4, and 6 driver custom IEM models. A logical choice.
The 93spec is sold under their 93 East imprint which I assume will eventually grow to feature several different models. As is usual with custom IEM cables, my 93spec will work with most customs from Westone, JH Audio, Unique Melody, Heir Audio, 1964 Ears, etc. The exceptions are few - more recent Ultimate Ears models with the redone cable, and then the far less commonly used LiveWires and Sleek Audio customs. Apparently Stage93 offers various options so if you wanted to upgrade your Sennheiser IE80 or Shure SE535 or newer style Ultimate Ears customs, they should be able to accommodate. The checkout system appears down at the moment but Stage93 is very responsive to emails and can get everything set up for whatever your specific needs are.
The cable itself is a quad-braid, 26AWG, pure OCC silver design. Stage93 did extensive research and prototyping before arriving at their final configuration which they feel is the best available at the price ($230 USD, plus shipping). This says a lot about the confidence Stage93 has in their cable, as it competes with the Moon Audio Silver Dragon and Whiplash TWcu cables they also sell, and actually costs a bit more than those models. The 93spec uses a proprietary stranded configuration which attempts to emulate a solid core wire in order to provide the maximum amount of conductive material possible while maintaining a flexible feel that doesn't hinder portable use. It's a pure silver cable rather than copper like the TWcu or copper/silver mix like the Silver Dragon. My contact told me that while they appreciate the warmish or balanced sound that copper can bring, using pure silver gave them the more detailed signature that they were looking for. I have yet to hear any of the Stage93 custom IEMs but it's certainly likely that they designed their cable around the sound of their IEMs.
Another important aspect of the 93spec cable is something they call the "overfreeze" connection system. In the early days of aftermarket CIEM cables, the connectors (the parts that plug in to the IEM itself) were mostly just soldered on and covered with heat shrink. Later we got "overmolded" designs where there was an actual plastic covering to protect this relatively delicate connection point. Stage93 tells me they initially started out with a standard epoxy covering and regular pins, much like a stock or overmolded cable would use, but discovered that they were not always perfectly exact in terms of sizing. When dealing with an expensive CIEM, the last thing you need is to have the socket "stretched out" by a cable that has slightly out of spec pin size or spacing. So they came up with their own pins and covering which has a tighter tolerance in terms of size. The overfreeze design is small enough to fit into a recessed socket but works just fine in a flush socket as well. And from trying it out with numerous custom IEMs, I do think it is one of the best fitting cables I've experienced. Just check out the pictures - you can see the detail and quality of the pins, making other cables look shabby in comparison. Another consideration is repairs: apparently when a typical overmolded cable is somehow damaged in the connector area, it needs to be sent back to the manufacturer for repair, which is a somewhat difficult process. And when you get it back it may have a slight variation in pin size. The overfreeze system is apparently easy to swap out for a new one should your pins ever somehow get bent or otherwise damaged, and the replacements will be as exact as they were the first time around. That means Stage93 can better stand behind their product in the unlikely event that a cable needs repair. So even if the overfeeze thing sounds questionable to you (honestly I've only ever had one of my CIEM cables fail, out of about 20 or so that I've owned) it's still nice to see a company go out of their way to be able to better service their customers. On that note, 93 East cables come with a 1 year limited warranty against defects.
Look and Feel
My cable arrived in the standard 50" length, terminated with what appears to be an Oyaide 3.5mm right angle plug. I'm sure either of these could be negotiated if someone needed a longer cable or preferred a straight plug. The cable cinch is done in wood which has become something of a standard among aftermarket CIEM cables. Of particular note to some users is the lack of any type of memory wire - just wrap the thing around your ear and after a few uses it becomes fairly well shaped to your ear. But it's not a permanent thing and if you sold the cable I believe the next user could easily get it to conform to their ears just as well. This design worked well for me though it was a bit tricky on the very first couple of uses.
The braid of the 93spec and the general feel of the cable just ooze quality. There's simply no comparing it to a stock cable. Even my pricier Beat Audio Cronus cable looks somewhat bland compared to this design. As for flexibility and ease of use, the 93spec is excellent. A $230 cable will likely never become my go-to choice for jogging, but it probably could if I really wanted - it's that good. I own two CIEM cables from Toxic Cables - a 24AWG SPC Viper and a 26AWG Silver Poison. The Viper is very nice but not as flexible as the 93spec, which makes sense due to the thicker cable gauge. I actually haven't seen my Silver Poison yet - I had Toxic Cables ship it out to someone else prior so we'll see how it compares down the road. But so far I think the 93spec cable is on par with Toxic - which in my opinion is one of the premier brands on the market. So that's good company to be in. The only aftermarket cable I've seen that can surpass the feel and ease of use of the 93spec is my Heir Audio Magnus 1 cable. But that cables goes for a while different user base, and thus is not really a good comparison.
Now for the controversial part of this review: how does the cable sound? I used a variety of reference grade equipment during this evaluation and I do think the experience is superior when using this cable rather than a stock one. Again, whether this is something I'm really hearing or just something in my head, I don't know. I perceive an increase in clarity throughout the whole range, especially on the top end, with none of the dynamics-crushing reduction in bass that some have reported from silver cables. It's not bright, not harsh, and certainly doesn't do anything negative to the presentation. There's no trade off involved - simply good sound.
Stage93 told me that the cable pairs best with warmer IEMs, helping coax more detail out of them and bringing things like vocals more up front. But they found that it also improved IEMs that were already bright, giving them a more expansive soundstage and superior detail retrieval. While I do agree that the cable seems to best match with a warmer IEM, I had absolutely no problem in using it with a brighter model like the sparkly Lear LCM-5. In the end I went with their suggestion though and paired it most often with the Heir Audio 8.A, which is definitely on the warmer side (and one of my favorites in the entire headphone realm). When you consider that the 8.A costs $1299, the extra $230 for a cable upgrade doesn't seem all that disproportionate. Same goes for the Heir 6.A LE ($1099 but no longer available), Lear LCM-5 (~$900), and Unique Melody Merlin ($800). I did use it to good effect with lower priced models like my 1964 Ears V3 ($425) and Aurisonics AS-1b ($599). Both models saw some benefit in added clarity, especially on the top end which was very appreciated on the AS-1b - but I don't know that I would recommend a $230 cable for cases like those. That extra money would allow you to move up to an entirely higher model from the same manufacturer - the 1964 Ears V6 or the Aurisonics AS-2 respectively - which would most surely provide a larger and more meaningful upgrade. Then after that, a cable might be a worthwhile option as a next step.
On that note, I found that the cable difference (such as it was) was more evident on a higher end system. Using a quick and easy portable setup like the Meizu MX 4-core, or the iHiFi812 V2, or either of those paired with a Leckerton UHA-6S mkII, I didn't perceive much more than just a slight difference. That could be due to my portable use where I'm paying attention to other things and not digging too deeply into the music. Perhaps if I focused more or used those setups at home it would become more clear. But for me, the most obvious improvements came when using my large setup - Auraliti PK90 music server with NuForce linear power supply, Resonessence Concero converting USB to SPDIF, Anedio D2 DAC, Violectric V200 amp, CablePro Revelation power conditioner, and a good selection of reasonably nice cables throughout. I don't like to think about how much this system costs but it's easily north of $6K not including the CIEM being used. Interestingly, this system is far less expensive than the one I used to run, yet far superior at the same time. It is very resolving and should be capable of revealing differences, however small they might be. This is where I notice the most improvement. It could also be the "weak link" syndrome at play: I am aware that everything else is of a higher caliber, so maybe that calls more attention to the potential weakness of the stock cable; getting rid of it solves that perceived weakness. Whatever the case - I wouldn't necessarily recommend this cable for someone using a $120 DAC and $200 amp with an entry level CIEM. But for those who have covered all their other bases so to speak, the 93spec could just be the final piece of the puzzle.
I have to reiterate my feelings on the cable issue one last time, just to be sure everyone is clear. I don't mind a bit if someone has a strong opinion about cables - either for or against. I just don't like it with those people actively pursue arguments about it. Look: if someone asks for a recommendation for a top-tier headphone, don't be a jerk and tell them the HD650 is all they should ever need. You may have a valid point about the ever-climbing prices of flagship headphones, and their relative value against the former top models. But still - you know what the person means, so don't hijack their thread for to use as your own soapbox. Likewise, if someone wants to know about entry-level custom IEMs, don't try to sell them on the JH16. It's just not helpful, and frankly, it's kind of annoying. That's how we should look at cable related inquiries - if someone clearly isn't interested in anything better than stock cables, then don't pester them about it. Move on. But if they are looking for an upgrade, however confused you may think they are on the matter, just let it go. If we all acted like that, this forum would be much better off. And remember: while you may dismiss someone who claims to hear small differences between cables, someone else may just as easily dismiss something you believe in, such as any amp sounding better than the O2, or any DAC performing better than the Benchmark DAC 1.
Still, I'm sure I've probably lost a few fans by writing this. So be it. People deserve to be given honest opinions, and that's exactly what I'm doing, so I'm not worried about it.
In the end, the 93spec cable from Stage93 is a very capable product, with a price that actually seems low for what you get. I like the looks, the feel, and the sound, better than my $299 Beat Audio Cronus. It pairs well with pretty much every CIEM I tried, enhancing clarity and articulation without any drawbacks. The Stage 93 folks have also been very pleasant and helpful to deal with, answering my numerous detailed (and probably annoying) questions. What more could you ask for in an aftermarket cable company?
And now, some pictures, as a reward for sticking with me on that long ramble.
Violectric V800 and V200 with 93spec and 1964 Ears V3
Wood cinch at the Y split
Overfreeze connector - look at the quality of the pins
With Lear LCM-5
With LCM-5 and Monitor Sound Adapter, paired with Icon Audio HP8 mkII tube amp
With Heir Audio 6.A LE and iHiFi812 v2
With Heir Audio 8.A (guest appearance by Stax SR-404LE)
Comparison to stock cable
Stock pins versus overfreeze pins
With LiveWires triple driver as reshelled featuring Heir Audio Timbre upgrade
With Aurisonics AS-1b
with 1964 Ears V3
New V3 and 93spec compared to 1964-T with Beat Audio Cronus
With Izmo M1 and 1964 V3