Whar Whars or why change headphone wires?

Robert Hartley, in The Complete Guide to High End Audio talks about Specialty Headphone Cables. He goes over the usual discussion of conductors, dialectric, terminations, and geometry. He asserts that you can’t get the best sound from good headphones with stock (or at least cheap stock) cables.

I have some different criteria than the esteemed Mr. Hartley.

  1. I want cables that don’t break
  2. I prefer cables that don’t transmit physical noise, like rubbing when I move to the headphone
  3. I’m not fond of tangles
  4. He’s right about connectors - but intermittent, wire fatigued cables are not usable.

We also have another big difference. I’m a cheapskate image
and Mr. Hartley gets lots of cables to play with for free.

SO, I’m happy with the cables that came with my Hifiman HE-560s, and I even ordered a second set from them with a different terminator. When I need a cable for headphones, I’ve been going to Amplifier Surgery and having them make me a custom cable. I find their solidly made, twisted, silver plated high quality cables to be quite good enough for me. (they also have Facebook and ETSY pages)

I find it difficult to describe a wire’s sound, unless it’s creating a sound, and that’s bad. To me, good cables disappear in my listening experience. What I have NOT done is any A-B comparison of stock vs Amplifier Surgery vs Nano Eclipse, Black Dragon, Nordost, Kimber Kable Axios or Crystal Cable with my on headphones. Has anyone?

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I have very little experience with custom cables as I have always been satisfied enough to not want to delve into that hole. However, I have recently bought a new Dap which happens to have a balanced output as well as the usual 3.5mm one. So I thought why not, so I looked online for a cheap balanced 2.5mm cable. I bought a few Brainwavz cables of differing quality and awaited their arrival.

To cut a long story short the sound seemed better but this may have been all down to placebo. What bothered me was that on bothe cables the connection kept breaking up due to bad MMCX connection on one side of the iem. This must be down to them being cheap and perhaps poor QC. I have now bitten the bullet and ordered a more expensive better made custom cable and I am hoping that this will solve the issues once and for all. With this being my first experience with custom cables I have all my fingers crossed.

I know I will get cries of make your own. I would love to but I can barely wire a plug. I will try and learn and this is my goal over the next 12 months. It would open up so much more in this hobby for me. Do I just basically need to learn how to solder?
-Paul-

Solder, and be able to watch youtube/read online documentation/diagrams/instructions,… I’m prepping to put my Bottlehead crack together soon and it will be interesting…I’ve never been the best soldering person, I think patience is my problem lol

I would love to be able to put together a Bottlehead Crack but alas my skill set ain’t Upto it. My neighbour is an electrician though. I may ask for his help in teaching me to solder etc.
-Paul-

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Solder —

They seem to think that cable terminations should be crimped, then soldered with silver solder. I’m good enough with regular solder, but haven’t used silver. Others think that some weld instead of solder at the crimp is even better.

I completed my first (and so far only) DIY amp build back in 2013 - Millett Hybrid Tube amp with integrated DAC.

I posted my build pics on Head-Fi here: ModMax’s Millett Hybrid Tube Amp

Included boutique parts selection, thru-hole soldering for the amp, surface mount soldering fo the DAC, and custom casework.

Prior to this build, my solder skills were pretty much non-existent. I find the best way to learn is hands-on, though I did supplement with a few online tutorials prior to picking up an iron.

The great thing about this project, is that the entire amp PCB involved only thru-hole soldering. By the time I was done with the amp build, I was ready to move on to the challenge of surface mount soldering for the DAC. A really nice progression in my skillset.

A very fun build overall. Once my kiddos get a little older, I will most likely be trying another amp build - most likely something from the Bottlehead folks - the Mainline looks interesting.

With respect to custom cables, I have never used anything but stock cables. I guess I figure that ignorance is bliss in my case. As long as the cable meets the 4 criteria stated by @pennstac, plus not too unwieldy or heavy so as to distract from the listening experience, I am okay with what the manufacturer supplies.

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Yeah I’m looking forward to diving into the build…I’ve been buying random bits and pieces here and there in prep. I was going to go really crazy on the wood working part…but it will take too long so I’ll probably do some cosmetic stuff with the supplied wood and then do a full custom job later…especially since you can just plop the Crack onto any case from what I’m seeing so far of the build. I think my biggest problem with Soldering in the past was patience, and not having good gear, so I would get frustrated…Now I’ve spent the time to get (not great) good gear and parts for doing the task. I’ll try and remember to document the build process with pictures and then post it up on here when I’m done.

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I know we have some engineers here. I wish we had a materials science person also. I clearly get the basics. Ohm’s law has not been repealed.

What wonders me some (I live near Amish country), are these factors:

  • We’re talking about a 2M long cable here, not a long stretch

  • We are also talking about audio frequencies - how much can things like skin effect, and impurities or crystal structure of the wire matter. Capacitance yes. That can be measured.

  • Dielectric material. In a 2M long cable, how much of an effect can it have?

  • I don’t get the litz cable discussions. If tiny strands are coated with insulating material (aka dieletric material) how come none of the discussion seems concerned with dielectric effect in that cable? What about capacitance? What about termination, or does solder or crimping magically take the coating off?

I can see some of the arguments when talking about long runs of wire, especially when you are running wires through walls. But 2M? I would like to hear results from double-blind tests.

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I just like custom cables…because they are pretty lol…I think you are right though and that the ease of which the power travels through the cable makes it easier for the power to be…eh I don’t know pretty cables :wink: lol

I do plan on making my own just because it seems fun, and it adds my flair to a hobby I enjoy.

I would like to see some measured and audible (via true blind testing) proof from the custom cable manufacturers that things like skin effect, and impurities, and crystaline structure actually make a difference in what the human ear can hear. My belief is the build quality of the cable and interconnect solder/weld joints are paramount. For my component interconnects, I’ve always relied on Blue Jeans Cable because they make a damn good quality cable. I don’t need my cables to be sexy. Though, I will admit that if I built my own cables, or had a custom cable made, I would add a little color to the mix via sleeves, etc.

The only times I have considered a custom cable is if I wasn’t able to find a suitable alternative from the headphone manufacturer. I figure if it is good enough for the manufacturer to voice their headphones, its good enough for me.

Here is some good cable articles I’ve found when trying to decide if custom cables were for me:

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You need to dip the ends of true litz-stranded/coated cables in a solder pot to remove the coating.

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Yes, Blue Jeans, AntiCables, and Amplifier Surgery are all pretty much in the reasonable but better than standard/stock category.

Do what I do, practice making some custom headphone cables first until you get the hang of it. :slightly_smiling_face:

I did just order a bunch of cable, now to get all the connectors and sleeves.

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I’ve used some nice cables from Double-Helix and Forza for my HE560 and HD800 and found that I can’t hear any differences from the stock cables or the Mogami, Canare or Van Damme cables that I build. One reason that I normally don’t used stock cables is that they are usually kinked up from packing, the rubber of most stock cables don’t feel nice and the most common reason is they are either too long or too short for my main listening area.

Other reasons I change cables:

  1. Most new Grado’s come with either 8 or 12 conductor cables which is way too heavy for the light weight Grado headphones and the weight of these cables move the headphones on my head every time I move my head. All my Grado or Alternative driver builds use SMC jacks or mini-XLR since its what are on my Hifiman cans, Fostex TH series, DT-990, and T1gen1.

  2. Since I have various areas were I use headphones I like having the option of using a cable of the proper length which for me is either 1.5m or 3m.

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My very limited experience in this area had me break down and buy pre-owned custom cables for my Senn 600s and 650s.

Placebo or not, I preferred the sound on the HD 600s with a Cardas cable as it seemed to provide more weight to the bottom and mids while clearing up a bit of sibilance and minor perceived harshness in the treble on some tracks.

Moving to the HD 650s I sensed a well made 5ft.solid silver stranded cable improved the clarity all round.
I’ve gone back and forth between the stock cables a few times since, just to see if I was imagining the improvement.

Whether I have a very good imagination or there is an objective improvement might be debatable but I remain confirmed in my preference for these particular custom cables.

As mentioned by another member here, it may not be “night and say” but I felt the difference was worth the cost (especially buying used). Of course others may disagree and to each his own…especially in this hobby!

As also mentioned, another advantage was the more appropriate cable lengths and better construction.

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I’ve upgraded my stock HD 650 cables to Cardas. The sound became more open and better defined all around. If you someone would press me, I would say that overall it was maybe an 10% improvement. An improvement I appreciated, but for someone who just gets started in this hobby I wouldn’t consider this a 1st priority, since this was about a $100,- cost at the time. I consider wires the icing on the cake; and for some it may be no icing at all. So buyer beware.

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I can conceive that headphone manufacturers in the highly competitive $300 range might skimp on cables just a bit to put their manufacturing goodness elsewhere. I can’t imagine that $600-$3500 headphones would come with questionable cables.

It’s just hard for me to fathom that if I buy an $899 retail headphone that I immediately need a $400 accessory piece of wire for it.

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Make sure to show us your work! :laughing: