Behold... An XLR cable. How exciting. :-)
Although I've discussed speaker cables more recently, it has been ages since I've talked about interconnects. Nothing unusual about that - there's really not much to talk about - they're lengths of wire for low-voltage analogue audio signals! (The exception being AES/EBU digital over XLR cables.)
These days, cables are way past being "mature" products for analogue/digital pure-audio purposes. Of course this doesn't stop companies from trying to differentiate themselves and claiming to have achieved new levels of performance or supposed "significant" improvements in this or that and thus achieving "superior" audio quality.
What I think about "audiophile" cables is no mystery I hope - here's the summary post with various measurements compiled over the years that should cover most questions most might have.
For today's post, let's dive in and talk with some detail about XLR cables and these Monoprice Stage Right Series XLR cables (~US$20/6' length) which have become a standard for me here in the home recently whether for my sound system or for testing. To be clear, this is not a sponsored post and Monoprice did not send me the cables for free. I'll let you know if any product comes through this blog that is not directly purchased or borrowed from friends.
IMO, for audiophiles who uncompromisingly desire the lowest noise levels, the deepest "black background", make sure to go for audio hardware capable of balanced "differential signaling". We've seen the improvement this can make on measurements all the way back to 2013 with the Squeezebox/Logitech Transporter. Balanced outputs commonly are of higher voltage (potentially better signal-to-noise ratio), have better common noise rejection (improved crosstalk, resistance to RF interference), and the XLR connectors are more robust than RCAs.
As you know, US$20 per cable or so (you can see it on sale occasionally) is simply "cheap" for anything in the audiophile world! But for that price, I think these are good cables that audiophiles should keep in mind.
For years, I've been using the Monoprice Premier XLR cables but I have had hassles with these unfortunately. The connectors are bulky and sometimes too bulky for my gear. For example, my RME ADI-2 Pro ADC/DACs (both the Pro FS and Pro FS R BE) don't quite like the tight fit. These will sometimes get stuck in my Emotiva XSP-1 preamp while trying to disengage from the male end of the cable due to the locking mechanism as well.
Thankfully, no problem with the Monoprice Stage Right variant:
Whereas the Premier cable (top) has a hole through the casing for the locking mechanism, the Stage Right below does not. Instead, the cable still inserts with a reassuring click into the XLR socket but the locking notch isn't as deep and less likelihood of the cable getting stuck.
Also, whereas the Premier has screws holding the XLR casing together (old Cannon XLR design), it's very easy on the Stage Right to just hand unscrew the bottom portion, release the strain relief "chuck", and have a look at the wiring if you ever need to check (this is the newer Neutrik design) - this should also help if you ever need to open the connector to release a "stuck" cable, backing the pieces out until you can work on the metal shell from the inside:
Notice that for this cable, we can see a little silver-colored "jumper" between Pin 1 (shield) and the XLR casing pin on both ends. There is controversy out there as to whether connecting the casing ground to the cable Pin 1 is appropriate or not**. Thankfully I have not run into any issues over the years whether with home audio, pro gear, or with testing equipment, but one can imagine gear where chassis/shell potential could be different from the Pin 1 "ground/shield" level, causing a ground loop.
Depending on which company makes the cable, you will see variations whether Pin 1 is strapped to the connector casing. In fact, you can see variations even with these Monoprice Stage Right XLR cables! Check this out:
Recently I received a shipment from Amazon for 2 of these 10' Stage Right XLR cables. While the part number is the same on both bags (P/N: 18673), notice the right one was sourced from China, and the left bag was "Made in Vietnam". There are actually 3 differences I noticed between these:
1. The China-made one was slightly longer by about 2".
2. The China-made one had white lettering on the length of the wire itself (see this in the topmost image). The Vietnam-made one had fainter grey lettering that's much less noticeable. Connectors appear to be exactly the same.
3. There were internal differences! Of no significance, the Vietnam cable had red-colored insulation for Pin 3 (vs. white with the China-made one). More significantly, the Vietnam-made cable did not have the jumper from Pin 1 to shell casing as you can see:
As I said, this is something to be aware of when it comes to XLR cables even though I have never run into a problem over the years. Notice that the pins are indeed gold plated for both cables and the wire gauge does appear to be thicker 16AWG copper as advertised.
Here at the Musings, no review is complete without some measurements, right? :-)
Here you go, a simple loop-back XLR measurement using my RME ADI-2 Pro FS DAC/ADC set at +13dBu output level, using a 24/96 RightMark audio test procedure. Source is my Intel NUC6i5SYH, I used stock switching power supplies all around, no special 120V mains A/C filtering:
It looks pretty good with the braided jacket and the gold-plated XLR connectors look almost identical to the Monoprice Stage Right. It's a very flexible cable, much more so than the Stage Right. The reason I included this was because the wire gauge is thinner, typical of most XLR cables:
"So how do the Stage Right XLR cables sound?" you might ask... "Great", I say! "Transparent".
Seriously folks, it's one thing to describe the subjective sound of an album's production quality, tonality of speakers, distortion-free high fidelity amps, even characteristics of DACs. But for cables that conduct the electrical signal essentially "perfectly" beyond all reasonable limits of human hearing, aren't we as audiophiles way way beyond having fun trying to describe differences? Yet claims of better "bass articulation", more "presence/immediacy", more "detail/transparency/definition", more "dynamic", "smoother", wider/deeper soundstage/"greater presence", "even lower noise", more accurate timbre/harmony/"musicality", "more vigorous toe-tapping" continue to be used all the time with essentially no value IMO in cable reviews.
What's the point? These simply sound like good XLR cables!
Other than truly bizarre cables that purposely distort the signal, I don't think anyone would be shocked by the suggestion that cable reviews are generally a reflection of the reviewer's imagination rather than "documents of fact" with a reliable witness. One could probably learn just as much about the "subjective" quality of a cable using a computer algorithm spitting out sentences using those audiophile clichés.