Saturday, 23 January 2021

Cable review: Monoprice Stage Right Series XLR - gold plated connectors, 16AWG conductors and differences between Made in China & Made In Vietnam... A few words about cable demos.

 

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:


With the male end of the connector disassembled, you can see the 3 pins - Ground/Shield, Positive/Hot, and Negative/Cold - that make up the complementary wires used in differential signaling. I haven't seen any specs on the coverage of the braided shield, it looks pretty good.

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:


As a comparison XLR cable, I've included the even less expensive but still good SRADIO XLR cable (<$15 for 10' length):


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:


I think you can appreciate at the solder points that the SRADIO's blue wire is thinner than the corresponding Stage Right. The SRADIO looks like a typical 22-24AWG wire (I didn't measure precisely). Like the Vietnam version of the Stage Right, the SRADIO does not strap Pin 1 to the shell casing.

Notice that at 10' length, there's barely any difference in the numerical RightMark results between these XLR cables regardless of construction or wire gauge.

Notice the other comparison cable is a short length of shielded Amazon Basics 4' RCA cable to just show the difference balanced cabling makes. While numerically the difference between the RCA and XLR might not be very impressive, let's graph this out to appreciate the details:


Basically we're seeing the excellent high-resolution results of the RME ADI-2 Pro FS going from the DAC's XLR output into the ADC's XLR input. Absolutely no significant difference between the XLR cables that any human ears could ever perceive!

In the graphs, we can also appreciate the difference a balanced cable makes when compared to RCA. Notice the extra noise and higher crosstalk with the RCA. Despite the differences, it's important not to get too worked up about the noise level with RCA - even though it obviously, objectively rises above the XLR cables, it's still way down at something like -115dB or less. Nevertheless, I think it's still fair to say that if an audiophile is aiming for the absolute, highest fidelity "perfectionist audio", seeking out devices capable of clean, balanced operation is pretty well mandatory for bragging rights if nothing else!

"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.

Summary:

Although generally "cables are cables" (in general, Bits Are Bits as well), as with everything, there are nuances we could know about such as the Pin 1-to-casing variation between manufacturers and even with the same Monoprice Stage Right XLR here despite identical product numbers.

Despite the differences, it would of course be inappropriate to claim a significant change to sound unless you run into some gear where the Pin 1-to-shell construction causes terrible ground loops. If you do experience this, I think it might say more about the equipment than it does the cable!

While I honestly don't believe there's a sonic difference regardless of which communist country the Monoprice cables were born in, consistency using the same cable construction for both stereo channels would be good. If I had a choice, I would probably go for the China-made cable since it is slightly longer and the Pin 1 jumper can be easily cut to disconnect if you choose. Also, since the jumper is present on both male and female ends, you could even choose to cut one side if you want. I'm sure there must be discussions online about this and which side "sounds better connected" among the audiophile forums. ;-) [I've heard more recommendations to keep Pin 1-to-shell on the female connector side, not sure about the rationale so feel free to experiment. This belongs to the "esoteric tweak" category of audiophile matters.]

In favor of the Vietnam-made cables however is the fact that cosmetically, the length of the wire only has low-contrast deep grey text which is nice and unobtrusive (unlike the white lettering with the China-made cable). These also appear to be a little shinier when placed side-by-side with the China-made ones.

Beyond this ~$20/XLR cable price point, I suppose one could go one step higher into good pro-audio cables like Mogami Gold (~US$50/6') or companies that use combination brand name components like Mogami cables with Neutrik-branded connectors (like this 10' XLR for US$30). And if you're in a very electrically noisy environment, maybe get some XLRs with star-quad wires - like these with Canare wire + Amphenol connectors for <US$25/6' or these with Gotham wire + Amphenol connector, 10' pair for <US$50. Monoprice also has these star-quad 24AWG XLRs (<$23/10'). Plenty of options and no need to spend big bucks, audiophiles!

And with that, I can now add XLR cabling to my collection of cable articles. And I think that's all I have to say about XLR cables as an audiophile - I think that's also all I need to say about audio interconnect cables in general. :-)

** Regarding whether Pin 1 should be bonded to the XLR shell/chassis, be aware of the Benchmark recommendation of not bonding for analogue XLR cables, and bonding for AES/EBU digital XLR use. That's probably the simplest generalization useful to know. Also, Benchmark has a great discussion/demo of star-quad benefits for magnetic immunity.

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As we end...

I find it interesting that in cable demos I've attended at audio shows and local dealers, the salespeople typically use very cheap "pack in" cables like from $50 BluRay players of very small gauge, possibly not even with copper conductors for their uncontrolled A/B comparisons. The next time you go to an expensive audiophile cable demo - like say Nordost / AudioQuest / Cardas / Kimber / Wireworld / Synergistic / DH Labs / Analysis Plus / etc... Why not suggest that the salesman try putting one of these reasonably priced ~US$20 wires in the demo (whether a pair of Monoprice RCAs or the Stage Right XLR discussed here)?

For me, these ~$20 cables (<$50 for a pair of good XLRs) with good construction including gold plated connectors and higher gauge copper (like 16AWG for XLRs, which are typically 20-24AWG) are where the rational audiophile should spend their money without concern that they're somehow "missing out" on the sound. Sure, for non-utilitarian purposes, one could still put a cart-load of cash into looks and prestige, but there's nothing more you can add from a sound quality perspective by buying into snake-oil claims (here's a nice collection of questionable products and companies, I'm not sure if there's a >$1000 list!).

Unless a sales demo involves tricks like fooling around with volume levels, is playing different tracks to create subtle differences, plants enthusiastic "shills" in the audience to testify to how much better the expensive cable sounds, or if the cable purposely affects sound quality (eg. MIT Cables purposely acts as low-pass filter as per their patents), I bet if the salesperson does a few A/B/A switches and just shuts up in between so as not to bias listeners, nobody will notice a difference between the $20 well-built cable and whatever insane $500++ model they're using as bait; fishing for a willing customer. Obviously, a true controlled trial with blind testing would be even better and the general lack of audible differences would be obvious.

On last thing: you don't even need to waste energy for hours of "break-in" before wires sound good or do stuff like cryogenic treatments for audio cables. Nonsense. Run from companies that insist on stuff like this, or worse, charges even more money for the "service".

As usual, remember Carl Sagan (although this aphorism has earlier roots): "It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out." :-)

Enjoy the music, audiophiles. Stay safe.

14 comments:

  1. What's the difference between an XLR cable used as an analog interconnect and the kind needed for connecting digital AES?
    At the least, I'd think you can use a cable that's suitable for digital tolerances for analog.
    But the analog cable can't be used for AES?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Unknown,
      Simply put - no real difference. You can use them interchangeably and I have done so myself. As I noted in the "**" section, one can follow Benchmark's recommendations to connect the tab/case/shell with Pin 1 for digital AES/EBU when daisy chaining to reduce RF. For digital use then, we can say that the "China version" of this cable would be better than the "Vietnam version".

      Remember that for the most part, digital XLR AES/EBU is used in studio more than the home. Here at home the last time I bothered was with my Logitech Transporter and my Behringer digital EQ even though my RME ADI-2 Pro FS (R) can also handle the interface:
      http://archimago.blogspot.com/2013/03/measurements-transporter-toslink-vs.html

      It worked fine with whatever XLR cable, "digital" or not.

      As home audio folks these days, IMO, digital AES/EBU XLR should really be more of a "legacy" interface. For basic digital audio, S/PDIF TosLink/Coaxial are fine. And for hi-res digital - USB, ethernet, and HDMI are much superior for convenience, compatibility, and bandwidth.

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    2. I have come across one piece of pro gear that exhibited issues with 75Ω analogue interconnects on the AES/EBU connections. Switched to 110Ω cable and the problems disappeared. Since then we have always specified 110Ω for AES/EBU cable just to be on the safe side: Canare DA206. http://www.canare.com/ProductItemDisplay.aspx?productItemID=66

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    3. Thanks Richard,
      That's a good point I neglected to mention. Spec for AES/EBU digital is 110Ω cable characteristic impedance. So the meticulous audiophile using these for digital purposes should look at getting cables like those Canare DA206, Belden 1696A, and Mogami 3080 types...

      More expensive that standard "analog" XLR cables, but not too much more; I see looking around that 10' AES/EBU based on Mogami 3080's can be had for <US$40.

      Delete
  2. Always had good success with Bluejeans XLR interconnects...well-made, quality materials, and refreshingly devoid of “audiophile” foolishness.

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    Replies
    1. Very true Hamster,
      I should give their cables a shot at some point now that it's much easier to get on Amazon without as much hassle with Canadian import fees and transport costs...

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    2. Blue Jeans XLR's are primarily the Belden 1800F which is what I use exclusively. I also use the Belden 1313A speaker cable. I have found Markertek to be the best source for these cables. ;)

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    3. I have always specified Canare L-4E6S (“star-quad”), strictly for analogue signal transmission, but the Belden also gets high marks. BJC also can make “mixed” connectors- RCA > XLR, or XLR > RCA, customer specifies pinout.

      Delete
  3. This is interesting, as always! After buying the Emotiva XMC-2 (which has only XLR outputs) last year, I had to buy a whole lot of XLR cables. I started out with some very cheap ones, but as Amazon/Monoprice isn't readily available where I live, I have settled on Cordial cables, a brand that is clearly targetting professionals. To me, it makes great sense now to use the same stuff in my hifi/home theater that professionals use in studios etc, both in terms of brands and products. On the packaging of the Cordial cables, they make the outrageous claim that "cables don't have a sound!" :)

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    Replies
    1. Hey Freddie,
      "Cables don't have a sound!" - the nerve of those guys! There would be no Audiophile Cable Industry if this were the case... :-)

      But seriously. Yeah, I agree. If studios and pros in generally don't need $$$$ cables, not sure why I would either!

      As a data point, consider Abbey Road Studios. They're known to use Van Damme Blue Series Studio Grade Multicore cables:
      https://www.van-damme.com/case-studies/abbey-road-studios/#

      You can see them arranged in this picture:
      https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/abbey-road-inside-the-worlds-most-famous-sound-studio/23/

      Price list for Van Dammes:
      https://www.vdctrading.com/shop/van-damme-cable/audio/Analogue-Multicore-Audio-Cable/van-damme-blue-series-studio-grade/

      A 2-pair multicore (which can be made into 2-channel balanced XLR) is less than £5/metre. Clearly not exotic in price whatsoever. If it's good enough for Abbey Road, it's good enough for my basement. :-)

      Delete
  4. I have had good luck with Hosa, LiveWire, and more $$ Mogami. Hard for me to tell the diff. There was a cable shoot-out on AnalogPlanet on phono cables and some Hosa cables came in 2nd over some pricier cables. Usually better gear upfront makes more difference. IMHO. On stage and live cables do matter as they are no do=overs. In my studio there is always take 2,3 ....

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    1. Hi Jim,
      Good to hear an inexpensive brand like the Hosa did well on the AnalogPlanet shootout.

      Honestly, I've looked/listened to a few of those A/B recordings from Fremer and am a bit concerned about his consistency (or lack of). I remember checking one of the tests at one point and noting quite a few dB difference which really cannot be explained by wires unless truly terrible... More likely than not, differences are explainable by variations in LP playback itself.

      Delete
  5. Yes and for the test to be properly done the levels I think must be within .1db. If I find them off I try and match them in Sound Forge to not trick myself. He is going to hear things with his over $300K rig I will never hear. At 73 I hear less and less each day. Quite the talk of the new AT-VM cart line and I bought the VMe for $49 and I am pretty impressed. It only tracked the 22 cm/sec band of my Shure Test record where my M97 did 27 very easily. I am going to get the ML stylus and see how that goes. I hear it is a sleeper for a cart and compares to the Ortofon Black very well. One could start at the the AT-VMml and end there I think. More great work by you.

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  6. Hello Arch!

    You might find this podcast that I did with Galen Gareis somewhat(?) interesting. ;)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tgi7njiRSM

    ReplyDelete