I still have a box of assorted USB cables, many of which were free inclusions with various printers, DACs and streamers I have owned over the years. They are all under $10 each to replace, so why should I care about a $3,000 per metre USB 2.0 A-to-B cable? Well, because it's from The Chord Company, which creates handcrafted cables that are specially designed for audiophile use. Let's go over its design and materials technology, and then listen to it to assess its value…
The Chord Company is a specialist manufacturer based near the historically famous Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and has been making audio cables since 1984. It was one of the first manufacturers to recognise the influence of cables on a hi-fi system's sound and has an incredible range of products to suit most budgets. The Sarum T range uses Taylon for the dielectric, or insulating material, which is something you will not find anywhere else. This material is claimed to bring real performance improvements, especially over Teflon and other such commonly used materials – and Chord is happy to demonstrate these at its specialist retailers.
USB cables made for data transmission are not especially concerned with electrical noise rejection, crosstalk, propagation rates, microphony, dielectric losses or jitter. Just so long as they meet a basic specification, then all is well. But in hi-fi applications, all the aforementioned types of interference play a more important part – just as they would with conventional audio interconnects. When attached between, say, a digital transport and DAC, a USB cable carries very high speed and very high-frequency low-level electrical signals, which are just as susceptible to interference as interconnects or loudspeaker leads.
For this reason, every aspect of the design and construction of the cable becomes important – from the conductor type to the shielding material. Also, with a USB cable, there is a 5-volt power and ground line, as well as the data signal lines. That's why the Sarum T USB uses the Chord Company's so-called 'Super ARAY' geometry, which is said to minimise electrical noise pollution.
The manufacturer is understandably a little tight-lipped about the specifics of this premium-priced cable, but the conductors are said to be made with oxygen-free high-purity copper that is micro-polished and then silver-plated. These then receive a layer of constrained vibration-damping material and two layers of dense shielding. The positive and negative data conductors are twisted and then shielded separately, as are the power lines.
I used this cable to connect various network streamers to several different DACs and found that USB cables do sound different to one another – especially when you're listening via a highly revealing system. The Chord Sarum T USB does not disappoint, having the same great fundamental qualities as the rest of the Sarum T range, especially in its neutrality and openness. The better the system is, the better the results are, and the clearer the cable's influence is…
For interest's sake, I tried listening to a couple of non audio-grade printer cables after playing the Chord, and the sonic differences were vast. The generic USB leads weren't unlistenable, but just didn't give the same musical experience. Listening to Est-ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent? by Cécile McLorin Salvant with a cheap proprietary USB cable, I found that things became noticeably more processed sounding. The music was thinner and hasher, giving just the bare bones without much flesh, so to speak. Bass became woolly, with less definition, speed, impact and extension. Subtle detail and nuances were missing, and the soundstage diminished in scale.
Compared to my Wireworld Platinum Starlight 8 solid silver USB cable, the Chord cable sounded less tinselly, with a larger and deeper soundstage. The music had greater coherence, transparency and ease. Given that the Sarum T USB costs over twice as much, you'd expect to receive more. Whether it's worth the extra is a question that only prospective purchasers can answer.
This is an extremely expensive way to connect a digital transport or streamer to a DAC, and as a result, it will simply be off most people's radar. All the same, it does its job extremely well – so is definitely worth investigating if funds permit. Chord's Sarum T USB delvers a very high level of sonic performance, one that's worthy of true high-end hi-fi systems.