The DIY cable market historically is notorious for uneven standards and dubious claims from one company over another whilst at the same time churning out cables worth double the value of the unit you are going to plug it into. Reviewers have had a horrible time contemplating whether to even review cables or not as a result of the divided opinion on whether they really have an effect on any system setup in the long run. It is akin to taking a free spot in front of an attentive firing squad and hoping at least one shooter has a lame eye and another takes pity on you and aims wide. The great cable debate has gone on for years with both camps reasonably entrenched with their own unmovable and dare I say it unique position. It is widely considered to be the last bastion of the unknown when headphone guys start wondering if their latest acquisition is performing optimally. Cables, dare I say it, remain a relative mystery to a vast amount of headphone users to this day.
So if you know who Double Helix are then quite possibly you have a set of headphones or hi-fi gear and decided to either upgrade the cable attached to said unit and pondered how exactly to do that without your bank account being flushed down the toilet. Worse you also run the heart breaking fate of your friends crushing your poor soul by telling you they can hear no difference at all after a solid listening session over your prized shiny new cable. All after reading review after review of people swearing blind that the cable is the bomb for a certain headphone, Amp or DAC. Heck even USB cables are fair game now with KingRex coming out with stunning looking but mightily expensive $600 splitter USB cables. One look at Double Helix’s website and you have a cable, connector or type of wire for just about every need and every major type of headphone starting from a few bucks going up to $12,000. The head spins, it truely does. I need an expert to sift through all these thoughts and bring clarity, balance to the force shall we say and who better than the main guy at Double Helix and possibly one of the most restless or busiest guys I have met, Mr. Peter Bradstock (note that really is him in the gas mask).
Hi Peter, thanks for doing this so how did Double Helix start and why is it called Double Helix?
I started DHC as a hobby – a lot of head-fi is monkey see, monkey do, although in late 2008 there were not that many headphone cables on the scene. Everyone complains about reading Head-Fi forums and feeling a sudden urge to empty their bank accounts, and headphones are addictive. My first headphone cable was an HD650 aftermarket cable but after I learned one could build one’s own cables, I bought a soldering iron and started having fun. What really got me hooked in the first month of building cables were all the flashy sleeves from Techflex…
My formal education is in Microbiology so the name seemed apropos. A lot of headphone cables have a twisted-pair layout in places so the cable resembles an actual DNA helix. Now it’s our registered trademark.
How in the heck did you get into cabling in the first place?
Long, long ago, I had enough Amazon store credit to buy a Sennheiser HD650. I had no clue what I was getting into, and was terrified that I couldn’t run them without an amp, so I spent $50 on an eBay CMOY. For a long time I was happy with this setup, until Head-Fi came along and apologized for my wallet. I got a Darkvoice tube amp and a Moodlab DAC, then moved right up to an AudioGD balanced DAC and Phoenix amp, the first year I started building cables. Cables were a necessity for me to know that I was getting absolutely everything I could out of my gear. I took apart what cables I already owned and decided pretty quickly that I could start doing everything myself with a clean slate.
So Peter what’s the big deal about cables? I mean they are all the same right?
I know this phrase has been used everywhere, but it’s basically correct – the goal is to do no harm. To me, using a really exotic cable doesn’t mean anything if I don’t know that it has the best possible materials. It could be worse than the stock cable – and the only way to judge it is to evaluate its materials and design, and to really be sure, listen to it. All cable design work starts with theory and ends with listening and decision-making. To me, a good cable needs to be designed with a pure heart, not simply to be different or make money – it has to be something that you would personally use, it can be your occupation but it can’t come from a place of simply exploiting what you think people are hoping for.
To DHC, there are several hierarchies of cables. And it is important to know that no matter how much you spend, cables are going to make a percentage of difference, maybe enough to get you truly into the music, but it’s not the 100% change people may hope for – at best, it could be a 15% change, but you need the gear and the source material first.
At the bottom, you have cables that are designed simply to be as small and durable as possible. Often cables like the stock cable are made with non-audio-grade materials, like cadmium copper – something very tough but not particularly conductive (and truly dangerous). Many people find that these cables limit sound quality, but they are still fine in a pinch.
Above that, you’ve got cables that are trying to solve problems that don’t necessarily exist, and in so doing, perhaps causing new problems. This could mean coming up with a unique idea like covering the entire cable in magnets, which serves as a smokescreen to cover what the conductors, insulation, and other design attributes consist of. It’s hard to say how these cables fare.
One notch up, you’ve got cables that are basically sound but are made of industrial grade or off-the-shelf materials. New companies on a budget, or older companies that are set in their ways often employ whatever materials they can find on eBay or factories that specialize in telecommunication parts. There are very expensive cables that fit this description – just a matter of writing up the proper descriptions and hoping nobody sees through it. Regardless of how these cables sound or what they cost, why not go for the best, especially if you can do so for just a little more investment?
Getting closer to getting it right are cables made with OCC metals. OCC, or Ohno Continuous Cast, is otherwise known as monocrystal copper or silver. We have read all the academic papers in this area and put in the time towards understanding how OCC metals have more desirable properties for signal transmission, and our ears and customers confirm it. We’ve been using this technology since year one – for a while this was us, getting it almost right. Some companies may use strange metallurgy, cheap suppliers, or flawed designs, but if they have OCC, they’re often a step ahead of where they’d be without it.
At the top of the pile are cables with OCC litz – for headphone cables especially, there is nothing better, and since 2012 we were early adopters of OCC litz – basically a fine stranded OCC wire with each strand individually enamel insulated. DHC and Norne Audio have done the majority of the work towards establishing OCC litz and developing it to the fullest. Aside from being very resistant to breakage and immune to oxidation, because each tiny strand (in a cable made of 50-250 strands per signal) operates like its own independent cable, this makes for a lot of effective surface area for the signal and improves performance over a solid, single conductor by laying the wire’s strands out so that they are distributed alternately throughout the length of wire between the inside of the conductor and the surface – as we’ve all heard of “skin effect,” or the tendency for signal to concentrate only at the surface.
DHC in 2014 went a step further with OCC litz by pioneering the use of cores, or non-signal-carrying dampening materials that act as filler & cushioning, sharing the research burden with Norne Audio. Cores allow litz to do its job even more easily, as there is no “dead spot” at the center of the wire where you have strands carrying signal that can never reach the wire’s surface. With a more tube-shaped conductor containing no strands at the center, the strands spiral around between the surface and the inside of the “doughnut,” keeping the signal evenly distributed. In our top cables, the core is made from an anti-static semiconductor material that keeps charge from building up inside the wire itself, another DHC first. Any material when it contacts another can build up charge to some extent, like that science experiment where the teacher would rub a piece of fur against a glass rod – one of DHC’s design priorities is to minimize this phenomena by carefully choosing what materials are layered against what. In sum, all cables sound good if your gear is good and the cable isn’t faulty, but DHC’s cables, through the choice of proper materials and design that is ahead of the curve, sound exceptional.
I see people take a dump from high up on the concept that cables make a difference. Why are they so popular if that is the case? Are they wrong?
Customers need realistic expectations with cables. They are going to give you a small boost to enjoyment, nothing more – while they are fetishized in many circles (and we love sexy cables too) and many cables are simply ridiculously priced, at the end of the day they are a tweak to get more from your music. Some stock cables are simply bad – one popular headphone’s cable contains a hidden splice at the y-split where two wires are literally soldered together – and getting rid of this cable has really improved performance. With great gear and some years of experience, it is easy to rank and differentiate cables, within reason. In our experience, the longer a signal path (a 6’ headphone cable vs. a 6 inch small interconnect) being upgraded, the more of a potential for improvement – so it may not be wise to buy a $1000 iPod dock cable anytime soon. Beyond that, even if a cable just means the proper connectivity, length, look, and feel, that’s good reason to buy one, whether you believe in them or not – and that’s the reason why a lot of customers have come to us, although they often tell us they got much more than they expected out of the cable purchase.
As far as people hating cables, there are many reasons for that. In some forums, it boils down to groupthink, with one person complaining for whatever reason and others getting on the bandwagon. If something isn’t cost effective for you, it’s an easy target. If something has already convinced you otherwise, the placebo effect can work both ways – if you think a cable is going to sound bad or do nothing, chances are your brain will hear the music differently. Psychoacoustics is a very real phenomenon, but again it comes down to experience and having nicer gear in order to critically evaluate cables. We invest in the best gear not just to spoil ourselves and enjoy the music, but as a tool for cable design.
Cables are popular for the same reason – monkey see, monkey do. It is like any other consumer phenomenon – everybody wants to keep up. However, once you try a cable and realize it did increase your enjoyment, you’re going to tell your friends and come back for more cables – and those that hate cables are not going to have any influence on your music experience.
What makes a great cable? Is there a difference between headphone and IEM cables?
A great cable comes down to good materials, good build practices, and not being way off with the design. There are various accepted braids – like round braids, star quads, and twisted pairs – which have been used for most of the 20th century in various electrical applications – it is safe to say they are good ways to package your wires. Beyond that having OCC litz and the proper tools to build cables with it goes a long way. Some cable companies get lost in themselves and get too weird with it, until they’re at the point that they probably can’t sleep at night – and have a photograph in their freezer (bonus points if you get the reference). If you feel you can really justify everything you do, and it isn’t just about being different or having something that only you do, then that is a good place to be at.
IEM cables prioritize ergonomics, and we have put a lot of time into getting the balance down. You can use headphone cables for IEM and vice versa, it just takes a bit of tweaking. Amps powering IEMs don’t typically move as much current, so a 24-28awg conductor is perfectly fine for IEM, while 18-26awg is an acceptable range for headphone.
Do you think there is a law of diminishing returns on cables?
This is definitely the case. If you want to get great headphone sound, buy a Molecule or Molecule SE. It will get you most of the way there. I can guarantee that a 12awg copper speaker cable from Blue Jeans Cable is going to get 90% of the way towards the sound of the most expensive speaker cables you can come up with – to get the other 10%, you’re going to have to pay up, and if cost is no object, you might as well buy the cable that’s going to make you satisfied. Not all expensive cables are going to beat that Blue Jeans Cable, however.
What’s the biggest crime out there right now in terms of cable making?
Lots of examples from the aforementioned cable hierarchy. The worst is simply doing things for attention or uniqueness instead of doing it because you believe in it. That is worse than even building objectively the worst cables because you don’t know any better – it’s a bigger crime to sell cables in a way that exploits the customer. Because of our knowledge and experience it is easy for us to separate the fake from the real, but it is good business practice to keep quiet and focus on our own product. Any honest cable builder knows in their heads a ranking of where everybody stands.
Our favorite way to phrase all this is to “follow nature.” Conductors are a natural phenomena – the Earth gave us copper and silver. These are the most logical materials to build cables out of. Reinventing the wheel by using something random is only going to make the cable less able to do its job. Of course not using crazy sounding materials throughout limits our profit margins, but we’d rather sell cables we’d actually use ourselves than spend all day trying to bleed dry all the millionaires in audio salons shopping for monoblock amps the size of Smart Cars.
Is it really just a series of zeros and ones for USB? The modern day snake oil?
For audio, USB cables aren’t transferring blocks of data in the same mode that they do when you put files on a hard drive – the music is being transported as a real time data stream. So, it’s extraordinarily vulnerable to interference.
Furthermore, digital signals may be ones and zeros, but data can still be lost and the timing of signals affected. DHC has always built our USB cables with the best conductors we can find and with the most isolation from the outside world, including dividing the data and power conductors into their own separate cables. USB cables are not as good of a value as headphone cables, but they are part of a top-performing audio system.
Do you believe in cryogenics for cable making? Its an expensive process right?
We cryo all of our wires, if for no other reason than to make them physically stronger. Cryo is physically transforming the wire without a doubt, it’s up to you to decide how much it’s affecting the sound. Some people get really into it, but for us it’s a “may as well” type of thing. It costs us 300 bucks to cryo a small batch of wire – it’s not cheap.
My thoughts turned now beyond ths science of cabling and I wanted to get to know Peter’s business a bit more, his customers and his competitors as well as his thoughts on what headphone companies are doing with cables in general these days.
Click on next page for Peter’s thoughts on the business of cable making…