Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which he explained in a 1905 paper, ushered in a paradigm shift in the study of physics. Two-century-old Newtonian mechanics, which viewed space and time as fundamentally independent of one another, were superseded by a framework of space-time in which space and time existed coextensively. One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory was that certain absolutes could no longer be counted on as empirical constants, and one of those was time. Specifically, time would be measured as elapsing more slowly the closer one approached the speed of light. A curious hypothetical result of this would be that astronauts making an interstellar journey of 100 years (as measured by those left behind on Earth) at a constant velocity approaching the speed of light, might themselves experience the passage of only one year. Time is thus, like other terrestrial concepts, relative, and dependent on one’s perspective.
This all resurfaced as I thought about the various types of people who are interested in high-end audio equipment: the engineers who design it, the dealers who sell it, the consumers who buy it, and the people -- like me -- who review it. Standing apart from these individuals is everyone else: the folks who can’t tell a vacuum tube from a light bulb, and would choke on hearing that people spend thousands of dollars on cables. In short, depending on where one stands, a single audio product can simultaneously represent wildly different things. As in so many other areas of life, perspective is everything.
Frame of reference
Having already been assigned two consecutive cable reviews earlier in 2011, I was at first disappointed to learn that I had earned myself a third, in the form of offerings from DH Labs. There are worse things than playing with equipment that’s not yours, but cables don’t hold for me the kind of appeal that speakers and amplifiers do. At least I could take solace in the fact that the speaker cables being sent to me were described, in the e-mail I received about them, as costing $350 USD per foot.
But apparently I’m an idiot. And reading impaired. These cables actually cost $3.50/foot. Well then.
None of this should have come as a surprise. DH Labs has been making affordable cables for almost 20 years, and its approach to cable design and resale is somewhat different from other manufacturers. The profit margins on cables can far exceed those of other types of audio equipment, the results of prices often set at the points at which customers are most likely to buy them, rather than at some arbitrary percentage above the cost of manufacture. Accordingly, many cables go for astronomical sums when compared to alternatives from DH Labs, whose most expensive speaker and analog interconnects start at $272 and $349, respectively. Money that might normally be poured into colorful, expensive jacketing and packaging has instead been invested in the products themselves, making for cables that eschew ostentation for utility.
The Florida-based company sent me a 2m pair of their new entry-level Odyssey speaker cable, available only in bulk and without termination (spades and bananas are available) for $3.50 per foot -- a total of $56 as configured for my system. Also included: White Lightning interconnects ($60/m), available only with RCA termination; the new Silversonic USB cable ($110/3m); and three of DHL’s new Encore power cords ($125/2m). All were simply designed and executed in a straightforward manner, the speaker cables and interconnects coated in basic off-white insulation, the USB and AC cords in a more ominous black. The power cords are especially noteworthy for their garden-hose thickness.
The speaker cables, analog interconnects, and AC cords all have conductors of 14AWG oxygen-free, high-thermal-conductivity (OFHC) copper, and the speaker cables and interconnects are sheathed in dielectrics of foam polyethylene. The USB cable has conductors of silver-coated OFHC. The shield coverage for all of these cables exceeds 95%.
The Odyssey speaker cables connected my Mirage OMD-28 omnidirectional speakers to my Krell KAV-300il integrated amplifier, while the White Lightning interconnects linked the Krell to my Benchmark DAC1 USB digital-to-analog converter, as well as to a Musical Fidelity M1 DAC (in for review). The Silversonic USB cable bridged the Benchmark with my iMac and MacBook Pro, both of which played Apple Lossless files via iTunes. The Encore power cords provided current to the Krell, the Benchmark/Musical Fidelity, and my computer.
Affordable ≠ mediocre
I’m not sure what I expected when I first played music through these unassuming cables from the Sunshine State. Replacing several thousand dollars’ worth of cables with ones costing $596 (and only $116 combined for the speaker cables and analog interconnects) seemed to prepare me for the worst: sound with the speed and acuity of an octogenarian, perhaps.
What I heard was both unremarkable and unobjectionable. This is far from damning with faint praise -- the measure of a budget audio product depends less on what it does right than on what it doesn’t do wrong. Design compromises are part and parcel of entry-level products, for which attaining a good balance of price with performance is easier said than done. In this respect, the DH Labs cables struck a fine equilibrium.
Between the ages of six to ten, I was subjected to a cassette tape of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water (16/44.1 ALAC, Columbia) played on repeat in my mother’s station wagon as she ferried my sister back and forth between extracurricular activities. In doing so, she inadvertently ruined the album for me for more than a decade. I’m still unable to shake feelings of a claustrophobic back-seat hell when I hear "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright." "Cecilia," however, is one of my absolute favorite songs, and my urge to belt it out on my own remained ever present with the Odyssey and White Lightning in place. The warm, old-school, 1970 recording was lively, clean, and three-dimensional. The recording space was well defined, with some instruments closely miked in the nearfield, while others danced farther back with Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s voices.
Struck by the vibrancy of these cables’ handling of older recordings, I turned to the Who’s Ultimate Collection (16/44.1 ALAC, Universal) and cued up "Pinball Wizard." While the recording hardly distinguishes itself in terms of dynamics or resolution, the DH Labs cables made the most of what they were given. With Pete Townshend’s voice and guitar skills front and center, the recording sounded as good as other, much more expensive cables had managed to do with such limited material.
In the more challenging "Won’t Get Fooled Again," the song’s signature synthesizer lines and drum solos should seem to hang suspended in a sonic vacuum. Cheap speaker cables -- the superthin type that come with inexpensive computer speakers -- tend not to be very convincing when it comes to imaging of this kind, for which the best descriptor is probably vague. A singer’s voice may be front and center, but only in the most general, amorphous sense. In contrast, the DH Labs cables, and the $56 Odyssey speaker cables in particular, exerted a solid control over the music that belied their inauspicious price and appearance. The drum solo at around 7:40 resonated convincingly, sounding more like actual instruments than not. I feel I’ve heard this song more often through my car radio than through my home stereo, and it was refreshing to hear it in full fidelity.
Perhaps a better illustration of this was the "20th Century Fox Fanfare," which precedes that studio’s feature films. Having heard its beginning innumerable times through a small television and laptop speakers and cheap earbuds, it’s been easy for me to forget that the sounds were generated by real musicians playing real instruments. The fanfare, as recorded for the opening of the soundtrack of Star Wars -- Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (16/44.1 ALAC, RCA), sounded sharp and lifelike, with trumpets as brash as you like. A simple thing, to be sure, but if a basic fanfare doesn’t sound convincing, there’s little hope for anything more nuanced or involved.
Changing gears, genres, and decades, I explored A Tribe Called Quest’s "Can I Kick It?," from their 1999 album The Anthology (16/44.1 ALAC, Jive). This far more modern recording allowed the DH Labs cables to demonstrate their strengths. With multiple soloists, quiet and more active passages, and a fleetingly large soundstage, the cables’ evenhanded tonality was readily apparent. They didn’t overemphasize the treble or bass, never drew attention to themselves, and passed along the Queens, New York group’s rhymings without difficulty. Similar to Fox’s fanfare, I’ve heard Tribe far more often at parties over garbage computer speakers than with my own system, and it’s refreshing to hear such inexpensive components being able to provide a pleasantly clean and high-resolution account of this underappreciated hip-hop group.
Special mention should be made of the thick Encore power cords. Not only do they look the part in terms of shielding for noise isolation, they provided a noticeably darker, cleaner stage from which emerged all the music I played. For those skeptical of the benefits of aftermarket power cords, the Encore would be a good place to start an inquiry into their worth.
While the DH Labs cables offered strong performance for their price, I felt it was a bit unfair to compare these entry-level products with the almost-five-times-more-expensive Nordosts and Dynamiques that I recently reviewed. Potential buyers would probably not cross-shop the DH Labs offerings with the significantly more expensive Nordosts and Dynamiques, especially when DHL offers higher-performance, higher-cost cables that would be better suited to such a comparison.
The more appropriate comparison, in my mind, is to the cabling that one would buy to accompany a simple stereo receiver: brandless RCA interconnects and some 16-gauge Monster speaker wire. This roughly $25 combination of cables is probably the starting point for many individuals interested in audio, and the Odyssey and White Lightning combination is a natural upgrade.
The improvements that the Florida cables offered were subtle but numerous. Most pronounced was the additional resolution on tap. Simply, I was able to hear more of my music with the DH Labs cables, with modest gains in detail evident with everything I played. Reduced was the dull sheen that seemed to clothe my music with an unpleasant veneer of ambiguity. Voices and instruments were more dynamic, edging closer to believability, and as a result were more pleasant to listen to. The scope of the sound was also slightly larger, in terms of both depth and width, depicting a more believable sense of space. Reverb sounded more plausible, room interaction more natural.
The DH Labs’ greatest strength over the baseline cables, however, was their evenhandedness. The Monster-brandless combination sounded a bit murky in comparison, with a midrange that was not as finely delineated as through the Odyssey-White Lightning tandem, and seemed to unceremoniously dump music before me en masse. The DH Labs were more composed in this respect, providing an order to the music -- one that suggested a harmony of different, independent sounds that were more faithful to the original recording.
"Everything in this world is relative, my dear Watson"
It’s difficult to keep perspective in this hobby. Value is a term whose meaning is relative, not absolute, and one that I am guilty of having used flippantly in past reviews. In describing these cables from DH Labs, however, I think value is apropos. These entry-level offerings from a company already known for its rather humble pricing policies are as unassuming in performance as they are in appearance. Doing nothing wrong and a good deal right, they offer value in the form of affordable performance, a quality sure to be appreciated by any listener. Relatively speaking, of course.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers -- Mirage OMD-28
- Integrated amplifier -- Krell KAV-300il
- Source -- Apple MacBook Pro and Apple iMac running Songbird and iTunes; Benchmark DAC1 USB DAC, Musical Fidelity M1 DAC
- Speaker cables -- Dynamique Audio Caparo, Nordost Blue Heaven
- Interconnects -- Dynamique Audio Tempest XLR, Dynamique Audio Firelight USB, Nordost Blue Heaven XLR and USB, Ridge Street Audio Designs Poiema!!! R-v3 USB
- Power cables -- Dynamique Audio Horizon, Nordost Blue Heaven
DH Labs Odyssey Speaker Cables
Price: $3.50 USD per foot, unterminated bulk wire; spade or banana terminations available.
DH Labs White Lightning Interconnects
Price: $60 USD per 1m pair, RCA connectors only.
DH Labs Silversonic USB Digital Interconnect
Price: $90 USD per 2m cord.
DH Labs Encore Power Cord
Price: $125 USD per 2m cord.
Warranty (all): Lifetime, materials and workmanship.
DH Labs, Inc.
9638 NW 153rd Terrace
Alachua, FL 32615
Phone: (386) 418-0560
Fax: (386) 462-3162