Black Rhodium has been around for years, and still largely holds that the secret to good performance lies in better conductors. However, that gets harder to justify in products like USB, and Black Rhodium’s new Ace and Star both feature silver plated, 26 AWG conductors. Both also feature gold-plated USB connectors, and a rather nice black braid running the length of the cable.
The main (only) difference between the two is Star includes pods at each end of the cable, which act both as anti-vibration and (perhaps more importantly) anti RFI filters. These more than double the cost of the base Ace, but in the cost-no-object world of audiophile cables these prices are not in the ‘charges like an angry rhino’ league; £90 for a metre of Ace and £192 for a meter of Star. Additional length prices are reasonably controlled, too; the most you’ll pay in standard sizes is £252 for a 3m run of Star. Both cables are flexible, but not as flexible as a USB printer cable.
Both cables are also well-made, no-nonsense designs that look expensive without looking ostentatious. The plugs are solidly made and, coupled with the black braid, give the cable a professional look. Star, with its two immovable bullets at either end of the cable, is more weighty and purposeful, but that might make the cable put strain on less well-made USB ports. But, if you find a USB connection in a DAC moves around because of the weight of a cable, my reaction would be to find a better DAC. Star is not that heavy.
There’s a lot of contradictory information chucked around about USB, from ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’. The latter often fall back on a ‘bits is bits’ argument, while the former have a range of counter arguments to suggest the cable can somehow influence the datastream. My take on this is the arguments themselves are functionally irrelevant, and the only significant conclusion for those of us at the listener end of things is (of course) listening tests.
However, I think the pitched arguments over ‘bits’ are possibly missing the point. The bits themselves can remain unaltered, and the cable can still alter the sound of a system, because the cable is part of a series of interfaces that can be influenced by good, bad, or indifferent termination/connection points. Before it was drowned out by the constant ‘bits is bits’ foot stamping, there was some evidence (both measured and through listening tests) to show the importance of having a consistent 75Ω or 300Ω impedance across S/PDIF or AES/EBU interfaces. The nature of the cable did not alter the datastream, but did influence the performance of the system handling that datastream. This may court controversy in today’s less open-minded times, but there seems to be no reason why the same cannot apply to USB cabling. And, in fairness, this seems to be Black Rhodium’s stance in this too; both Ace and Star are directed to address issues of data transfer and interface integrity, rather than ‘magically’ attempting to make more or better bits from a bitstream by superior conductors.
Viewed in the light of ‘better connectivity’ rather than ‘better bits’, Ace is very good in its own right. It follows the USB version of the Hippocratic Oath to, “first do no harm” to those interfaces. The tonality of a good USB converter isn’t subtly shaped, so there’s none of that ‘oversharpened photograph’ effect that plagues lower-cost computer audio. I can confidently see the Ace being a good default choice for people using DACs in and around the £500 level.
Star is an altogether different proposition. It retains the basic unsullied properties of the Ace it’s based on, but the inclusion of those damping/filter blocks at either end of the cable makes the design a serious performer. This has a profound influence on USB-powered DACs, potentially obviating the need for power isolators and other buffers. It also makes a fairly big difference to any DAC, which I presume comes down to the RFI-busting properties. Once again, I think this is not about changing the bits, but instead working on the interfaces that handle the bits. And Star appears to make those interfaces have less of a struggle on their hands. This makes it of benefit to almost any DAC, irrespective of price.
You recognise this interface-easing property more by swapping DACs, not just swapping cables on one DAC. If Ace gets out of the way, Star seems to help the DAC bring out its own character. This gives the Black Rhodium cables (but especially Star) a shape-shifting quality; they make an Arcam DAC sound more Arcammy, an Ayre DAC more Ayrey, and so on. And that’s exactly what you want from a USB cable. Of course, this makes it a little difficult to pin down in sound quality terms, because that shape-shifting property means it sounds like the DAC it’s connected to, only a little more so. But, once again, that is what a good digital cable should do, because it isn’t an analogue cable.
I’m impressed with both Black Rhodium cables, but Star lives up to its name. It really is a star, capable of letting your DAC be more unfettered by its surroundings. Star’s RFI-busting properties may be more important than its ability to minimise mechanical resonance issues, but whatever the reason, Star especially manages to provide a less troublesome environment for a DAC, even those converters with otherwise isolated USB terminals. A solid recommendation all round.
Cable type: USB Type A-Type B cable
Materials: Silver-plated 26 AWG copper conductors, ‘Jet Black’ braided outer shield, gold-plated plugs
Resonance/RFI control: none (Ace), two combination anti-vibration and RFI filters (Star)
Prices: Black Rhodium Ace USB: £90/1m. Black Rhodium Star USB: £192/1m. Available in 1m, 1.5m, 2m, and 3m lengths
Manufactured by: Black Rhodium
Tel: +44(0)1332 342233
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