At what price point does the rate of interconnect performance improvement taper off more quickly than the rate at which price increases?
We all know this audio game is one of diminishing returns, and everyone has an opinion about where the inflection point of the price curve lies.
The Headwaters cable project was an exercise in exploring this inflection point.
This is a long one, so pour yourself a cup, or alternatively, skip to the section of interest.
For purpose of this discussion, the “knee” in the above chart occupies a range where the price approximately triples from its lower to its upper end.
Of course, this range is arbitrary, and one could argue for a “sharper” bend (covering less price variance).
In any case, the target for the Headwaters cable project was conceptually the same as for our Serac turntable project – to hit the lower end of this sweet spot (considering our Wind River to occupy the upper end).
Labor, Time, and Materials
From the onset, it was clear that a standard production, jacketed cable would be required in order to bring this project home.
Hitting this price point meant bringing material and labor costs under control. Unlike the majority of manufactured interconnects, our Wind Rivers are extremely labor intensive. Such is the nature of fabricating a well strain-reliefed cable from fragile litz wire.
The Wind River’s construction resembles that of the Kuzma and Schröder tonearm cables (although working with cotton sleeving adds to the difficulty). A Wind River takes 4 hours to build. I describe the process as being like that of building a ship in a bottle. It’s so complicated, that I developed an extensive assembly guide for its construction. Miss one step, and scrap your work.
Research and Development
Over an extended period, we gathered a range of “pro sound”, twin-ax microphone cables, with the most notable of them being:
- Mogami 2549
- Belden 8402
- Two non-branded (OEM) cables
- An “eBay special” – Belden 8402, terminated with Switchcraft RCAs
You’ve no doubt read about the Mogami and Belden.
Not surprisingly, “quad” cables fell out of consideration. Their higher capacitance was a good predictor of their inferior performance in this application.
During the course of auditioning, we came across the “eBay special” noted above. While we never would have considered the inexpensive Switchcraft RCAs furnished with this cable, it did serve as a validation of our choice of ETIs. It never hurts to revisit your previous findings.
All cables received a 72 hour burn-in on our cable cooker before auditioning. We scrupulously cleaned all connections and treated them with Caig Pro Gold (G5).
Sanity Prevails and the Target Becomes Clear
Clearly, there comes a point when a cable falls out of one’s budget, and I’d be the last one to steer the cost conscious audiophile away from a cable like the “World’s Best Cables” (available on Amazon), or the eBay special mentioned above. You could spend much more money on an audiophile-approved brand cable and be worse off than you would be with either of these two budget options.
If you concluded that the Headwaters was intended to slot above these two budget cables (both in price and performance), you’d be correct.
It makes no sense for a small manufacturer to compete with the marketing and labor advantage a company from China has (“World’s Best Cables”), and we have no interest in duplicating the work of the “eBay specials”.
Our work with the Wind River interconnects taught us that not all popular connectors are equal, and (like most everything in audio), there are myriad pretenders. If possible, we wanted to leverage our positive experiences with ETI connectors, but the question was whether this was money wasted – whether the difference would be audible.
Note that for the XLR variant, we tentatively selected Neutriks for the standard build (experimentation continues), or optionally, the much more expensive ETI Kryo XLRs as an upgrade.
How much does a connector contribute vs. wire formulation? Where does the balance between the two lie? Stated differently, is the “best” connector on a “lesser” cable money well allocated?
Build #s 1 – 4 were implemented with ETI’s Copper LINK RCAs (the step below the Kryos which we specify for our Wind Rivers), and they were broken in as described above. The final performance hierarchy was:
- Mogami 2549
- One of the OEM microphone cables
- Belden 8402
- The other OEM cable
- eBay Special (Belden 8402 with Switchcraft RCAs)
The Belden #3 (terminated with ETI Copper LINK) was a big dropoff from #2 (OEM cable), and #5 (the eBay Special with Belden / Switchcraft) represented quite a large dropoff from #4 (OEM). That Belden #3 was a distant 3rd came as a bit of a surprise, considering that it sells for nearly 5 times the price of the Mogami. The other OEM cables were roughly the same price as the Mogami.
The Belden 8402 of the “eBay special” was an interesting case study. After our initial observations of the superiority of Belden #3 (ETI Copper LINK terminated 8402) over this this eBay special, we broke down the eBay sample and re-terminated it with the ETI Copper LINKs.
This took any possible variance due to wire production lots out of the equation. Re-terminating it with the ETI Copper LINKSs brought it to parity with the fresh 8402 build.
The Switchcraft terminated iteration had a “shout-y”, echo-like lower midrange and a truncated treble. The ETI termination eliminated the “shout-y-ness”, and extended the treble response slightly, but it still fell considerably short of both the Mogami 2549 and the OEM cable (#2). The difference was one of treble extension and the harmonic structure of strings’ and woodwinds’ fundamentals.
Lipstick on a Pig?
The above experiments raised the question of whether the ETI Kryo connector would be a worthwhile improvement. Would the Kryo’s superior noise floor performance be lost on the budget wire (translates to an extended, nuanced upper octave and richer harmonic structure, along with quicker transients)?
I think the chart at the beginning of this post accurately conveys the return on this added $80 investment. It’s not for everyone (due to price), which is why we’re offering it as an upgrade option. The difference is not as dramatic as on our Wind River interconnects, but it is notable.
Note: the careful reader might have read elsewhere on this site that we select Furutech connectors for some of our products. Connectors are selected and auditioned on a case by case basis – for the best product for the job, as well as one which fits the pricing model.
We experimented with the Furutech FP-126(G) and FP-126(R). They were nearly as good as the ETI Copper LINK, having a slight bit of distortion and dynamic compression in the upper frequencies in comparison with the ETIs.
The Production Build
We want to be 100% transparent about these builds, and we’ve factored US labor rates into the price. What do you get for your money (apart from supporting American craftsmanship)?
- Cardas Solder
- 72 hour burn-in
- 30 day-satisfaction guarantee
- Adhesive-backed, double layer, 3:1 heat shrink by NTE (not the thin, generic 2:1 shrink everyone else uses)
- Connectors cleaned and treated with contact enhancer
- We like this cable
Is it For Me?
We can’t tell what your system sounds like, and how “honest” a cable you’ll gravitate to. As we’ve written elsewhere, cables have taken on the role of tone controls, and there is no universal cable extant.
We were surprised at how much the Headwaters delivers, and because of this, we revised our interconnect demo strategy. From this point onward, we will encourage anyone who expresses an interest in our Wind River cables, to first try the Headwaters.
We do this for two reasons. The first is that it’s much easier to build, and can better withstand the “abuse” of demo service. More importantly however, we believe that 85-90% of audiophiles will actually prefer the Headwaters.
Yes, they’re that good.
A small percentage of individuals (you know who you are) dislike silver cables and you would very likely respond in a similar fashion to our Wind Rivers. While we can’t speak to all constructions from all manufacturers, we contend that most individuals’ dislike of silver is a case of shooting the messenger.
Having said that, we don’t want you to have a “better” cable if it doesn’t put a smile on your face. We are in the smile business, after all.
If however, the Headwaters brings you much audio joy, and you’re interested in what else is possible, then we offer the Wind River for your consideration.
DIY-ers s Take Note
Well, now you know our recipe, and if you don’t think our labor and 72 hour burn-in service adds any value, we’re happy to sell you a complete kit:
- Either the ETI or Furutech connectors
- An 18″ length of Cardas solder
- 18″ of dual walled, adhesive-backed heat shrink (9″ red, 9″ black)
- Mogami 2549 microphone cable
Refer to our interconnect page for details.
Note that ETI RCA connectors are very difficult to solder. Even an experienced builder runs the risk of ruining a connector by applying too much heat. Ruin one connector and there goes your cost savings. There are no refunds for ruined connectors.
We offer the Furutech FP-126(G) and FP-126(R) as an option, although as we note above, we specified the ETI Copper LINKs for a reason.
Both the ETI and Furutech connectors are in the accessories group in our products section.