Greg Smith

Interconnects from $26 to $165

A while back, I had my first successful listening tests where I could pick out obvious differences between various interconnects. I won't get into the whole debate again about the audibility of cable changes; you can read that article for the full details. Since then, I've picked up a few more budget cables recommended to me, so I thought I'd update that information with how the new ones fit into the scheme of things. This month we look at the Kimber PBJ and the Canare parts available from Markertek. All prices I quote are for a 1m pair of RCA jack terminated cables, unless specified otherwise.

As a brief summary of the previous cable fable, I found that Audioquest Quartz 3 at $165 was a significant jump up from the less expensive cables from them I had been using. After trying the DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 ($95), that proved to be an ever better cable. Depending on what system you were evaluating the two in, it's possible that the Quartz could be a superior match. I was impressed enough to recable all of my systems with DH Labs cable as my reference interconnect, so all comparisons here will be to those as the cable to beat.

Kimber PBJ

$68 for 1m pair with RCA jacks. XLR version also available for same price.

Kimber's PBJ has quite an excellent reputation as a good budget cable. I picked up some recently because I see it recommended frequently by manufacturers as working well with their equipment, so getting a length lets me avoid finger pointing ("of course it didn't sound good! you used incompatible cable!"). PBJ is a very simple design; you get three independent pieces of wire braided together and soldered to the RCA jacks. One strand goes to the positive lead, the other two are paralleled together for the negative. I think the minimalist look with the intertwined red, black, and blue looks attractive, although this is certainly a personal taste.

The cable doesn't have a separate ground shield, so it's not directional like the BL-1 is. For a variety of reasons, including concerns about shielding, I opted to get a 0.5M length of this cable (it's $59, so you really don't save much doing that). Accordingly, the PBJ has a bit of an advantage compared with the other cables here because it's shorter; a full 1M length might not sound quite as good.

After comparing the two, the PBJ and the BL-1 proved to be very close. There was a little less energy in the upper treble with the PBJ, which could prove to be either a benefit or a hazard depending on the system match. There was also a very slight increase in mid-bass output with the PBJ, although it was nowhere close to the difference in that regard I heard when comparing the BL-1 with the Quartz. If I only wanted to spend $68, the PBJ is certainly acceptable, and a better cable than the much more expensive Quartz in most applications. I found it didn't quite match the more expensive BL-1, which is itself a bargain for its price. I do have reservations about recommending PBJ in longer lengths or in electrically noisy environments because of the minimal shielding.

Canare cable from Markertek

$26 for 1M pair with RCA jacks. XLR version available for same price. Contact Markertek via their home page, or call 1- 800-522-2025.

Canare is a well known company in professional audio circles. Their microphone cable in particular is well respected, and there is a lot in common between mic cable and consumer audio interconnects. Both handle fairly low level signals where you're looking for low resistance and good shielding from external noise. While you can get the bare cable and connectors themselves to assemble your own Canare cable, it's easier to just buy them from Markertek, a pro audio/video supply company. It's always possible to get the raw material from somewhere else like your local pro audio store if you don't want to go through them.

The Canare cable is model L-4E6S, which is commonly referred to as their star-quad cable. Buying from Markertek, this stuff goes for $0.43/foot in reasonable quantities, which means that for the cable itself you get a 3ft section (around 1M) for $1.29. It uses stranded cable grouped into four separate Polyethylene insulated sections (that's the quad part), and these are twisted together in a geometry designed to improve noise rejection (that's the star part). You get a PVC jacket on the outside, with some cotton filler material. The gold Canare RCA connector is the F-10, which goes for $2.99 each. The total parts cost for a single cable is $7.27. Markertek will sell you an assembled cable nicely soldered together and firmly attached for $12.95, or $11.95 if you buy 5 or more. Their part number of the finished product is SC3RR, with the 3 part meaning a 3 foot section (you can get 1.5, 3, 6, 10, or 25 foot ones instead) and the RR meaning male RCA jacks on each end (other options include either male or female XLR or phono plug jacks).

Note that if you go to order this cable, all the quantities are for single units, not pairs like you'll normally get interconnects. A pair goes for $25.90. Since they aren't sold in pairs, you'll also need a way to distinguish between the left and right channels. You can order the cable in a variety of colors, so I recommend getting half the cables in the default black and the other half in red for stereo use. You'll have to specify this directly when you order, because you'll get everything in basic black otherwise.

I ordered four of the SC3RR cables from Markertek, since it seemed silly to go through the trouble of assembling everything myself when they'll do it for me for a few bucks (you even get a lifetime warranty that way). They do a nice job, cleaning soldering two sections of cable to the positive lead and two sections to the negative. There is no directional ground shield here, either.

After some listening, the Markertek cable reminded me most of the Audioquest Quartz. The high-frequency clarity was limited compared with the DH Labs BL-1, even more so than the Kimber PBJ was. There was slightly less low bass, which combined with a bit of mid-bass emphasis and made the bass sound different in a way that some might even like better. Considering that this cable was only $26 for a pair, its performance is miraculous. Sure, it suffers a tiny bit compared with the better Kimber PBJ, and I think it's a significant drop from the DH Labs BL-1, but it only costs a fraction of what those cables do. The Canare cable is an obvious improvement over any similarly priced interconnect I've tried, and that it is even competitive at all with the more expensive units is very impressive. Audiophiles looking to save put together a good system with the minimum amount of money would be well served with a bunch of SC3RR cable from Markertek. And they are designed to work well even with very long runs, which when combined with the low cost per foot makes for a great combination in long lengths.

System Matching Fun

While I was evaluating all these cables, I was working on another change in one system as well. The fixed items were a Rotel RCD-955AX CD player used as a transport with a CAL Gamma D/A feeding into a Rotel RSP-960AX preamp. The problem was finding a power amplifier that best matched up with the Klipsch Forte II speakers I was using in the rest of that system. The one I had been using for years, the Proton D1200, was showing its age. I switched for a while to the Rotel RB-956AX, which was a considerable improvement in treble extension; the down side is that the bass performance suffered.

Since I had many new cables around, I tried replacing the DH Labs cable with some of them. The DAC/preamp interface was very sensitive to cable differences, and all the other cables I tried seemed to lose too much treble detail for that application. The preamp/power amp connection didn't effect the sound quite as much, and I found that the Markertek cable actually worked better than the DH Labs did. The warmer bass from the cable change canceled out the dip in that area I had been bothered by. In that particular application, I actually liked the $26 cable best out of any I tried.

Still unsatisfied with the combination, I switched to the considerably more expensive Warner Imaging VTE-401S. The bass came back with a vengeance with the amp swap, so that with the Markertek cable it actually seemed too fat. Going back to the DH Labs again proved to be a better move. After doing that, I found the upper treble to a bit too much at first; switching from the DH Labs to the Kimber PBJ for the DAC to preamp cable toned down the top-end, which made for a better match. I have since switched back to the BL-1 again, having decided that the high frequency difference was actually an improvement in realism that just needed some adjustment.

It all depends on your system, so who can say what would be right for you. The fact that all of these cables jockeyed for position based on what other components I had them hooked up to says that they all are good, but which is the best for you is something you'd have to find out for yourself using your own priorities.

.....GS (