SuperNova III+ vs. Siltech Golden Ridge
A smidgen more HF extension on the Siltech - that's all I could detect. And smidgen just about sums it up. Switching midstream, I wasn't sure at first that the DAC had, in fact, switched. There was no seam. No time lapse, no clicking noise, no fractional interruption, no change in timbre or tonality. The sound continued unchanged. Eventually, this very small degree of upper frequency energy with the Siltech stood out as the only sign of "otherness". It created the expected illsusion of a bit more resolution, which really was nothing more than either more extension or some excess energy on top. You do the math. Estimate what you think it means financially.
SuperNova III vs. NBS Signature-II-D
Reverse the tables. The NBS was a mite thicker and more midrange-heavy, the Toslink more open on top and a bit "faster". A somewhat larger differential than above - easier to detect, but by no means drastic. I'd call the NBS leaning towards the subtly warm side if the SuperNova were neutral. Else, the Toslink would be just a touch lean while the Signature embodied the neutral Swiss referee.
Incidentally, the NBS handled like a just-sated snake filled with undigested rats. It was stiff enough that it would have shorn off the player's output jack had I insisted the cable bend rather than move the DAC. This certainly wasn't an aural performance handicap. But add expense plus inconvenience and it's nice to know of other options, especially if your transport lived on the lower slopes of mount CEC and weighing it down with a dumbell or Ziploc bag of shot conflicted with your interior design aesthetics.
SuperNova III vs. Ensemble DigiFlux
This one was easy. No difference at all. Nada. Not that easy, really. The powers of suggestion are strong. In a scenario like this, you feel under the gun. As a keen-eared audiophool, you want to hear a difference. Well, as much as I wanted and tried, I couldn't. I failed. Miserably. Sniff. Where are my ear drops?
SuperNova III vs. Cardas Lightning
On balance, the instrumental outlines with the Cardas had that tiny micron of enhanced definition, those sharper edges that the guys with the pyramids and always-fresh razor blades are into. It's the kind of difference you sometimes notice when the noise floor drops to also reveal shortcomings elsewhere. Things turn crisper, leading edges are just a bit more acute, but -- depending on your system tuning -- you may also miss a certain organic warmth. There's a fine line between resolution and coldness.
SuperNova III vs. Acoustic Zen "Squared"
Another ego buster, another no-show - of improvements or even so much as a hair of difference. Does that mean the Acoustic Zen and Ensemble DigiFlux sound the same, too?
I admit that by now a sense of foreboding began to engulf me. Was I engaged in a Quixotic adventure of futility? My eyes roamed over the skinny, cheaper-looking Kimber and AudioOne Toslinks. Would possible redemption lie in their performing poorly enough so I could finally drive the stake through the Toslink heart and regain my composure and self-confidence?
Optocoupler vs. Acoustic Zen "Squared"
Honesty hurts. I got stood up again. At first, the Van den Hul seemed to enjoy the edge in transparency. Hope flared up so I stuck it out to confirm whether I was wishing things that weren't there. And indeed, the longer I compared, the more sure I became that this was indeed another write-off.
Both Optocoupler and SuperNova are exceedingly flexible. However, the Dutch connectors lock into place like a Neutrik XLR. It takes a pit of a push, then snap, and you're talking a super-high integrity connection that quite exceeds the looser fit of the WireWorld connector. This didn't seem to impact the SuperNova's audible performance. Still, superior detail engineering does deserve mention. The VDH plug makes a better fit, period. At least I got something to report.
Optocoupler vs. Cardas Lightning
Was the silvery wire from Oregon a sliver more immediate and direct? This question cropped up repeatedly, as did an eventual suspicion that it also sounded a bit harder - more chiseled, less organic. On a different note, Nobuko -- whose front-end is the acrylic-top Krell CD/preamp unit and thus presumably in a different league from what I used -- hears what to her are very significant differences between her personal Siltech and NBS leads and doesn't consider the Cardas even remotely in the same league.
Looking at my own commentary, we may now conclude one of two things. 1/ Her hearing is better (being a beautiful woman, I'd grant her that in a heartbeat). 2/ My setup's inferior resolution leveled the playing field by obscuring performance gradations and rendering them too minute to significantly upset the scales of balance. If the latter were true and your personal equipment status equaled mine, I'd predict that you'd have an equally hard time differentiating between these wiry contenders. Or, if you did discern minor degrees of shading as I did on occasion, you wouldn't care enough one way or the other - about such seemingly immaterial changes. Now, if the first point were true, perhaps I should study the classifieds for a new vocation?
SuperNova vs. X-60
When I was once again confounded to hear a difference with my customar fare of WorldBeat and exotic vocals, I pulled out -- not my hair but --a stack of Classical CDs. I was hoping that some offset in instrumental timbres, in image specificity or intelligibility during convoluted passages would prove that my ears hadn't rusted yet. All I can say is that I tend to discern cable-specific contributions to the overall sound with relative ease. I currently have NBS Black Label and HMS Gran Finale in-house. Their presentations are clearly unique and readily qualified. But by now, I seemed to rather predictably fail with today's task. This was another draw. Does that make me an analog guy or simply the slowest gun in the SouthWest?
Optocoupler vs. X-60
More of the same, from which you can rightfully conclude as I did: Both Van den Hul and WireWorld glass-fiber Toslink cables are performing identically - or close enought to where I couldn't draw the line. Given how affordable they are when compared to some of today's other entries; and given how flexible and easy to use especially when juxtaposed against the ritzy NBS and Siltech offerings - I don't see how you could possibly go wrong with either. Unless you were color-blind, the pale-white Van den Hul gets my nod over the garter snake from Florida for being more unobtrusive and offering the better-fitting terminals. Into which equation of high recommendation we must also include the equally flexible and affordable X-60 whose BNC terminals are fitted with a removable RCA connector for a highly convenient 2-1 assault on whichever of those jacks may be hiding on the business end of your player.
AudioOne Reference vs. X-60
Finally an immediately obvious difference. The X-60 was clearly fuller-sounding, more developed overall, with stronger tonal colors, weightier impact, enhanced presence. The AudioOne sounded comparatively thin. As though the signal was trickling at reduced rate through a constricted pathway whereas it flowed at much higher pressure through the X-60. This didn't so much fall into an intense vs. laid-back preference as mount into a rapid "the X-60 is clearly superior" conclusion. Worth noting on behalf of the AudioOne? Its plug snapped tightly into place as you'd expect from a good contact pressure fitting.
Kimber (no further identifiers on jacket) vs. X-60
Another case of instant gratification - for the X-60. The -- if looks tell the truth, clearly highly affordable -- black Kimber Kable Toslink brought home some case evidence about what might have contributed to the bad reputation of Toslink in the first place. Compound the previous mild constipation of the AudioOne to a case of extreme cessation of bowel movements. What did come out wasn't very pretty. There's no need to trounce further on a loser except to say that it was so obviously inferior that I quickly pulled it out of the system as unusable.
In keeping with today's modest aim -- to ascertain the width of the chasm separating good Toslink from good RCA terminated digital cables -- the answer is truly far more of a question. What chasm? In fact, what puny crack in the dry dirt?
Both Van Den Hul Optocoupler and WireWorld SuperNova III+ hold their own against far more expensive non-optical (blind?) RCA-S/PDIF cables. The differences that do exist don't proclaim one or the other the victor based on clear superiority. They simply operate inside system compatibilty effects and those of personal preferences. And true, "bad" Toslink does most certainly exist. If it's bad, it's clearly bad.
What makes it so? Seeing that both VDH and WireWorld eschew plastic conductors in favor of glass fiber, one could conjecture that the former is not appropriate for High-End applications. Until, that is, one were to come across a superior Toslink that did use plastic conductors. It'd throw that theory out the window for yet another example of how a precise understanding of cause-and-effect relationships in audio remains -- mostly -- vexingly elusive.
What's far more relevant and important to consider? Simply this. Don't base your purchase decisions for a new CD/DVD player, stand-alone transport or DAC on the kind of socketry it carries on its rear panel. Toslink jacks are not automatically inferior. In fact, based on Audio Asylum commentary of listeners who have performed their own comparisons, some clearly prefer glass-fiber Toslink. Perhaps that's due to creating a true stop gap against interference from ground problems.
Secondly: If your current or dream player offers a choice of either hookup, don't limit your search for the right cable to the single-ended standard. You could obtain as good or better for considerably less by exploring the Toslink route. If your local dealer won't play, contact Robert Stein at the Cable Company for some sample loaners. Just don't call him if you're not truly in the market and just want to kick his tires. He'd give me a hard time for suggesting it. Rightfully so. The man's running a business, not a lonely heart's club for bored audiophiles.
Lastly, if you had Toslink and RCA sockets, you could use both outputs to feed two highly resolved systems from one transport/player. The choices are dizzying. And good choices they are, too. Life's peachy in affordable audio land.
When I visited with John Stronczer of Bel Canto during CEDIA 2002, he experimented with both the WireWorld Toslink and an Analysis Plus regular digital cable. While he expressed sincere shock at how good this particular Toslink cable performed; how subtle the remaining difference were - he did prefer the standard RCA interface in his personal reference system by a slight margin.
When I called him a few days ago to order my new PRe6, he confided that he had since rewired his system with WireWorld's finest. In this new context, he now clearly preferred the SuperNova III+ Toslink to the single-ended digital RCA cable and commented on how his entire system had gone up a few notches in performance since I had heard and described it a few months ago.
What does that mean? I'm not sure. I will, however, volunteer once again that coming to hard and fast conclusions in audio tends to backfire sooner or later. Keeping an open mind seems the best antidote - and being curious while having fun!