Headphones are diverging into two camps: those intended for millennials and those with audiophiles in mind. At one point, it appeared that some models at the upper end could satisfy both constituencies. However, even though good sound is important to both groups, it has become increasingly clear that millennials and audiophiles use their ’phones in different ways, and consequently demand distinctly different feature sets.
For millennials, it’s all about portability and smartphone compatibility. That translates to headphones with ear pads that can fold flat, the ability to patch through phone calls, and a cable that includes a microphone for such calls. Millennial-oriented cans may also support Bluetooth, in which case there will also be a built-in volume control, DAC, and amp in the signal path. It goes without saying that serious audiophile headphones eschew every one of these features. Each of them either adds expense without improving sound, or is actively detrimental sonically.
Now, another purely sonically oriented feature has found its way to the latest audiophile headphones: a detachable cable. As when detachable power cords replaced captive cords in audio components, detachable headphone cables enable the use of aftermarket alternatives. You won’t find this feature on cans meant for millennials, who prize simplicity. But for audiophiles, choosing and using aftermarket cables are old hat. Furthermore, audiophiles know that aftermarket cables and power cords make a significant difference in the sound of their audio systems. Why shouldn’t the same hold true for headphones?
At this year’s CES, I noted several audiophile cable companies jumping into this fertile territory, so I arranged to borrow two samples at different price points. At the high end is the Crystal Cable Next, a shimmering, thin strand that oozes quality. In keeping with the cable’s minimalist profile, the terminators are compact and easy to handle. (I found, however, that the terminators didn’t work with all of my headphones, so be sure to test that before auditioning.) Crystal put a lot of effort into creating a headphone cable that’s thin, light and flexible, yet strong enough to stand up to the tugging and twisting inherent in headphone use. An aramid fiber core gives the cable its strength without compromising flexibility. The transparent outer sleeve is hypo-allergenic and soft to the touch. Inside, the Crystal Cable Next is no less uncompromising. The conductors are a high-purity proprietary silver/gold alloy. Shielding is silver-plated mono-crystal copper, reminiscent of Crystal’s high-end interconnects.
If that sounds to you like it’s going to add up to something expensive, you’re right. All that R&D and component quality pushes the price of this cable to $750. I gulped when I first heard the price; after all, that’s more than many a good set of cans. But then I realized that it’s not unusual in the high end for top-tier cables to cost more—sometimes far more—than midrange components. A little calculating further informed me that a set of the best ’phones plus an appropriate portable player (e.g., the Astell&Kern AK380) or a serious headphone amp would easily set a buyer back over $5k. In that context, a cable at this price point—assuming it makes a significant sonic difference—is not out of line.
Nonetheless, I also wanted to evaluate a more modestly-priced offering. Fortunately, one of my stops at CES was the Wireworld room. There, David Salz treated me a demo of his entire range of headphone cables, the Nano series, which runs the gamut from $45 to $450. For me, the sweet spot in the line was right in the middle: the $175 Nano Eclipse. At this price, the cable is an affordable adjunct to even modest headphone/amp/player rigs.
Physically, the Eclipse is slim by high-end interconnect standards, yet beefier than the Crystal Cable Next. The cable evinces Wireworld’s traditionally high build-quality, right down to its brawny terminators. Internally, the Eclipse is composed of OCC high-purity copper conductors in a DNA helix configuration surrounded by Wireworld’s Composilex 2 insulation. Upper-range Nano models substitute silver conductors for copper, but during my CES audition I concluded that that change came with some tradeoffs. Ultimately, the Eclipse won me over with its sound and value.
To take the measure of these cables, I employed them as an integral part of my evaluation of Astell&Kern’s new flagship AK380 portable player (see review elsewhere in this issue). My goals were twofold. First, I wanted to determine how much aftermarket cables differed from the stock wire supplied with headphones. Secondly, I was curious as to whether there was a sizable sonic difference between two headphone cables in distinctly different price ranges. The headphones I employed for this endeavor were the NAD VISO HP50 ($299). Don’t be fooled by their modest price; these are superb cans. They also happen to be the best I have with a detachable cable. (I do own more bespoke headphones, but they aren’t new enough to have a detachable cable.)