One of the most emotive subjects in the current audiophile “scene” is the effect of cables on sound. Some claim that a good cable can make an IEM, headphone or speaker sound better, fuller, more detailed and is generally able to do everything short of cleaning the wax out of your ears after a listening session or choosing which tack to play next. Others claim that cables are just expensive wire in plastic shrink wrap, and that you can get the same sound out of a wire coat hanger as you can from a £2k silver, gold and palladium cable that looks like it comes out of Queen Elizabeth’s private jewellery collection, because, you know, science and stuff.
My take on cables sits somewhere in the middle. I don’t expect them to make an average IEM sound like an epiphany of angels stroking my eardrums, but I can also appreciate the benefits of some slight tweaks to the perceived sound I hear, and some quantifiable tweaks in the comfort and aesthetics of the piece of wire hanging out of my ear. I’m willing to keep an open mind on the science behind what should affect sound, but I also think we don’t yet have a full understanding of the measurements required to truly confirm or discount what effect a good (or bad) cable can have on the signal being passed from your audio player to your speaker.
To try and help me make my mind up one way or the other, I put my name down for the European leg of the new Effect Audio cable tour, with the Singapore-based cable giant sending all three of their their new Vogue cable range out for review.
As part of the review tour, I got to spend a week with the Maestro, Virtuoso and Grandioso cables from EA, after which time they were returned to EA’s main European dealer for checking before sending on to the next recipient. I received the 2-pin, 2.5mm balanced versions of all three cables, and there has been no editorial input or incentives (financial or otherwise) received – all opinions (no matter how misguided!) are 100% my own.
Maestro ($99 – Copper) / Virtuoso ($149 – SPC) / Grandioso ($199 – Silver / Copper hybrid)
Design and ergonomics
All three cables share an identical four core design, diverging only by the type of metal used in the cable itself. Going from the bottom of the range up, the “Maestro” is a four-core OCC Copper cable, the “Virtuoso” carries four wires of Silver Plated Copper and the flagship “Grandioso” is a hybrid cable made up of two wires of Silver and two of OCC Copper.
The cables are braided in a tight weave and finished with Effect Audio branded connectors at both ends. The cable is light and supple, with minimal memory effect and a very flexible and soft feel. Compared so some of the monster gauge (or core) cabling that you see now from Chines brands like ISN, or even Effect Audio’s own Ares II+ (link to glassmonkey’s review), these are practically anorexic, coming in as just a little more substantial than the ubiquitous Plastics One cabling (approximately 28AWG) that accompanies about half of the the entry-fi and mid-fi IEMs on the market.
The cables I had were the 2-pin variant, and the 2-pin connectors look well thought out, with a small and slimline profile (in keeping with the rest of the cable). The connector is denoted by a silver metal barrel, with a flattened edge across the outside of both connectors to allow an easier grip. This keeps the connector pretty small, and is actually a pretty sensible move in terms of overall ergonomics, allowing a much more secure purchase on the barrel of the connector when you try to insert or remove the cable. It’s a simple thing, but one I wonder why more cable manufacturers don’t incorporate.
The flattened edge also makes an appearance on the source connector as well, which again adds to the ergonomic usefulness of the cable. The connector on the cables I am reviewing is a standard 2.5mm balanced connector, but I believe the cables also come in 3.5mm SE and 4.4mm balanced as well. Like the 2-pin connectors, the source connector is pretty small and low profile, and doesn’t add a huge amount of vertical height when plugged into a DAP. The connection with my Fiio M11 is snug and solid, with the cable slotting firmly into place and not showing any signs of wobble or movement. The connector is “capped” by a ring of black polycarbonate style material, adding a nice aesthetic flourish to the silver barrel and EA branding on the main body of the connection.
The final piece of adornment is at the y-split, where there is a functionally minuscule metal splitter (again neatly emblazoned with the EA waves) and a small black plastic neck cinch. The cinch moves easily up and down the cable, and works pretty well for me. The design here reminds me of the small but functionally metal splitters on the ALO Audio / Campfire Audio stock cables.
These cables come with a preformed ear guide as standard – this is of the shrink-wrap type rather than memory wire, and sits nicely behind the ears without any fuss. I personally can’t stand memory wire as I am a glasses wearer, so as long as you aren’t planning to use the cables on a “straight down” fitting IEM like the Dunu Titan series or the Campfire Audio Atlas, there shouldn’t be any major comfort issues.
Testing and review methodology
In order to try and be a bit more scientific about identifying the effect on sound of the three different cable types, I used the same source (the Fiio M11 on high gain) and used two identical sets of IEMs (the Stealth Sonics U9) with a set of L Spiral Dot tips to do fast switches on the same source playing the same tracks at the same output level. I also took some simple FR measurements on a MiniDSP E.A.R.S. rig, but the U9 sadly doesn’t play too nicely with the measuring gear in terms of getting an identical fit each time, so I haven’t included them here to avoid unnecessarily muddying the waters.
I swapped IEM units between the cables being tested multiple times in between tracks, ensuring that both sets of the U9 were used on each cable to avoid any potential variations between the two units that I haven’t previously picked up – this provided the same results each time, so I am happy that both IEM units were close enough in output for the A/B results to be valid.
In terms of describing a cable’s sound in isolation, I find this section to be the least useful in most cable reviews I have read, so I am omitting it here and moving straight to the comparisons. All three cables from the new range are similar in overall sonics, so I found it more useful to try and document the differences I could perceive between each cable, rather than try to describe an “absolute” sound for each one, which will obviously mainly depend on the IEM you are connecting it to.
Virtuoso (SPC) vs Grandioso (silver / copper hybrid)
In a straight comparison, the first thing I noticed was that the Virtuoso appears to be appreciably louder than the hybrid Grandioso – I presume this will be something to do with the relative resistance or impedance of the two cables, but sadly I’m not technically proficient enough to confirm that with any certainty. The effect of additional decibels is quite well documented on audio perception, so immediately with the same test gear, the Virtuoso gives an audible impression of a fuller-bodied low end, with more palpable deep extension.
Even when matching volume as closely as possible, the Virtuoso still gives a feel or being slightly fuller in the lower part of the frequency range than the Grandioso. This adds weight to male vocals, giving the vocals a slightly more forward presentation and less of a scooped out feel in comparison on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”. The other thing that is noticeable to my ears was a slight increase in audible texture between the two cables, with the Virtuoso presenting a slightly more refined picture. This isn’t a stark or hugely obvious difference (like with most cable differences), but it does add a slight sheen of texture to the listening experience.
Listening for more vocal differences, “Song For Adam” by the late Gregg Allman have a thin but ultra textured presentation of Allman’s vocals on the Virtuoso, with plenty of ragged edge to the singer’s voice in his last recorded song and a nicely forward placement in the stage, with guitar twangs and phrasings popping around the edges of the sound. In comparison, the Grandioso gives a slightly less emphasised sense of texture, and seems to place marginally less weight on the vocals, posting them slightly further back from the front of the stage. There is less of a sense of scale to the presentation on this track on the “lesser” cable as well, with the soundscape feeling slightly flatter and not quite as broad as the silver model. Overall, presentation feels another in comparison.
Switching across to some James Bay, on his “Hold Back The River” track the plucks of the opening guitar seen a little thicker and less crisp on the Grandioso. The ghost chorus underneath the main vocal at the 52 second mark is still audible on the hybrid cable, but sounds less emphatic than the Virtuoso.
Overall, the Virtuoso gives a fuller body to the U9’s presentation, with a small uptick in audible texture and a slightly more organic overall tone. It isn’t huge, but it is noticeable, with the Grandioso sounding thinner and slightly more anaemic in comparison.
Grandioso (Silver / Copper Hybrid) Vs Maestro (Copper)
Comparing the higher and lower priced cables in the range, the Maestro is also notably louder than the Grandioso on the same settings, sounding closest to the Virtuoso in dB level when compared directly. Not sure why this was, but on my three cables it definitely sounded like the hybrid was the quieter of the three wires.
In terms of differences, there is a sense that the detail is less prominent on the Maestro (marginally). Firing up “Palladio” by Escala, there is a thicker feel to the low end but this is traded off against a slight decrease in crispness through the mids. The Maestro also feels a little more mid forward than the Grandioso, giving a flatter emphasis in comparison to the more V shaped sound the Grandioso produces with the Stealth Sonics flagship..
Going back to “Song For Adam”, the Maestro feels more similar to the Virtuoso than the Grandioso here, but with slightly less obvious nuance in the vocal inflections and less depth in the stage. I also noticed a little more hiss or background noise on the cheaper cable too, in comparison to the perceived blacker background of the SPC cable or the hybrid.
Overall, I found the Maestro the warmest and least resolving of the three cables, but again only by a fine margin. This is mainly down to the perception of a slightly fuller and warmer sound, and a less silent backdrop to the notes – out of the two cables being compared here, I still prefer the Maestro’s tone overall.
Virtuoso (SPC) Vs Maestro (Copper)
In the comparison of cheapest and median cables in the Vogue range, the volume is back to evenly matched, not showing any of the additional “damping” the hybrid cable has. Tonality is also a little more similar, with both cables having a nicely full sound. There is more low bass thump on the Virtuoso, with noticeably less hiss. The Virtuoso feels like it has a slightly more organised stage, with a more definitive sense of lateral placement. It also gives a comparatively crisper edge to the sound, compared to a slightly warmer and more analogue tone with the copper Maestro.
Trying some Greta Van Fleet on both, “Black Smoke Rising” gives a tighter kick down low with the silver cable, but has a slightly sharper emphasis on the lead vocal as a trade-off, presenting the vocal with an accentuated vinegary edge. The song is quite sharp in the underlying recording so this isn’t a major issue, but the Virtuoso is definitely the more transparent of the two cables to my ears.
Another of my usual test tracks, “Smooth Soul” by Joe Satriani again sounds deeper and more crisp with the Virtuoso. The Maestro gives Satriani’s guitar a more vinyl-sounding type of sound, and makes the stage feel a little flatter, losing some of the perception of depth to the performing space that the Maestro brings to the track.
My preference here will be for the Virtuoso, as it has the appealing analogue sort of tonality of the Maestro, but with a cleaner and more resolving edge to the sound and slightly more crispness and extension overall. The stage also feels deeper and more definite, helping to bring the best out of the Stealth Sonics U9 and its laser-sharp imagery.
Comparisons versus other cables
Dunu Hulk (Copper)
In another difference in volume between two cables on the same IEM and source, the ultra-thick Dunu cable lives up to its name and comes in a couple of notches louder than the far thinner Maestro. The Hulk feels more full bodied, with a slightly thicker and chunkier tone to the bass. There is also a blacker feel to the background, and more dimensionality to the sound on the Hulk. In fact, the Hulk sounds a lot like the Virtuoso, but with an even cleaner backdrop and a slightly thicker overall tone. Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy the comparison with the Grandioso.
In terms of ergonomics, the Hulk absolutely dwarfs the Effect Audio cables, and while it is surprisingly ergonomic in its own right, it doesn’t have the “forget about me” weight of the Maestro or the slimline plugs and connectors, so is more of a cable for home listening rather than out and about.
The Hulk comes in at around $300, so it does play in the higher end of the cable range, but the additional price does come with a major ace in the hole: interchangeable connectors, offering a seriously adaptable cable for just $100 more than the Grandioso.
Plastics One (various IEMs, typically SPC)
I have multiple SPC cables laying around from IEM purchases, so thought a quick comparison would be of use as these are intended as entry level upgrades to the cable game. Quite simply, any of the three EA cables provides a pretty substantial upgrade on the aesthetics and ergonomics of the standard Plastics One, with a more supple and less range-prone cable and a far higher build quality and finish.
Sound wise, the Maestro typically seemed a little cleaner and more dynamic than the Plastics One, giving a blacker background. This lends itself to giving a higher perception of clarity around the instruments. Like the differences between the cables themselves, this wasn’t huge or “night and day”, but it was noticeable enough for me to feel that something had changed in the playback.
Stealth Sonics U9 stock cable (SPC)
The U9 comes with an upgrade cable from Null Audio, and while the model isn’t exactly the same as Null’s current cable range, it is a 4-wire SPC braided cable. This is actually a beautiful looking (and feeling) cable, sharing similar ergonomics and flexibility to the Effect Audio cables. They are both fairly low profile, with the Null Audio model sporting angled 2-pin connectors and a slightly more rigid earguide, but apart from that, the general sound and feel of the cables are very similar.
The stock cables are unfortunately all single ended connections on my Stealth Sonics IEMs, so I wasn’t able to do a pure A/B comparison, as any differences could potentially be down to the different amp outputs on the M11 rather than the cable. Suffice to say, I don’t think there would be much (if anything) between the Null cable and the Maestro or Virtuoso in terms of performance.
As you may have gathered from repeated use of phrases like “slightly”, all three of these cables are very similar in terms of performance, and can be considered as more similar than different. I don’t want to add any fuel to either side of the raging cable debate fire, but to my ears all three cables offer only the subtlest of tweaks to the final tonality of the IEM they are attached to, rather than any huge “night and day” difference.
That being said, most audiophile upgrades are marginal rather than massive, so if you are looking to eke out a little more warmth or clarity from your in-ear gear, the Effect Audio range offers a fairly affordable way to dip your toe in to the higher end cable scene. There is no doubt that the cables are beautifully designed and built, and definitely very ergonomic as well as being aesthetically excellent, so if you want the bling of an aftermarket cable to spice up your IEM game without dragging a 16-wire tow rope around with you, these could again fit the bill pretty nicely.
If you don’t believe in cables, I don’t think there is anything here that will radically alter your opinion. If you are looking for something to make that fine tweak to the sound you are hearing, or just want something more ergonomic and visually appealing, the new range should give you a broad enough choice to find something in your budget. In keeping with the more budget-conscious nature of this cable line, I actually think the Virtuoso is the “best” of the three cables to my ears, but I’d be happy with either of the SPC or pure copper cables as a simple aftermarket upgrade to my 2-pin IEMs. The Grandioso just feels a little thin in comparison to the other two, so wouldn’t be a personal recommendation for the additional $50 unless you were after that particular type of sound.