The JCAT Reference USB Cable
Price: 499 EUR (approximately $523.00); 449 EUR (approximately $470.00) for JPLAY customers. Shipping is 10 EUR
Length: Standard length is 1 meter.
Availability: JCAT Web site
WARNING: This review is written for audiophiles and true believers in the audiophile experience. Non-audiophile, bits are bits people, continue at your own risk!
The JCAT Reference USB cable is Marcin Ostapowicz and Josef Piri’s latest offering to the ever growing high end USB cable market. Both of these gentlemen are probably better known as the principles behind the popular Windows operating system software JPLAY. JCAT is the hardware division of JPLAY and offers a number of computer audio hardware products.
Last year I reviewed the JCAT USB cable (see review) and found it to be an excellent sounding cable with a very musical midrange. Marcin told me that the JCAT Reference USB cable significantly improves on the sound of the previous cable and offers a number of improvements in terms of construction and physical layout. The Reference USB cable is manufactured for JCAT by the Paul Professional Audio Studio owned by Paul Pang of Taiwan. Paul manufacturers a Separate Red USB cable, that while sharing many of the physical characteristics of the JCAT Reference, is a different design.
The Design of the JCAT Reference USB Cable
The JCAT Reference is the first JCAT USB cable to offer a dual-lead design that separates the USB data lines from the power line. Each line has a separate USB type A connector with the dual lines terminated with a single USB type B connector. The black cable carries the data; the red cable is the 5 volt power line.
Improvements over the JCAT USB cable resulted in new triple-shielded silver plated cooper alloy conductors and improved double-shielded connectors that are less susceptible to RFI.
The amount of silver used has increased compared to the older cable with the new cable using 30% silver compared to 15 % in the JCAT USB cable.
The JCAT Reference terminations are 90 ohm and are composed of a solid aluminum machined center that is double shielded. Paul Pang feels that these double shielded terminations result in better sound quality and a lower noise floor.
As with the JCAT USB cable, Paul designs his cables with a multi-core conductor that he feels offers higher bandwidth than a single core conductor. The multi-core conductor is composed of a silver plated copper alloy that is more expensive to manufacture than a single core silver cable. The silver plated copper alloy conductors are Teflon coated to provide high strength, anti-oxidation, and anti-twisting. Paul states that the multi-core conductor will have rich harmonics and detail with increased low and high end extension compared to the single core cable.
Other Components Used in the Evaluation
An early 2011 MacBook Pro 2.3 GHz, 16 GB RAM with Samsung SSD was used with 2 GRAID Thunderbolt drives for the music libraries; one for PCM and the other for DSD files. OSX Yosemite and Boot Camp Windows 8.1 64 Pro were the operating systems. Pure Music 2.04 was listened to with OSX Yosemite. JRiver Media 20 with Fidelia Pro 6.5 were used in the Windows evaluations. I also listened to JPLAY’s new version 6 Beta using its new Streamer and Foobar2000.
The GRAID Thunderbolt drives were powered by HDPlex linear power supplies. An iFi Audio micro iUSBPower was also driven with an HDPlex linear power supply. The JCAT Reference USB cable was listened to with the USB cable directly plugged into the MacBook Pro and also connected to the iFi Audio micro iUSBPower.
One component that has made a big difference in the performance of my system is the Shunyata Research Hydra DPC-6 power center. The MacBook Pro and the hard drives were plugged into the DPC-6. The iFi Audio micro iUSBPower was plugged into a Shunyata Research Triton power center.
The computer and the DAC were each placed on Synergistic Research Tranquility Bases powered by their Transporter Ultra SE. Synergistic Research Thunderbolt Active SE cables were used for the hard drives. Other USB cables used in this review were the Synergistic Research Galileo LE, JCAT USB cable, and the Audioquest Diamond USB cable.
The MSB Technology Analog DAC and Analog Power Base were employed in this evaluation.
JPLAY 6 Beta
Before I discuss my musical findings of the JCAT Reference USB cable, I feel it necessary to mention the new JPLAY 6 Beta software for Windows 7 and 8. I did a great deal of listening to the JCAT Reference with this new version of JPLAY; a version of JPLAY that is unlike any of the previous versions in both sound and application.
The JPLAY 6 Beta offers a new JPLAY Streamer application that is based on the “OpenHome Media” standard for home audio devices which allows JPLAY to be used with OpenHome/UPnP/DLNA control points on multiple platforms. JPLAY now has a DAC Link feature that offers asynchronous playback for all playback engines. JPLAY states that the PC clock is no longer used as a result of the DAC Link feature.
While I’m not writing a review of JPLAY 6, I will state that this is by far the best sounding version I have heard of this program. The previous versions were not even close to the sound quality I am hearing with the JPLAY 6 Beta and its new Streamer application. I was also happy to see that Fidelizer Pro 6.5 worked very well with the JPLAY Beta adding additional enhancement to my musical experience.
Using MininServer for my music server, the JPLAY Streamer, and the control point for my iPad with Linn’s Kazoo and Auralic’s Lightning DS, I experienced the best playback quality of my DSD library yet heard. I also had first-rate results using Foobar2000 with JPLAY for my PCM files. But it is the sound of the Streamer that is going to turn a lot of heads.
JPLAY’s new version offered a smoother, richer sound to the midrange, with enhanced detail and soundstage reproduction. JRiver Media 20 sounded thinner, slighter harder in the midrange compared to the JPLAY Streamer or JPLAY with Foobar. The soundstage of JRiver Media 20 was also smaller sounding with less inner detail and resolution.
This is a Great Sounding Cable
It didn’t take long for me to conclude that the JCAT Reference USB cable is one great sounding cable. For those that own the JCAT USB cable that I previously reviewed, the new cable builds on the strengths of the JCAT USB, but goes far beyond it in sonic performance. But I do have on caveat; the JCAT Reference USB cable needs a good deal of break-in time. If you try to evaluate it right out of the box, you will find the low end to be weak, and much of its sound staging magic to be absent.
The JCAT Reference is the best balanced of any USB cable I have ever heard. There is absolutely no accentuation of highs, midrange, or lows with this cable. The bass is extremely articulate and tight sounding. But it can deliver plenty of punch when called upon to do so. The midrange has the essential quality of the JCAT USB cable without the extra warmth found in this cable. Details emerge from a very deep black background without calling attention to them. Subtle micro dynamic shadings are easily recognized but seem analog-like and not overemphasized; a characteristic of the cable I particularly liked. The high end is extremely detailed and fast sounding without the over-emphasis of the top end heard in some other high end USB cables.
The soundstage qualities of the JCAT Reference are without exception, simply magnificent. Width, depth, and even elements of height are the best I have experienced with the MSB Technology Analog DAC. Fine orchestral recordings are harmonically rich and seem to capture every shading and subtle nuance of the performance. It is this resolution of low-level information that I find so appealing with the JCAT Reference.
If you would like to get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out the new DSD download of Reference Recordings Bruckner’s 4th Symphony performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Manfred Honeck. The recording was made and post produced in 64fs DSD on a Pyramix workstation and is available for download of the .dsf files from Native DSD. There is a bloom and dimensionality to this recording that is intoxicating with extended listening. The overall reproduction of the instrumental textures is easily heard with the JCAT Reference. One has no problem identifying a soundstage that is richly layered if the rest of your system is up to the task.
I found I was able to totally relax and get into the reissue of Nat “King” Cole’s Just One of Those Things from Analogue Productions. The .dsf download was made from the original 3-track tapes that results in an impressive, big sounding recording with Nat’s voice clear and upfront. While the recording was originally released in 1957, it puts to shame many of the new recordings made today in terms of naturalness.
The subtle, but revealing qualities of the JCAT Reference allow the acoustic magic captured in this recording to emerge with a grain-free presentation. The huge soundstage allows one to appreciate the fine musical textures of the orchestra that is placed behind the singer. The width and depth of this soundstage is very impressive when heard with the JCAT Reference.
For those devotees of progressive bluegrass, the Punch Brothers’ new album, The Phosphorescent Blues (24/96) sounded superb with the JCAT Reference USB cable. Pace, rhythm, articulation of voices and instruments were absolutely first rate. This is a wonderful demo album for the JCAT if this music entertains you-it does me!
Bring On the Audiophile Tweaks
About half of my evaluation time was spent with the JCAT Reference plugged directly into my computer. But the performance of the cable can be elevated with a number of tweaks I have discussed in previous reviews. Using the iFi Audio micro iUSBPower powered by an HDPlex linear power supply, resulted in a substantial improvement when using the JCAT Reference, or for that matter, any USB cable. The sound became more relaxed and the soundstage opened up. Now if you really want to take all of this to the nth degree, try placing some Synergistic Research ECTs (Electronic Circuit Transducer) on the USB type A connectors of the JCAT Reference. I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear another subtle improvement to the JCAT Reference. None of these tweaks are necessary to enjoy the qualities of the JCAT Reference, but for the true hobbyist, the ultimate performance of the cable can be improved upon.
A Top USB Cable
It should be quite obvious to all that I consider the JCAT Reference USB cable to be a top performer. The cable is among the most neutral sounding USB cables I have yet experienced with all facets of its performance being top drawer. While it seems that there is an endless offering of high end USB cables promising superior performance compared to their previous models, investment in the JCAT Reference USB cable should satisfy most discerning computer audiophiles for many years.