The JCAT Reference USB Cable

Device Type: 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
Website: jplay.eu/jcat

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.

COMMENTS
John C Freeman's picture

Yes I am sure it sounds great, but probably any cable in your system will sound great. Really good components at every step of the way insure that the music will sound great. But is it $470.00 better or different for a CONNECTING CABLE? Only your pocketbook will know for sure.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
While digital data transmission is more or less impervious to noise where bits remain bits (with the exception of compromised cable/connector issues which can cause bit errors in extreme cases), RF and EMI from external sources including anything with a switch mode power supply can certainly effect our audio signal in the analog domain if injected into our hi-fi system through cable as conduit. That includes USB cable. So the specific design of a cable including shielding, sheath, composition, connectors, etc. will directly relate to how much or how little noise gets a free ride.
drblank's picture

doesn't have a 1 or a 0 sent down through the cable. It has electrical pulses to represent 1's and 0's. That's the first mistake you are making. The second thing is that you don't even consider how much noise is getting into that data signal. Noise creates problems for how well those electronic pulses are being streamed from one end to the other. When playing music, it's not the same as just a data transfer, it's streaming music and in doing so, timing is everything, getting the right information from one end to the other end and timed properly is everything. Noise causes timing issues and it also can cause bits to change.

The price is the price, and since these type of cables are more expensive to produce due to more expensive materials, lower production costs, plus marketing costs to tell people that a cable like this exits than a generic USB cable, they have to charge what they have to charge to break even and make a profit. Companies that make generic USB cables don't have to advertise, they just have to make a ton of them, and sell them through a big distributor to get them widely sold without spending money on marketing. No one gets excited about looking at an ad for a $5 USB cable.

Now, whether or not you can hear the difference is completely different. Some people have such systems and have listening abilities that have gotten used to listening for subtle differences. The average person doesn't have such equipment and doesn't have listening abilities to even know what to listen for.

Now, should everyone buy this cable? NO. It's not for everyone. It's for those that have good systems that can tell and are willing to spend the money. Just because you don't, doesn't matter to someone else that does. Most audiophiles that spend lots of money typically know they can audition the product before buying or they can return the product if they aren't happy with it.

On a side note, I did a little hard drive speed test on my computer with an external USB drive and I compared a generic USB 2 cable to an Audioquest cable (their second to cheapest model) and just in the hard drive speed test, the Audioquest was about 30% faster, so there is something measurable that can prove that there is something to more expensive cables. I unfortunately don't have test equipment to see what other factors are different between a cheap and an expensive USB cable, but a simple disk speed test was enough for me to tell that there is at least one thing that anyone can test.

Yes, I think $470 is a lot for a cable that normally goes for $5 or $10. Agreed on that point. But obviously, the $470 cable has precious metals like Silver being used and silver plated copper wire is VERY expensive because they have to use high purity copper and then there are only so many wire mfg equipment that can deal with silver plated copper because it's more fragile than just copper, so they have to use more precision cable winding machines, which is also more expensive. And then they have to use high content silver solder which is also more expensive and requires more precision in the soldering process than just typical tin solder to just copper wire. Etc. etc.

Will there be any difference to this cable vs a generic cable? Well, that you have to try on your own system to see if there is and if it's audible enough. If you can't hear the difference on your system, then don't spend the money, but don't go around telling others that have different equipment and maybe a better ability to hear the difference that they shouldn't buy it.

Do you honestly think that someone that spent over $15K or $20K on a CD collection, spending tens of thousands of dollars or even a hundred thousand dollars on equipment is going to worry about $470 on a USB cable? I don't think so.

Steven Plaskin's picture

I am presently working on a review of the Shunyata Research Venom USB cable that sells for $125 for .75 meter.

Is it just different? We shall see.

Thanks for your comments John

24bitbob's picture

Your up front warning is condescending. It's entirely unnecessary as well.

I bought my first piece of HiFi in 1975; converted my vinyl to 24/96 lossless in 2004; bought my first 'audiophile' USB cable in 2009, ....... I have enjoyed HiFi for a long time. I got into computer audio before most. Trust me, bits is bits.

What makes you a true believer, and me not?

Steven Plaskin's picture

My upfront warning is referred to as humor. As for bits is bits, please check out the following:

http://www.audiostream.com/content/draft

Please also check out the discussion as it is quite interesting.

As for what you believe, I don't have a clue.

Reed's picture

Having tried several cables, I have no doubt there is a potential discernible difference. I have have tried so many cables over the years. I, personally, came to a decision that I was going to try and best recreate what I hear live. What I have found through personal toil is that for me studio grade cabling best recreates what I hear live. As an example, I recently attended a Leon Russell concert in an intimate venue. I was sitting almost dead center and closed my eyes on several occasions. It was acoustically fabulous, but oddly enough, what it sounded most like was a really good mono recording. Even with similar experiments at the symphony, I found that all of that separation was not natural. It sounds like I have the seperation of sitting in the front row with the depth of being in the 20th row. It's just not natural, which I think is why I was never content. The same holds true of component selection for me. For me, anything that creates a phenomenon past what I naturally hear live is unnaturally off. It's all in what you are trying to create and prefer. However, I would in no way impart what I prefer on someone else, which is why options are good.

stevebythebay's picture

I mean what characteristics are your loadstone for achieving what you're after? Otherwise, it seems but a matter of taste. Would you tend to prefer one cable versus another based on the source music? Or does, for example, the SR Galileo LE achieve your goal but not another? Or is the cable currently under review the best for certain combinations of equipment. This particular review leaves me wanting.

Steven Plaskin's picture

I spent a good deal of time comparing the JCAT to the Galileo LE.

If both cables were used connected directly to the computer, I preferred the Galileo LE. The Galileo had a little bit more mid range presence and the bass was more powerful with better definition.

If the cables were used connected to the iUSBPower ( driven by the HDPlex power supply ) things became much closer. The Galileo sounded very similar the the JCAT, but had a slightly fuller bass.

It appeared to me that the Galileo was better at dealing with the computer noise. But when the 5v power was supplied by a clean source, the differences were reduced.

So it does boil down to a matter of taste at this level.

If I owned the Galileo LE, I would not trade it for the JCAT Reference.

I hope I clarified things a little better for you Steve.

Steven Plaskin's picture

Things can even get more complex with the Galileo LE Steve.

I did all my comparative listening with the Atmosphere and FEQ off. I know that you were unable to hear a difference with these products. But for those that can hear the effects of the Atmosphere, another element enters the picture. The Galileo LE is a UEF cable. All UEF cables are sonically improved with an FEQ and or an Atomsphere in the room.

The new Atmosphere UEF cable series benefits as well from the FEQ / Atmosphere. I have had the Level 4 series Atmosphere UEF cables since early January. They do benefit, as does the Galileo LE from the Atmosphere.

stevebythebay's picture

The concept of separating electrical and bitstream are clearly the key here for both designs. I suppose if a TOSlink design might be better in the long run, but is not in favor with DAC designers, it seems.

audiofool's picture

a flawed review since it compares no other cables as a yardstick. I remain unconvinced that these could be better than the pure silver stranded USB cables I use at 1/5 the price.

Steven Plaskin's picture

I decided not to print comparisons this time. Given the large number of cables out there, I rarely hit the one the reader is interested in. I will do some comparisons with the Shunyata cable.

I think the JCAT Reference is among the 2 best USB cables I have heard. The other is the Synergistic Research Galileo LE.

I prefer the JCAT to the LightSpeed and the Audioquest Diamond.

You failed to provide us a name for your cable.

lateboomer's picture

YFS Dual-Headed Reference USB 2.0 cable? Similar design. Thank you.

fritzg's picture

Please explain what is going on in a *cable* to impart more mid-range presence and more powerful bass and how this represents the music and not a colorization imparted by the cable itself.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...to recognize that a USB cable is part of a low noise analog audio system. Therefore, what's going on "in the cable" is missing the bigger picture. Since the USB cable is connected directly to a computer and a DAC that live in an electrically noisy environment, there are many factors that can compromise the D/A process and the resultant sound of your music such as outside interference and radiated noise. A USB cable's construction including termination and the gauge of the power pair as well as your DAC's USB input play a large role in limiting how much of this unwanted noise gets into your DAC. Since no cable is perfect, there will inevitably be some leakage which can directly affect the D/A process resulting in "colorization".

From Wikipedia:

In general, digital systems are much less prone to error than analog systems; However, nearly all digital systems have analog inputs and/or outputs, and certainly all of those that interact with the analog world do so. These analog components of the digital system can suffer analog effects and potentially compromise the integrity of a well designed digital system.
If you want to get into more detail about the importance of USB Cable design and the problems with noise, I'd recommend reading this paper from Intel - EMI Design Guidelines for USB Components.
fritzg's picture

I get the idea that a good cable reduces noise because of better shielding, but to provide sonic improvements like more defined bass, improved mid-range, etc. and then comparing it to other shielded cables that color the sound in other ways like a wider soundstage, that I don't get.

Seems to me the cables allow more or less noise, period.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
If you read that Intel paper, you'll see that there are other factors in a USB cable's design and termination that are equally important, as is the DAC's ability to deal with it. It's also important to recognize that the noise we're talking about is not as simple as 60Hz hum. From Wikipeida, "noise contains energy spread over a wide range of frequencies and levels, and different sources of noise have different spectral content."
Steven Plaskin's picture

Here is a quote from an interesting discussion that is found in the AudioStream industry news:

Steve Silberman: I think this is where things get misconstrued. The signals we think of abstractly as “digital” are in fact high-speed analog square waves, susceptible to all of the same damage and distortions as any other analog signal.

The cable material and dielectric must be considered. Remember the time factor also plays a role in the sound.

http://www.audiostream.com/content/draft

fritzg's picture

So, are these cables protecting the signal from the problems of nose, etc., or are they *adding* to the sound in a way their designers prefer or is the resulting addition a happy accident?

When reviews state specific enhancements to the sound that were not there before it gives the impression the cable is leaving an imprint on the music. I find that to be destructive to the artistry of the musician.

Steven Plaskin's picture

Or the cable is allowing precise reproduction of the music that some other cables do not.

If you have taken the time to read the suggested articles that Michael and I posted, you will see that this is a complex subject.

But in the end, most of us use the cable that sounds best to us in our system.

fritzg's picture

Yes, it is a complicated subject. And I am trying to understand the differences in these "reference" cables. If it is possible for a cable to allow precise reproduction it seems there would be those that do and would not sound different, and those that fall short. But it seems that different cables allow for different "precise reproduction(s) of the music". That tells me all of these high end cables fail to "allow precise reproduction of the music", but do it in different ways, and folks choose cables based on how they color the music by the way they fail to remain neutral. In essence, cables are being chosen because of the way they fail, not because of they way they succeed.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
But this applies to all cables in an audio system regardless of price. Here's what AudioQuest says about cables which is very close to what you are saying:
Cable design is all about damage control. No Cable can make your system sound or look better, they can only cause damage to the original signal. AudioQuest’s perspective has always been to design cable that DO NO HARM!
So I'd say that there's a real possibility that some cables do less harm than others. In the end, I agree with Steve, we pick the cable that sounds best in our system.
Venere 2's picture

Nice review! I also look forward to your review of the Shunyata Venom USB. I bought the Shunyata 3 weeks ago and it sounds great in my system. It is also inexpensive in comparison to the JCAT and Audioquest Diamond.

I am curious to hear your opinion on how it sounds compared to the top cables.

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