USB cables are amongst the most used technological items in the world. Since they were first introduced in 1996, they have emerged as a key cable for audio purposes such as music production, playback, or recording.
Do USB audio cables make a difference?
Although many users are skeptical of the difference that USB audio cables make, there is some evidence that suggests they do indeed impact factors like sound quality, DAC performance, and interference. However, in most cases, the difference they make is quite minimal.
Many companies claim to produce superior audio cables, billing their products as suitable for audiophiles.
However, the unfortunate truth is that a large number of these manufacturers are simply marketing their cables in this way to maximize sales.
If you’re unsure whether investing in a high-end USB audio cable is worth it, you’ll find the answers you need in the following sections.
Do USB Cables Affect Sound Quality?
From a technical standpoint, it’s accurate to say that no two USB audio cables will perform identically. However, whether the differences are noticeable in terms of performance is the most important question to consider.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) cables have undeniably revolutionized computing and digital audio over the past 25 years. There is a wide selection of USB audio cables available, with considerable price differences.
We’re often reminded of the impact that audio cables have on sound quality. For example, certain instrument or microphone cables are more prone to interference or noise issues when we use them to record audio or for live sound purposes.
USB cables are digital by nature, and therefore they don’t affect sound quality in the same way that instrument, auxiliary or XLR cables do. There are two possible outcomes when using a USB cable – it either supports the standard you’re using it for, or it doesn’t.
- The only variable that could potentially affect the performance of a USB cable is length.
There is some evidence that suggests that cable length affects the analog output of a Digital To Analog Converter (DAC). Shorter USB cables are known to cause slight improvements in this area.
Before you rush to purchase the most expensive short USB cable you can find, it’s important to note that the difference is minimal, and is unlikely to affect the sound quality that the USB cable offers.
While it may be worthwhile to buy a high-end analog instrument or XLR cable to ensure maximum sound quality and minimal noise issues, USB cables are much more consistent in their performance, due to their digital design.
This is because USB cables, used between a computer and a DAC for example, don’t transmit any audio – they transmit data. Consequently, any variations in the electrical aspects of the USB cable will have no impact on audio quality, dynamics, or any other aspect.
The audio is encoded into what is known as binary data before it is transmitted through the USB cable.
Unlike analog cables which can cause variations in sound when the signal is distorted, USB cables will simply cause errors in the transmission which will lead to the cable being unusable. This is not a result of the cable quality, though.
To be brutally honest, any audiophile or high-end USB cables that claim to offer superior sound quality are simply using this falsehood as a marketing tool to lure in unsuspecting customers.
I have written an article on connecting XLR to USB. You can read it here.
Is USB Better Sound Quality than Optical?
USB and Optical cables are both used to transmit digital audio signals from a sound source to a DAC. The question of which produces better sound quality is complex but important.
Firstly, the key difference between USB and Optical cables is found in the formats of the digital signals they carry.
USB signals are identified as a separate device from the audio that originates from the source. This means that the PCM data from the source device is transmitted instantly after it is sent from the audio driver.
Optical cables, on the other hand, send the digital signal via an onboard chip so that it can be processed. The signal is commonly resampled, which means the data that is received by the DAC is technically not identical to the original signal sent from the audio source.
However, this difference does not result in a noticeable improvement of sound quality when using a USB or Optical connection.
It’s highly unlikely that even the most attentive listeners would be able to tell the difference between the two based on the way they sound.
One thing to bear in mind is that optical cables are prone to signal disruption if they are bent or damaged. This could cause the sound quality to suffer compared to USB cables, which tend to be more malleable and less prone to physical degradation.
On the other hand, USB audio cables are more susceptible to electrical and radio interference than Optical cables. While this is rare, if it occurs it can diminish sound quality considerably.
For this reason, some people prefer to stick with optical cables so that there is no chance of either of these varieties of interference marring the output of their audio system.
Can You Split USB Audio?
Signal splitting is used to create two outputs from a singular connector point. The most simple form of signal splitting is when a headphone jack is split into two so that two people can listen to the audio at the same time.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to split USB audio as it is with analog cables, such as aux, jack, or XLRs. To do this, you will require other devices which make splitting USB audio possible.
USB devices mount to one host, and the data they transmit cannot be shared by splitting the cable.
The closest you can get to splitting USB audio is by using a USB splitter hub, which is sometimes also called a USB switch. This device works by maintaining open data lines for connecting devices but separates them from the upstream.
Therefore, using a USB splitter hub won’t allow you to use the connection for more than one audio device at any given time. It will simply increase the number of USB ports you have in your audio setup.
This means that while you could connect multiple audio devices to a computer by using a USB splitter hub, they would be connected via separate USB connections rather than a single USB signal that has been split into two.
Using a USB hub may be a good solution if you’re using several USB devices, such as a microphone, audio interface, and keyboard all at the same time.
The computer may lack the necessary number of USB ports, and the splitter port would allow you to connect them all simultaneously.
If you decide to use a USB hub as part of your audio setup, there are several things you should consider.
Firstly, any devices that are connected to the USB hub share the bandwidth that is available from the port. This means that the more devices you connect to the hub, the less bandwidth will be available to them individually.
USB hubs on computers or laptops that are positioned in the same area often share the same internal hub, meaning the bandwidth is spread out evenly between them. So plugging in a USB hub will further reduce the available bandwidth for both of the USB ports on the device.
Most USB audio devices have a relatively low transfer rate. However, high-powered audio interfaces may require additional bandwidth from the USB port to perform to their fullest potential.
Connecting too many USB devices to a USB port is likely to cause some issues with latency and could interrupt your audio playback or recordings. It’s therefore important to check the transfer rate of each device before connecting them to your USB hub.
Choosing Gear Can Be Really Hard!
Home recording requires a whole series of equipment, and it can be difficult to do the research to figure out exactly what to buy depending upon your budget.
I have written a complete guide to exactly which equipment you should get depending on your budget.
The table below shows the bandwidth offered by the newest versions of USB cables.
|USB Cable Type||Ports||Bandwidth|
|USB 3.0||Type A, Type B, Mini-B, Micro-B||5Gbps|
|USB 3.1||Type A, Type C||10Gbps|
|USB 3.2||Type C||10Gbps|
Does USB-C transmit audio?
USB-C is a highly popular and versatile cable. It can be used for a range of purposes, including transmitting audio digitally, the transference of files, connecting devices like hard drives or interfaces, and much more.
How do I connect the 3.5mm jack to USB?
To connect a 3.5mm jack cable to a USB, you need to use a special adapter. Simply plug the USB end into your computer or another device, then connect the male 3.5mm jack to the female plug which is on the other end of the adapter.
Can you connect speakers to a computer via USB?
Although most speakers have auxiliary or XLR connectors, some also facilitate USB connectivity. To connect these speakers to your PC, simply plug the USB into the port. Your computer should then recognize the speakers and you can use them to play audio through.