First DAPs, then IEMs, what’s next? Cables!!!
PROS: high quality wire material, very nice braiding pattern of 8 conductors, balanced termination.
CONS: mmcx connector housing needs a mod for universal compatibility.
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Aftermarket premium replacement cables have been a controversial topic of discussions in many audio communities. There are some who don’t hear a sound improvement and others who consider the improvement to be too subtle to justify the cost. Some are firm believers (myself including) and do hear the change in sound, while others talk themselves into believing to validate their purchase. I also ran into a group of people who consider cables as another accessory to personalize the appearance, just like if they would with CIEM customization, or those who switch from single ended to balanced and take the opportunity to upgrade to fancier wires. And then you have a group who never tried a replacement cable and formed their opinion based on reading someone else’s rant.
From my personal experience, I do hear and feel the change in a sound, but I’m not able to capture it accurately in measurements. The most obvious change even disbelievers can agree on is based on principals of physics where higher purity material will yield a smaller resistivity, better conductivity, fewer losses, and corresponding boost in signal level. Various metals have different properties. There is no magic behind it and you’ll get an instant benefit of a slightly boosted output, improving the efficiency of your headphones, something that could be measured. Also, doubling the number of conductors will lower the overall resistance of the cable. But when I hear a change in a bass texture and articulation, or more airiness in treble, or overall improvement in retrieval of details which feels like a layer of veil is lifted off – this is not easy to capture in measurements. Considering we all have a different perception of sound, without supporting measurements some people jump into conclusion and form a “snake oil” opinion, especially when price is taken into consideration.
The intent of this review is not to change anybody’s mind, but rather to share with you what I hear and how I hear it. Perhaps, I can’t fully explain why there is a change in sound, but I do hear it and would like to describe it. What makes sense to me is that I look at the wire as a material with physical properties of resistivity, conductivity, level of purity, etc, which acts as a filter between your source and headphones. Variations of these physical properties will affect the conductivity of electric signal and will result in a sound change, from a subtle to a more noticeable level. Also, I want to bring up the design of these cables, to make people aware why they cost so much, and that you are not dealing with a “coat hanger” wire but rather high grade materials, advanced production techniques, and hours of labor which all add up to a premium cost. Finally, the sound improvement of one specific cable is not universal because it will depend on the synergy between your source and your headphones.
Yes, you are reading this correctly, it’s not a typo – I’m talking about the iBasso, a company behind well known DX-series DAPs. Last year iBasso surprised us with their own IT03 3way hybrid IEM design (reviewed HERE). This year they are back with another shocker, expanding their product line with premium multi-core cables. It’s quite a risk for a company well known for their DAPs to venture into a different product category, and it did catch many by surprise when iBasso announced release of CB12, followed later by CB13 premium upgrade cables. But after a few discussions with Paul, the man behind iBasso global marketing and support, it made perfect sense to me. iBasso is not trying to capitalize on yet another fancy cable product, and they priced both cables relatively low in comparison to a similar premium competition. Instead, the main purpose of these cables is to upgrade the sound of IT03.
So, why didn’t they include either of these cables stock with IT03 from the beginning? Simply because iBasso wanted to make their 3way hybrid as affordable as possible without additional cost of a premium cable. Don’t get me wrong, the included stock cable is no slouch, and it has an excellent pair up synergy with IT03. But when you try CB12, it’s easy to understand the value of the upgrade, and then stepping up to CB13 goes further by squeezing out every drop of the performance, though it will cost you a premium with expectations of diminishing returns. As I already mentioned, both cables were designed with the main goal to upgrade and to refine IT03 sound, to the point where even the mmcx connector housing was designed specifically to accommodate IT03 shell socket, and you’ll have to trim the edge of the housing to make it work with majority of other mmcx IEMs.
So, let’s see what I found after testing and comparing iBasso CB12 and CB13 cables.
There is nothing extraordinary about the unboxing of these cables. Both arrived in a small golden ziplock bag with a detailed description of the product and the materials used in the cable design. I assume that such simplistic packaging is part of the cost savings, though I would have loved to see a balanced to single ended adapter included, at least with more expensive CB13 cable. Not every DAP has a balanced 2.5mm TRRS socket, and even the latest DX200 amp module (AMP2) has only single ended HO.
Starting with CB12, it features a handmade 8-wire hybrid design with 4x 6N purity mono crystal copper wires and 4x copper-silver alloy wires with a proprietary dielectric insulation. The plug is a gold plated 2.5mm TRRS balanced connector with a metal right angle housing and a nice strain relief, the same plug as stock IT03 cable except this one is balanced. The wires have a neat braiding, with a heat-shrink tube y-splitter and a plastic oval shaped chin slider. Cable is very soft and pliable, and going up to mmcx connector housing there is no annoying memory wire. The connector housing is rubbery with a slightly extended mold that covers the joint when mated with IT03 shell connector. Right side is marked with R, while the Left side has 3 bumps for an easy blind id. It works great with IT03, but due to the connector housing extension there will be a problem connecting it to other standard mmcx shell IEMs. This is fixable by trimming the edge of the connector housing by about 1-2mm, but be very careful not to damage the connector or the cable.
CB13, also features a handmade 8-wire hybrid design, but uses a higher quality and thicker gauge wires. Here you will find 4x 5N purity mono crystal silver wires (pure silver) and 4x 6N purity mono crystal copper wires, also with a proprietary dielectric insulation. The wires and the cable are noticeably thicker in comparison to CB12, probably twice as thick, but the cable is still very soft and pliable. The plug is gold plated 2.5mm TRRS balanced connector with a chunkier design, partially metal and covered with a rubbery transparent mold and a durable strain relief. Despite thicker wiring, all 8 conductors are neatly brought together in a perfect square braid. Matching the plug, y-splitter with a metal shell is surrounded by a rubbery transparent mold, followed by a transparent rubbery chin slider. There is no memory wire, which I appreciate, and the connector is transparent and rubbery with an extended mold just like in CB12. My only complaint here is that L/R marking is very hard to see. And just like with CB12, to make the connector housing universal – you need to trim 1-2mm off the housing edge.
Both cables have a standard 1.2m length, have no microphonics and no memory effect, feature 8-conductor design, and its pure silver and pure copper wires are of a mono crystal nature. These wires are not very common, where mono crystal wires use a different metallurgy manufacturing process which eliminates the pockets of oxidation and contamination between atoms and metal crystals. These so-called pockets form a discontinuity which can be responsible for tiny shifts in electrical behavior and signal transmission. To avoid that, the manufacturing process of mono crystal wires creates a single continuous crystal structure without microscopic voids.
When it comes to cables, aside from people who can or can’t hear the sonic difference, many question the price of the “wires”. Just like a jewelry necklace, the price will be driven by the type of the metal material and the weight of it. Here, you are not dealing with a typical cheap ofc wires, but rather 8 conductors, where in case of CB12 you have 4 pure copper and 4 SPC, and in case of CB13 you have 4 pure copper and 4 pure silver wires. Plus, CB13 cable is almost twice as thick, and almost twice as heavy, weighting 26g in comparison to 14g CB12, which is still very light. Doubling the price when going from CB12 to CB13 doesn’t necessary mean the same increase in sound performance. Instead, iBasso almost doubled the amount of material and substituted copper-silver alloy with a pure silver mono crystal wires.
CB12 vs CB13.
Because I get a chance to review many new C/IEMs and often asked about cable pair up and compatibility, I decided not to modify CB12 and CB13 connector housing so I can continue checking the compatibility with different mmcx based earphones down the road. My focus here is on IT03 hybrid IEMs, and Westone IEMs after I realized it has the same connector design with a shorter profile due to an extended housing mold. The testing was done using a few different DAPs to check for consistency, and in every case volume matched by ear since CB12/CB13 have lower impedance in comparison to a stock cable which going to result in higher volume.
IT03: OFC -> CB12 – more expansion in width/depth; signature is more balanced with sound being more coherent between DD and 2BAs; bass has more control with a touch less impact, lower mids are more neutral, upper mids/vocals are a little smoother, sounds more organic and not as shouty, and treble is a little smoother while retaining the same level of sparkle and airiness.
IT03: OFC -> CB13 – more expansion in width/depth; signature is more balanced with sound being more coherent between DD and 2BAs; bass has a deeper sub-bass rumble, tighter mid-bass impact and overall more control with a touch less impact, lower mids are more neutral, upper mids/vocals are still revealing and leaning more toward the brighter tonality, but they have more control, less grainy, with better layering and retrieval of details without sounding harsh; treble has more airiness and still the same level of sparkle.
IT03: CB12 -> CB13 – bass is more articulate and has a deeper sub-bass rumble, upper mids/vocals are a little more revealing and treble has a little more airiness; overall I feel the sound has a little more transparency.
As I already mentioned, I tried CB12/CB13 with many of my other mmcx IEMs and found majority of them being either not compatible or the connection being too tight due to the connector housing pushing on the shell socket. For example, you can still connect Campfire Audio iems by pushing hard to mate the connector, but I was afraid that connection will not be as secure. None of this is a show stopper if you just trim about 1-2mm off the edge of the connector housing, giving enough clearance to perfectly mate the connector with any IEM, but that requires some DIY skills and patience.
Westone shell connector sockets work with CB12/CB13 “as is” without any modification, and I was able to compare iBasso cable performance against the stock Epic ofc cable with W60 and UM Pro 50, of course volume matched in every case.
W60: Epic -> CB12 – wider staging, more rumble in sub-bass and bigger impact of mid-bass, while I find mid-bass now to be more controlled with less spillage into lower mids; also, a little brighter upper mids with more clarity and improved retrieval of details, and a little more sparkle in treble.
W60: Epic -> CB13 – a similar change in sound as I found with CB12 in terms of bass being more controlled, mids having improved clarity and retrieval of details, and more sparkle in treble, but one noticeable difference is bass being not as boosted and overall sound being more balanced.
UMPro50: Epic -> CB12 – wider staging, tighter and more balanced bass, a little more revealing mids, more treble sparkle; overall sound is more coherent, a bit less veiled and with a more balanced signature.
UMPro50: Epic -> CB13 – even wider staging than CB12, tighter, more controlled bass, less spillage into lower mids, more revealing upper mids, and more sparkle and airiness in treble.
I always suggest that cable upgrade is not an absolute necessity, but rather a final step in fine-tuning of your favorite IEM performance. IT03 already has an impressive sound and comes with a nice stock cable, but if you want to take it a few steps further – you have an option to upgrade the cable with either iBasso own or any other mmcx cable. Both cables look beautiful and have a solid high quality build. CB12 definitely has the best value among two, being priced at $89 for 8-conductor hybrid design with a balanced termination. CB13 price is steeper at $199, and as I mentioned before you won’t double the performance but rather double the cost due to a more premium material. I do hear an improvement in sound quality over a stock cable with both CB12 and CB13, but I’m afraid some people might argue that CB13 cable upgrade priced closer to IEM itself is not as practical. But also keep in mind that both cables pair up great with Westone iems and shouldn’t be dismissed as an upgrade to enhance the sound of those. Plus, a small DIY trim of the connector housing makes CB12 and CB13 a very attractive upgrade option for the rest of the mmcx based IEMs.