The Lowly Toslink

tmallin

WBF Technical Expert
May 19, 2010
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Chicagoland
Toslink is the Rodney Dangerfield of digital cables. It just can't get no respect.

It gets so little respect, in fact, that my cursory search of What's Best titles show only three articles with "Toslink" in the title. It's either assumed to be an also-ran (or worse) or it's just a yawner for most.

One of the three posts shows higher jitter figures for Toslink than for coax. One other does compare Toslink with some other types of cable connections. In this second post it does appear that the writer found the Toslink to be sonically superior to an adaptive mode USB connection. But that article appears to be outdated since in recent years most everyone has settled on asynchronous USB connections.

Thus, I thought I'd weigh in on the issue of Toslink quality and relate my subjective findings over many years of using USB, coax, and Toslink connections with a variety of digital sources and DACs. In short, I find the best Toslink connections to sound fully competitive with the best USB and coax digital connections I've been able to muster. If you favor a relaxed, easy sound over a hyper-detailed sound, Toslink may be your best choice.

First let me state that even with the most jitter-resistant modern DACs such as the Benchmark DAC-3 DX (with its Ultralock3 jitter attenuation system which allows practically instantaneous A/B switching between digital inputs) I'm currently using to drive my Janszen Valentina Active speakers, I find the choice of digital interface cable to be easily audible. Differences are apparent in seconds. Judgments as to whether a perceived difference is better or worse have taken me at most about an hour to determine, usually much less, on the order of a few minutes of comparative listening.

Next let me quickly mention that as much variability as there is between the sound resulting from various brands of digital coax and USB cables--and that variability is considerable--Toslink cables vary even more, probably an order of magnitude more. Some, even most Toslink cables sound (1) terribly colored (too dull, too bright/edgy, or too midrange projected), (2) add a gauzy veil over the sound, (3) add a smeary distortion of instrumental sounds (4) truncation of the sonic stage in terms of width and/or depth, or (5) smear image placement. I have owned many Toslink cables and have discarded most of them. These problems with most Toslink cables may well by why the genre can't get any respect.

However, the best Toslink cables in my experience--specifically, the Blue Jeans Cable Toslink made with the Mitsubishi Eska Plastic Optical Fiber--has none of these problems. It matches the best coax and USB digital interfaces I've heard in all of these areas. In addition, it brings to the table the following seemingly unique virtues: (1) a smoother high end devoid of blasty/blarey distortion on high-level high frequency transients; (2) a seemingly blacker background; (3) exemplary stable and precise soundstaging and imaging in all dimensions; (4) a larger soundstage than most other digital cables; (5) seemingly increased macro dynamic range; (6) exemplary micro-dynamic detail; and (7) exemplary clarity without the slightest bit of high frequency edge, grit, or grain.

In my present system, I have run A/B/C comparisons of the Blue Jeans Cable Toslink against coax and USB digital cables connecting a Squeezebox Touch (with the Enhanced Digital Output aftermarket software) running Tidal connected directly to the digital inputs of the Benchmark DAC3 DX, then to the Janszen Valentina Active speakers or to my Audeze LCD-4 headphones. The Squeezebox Touch is the only component I have which can output digital signals in USB, coax, and Toslink formats. I have tried this with only a single digital connection between the Squeezebox Touch and Benchmark, and with two or three simultaneous digital connections of the different types between the two components.

I have also done A/B/C comparisons of three different devices streaming Tidal to the Benchmark DAC. In this system I can stream Tidal directly from my EVS-modified Oppo BDP-105D (via coax or via HDMI through a Kanex DeEmbedder), from my iPhone via AirPlay to an Apple Airport Express connected to the Benchmark DAC using Toslink, or from the Squeezebox Touch connected by any or all three types of cable.

The coax used for such comparisons is either the Blue Jeans Cable Coax Digital or the Apogee WydeEye D/A, which are the two best-sounding digital coax cables I've found. The USB cable is the Oyaide NEO d+ Class A cable which I've found to handily best all other USB cables I've tried, including some very pricey pure silver cables from WireWorld.

For example, in comparison to the Oyaide NEO d+ Class A USB cable between the Squeezebox Touch and Benchmark DAC-3 DX, the Blue Jeans Toslink is equally resolving, but distinctly less bright. Heard on its own, the Oyaide USB connection sounds terrific. It matches the best coax digital connections from the Squeezebox to Benchmark. But there is no denying that the Blue Jeans Toslink has an easier, more relaxed, bit fuller sound without giving up any audible detail. Some may favor the subjective sound qualities of the USB or coax connections. But to my ears, by comparison, the USB and coax connections sound a bit etched and bright, if not actually fatiguing since they sound perfectly fine on their own. But switching to the Blue Jeans Toslink elicits from me a sigh of relief and instantly greater involvement with the music.

I can also say that, in my experience, the goodness of the Blue Jeans Cable Toslink cable manifests itself immediately but the cable does, like other cables, seem to sonically further improve over the space of a couple of days while it is connected and carrying signal. It also sounds yet better when this cable is the only digital connection between the source and the DAC. I speculate that that last finding may be because the galvanic isolation an optical fiber connection provides is best when there are no conductive signal grounds between the source and DAC, as there are when either a USB or coax digital cable connects source and DAC.

My subjective sonic conclusion is based not only on this one current system, but also years of comparing different digital interfaces in several other systems I've owned in the past and used in different rooms. These conclusions have remained stable for me over time. One can argue that I just haven't found the best cables, or that my comparisons aren't valid for various other reasons. Feel free to comment based on your own experience comparing such connections.


 
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