As a child, there was nothing more frustrating than opening a gift on a Christmas or birthday morning, only to find that the toy needed batteries and yes, you guessed it, these were not included. The adult, and yes I did just call myself an adult, version of this trauma is opening the box of a new audio interface only to find that the required cable or cables to link the unit to your computer are not included. In this article, I am going to look at the latest interface cable formats, how much they cost and where to get the best deal.
Branded Versus Generic
In my many searches for cables for my own studio and for this article, I have discovered there is one major choice one has to make. Do I go for a branded cable or do I go for a generic OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) equivalent?
It is a common misconception that Apple Inc owns the rights to Thunderbolt and hence sets the prices for licensing its technology to cable manufacturers. Although this was originally true, it is, in fact, Intel that owns the rights to Thunderbolt. This could be why we have seen the price of Thunderbolt cables fall, and Chinese OEM cable manufacturers making more cost-effective Thunderbolt cables. Look out for brands such as StarTech and Cable Matters in online stores such as Amazon. I have had plenty of cables from these companies and had no issues what so ever. If you do feel the need to buy a cable with a fruit logo on it, expect to pay a premium.
Thunderbolt 1 & 2
Thunderbolt types 1 and 2 share the same connector and cable type. I have to admit that I have not come across (but this is not me saying that they do not exist) a Thunderbolt 2 only audio interfaces. Most Thunderbolt 2 devices just don't get the throughput when connected to a TB1 port. Thunderbolt 1 has a sustained data rate of 10 Gbps and TB2 gives 20 Gbps. The bonus here is the cables are exactly the same.
Price And Length. A 50cm Thunderbolt cable from the Apple store will set you back £29. However, I found a 2m StarTech cable on Amazon for just £37.19. Sadly the longer Thunderbolt cables get the more the price goes up exponentially. A 3m StarTech cable, direct from the StarTech website will cost you £72.99, but the same cable from Amazon will cost you £52.97.
Copper Versus Optical. It would appear that 3m is the maximum length for copper Thunderbolt cables. If you want your gear further away then you are going to need an Optical version of the cable, Cha-ching. A 5.5m Optical Thunderbolt cable will set you back £145.62 from Amazon, while the 10m version will set you back an eye-watering £308.24. The moral of this story is keep your Thunderbolt devices close together or be prepared to pay for it.
Thunderbolt 3 - USB-C
I am not going to try to explain the difference between the Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C protocols. However, the cables that link both these formats are to all intents and purposes, the same.
Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum sustained data rate of 40 Gbps with cables of up to 50cm. This drops to 20 Gbps with cables of between 1m and 2m. USB Type C or USB 3.1 as it is also known, maxes out at 10 Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 also has the benefit of being able to handle more power hence Apple being able to use Thunderbolt 3 to charge the new series of MacBook Pros.
A hearty 'well done' should go to the team at Focusrite who offer a free 50cm TB3 cable with their new Red 16Line interface.
Price & Length. An 80cm Apple branded TB3 cable from the Apple Store will cost you £39. A 90cm Belkin cable (from Amazon) is a snip at £24.99. Thunderbolt 3 copper cables are limited to 2m. A StarTech 2m TB3 cable will cost you £36.99 direct from the StarTech website. I hope you are sitting down as a 10m TB3 Optical cable will set you back £237.59 inc taxes from UK high tech music resellers Jigsaw24.
USB 3.0 could be argued as a consumer format that has been hijacked by pro audio. I have been using these Amazon Basics cables for a while and had no issues what so ever. The sustained data transfer rate for USB 3 is 5 Gbps or if you'd rather, over 10 times faster than old-school USB 2.0. For some reason, many audio interface manufacturers are quoting lower supported track counts with USB 3.0 versus Thunderbolt 2. Now I know the data rates are vastly different but we are only talking about moving relatively small digital audio files around, not big hefty 1080 or 4K video.
Avid Mini DigiLink for Pro Tools HD, HDX, HD Native And HD Thunderbolt Native
Up until now, I have been talking about consumer cables, available from any computer store or online reseller. The Avid Mini DigiLink format is very much a proprietary format and not going to be available at your average high street computer store, you will need to turn to Avid or your local Avid dealer for this specialist cable. A single Mini DigiLink or DigiLink cable supports up to 32 channels of 192KHz audio so if your audio interface has 2 Mini DigiLink ports for up to 64 channels of I/O such as the new Focusrite Red series of the Antelope HD range then you are going to have to buy another cable as an Avid HDX card for example only ships with a single 12ft Mini DigiLink cable.
If you want to go longer your choices are somewhat limited. The MINI DigLink, new smaller style connector is ONLY available in 25ft (7.62m) and 50ft (15.2m), If you want the 100ft and 200ft versions you are first going to have to convert both ends to the older style DigiLink size of connector which is going to be expensive and these cable lengths are only supported for samples rates of up to 96KHz. So if you like to record and mix at super high samples rates, you are going to have to keep your I/O somewhere in the same building.
Another thing to remember with Mini DigiLink is that this is an audio-only protocol. Unlike both Thunderbolt and USB, the only data that is transmitted along a DigiLink or MINI DigiLink is audio in an "Avid" format. If you are using Avid interfaces this is fine but if you are using Focusrite Red or Antelope HD interfaces you are going to have to think about the control and setup connectivity (USB or Thunderbolt) as well as the Mini DigiLink cable. Let's save the "is there really a new for HDX" argument for another time.
With regard to pricing. The 12ft cables come in around £59 and the 25ft at £154 so again, not a format for the faint-hearted or tight of pocket. Although you can only get the DigiLink cables from Avid or an Avid dealer, it is worth showing around as the prices from different dealers can vary a bit. You might be able to get a deal on them when buying your interface.
The Best Of The Rest
I think you would agree that the two Thunderbolt and two USB formats cover most of the interface connectivity ground in 2018. But there are others that we forget at our peril.
Audio Over Internet Protocol. Be it Dante, AVB, Ravenna or any other network connected audio format you care to mention the connector, an RJ45 as it is known and cable type are the same and these are some of the most cost-effective cables you can buy. I found a site selling 5m Cat5E cables for £3.17 inc taxes going up to £21.12 for 50m. Audinate, the creators of Dante say the maximum cable length should be no more than 300m. Yes it should be said that the data rate of your Cat5E or Cat6 network is very much dependant on the other network traffic but the Dante protocol allows for hundreds of audio channels over a network so unless you are recording 192 channels at 192KHz while you download 20 streams of 4K video I'm sure you will be ok.
When you need to transmit high audio channel counts at high sample rates around complex systems MADI is often the answer allowing up to 192 channels of 24Bit 48KHz audio transmission. There are two formats for MADI, Optical and Coaxial.
MADI Optical. A 10ft or 3m MADI Optical cable (which is a pair of Optical lines) comes in around £17. A 6m about £23 jumping to £87 for 50m.
MADI Coaxial. The copper version of MADI terminates in a BNC type connector. Again this is 2 lines but this time is a 75 Ohm twisted braid around a solid core. Prices for MADI coax are very hard to come by but Van Damme who is a very well known cable brand do a single 3m BNC to BNC on 75 Ohm cable for just over £10, but remember, you will need 2 of them.
It's Not All Bad News
I might look like I have painted a pretty bleak picture with regard to having to rush out to your nearest computer or high-tech music store to shell out for cables before you can use your dream interface, but some manufacturers are stepping up and including even the expensive cables to get you up and running from the moment you open the box. Focusrite, in particular, is to be commended for including a Thunderbolt 3 cable (all be it a very short one) in with there new Red 16Line interface. Given the cost of this cables, this is truly going the extra mile to give the best possible out of the box experience. Now I'm not saying I think the blame lies totally at the door of the manufacturers. If you like me would rather buy your gear from a person at a reputable dealer, rather than from a box shifting website then there is a fair chance that you are going to be offered not only the correct cable but also offered it in the length you need for your studio set-up. So check out what comes with the unit, if anything, and then remember to order what you need at the same time. But whether you buy from a dealer or online make sure to measure what cable length you are going to need between your peripherals and your computer so that you don't sell yourself short.