With seemingly everything going wireless these days, what’s the point of cables when it comes to portable devices and audio? While it’s true that AirPlay and other technologies have gone a long way toward reducing the need to physically connect an iDevice or other gadget to an audio system, the vast majority of systems currently in homes (and cars) still depend on a physical connection. So, if you want to plug your iPhone, iPad, smartphone or MP3 player into a stereo to pump out the jams, it makes sense to have cables handy. But how many cables do you need? RAM electronics tries to distill it down to one, with its Hydra universal cable.
When you first lay eyes on the Hydra (described in product literature as “the six headed monster of an MP3 cable”), it may look a little unwieldy. The last speaker dock you bought likely came with a slim little 3.5mm mini plug cable that would let you bypass the dock and hook up a portable device via an auxiliary jack to headphone jack connection. The Hydra isn’t that slim little cable, although it does have the necessary components to accomplish that same auxiliary to headphone jack connection. The Hydra includes much more though, which is why the manufacturer also refers to it as a “Swiss Army Knife” of a cable. Hanging off the input end of this cable is the 3.5mm mini plug, plus an iDevice (iPod, iPad, iPhone) docking connector; at the other end are another 3.5mm mini plug, a pair of RCA jacks and a USB connector.
When you have an iOS device that you want to plug into a home or car stereo or an iPod dock, the best sound possible is achieved by connecting through the iOS device’s docking connector — this results in less distortion and improved frequency levels compared to using the headphone jack. On the other side of the equation, better results are achieved by using dual RCA plugs, where available. And where neither of those options can be used, the Hydra still has the 3.5mm mini plugs to fall back on, albeit high quality, gold-plated versions. I experimented with using the old standby mini connector (via headphone jack) to hook my iPad into a B&W Zeppelin that’s made for the iPod/iPhone form factor, then compared that to the results of using the Hydra’s dock connector instead and there is a noticeable improvement in sound quality. Would it make sense for my tween daughter to invest in one of these cables for plugging an iPod into her $75 speaker dock? Probably not. For anyone who’s invested in decent audio equipment or frequently hooks various portable devices (or computers) to external stereos, it probably does.
While I’m not the kind of guy who would throw down $7,000 for 12 feet of speaker wire, I do appreciate that there can be a difference between the freebies manufacturers tuck in with their devices (or the two dollar ones you can pick up on Amazon) and premium versions. I think the $42.99 that RAM is charging for the Hydra falls within the reasonable camp, at least for people who take their music seriously — in terms of versatility, if for no other reason. You can see the full specs on the website, but features include gold plated mini connectors, techflex jacket (so it’s not going to crack like cheaper plastic cable covering can) and heavy gauge silver plated conductors. Given that this cable can also be used as a backup sync/charging cable for your iOS device (something Apple will charge you $19 for as a standalone cable), it’s definitely not out of the ballpark cost-wise. The Hydra is also made in the USA, something you don’t see very often.
Don’t worry if the Hydra isn’t quite as svelte as the freebie 3.5mm cables that came with your dock — this one cable replaces a handful of others and RAM ships it in a neat little cloth bag for easy storage.
The one thing I would have liked to see is a TOSLINK (or optical) connection, but that would likely have driven the price up and, as RAM points out, on most home stereos, it’s the auxiliary connection (which is almost never optical) which is typically unused and available to plug in to.
Wired: One cable covers pretty much any portable (especially iDevice) to stereo audio need; high quality construction; using the iDevice docking connector vs. headphone jack yields superior sound; doubles as an iDevice charging/sync cable.
Tired: $42.99 isn’t cheap for a cable (especially when many dock manufacturers throw in a 3.5mm mini plug cable for free); the Hydra is significantly bulkier than that free mini plug cable.
Disclosure: RAM Electronics provided a Hydra cable for review purposes.