OK, it’s a long read ahead but I promise to keep this fairly simple at a technical level. [Unlike the Klingon used by many of the audio cable manufacturers (Interconnects, Speaker Cables, Power Cords, etc), as they attempt to outdo each other by making wild and unsubstantiated claims about how string-theory applies to copper wire etc.]
First off, let me make it very clear:
- I do NOT fall into the ‘naysayer’ camp of audiophiles who claim that all cables sound the same.
- I AM NOT in the camp of audiophiles who claim that expensive cables, by definition, must sound better than cheaper cables since they are more expensive.
To make things clear I’ll present my conclusions now, at the start of this article, then show you quite simply how I’ve arrived at them.
Conclusion #1 – A cable’s electrical properties can be measured. In doing so we find there are a number of significant differences between different cables designed to do the same job. These measurable differences in the electrical properties of cables can be correlated directly to the differences we hear in the sonic profiles of cables. [more later]
Therefore measurable differences in the electrical properties of audio cables can and do affect how the music sounds and in a predictable way.
Conclusion #2 – Since each Interconnecting cable has its own set of electrical properties that impact the passage of signal, they should be considered to be an actual component of a three-component ‘electrical system’. An example of a 3-component electrical system in this context is a preamp and power amp with an interconnecting cable. All cables, even inexpensive ones, have a unique combination of electrical properties. Changing a cable to one involving different design parameters, materials, construction methods, etc, will introduce a new set of electrical properties into the system and we would therefore expect the resultant sound of the system to change. The new cable’s properties may act sympathetically with the remaining components, or not. Therefore the resultant sound might be better, or not. Since acting ‘sympathetically’ in this context is entirely subjective, it is impossible to predict the outcome based on the cost of the cable. In some sense, it’s almost a case of rolling the dice and hoping for a set of electrical properties to appear that sound good. Like rolling five sixes.
Therefore cost has no bearing on how a cable will ‘sound’. (assuming the requisite level of competence in design and construction).
So, I’m of the opinion that audio cables can and do affect the sound that we hear in our systems, but paying more for wires does not guarantee that the sound in YOUR system will be better than the sound you could obtain from using far less expensive cables; and in this article, I’ll set out to try to prove this point conclusively.
How And Why Cables Sound Different and How We Draw Conclusions on Which Cable Sounds ‘Better’
Let me unpack that heading a little more and lay down a couple of simple but necessary provisos. Firstly, you can hear the difference in cables in audio playback systems which are not quite so resolving of detail. You can generally hear MORE OF THE DIFFERENCE between cables in a more resolving system. This is basic common sense.
Secondly, the differences we hear when evaluating any cables or components need to be analyzed both objectively and subjectively for them to be fully understood and appreciated. Generally, when we listen to different cables or different components, we make our initial decisions on how they compare using primarily subjective reasoning. “That one just sounds better to my ears”, for example. Over more prolonged listening we start to introduce the element of objectivity into our reasoning and decision making. This can result in a cascade of different observations relating to the overall perceived “quality” of one cable/component versus another, which will often produce conflicts and contradictions in what we think about what we are hearing and what we think might be construed as better or worse.
So we have an initial gut reaction, then, given more time, we begin a deeper more thoughtful analysis.
Confused? Ok, here’s a practical example:
A few years ago I ran a large horn system with some fairly competent gear. An Audio Aero Capitole MK II CD player fronted the digital end, preamps included none (going directly from the Capitole CD player), using a well respected Aesthetic Calypso, etc, and power amps ranged from 2A3 monoblocks from Cary and Navison Audio to digital amps from Tact and Lyngdorf.
My speaker cables of choice came to be a set of Virtual Dynamics Nite II’s. These retailed for around $2400 and were unusual in their design due to the use of permanent magnets in the signal path. They sounded clear, detailed, dynamic, and opened up a nice big soundstage.
Somewhere along the road, I became aware of Paul Speltz and his ‘Anti-cables’. These were/are quite a cheap magnet wire with a thin lacquer coating and could be had for around $100 a pair, terminated. So I took out the VD Nite IIs and tried the Anti Cables. My initial subjective response was “Oh my giddy aunt, these are so warm and smooth and musical!”.
At that instant, subjectively, in my mind, using my reason-making filters, the Anti Cables were better than the VD Nite II (and for a lot less coin).
Extended listening began and a more critical ear (objective reasoning) was turned toward the noise they were making:
- Warmer, yes but with a little obfuscation of top-end air and sparkle.
- Extended bass but a little less defined and articulate than with the VD Nite II.
- A nice full sound with a little midrange peak but less air and space around performers.
But oh how nice they sounded, just so much more pleasant than the rather forward sounding Nite II. Which cable I chose to live with is irrelevant to you, as I’ll demonstrate, so I don’t need to mention it here.
So that’s basically how most of us form opinions, not just about audio cables but about most things we encounter in life that are experientially new to us. A subjective gut instinct followed by a longer more objective analysis that almost always throws us a curveball due to the many contradictions and mental conflicts we encounter as we attempt to break subjective conclusions apart with objective analysis.
Anyway, it can be demonstrated to most of us that audio cables can and do sound different to one another (they don’t always) so we need to get over that hurdle quickly and move on.
Why Higher Cable Cost Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better Audible Performance
The next consideration to deal with is that of cost. Here we’ll look at things just a little more technically to help you understand why cheap cables can easily outperform more expensive cables in YOUR system.
Let’s approach this via a circuitous route, by posing two questions: “Why do manufacturers go to such great lengths to make their exotic cables if you’re saying they can be outperformed by cheap cables, and why does anyone buy them?”
The answer isn’t so simple. There are legitimate reasons to consider and I’ll list a couple of those below. The remaining rationale I’m afraid to say can be found at the confluence of a smoke and mirror approach to marketing by unscrupulous manufacturers (the trade press also), and the somewhat gullible* nature of some of us who own quality audio systems.
* I thought about a different choice of adjective since ‘gullible’ is perhaps a little unfair. Substitute ‘non-technical’ if you won’t admit to being gullible, it’s all good. You can also roll into the equation things like male pride and ego, bragging rights, and the concept of keeping up with the Joneses (or the rest of your peer group in this case).
So, why do we buy expensive audio cables?
- People want new things to buy and that drives people to create new things to sell. But not everyone wants their chair to have the same square legs as other chairs, so there’s a consumer-driven need to create more choice and these choices must be available at different price points to satisfy the buying market from its low end all the way up to the top. [True]
- It’s important to use quality cables in a high-end audio system because they pass important low-level signals [True]
- The perception created mostly by the audio press is that of ‘cables are components’ [True] so as much time, energy, and money should be poured into cable selection as with any other active component. [False]
- Using exotic components and esoteric manufacturing techniques to build audio cables means that more of the precious low-level signal will get from point A to point B unmolested. Obviously these exotic cables come at a cost, but it’s worth it given the investment you already have in your system. [False, mostly]
OK, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Before I do that, a simple disclaimer is necessary:
There are right ways and wrong ways to approach cable design and construction. There are good materials one can choose and there are poor materials. In everything I say in this article about inexpensive cables competing favorably with more expensive and exotic designs, I’m assuming that there’s a requisite level of competence that has gone into the design and build of said cheap cables. Yes, some cheap cables are dreadful, it’s because they’ve been improperly designed and/or constructed for their intended application. So you can come up with a lot of examples of cables that just sound like crap, but for the sake of our sanity, let’s just give thoughtful consideration to the performance of cables that have been well designed and built.
What are the properties that have an effect on the sound of a cable?
Let’s keep it relatively simple and think in terms of an active preamp connected to a solid-state stereo power amp by a pair of RCA Interconnects. (It could be any two components, the principal is the same).
In the minds of the uninitiated, a cable is just a conduit between two active components and it isn’t expected that it should alter the sound in any way, how could it? Well, we’ve determined that cables have measurable electrical properties and are, therefore ‘active’ in how they affect the final sound that we hear through the speakers.
So how is a cable not ‘passive’ in a circuit, as some would expect, and what is it about the cable that makes it an ‘active’ component in handling the signal flow, when it isn’t actually powered by anything?
Well in actual fact, it is powered – it is powered by the signal flowing through it which interacts electrically with the cable which is carrying it. The result of the interaction changes the electrical properties of the actual flowing signal hence it has some impact on what we finally get to hear. You could say in a roundabout way that the sum total of all the different electrical interactions between cable and signal equals the characteristic property of the cable.
If we can’t measure these interactions then they don’t exist, right? Yes. But we can and do measure them. So what are they?
Cable Impedance (Ohms) – Think about impedance in the literal sense if it makes it easier. It’s the physical barrier that impedes the flow of current in the cable. At lower frequencies, it’s down mostly to the resistive property of the actual wire. At higher (audio) frequencies, other properties of the cable come into play such as the insulation material and its thickness. (the term we use for this is the insulation dielectric, which has an electrical value measured generally in picofarads.
So at audio frequencies, the signal passing through the conductor interacts with the conductor insulation, and the properties of the insulation make a difference to this interaction – hence it matters what the insulation is and its physical relationship (distance) to the signal carrying conductor.
Hence the impedance value of the cable as a whole is affected by different kinds of interaction between signal and cable (including jacket) and is also affected by the type of signal passing through it.
Capacitance (microfarads or picofarads) – occurs between pairs of conductors and also between individual current-carrying conductors and their insulation.
How can the cable insulation act as a capacitor? Quite simply, all insulators have the capacity to be electrically charged. Insulation is charged by the alternating form of the signal passing through the conductor and when the signal is removed the insulation releases its charge back into the signal carrying conductor, just like a capacitor. The properties of the insulation (material type(s) and its thickness) determine to what extent it will absorb a charge and how this charge will be stored and released. So every cable has the capacity to hold a charge within itself and it is a measurable property, usually measured in picofarads and termed “dielectric losses” or “dielectric absorption”.
Since it takes time for the cable insulation to reach its charged state, and then for it to discharge, this time-lapse effectively interferes with the signal being transmitted through the main conductor. We can measure this effect by sending digital square wave data pulses through the conductor and looking at the pulses as they come out from the conductor. Pulses passed through a cable with high capacitance come out of the cable looking more like a “saw-tooth” waveform, rather than their square wave inputs. The peak amplitudes of the wave are lowered as energy has been taken from the signal to charge the insulation. The additional ‘peaks’ as shown by the saw-tooth waveform are created when the insulation discharges voltage back into the signal. The distance between peaks in this sawtooth waveform is a time value, SO: we can create an audibly noticeable effect where:
- As it is passing through the wire, a piece of the original signal is removed and held in storage by the insulation.
- At some later interval, the stored signal is discharged back into the passing source signal.
- Since the section of source signal from which the stored signal was removed has now passed through the wire, the stored portion of the signal is released back into a part of the signal where it doesn’t naturally belong. Obviously, this is all linked to the signal frequency and happens very quickly in the time domain, but still:
– You’ve heard the term ‘smearing’ and ‘muddy sounding’ as attributes of the sounds of cables, right? Now you know how these effects are caused. One take away given the above is that the lower the capacitance of the cable, the better it performs (audibly) at higher frequencies.
“Skin Effect” – This is likely the least understood of the anomalies surrounding cable properties and it’s undoubtedly audible. Skin effect is a fairly complex phenomenon and I’m not going to get into it here in any detail, so go ahead and Google it if you need to learn more. Basically, the different frequencies of an alternating signal pass through different layers of a conductor with higher frequencies tending generally to flow mostly near the outside surface of the conductor. So the higher frequencies of the signal are pushed away from the center and towards the surface which has the unwanted consequence of increasing the effective resistance of the conductor since less conductive material is available for the passage of signal. It also places higher frequencies in closer physical proximity to the conductor insulation so the capacitive effect on higher frequencies is different than those with lower frequencies. The audible manifestation in a cable designed without due consideration to skin effect might by an excessive brightness or hardness in the upper frequencies.
RFI/EMI – The environment into which the cable is placed wrt Radio Frequency Interference and Electro-magnetic radiation.
I’m totally lost..
Just to help you pull all this together into a useful format, just visualize two contrasting styles of speaker cable for a moment. Think about something fat and chunky with thick hosepipe-style insulation and a heavy-duty high-current stranded conductor. Got it? Now, think about a small gauge conductor with very thin insulation that you could literally scratch off with your fingernail, as with the lacquer coating on the solid-core small-gauge magnet wire in Speltz’s ‘Anti-Cables’, for example. Now think about what we’ve said above – impedance and how it’s affected by conductor diameter; capacitance and its relationship to the cable insulator; skin effect and how that relates to conductor diameter and the interplay between the higher frequency signal’s proximity to the insulation (dielectric).
Clearly the two different approaches to cable design (thick conductor, heavy-duty insulation vs small conductor, almost no insulation) are going to have two distinctly different sets of electrical properties interacting with the audio signal, and each is going to impact the sound differently, at some level.
So we have a cable with some electrical values stated by the manufacturer, and we now understand how all of this works, so we can now calculate how a cable will sound, right?
Not so fast!
Remember how we said that the cable is an active component in a 3-component electrical system? Well, how a specific cable affects the overall sound will depend not just on the cable itself but what feeds into it and what the cable feeds into. Thus considering our example with the pair of RCA cables between a preamp and power amp: the way the cable affects the sound of the system as a whole will depend not on the cable itself, but on at least three important things, two of which have nothing to do with the cable itself:
- The electrical properties of the preamp output (its output impedance*)
- The electrical properties of the cable (all the measurable values we’ve talked about above)
- The electrical properties of the power amp (its input impedance*)
[*The preamp is an active component and has an output impedance which is basically the total impedance of its internal circuitry as it appears at its output. The power amplifier has an input impedance at its input terminals which is also basically the total impedance of its internal circuitry as it appears at the input. Audio equipment with phono connectors usually works on what is termed the voltage matching concept, where a very low output impedance is designed to be present at the source (preamp in this case) and a much higher input impedance at the power amp. A basic rule of thumb in audio circuit design is that the output impedance of the preamp should be at least 10 times lower than the input impedance of the power amp].
So what we have with our trio of active components is an isolated electrical ‘system’ where the preamp and power amp interact with the cable connecting them together and the cable itself has active properties that impact the electrical system as a whole.
Has anyone figured out the practical problem in all of this, yet?
The problem is – “How the hell are we supposed to know what cable has the requisite electrical properties that are going to work sympathetically with the two active components it is connecting together?” [By ‘sympathetically’, we basically mean that the compound effect should sound good to our ears!]
The answer is, we don’t.
We think we know certain things about the cable that are desirable elements in its design and construction.
For example, we think, generally, that a lower capacitance cable is going to be better for us. That might lead us to choose a cable designed with a low dielectric constant insulator, such as Teflon. Since capacitance is effected by cable length we try to keep it ‘as short as possible’.
We think, generally, that a lower resistance cable conductor is going to make our cable sound better than something with higher resistance and impedance. So we select oxygen-free copper or five 9’s silver as a conductor and we pay attention to the cable’s length, its gauge, hence, its overall impedance.
But they’re just a few of the basic electrical properties in a complex electrical system. We can’t possibly know how every cable will perform in areas such as skin-effect when passing an alternating audio signal. What about EMI/RFI susceptibility in our Teflon insulated silver wire with no external shielding? There are just too many unknown variables that are fed into our equation with too few electrical constants.
The end result is that we CAN perform due diligence when selecting our cables by looking at their electrical properties, reading the subjective reviews of others using the cable in a completely different system, paying much more than makes any sense, in the hope that more money equates to better performance, etc, but all we can do from there is to simply hope for the best.
Fortunately, if our new $2000 cable sounds like crap, all is not lost. Remember, cables need time to break-in. Even if you move them a little they need some time to ‘settle’ before they’ll perform at their best. What that really means is that you’re giving your ears and your brain time to adapt to the specifics of your new noise. I have a frequent problem with ear wax and recall a few years back walking around for weeks and weeks with an excessive build-up of wax in both ears. I knew they needed irrigation but I was too busy or too lazy to deal with it. Plus, I could hear fine, mostly, so long as I turned the volume up a couple of notches. When I finally got the wax removed I immediately thought my ears had been irreparably damaged by the procedure. All I could hear walking out from the Doctor’s office was high-frequency noise. Everything was loud and screechy and just unbearably high-pitched just walking around, so obviously my system sounded horrible…where was the bass…where was the midrange?…it was all high frequency.
Over the course of a few days, my ‘normal’ hearing came back and harmony was restored. I realized some time later that my brain had compensated for the filtering of high-frequency information caused by the slow build-up of ear wax. The wax was acting like a variable crossover, slowly filtering out certain frequencies, while my brain was acting like the tone controls on a cheap receiver; slowly turning up the treble to maintain balance. Getting the wax flushed in an instant…well my brain just needed some time to rewire its crossover.
What I’m getting at with my little anecdote is that the break-in period is more about giving our auditory systems time to adapt to a specific sound than it is about aligning things at a sub-atomic level for a more efficient signal passage, as we’re lead to believe. I’m not saying that break-in doesn’t exist, just that the likelihood of it being a transformative experience is low. A good way to manage the concept of break-in is to simply avoid listening to the system while new cables/components are being ‘cooked’, that way when you do finally begin the evaluation process, you can’t hide behind lack of play-time as the reason for the harsh sound of your expensive new cables.
Back to the point: So, what happens when we pick our cable from the many available, and the combination of all of its electrical properties when added into our system, makes the overall sound worse than when using the cheaper cable it replaced? The answer is simple. If it sounds bad it is bad. Not that it’s a ‘bad’ cable, just that it doesn’t work well in your system. So get rid of it.
Remember, we’ve already suggested that the sum total of all the different electrical interactions between cable and signal equals the characteristic property of the cable. and that the impact on sound will be dependent on not just the cable, but how the cable interacts with what feeds into it and what it feeds into.
Cable Performance Conclusion.
The main points that should be staring you in the face right now are that you cannot predict audible performance by studying the electrical specifications of a cable. You can’t even safely dismiss a cable using unconventional materials or design concepts as being audibly inferior without first trying it in your system.
The only way to know for certain which audio cable sounds good and which does not is to try it.
Cable Cost Conclusion – High versus Low.
EXPENSIVE CABLE – With an expensive audio cable, let’s say one that costs $1000+ for a pair of single-ended interconnects: the sum total of all the different electrical interactions between cable and signal equals the characteristic property of the cable.
Whether that cable’s specific characteristic property works sympathetically between two of your components, in your system, as judged by your ears, using your brain’s capacity for objective and subjective observation and your brain’s ability to decide categorically and decisively whether something “sounds good”, is impossible to determine from specifications alone, you must listen to it in order to decide.
INEXPENSIVE CABLE – With an inexpensive audio cable, let’s say one that costs $100 or less for a pair of single-ended interconnects: the sum total of all the different electrical interactions between cable and signal equals the characteristic property of the cable. Whether that cable’s specific characteristic property works sympathetically between two of your components, in your system, as judged by your ears, using your brain’s capacity for objective and subjective observation and your brain’s ability to decide categorically and decisively whether something “sounds good”, is impossible to determine from specifications alone, you must listen to it in order to decide.
Taking all this to its fullest logical conclusion – you can’t judge a cable by its specification or design concepts and there’s absolutely no logical reason why a cheap cable won’t better the sound of an expensive cable when placed between two components in your system.
My recommendation to anyone considering the purchase of audio cables would be to obtain a set of high-end cables that are at the ceiling of your budget, cables that come with a good 30-day return policy, and obtain a half dozen or so inexpensive cables with a good return policy. Then listen to them all in as controlled and critical a way as possible. Then simply keep the ones that sound the best in your system, to your ears, using your…..
Oh, and get your ears cleaned.