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Have You Heard Exotic Cables Improve Sound Quality?

The effect of cables on sound quality is one of the most contentious debates in all of audiophilia that applies most commonly to analog cables. Manufacturers make extravagant claims about how different cable materials and geometries affect the sound—and they charge extravagant prices for these innovations.

One can measure things like impedance, capacitance, inductance, and other electrical properties of cables, but if two different cables exhibit the same measurement results, will they necessarily sound the same? Or might there be unknown—and thus unmeasured—properties that affect the sound?

Of course, most audiophiles don't have access to sophisticated measuring equipment, so they must rely on their own ears to determine if different cables make a difference to the sound for them. Swapping cables in and out of a system is a huge hassle, but many have done it to see if they can hear any differences. Have you heard exotic/expensive cables improve the sound quality of an audio system?

Vote to see the results and leave a comment explaining your choice.

Have You Heard Exotic Cables Improve Sound Quality?
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COMMENTS
Jarod's picture

The only time I could hear a difference was when I changed out a small gauge speaker wire for a larger gauge; 18 gauge to 14. I have experimented with many hi-end cables over the year but have never heard iron clad proof of one being superior over an other.

uavkelsci's picture

Hi Jarod; You would most certainly hear a difference between and 18 and 14 gauge cable. When I have tried heavier duty cable like 16 gauge, I would start to get a much fuller sound. However the "fuller sound" to me seemed to be as if I had turned up a bass tone control on an amp or receiver. I felt the 18 gauge wire was more neutral. Going the other way, 20 gauge or higher gauge wire did not cut the mustard in audio quality for me at all.

This also reminded me that I heard the same kind of phenomena between a speaker rated 8 ohms and one rated 4 ohms. I discovered that I could use a ohm meter to measure what is called the dc resistance. Just because a speaker is labeled 8 ohms does not IMHO make it an 8 ohm speaker. I had a Boston Acoustics A40 years ago rated at 8 ohms and measured 4 ohms on my meter. The speaker had the sound of a 4 ohm speaker and I wrote to Boston on this fact because I considered it mislabling. They replied "well it really is 6 ohms". It you attached this speaker to a amp or receiver that could not handle 4 ohm impedance you could have troubles. When I use a dc resistance speaker measured from 6-8 ohms, the bass is ususally tighter than a dc resistance 4 ohm counterpart and the sound is "cleaner".

In fooling with passive surround circuits some years back, I could only get them to work properly with 18 gauge wire. 16 gauge collapsed the sound field into the center of a room. 20 or more gauge wire just did not cause the passive circuit to sound and work properly.

Audio_Geek_00's picture

I went to a cable demo a number of years ago given by AudioQuest at a dealer in Oakland California. Surprisingly the represenitive from AudioQuest used the CD player in a modified boombox that had detachable speakers. They had removed a portion of the back to get access to the PC board and soldered 2 one foot lengths of speaker cable with banana jacks as an interface so they could attach their different cable lines to the speaker outputs easily. They used a pair of Dunlavy SCII's as the speakers and a track off of Rebecca Pidgeon's Spanish Harlem. The rep then started of with the lowest priced speaker cable and worked his way through to the highest cost cable. I have to say that I was fairly amazed at the differences I heard through the first 3-4 cable lines. The diminishing returns corresponded with the higher priced model. Some differences were improvements in some aspects and some differences were just "different". Listening conditions were less than ideal so it was hard to get an impirical value relative to what I heard but it was interesting.
System synergy cannot be achieved by cables alone but I have been able to improve certain aspects with cable changes. Just because you can't measure it doesn't mean something is not happening. We just don't know how to quantify it yet.

uavkelsci's picture

First I will comment on speaker cables. My brother had some Kimber silver speaker cables. 4 of them were entwined coming to one point. As against standard 16 gauge and 18 gauge wire that I use, there was no question that the Kimbers carried far more signal but they carried too much of a signal for the satellites that I use. In fact, I was able to detach one of the 4 cables and use it singularly and the signal was still too strong for my speakers. I liked the sound quality from my regular 18 guage wire better because it sounded correct.

Lets look at 4- 18 gauge whole wire strands. Two you combine together for pos and the other two for negative. There is always some resistance that a wire will have. Two strands are now in parallel and as such their resistance has to be lower under the ohms law equation R1R2/R1+R2. When doing this kind of experiement I did not like the sound quality I heard from using a store bought 18 gauge wire with two strands(pos and neg).

As far as a digital coaxial cable goes, I purchased a THX monster cable which was probably the lower end of this product. It produced alright sound but not as good as a 12 foot 75 0hm coaxial I bought at a store for a few bucks that I currently use which IMHO sounds great.

I had a number of 75 0hm cables around and placed adapters(75 ohm to rca plug)on each end. Most gave atrocius audio quality carrying a 5.1 signal from my dvd player. It is funny but when I used them as video cables for video purposes they all seemed ok. One thing of note too that if one has noticed on Monster cables is that they have arrows pointing to the directionality you should hook up the cables. By all means follow the arrows. The one good thing is that Monster seems to aware of something I would call "wire polarity". Placed the wrong way it could cause your sound to be "out of phase". In fact when I tested 75 0hm cables, I could hear this factor and always marked the cables after I tested them for polarity in the same way as Monster.

I also went into a tirade of cables for my subwoofer. Again the polarity factor was a big thingy here too. What did not cut the mustard was any kind of 75 0hm coax cable as a sub cable. I tried a host of audio cables of which one IMHO worked the best by giving me the sound that I thought the sub should give. Surpisingly it was some kind of Radio Shack audio cable that I bought so many years ago. It beat out cables that I bought that were so called "sub cables". So what I am saying here is that if one's sub is not playing the way you think it should the cause could be the sub cable you are using. Playing "Mr. Wizard though is not an easy thing to do.

Seth G.'s picture

I've heard differences in some cases quite dramatic between a cable I was using and one I had borrowed to try out first, though the difference wasn't always a positive one, and not knowing in those cases if there was a large variation in core electrical properties resulting in a sever mismatch that might be changing the way the equipment "sees" and behaves with eachother.

Though as my system has evolved over the years the differences have become more noticeable what used to be more subtle is now somewhat more pronounced. Now wether my ears are settling around a sound I like/enjoy I couldn't tell you... though that is a possibility... or my critical listening skills have improved as well ( or at least I'd like to think :) )

I have a graveyard of cables I've purchased over the years as my system has changed from Kimber to Audioquest to Nordost, but the cables that I keep coming back to in my system for the past 6 years are Cardas. I'm happy to support them for many reasons. I haven't felt a need to try something else. I like that from beginning to end right down to the metal Cardas does it all. And I'm happy I was able to support a company still making everything from end to end here in the USA - thats becoming an increasingly rare thing these days unfortunately.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

You make some good points here. Some of the factors you list (acoustics, the listener's hearing acuity and training, system components) do make a difference. In fact, the results of a controlled ABX double-blind listening test reveal more about the listeners than they do about the cables. For example, at T.H.E. Show at CES a few years ago, Wall Street Journal author Lee Gomes conducted a non-rigorous blind test between Monster Sigma Retro Gold speaker cables ($2000 for an 8-foot pair) and 14-gauge hardware-store wire. Stereophile's John Atkinson and Michael Fremer were able to reliably differentiate between them, but the statistical result from the entire listening pool (39 listeners) was only slightly better than chance (61 percent identified the Monster cable as sounding better). Also, Atkinson said the Monster cables sounded only about 5 percent better.

For more on this, see my blog here:

http://www.ultimateavmag.com/content/paranormal-cables

uavK.Reid's picture

I seem to recall a robust response to the review of Nordost's flagship cable some time ago. Many moons ago, I wondered into Overture Audio/Video in Wilmington, Delaware, walked into a room housing the Avalon Acoustics Osiris speaker and Transparent Cable. The demo was impressive, but I was not able to make any A/B comparisons with other high end speaker cables. Recently in my own system I swapped my two year old Tara Labs RSC Prime speaker cable for some high end Tributaries silver-coated copper wire. Subjectively, I can say that I hear a slight increase of resolution with the Tributaries cable especially in the midrange and high frequencies. The difference is most prominent with acoustic jazz especially tracks with piano. This perceived increase in resolution made me think what differences I might hear if I splurged and purchased solid silver speaker cables. Then, upon reflection I thought that maybe it is not so much ultra high end cables as it is the complete A/V system. One could have high end cables but if the speakers, amplifier, preamp are not ultra high end quality, one could posit that there would be no real benefit. Would a reasonable person use Nordost Odin to connect Paradigm Atoms to a Sherwood A/V Receiver? Likely not. This debate will likely continue unless a controlled experiment is conducted with true A/B comparisons. I know I have only scratched the surface, but other factors to consider are room acoustics, age, trained/untrained listeners, biwire/non-biwire, etc.

tnbarlow's picture

a change of speakers will make a noticeable difference faster than changing the speaker wire. the reason someone would increase the gage is to increase the run in the install. but since gold and silver have less resistance then you could use the smaller gage for the same longer runs. you increase the gage to counter-act voltage drop. now shielding the wire is more important than the material. since induction and RF interference can affect the final output(sound) more attention should be given to this aspect then material. i have been to many different "demos" but they all have the same problem; they are trying to sell you something so they try to find a way to make it appear they are being non-biased but they are stacking the game in their favor.

Jarod's picture

Great info!

uavkelsci's picture

Hi Scott; I have read reports about flucuating speaker impedance when power is applied to a speaker. I must however stand by my findings. I have taken apart a speaker cone from a speaker and noticed the wire wrapped around I believe what you call the voice coil or in essence the wire is the voice coil. When one measures each end of the wire I would get the same reading as if the cone were still attached to the speaker. So this wire is the DC resistance.

Fooling with passive surround circuits can tell you alot. The DC resistance was the criteria along with the 18 guage wire to also determine whether a speaker was to work properly. If a speaker fell below the DC resistance that I determined was needed, my passive circuit would not work properly much the same as using 16 or 20 gauge wire.

Now here is an interesing "thingy". I had tried a few varieties of center channel speakers. Some years back I had opened up a Garrard D'Appolito design which came as a pair. I noticed that the two 4 inch woofers used were rated 12 ohms and were wired in parallel giving 6 ohms impedance. I thought that all center channels used higher impedance speakers wired in parallel. I had purchased two other center channel speakers for another system. Both measured 8 ohms on the ohmeter. When I opened these unit up I found they were two 4 ohm speakers wired in series. In setting my center channel sound against the aatellites and sub I felt that the Garrad unit correctly phased into the other speakers. The other two units sounded sort of out of phase. Looking at the series wiring reminded me wiring two small 8 ohm speakers in series for passive surround circuitry. Although they worked(the series units) I felt they did throw the system somewhat out of phase. I wonder how many big and small named center channel speakers are made the parallel way or the series way. I would hate to think that if I bought a high priced center channel unit that was wired in series I would be getting the royal screwing. I do think that the series center channel would have a use as an EX-ES sixth channel but it is a theory and I do not have access to try a experiment along those lines.

Jarod's picture

Cool. Interesting stuff.

Scott Wilkinson's picture
Measuring DC resistance doesn't tell you much about a speaker's impedance, which is its resistance to alternating current, such as an audio signal. Also, a speaker's impedance changes with frequency, so a single number doesn't tell the whole story by any means. Complete speaker specs include the nominal impedance and the minimum impedance.
Tom Norton's picture

Two thoughts about the structure of the question and the responses offered. First, what is the definition of "exotic" cables, and second, how do you bridge the gap between a small difference and a big one.

Yes, I've heard differences between cables, most often with analog speaker cables and interconnects. I would refer to many of the differences I've heard as significant, without being earth shattering. The skies did not open up. Celestial choirs did not sing. But the systems involved did become more fun to listen to.

Many of the cables in the above comparisons fell far short of what I would call exotic. Certainly they were more sophisticated than Home Depot specials, but nevertheless not obscenely priced. And the associated components weren't always super-sophisticated, either. The cables I routinely use today are ones I've relied on for over 10 years—despite hype to the contrary, there have been no breakthroughs in our understanding of audio-frequency cables, or their design, during that time. There's no sign that this will change in the foreseeable future.

I understand the controversies that swirl around this topic, and know something about the physics involved—or at least as well we currently know them. The "technical" explanations offered by many cable makers for the superiority of their cables are often hard to swallow. The irony here is that this does not make their cables bad. In fact they may be quite good. It merely means that during their R&D phase they tried a number of configurations, decided on the one they felt to sound best, and came up with a marketing story to explain why. Unfortunately these stories can provide plenty of red meat to skeptics.

Cable performance can depend on factors apart from good basic design, not least of which is length. The same brand and model of cable might work well in system A at 10 feet, and less well in system B at 20 feet&#151though it's unlikely to sound great in one system and bad in another. Even skeptics will agree that cable length can make a difference, and often a measurable one. So can the associated components. For reasons having to do with the connected component's input impedance and output impedance, combined with the cable's resistance and reactance (capacitance and inductance), tube amps and preamps can often be more cable sensitive than their solid state equivalents.

Because of these complexities, I've shied way from cable reviews. In addition, an isolated review of a single set of cables rarely makes sense; only a multi-cable comparison, incredible tedious and time-consuming if done properly, has a shot at being meaningful to a wide range of readers.

My recommendation to newbies is to start with modest cables, even in a very expensive system. What do I mean by modest? Such a definition is dicey at best, but let's say speaker cables at under $250 for a 12-foot pair, and interconnects at under $150 for a 1.5-meter pair. A 1-meter interconnect is often just a little too short. If you upgrade later, you haven't lost much. For a surround system you might need to increase these lengths a bit, and if the surround capabilities will be used primarily for movies you won't likely be disappointed if you start with something cheaper (even decent and flexible 12-meter zip cord) for the surround speaker leads, which will almost certainly be the longest in the system.

Another good reason for not going overboard in the cables for your first setup is that you won't know exactly what cable lengths will be best for your system until you've settled on a more or less permanent setup. You can upgrade to better cables later without trashing a major cable investment.

When and if you do decide to upgrade, try to find a dealer who will loan you various cables to try out. Some dealers will.

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