Paranormal Cables

I recently posted an item in the Ultimate Gear blog about Nordost Odin audio and power cables, the company's flagship, ultra-expensive line. What do I mean by "ultra-expensive"? How about $20,000 for a 3-foot pair of speaker cables? As you might expect, this stimulated many contentious comments about whether or not such cables can possibly affect the sound enough to justify such an exorbitant price tag.

Among the comments was one from a reader using the handle Altug, who pointed out that well-known skeptic and debunker James Randi has issued a standing challenge to anyone who can prove that expensive cables such as these can be reliably differentiated from good-quality but not outrageously costly Monster cables in a double-blind listening test. Anyone who can do so under conditions acceptable to all parties will receive $1,000,000. (Actually, the challenge applies to any paranormal phenomena, a category in which Randi includes exotic cables, much to Fremer's chagrin.)

I knew of Randi's paranormal challenge, but I didn't know that it applied to cables. Intrigued, I started doing some research, and I discovered that the challenge had been accepted in 2007 by Pear Cable, another maker of very expensive cables. The company was going to donate its top-of-the-line Anjou speaker cables, which, at $7250 for a 12-foot pair, aren't nearly as pricey as the Odin, but they're plenty expensive enough for Randi. Even better, Stereophile's own Michael Fremer was going to be the listener.

Unfortunately, Pear backed out before the test could be conducted, claiming that the challenge was illegitimate. In my view, this was a mistake on Pear's part—I have no reason to believe that Randi's challenge is illegitimate or that the test would be anything other than scrupulously fair and scientifically valid. Backing out only makes it look like Pear isn't confident that its cables would prevail, even with an experienced listener like Fremer. For the whole story from Randi's perspective, go to his website and enter "anjou" in the search field.

I spoke with Fremer about it, and he pointed me to an article in the Wall Street Journal detailing a similar but undoubtedly less rigorous test conducted by the author, Lee Gomes, at T.H.E. Show in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. In that test, Fremer and Stereophile editor John Atkinson were able to reliably differentiate between relatively expensive speaker cables (Monster Sigma Retro Gold at $2000 for an 8-foot pair) and 14-gauge hardware-store speaker cables in two otherwise identical audio systems with Totem Forest speakers and Magnum Dynalab MD-308 amps.

However, the statistical result among a larger number of listeners was only slightly better than chance (61 percent of the 39 listeners picked the Monster cables as sounding better). In addition, Atkinson said he thought the Monster cables were only about 5 percent better. Let's see, the 14-gauge wire was probably a few dollars—say $10 to be generous and to make the math easy—so the Monster cable was 200 times more expensive for a 5-percent improvement.

What can we learn from all of this? First, any audible difference between "normal" and super-expensive cables is probably subtle at best. Second, an experienced listener such as Fremer or Atkinson is more likely to be able to discern that difference than your average Joe. Third, as with all things A/V, the benefit of spending more money tends to level off after a certain point, and you must spend a lot more to achieve a small improvement.

It is up to each individual to decide whether or not any improvement they might hear is worth the expense of exotic cables. It isn't worth the expense to me, but you may reach the opposite conclusion. If so, I hope you've got the resources to afford an entire system that befits such cables—if the rest of the system isn't up to the same high standards, I maintain that the money spent on those cables will be wasted, because any improvement they might provide will be swamped by deficits elsewhere in the signal chain.

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K.Reid's picture

Scott, I agree with your conclusion that the differences between ulra high end cables like the ODIN vs. a Tara Labs RSC Prime cable for example would be subtle at best - assuming a high end rig is used. I probably would not pick up on differences, if any, in a blind A/B test. I recall years back a high end store in Wilmington, DE called Overture Audio/Video was promoting an event called 2C3D which involved Spectral sources, MIT cables and Avalon Acoustics Eidolon Diamond (I think). At one point I believe they swapped to another high end cable (perhaps Transparent Cables) and I just couldn't hear any difference - perhaps, in part, due to the fact that I did not have an extended listening session or maybe my untrained ears. I would be curious to see the results of an official blind a/b test done between a high end cable like the ODIN vs. Transparent Cable OPUS MM2. So many factors can contribute to what a person hears (age for example), not to mention how much of the frequency spectrum one can hear.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Good point! I didn't mention that unimpaired hearing is essential if one is to have any hope of discerning a difference between cables, and age certainly has something to do with that! Interesting notion about trying to hear the difference between Odin and Opus MM2, both of which are among the most expensive cables in the world.

baald's picture

do a bit of research on Randi's long standing contest and you'll soon think other than "I have no reason to believe that Randi's challenge is illegitimate or that the test would be anything other than scrupulously fair and scientifically valid." he started out as a scammer (err, street magician IIRC) and he is still a scammer. it's his type of materialist-fundamentalism that can tarnish the image of scientists who investigate with an open mind rather than deem things a priori impossible.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

I don't know what "IIRC" means, but I don't consider all street magicians to be scammers...they're magicians. Is David Copperfield a scammer? Are Penn & Teller scammers? I suppose they are in a certain sense...all magicians intend to fool their audience. But that's the explicit goal, it's not necessarily underhanded. I do agree that Randi seems to be a strict materialist, but so are most scientists, the majority of whom also deem certain things a priori impossible, so his position fits the scientific worldview, which is the whole point of his challenge. What is your evidence that his challenge is not legitimate?

The Audio Dufus's picture

So for a million bucks all I have to do is design a cable that can be "reliably differentiated" from a moderate Monster Cable? Is there a clause that it has to be "reliably" better? If not, therein lies the weakness in the armor. If I was smart, which is arguable, all I would have to do would be to create a cable high in poor electrical properties such as capacitance and resistance, and thus so alter the circuit that one couldn't help but hear the difference. But in so doing, by demonstrating that cable design can be detrimental to the sound quality, I would prove mathematically (in calculus one must consider the +/- range) the possibility that cable design could also improve the sound quality and Pandora's box is open for good. The Physics is clearly there on paper, but the key factor will be in the listener's ability to register and perceive the finite electrical circuit change. With the million bucks, I believe Meridian has a new 800 series processor...

Altug's picture

There are some high-end cables that are designed to purposefully distort the audio signal; therefore, it would be possible to differentiate them from a regular cable of adequate gauge at a reasonable length. That is why Randi has a clause that the test conditions should be acceptable to both parties. The challenge is that human hearing is not capable of telling the audio improvement of an exotic cable from a regular cable of adequate gauge at reasonable lenght. Note that I have not talked about diminishing returns, the improvement is just NOT there, not ANY improvement. All of the scientific evidence at hand points out to this. Randi is not an idiot and I am sure he checked this before he included exotic cables in his challenge. There are numerous peer-reviewed double-blind tests that have proven this many times that this is not even debatable anymore. As far as the Lee Gomez test, 61% is far from establishing adequate statistic evidence. I still can't help but wonder if it was a level-matched DB

Bruce in CO's picture

One thing that hasn't been discussed is the issue of trained listeners. Sean Olive's blog has a great discussion of the necessity for Revel to only use trained and capable listeners that can consistently and reliably hear and isolate differences in sound, so that their double-blind listening tests have meaning and usefulness (not all trained listeners are capable of hearing differences). I would surmise that most of the double-blind listening tests where people could not hear the differences were untrained people who couldn't tell the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha piano, but those who are familiar with each instrument can tell you with a single note. Michael Fremer and John Atkinson could reliably tell the difference between cables because they are trained and capable listeners who know what to listen for, while most people, even those who are trained, aren't capable of hearing those same differences.

The Audio Dufus's picture

Bruce of CO, you seem like you know a little about this. So what you are trying to say is that Michael Fremer and John Atkinson attended a better ear training preparatory school than other trained listeners. May be the others went to a state school? This may sound stupid, but where would you suggest a budding earist go to receive a quality education, Vienna perhaps? How do you know when you have the IT factor of a True Trained Ear? Will I need to have an authority tell me that I can hear it to know? If a cable introduces a pleasing distortion, it creates value to certain listeners. Any economist knows that relative value differs amongst buyers---some will value THEIR perceived improvement from this pleasing distortion enough to pay whatever is asked, regardless of their circumstances. But, if both a moderate and exotic cable are gunning for the same target---delivery of an electical signal with the least alteration, you will be splitting hairs---though the hair will exist theoretically.

Altug's picture

"I would surmise that most of the double-blind listening tests where people could not hear the differences were untrained people who couldn't tell the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha piano" This is not true.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Actually, when I said "experienced listeners," I was implying "trained listeners," but perhaps I should have made that clearer. I've spoken with Sean Olive and Floyd Toole about the importance of trained listeners in Harman's Multichannel Listening Lab when they perform double-blind tests of their speakers, including Revel, and those of their competitors. I agree with Bruce that experienced or trained listeners are required to obtain reliable and consistent results in double-blind listening tests, which is why Fremer and Atkinson were successful when others were not. I also suspect that untrained listeners might not be able to distinguish between a Steinway and Yamaha piano. Altug, I'm curious to know why you dispute this. Granted, the difference in sound between the pianos is probably greater than the difference in sound between cables, but even so, untrained listeners might well be unable to tell them apart.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

BTW, a great resource for "listening training" is a book called Critical Listening Skills for Audio Professionals by F. Alton Everest, which comes with a CD of listening examples.

richardallen3's picture

Trained or untrained listenenr is a moot point. My guess is that 99.999% of the people buying a system would fall into the category of "untrained". They will be listening to their system and I doubt, seriously, if they intend to hire a "trained" listener to come into their home and critique the purchase. If the person buying the system can't tell the differrence between $25k cables and regular 12 AWG cables then they shouldn't buy them. My opinion is that anything you do to a WIRE, if it changes the basic ability to transfer electrons, will make it worse, but to each his/her own.

jean-marc Serre's picture

Through my local audiophile club in Montreal an audio journalist (e.g. the guy was not selling anything) asked for 2 volunters to do a test with expensive audio cables. Since my main speakers are Quad 2905 (I have another 2 pairs for a 6.1 channel, yes I like SACD,DVD-A and Blu-ray) the guy figure out that with electrostatics details would be easy to hear. So he came and we listened to two tracks on 2 CDs. Then he switched the interconnect, speaker and power cables for the 2 channels going to my quads. The cables were from about 8k total So we listened again to the same 2 tracks. And yes there was a large difference in terms of the uniformity of the spatial image and the harmonics of the sound of instrument. Was the improvement worth 8k, good question. But the difference was not subtle. So in due course I will try a few cables to try to refine my system.

Bruce in CO's picture

Scott - thanks for providing the name of the book, and relating your conversations with Drs Olive and Toole. I am not a trained listener, so I will probably buy the book and have fun with it. My hearing has degraded enough over the years that I could not be a reliable listener for a company like Harman, but this is supposed to be a fun hobby, and this could be interesting. Jean-Mar c, thanks for relating your experiences. It supports the idea that it is at least worth comparing various cables within one's own system to determine what sounds best to them. If a person can't hear the difference, then buy the cheap ones.

Altug's picture

Scott: I am disputing it because it is against audio science. To establish the existing differences between one cable and another, ear cannot be used as it cannot detect subtle differences, hence complex equipment that an audiophile does not have at his disposal is needed. A common copper cable of half inch thickness will measure to have a signal attenuation of 3 dB at 120.000 Hz, which is non-audible to humans for every practical purpose. Every piece of scientific evidence we have today points out that there will not be an audible difference between cables of adequate gauge at reasonable distances. If there can be audible differences provided by uber-exotic cables, those differences should also be measurable and provable. When someone can prove that difference, I will be the first one to admit, and gladly, that cables make difference. Lack thereof, I will maintain my position. Most importantly, we must all understand that "I hear because I have golden ears" is not considered a scientific evidenc

Les H.'s picture

jean-marc. Your listening test, can you guarantee that nobody even minutely adjusted the system gain (volume)? Most listeners if one source plays as little as 1db more will prefer the sound of that source. Next did you witness the cable switch over? Your witnessing such knowing the cables now attached cost $8K will bias your perception. Only a true ABX double blind test can be trusted in any qualitative review of things including cables. As for golden ears of the likes of Fremer, he has the connections in the industry and resources to set up an ABX double blind test in accordance with Dr. Randi's $1million challenge, why has he not tried? Because he too will fail in a proper ABX double blind test between cables as long as the cheapest cables meet proper electrical engineering standards. ie: not using say 24 gauge zip cord against $200, $2,000 or $20,000 speaker cable. Same goes with interconnects each must meet acceptable electrical engineering standards. Uber-priced cables only flatten wallets.

Theo's picture

Scott, Firstly, your podcast is just top-notch. I enjoy it every single week. I'll be dropping you a note with some suggestions. On point, I listened to the John Atkinson talk and I found his comments re: cables of interest. I personally have not extensively auditioned cables and not sure I have been able to tell the difference. I've used audioquest, Shunyata, and elementcable (silver). I liked John's fairly objective comments. I hadn't heard him speak before. I'm personally disappointed that there isn't some sort of double-blind test with Pear or Nordost, who seem to really want to stand behind their cables. I too was under the impression as you were that differences between cables were likely correlated to having higher-end equipment. But, John's comments dispelled that a bit. Anyway, I've had an engineer friend of mine, who never believed the cable hype and now has Nordost cables. He can't explain the why and that drives him nuts, but in his system he

Charles's picture

I don't have an axe to grind either way here, but I would disagree that knowing the cables' cost necessarily prejudices anyone in a listening test. It is possible, perhaps more than possible, that some will be swayed knowing price or reputation of a particular cable. But for others it might be a matter of listening only. That's what it would be for me.

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