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.