What's In a Wire?

Our “Flashback” feature “Speaker Cables: Can You Hear the Difference” (link below) offered as part of the ongoing celebration of our 60th year, is a juicy tidbit from 1983 that proved one of the most controversial articles in our predecessor Stereo Review ’s history.

The subject? Premium speaker cables. More to the point, whether they really make a difference or are just a waste of money. I won’t be a spoiler here, but the piece embraced with full gusto what was then just a smoldering debate and rocketed it into a bona fide firefight — with the “subjective” high-end audio community on one side and the mainstream objectivists and measurement freaks, represented by SR , on the other.

There’s a great back-story behind the story, which you’ll read about. But what struck me as I stumbled on the article in our archive was how this debate still remains at the forefront today. There are many more companies selling premium speaker cables and interconnects today than in the early 1980s, and at least two of them — Monster, the de facto inventor of the category in 1979, and perhaps Audioquest — have enjoyed widespread acceptance by big-box retailers and a more mainstream audience. This, no doubt, thanks to everyday shoppers who have taken at face value the recommendations of well-spiffed floor personnel looking to attach these notoriously high-profit add-ons to the sale of a receiver, speaker system, or TV.

I’ve sometimes been asked by readers (and have occasionally written about) whether I think expensive wires make a difference, and why we don’t test premium audio cables. To respond to the first question emphatically: Definitely, maybe. I’m not being coy. I believe — indeed, I know from experience — that both interconnects and speaker cables can make readily audible differences, sometimes really big ones, in the sound of an audio system. Where I question their value is when they are connected to very average gear that lacks the resolution to expose these differences.

I’ve mentioned in these pages how, when I started my career at a high-end audio magazine in the early 1980s, the ever-evolving reference system was so revealing that you could easily hear the effect of big changes in humidity on phono cartridge damping. Changing out cables in that system, either interconnects or speaker cables, was like replacing any other major component: You’d flip the system back on and excitedly take your seat to see what the heck you were going to get. But are you going to hear anything that dramatic with a $600 AVR and a $1,000 5.1-channel speaker kit when you swap in $100 worth of cables for 16- or 14-gauge zip cord? Not likely. Bottom line: Unless you’re dealing with really premium equipment, particularly speakers, just buying decent copper cables of heavy enough gauge will probably be enough.

The reason we don’t test cables is because I’ve never been convinced that the same cables can be counted on to sound the same in two different systems, even high-end systems. My experience was that their effect on the sonics could be less desirable, more desirable, or just different depending on what components they were connected to. So having one of our reviewers discussing the potentially very subtle differences he heard on his own system never struck me as having value to a wide audience.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t dismiss outright that fancy speaker cables and interconnects can be worthwhile. But I’d look seriously at the gear you own or what you’re buying before plunking down a big investment. The reality is that, if you’ve got the kind of components that can readily reveal cable differences, your high-end audio salon has probably already sold them to you without much struggle.

On a separate note, Sound & Vision is proud to be a member of the AVTech Media family of publications. Based in the U.K., our new parent is the publisher of three superb British magazines that some of our old-timers might be familiar with. The flagship is none other than HiFi News & Record Review, which holds the title of the oldest remaining audio equipment magazine on the planet. Its two siblings include Hi-Fi Choice and Home Cinema Choice. AVTech Media also runs a successful consumer audio show called The Hi-Fi Show Live. As part of this shift in ownership, we’ll be moving to a bimonthly print publication schedule. (Don’t worry — all existing subscriptions will be extended to reflect the change.) We’re happy to be part of a company with such a rich history in AV publishing and broad international reach, and look forward to working with our new colleagues.

Editor’s Note: Sadly, Rob Sabin recently left Sound & Vision to pursue other interests. Rob and his extraordinary skills as a leader, editor, and reviewer will be missed. We wish Rob the very best as we welcome our new Editor, Al Griffin, a veteran writer/reviewer and consummate AV pro who has been affiliated with S&V for many years. We know Al will serve us well with his deep knowledge of all things AV.

“Speaker Cables: Can You Hear the Difference”

drny's picture

Thanks Rob for the magnificent work you did for all of us.
Al Griffin, a well respected reviewer and industry insider, whew!
That calms my nerves.
Congrats Al.

mjgraves's picture

This is the worst sort of wishy-washy bafflegab. It sorta panders to the hauty cable makers, while not really have engineering chops to truly address the issue at hand. This inability to take a well reasoned stand is why the consumer audio industry is in such disarray.

barfle's picture

I'm a pretty good solderer (aerospace certified at one time), and I generally build my own interconnecting audio cables. Most of the time, I use S-video cable stock for the wire, and always use gold-plated connectors to get rid of any corrosion problems. My front speakers are studio monitors, so there are no "speaker cables" as such for them, and they are connected with balanced connections to my pre-pro. The rears aren't quite as fancy, so they are wired with 16 ga zip cord. Sure, they don't sound like the fronts, but that's hardly ever necessary. There just isn't that much going to them.
My systems has always been "pretty darn good" but I'm not blessed with more bucks than brains. I've never bought a monster speaker cable (I might have a HDMI from them, though).