The Long View On Cables
Last year, members of Audio Syndrome, a Long Island based audio club, got into a discussion about cables. They had all read a series of articles by Belden engineers Galen Gareis and Gautam Raja, on audio cable design. One of the club members looked into the cost of the Belden Iconoclast cables designed by the authors. He found them to be quite expensive. The speaker cables, only available in 10-foot lengths go for $2,300 or $4,600 a stereo pair depending on the copper grade. RCA interconnects, only available in five-foot lengths, go for $610, $1220 or $4025 a stereo pair depending on the copper grade. XLR interconnects, only available in five-foot lengths, go for $865, $1730 or $5750 a stereo pair depending on the copper grade. Thus began the discussion. Is the time based distortion, corrected by these cables audible or merely measured? Do expensive cables make a difference or is it all a pile of BS? And how much should you spend for them? It started me thinking. What is cable?
Cable is a simple device to convey a signal (information) from one device to another. In our innocence, we thought this could be accomplished simply by a pair of wires, with perhaps some shielding. We were happy with zip cord and interconnects from Radio Shack. Back then, most dealers threw in some zip cord or clear speaker wire when you purchased speakers. That all changed in 1979 when Noel Lee created Monster Cable. His thick 10.5 gauge speaker wire was not to be given away, but sold at a premium price. It was wildly successful and created a new product category: high end audio cables. Since then, audiophiles have been divided as to whether cables are snake oil or nirvana.
At this point I must confess that some of my friends are, or have been, manufacturers of cable. I know them all to be honest people seriously aiming for sonic improvements. On the other hand, I’ve heard some really excellent systems using nothing but cheap wire. (Some might argue they could be improved by using better wire.) I also admit that I hear differences between cables. The question is why should I?
Ideally, a cable is a passive device, neither adding to nor subtracting from the signal it conveys. Any change in that signal is by definition distortion. If two cables sound different, at least one of them must be distorting. Since so many cables sound different from each other, we must conclude that most, if not all of them distort. Yet, changing cables often results in better sound. How can this be? A cable may distort, but some distortion may actually sound pleasant and is called euphonic distortion.
All cables have some amount of resistance, capacitance and inductance and their combined effect, impedance. Thus they can be used as tone controls or filters.
As an extreme example, early CDs and CD players sounded horrible. Treble was harsh and unlistenable. In those days, I was a dealer selling Discrete Technology (Distech) CD players. Included with each player was a special blue interconnect. That cable had high capacitance, and thus was filtering out harsh high frequencies of the early CDs. This assisted in making them sound more listenable. In that case, the cable distorted by filtering the original signal, which resulted in sonic improvement. Most cables act more subtly. Small changes in frequency and phase response can shift tonal balance, making a system sound different. Yet filters, or tone controls, can be better and less expensively performed by circuitry instead of exotic wire.
A cable’s job is to connect two pieces of a system. The quality of that connection is critical to its performance. After all, a cable can only be as good as its connection. Consequently we have expensive gold plated plugs and terminals. They may be required to make a good removable connection, but none can be better than an old fashioned hard wired soldered one.
A connection’s length is, of course, an important factor. (That’s the problem that Belden cable attempts to solve.) The longer the connection, the bigger the problem. Two or three inches of hook-up wire inside an amplifier leading to its output terminals is not a problem, but eight feet of speaker cable coming from it is. To me, it seems obvious that the best cable is no cable at all. You can spend $2300 on 10 feet of that Belden speaker cable, or save the money and buy amplified speakers. Similarly, a DAC and/or a phono stage can be combined with a preamp or power amplifier eliminating both cables and connectors. What are lost are flexibility and the ability to make individual changes to a system. Also to be considered are the problems and costs of isolating parts of a system that were previously separated by a cable.
Personally, I view cables as a necessary evil. Their use is often unavoidable. The output of a phonograph cartridge requires at least two different cables before reaching its next device. Short of wirelessly streaming, there’s no way to get signal to even a powered speaker without a long cable. If you want the flexibility to select and replace components, you must have cables.
The question then becomes how much should you spend on them. Since most of us have a finite amount of money available, we must consider cable’s cost against its contribution to our audio systems. I like to look at a cable as one part in a multi-part sub-system, the cable itself and the components connected to it.
For example, could money spent on speaker cable be better applied to the amplifier or loudspeakers? A good time to consider replacing a cable is when you are upgrading a component in your system. Thus if I were looking to replace my DAC, I would consider its cost and that of any input and output cables I might want. Since I already own cables, I can spend my entire budget on the DAC, or spend less on the DAC and replace one or more cables. For instance, will a less expensive DAC with an expensive audiophile USB cable sound better or worse than a more expensive DAC with a generic USB cable. Only by considering its cost and contribution to a system, can the value of a cable be determined.