Cables, Interconnects and Other Stuff
When it comes to cable constructions, everything makes a difference. Most (but not all) of these differences are measurable. What is at issue is whether these differences are audible ... or not, when tested properly using a blind A-B test. Sighted tests are at best unreliable, and at worst cause people to believe things that are simply untrue. The vast majority of all cable claims have no basis in reality, and rely on the placebo effect.
"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing."
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The above could just as easily be re-phrased - for example ...
"I refuse to prove that my cables will make your system sound better", says the snake oil vendor, "for proof denies faith, and without faith, you will hear nothing."
The tenets of faith are an absolute requirement for many of the claims that are made for many (probably most) of the 'esoteric' hi-fi additions that you will find everywhere on the web. There is no real information, technical, scientific or otherwise, and the only terms you will hear will be of a subjective nature - for example "solid, sparkling, sweet, musical" will be contrasted with "muffled, veiled, grainy, harsh" - the very selection of the words is designed to sway you to their position, preferably subconsciously.
The marketing is often very subtle, extremely persuasive, and there is no confusing techno-talk in there to confuse the non technical reader. While it may seem like Nirvana, the claims are nearly all completely false.
Faith (in the religious sense) is based on the premise that faith is God's proof that God's existence is truth and does not rely on facts. Indeed, if facts were available, then faith is not required - so in a sense, faith can be seen to be based on an absence of evidence - a fiction.
Believers may also qualify faith as either representing truth or they will represent it as being above and beyond our understanding. Truth becomes a consequence of faith which is the believer's recognition of the absence of evidence. Truth is therefore defined according to a circular perception.
I am not about to dispute the religious beliefs of anyone - these are sacrosanct, and belong to the individual alone. When the same arguments are used for audio, this is a different matter. Audio (unlike religious beliefs) is based on science. Without the efforts of scientific work and studies over many years by a great many people, we would not have audio as we know it. Now, we have charlatans and thieves claiming that science is ruining audio, and that we have to get back to the basics to enable real enjoyment.
You need, nay! must have! the latest shiny rock on top of your CD player, lest the sound be harsh, grainy, and lacking bass authority, and without the latest cables at only US$200 per foot, you are missing out on half of the music. But ... you must believe, for the magic will surely be dissipated instantly should you attempt even the most rudimentary scientific test, or even request any technical information.
Now, consider the situation with watches. Has any ultra-high-priced watchmaker ever claimed that the 'quality' of the time told by their watch is superior to that from 'ordinary' watches, or that the 'sense' of the time has greater depth and more 'chi'? Maybe they just haven't thought of that angle yet, but I expect that this is unlikely. The simple fact is that these pieces of jewellery are finely crafted and superbly executed timekeepers, but are usually no better or worse than 'lesser' brands that do exactly the same job.
The situation with cables is no different - you may choose to pay outlandish prices to get something that looks amazing, and demonstrates to everyone how much money you have, but it will not make a magical difference to the sound, there will be few (if any) real differences in the electrical characteristics, and it will sound much the same as 'lesser' cables, selling at perhaps 100th of the price.
If image is important to you, and you can afford it, then that is your choice - just don't expect that it will make your system better, and don't try to convince others that without 'it', they are missing half their music or their sounds are being mangulated in some mysterious way that can only be 'fixed' by spending vastly more than they may be able to afford.
Note: It must be considered that there are some people whose hearing acuity is far greater than the average, and they may well hear things that we 'mere mortals' cannot. For such individuals, a particular cable might indeed show an improvement (or at least a difference), but this does not mean that the same improvement/ difference will be audible to anyone else.
The majority of this series of articles is directed at the majority of listeners - no surprise there. Just because some rare person with hearing that is well above average can hear a difference does not mean that everyone will do so, although it is unlikely that anyone will admit to being unable to distinguish one from another. No-one wants to be classified as being 'tin-eared', and especially so if they have spent a lot of time and money on their system.
Yes, there are a (very) few people who can genuinely be considered to have 'golden ears', just as there are a few musicians who have perfect pitch, and various other individuals with a particular skill in some area that most of us lack. Just as no-one will normally reject the photographs taken from a camera (for example) that one person can see are ever so slightly flawed (but look fine to us), then nor should we reject a cable that sounds just fine.
Indeed, the variations in different recordings (even of the same material - and especially so with vinyl!) will be far greater than the variations of any cable with reasonable construction and sensible design.
Despite what you may read in various forum pages, this entire series of articles is not intended as a 'beat up the subjectivists' tale, but rather a discourse based on research that I, and a great many others before me, have done. The idea is not to ruin anyone's enjoyment of audio, but to make sure that the facts are available, without the hype and BS so commonly associated with high fidelity.
The major (and well respected) audio companies did not develop their equipment using only their ears as a guide. Without exception, all the big (and very expensive in many cases) brands have been measured, probed, simulated, then measured some more - before anyone actually gets to hear one. How much of this pure research has gone into most of the overpriced cables and 'accessories' currently available? I don't think I need to answer that, as we all have a pretty good idea.
So much has been said about cables over the past few years that there couldn't possibly be any more to discuss. Nice theory, but the wheel has turned a full circle, and there are now people claiming that there is no difference at all between any speaker cable or interconnect. In exactly the same way as the claims that there were 'huge differences' were mainly false, so too are claims that there are none.
There is no 'black and white' in this topic, but a great many shades of grey, and the latest update to this article attempts to clarify the position. Speaker cables in particular are still a major topic of conversation on many forum sites, and remain one of the more contentious issues.
A quick summary of the topics to follow (in the cable discussion, at least) would be ...
Power leads will rarely (if ever) have any effect on the sound, provided they are of reasonable construction and are not inducing noise into (unshielded) interconnects. The only exceptions are those that use filters of some sort, which will reduce the noise floor in areas where interference is a problem.
Some leads are of flimsy construction, and may reduce the available power for sustained loud passages, however, the difference will rarely exceed 1dB in most cases.
Speaker cables can (and sometimes do) sound different with a given amplifier and loudspeaker combination, even where they are well designed and of reasonable gauge. Excluded are very thin or extremely silly combinations - these will always do something to the sound, rarely good.
Interconnects might sound different, but only if they use odd construction techniques. Generally speaking, all properly (sensibly) designed and well made interconnects will sound the same - excluding noise pickup which is common with unshielded designs.
This is not to say that some people will not derive great enjoyment from the fact that they have spent as much on their cables as mere mortals can afford for their whole system, but this is 'enjoyment', and has nothing to do with sound quality. This is about prestige and status, neither of which affect the sound.
Try This Next Time Someone Tries to Sell You Something ...
Thanks to a reader for the suggestion, this is a wonderful way to prove something to yourself. Next time a salesperson tries to flog you the latest and greatest (and of course most expensive) cable they have on offer, just use this technique ...
Suggest that you would like to hear the cable in action before committing yourself. As you walk to the demo room with the salesperson, come up with 'spontaneous' bright idea - suggest that you swap the cables, and if the salesperson can correctly identify the 'super cable' that s/he so desperately wants you to purchase, then you will do so. Naturally, you will want to make the swap several times, and the salesperson will have to get it right at least 75% of the time.
There is every chance that the packet will never be opened, the comparison never done, and you will save a bunch of money. There is nothing dishonest about what you are doing - you simply want (and are entitled to) verification that the cable will make a difference, and if the salesperson is unwilling to participate in the test, s/he knows something that s/he hasn't told you!
Beware! If there is any suggestion that the cable needs to be 'broken in' before you hear the difference, the salesperson is lying! At this point, you should immediately let them know that you know that they are lying, and leave the shop. Cable 'break-in' is a myth, and is perpetuated by those with something to hide - no-one has ever been able to show that there is any scientific justification to the claim, nor shown that the performance has changed in any way whatsoever. Cable break-in is real, and occurs between the ears of the listener - nowhere else (most certainly not in the cable).
The last link entry for the ABX Home Page has been included so you can have a look at some actual ABX double blind tests that have been carried out. The listing at the ABX site is not extensive, but is excellent reference material. You will find some of the results surprising, and when viewed and interpreted sensibly, they tend to support the comments I have made in this article.
In some cases, the results surprised me, in that I was expecting the listener panel to declare various items as different, and they instead thought they were the same (which is to say that the two items under test could not be identified with certainty, so any choice was pure guesswork).
In this article, I shall attempt to explain some of the misconceptions and untruths that are rife in the audio industry. This article is bound to offend some, but the information is based on fact, scientific data and the results of my own (and others') testing, plus the help I have received from readers, who have provided more information on a number of topics.
In contrast, much of the disinformation comes from the rantings of Hi-Fi reviewers, most of whom know so little about electronics that it is shameful (and fraudulent) for them to be in a position to tell the unsuspecting public what to buy, based on entirely subjective criteria.
In almost all other areas of human interest, objective measurements are paramount. A domestic vacuum cleaner's performance is based on how much dirt it collects from the carpet - any philosophical discussion about the type of motor used, or its rotational direction having a subtle effect on how clean the carpet feels is at best a pointless and tiresome exercise, and (I hope) has never been entered into.
Discussion - indeed, heated debate - on parameters not dissimilar to those above are commonplace in the high end audio industry, and have been raging since the late 1970's. The majority of people who listen to music generally listen to a few systems at a non-specialist retail outlet, and buy a combination that sounds good (to them), has the features they want, and fits their budget. They are no more interested in the great audio debate than they would be in the philosophy of the rotating mechanical components of their vacuum cleaner.
In his article 'Science and Subjectivism in Audio', Douglas Self  wrote
A short definition of the Subjectivist position on power amplifiers might read as follows:
Objective measurements of an amplifier's performance are unimportant compared with the subjective impressions received in informal listening tests. Should the two contradict the objective results may be dismissed out of hand.
Degradation effects exist in amplifiers that are unknown to engineering science, and are not revealed by the usual measurements.
Considerable latitude may be used in suggesting hypothetical mechanisms of audio impairment, such as mysterious capacitor shortcomings and subtle cable defects, without reference to the plausibility of the concept, or gathering any evidence to support it.
I believe this is a reasonable statement of the situation. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of the public buy conventional hi-fi systems, ignoring the expensive and esoteric high-end sector where the debate is fiercest.
In the following articles I shall dissect some of the claims made on many of the components in the audio chain, and show why they are misleading, false, and in many cases downright dishonest. See Further Reading for ... well, further reading.
Preamble Part 2
A fairly well known person (rampant on certain forum pages) has claimed that I consider all conductors and insulators to be 'perfect', and that "all engineers who design in the real world know this is not the case". Oh really! ... and where exactly did I say that all conductors and insulators are 'perfect'? Where did I imply that they are perfect? These questions remain unanswered (of course) because I have never claimed, assumed or implied that they are perfect.
No insulator or conductor is perfect - in fact, no 'anything' is perfect. The simple fact of the matter is that these imperfections are not significant at audio frequencies, except perhaps in 'unusual' cable constructions (of the type often suggested by the lunatic fringe). This is one of the typical 'red herrings' that raving psychotics will bring up time and time again, to bolster their unsubstantiated and flawed 'reasoning'. Claims like that are typical of delusional thinking, and the delusional only have to claim that I (or someone else) said that "all conductors and insulators are perfect" (for example), and it somehow makes it 'true' that these words were in fact used.
Well, I have some news that may come as a shock - anyone can say anything they like, but the saying does not make it so! I have never claimed that all conductors or insulators are perfect, but I have challenged anyone who claims that the imperfections are audible to please do so. So far, there has not been one shred of evidence that indicates that Teflon™ (wonderful stuff that may well be) is audibly superior to PVC in a properly controlled double-blind (or ABX) test. Differences are measurable (with the right equipment) but are not relevant to the audio range unless the 'facts' or cable topology are manipulated to influence the test.
I have asked every person and/or company named in the Mad As Hell articles for any information they have that substantiates their outrageous claims, and not one, not a single one, has supplied anything more than some useless promotional material or 'satisfied customer' e-mails. Why is 'satisfied customer' in quotes? How do I, or anyone else, know that they are genuine? For all we know, they are fabricated (i.e. lies), without an iota of truth in any of them. Oh, but I am so negative!
Of course I am, these people are liars, charlatans and thieves, either by accident (they may actually think they are realistic because of mental illness [such as delusion or psychosis] or some other mitigating circumstance) or by design - they simply have one goal ... to separate people from their money. The actual 'mechanism' is unimportant - the fact that they are wrong does not enter into their equation of life, so whether their claims are due to mental illness or greed makes no difference to the consumer, who is being ripped off and lied to either way.
I recently had an e-mail exchange on the topic of interconnects, and the 'conversation' started out innocently enough. I was advised that by using the tape loop on a preamp, I could listen to the effects of different interconnect cables, simply by switching to/from tape monitor.
I firstly suggested the test methodology suggested was flawed, since any additional circuitry used to make up the tape loop circuit would have some influence. In addition, the feedback to the brain (knowing which switch setting was which) means that a genuinely objective (double blind) test was impossible. The test method does not even qualify as single blind - it is an open test, and the experimenter expectancy effect will confer non-existent attributes to the material being tested, based on preconceived ideas and expectations.
The e-mails went back and forth for a while, and eventually I was finding that it took up too much of my time, and the topic is not all that interesting anyway - after all, how excited can one get over ordinary signal leads.
This is doubly true when the other party invents reasons that ABX tests are 'invalid' for audio - something about the signal complexity, and the psychological effects of the music was mentioned. This is exactly why we must use ABX or similar double blind tests - anything else will fail to properly eliminate feedback cues, and these will be used (albeit subconsciously) to determine whether the 'standard' or 'test' item is currently in circuit. Any test where there is any possibility of identifying the components under test is completely invalid.
It is interesting that in a relatively non-demanding application such as an interconnect, a material such as aluminium would likely be sneered at by any audiophile, yet this very same material is used regularly in loudspeaker voice coils. I am reasonably sure that sonic performance of an aluminium interconnect would be deemed to fall way short of excellence, yet I hear (or read) no highly critical comments about using it in a voice coil. This is an extremely demanding role, and the performance of aluminium is (or can be) audibly and measurably worse than copper. *
My (almost) final e-mail pointed out that no metallic conductor introduces distortion. Now, I must admit that I did not qualify this, but when I speak of distortion I refer almost invariably to non-linear distortion (i.e. the type introduced by all active components, that generates harmonics and intermodulation products not present in the original signal). A simple question would have cleared this up, but ...
The response I received astonished me - suddenly, my statement that "no metallic conductor introduces distortion" was utterly misconstrued, and became "all metals are perfect conductors"! It was inferred (of course) that this was the reason that my tests and experiences are simply invalid, while those of my correspondent were reasoned and obvious.
This is absolutely the sort of thinking that got everyone to this impasse in the first place. I never suggested that all metals are perfect conductors - I said that they don't generate (non-linear) distortion. By means of misinterpretation, the subjectivist camp will now think it has another 'weapon' against the enemy - the fact that it is the result of a gross mangling of the original statement is of no consequence ... "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story".
The fact of the matter is that no metallic conductor causes (non-linear) distortion. There are various resistances depending on the metal, but its basic conductivity is completely linear. Check things like thermal coefficient of resistance for any metal - it is linear. There are no curves or 'fudge factors' to be taken into account. While it may be possible to make an alloy that exhibits some degree of non-linearity, this would not be used as an electrical conductor, and would certainly not be suggested as an alternative to copper. Even then, within the very limited range of acceptable temperatures in the listening room, such non-linearities could easily be less than that of air - the medium that carries the sound from the speakers to our ears.
None of this has anything to do with skin effect, velocity factor or any of the other seemingly strange behaviours of all conductors at high frequencies (none of which are really non-linear distortions), we are interested in the simple ability to conduct current from point A to point B without any form of rectification or other non-linear effect. All metallic conductors in common use will do this perfectly well, and will not add harmonics or change the waveshape in any non-linear way.
Harmonics can of course be removed - this is a filter effect (a completely passive linear function), and is caused by capacitance and inductance. All cables have these parameters as a fact of life - a silver wire and an aluminium wire of the same length and diameter have different resistance, but inductance and capacitance are the same.
The degree of hostility I experienced towards ABX testing was equally puzzling. I don't know of any designer who will claim that listening tests are invalid - only that they may not reveal the entire truth of the matter, and that additional 'technical' evaluations may be needed to find out why the listening tests did (or did not) correlate with the measurements.
On the other hand, many subjectivists claim that anything other than a listening test is invalid, and commonly and even vigorously eschew ABX testing - possibly because they know in their hearts that they will be unable to find any difference. This is very confronting, and to have one's beliefs shattered is not a pleasant experience.
What is the most interesting to me is the 'head-in-the-sand' behaviour. I was automatically wrong in my thinking, and I suspect that anything that I said would have been twisted around to make sure that I stayed wrong. I could (of course) have simply agreed with the subjectivist's position, however to have done so would have been a lie on my part.
The issues at stake here are the crux of the on-going debate between the two 'camps'. While I will admit that not all designers will take any subjective opinion seriously, I do know from my own testing and from a huge amount of reader feedback that some of my designs sound better with different transistors or power supply configurations (for example). Most of these differences can be quantified, although some are elusive, and that is something that I live with, knowing that many of the further 'tweaks' are assessed by purely subjective methods. There is every chance that ABX testing would reveal no audible difference.
* More on Aluminium (Aluminum)
I mentioned above that aluminium interconnects would generate scorn and derision from the audiophiles. Well, it seems that for some, even using it for shielding is bad ...
"Unused RCA inputs on the back of [amplifiers] are prone to pickup stray RF Interference and EMI. This can cause a higher level of background noise, haze and grain. For years audiophiles have used shorting plugs or (gag!) aluminum foil, to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, many preamps do not like to have their inputs shorted. What to do?"
Wonder what "gag!" implies? ... I think I can guess. Needless to say, the answer was in the product line for the site in question - I shudder to think how much their little RCA 'hats' cost.
I saw remarkably few references to aluminium even being used (let alone sounding 'bad') in interconnects, and no adverse comments at all about its use as a voice coil winding wire. I must confess that I did not spend a vast amount of time on this, partly because as I said early in this section - cables are just not very interesting .
How does this thinking occur? An excellent article on the human belief system is The Belief Engine, which is to be found at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/belief_engine. The article describes the mechanisms we use to generate beliefs, and the ways that these beliefs are reinforced as we go along. One tiny quote from the article ...
Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic, and reason, but survival.
What does survival have to do with interconnects? Nothing at all, of course. But this does not change the way we think, and especially does not change the way we think we think. Beliefs are extremely powerful, and can be almost impossibly difficult to shed once they have become entrenched ... I have no expectations at all that this article will change that one little bit, but if it helps others (not yet contaminated) to stay well clear of pseudo science, then I have done what I could.