Over the past several years, I noticed that some A/V cable companies have expanded their lines to include interconnects and speaker cables that cost in the thousands, no make that tens of thousands, of dollars. You can actually spend about $25,000 on one pair of speaker cables about 5 meters in length. For that same amount of money, you can purchase a Blu-ray player, top notch receiver, full set of 7.1 speakers, good subwoofer, 1080p projector, a projection screen, and all the A/V cables you need to connect them – in other words, a complete home theater system. For myself, I find it insulting that a company would think we consider that the same amount of engineering research and development costs, along with the manufacturing costs, are comparable between such a set of speaker cables, and a full set of home theater components. So, we are going to start taking a look at the engineering and science behind cable design, and their costs. It will be an on-going article, like the Vinyl vs. CD series that we started publishing a while back. You will be free to express your opinions in the commenting section at the end of the article.
Cables, Cables, and More Cables
One of the most interesting things about A/V cables is that they come in all sizes and shapes, or rather, conductor configurations. Some are twisted, some are spiral, some are flat, some are round, some are different diameters, etc. Just about everything you could imagine is in someone’s cable design out there. The idea is to do as little to the signal as possible in the cable, right? No signal loss, no smearing, no change in frequency response, right? So, why are special, and very expensive A/C power cords marketed as improving the sound? The only way they could improve the sound is to attenuate the RF and other noise that comes in through the miles and miles of power lines to which that A/C cord is attached.
Well, this sounds contradictory right from the start. We want audio cables to do nothing to the sound (not remove anything), but we want A/C power cords to improve the sound, and the only way it can do that is to remove the noise that is on the power lines. In other words, you expect the complete opposite effect on one set of wires vs. another. Here, again, you can spend mucho dinero on A/C power cords.
Is something wrong with this picture? Our own double-blind tests on A/C power cords failed to show any differences between expensive vs. inexpensive cords.
This is not to say that no one has ever heard any difference between any sets of A/V cables. There are some tests that have been positive for intereconnects and speaker cables – just as there are differences in the performance of speakers and amplifiers. And, so that I am clear on this, I do believe that good cables can make a difference in the sound quality, although I do not believe that the differences are dramatic. They are subtle at best, and this is part of the problem.
But, when we get to the point that someone actually expects us to shell out as much money for a pair of cables as we could for an entire home theater setup, I hereby file my official rejection of such expectations. I have seen the word “insanity” applied to discussions of cables in other publications, as well as such statements as ” . . . overpriced, and you know who I mean,” or generally to that effect.
There are plenty of excellent A/V cables out there, many of them sold on-line, such as Emotiva, Better Cables, Blue Jeans Cable, River Cables, and others. Certainly, the little package of RCA interconnects that comes in the box with a DVD player is not the way to go. Having well constructed cables with gold plated copper connectors is important, and these can be had for $50-$200/pair depending on whether they are interconnects and the length. Even replacing the stock A/C cord can be worthwhile, because the stock cords are sometimes pretty flimsy. But $5,000/pair, $10,000/pair, $20,000/pair? There has to be justification for this because it is just some wires and connectors, not PC boards with precision resistors, large capacitors, output devices, along with 20 pound toroidal transformers, machined chassis, or aluminum-magnesium cones, cast baskets, crossover networks with air core inductors, wood enclosures with exotic wood veneer.
Tests and Observations
For conductors, you have to deal with some basic electrical factors. The most important are Resistance, Capacitance, and Inductance. Resistance usually refers to the DC resistance, like if you connected a battery to the ends of the cable. Capacitance and Inductance are called “Reactive Impedance”, and they occur with alternating current, such as with music playing through the conductors.
I was very curious to see how capacitance and inductance change when the conductors are different distances from one another. So, I took two conductors about 15 feet long and measured the capacitance and inductance with them wrapped together vs. laying on the carpet several feet apart. What I found was that when the conductors were wrapped together, the capacitance (in pico-Farads, or pF) was higher by a factor of two hundred than when the conductors were several feet apart, i.e., 1,355 pF together vs 7 pF apart. However, the inductance was lower by a factor of 10 with the conductors wrapped together, i.e., 0.002 mH (milli-Henrys) together vs. 0.012 mH apart. This is because even a single wire has self-inductance as AC signals pass through it, but when the + and – conductors of the cable are close together, the opposite magnetic fields in the two conductors causes some cancellation. What surprised me though was the huge – and I mean HUGE – difference in capacitance with the conductors far apart. These measurements were for 15 feet of cable. So, to get the impedance value per foot, which is what A/V cable companies specify, divide the numbers I gave by 15.
It is generally felt that interconnects should have low capacitance and speaker cables should have low inductance. The reason is that for preamplifier output connections to a power amplifier input, you are dealing with higher impedances than with the output impedance of the power amplifier and the input impedance of the speaker, and capacitance has more of an effect with the higher impedance connections between the preamp and power amp. So, for speaker cables, it is relatively straightforward, as the conductors are wound around each other or braided together, and therefore, the conductors being tightly arranged together, there is low inductance. For interconnects though, it is a different story. If you place the + and – conductors farther apart, you can end up with significant hum, because the – conductor is usually configured to act as shielding. One way around this is to use XLR balanced cables and separate the conductors by an inch or so. Hum that is picked up in the + and – (actually these are called the hot and cold, and are separate from the third conductor which is the ground) conductors are cancelled when the signal reaches the amplifier because one of the legs is inverted and added to the other. This is called common mode rejection. The new Argento “Flow” XLR cables are designed this way, but I have not had the chance to test them.
From what I can tell, many A/V cable designs are of the “Litz” configuration. The word Litz is derived from the German word that means “woven wire”. Each conductor in the cable is insulated from the others, and the conductors are aranged in a spiral or braid, or both. This reduces the skin effect which refers to higher frequencies traveling along the surface of the conductor (this is why each conductor is small diameter and insulated from the others), and also reduces the proximity effect, which is the effect that electrical current flowing through a conductor has on adjacent conductors. What causes the skin effect is the delay in the collapse of the magnetic field when the current changes direction, which pushes the current torwards the surface because it is now attempting to move in an opposing direction of that residual magnetic field. This effect is larger with higher frequencies, and therefore, causes a loss in power (frequency response) at those high frequencies. By braiding the conductors, each conductor has an equal amount of area on the outer edge of the cable as it does in the center, where the proximity effect is the strongest. The whole idea is to have each individual conductor passing current in the same way as all the rest of the conductors in a single cable.
Here is a photo of various Litz configurations that New England Wire can supply at about $1,500 for a 250 foot roll. Many audio cables are similar to these configurations. (Photos copyright New England Wire Technologies)
You can easily make your own Litz design speaker cables, with a measured, very low inductance. Here is the link. If you wanted to upgrade the conductors to silver-plated copper with Teflon dielectric, Daburn sells model 2401 in 16 gauge for about $66/100 feet. Total cost of a pair of 8-12 foot cables, including connectors and wrapping, would be about $150. For the connectors, I would recommend the locking bananas or spades from DH Labs. Their spades are pure copper, plated with gold, while the bananas are gold-plated brass.
Flat cables are also available, with conductors side by side. For example, Cable Organizer supplies these paper thin flat cables. They are made to go on walls and then you paint over them, and I suspect that they would have very low skin effect although that is not their purpose. The cost is about $2 per foot in 18 Gauge. (Photo copyright CableOrganizer dot com)
Here is another type of flat cable that has been around for a long time. This particular one is made by Daburn cables. It has 20 conductors, 28 Gauge each (made up of several 36 Gauge strands, each of which is silver plated copper). Teflon is used as the dielectric. You can choose the number of conductors, and some SCSI cables are made like this, but of course, one can also use them for speaker cables. The cost of this particular configuration is about $13/foot, and that is the cost to the consumer, not the manufacturing cost. (Photo copyright Daburn)
But, the main point here is the continuing escalation of A/V cable prices, when they remain basically just a set of wires, mostly in common configurations with slight variations, and not extraordinarily expensive to manufacture. There simply is no justification for the product to be in the four and five figure range. Custom winders, custom extruders, yes they have to be built, and they are expensive. But the custom CNC machines to build the parts for DVD players, amplifiers (PC board stuffers), and speakers are also expensive. So why should one pair of cables cost as much as a complete home theater system that also uses custom built, expensive CNC machines, and a lot more of them in total number?
When we spend thousands of dollars for speakers or other hi-fi components, there are graphs published by various magazines that show the performance of those components. There are DATA to justify the high cost. So, if a cable manufacturer wants to charge $5,000 for a pair of interconnects or speaker cables, shouldn’t they be required to show us experimental test data to back it up?
That’s the kind of thing I want us to discuss here. Please post your comments at the end of the article in the comments window.
Written by Walden , February 19, 2010
The objective measurements prove that cables (in audio) can not have a sonic impact, simple. Of course the subjective side does not believe in measurements but at the same time they refuse to even listen. Anyone no matter what the think they can hear always fails a double blind test. Remember the thread on avs where the user could not hear a difference from basic monster cable to $30,000 transparent cables. That was in his room with all of his equipment and he could still not hear a difference.
Written by SHV , February 19, 2010
About five years ago I got some unpaired “surplus” boutique inter-connects from friend. IIRC there were about five different “brands. They were all in the “kilo” dollar retail price range. I took them apart. From my small sample, several were nothing special, one had sloppy solder connections and one had “cold” solder connections. On well known brand had a large plastic box incorporated into the interconnect. I took it apart with a hacksaw as it was totally sealed to prevent easy inspection. Inside was mostly empty space. There were several cheap appearing resistors wired parallel with the main conductor and several capacitors wired in a fashion that didn’t appear to have any electrical effect.
That finished me on the idea of high-end wire. I now make my own with Canare wire and Neutrik connectors.
I suspect that they aren’t any better than the ones that come with a Wal-Mart DVD player but can do custon length.
Written by JEJ , February 19, 2010
Well, I do think that good cables can make a difference, but the differences are subtle, not dramatic, and this is the problem. But, some blind testing has yielded positive results: http://tech.yahoo.com/blog/null/65929
However, the cost of some cables is simply not justified. There is no issue for me in paying a few hundred dollars for a pair of speaker cables that are well built and have good solid gold-plated connectors. But $10,000, $20,000, $25,000? That is absurd.
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Different kind of study
Written by Rick Schmidt , February 20, 2010
agree completely that the cost of many cables and power cords cannot be justified and that the practice of imposing these high prices undermines the hifi industry.
BUT – double blind is not the optimal study for cables or hifi components. I think a ‘Longitudinal Study’ where subjects record their listening habits over time IE, ‘how long did you listen this evening?’ is better. John said that the differences are subtle, I think that is the case to the untrained ear. A double blind study with a group of uninitiated listeners sitting together, perhaps nervous about the whole thing, doesn’t hold much water for me.
Written by JEJ , February 20, 2010
Well, I have a trained ear, and the differences have always been subtle to me. But, on the other hand, I did hear a huge difference when I first started out getting good audio equipment. I had a long run of 13 gauge zip cord running to the rear speakers. The cable was hanging from nails along the top of the side walls at the ceiling. Susan told me to get the nails out and put the cable out of sight. So, I bought some Nordost Flatline to put under the rug. All of a sudden, there were more highs in the sound, and it was very easy to hear that change. But, for all other cable tests I have done, or listened to other people making cable changes, if I heard any difference at all, it was subtle. In fact, so subtle, I wondered if it was just my imagination. This tendency for cable differences to be subtle is why there is so much controversy. If it always made a big difference, no one would be arguing about it.
But remember now, this article isn’t really about whether cables make a difference in the sound or not. It is about the total absurdity of pricing some of them in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Written by ChrisHeinonen , February 20, 2010
I’ve been getting close to the point where I need to upgrade the cables in my system. Mostly, I’ve always felt that my money was always better spent other places, since instead of spending $500 on speaker cables, I could easily spend a little more and get a better subwoofer, which would make a bigger impact for sure.
However, now I want to get cables outfitted on my system so that when I review equipment, I won’t get complaints that whatever I have is being held back by inferior connections, which I’ve heard many times. However, I think there’s a definite point of diminishing returns. I think if I outfit my RCA and power cords with cables from Emotiva, or Pangea, or someone else that makes high quality, affordable equipment, that no one will really be able to fault them. I might splurge a bit on some Kimber 8TC speaker cables, but I think speaker cables are more vulnerable to noise, and I’ve yet to read anything negative about the Kimber in my reading (the surrounds will make due with flat speaker cable I ran under the carpet last year).
I do agree that the prices of cables does seem to have gotten out of hand, but when you can find speakers that cost 6-figures, I’m sure anyone that buys that doesn’t want to feel that there’s even the slight chance their cables are keeping them from getting the maximum enjoyment out of their purchase, which I can understand.
Written by Paul AB , February 20, 2010
Great series. Though the critique of megabuck cables could apply to anything monstrously overpriced. Some of it’s simply the fact that there’s a market for lux goods, and thus people with deep pockets buy the stuff and the greedy companies are happy to shill it to them. I wish we had R&D, production and marketing costs for all expensive products because its the only way to make an informed choice as a consumer. (The ultimate point of this series). Absent that, you have to do your homework and trust your judgment. My entire system is cabled out in the $2500 retail range, and a lot of the wire I bought used. I can hear the difference and am happy with the sound. But more than that I am not willing to spend. Consider the opportunity costs.
Show me the science
Written by steveg , February 20, 2010
"the differences are subtle"
Can the differences be measured? If they could the cables would sell themselves. Fuel additives, astrology, crystals, and audiophile speaker cables… all on the same level to me.
Having said that, if spending $000s makes you happy, by all means do it.
Written by Robert Learner , February 20, 2010
I agree totally w/the above post. Differences between good cable (and I include Belden, etc. in this) are just about nada IMO. A difference you have to really ‘listen for’, is by nature very subtle and more than likely imagination/justification.
My "Flatline’ experience was replacing some of the original heavy stranded Monster speaker cable with some simple, cheaper wire recommended by the speaker manufacturer (Epos). It wasn’t subtle – a magnitude of slurring was gone and everything snapped into focus. Cables that really sound different are voiced by their designers. Cardas has a line that smooths/rolls off highs.
More to the point, cables are a lousy value propositions. There are so many more cost effective ways to improve a system: room treatment, better amps, speakers, etc. — that provide obvious improvement, not something you have to listen for.
Written by JEJ , February 21, 2010
Taking into account the cost of materials and manufacturing, I don’t believe a pair of speaker cables should go into the four figure range, let alone five.
Written by Walden , February 21, 2010
Oh and if you "think" you can hear a difference there are lots of money challenges waiting out there for you to collect, including the $1,000,000 prize from james randi. As we see most users on here you think they hear a difference also bash and blind or double blind listening tests. Hence people think what they want to.
Even if cables made a difference what about the basic wire and connectors inside the equipment? What about the crossover in the speaker and the huge amount of basic copper in the speakers drivers?
We are fundamentally looking at cables incorrectly
Written by Dominick , February 21, 2010
I have learned to look at cables on a more horizontal plane, rather than a vertical one.
On a vertical plane, we have the tendency to assume that sonic characteristics improve as price goes up.
Fundamentally, we all have different ears and we hear things very differently. This has been proven.
On a horizontal plane, we view cables as simply different. One may be more pleasing to me than another, but my choices may be totally reversed for another person. On a horizontal plane, there is no "ultimate cable". We are all too different to categorically state one cable as being sonically superior to another.
Another good example of this is that some people still prefer tubes.
Written by ej , February 21, 2010
Other than making sure you have a sold connection, and wire of a quality where the information makes it to the other side intact, I refuse to believe the hype.
I equate it to "just knowing" my car is running better after I get it washed.
Let’s remember that this is a hobby.
Written by Phil Miller , February 22, 2010
There is no question that effect of cables – along with various other items of audio gear- is greatly exagerrated. Several items quickly come to mind – stones or, alternatively, coins that are placed on speakers to improve focus; tape that is placed on the driver surrounds to also improve focus and imagaing. Much of this stuff is snake oil and we all (should) know it. However the fact of the matter is that some of us continue to believe we hear improvement. This is a hobby and we follow it for the fun it provides – if that includes cables that are astronomical rip-offs, so be it. (Cars do run better after they have been washed.) Phil
Written by Walden , February 22, 2010
"Fundamentally, we all have different ears and we hear things very differently. This has been proven."
No, people can hear better then others but that is about it. Cables have been proven to not have a sonic impact in theory and in practice, what else is there to prove? I can understand that people still assume some high end audio companies sound better based on name and price but why are these same audiophools still hanging on to this notion that cables sound different?
Written by JEJ , February 22, 2010
We cannot prove that something does not exist, only that it does exist. Negative findings do not prove that there are no differences in cable performance. And, you should not ignore the fact that there are blind studies in which differences were heard, such as http://tech.yahoo.com/blog/null/65929. Electrical conduction is affected by the conductor configuration. The problem is that there are other variables, such as the output impedance of the source and the input impedance of the component at the other end. Also, as the article in AudioXpress indicated, oxidation on the connectors changes soon after connectors are plugged in, and this is measurable. You really need to keep an open mind about the whole thing. I am a believer in having good cables, I just don’t think that prices in the four and five figure range are justifiable.
Written by Scott_R_K , February 22, 2010
If you want to get kicked out of a Tradeshow , start poking your nose into the insides of Loudspeakers . Start asking questions on wire gauge , soldered , crimped , shielded , etc . Then go ask the python-gauge Cable makers to explain why their product would work on such a poorly built speaker . Whoosh…out you go ! If the Source and Sink Devices aren’t using the same quality of wire and termination techniques as the best Cable makers then you will lose all the benefit of even a single great cable .
Actually, there is a difference!
Written by Michael , February 22, 2010
I did quite a different test.
Instead of measuring resistance, capacitance, etc., I went to measure full system response. For this purpose I used Room EQ Wizard (REW) – free acoustics analyzer application.
I took MIT, XLO and some other 3rd brand. Calibrating SPL before each test as required by REW, I measured frequency response and group delay.
Well, there was audible difference in high frequencies of few dBs, and the same was measured.
I have the graphs, I can upload them somewhere
so, guys, cables do have a difference!
Written by some guy , February 22, 2010
You have to keep it all in perspective. Fundamentally, all that is needed with the vast majority of audio equipment are connectors and cable that follow the fairly basic rules of inductance, capacitance, and certain field effects that crop up with an AC signal (like music). This is not particularly hard to do, with some judicious choices and paying attention to a few principles.
There is a tendency in audio (and now video or A/V) to rely too much on the experience and recommendations of others. Whether it’s by reading reviews in magazines or online, or by ignoring those sources and asking people in forums, people take too little responsibility to determine what is right themselves.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with being aware of what is available in the market, but I cringe when I see (and this is very common) questions like "what is the best receiver for x dollars?" topics posted in forums. That is a poor question to ask; all you get are other people’s responses basically suggesting something they own.
Similarly, reviewers, whether they like it or not, effectively make buying decisions for consumers, because consumers rely too much on a positive review (which the consumer reads as "endorsement") of a product. This creates demand and a certain cachet for certain products. With respect to cabling, it creates an anxiety and a desire, when the better result would be the consumer making his or her own judgements, by listening, by assessing their needs, their wants, and their budget realistically.
So, when reviewers have boutique cabling that creates demand in consumers, and perhaps that demand is beyond actual need. Now, reviewers get stuff sent to them for review (obviously) and it’s no surprise that these items are commercially for sale. Why would you not use a cable that "you like" if cable is essentially always available to you? It does not automatically follow, however, that consumers should build systems the same way as reviewers do … there is an imbalance of opportunity and an imbalance of cost. Reviewers are always going to have cables about the house … it’s the nature of the job. Consumers have to buy them.
When it’s so difficult for some consumers to just go and choose products as simple as a receiver or disk player for themselves, it’s no wonder that they rely on outsiders to choose what level of cabling is appropriate. And when reviewers have ample opportunity to sample cabling, it’s not much of a stretch to expect they will use the stuff constantly thrust upon them in their systems, and say so in print from time to time what that product is.
Few people have the opportunity to listen to a truly revealing system. There are levels of audio refinement that almost no-one except a very dedicated minority have access to. I would expect that reviewers of audio in some publications have systems that no-one in my entire city can compare to (200,000 people). I have heard some truly great audio, but I would have to admit that "truly great" probably does not describe what some reviewers whom I read in the usual magazines use every day.
If you have such a system, encompassing the very best the world has to offer, I would not be surprised to learn that you can discern differences in cable rather evidently. I would also not be surprised to learn that, when you are at the pinnacle of the art, there may be nothing left to improve in the hardware. So, to that person, a cable of some stunning price tag may be worthwhile … it’s the only way to take it to the next level, and if you didn’t want to take it to the next level, you are a fool for owning components that each cost in the five figures. I have to assume they would, then, see a very expensive cable as worthwhile.
The problem is we ordinary folk think we have stunning systems, but we don’t. We have "truly great" systems to one degree or another. We should not be aspiring to 5,000 or 10,000 cables any more than we should be aspiring to gold plated plumbing. But, some do have gold plated plumbing.
A decent set of fundamentally good cabling is all we need. People have lost perspective to a huge degree. It’s not that there is no such thing as a worthwhile five-figure cable, it’s that if it were worthwhile, we are not in the league where it matters enough to go there … our parents used to talk of "keeping up with the Joneses" and there was a lesson in there. Perhaps we’ve forgotten the lesson.
For the vast, vast, vast majority of people, one you choose a fundamentally decent cable that you can afford, just stop right there. Better improvements can be made elsewhere at a better value. When you join the "lunatic fringe" … well, you’ll know it by more than just your hifi system. Till then … don’t sweat it. Worry about your own stuff first.
There is one thing about the debate about the value of cabling that I think should be mentioned. Whenever there is any discussion about the subject, and this article is no different, talk comes down to the principles of electronic theory, perhaps a little metallurgy but only in terms of it’s electrical properties … this factor is important, and the right value should be this, this material has this conductivity that you can look up in the textbook, and so on.
But all this theory approaches the subject with huge assumptions about the purity of metals, the ideal interface, an environment free of RF, "typical" input impedances, shielding assumed to be 100% coverage, and so on.
But the real world is a bit more imperfect than that. I do believe cabling matters (and let’s keep the budget reasonable … affordability is the first, not last criteria you should be considering) and I believe that it does, mostly because in the real world, we wallow in imperfections that affect our hifi systems.
Cabling can exaggerate or mitigate those imperfections, and if it does, we’ll hear something. Whether it’s "better" or "worse" is really our own opinion, but "different" I think is a given. Just not that different, most (not all … some stuff is just plain bad) of the time.
Written by Piero , February 22, 2010
Scott, you make a generalized and incorrect statement. No matter, you all seem off topic, JJ is merely saying at what point are these cables too expensive.
Written by JEJ , February 23, 2010
By "too expensive", I am referring to what is justifiable in terms of R&D and manufacturing costs, and that is only my opinion.
To Michael, "actually there is a difference", please post your graphs in the CAVE. Start a thread in the cables section and upload the graphs as gifs or jpgs.
Written by Walden , February 23, 2010
Surprise: People who visited the booth and listened to both sets of equipment (not in view) preferred the expensively cabled audio equipment 61 percent of the time.
Sorry but this is just the same as flipping a coin and does not prove anything. If it is not 100% then there is no difference.
Written by Walden , February 23, 2010
The slight differences in measurements are irrelevant.
Price does not equal value, and value is not a fixed entity.
Written by some guy , February 23, 2010
" … written by JEJ , February 23, 2010
By "too expensive", I am referring to what is justifiable in terms of R&D and manufacturing costs, and that is only my opinion. …"
I appreciate that it’s just your opinion, and I thank you for saying it out loud.
I don’t have a magic portal into the workings of the purveyors of stratospherically priced cabling, but I have my guesses (which you could, rightly, retort that they are only my opinion).
But I suspect that these companies do spend some time and money researching how cabling affects the signal between boxes. I also suspect that the pinnacle of the product line is priced in such a way as to recover some of those costs, perhaps well out of proportion to the manufacturing cost of that particular cable compared to the journeyman offerings in the product line; the stuff mere mortals can afford.
That is fine, as far as I’m concerned. If it’s true, then it lowers the cost of what I normally buy to a certain extent. I don’t see how anyone could have a problem with that, but I suppose you could object solely on principle.
But even if it isn’t, I don’t object to $25,000 cables anymore than I object to $400,000 Ferraris. The beauty of the free market is there is no "wasting" of capital when you buy a product … money is re-spent on furniture and food eventually, regardless of how it actually changes hands in the initial transaction. It’s not critical to the cabinet maker or the farmer that the initial transaction involved a product most would consider unfathomable, taken at it’s face. Their kids get shoes either way.
I can think of a thousand things I cannot afford that I believe are overpriced, or offer little value for the money, and I’m sure there are people out there who think my purchase of … get this … a $400 phono preamp (a purchase that was considered ludicrous before Mark Levinson and the likes of dB Systems introduced their groundbreaking products 35 years ago) is proof that I’ve lost all perspective about the value of a dollar, and amongst the less politically generous amongst them, that "something should be done" to curb my expression of "insanity".
Others would consider my purchase either something of a bargain, or perhaps scraping the lower levels of what is possible, or prudent, or appropriate for the task at hand. The opinions on the merits of my purchase decision could easily run from "completely unnecessary" to "a pathetic compromise", and everywhere in between.
You can substitute "interconnect" for "phono preamp" and arrive right smack in the middle of this discussion. I welcome some aspects of this series in *Secrets*, but the debate about whether there is such a thing as any value whatsoever in a cable no-one reading is likely to ever buy seems to me somewhat pointless, and I would be shocked to discover in the future that this article somehow ends up being the final word on the subject.
I build my own cables, and don’t break the bank going there, but certainly it costs some money. To do so is to accept that nothing I use will ever be recommended, or reviewed, and I’m OK with that. But if by some bizarre set of improbable circumstances someone would offer me $25,000 for a set of my interconnects, and declare them "the best in the world", I’d save my doubts until after I cashed the check. And then I’d buy shoes for the kids
Written by JEJ , February 23, 2010
A $400,000 Ferrari is hand made, part by part. A cable is made by spinning wires together by a machine or forced (extruded) through a die. It comes out like pasta through a pasta-making machine. It is wound onto a roll and cut to desired lengths. The basics of electrical conduction through wires are already known. They just program the CNC to wind or extrude the conductors in various ways, according to what the company thinks might be a good configuration to try out. It is not a complex procedure, and once the presses are rolling, the cable just comes out foot by foot, meter by meter. There is no way a pair of 5 meter speaker cables should cost $25,000.
And I never intended for this article to be the final word on the subject of high priced cables, or cables vs. sound quality for that matter. It is simply a technical discussion that we have not had before at Secrets, and I want to voice what I think about overpricing.
Written by some guy , February 23, 2010
" … A $400,000 Ferrari is hand made, part by part. A cable is made by spinning wires together by a machine or forced (extruded) through a die. It comes out like pasta through a pasta-making machine. It is wound onto a roll and cut to desired lengths. …"
With all due respect, Ferrari makes their cars the same way everyone else does, and that involves a lot of outsourced parts and a lot of robots. A great deal of the cost in such a car is low volume manufacturing, which forces a proportion of the design cost, back in the office, which Ferrari does do a lot of, to a disproportionate level on a per-car basis.
And despite what the process of manufacturing cable involves, when you sell a 100 meters or less of it during the life of the product (unless the lunatic fringe is far more spendthrift and significantly more numerous than my experience suggests) no factory is going to give you much of a break on the tooling costs, and computers, business class software, salaries, and office space cost the same in New Jersey as they do in Modeno, which will result in … wait for it … a disproportionate level of the design cost on a per-cable basis.
There are businesses on the planet that pay much more than $1000 a foot for signal cable … go out at night and wait for a bright example of their handiwork to fly by.
Written by twiceaday , February 23, 2010
I have a few questions for those arguing in favor of high-end cables (or for that matter, anything beyond well-made basic cables):
Do you control the humidity in your listening room? What about the oxygen/nitrogen balance? Either of these would have measurable effects on the soundwave as it travels from the speakers to your ears.
Do you hold absolutely still while listening to your audio system? Even a few millimeters of motion will substantially alter the perceived signal from your speakers.
Do you have either a generator or a dedicated line from your power company? If not, substantial interference is introduced long before the electrical signal ever reaches your amplifier.
Yes, expensive cables look pretty and basic ones look ugly, but in terms of sonic fidelity, the air in your room and the precise location of your ears have a much greater impact.
Written by ChrisHeinonen , February 23, 2010
Though off topic, if you think that a Ferrari is built the same way as any other car, you haven’t really watched a tour of the factory before:
It’s in Italian unfortunately (I’ve seen a tour on Discovery HD before), but while parts are machined like other car companies, they are then hand inspected, polished, and tuned, in addition to fully assembled by hand, the fabric is all stitched by hand, and there is a fantastic amount of work that goes into each of those cars. Yes, it’s on a small scale, but it’s also done in such an exacting way, you know where your money has gone.
I can’t talk about how cables are made, as I’ve got no idea about that, but watching that video will give you a better idea of how much work goes into a Ferrari. You’ll also see some gardens in the plant, that was done to keep the humidity at a better level for working on them, and was friendlier than just adding humidifiers.
Written by Piero , February 23, 2010
So do we think the expense is based on what the market will bear? Certainly these ultra-expensive cables wouldn’t be manufactured if nobody wanted them, however if the markup is so great, it’s not like these cables are made and sit around using up valuable capital? Ferraris are made to an extreme limit and therefore valuable and pre-ordered for a couple of years. They could almost ask what they want?
Mass vs. Batch Manufacturing
Written by Andrew Yang , February 23, 2010
By nature, for low unit volume runs the manufacturing process will differ from high unit volume runs. The economics of automation are not favorable until a minimum unit threshold is achieved, typically in excess of 100k units. All this to say, in addition to the supporting evidence from the video, that Ferraris (or Bugattis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, et al) are not manufactured in the same manner as your average Ford. The unit cost correctly would include COGS, SG&A and Depreciation. At every point a Ferrari has a higher cost, which results in a price that is an order of magnitude higher than mass manufactured automobiles.
Written by JEJ , February 23, 2010
Once the coils of wire and the extrusion die are set up, the cable is mass produced.
Smoke and Mirrors
Written by Vilip , February 24, 2010
I have a lot of expensive audio equipment. I’ve justified and rationalized my audio expenditures. I like what I have.
Would I have desired to spend less – yes… But the market always balances out. Sellers always sell for the most they can get and buyers always pay as little as possible. And the reality is always somewhere in between.
Mercedes is a good example. Mercedes is generally considered to have the best engineering in the automotive world – and perhaps their most expensive cars are the best engineered. Everything else in their product line benefits accordingly.
What we perceive as good value varies greatly. The more personal the experience is, the easier it is to rationalize. Audio is very personal. And for each and every one of us who are bitten there will always be a certain disconnect about pricing. We spend on audio what we will and not as we should as with other things.
We all agree that the included cable in the box sucks because you can’t get something for nothing (even though the cost of the cable is buried in the price – so it isn’t really free). Why should cable cost $1 per foot or $100 per foot or $10,000 per foot? The "real" cost is always a moving target, depending on the vagaries of the perception of value.
What we choose to connect the gear is always ancillary (and some would argue the gear is also ancillary). We supplement because we can. We think it works better somehow. Start the rationalization.
Beyond what works is simply smoke and mirrors. And we have all taken the blue pill…
Written by some guy , February 26, 2010
" … I have a few questions for those arguing in favor of high-end cables (or for that matter, anything beyond well-made basic cables …"
I am not arguing "for" high-end cables. I am arguing that they have a right to exist in the marketplace, and that if no-one bought them, they would soon go away, as the free market pretty much insures they would.
As for all cables being made the same way, there are cables made of liquid metals (metals that are liquid at room temperature … an easy to grasp example of such a metal is mercury) that, obviously, cannot be extruded by dies.
Since the main premise of the article is about the price, not the material, I suggest they be included as well.
Written by JEJ , March 01, 2010
Apparently, there are such things as liquid cables. Here is the link:
But, it is not mercury in the cable. It is a mixture of gallium, indium, and tin. Gallium becomes a liquid at just above room temperature, and Indium/Tin Oxide is used in liquid crystal displays.
Written by JEJ , March 01, 2010
See also a discussion in the CAVE (link is shown below), where one of our readers measured the room response with different cables, and found a difference that can be seen on graphs. Hello!!! Has anyone tried this before? Can the proof that cables make a difference be this simple? Criticisms (valid ones) anybody?
Written by Tyler , March 02, 2010
I would suspect a very poor design with one of those cables if those measurements are legit. Anyone with any kind of engineering knowledge knows that you would not experience differences of that magnitude between properly designed cables.
Written by Tyler , March 02, 2010
"But I suspect that these companies do spend some time and money researching how cabling affects the signal between boxes."
NOT. If this was true, companies would be willing to actually publish scientific data to support their work…which they don’t. Hell, Nordost is the only boutique company I know of that at least publishes specs for their wire, even though their products are ridiculously overpriced.
I’m convinced that most of the cable companies come up with a layout that looks fancy and expensive,then have a marketing department create some BS that sounds scientific to ignorant buyers, and then proceed to price the product at 1000%+ of the manufacturing cost.
Clean signals? – Real world experience from a different arena.
Written by Dale DuVall , March 03, 2010
Put me in the mostly, but not completely, skeptics camp. I am educated (and I use that term loosely!) in physics, but have spent most of my career designing and manufacturing custom precision electronics. I concede that this does not indicate I know "squat" about audio. However, I do believe some of my experiences may be applicable. I am not attempting to address any one issue in detail, but wish to provide a few random musings (some obvious, some possibly wrong).
They should be adequate to handle the current (must are). They should have quality connectors (most do). If the power cables are going to run anywhere close to other wiring or equipment, twisted shielded pairs are preferable, perhaps necessary. Keep them as short as possible. Some of the claims I see for power cords are beyond my level of understanding. For instance, how can a power cord help deliver a huge demand for instantaneous current when the AC signal is crossing zero??
I want some type of line surge protection for all my electronic equipment, including phones, computers, etc. Surge protection and high frequency filtering is a good thing, and possibly regenerating AC power if one suffers significant voltage distortion and/or variations. (My personal preference might be to use paramagnetic transformers, but they are expensive, heavy, and not particularly pretty.)
When told about all the evil phenomena that can creep into my system without perfectly clean power, megajoules on demand, etc., I wonder what the hell is the power supply in the equipment supposed to do?
Interconnect cables should be shielded. Balanced pairs should be twisted and shielded. Keeping the runs as short as possible is as important, if not more so, than any other thing. ( I’d probably choose a 1/10" paper clip connection over a 10′ $10K masterpiece.) Terminations of wires to connectors should use gas-tight crimps for reliability. Good quality, gold plated connector pins are recommended (I don’t know enough about silver plating to comment). Do not make too sharp a bend in cables. This can disrupt the shielding and even separate the insulation from the wire, which is disastrous in impedance controlled coaxial cable. I have auditioned cables, and must confess, I cannot tell much, if any difference among many samples. Maybe I just don’t have that Golden Ear, (or vivid imagination?). I don’t buy junk, but don’t see the need for extremely expensive cables, either. (P.S. It’s probably a good idea to clean connectors occasionally, but with good, tight fitting contacts, this should be rare). I wonder if cable auditioners take great pains to keep all other parameters fixed (cable lengths, cable routing, etc., not to mention the glasses of wine…)??
Speaker cables, especially if running near any other wiring, should probably be shielded. Maybe not so much for what they might pick up (this part of the system is low Z) but what they may radiate. They should have a low enough impedance to handle large currents demands. I’m not sure how you can match any cable perfectly to a speaker, since it’s Z wanders all over the place.
The entire outside of any electrical chassis should be grounded. I would hope that manufacturers take great pains to make this so, but with so many panels anodized, painted, etc., I wonder if this is true. Unfortunately, this is difficult to check unless you scratch through the coatings or open the chassis and check from the inside! (Screwheads don’t count!)
If cables cross close to one another, try to keep them at right angles to one another.
System grounding is a big deal, but often very little can be done about it. This is because each piece of equipment is designed independently from the rest of the system, and must meet agency approvals, etc. This is a subject unto itself, as I have found ground loops a very misunderstood topic.
If possible, make sure your safety ground at the wall outlet really has a very low impedance path to earth ground. I have seen people run a separate earth ground from their equipment straight to a buried copper rod in the earth. While this may seem extreme, I would never say you’re wasting your time doing it.
In summary, I would suggest that proper shielding, grounding, and cable routing play a more significant role in clean sound than does most of the latest, greatest, double mojo, hexihelical wound, superconducting, triple-knotted wonder cables.
Cables, has anyone tried making cable out of Daburn FEP ribbon cable?
Written by JBK , March 05, 2010
Has anyone made speaker cables out of the Daburn FEP ribbon cable?
How did you terminate them?
What were the results?
To put things in prespective, I don’t believe in megabuck interconnects, speaker or power cables. My experience has shown there is a point of diminishing returns and in some cases the more expensive cable degraded the sound of my system. So I like to experiment a little. Hence the question about using the Daburn for speaker cables.
Written by Walden567 , March 05, 2010
"Speaker cables, especially if running near any other wiring, should probably be shielded."
Wrong, obviously you need to do some very basic research. This is novice information that you should know about.
Written by some guy , March 06, 2010
" … Apparently, there are such things as liquid cables. Here is the link:
But, it is not mercury in the cable. It is a mixture of gallium, indium, and tin. Gallium becomes a liquid at just above room temperature, and Indium/Tin Oxide is used in liquid crystal displays. …"
I did not say such cables used mercury. I provided an example of a metal that is liquid at room temperature, because at first glance the concept is a bit alien to most people.
" … there are cables made of liquid metals (metals that are liquid at room temperature … an easy to grasp example of such a metal is mercury) …"
Just like Orange Juice
Written by Arjan , March 08, 2010
It’s just like with orange juice: it all comes out of the same tanker-ship and only later they add some extra flavours.
There are many cable-companies but only a few cable manufacturers. The companies order their wire here, and they ask to put something extra to make it look more fancy. In general you get the same copper at the DIY store. That wire comes from the same factory.
That extra flavour can cause a 5% better sound experience in the long run. But $2000 buys you the best tweeter in the whole world, that will make a 300% difference.
Just the facts mame
Written by Norm , March 08, 2010
I believe you’re really preaching to the choir on this one. But, good for you anyway. Back in 1991, The Audio Critic published some no nonsense technical articles (Numbers 16 & 17) about the reasons cables can "sound" different. Sounding different does not make a cable better though, and too many audiophiles treat them as tone controls.
For those interested, here’s the link:
Thanks for the article!
Written by David Gibbons , March 09, 2010
The average Joe or Jane goes down to Best Buy, and for those people to buy expensive interconnects hurts them. The high cost of the ‘fancy’ interconnects they get pressured into buying means that too much of their budget goes to interconnects, ad so they buy an inferior TV, or Amp, or DVD/Blu-ray player, or particularly inferior speakers.
The degradation of sound or picture from the inferior components will NEVER be fixed by the fancy cables…
The high profit margins on the interconnects earns them a lot of attention by the stores who sell them.
How do we educate the average HT buyer to choose interconnects that are appropriate to their purchase? I posted advicet on my website – how about you folks?
Written by JEJ , March 10, 2010
The concept of "how much you should spend on cables" has been beaten to death on every A/V website. The general advice is to spend 10% of your total A/V budget on cables.
What the makers use.
Written by James M , March 11, 2010
As one comment has already pointed out, have a look at what the speaker and component manufacturers use,especially the higher end ones. This will give you a good indication of what good quality and good sounding cable is like. My suggestion is to buy well made 12g speaker cable and short lengths of interconnects with tight fittings.
By all means pay what you want, but you will get great sound and vision without going all high end. Spend the savings on music or movies and enjoy.
What’s the harm
Written by David D , March 15, 2010
So some rich guy (mostly guys) wants to spend more money on his hobby. I doubt the rich guy is going into this with his eyes closed. And as long as the seller is not making fraudulent claims, why is everyone getting so upset? The harm, if their is any, is limited to someone who can afford it.
It is a different story with mid-priced products like Monster sold to average guys for whom this is a one-off purchase. Caught up in the emotion of making a major purchase, many consumers place too much faith in the advice of salesmen. I think that $100 Monster HDMI cables represent a far bigger swindle than $10,000 Nordost Valhalla interconnects.
There might be some harm when Joe Moneybags buys Valhallas, but it is pretty subtle. From an economic standpoint (I am an academic economist), the potential harm is that resources that might have gone to some other greater good have been diverted to making the Valhallas. How much better off would we be if those greedy cable makers were hard at work designing, oh, Apple iPads or whatever? Probably not much.
More Cable Effect with Bad Equipment?
Written by John Meyer , March 21, 2010
I’ve been a cable skeptic from the first demo I witnessed 30 years ago. There were 2 foot sections of the huge expensive cable and something of the lampcord genre switched by a switch mounted on a portable table. The connections were underneath.
The difference was quite large but being a loudspeaker designer, I recognized that most of the difference was level, not sound quality.
I asked to see under the table and examine the switch mechanism. Request denied several times.
A 2 or 3dB difference in level over 2 feet isn’t possible so I had just witnessed my first cable scam.
I have heard the difference between a standard ac power cord and a high end unit. Subtle but distinct.
However, I wonder how dependent the effects some people claim to hear are the result of poor electronics reacting to a change in cable characteristics.
We know tube amps are incredibly sensitive to speaker impedance. Is it not possible that gear with poor grounding, unstable power supplies and other design issues are sensitive to different loads of the magnitude JEJs tests demonstrated ie capacitance and impedance varying by a factor of 10+?
If that is true, the better designed electronics would be less subject to cable differences than gear "with more character".
Also, the differences are far greater in the analog domain than in the digital domain.
Any comments JEJ?
Written by JEJ , March 22, 2010
JM – Yes, I completely agree that impedance characteristics could play a major role in the sound of two components linked together by those cables. That is part of the selling point of cable manufacturers, namely, to have low inductance and capacitance. I have to say that the only time a sound improvement was obvious to me was when I changed from 13 gauge lamp cord to Nordost Flatline, which has flat conductors with Teflon dielectric. I could hear more highs, so I suspect the lamp cord was rolling off the high frequencies. But, beyond that experience, I really have never heard anything that I could be absolutely sure was not just my imagination. One exceptions was some Legenburg cable that seemed to give me more bass, and I don’t have any explanation for it.
Written by RAllen , April 06, 2010
JM You heard the difference between an expensive and regular power cord?
How could a power cord possibly affect the sound of a component? Did it somehow tag the electrons so they would all line up in the capacitors and power supply so they’d come out of the transistor/tube in the correct order?
Unless the "regular" cable so contrained current flow that it caused a serious voltage drop (which means it would be glowing) there just isn’t any possible way it could change anything about the sound.
Overpriced cables are silly and power cords are absurd.
If it makes them happy…
Written by Mike , April 07, 2010
The value of something is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. Exclusivity and bragging rights are obviously worth a lot to some cable lovers.
This will never end
Written by rhassle , September 18, 2010
I think that it takes enormous hubris to think that we can reduce the complex interactions between an audio signal traveling though cables connected to complex electronics to a few simple parmeters. We don’t know what we don’t know about the physics of these interactions. Reductionists love to talk about this as though it is simple.
I don’t care what anyone on this or any other forum thinks they know about cables. I have changed cables throughout my system and better cables yield better sound. I have continued to go up the product lines in my system and I have heard improvements at every step and they are not subtle.
Some of you have spoken about the maunfacturers of these cables as though they are holding guns to your heads and making you buy expensive cables. They are not. Others have talked about how they are ruining the audio industry. They are not.
Get over all of this and move on to a topic that really does something besides raising the ire of people on both sides of the argument.
help the little guy!
Written by David Gibbons (Thinking about Home Theater) , February 04, 2011
I want to back up the thought that we need to help the little guy who is shopping at Best Buy. I concur with those who note that dollars spent on better speakers or displays will have a vastly greater effect on the listening/viewing experience than spending those dollars on high-end interconnects for such folks.
Stores maximize their profits by selling the high-profit margin interconnects. That’s good business. Still, it’s not in the best interests of the customer, if the point is the best sound/picture for their hard-earned dollars.
The real issue is how to communicate this to the general A/V consumer. The stores and the magazines largely cater to the interconnect makers, as there is money to be made. Consumer reports has done a bit of work on this topic, and I salute them for their efforts, not least because ordinary consumers look to them for reasoned advice.
For the stinkin’ rich person who just wants to show off how much money the system cost – well, gold-plated toilets are on offer too..
Expensive power cables are ludicrous
Written by Stewart McKibben , November 20, 2011
So you go buy power cables for $100’s with expensive plugs. Then stick them in a contractor-grade ($0.99) outlet wired through no telling how many other back-wired devices, sharing the circuit with unknown noise sources. Are you nuts? Take the bucks, hire an electrician and install BX (metal sheathed) 10ga wire to the main panel with it’s own 20A breaker and set a hospital-grade isolated-ground outlet for the audio system. Now you have slain numerous dragons that can affect your audio quality. If the electrician is industrially-profecient he probably has a Fluke analyzer that can show noise on the line. Noisy? find the source and treat it directly, and/or use a powerline conditioner, or better yet find a big surplus isolation transformer. That is where the smart bucks are spent.