I don't imagine WiFi HiFi Publisher John Thomson realized he was setting off a firestorm earlier this year when he posed the question "Do Cables Matter?" in his weekly newsletter. Over the next few days, John's inbox filled up with messages weighing in passionately on both sides of the debate.
Jim Thompson, a long-time Yamaha Canada rep who retired in 2008, recalled discussing the subject with Floyd Toole, who ran the acoustics program at Canada's National Research Council in Ottawa before decamping to California to head up R&D at Harman International. "Any claims of enhanced performance from high-priced audio cables are nonsense," Dr. Toole maintained. "They're nothing but jewelry."
Garry Harrison, Senior Claims Coordinator, B.C. Interior, for Best Buy Canada's ReClaim insurance replacement service, recounted a training session at Vancouver's A&B Sound, during which he swapped a generic speaker wire and premium Monster product. The Monster rep rhapsodized about the superior sound of what he thought was a Monster cable, then backpedaled furiously when informed of the switch. Afterward, he never spoke to Harrison again.
Solidly on the pro-cable side was Sheldon Ginn, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Kevro International, which distributes Tributaries cables in Canada. "Everyday cables get the job done," Ginn wrote, "but good speaker wire, interconnects and power cable ... can make the difference between an enjoyable listen and one that produces goosebumps."
The cable question has long been settled, insisted Saxe Brickenden, Director of Marketing for Evolution Home Entertainment Corp. Evolution was Monster Cable's Canadian distributor during the 1980s and '90s; its sister company Gem-Sen Holdings Corp., was recently appointed Canadian distributor for Wireworld products. "There should be no debate in 2015" on this question, Brickenden wrote. "Cables, like any link in the chain, can make a difference."
Of course, the debate about audio cables is very much alive. Indeed, there is no surer way to ignite a flame war on any of the audio-video forums that to raise the question of cables.
That said, there's no serious debate that cables sometimes matter. For long runs, you need reliable cable for high-bandwidth applications like HDMI, digital data and video. That's vital for the custom channel. As Brickenden comments, "When an HDMI cable doesn't work, it costs our integrator partners a fortune in lost goodwill, and in paying to roll a truck to troubleshoot."
Equally, for very low-voltage applications like microphone and musical instrument feeds, and phono cartridges as well, you need very effective shielding and termination to avoid noise problems. Not even die-hard skeptics would dispute any of this.
Skeptics agree that speaker cables and analog interconnects can have sonic effects; but say these can be explained by standard filter theory. For example, a thick speaker cable with widely separated positive and negative conductors will exhibit high series inductance, leading to rolled-off high frequencies, notes James Tanner, Vice President of Bryston Ltd. An exotic speaker cable whose positive and negative conductors are composed of tightly braided, separately insulated strands will exhibit high shunt capacitance, which in some cases can cause amplifier instability and harsh sound.
Tanner lays out these principles in a short paper called "Getting Wired." "There is not a day that goes by where I do not get asked what cable Bryston recommends with our amplifiers," he writes. "Part of the problem is that there is an awful lot of marketing going on, and not science in some cases. The elaborate packaging of these interconnects and speaker cables may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but the electrical characteristics are still the primary issue of concern. Simply stated, the geometry (where the plus is relative to the minus) of a cable determines the inter-relationship between the measured performance of a specific cable. These measured performance criteria are called the ‘Primary Constants.' They are R-resistance, L-inductance, C-shunt capacitance and G-shunt conductance. You can play around with all types of exotic packaging and add-on appendages you like, but ultimately the measured performance (primary constants) tell the tale."
Where there is real debate is around the more controversial claims of premium cable vendors, many of which cause my eyebrows to rise dramatically.
Most cable vendors mark signal direction on their products, specifying what end of a speaker cable should go into the amp and what end should go into the speaker, and what end of an interconnect should go into the signal source and what end should into the amplifier. But electrons flow in both directions in any audio signal, so how can cable directionality affect what we hear?
Torus Power's line-conditioning products are built around large and heavy toroidal transformers that filter out interference on the AC line, and supply large amounts of current to connected components on demand. Torus' parent company, Toronto-based Piltron Manufacturing, supplies power transformers to companies like Bryston and McIntosh, and also makes power products for hospitals, broadcasters and other industrial users. Photo: John Thomson
Those electrons don't flow at all in the insulation, which is exactly the point. But cable vendors maintain that the insulating material (or dielectric) does affect the sound, and highlight the advantages of their formulations.
Some explanations on how audio cables work their magic border on the bizarre. Cardas Audio, for example, sells cables with multiple strands of different thickness. Their relative size adheres to a Golden Ratio said to reduce noise. Cable vendors also use a ton of ten-dollar words in their literature, sometimes in cases where a simpler phrase would get the point across more clearly. Is this bullshit baffling brains; or is this terminology needed to describe the underlying phenomena precisely?
Then there are the prices. At the extreme high end, a pair of interconnects or speaker cables can cost as much as an entry-level luxury car: many tens of thousands.
Not only that, cable vendors sell high-priced products for applications that, at first glance, make little sense. For connecting a computer to a DAC, how can a 1m USB cable alter the sound? Either the ones and zeros get there, or they don't.
Equally controversial is the benefit of expensive power cords. As Tanner writes in "Getting Wired," "When you plug your power cord into the wall outlet, you are in series with all the wire on the other side of the wall, all the way back to the power source. The small length of power cord from the wall to the amp is insignificant compared to the miles of wire it is connected to. As long as the power cord can deliver the current and voltage required to drive the amplifier to full power, it is as good as it can get."