ON THE FENCE
I've been a skeptic for a long time, but in recent years I've started to waver. For the last couple of years, I've used a short length of UltraLink Excelsior speaker cable, basically because I had it on hand from an earlier project. For most of my life, I've used 14- or 16-gauge lamp cord to connect speakers, and generic RCA cables to connect source components. Ever since I got into file-based playback a couple of years ago, I've used a generic USB cable to connect my Mac Mini to an external DAC. And I've never used anything other than the generic power cables included with my components.
While power conditioners enjoy more mainstream acceptance than exotic cables, I'm a little skeptical about them as well. Shouldn't a well-designed power supply in an amplifier be able to deliver all the energy needed to produce all the dynamics the amplifier can achieve? And shouldn't that same power supply filter out any spurious noise before it reaches the voltage rails in the amp?
William Low, Founder and CEO, AudioQuest: "My attitude toward cable, whether it's a $20 cable or a $10,000 cable, is that it's only appropriate when it's the least expensive way to make the biggest difference. That is the charter to me."
My skepticism about high-priced cables was reinforced by blind listening tests I conducted for the Canadian magazine Audio Ideas Guide in the early 1990s. For seven different listeners, I played a succession of clips using two eight-foot speaker cables, identified simply as Wire A and Wire B. Switching was instantaneous, performed with a Bryston switch box. One of the cables was an expensive (though not outrageous) specialty product (I forget the brand); the other was generic 16-gauge speaker wire purchased from Radio Shack.
The procedure was structured differently than most blind listening tests. Wire A might be the expensive brand and Wire B the cheap stuff, or vice versa. In other cases, Wire A and Wire B were both the same, either the expensive brand or the Radio Shack wire. The sequence was randomized for each listener. Before the listening tests, I told them about the methodology, so they knew that for half of the clips, Wire A and B would be the same.
All seven subjects were audiophiles and music-lovers. On a printed questionnaire, they were asked whether the two cables sounded the same or different. If the cables sounded different, they were asked if they had a preference and why.
Listeners correctly identified sameness and difference for about 51% of the total playback sessions: basically a coin toss plus a rounding error. On the surface, this apparent randomness confirms the nay side of the debate: that the audible benefits of exotic speaker cables are essentially nil.
When I examined the data more deeply, I found something very interesting. On the first music clip they listened to, all seven subjects correctly identified sameness and difference. The 100% score could have happened by chance, but the odds of this are one in 128. I think a likelier explanation is listener fatigue. In this unfamiliar setting, it became increasingly difficult for the test subjects to hear fine differences.
Wireworld's Series 7 power cords features flat construction for easier installation, and dual low-impedance shields to minimize interference. Wireworld says its new Composilex 2 insulation minimizes "triboelectric noise," which occurs when the insulation acquires and then releases an electrostatic charge. The step-up Aurora 7 cables provided for this article employs silver-clad oxygen-free copper (OFC) conductors and silver-clad copper alloy plug contacts.
There was another interesting result: some subjects claiming to hear differences through the same cable. In one session, a listener stated that Wire B gave "a much more convincing portrayal of the musical event," even though it was exactly the same as Wire A! Naysayers often attribute acceptance of premium cables to a placebo effect, and that was clearly the case here.
Although there are lots reasons to be skeptical about audiophile cables, the case against them is far from conclusive. Many observers whose judgement in these matters I respect say these products have made unmistakable improvements in their systems.