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Thread: The Great Cable Debate

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    Site Founder And Administrator Steve Williams's Avatar
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    The Great Cable Debate

    Having read with interest the brief bio put up on our site by Audioguy re the late John Dunlavy it got me remembering John's famous article on Cable Nonsense

    I am on record as being cable neutral. I am content with my Nordost Valhalla IC's, power cords and speaker cables having owned many of the high end cables. Re-reading John's dissertation re cables should give everyone (regardless of the camp they are in) pause to reflect on his findings

    I am certainly not here to diss people with very expensive cables because my feeling is that if they say they can hear a difference it would be difficult to refute that they didn't.I am also not a fan of double blind tests.

    Please read John's article from 1996. I would be interested in members' thoughts and where they stand in the Great Cable Debate.

    Let's always keep the debate polite and civil

    Date: Tue, 5 Nov 1996 13:08:50 -0500
    From: 102365.2026@compuserve.com (Dunlavy Audio Labs)
    To: bass@mcfeeley.cc.utexas.edu (bass group)
    Subject: Cable Nonsense (Long)

    Having read some of the recent comments on several of the Internet audio groups, concerning audible differences between interconnect and loudspeaker cables, I could not resist adding some thoughts about the subject as a concerned engineer possessing credible credentials.

    To begin, several companies design and manufacture loudspeaker and interconnect cables which they proudly claim possess optimized electrical properties for the audiophile applications intended. However, accurate measurements of several popularly selling cables reveal significant differences that call into question the technical goals of their designer. These differences also question the capability of the companies to perform accurate measurements of important cable performance properties. For example, any company not possessing a precision C-L-R bridge, a Vector Impedance Meter, a Network Analyzer, a precision waveform and impulse generator, wideband precision oscilloscopes, etc., probably needs to purchase them if they are truly serious about designing audio cables that provide premium performance.

    The measurable properties of loudspeaker cables that are important to their performance include characteristic impedance (series inductance and parallel capacitance per unit length), loss resistance (including additional resistance due to skin-effect losses versus frequency), dielectric losses versus frequency (loss tangent, etc.), velocity-of-propagation factor, overall loss versus frequency into different impedance loads, etc.

    Measurable properties of interconnect cables include all of the above, with the addition of those properties of the dielectric material that contribute to microphonic noise in the presence of ambient vibration, noise, etc. (in combination with a D.C. off-set created by a pre-amp output circuit, etc.).

    While competent cable manufacturers should be aware of these measurements and the need to make them during the design of their cables, the raw truth is that most do not! Proof of this can be found in the absurd buzzard-salve, snake-oil and meaningless advertising claims found in almost all magazine ads and product literature for audiophile cables. Perhaps worse, very few of the expensive, high-tech appearing cables we have measured appear to have been designed in accordance with the well-known laws and principles taught by proper physics and engineering disciplines. (Where are the costly Government Consumer Protection people who are supposed to protect innocent members of the public by identifying and policing questionable performance claims, misleading specifications, etc.?) --- Caveat Emptor!

    For example, claiming that copper wire is directional, that slow-moving electrons create distortion as they haphazardly carry the signal along a wire, that cables store and release energy as signals propagate along them, that a final energy component (improperly labeled as Joules) is the measure of the tonality of cables, ad nauseum, are but a few of the non-entities used in advertisements to describe cable performance.

    Another pet peeve of mine is the concept of a special configuration included with a loudspeaker cable which is advertised as being able to terminate the cable in a matter intended to deliver more accurate tonality, better imaging, lower noise, etc. The real truth is that this special configuration contains nothing more than a simple, inexpensive network intended to prevent poorly-designed amplifiers, with a too-high slew-rate (obtained at the expense of instability caused by too much inverse-feedback) from oscillating when connected to a loudspeaker through a low-loss, low-impedance cable. When this box appears at the loudspeaker-end of a cable, it seldom contains nothing more than a Zobel network, which is usually a series resistor-capacitor network, connector in parallel with the wires of the cable. If it is at the amplifier-end of the cable, it is probably either a parallel resistor-inductor network, connected in series with the cable conductors (or a simple cylindrical ferrite sleeve covering both conductors). But the proper place for such a network, if it is needed to insure amplifier stability and prevent high-frequency oscillations, is within the amplifier - not along the loudspeaker cable. Hmmm!

    Having said all this, are there really any significant audible differences between most cables that can be consistently identified by experienced listeners? The answer is simple: very seldom! Those who claim otherwise do not fully grasp the power of the old Placebo-Effect - which is very alive and well among even the most well-intentioned listeners. The placebo-effect renders audible signatures easy to detect and describe - if the listener knows which cable is being heard. But, take away this knowledge during blind or double-blind listening comparisons and the differences either disappear completely or hover close to the level of random guessing. Speaking as a competent professional engineer, designer and manufacturer, nothing would please me and my company's staff more than being able to design a cable which consistently yielded a positive score during blind listening comparisons against other cables. But it only rarely happens - if we wish to be honest!

    Oh yes, we have heard of golden-eared audiophiles who claim to be able to consistently identify huge, audible differences between cables. But when these experts have visited our facility and were put to the test under carefully-controlled conditions, they invariably failed to yield a score any better than chance. For example, when led to believe that three popular cables were being compared, varying in size from a high-quality 12 AWG ZIP-CORD to a high-tech looking cable with a diameter exceeding an inch, the largest and sexiest looking cable always scored best - even though the CABLES WERE NEVER CHANGED and they listened to the ZIP Cord the entire time.

    Sorry, but I do not buy the claims of those who say they can always audibly identify differences between cables, even when the comparisons are properly controlled to ensure that the identity of the cable being heard is not known by the listener. We have accomplished too many true blind comparisons with listeners possessing the right credentials, including impeccable hearing attributes, to know that real, audible differences seldom exist - if the comparisons are properly implemented to eliminate other causes such as system interactions with cables, etc.

    Indeed, during these comparisons (without changing cables), some listeners were able to describe in great detail the big differences they thought they heard in bass, high-end detail, etc. (Of course, the participants were never told the NAUGHTY TRUTH, lest they become an enemy for life!)

    So why does a reputable company like DAL engage in the design and manufacture of audiophile cables? The answer is simple: since significant measurable differences do exist and because well-known and understood transmission line theory defines optimum relationships between such parameters as cable impedance and the impedance of the load (loudspeaker), the capacitance of an interconnect and the input impedance of the following stage, why not design cables that at least satisfy what theory has to teach? And, since transmission line theory is universally applied, quite successfully, in the design of cables intended for TV, microwave, telephone, and other critical applications requiring peak performance, etc., why not use it in designing cables intended for critical audiophile applications? Hmmm! To say, as some do, that there are factors involved that competent engineers and scientists have yet to identify is utter nonsense and a cover-up for what should be called pure snake oil and buzzard salve - in short, pure fraud. If any cable manufacturer, writer, technician, etc. can identify such an audible design parameter that cannot be measured using available lab equipment or be described by known theory, I can guarantee a nomination for a Nobel Prize.

    Anyway, I just had to share some of my favorite Hmmm's, regarding cable myths and seemingly fraudulent claims, with audiophiles on the net who may lack the technical expertise to separate fact from fiction with regard to cable performance. I also welcome comments from those who may have other opinions or who may know of something I might have missed or misunderstood regarding cable design, theory or secret criteria used by competitors to achieve performance that cannot be measured or identified by conventional means. Lets all try to get to the bottom of this mess by open, informed and objective inquiry.

    I sincerely believe the time has come for concerned audiophiles, true engineers, competent physicists, academics, mag editors, etc. to take a firm stand regarding much of this disturbing new trend in the blatantly false claims frequently found in cable advertising. If we fail to do so, reputable designers, engineers, manufacturers, magazine editors and product reviewers may find their reputation tarnished beyond repair among those of the audiophile community we are supposed to serve.

    Best regards,
    John Dunlavy
    Steve Williams
    aka oneobgyn
    There's ALWAYS another Steve Williams BUT there's only "oneobgyn"
    USA Dealer of Center Stage Feet and owner of PitchPerfect Sound (www.pitchperfectsound.com)
    Dealer Lamm Electronics
    My System

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    Well Steve, you have opened Pandora's Box with this thread. This is the type of thread that sets MikeL's teeth on edge. I have previously written on other forums that I thought cables had more snake oil salesmen than any other audio product. However, I do believe that cables make a difference and there are some competent designers out there. I just recently bought a pair of MIT Shotgun S3 speaker cables and I do think they sound better than the Canare cables they replaced. Joe Abrams gives a 30 day trial period which I appreciate, but my cables aren't going back. Ditto for the MIT IC I bought at the same time. The speaker cables have the magic boxes with all of their poles of articulation and the ICs also have magic boxes with an impedance switch attached. The only thing that matters to me is do they sound better than the cables they replaced and I am voting with my wallet and saying yes.

    The business of cables is much different than most other audio businesses. Very few cable companies actually manufacture their own cables. They job it out to cable manufacturers and receive their cable in bulk form and then terminate it in house.

    Mark

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    Well the article was written 14 years ago and I'm sure cable design has advanced a little since then.

    Besides, didn't Roy Gregory and Steve Elford definitively prove that you could measure cable differences?
    Bruce A. Brown
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Williams View Post
    Oh yes, we have heard of golden-eared audiophiles who claim to be able to consistently identify huge, audible differences between cables. But when these experts have visited our facility and were put to the test under carefully-controlled conditions, they invariably failed to yield a score any better than chance. For example, when led to believe that three popular cables were being compared, varying in size from a high-quality 12 AWG ZIP-CORD to a high-tech looking cable with a diameter exceeding an inch, the largest and sexiest looking cable always scored best - even though the CABLES WERE NEVER CHANGED and they listened to the ZIP Cord the entire time.
    You know a lot of credibility goes out the window with such cheap shots. Of course placebo is real. Of course you can convince people they are hearing something they are not. We don't need yet another test proving that. If there is an audiophile who thinks they are immune to placebo, then they have more reading to do.

    That said, the above does not prove the opposite. That is, that they can't hear a difference. In other words, it doesn't matter how many times you can convince someone there is a difference when there isn't. It doesn't invalidate their observation when the set up is different.

    I personally have flunked such tests. And more than once. But at the same time, have been in countless tests where I heard differences that others including the tester could not. The two outcomes can happily co-exist. One doesn't lead to the other.

    I wish their test methodology was described. I for example want to know how long it took them to switch wires (assuming they ran such a test rather than just the trick above).

    Net, net, while some good points are made in the article, there is fair amount for the other side to harp on....

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    Member Sponsor [WBF Founding Member] FrantzM's Avatar
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    Hi

    mep spoke about a Pandora box ... This may not even begin to do justice to what the issue of cables can bring.

    I do not believe that all cables are the same ... That is not true.. My position is that passed a certain threshold of electrical and maybe mechanical competence, or better adequacy .. The differences are vanishingly small, so small that they will not be detected reliably by people who on sighted tests would have sworn they heard differences.. I know this for a fact because about 2 years ago, after reading about a challenge in AVS, I subjected myself to a test, casual, it is true but unsighted, nonetheless and I didn't pass .. This was revelation, unsighted, I was able to recognize my amps and other electronics but for cables ... Not
    I must say that the cables I used in that evaluation were electrically adequate, for speakers I used thick 6 AWG cables to replace the speaker cables and for Interconnect I used Blue Jeans interconnects in lieu of the Nordost ... The test was more focused on Speaker cables than Interconnects but the Valhalla which in sighted evaluation revealed itself superior in a night and day fashion, was not recognized in any satisfactory fashion when unsighted by myself.
    This had me taking a very skeptical look at High End claims and pricing practices ... but that is for another thread..
    Conclusions and that is where I will be diplomatic: If you find that some cables make a difference, just enjoy it, simply be careful no to spend too much on cables, these are not where the reliable differences reside ...

    Frantz

    P.S. Bruce, I am not sure what progress have been made in cables... In speaker material and design , maybe .. Cables ?

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    Frantz, you are being too hard on yourself . Most double-blind tests people propose are faulty! For example, studies have shown that your memory of what you heard is accurate to about 4 seconds. Go past that and you simply will not recall small differences even if they are there. So any test which calls for stopping music, changing cables, and going back to listening is invalid for detecting non-gross differences. It is exceedingly easy to create double-blind tests which find no difference. The trick is to come with the opposite, increasing the chances that the difference can be found.

    Further, you have to make sure that you don't mask the differences with other things. So as much as possible, one needs to eliminate other (weak) links in the chain. For this reason, for interconnect testing, I use highest quality sources/DACs, use the highest quality headphone amp and that is it. No speakers. No amps. No room interactions. No processor which could create audible issues of their own. And most importantly, I use material which shows the difference more. I cannot offer any meaningful way to test speaker cables.

    Of course, the above means that any description of improvement as being "huge" etc is wrong. The differences here are subtle and expectations should not go beyond that.

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    [WBF Founding Member] soundofvoid's Avatar
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    I can understand the fact that the electrical properties of different cables...differ!To me cables are always coloured -push the sound to one or the other direction- others a little,others a lot.
    The right way to use cables -ICs or SP- is to use their predominant flavour in an effort to cure small "problems" throughout the system.Just like the use of spices in the preparation of a good meal!
    I can offer my small experiment that happened years ago regarding SP cables.A friend of mine was swapping three different runs of cables without me knowing which one was in use.
    The cables were from Audioquest,Nordost and Van den Hul.They were middle priced cables (i remember the Nordost one was the RED DAWN and the others were of similar price per meter)
    I kept playing the same piece time after time Knowing what cable was in use the first six times.So i auditioned two times each cable trying to figure out their flavours.
    Then we started the blind test.To my friends' amazement I picked up the right cable 9 out of ten times!I lost only once the Audioquest to the Van den Hul and never missed the Nordost
    ones as they were the most obvious to my ears.Of course i am extremely aware of my systems sound.In another system i would be lost...
    "Now, what will we do without the barbarians?These people were some kind of a solution..."

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    [WBF Founding Member] audioguy's Avatar
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    I won't claim there is or there is not a difference. But I do disagree that all double blind tests are faulty. Many years ago, when I actually had money to do so, I purchased some VERY VERY expensive power cords. No, I did not buy one; I purchased about 30 because at the time, that is how many different components I had. And since I had read that a single power cord could make a nice positive difference, surely I would love the improvement I got from 30 all replaced simultaneously. My system at that time had separated dedicated 20amp outlets for all components and I was using power conditioners for creating balanced power.

    I excitedly plugged in all of my new power cords and could hear NO difference. Was it blind? Of course not but I WANTED to hear a difference and could not. So the pre-test bias did not materialize. I then invited an audio buddy to come listen and we did single blind tests -- he also could not hear any difference. And yes, my system at that time was revealing enough to let any changes show. So what does this show? Only that two people could not hear ANY difference between about 30 stock power cords and 30 mega buck power cords. It is not necessary to reveal the brand of the power cord but suffice it to say it had great reviews in the audio mags.

    I have done the same thing with speaker wire and interconnects. I was POSITIVE I could hear some important differences between two different speaker wires but to make sure, had my audio buddy switch so I did not know what I was listening to. Failed again.

    What does this prove? It proves that Audioguy in blind tests can not differentiate between two well thought of and competently built sets of wires. Unlike OB, I am not wire neutral. I dumped my expensive cables and purchased all BlueJeans.

    I have a customer of my business who happens to be one of the high end home theater dealers in Atlanta. (I am also a customer of his) For YEARS he would do test somewhat like John Dunlavy and not a single person -- not one - ever heard the difference. Again, these were competently built sets of wires. He also performed blind tests, and no one ever heard the difference.

    The value for me is that I can save money on wires and spend it elsewhere.

    Does this mean that there are no differences?

    Each to his own.

    And OB, you have REALLY done it by starting this thread
    “Faith is not about everything turning out OK; Faith is about being OK no matter how things turn out."

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    Quote Originally Posted by audioguy View Post
    But I do disagree that all double blind tests are faulty.
    I hope you are not saying this because of my post above . I did not say "all" double blind tests are faulty. But that most of what is thrown around on the Internet as challenges are. I gave specific reasons as to why. And continued to say how to conduct a proper double-blind test.

    I excitedly plugged in all of my new power cords and could hear NO difference. Was it blind? Of course not but I WANTED to hear a difference and could not. So the pre-test bias did not materialize. I then invited an audio buddy to come listen and we did single blind tests -- he also could not hear any difference. And yes, my system at that time was revealing enough to let any changes show. So what does this show? Only that two people could not hear ANY difference between about 30 stock power cords and 30 mega buck power cords. It is not necessary to reveal the brand of the power cord but suffice it to say it had great reviews in the audio mags.
    I assume you plugged one cord in listened, then turned everything off, plugged the other in and then listened again for differences. Yes?

    I have done the same thing with speaker wire and interconnects. I was POSITIVE I could hear some important differences between two different speaker wires but to make sure, had my audio buddy switch so I did not know what I was listening to. Failed again.
    Was this the same as above? Amp turned off, speaker wires changed, amp turned back on, selection played again?

    What does this prove? It proves that Audioguy in blind tests can not differentiate between two well thought of and competently built sets of wires.
    Not necessarily . It does show that you care enough to test which is great. But as I mentioned to Frantz, I think you are being too hard on yourself .

    I have a customer of my business who happens to be one of the high end home theater dealers in Atlanta. (I am also a customer of his) For YEARS he would do test somewhat like John Dunlavy and not a single person -- not one - ever heard the difference. Again, these were competently built sets of wires. He also performed blind tests, and no one ever heard the difference.
    I have performed double-blind tests with interconnects and could 100% of the time tell the cables apart. And I expected not to so it was surprising. But I did have near perfect setup with carefully chosen material, best sources, headphone system and knowing what to listen for. Throw me in a room with speakers, multi-second or minute changeover and I would be lucky if I could write my name correctly let alone guess which cable is which .

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    I agree with Frantz on this, i would put it differently that the law of diminishing returns appears greatest in cables. i.e. i may tell some differences but the cost associated with that that difference is disproportionate to the actual difference (and i would guess, the actual manufacturing cost). i do hear differences for sure, maybe it is mental for me, but i have made the investment based on those hearing. however, i would be the first to admit that my upgrade cables have gotten me less bang for buck than other upgrades.
    i do wish there were more reviews or forum discussions on the impact of cable brands vis a vis electronic brands. for instance, i was certain that i would go with a Nordost upgrade for my system, but my system is very neutral (bordering on analytical for some people) - but neutral never the less (Soulution electronics and dCS front end). a friend suggested i try the Kubula Sonsa cables to add a little warmth. i haven't done it yet, but know the cables in other systems and am now trying to get a demo underway. my gut tells me he will be right. i think reviews to this end would be of interest (or at least forum discussions). i know we are in the complete realm of subjectivity; however, we cannot all try everything, particularly when we enter the world of component combinations.

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