Do Cables Make an Audible Difference and Are they Worth the Cost?

The Nordost Odin Supreme Reference Cable is among the most expensive cables out there.  Does it make a difference?

The single, most hotly debated item in audiophile circles is cables.  The nay-sayers will tell you that exotic cables are nothing but snake oil.  They will argue that the only audible thing you can hear is a badly manufactured cable. They will argue that there needs to be double-blind testing and that the purported scientific claims of manufacturers are nothing but hogwash.

Proponents of cables will tell you that you can indeed hear a difference: That silver sounds brighter than copper, that you can audibly hear the “skin effect”, that the nay-sayers aren’t open minded and haven’t tested the cables themselves.

Where do I stand on the issue?  Well, simply put I think that anyone who claims that the cable is the most important component of the system is flat out wrong and that’s silly.  If I had $500, $2,000 or $10,000 to spend, I wouldn’t spend it on a cable.  I’d buy better speakers or a better preamps or amplifier.  Cabling would be last.

On the other hand—crazy as it sounds—I think I’ve heard a difference between interconnects. The interconnects in question were a pair of balanced (XLR) Nordost Blue Heaven cables.  They replaced a set of Belden XLR cables.  Now, it’s wasn’t a double-blind test and I wouldn’t bet the bank on it.  It could very well have been psychoacoustic or any of a number of differences.  But, any audible differences I thought I heard were very subtle and lent themselves to a bit of overall clarity and openness.

I’ll be the first to say that this type of subjectivity is dangerous.  It’s anecdotal at best.  I’d rather have some good science behind what may or may not be happening.  I came across this article by Brent Butterworth.  Brent is a veteran in the audio industry and is now heading up a new section on about.com dedicated to stereo and home theater equipment and he’s someone I’ve followed for several years.

In the article, Brent tackles the question of whether or not speaker cables make a difference.  Note that Brent’s focus is specifically on speaker cables, not on interconnects.  Brent enlisted the help of Allan Devantier, manager of acoustic research at Harman International and a colleague of Dr. Sean Olive, whose research I’ve quoted in other articles.    The question posed to Allan was simple: can speaker cables make an audible difference?  By looking at resistance, capacitance, and inductance,

The bottom line is that loudspeaker impedances vary with frequencies and the resistance of the cable can become a factor.  The article goes on and there’s a measurement of different 20 foot cables by different manufacturers and different gauges.

The interesting thing is that there were differences between the cables and it was measurable—especially at certain distinct frequencies.  Two cables—a 12 gauge Linn Cable and a cheap 12 gauge Monoprice did in fact have a difference.  There was a +0.4 difference between 4.3 and 6.8 kHz.  The difference was more pronounced when Brent switched to a lower gauge cable.  According to Brent’s measurements, the 24 gauge cable cut bass between 50 and 230 Hz by a maximum of -1.5 db at 95 hz and the midrange was affected between 2.2 and 4.7 kHz by a maximum of -1.7 dB at 3.1 kHz.  The treble, he reported, was also reduced between 6 and 20 kHz by a max of -1.4 dB at 13.3 kHz.  You can read the entirety of Brent’s article for the full details.

The bottom line is that using thinner/lower gauge cables at longer distances can indeed audibly affect the performance of speakers.

The table Brent points out in his article is a good rule of thumb for anyone purchasing speaker cable.  You want to make sure you don’t have cable that’s too thin for the distance:

cable        resistance                length
gauge       ohms/foot               for 0.3 dB ripple
(AWG)     (both conductors)   (feet)

12             0.0032                       47.23
14             0.0051                       29.70
16             0.0080                       18.68
18             0.0128                       11.75
20             0.0203                       7.39
22             0.0323                       4.65
24             0.0513                       2.92

As a general rule, you’re best bet is to stick with 14 gauge or lower speaker cables.  

Now, Brent’s article and measurements don’t necessarily prove or disprove that exotic cables make a difference.  What Brent’s article does prove, however, is that there may just be something to all those audiophiles’ claims that speaker cables make a difference.  If we can nail down the science and measurements behind it, we just might be able to tell the difference between cables that legitimately make a difference and those that have been just selling snake oil.

5 COMMENTS

  1. "…the nay-sayers aren't open minded and haven't tested the cables themselves."

    Yes, I think this is one of the most common red herrings in audio: that the only way to answer a question is "to try it." In other walks of life, people know that rationality allows them to come up with meaningful answers and predictions without testing something, and that testing something is difficult, time consuming and expensive. Using a flawed methodology can actually obscure the truth rather than shed light on it. Most technology is developed on the basis that we can predict results with pretty good accuracy, and that we can fairly well estimate the effects of any errors and uncertainty. Of course all cables are slightly different from each other, that's a fact. But the differences and their audible effects are pretty well predictable without ever having to listen to them. If the audible differences are predicted to be minuscule, then it's highly likely that they are. If listening tests tell us otherwise then it's highly likely it's flawed methodology – and it's easy to see how that arises. In the complete and total absence of any scientific study that might suggest there is a single grain of truth in the audio cable mythology then I shall happily remain a £5 cable man, and can worry about other things.

  2. I would like to see Brent use the 12g up against an exotic high priced cable and listen and measure for differences. Myself, I have done a ton of research and do not believe that exotic cables can offer additional "texturing, soul, tone, enhanced shades, 3d effects, realism, and all the other hyperbole reviewers project, nor would I ever spend $5,000 for a loudspeaker cable. However, a good quality cable, designed to address various known entities in cable design are in my sights…at about $500.00. Cryo is one such voodoo that everyone is supposed to hear in a cable. give me a break.

  3. Good audio cables are surely essential part to any serous audiophile as they deliver a very sensitive signal between your audio gear as it has been said in this page. I have listened to quite a few well known brands such as Russ Andrews cables QED Signature etc. and more often than not the price reflects its qualities. For those who still on a fence so to say and question the sonic differences in various audio interconnects or speaker cables you can easily sort this concern out by going to your local Hi-Fi dealer shop that has a dedicated listening room and ask to audition cables at different price point. I'm pretty sure that should be a good time spent. I narrowed down my preference to Malbru SILVER and Digital Malbru CX cables all under £600 and couldn`t be more happy with, clarity, speed and instrument sounding naturalness, you should find them on Amazon. With time you can change audio components etc. but cables will stay as they as essential as components themselves. To me you really need to audition several brands before you spend cash for a good quality interconnect that YOU personally like. If they improve our musical experience for years to come than that what really matters.

  4. Of course they make a difference. That said, it doesn't mean they have to be outrageously expensive. I had been disappointed many times and spent way too much on overpriced rubbish. There is lots of scam out there, surfing in the wake of serious manufactures.

    Good materials and solid manufacturing come at a higher price. Still no need to sell your car for a decent cable.

    Human hearing is always subjective and never accurate, because it requires memory to reconstruct what we hear. That memory comes from earlier auditions. Thus, we hear a mix of what is happening right now and old memories. Plus, sometimes we just want to hear something.

    However, when you lose interest in listening to music in the long term and something just "doesn't sound right", chances are that some cable is not the right one. I experienced this more than once with all possible connections. It is kind of spooky and I will not even attempt any pseudo-scientific explanation.

    At last, the old principle holds that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If the speakers are shit, no cable will rescue them.

    I am often using the "stack of window pane" metaphor. Wipe one clean and you will see the dirt of the next underneath.
    This is what HiFi is all about. Sometimes you'd rather not like to see some dirt and gently cover it up with other, less uncomfortable dirt.

LEAVE A REPLY