|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.