The Honest Truth About Expensive Cables

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The truth about expensive cables

Should you buy expensive cables?

When I started in this industry, the cables in my high-end system were the most impressive thing. They cost a fortune, and the vendors claimed they made a big difference in creating a wonderful and thrilling listening experience. So I bought them, along with the rest of my expensive system, with equal amounts of bold enthusiasm and dire financial concern. My system sounded wonderful for a few days, and then something happened. I forget what. Then it didn’t sound wonderful, and I’m sure it wasn’t just because I was busy and distracted. I hadn’t imagined the improvement before, so I definitely couldn’t have imagined it leaving. I blamed myself. It was my fault…I mustn’t have imagined it after all. Then I started wondering if perhaps it was the cables after all. Maybe I had just imagined that they made a difference. And yet, I was pretty sure that I had seen and heard the difference.

Do expensive cables make a difference?

If you’ve ever picked up an aftermarket cable because it was a fraction of the cost of a similar well-known brand cable, you’re not alone. All of us have been guilty of making that cable purchasing mistake at least once. Our goal is to help you avoid making it again so that you can discover the truth about expensive cables.

There are three different cable types in audio/video:

  • Radio Frequency (RF) Cables – for ultra high frequency applications,
  • for ultra high frequency applications, Coaxial Cables – for modulating video and audio, and
  • for modulating video and audio, and Twisted Pair Cables – for data transmissions

The twist rate is the reason why different types of cables measure differently. The twist rate, also known as the “pitch” or “lay” of the pair, is how tightly the conductors are twisted. The lower the twist, the longer the lay. A high twist and tight lay is what makes for a quality cable. Cable engineers must balance the “tightness” of the twist with the trade off of the resulting cable diameter. A tight twist makes the cable smaller and the transmission performance better but it also increases the cost.

Cables only transmit the signal they’re given

So the actual differences between the cables are minimal.

When it comes to coaxial cables, you are paying for the name and plug rather than the quality of sound transmission, no matter what people tell you.

Let me explain.

Cables can only transmit the signal they’re given, so the actual differences between the cables are minimal.

The reason you are paying so much for more expensive speaker and coaxial cables is the companies are making you think you are paying for a higher quality product.

They are basically selling you on their brand name, reputation, and flashy packaging.

In fact, most audiophiles with a set of good quality ears could get the same sound with cheaper cables. Cables that claim to be more durable and that are promoted as having higher quality materials are usually the ones that are giving you more bang for your buck.

Almost all cables have the same internal structure

Which is made out of a copper wire covered with insulator and then outer jacket.

Some audiophiles may doubt this, and may claim that the expensive cables are better, because they contain a higher level of copper and they have better insulator material. Is this true? One field engineer, who worked for an electronics company, has testified that it is not true. This is just a marketing strategy that has taken root with the audio enthusiasts.

We will now proceed with a few experiments to find out if this is true.

Let’s take a group of people and have them listen to the same music played with expensive cables. We can later ask them if the music is better using a pair of really expensive cables.

After the test is done, let’s tally the results. If people thought the music sounded better with the expensive cables, then we’ll have proven that the expensive cable theory doesn’t hold much ground.

What if the results show that all the people who listened to the music with the expensive cables thought that music sounded better? Will it mean that the expensive cables theory is true then? If it is, then it’s not wrong to say that—the more you pay, the better you sound.

Output quality is ultimately decided by the output device

(amp or headphones)

I have a confession to make. I don’t know how many times I’ve told someone about a new speaker or amplifier, which is clearly the best I’ve ever heard, only to get the response:

“But how did it sound through the system I have at home?”

You see, my love for high fidelity audio products is completely understandable and unfathomable at the same time.

There are many ways to design a great sounding audio system, and there are many different opinions about the path to audio nirvana. Here is the honest truth… from a card-carrying, high-end cable believer (and lover).

You need to run your power cords, speaker cables, and interconnects between components as short as possible.

Running your power cords, speaker cables, and interconnects longer than necessary is a guaranteed way to degrade your audio signal.

Longer cables equal more capacitance (which is not your friend).

Also, larger wire gauge numbers in speaker wire is not as simple as more is better.

Your application will determine the best speaker wire size for the sound system you’re building.

How to get better signal

A good cable can take a decent signal and make it a great signal. If the original signal is good, then you wire it right, it will drive your sound system with better clarity, much deeper bass, and much less distortion.

Here is the real problem with the cable marketing department. Their claims of "better signal" and "better sound" are relative to an average cable. They are not claims of a better sound compared to a proper wire. The proper wire is a reference point. A high-quality audio cable should make a signal sound better compared to the reference point.

When you try a cable that is claimed to "improve" your sound, what do you compare it to? If you already have a wire, you compare it to that. When was the last time you compared your signal wire to a piece of string or rope? For most people, you've never even seen basic wire, and if you have always used expensive cables, you would think that "wire" is what you call excessively wrapped cables.

The "improved signal" cable does improve signal strength and the amount of current flow. But if the signal is weak or if it is not actually strong enough to play your music then the cable makes no difference. You are just using the cable to fix weak source components, and that is the one problem you cannot fix.

Review your input and output devices

It’s important to recognize the difference between switching, impedance, and load. Here’s a quick recap:

Switching: The reason your sound is changing is because if you have a high-end headphone amp or a high-end interface, you’re probably using a switch box. Each input has a dedicated output. The more switches the device has, the more expensive it will be. If you don’t know if you have a switch box or not, check the back. If you have lots of cables you have a high-end interface.

Impedance: A higher impedance means the system requires more power from the amplifier and less power from the input device. With lower impedance you will get less power from the amplifier and more power from the device. The impedance is always going to be the same for each plug going into the output. If you have a headphone amp the ohm number should be 1. Output impedance (in ohms) will be printed right on the device.

Load: Low resistance is bad because it generates a lot of heat and can damage components. If you have a tube amp, typically you want a higher load impedance, so the amp doesn’t hurt itself. When it comes to phones, load impedance is more or less a non-issue.

Find the right cable for the job

Here is the honest truth about expensive cables: all that matters is your ears. How does the music sound? What is your emotional reaction to the music? Are you a better musician because you listen through those expensive cables? Do those cables help you play better drums? Then use them.

The idea that a cable’s performance is dependent on its cost is resonating. Higher priced cables do perform better. In many cases, the sound is barely perceptible. But the idea is there; we experience the difference in a subtle way. That’s all it takes.

To my ears, high-end cables improve the sound of the entire system. They get rid of the grain and high frequency sizzle in All-Tube systems. They add transparency and clarity to digital systems. In other words, they make the music sound more like what I am used to when I listen in a high end listening room with big, expensive speakers.

On the other hand, low-end cables sound like, well, low-end cables. They add their own audio signature to their system. While they often cost less (it’s not their fault), they will not change the quality of the music. It’s all a matter of taste.

Don’t go as cheap as possible

Cables are the unsung heroes of audio enjoyment. We hope they stay out of sight and that our listeners will never get a chance to see them, but they’re very important.

Without worrying about "accuracy", whether at low or high levels, whether the tone is filled in or detailed; the cable "just transfers the signal".

The truth is: it's hard to get accurate uncolored transfer of a signal. The quality of the cable itself affects the "transfers". More expensive and more carefully designed cables may not make the sound "greater" but it will be more faithful to your recording.

In comparison, cheaper cables (ie, the ones you find in the box with your sound system) often have problems with noise, coloration of the sound, performance based on temperature, and don't always *easy* to work around.

Play around with the room first

Many beginner guitarists in their first few years of playing find themselves sitting on the side of the bed, noodling out a rhythm with the air guitar. There is something about phantom guitar playing that helps us figure out how to play a piece of music in our head or on paper before we actually play it with a pick. It's easy to grab the pick and strum a bit, but if you are struggling with a piece of music, find a way to dig in with your thumb or another finger in a fashion that works for you.

Playing with a different texture or slight variation in pressure will give you a new way to look at a song. When you go back to your pick, you�ll probably want to approach it a little differently.

Always be mindful of technological developments

Audio cables are complex devices designed to transmit data to and from a range of devices. Their design must adhere to a set of electrical standards, and they must be constructed of a certain material mix.

The material used in the construction of an audio cable will affect the way that it is able to conduct and transport data. It is particularly critical that this be taken into consideration when designing and manufacturing an audio cable, due to the fact that audio signals generally have a much higher amplitude than data signals.

Conducting data to and from a laptop or PC is relatively simple, as there is not an extensive amount of data being transferred compared to the amount of data in a high definition audio file. When you are creating an audio cable, you are dealing with information that is much more demanding on the materials that are used to create the audio cable.

Data is also stable, which means that the amount of data doesn’t fluctuate very often. The opposite is true of audio cables, as the files are created with a fluctuation in volume (louder and softer sounds). In order to make the move from the analog format of the recording to the digital format of a CD, they are amplified to allow a constant flow of files.

Invest your money elsewhere

You most likely already know that the way electricity travels through wires is by using electrons, which are negatively charged particles. However, this knowledge may not help if you’re trying to figure out how to choose the best cables when being confronted with a bewildering array of options and claims.

The claim–—cables make a difference in sound quality.

As you may have experienced, different kinds of electronics cables can sound different in terms of their sound reproduction. It’s also common to experience differences in sound quality based on the wires’ construction, turn-on/off speed, and insulation. However, these differences could largely be attributed to the differences in the electronics.

So, what’s the truth?

The truth is–—cables can have a significant impact on sound quality and the power your tunes have, but they sound different and varying only depends on what type and quality of cable you use.

Some final thoughts

I’ve saved the most expensive option, for last. You might be saying, “hey, that’s not an option for me.” You’re probably correct. But I’ve examined all of the claims made by these expensive cables proponents and have always dismissed them on the basis of a few simple tests.

First, you could do a visual test and view if the cable really is made of 97% pvc/polymers and 3% copper or aluminum or the other claims of the material makeup. Because many of these materials can be made to look like copper, it’s possible that some of these cables are fakes. At the end of the day, the only way to know for sure is through testing the types of material used.

Second, you could burn it in and test if the headphone sounds better after listening for a while. If your headphones are anything like mine, within a few minutes it will sound just the same as it originally sounded. If it sounds like it always has, you’ve just saved at least a several hundred dollars.

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