Audiophoolery: Why You Shouldn’t Overpay for Audio Cables

Rupinder forwards this bit of advice from Skeptic.com:

The earliest audio scam I can recall is fancy wire for connecting loudspeakers, and it’s still going strong. These days vendors claim their wire yields better sound quality when compared to normal wire, and, of course, it’s much more expensive than normal wire. In truth, the most important property of speaker wire is resistance, which is a function of its thickness. The resistance must be low to pass the high-current signals a power amplifier delivers. For short distances— say, up to five feet—16-gauge wire of any type is adequate, though thicker wire is needed for longer runs.

The three other wire parameters are inductance, capacitance, and skin effect. But those are not a factor with usual cable lengths at audio frequencies, especially when connecting speakers to a power amplifier. Low capacitance wire can be important in special cases, such as between a phonograph cartridge and its preamp. But high quality, low capacitance wire can be had for pennies per foot. Wire scams are very popular because wire is a low-tech device that’s simple to manufacture and the profit margin is extremely high. I could devote this entire article to wire scams, but instead I’ll just summarize that any audio (or video) cable costing more than a few dollars per foot is a rip-off.

Even sillier than expensive speaker wire is replacement AC power cords and most other power “conditioner” products. The sales claims sound logical: Noise and static can get into your gear through the power line and damage the sound. In severe cases it’s possible for powerrelated clicks and buzzes to get into your system, but those are easily noticed. The suggestion that subtle changes in “clarity and presence” can occur is plain fraud. Indeed, every competent circuit designer knows how to filter out power line noise, and such protection is routinely added to all commercial audio products. Spending hundreds of dollars on a six-foot replacement power cord ignores the other hundred-odd feet of regular wire between the wall outlet and power pole.

Some audio scams are so blatant you wonder how anyone could fall for them, like a replacement volume control knob that sells for $485. The ad copy proclaims, “The new knobs are custom made with beech wood and bronze … How can this make a difference??? Well, hearing is believing as we always say. The sound becomes much more open and free flowing with a nice improvement in resolution. Dynamics are better and overall naturalness is improved.” Yes, I bet that’s just what they always say. Wood is a common theme among audiophile scams, falsely implying a relation to a fine old violin where the wood’s vibration really is a part of the sound. But a volume control knob?

And there’s plenty more to be skeptical about. Keep reading.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “Audiophoolery: Why You Shouldn’t Overpay for Audio Cables

  • March 13, 2015 at 11:16 pm
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    I’ve just started to put together my first hi-fi system and thought 30,000 for an amplifier was nuts. That was until I came across Audioquests line of cables!

    Reply
  • June 10, 2015 at 8:09 pm
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    Thanks for the easy opportunity to post here, Alan. Coincidentally, I just finished reading the Skeptics article before I found your post. Unfortunately that was a 2010 post, and responses were “closed.”

    So, let me just say that I have a very “clear” system that reveals very subtle nuances, whatever they may be. The system itself cost around $25,000, and it took me about three years to piece it together. Which means I auditioned a lot of components, getting the chance to hear them together in my house. And yes, one amplifier did indeed sound different than another. Same with speakers. And SAME WITH CABLES.

    So, do cables make a difference to me (and my non-audiophile friends) in my system? Absolutely. Clearly. Indisputably. Since I have listened mostly to different interconnects after deciding on my speaker wires long ago, I’ll address those primarily.

    One interconnect reveals a very different sound than another. Some highlight the midrange, some the bass. Some are well-balanced; some are not. Some sound “round” and “warm,” and others sound “flat” and “cold.” Some reveal a very airy and “floaty” sonic image that hovers in a huge soundstage; others reveal dense images that seem much less delineated. Some sound “real,” with lifelike timbres, and others sound electronic, metallic, or otherwise artificial. Even digital cables which some skeptics state shouldn’t make any difference at all … can make a HUGE difference.

    My latest purchase was a digital cable that revealed a very well-rounded sonic spectra; when I compared it to several others of equal price, even, the difference was so clear that even my wife (an admitted non-audiophile) heard it. No mistaking the difference.

    So, it baffles me that some skeptics can’t seem to hear the difference (or they’ve decided there couldn’t be one so they don’t even try?). I’m not sure what’s going on there, since the difference is so incredibly obvious to me and thousands of other intelligent audiophiles. (While I can only guess at this, I imagine I’m not the only skeptical and intellectually-capable audiophile out there. I’m not easily duped, let me assure you; my critical thinking skills are quite well-developed!)

    It is potentially telling, though, that many skeptics mention Monster cables as if they were supposedly excellent. Now THAT’S a marketing scam right there! Monster cables are just one tiny step above $1.99 cent RCA interconnects available at Radio Shack! Most people who have taken the time to truly listen to hundreds of cables (aka “audiophiles”) know this about Monster, just as they know the same about Bose! That said, I do use a Monster power strip, having found (after much auditioning) that it has a great synchrony with my system, ultimately resulting in the sound that I like best.

    Anyway, to any potential purchasers of audiophile equipment who think that “if a skeptic says it, it must be true,” I suggest you listen for yourself. If you have a very low to mid-range system that doesn’t reveal much of the characteristics of its components, it might very well not make an audible difference what cables/interconnects you use. (That said, depending on your ears and musical sensitivities, it might!)

    But … if you are going for an ultimate system that you’d like to tweak for optimum effect, please trust me (and thousands like me) enough to listen for yourself. While cost is not the significant element (some cables costing less will sound much better than those that cost more), different cables DO SOUND DIFFERENT.

    Thanks for reading. And please, don’t just believe the naysayers because skepticism is often equated with a more discerning intellect. I’m a skeptic, insisting on more critical research and independent assessment than most sane people could stand before I’ll believe anything (:-), and I have “heard the light”!

    Reply

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