May 15, 2006
This should be a fun post as I know the issue of high-quality A/V cables is capable of turning everyday citizens into venomous anti-cable evangelists, bent on proving to the world that a piece of cable is a piece of cable. I assure you these disbelievers couldn’t be more incorrect if they tried.
That’s not say that all cables are worth their asking price. On the contrary, some cable manufacturers know full well that what their selling amounts to modern day snake-oil. They prey on the very confusion surrounding the subject to make their living.
Let’s label the two camps as believers (those who think cables make a difference) and disbelievers (those who think all cables look and sound alike). First know that I fall into the believer category, because in my experience I just can’t explain away what my ears and eyes tell me as psycho-acoustic trickery or wishful thinking.
Time and time again under repeatable circumstances I’ve proved to myself and others that, in certain applications, cables can make a significant difference in the sound and image quality of 2-channel stereo systems and home theaters. I suppose a little background might help explain where I’m coming from on the subject.
I started out in the audio/video industry back in 1991; I was fresh out of high school and really didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. As luck would have it I walked into a local high-end electronics store and asked a question that would ultimately change my life, “Are you looking for any help?”
15 years and 4 or 5 job descriptions later, I’m still in the industry and I learn something new everyday. But those early “prove it to me” experiences are still among my fondest memories in the business. Early on I learned that trying to judge relatively subtle differences in an A/V system is entirely dependant on the overall resolution (sound and image) the system is capable of recreating.
In other words, just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to discern the eye color of an occupant in a car with tinted windows, don’t expect to be able to decide if that new speaker cable you bought sounds better or worse in a low resolution system. I’ll leave it to you to decide what is or isn’t low-resolution, but if you rarely have visceral responses while watching a movie or listening to a CD at home, it’s very possible your system would fall into the ‘low-resolution’ category.
Ok, back to cables. In my opinion, instead of asking do cables make a difference it would make more sense to ask does equipment make a difference. Most people wouldn’t argue that equipment makes a difference, however many fail to realize that cables follow some of the same engineering and design fundamentals as the equipment itself.
Let’s take speaker cable for an example, as it generally has fewer variables than interconnects and digital cables. Yes, I’m generalizing here but for our purposes it’s a safe generalization.
First off it’s important to note the difference between proper application and overall quality. For example, the proper wire gauge on a long speaker run will make a bigger impact on the sound quality, than overall cable quality. Alternatively an overall high-quality cable of the wrong wire gauge will often sound worse than the former.
What about digital cables? I’ve heard the, “Its digital. It either works or doesn’t” mantra hundreds of times, and its no more true today than it was the first time I heard it in the nineties. Digital has an error threshold that it will continue to operate under; it’s only above that acceptable rate of error that the signal will fail completely. Guess what? Higher quality cables will allow that signal to travel over longer distances through more radio frequency interference before the signal fails.
Cable Quality Factors:
Listen, I don’t want to get into the myriad of possibilities and examples of how cables can fail. I’d rather get right down to it and explain how cable construction and quality will make a difference in sound and image quality.
The signals that flow down your audio and video cables are in essence electrical voltage; granted it’s a tiny amount of voltage but susceptible to interference just the same. Just as the quality of the components in your receiver or DVD player make a difference in your sound and images, so can your cables.
Many factors go into what makes a “quality cable”. Some of those factors include: the purity of copper strands in cable itself; the type, design, and construction quality of the connector. Even the outer jacket material of the cable, which can reduce interference from other electrical sources, plays into how a cable “sounds”.
Even though you might think a small amount of voltage shouldn’t matter one way or another to how much interference your system receives, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt even a small amount of voltage that intersects a poorly shielded cable at just the right point, can degrade the overall sound/image quality of your system.
The most important function of an audio/video cable is to neither add nor subtract anything of its own to the signal flowing through it. This sounds incredibly simple but it’s obvious (to me at least) that many cables fail to do this. If I take cable (A) and play a few seconds of audio through it and take another cable (B) and do the same but (A) sounds significantly better, what other conclusion am I left with?
There are tens if not hundreds of quality A/V cable manufacturers and rather than risk omitting one of them, I’ll keep my recommendations on a general level. First off keep things in perspective. A good rule of thumb is to spend roughly 10% of your overall system budget on cables; maybe a little less or maybe a little more but avoid extremes to either side of your budget.
Secondly and most importantly in my book, if you can’t see or hear the difference don’t pay for it. Yes that might come as a surprise from someone in the industry but my purpose here has never been to “sell” you anything. I’m much more interested in you enjoying your investment than pushing some overpriced, poorly designed cables on you.
The idea of “auditioning” cables might sound bizarre but certain audio shops will allow you to do just that. This “try-before-you-buy” method really goes along way in ensuring that you end up with cables that actually make a difference in your home theater system.
Alternatively if auditioning cables just sounds like too much of a hassle (and I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you on that one), I do have some other general guidelines to pass onto you.
Don’t always assume that the bigger names in cable offer the best value. Some of these monstrous (pun intended) companies are better at marketing than delivering quality, affordable cables. Do some research, ask a friend, try before you buy, read forums but please don’t fall into either of the two following cable myths:
(1) Cables are all the same and make no difference.
(2) If cables do make a difference then I should just buy whatever the salesman recommends or is most popular.
I’ve seen numerous examples where cable quality absolutely made a discernable difference in a system and equally as many systems that wouldn’t have benefited from the most expensive cables ever offered. It’s all about the right cable for your system, think system not upgrade or band-aid.
Keep the 10%’ish rule in mind and you’ll do just fine. Also keep in mind that for very short runs overall cable quality generally isn’t such a critical concern; that isn’t to say you won’t find exceptions to this.
Please also keep in mind that marketing and manufacturing are often two very different things. As I stated here earlier, I’m not really here to “sell” you on a specific cable brand. There are too many good ones out there and in all honesty even several of the good ones overlap each other’s product lines. That said however, I will join in on the comments here with some specific warnings or recommendations if you like.
My best piece of advice is to neither skimp nor spend a disproportional amount to the overall value of your system. Keep things in perspective and maybe even do a little bit of research about electrical interference, you may just find another 10-15% of performance you never knew your system had.
Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under Home Theater Equipment