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Cable Guy

About a million years ago, when I was in the middle of the British invasion/blues revival high school garage band explosion, guitarists made do with whatever cord they could get their hands on. They usually ended up finding those long and skinny gray tethers with cheap, molded-plastic plugs that seemed to constantly crackle and quickly short out. At some point in the not-too-distant past, it was discovered that a better cable with better connectors would indeed increase reliability as well as improve the sound of guitars, keyboards and anything else that depended on a wired connection to get the instrument’s sound into an amplifier. Today, in the musician’s world, it is a given that high-grade cords inevitably deliver notched-up performance, and no player worth his or her salt would question spending premium bucks for a premium cable.

Funny thing, though: If you take a peek behind the home audio and video systems of those same musicians, you’ll almost certainly find the consumer electronics version of those chintzy guitar cords from days gone by: tiny gauge brown or white lamp cord hooking up the speakers, and nests of those unshielded, ultralightweight giveaway cables that come with the CD player, the DVD player or the receiver, complete with those same cheap, molded-plastic plugs, long-forgotten in the field of live music. It would seem that folks who dedicate such a sizable part of their lives to music, and have long equated improved equipment with improved sound, would transfer that same knowledge to their personal stereos or home theaters.

Thousands of miles of inferior wire is tangled in homes of musicians and non-musicians alike, not doing any particular damage to the actual equipment it is connecting, but resulting in sound that is far from the best those same components are capable of. Think of that wire as a sort of electronic obstacle course presenting a series of serious challenges to the musical signal running from CD player to amplifier and eventually translated by the speakers into music.

If these typical cables and wires do so much harm to our music, why do manufacturers continue to shovel them our way? Money. Could there be any other reason?

“Like most things in life, you get what you pay for,” says Mark Markel of Analysis Plus, a relative newcomer to the high-end cable market whose products I reviewed positively in the December 2002 issue.

Says Darren Hovsepian of DH Labs, designer of his company’s Silversonic cables: “Typically, the wires that are thrown in with most components are mass-produced in a way that’s very inexpensive and are included just to give the consumer something to hook up their equipment with. We’ve found that the materials that are used in those cables and the design of the cables can have an impact on how accurately they carry the musical signal, and those factors can also affect how much external electrical noise can be picked up by the cable. Usually those cables will obscure the textural details of musical instruments. Transients, like a rim shot, may not sound as sharp and may not have as much impact. The sound is just less defined over all.”

Demian Martin, a designer for Monster Cable for the last eight years echoes these sentiments. “If you’re competing in the marketplace, selling $50 DVD players for example, there’s not much money left over in a product’s budget for all the accessories that go into the box. That’s why you’ll find these freebie cables to be made of the thinnest, most marginal materials that will still function when the consumer gets that DVD player home.”

Hovsepian details some of the specific problems with these inferior cables: “First, most use very poor conducting material. Second, they have inadequate shielding, which allows noise to get into the signal. Third, the dielectric material, the insulating material between the conductors which we feel is the most important part of the cable, is also a very cheap material. This has a major impact on the sound quality. Cheap cables generally use something like vinyl or rubber as a dielectric. These materials are flexible and very inexpensive to use, but have very poor properties overall and they are not very stable over time. They also let moisture pass through them, which can allow the conductors to corrode. As a result, your cable is on this downward slope, and it’s just going to continue to get worse.”

Markel says, “When you go to a live concert, it’s the higher harmonics that give you the goose bumps. With cheap wire you lose those highs and the goose bumps. Those wires act as a low-pass filter that attenuates the higher frequencies unequally. Though this is an extreme example, it’s like running vocals through a telephone, which would never be considered high fidelity because the frequencies are limited so much.”

Though Hovsepian believes bad interconnects-the short cables that run between the CD or DVD player and amplifier, for example-are the weakest link in the chain, other wire moguls I spoke with suggested speaker cables would be the first place to look for troubles.

That includes Ray Kimber, who since 1979 has been turning out his world-renowned Kimber Kable, making him one of the old timers in the field of boutique audio cables. Kimber states the case for improving one’s speaker wire: “Usually the gauge [cumulative thickness] isn’t sufficient enough to transfer damping factor-the ‘brakes’ the amplifier puts on the speaker as it pushes and pulls the speaker cone. Plus, it will pick up noise, and you can have some signal loss. So by using bad cable, you are neither getting the power nor the fidelity that you paid for in the amplifier and the speakers. And if you live anywhere near where there are radio transmissions-meaning just about anyplace on the globe these days-then you’re also picking up noise and putting it back into your system. You’re just cheating yourself. For a relatively small amount, you can leverage the investment you have in hardware. If I only had 50 bucks to spend, I’d probably buy speaker cables.”

Kimber, of course, would love to sell you his speaker cable, but generously makes this suggestion: “If you’re using the standard freebie zip cord for your speakers, you can go to an electrical hardware store and buy the kind of zip cord they sell for underground burial to hook up those 12-volt outdoor lighting systems. That will be a big step up over the normal zip cord and a very inexpensive alternative.”

Good cable engineering, though it seems like it should be fairly straightforward, is actually very complex as designers attempt to control a number of electrical forces within the cable itself, as well as eliminating outside electrical interferences. They must take into consideration the effects of the dielectric, the insulation, on the conductor, and the manner in which the conductor is connected to the actual component as well as the type of material used to construct that connector. Another critical aspect, some say the most important factor, is cable geometry-in other words, the size and number of the individual wire strands that make up the conductor and the way they are arrayed to actually make up the cable. There are countless solutions to these problems, creating an amazing variety of cables to choose from in the marketplace.

But how does a designer decide which of hundreds of solutions to adopt and how should those solutions be implemented? “Many come from just straightforward engineering,” Hovsepian says. “For the dielectric, you choose materials that are linear and stable. You use good conductors and make sure they are properly sealed so they don’t corrode over time. You have to choose the right size conductor and the proper geometry for the cable. All of these things really have their basis in physics and electrical engineering, so it’s just a matter of researching what distortions you are up against and applying the proper technology to minimize them. You basically just want the cable to get out of the way, so you design the proper electrical parameters into it to hopefully achieve that.”

Analysis Plus began as an engineering company doing computer analysis and simulation for dozens of corporations in every field imaginable, so its design process comes as no surprise. “One of the first things we do,” Markel says, “is turn to computer simulation to do many different wire geometries and see how they react to different test cases. That way we don’t have to build prototype after prototype. We can hone in on the design, then, when we get pretty close, we can build some prototypes and can do tests and measurements and do listening tests. The ultimate is still your ear, and that’s the final test.”

Kimber agrees with that idea. “We include a great deal of listening in our design process because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Test equipment can tell you if you’ve got it wrong, but can’t necessarily tell you if you’ve got it right. So we listen through many kinds of systems and have lots of different speakers from inexpensive to stupid. We also have an advantage because we spend several hundred hours a year making original recordings and have a pretty good idea what they should sound like.

“We design with a very careful correlation of listening results and objective testing,” Kimber says. “To design good cable, you have to understand how speakers work, how amplifiers work. So we have better speaker and amplifier testing equipment than 90% of speaker and amplifier manufacturers. Without this understanding it’s like a tire manufacturer that doesn’t understand anything about cars or pavement but presumes to build tires.”

Some years ago, many high-end cable companies promoted their products by touting the purity of the materials they used for their conductors. And it is still common to read ads that push cable’s “six nines copper,” meaning it’s 99.9999% pure copper. “Copper is a great conductor; silver is a better conductor,” Kimber says, “but there are things that can be done to either of them to make them sound horrible.” But, though some have always thought so, more and more cable designers are convinced that geometry solves many of the problems inherent in wire.

Perhaps the pioneer in distinctive cable geometry is Kimber Kable whose trademark braiding is instantly recognizable to audiophiles anywhere. The story of how that evolved outlines the history of Kimber Kable.

Ray Kimber, whose techie credits include touring stints with Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull and the Rolling Stones, says: “Our unique braiding came about in the late ’70s when I was chief engineer for a sound and lighting company in Los Angeles. When disco came in and we started putting lighting structures near the front speakers, the electrical interference of the lights on the sound was quite audible in the form of buzzing and popping. The solution was to minimize the receiving antenna capacity of the speaker cable-to shield it without a shield. The simplest way to do that, I discovered, was to have each conductor strand rotate in a different direction so their individual ability to receive outside noise essentially cancelled out the other. So the sets of cables are interleaved-they counter-rotate-creating an incoherent antenna both for transmitting and receiving, such that external electrical and magnetic interference become negligible. I hand-braided 10 feet of cable to test my theory. I was certain the noise would be lowered, but what I was not prepared for was how dramatically different the sound would be. That set me off on the quest to find out why, which eventually led to our first products.”

“One of the most important things in a cable is the geometry of the wire,” says Markel, whose Analysis Plus cables sport a patented hollow oval design for their conductor, woven of individual strands of copper or silver, crafted to let the signal pass through in as unobstructed a manner as possible. “You could build a Yugo out of titanium,” he says, “and you’re still going to have a Yugo, not a super car. The quality of materials is important, but you’re wasting those materials if you don’t get the geometry right.”

DH Labs Silver Sonic cables employ several geometries that vary according to cable and application. In addition, they utilize a high quality copper conductor, which is coated with highly polished silver to prevent oxidation of the copper and to improve electron flow. Each conductor is then insulated with a thin layer of Teflon, a dielectric most agree to be one of the most effective and most practical of modern materials for this chore.

There are hundreds of other cable companies hawking both good and bad ideas. With this stupefying selection, what, then, is the trick to finding the cable that fits your needs? Predictably, all four designers recommend finding a good dealer who stocks a variety of brands and who will let you listen to several different cables, preferably at home, in your own system. Other suggestions include selecting a manufacturer with a good reputation, seeking out quality construction and quality connectors. Hovsepian even suggests contacting the manufacturer to ask questions. “Companies that put a lot of thought into their designs like to talk to consumers about their products,” he says. “Any of our customers can call here and talk to me if they need to.”

Often, an entry-level cable purchase leads to further exploration of the varieties available in the cable universe, a universe sometimes fraught with suspicions as to whether any cable really sounds better than any other because many of the differences between cables are subtle, can’t often be measured and are often attributed to something akin to voodoo. Martin compares it to developing a palate for better and better wines. “You first go out and buy a bottle of jug wine and say, ‘Gee, that tastes like wine,'” he says. “But as you become more experienced with it, your taste becomes more educated and you feel more confident in your choices. You can start pinning down differences. But this is another arena where you can’t go into a chemistry lab and say, ‘See, because this one has more of these phenols in it, it’s going to taste better.’ But your experience will definitely show you differences between wines that you can pin down with your palate.”

And it’s this very mysterious art-versus-science controversy that causes so much confusion in the marketplace and certainly opens up plenty of space for snake oil.

“There is more potential to be taken advantage of in buying cable than in just about anything else you can buy in an audio store,” Kimber says. “If you go into a store and feel you’re being hustled, then you probably are. If you ask the sales person what kind of music they listen to, and they don’t care or don’t know, then maybe you should look for a different store. A recent magazine article about a major cable company reported on one small audio chain in southern California that admitted this particular cable brand represented only 2% of their gross sales, but something like 25% of their gross profits. In my mind, that kind of profit-taking by cable companies is very irresponsible. Since there’s not much to go wrong with cable, a lot of their pricing is clearly paying for the brand name.”

The companies mentioned here are all safe bets and offer interconnects starting in the $50 range for a one-meter pair, spiraling up to $1,000 or more, and speaker cable starting from $1 to $2 per foot, peaking at Kimber’s ultimate, the Black Pearl, which boasts a $20,000 price tag for an eight-foot pair. All offer extremely good performance across the board, but typically, the best values are to be found in the middle of their product lineups. Most designers admit that beyond that middle ground the laws of diminishing returns come into play so that smaller and smaller improvements in sound demand larger and larger investments.

Clearly, better cable can deliver better sound for your home audio and video, just as it can for your electric instruments. How much you want to spend ultimately depends on your budget and how much your music means to you, as well as how well your system can reveal the sonic improvements good cables provide-more sophisticated systems tend to benefit more from such upgrades. Do some homework, do some hands- and ears-on evaluation. But don’t let those doubting Thomases who trust only science, and not their ears, convince you that it just doesn’t matter. “People consistently and independently, without connection to each other, come up with similar conclusions about what they hear,” Martin says. “That tends to suggest that there really is something going on there, even though we often have no clue how to consistently measure the results or to consistently prove through science that those improvements are there.”

Originally Published