Audio’s most contentious debate began about the time Wynton and Branford Marsalis joined the Jazz Messengers. It’s the argument about whether various accessories can improve the sound of an audio system. Browse a few high-end audio sites and you’ll find loads of these accessories, from fancy cables, to devices that clean up AC power, to vibration-isolating platforms and feet. Most advertise audible sonic improvements, such as lower noise and enhanced clarity. These claims are routinely confirmed by audio reviewers. However, many cannot survive scientific testing, which is always done “blind”—i.e., the listeners don’t know what products they’re hearing.
I’ve been performing blind tests of audio products for about 25 years. In that time, I’ve found a few accessories that did seem to improve sound quality—plus some that seemed to do nothing at all and some I’m still not sure about. While covering the entire range of audio accessories could fill an entire issue of JazzTimes, I’ll share my findings about a few basic categories.
Note that the quality of your speakers or headphones always has a far greater effect on sound quality than any accessory can. Listeners can easily hear the differences among speakers and headphones in blind tests, and technicians can easily measure the differences. With accessories, the differences are subtle at best.
The cable conundrum
High-end audio cables are the most controversial accessories because they’re the most common—you can find them at Best Buy. You can buy high-end speaker cables, interconnect cables (to go between, say, a preamp and an amp, or a turntable and a preamp), and even AC cords. While generic versions typically cost $10 or $20, high-end speakers or interconnect cables can easily run three to five figures.
The idea that something as basic as cables could make a difference in the sound might seem crazy, but I did a series of tests for the Lifewire website that showed it is possible for speaker cables to produce a subtle difference in sound. Whether that difference constitutes an improvement is a matter of opinion, though, and a barely detectable difference probably wouldn’t be worth spending five or 10 or 500 times as much.
For people who want to experiment with high-end cables, I often recommend Kimber Kable PBJ interconnects and 4VS speaker cable. These are to cables what the Fender Telecaster is to guitars: a reliable, affordable choice that aficionados have respected for decades. Whether or not you hear a difference with them, there’s no doubt that their braided designs are electrically sound. The 4VS runs $176 for a 2.5-meter pair, while the PBJ costs $132 for a 1-meter pair.