High End audio cables - improving your sound
Let's get started...
Most people who enjoy good HiFi or Home Theatre products have a sense that upgrading their cables can improve the sound that they hear; no doubt you have seen adverts or heard stories of miraculous improvements.
But how much difference does it really make? How would you know which cables would work better in your particular system? How do you separate the hype from hard facts? How much is it worth spending? What are good value products? What about the merits of different technologies? Do speaker cables or interconnects have the biggest impact? Where do you start?
Let an expert offer some 'sound' advice to get you started!
The awesome Nordost Red Dawn speaker cables
What cables are involved
In this article we are focussing on the audio (i.e. sound) cables, not the video (i.e. picture).
These are the elements involved in most systems:
- The Interconnect Cables. These are what normally carry the sound from the source (think CD Player) to the amplifier or in some systems, between the pre-amplifier and the amplifier.
- The Speaker Cables. These carry the sound from the amplifier to the speakers.
- The Power Cables. These carry the power from the wall sockets to the various pieces of electronic equipment (think CD player or amplifier).
Some systems will include other elements like optical digital cables or USB cables, but we are focussing here on typical systems, and of course, on where you can make the most noticeable improvements.
Key Lesson #1. The reason that the three elements have been listed in the order that they are here, is that this should be your sequence too, i.e. the place to start is with the Interconnect Cables. The biggest potential improvement will come from upgrading your Interconnect Cables, whereas the smallest potential improvement will come from upgrading your Power Cables.
Before you get to the cables!
Key lesson #2. The starting point is to know your system, as all are different. The sound of a HiFi is not just the sound of the equipment, it is also a product of the equipment support (what the speakers and equipment is sitting on) and the acoustics of the room that it is in (it's dimensions, materials and furnishing etc.) I think of selecting cables as being like tuning an engine. You already have the essential components (CD player & amplifier etc.) but now you need to make them work together at their very best.
To be super practical, first you need to find a good place to sit, then play a variety of music that you enjoy. Just close your eyes, relax and listen to your system. Start thinking about how it sounds. You may be surprised that many systems sound much better late at night. This is not the crazy idea of some misguided HiFi addict, it's simply the fact that the mains power has less interference after busineses close and people go to bed. Here are a few ideas to help you listen:
- Can you easily hear the words of the songs?
- Is the bass crisp?
- Is it easy to determine the notes on a bass guitar?
- Can you hear where the singer or instruments are placed e.g. (Left / Right / Centre stage)?
- Can you hear subtle details or are they lost?
- Is the whole sound bass heavy (thumpy) or is it too bright and brittle?
- Does the system favour some parts of the audio spectrum (e.g.vocals)?.
- On a good acoustic recording, can you get clues as to where the recording took place (concert hall, pub, recording studio)?
These are some of the typical questions you should ask yourself as you listen to a wide variety of music that you enjoy.
When you feel that you can describe your system (don't be afraid to make written notes), or to put it another way, have a handle on it's strengths and weaknesses, the next stage is to experiment with the placement of the speakers. You want to do this before you start thinking of which cables are suitable. Essentially, moving your speakers around will affect the sound in many subtle, but sometimes dramatic ways, dependant on the type of speakers. The two key areas are what we call Soundstage and Tonality.
Soundstage is the quality (or realistic portrayal) of the three dimensionality of music. So, if the electric guitar or first violin is over on the left, you want to hear them there. You don't want to hear everything as a big clump of sound somewhere in the middle.
Tonality is the balance of sound from the highs through to the lows. We've all stood next to a car with a massive subwoofer inside, where all we can hear is the bass. Obviously this is a silly (extreme) example, but the concept helps us recognise that some systems are 'boomy', particularly at certain frequencies, or are too 'bright' meaning that vocals sound 'thin' and maybe harsh when played louder.
This article is not about speaker placement, but suffice to say that avoiding room corners if possible, and experimenting with distance from the rear wall, the angle of toe in (whether the speakers face the listener directly are are at a slight inward angle) will probably have a profound effect. You will want to get what you already have to sound as good as possible first. If you have no idea where to start with speaker placement, think of an equilateral triangle, with the listener at one corner and the speakers at the other two. Start roughly like this, with the speakers half to one meter from the rear wall. As a general wall, speakers going nearer to a rear wall or closer to corners will increase the bass, but may cause boom or lack of clarity. There is no mathematical formulae that tells you exactly what to do.
Once you have done the best you can with what you already have, go through the process of listening again, asking all of the same questions, until you can again describe your system. Now we are ready to think about cables.You may be astonished just how much difference has been made already. You don't have to be an expert - if you are patient, methodical and enjoy music (over and above ethnology) you may be surprised what can be achieved!
Interconnect Cables can be complex beasts. They can be constructed of copper, silver or even, believe it or not, liquid mercury. You will hear of locking plugs, crystal aligned Litz wires, spiral wound & flat cables, mono filaments, Teflon coatings, RF shielding, asymmetrical topologies, and that is to mention just a few. It's no wonder the average person doesn't know where to start!
One thing is for sure, almost any Interconnect Cable from a high end cable manufacturer is likely to improve over the free cables that you may have got when you bought your HiFi, or over what is sold in generic electrical outlets or high street retailers (I don't mean proper HiFi shops).
At the bottom of the article, there are some links to a wide range of these high end cable manufacturers to help you investigate specific products from them.
Better Interconnects can bring much better vocal clarity, a more tonally balanced sound, better sound stage (think of the placement of instruments in an orchestra or musicians on stage), a better ability to hear individual instruments or intelligibility of words. These are just a few examples.
We often have to use examples like above (e.g. better vocal clarity) to enable us to discus the various benefits of one cable over another, but what we are really saying is 'more musical' or 'more enjoyment.'
One word of caution... Whilst it is true that some high end cables look absolutely beautiful (yes, even a wire can look beautiful) there are many cables designed to look flashy with polished copper or gold plating but in reality they are nothing special. One of the reasons that high end cables command such high prices is that there really is some astonishingly high technology involved with consequent manufacturing processes - it's not all hype. You see a lot of fake high end cables on line. In many areas of life there are 3rd party bargains to be had, but not in the area of high end audio cables - don't waste your money, go with the established manufacturers (see the list at the end).
Let's discuss just one important technicality here, because it will give you an idea about why making an audio cable is not just a matter of using any old electrical wire..
Key lesson #3. There is an electrical effect called the Skin Effect whereby in alternating currents (of which audio is an example), most of the current is carried by the outer portion (i.e the skin) of a cable. If you think about this, it seems obvious that if you had three small cables connected in parallel, rather than one larger one of the same overall volume of metal, the sound would likely travel over a higher proportion of the cable. This is one reason why many (but not by all) high end cables prefer larger number of thinner wires in parallel. It's too much detail to go into here, but one might imagine why it might be necessary to individually insulate each wire that makes up a single cable, to stop it acting like one large cable. This is why you will see a lot of focus on insulation within speaker wires, not just on the outside. We won't get carried away with technicalities here!
The Skin Effect is a frequency dependent effect in that it is worse at higher frequencies (high notes), and it just so happens that frequencies where the effect goes from negligible to significant coincide with the range of normal audio sound!
Most people discuss the range of human hearing as being from around 20Hz to 20,000Hz, although in fact many audiophiles would say that frequencies both lower and much higher than this have a noticeable impact on perception of realism. Again, this is outside the scope of this article, but if you want to look into this, investigate harmonics, and recognise that all instruments and voices have harmonics that are essential to their character, and therefore frequencies far higher and lower than the perceived, or tuned, frequency are key to their sound.
In Copper, at 60Hz (A very deep bass note), sound travels to a depth of around 8.5mm in copper. Since audio cables are not made as thick is 8.5mm (this is more of a bar than a cable!), the effect is irrelevant.
However, at 20,000Hz, the top end of the audio spectrum, the signal is travelling through around 15 μm, so it is almost irrelevant what the core is made of, just the coating.
Let's make a generalisation for the sake of explaining the concept, let's say that silver is better than copper for audio cables. If this were the case (which in some respects is true), the cost of solid silver cables would be huge. But imagine that you took many thin copper wires, and covered them with a very fine coating of silver. What would the effect be? Most of the high frequencies would be travelling down the best part of the cable. In reality, many high end cables are made just like this, as you get the best possible ratio of sound quality to material cost.
Key here is the fact that many of the audible 'clues', or aspects of the sound that provide detail or information about what is going on, where things are, timing etc., at at the upper end of the frequency spectrum, so you can see why investing in cables where the 'money' is invested in improving the upper frequencies makes logical sense. This is of course generally the case with high end cables.
Enough of the science - what does it mean?
Well, interconnects cost from around $2, to around $20,000 for a 1 meter pair, and yes the writer here has enjoyed some of these latter items. If you think $20K is crazy, just wait until we talk about speaker cables which cost far more!
By now, you can probably hazard a guess at the essentials of what might make a good Interconnect cable. It is likely to be a cable with a large number of smaller strands, silver plated, and with good insulation between strands. We won't go into the complexities of the insulation (most manufacturers will use the term dielectric for insulation) but you'll be looking for something effective like Teflon, or something much more advanced.
That is not to say that there are not some reasonable cables made of just just very high purity copper (Referred to as OFC - Oxygen Free Copper, be sure to check the OFC % level), but silver plated copper is where it generally starts for good cables.
From there, the sky is the limit! However, just to confuse matters, bear in mind that everything we have said here is a generalisation, there are always exceptions.
For example, Nordost, who make some the very finest audio cables in the world, have always had cables in their range with a relatively small number of individual strands, but offering stellar performance, their Red Dawn cables are a good example.
Now, in a system that has good tonality (i.e. not too 'bright' or 'bass heavy'), it would generally be true that the better the quality of the cable, the better the sound would be, so if you spend more, you might get more.
But cables also offer some scope for fine adjustments to the tonality. From my experience, this is more easily achieved when trying to tone down a system that is a little too bright, than do the opposite. So, if your system us a little harsh at the top end, and adjusting speaker placement has not helped, it just might the case that trying a more 'dull' cable could actually improve tonality. Typically this would be a cable with fewer thick strands (conductors) than many thinner ones, because of the skin effect discussed above.
My advice here is this: If you are starting out on your first set of high end interconnects, and are replacing stock (i.e. rubbish!) cables, almost any cable from the list of excellent manufacturers will provide a step up.
If you are an established player and are investing rather more, then you should at a minimum carefully carefully read comprehensive reviews, but ideally, audition cables in your own system.
Recommended Kimber Speaker Cable
Well, the good new here is that almost everything we said about Interconnect Cables applies to Speaker Cables, so we don't need to review the discussion on construction materials or the Skin effect etc.
It's definitely the case that Interconnect Cables have a bigger impact on sound than Speaker Cables. This is actually a good thing for one key reason, and this is COST!
- Unless you have a very unusual setup, Interconnects are much much shorter than Speaker Cables and for this reason use much less of that very expensive silver.
- Interconnects also have a much lower current (power) carrying requirement, so can also use less material for a given length.
What this means is that speaker cables can get VERY EXPENSIVE, ranging from around $1 a meter (for junk) through to around $40,000-60,000 for an 8-12 foot pair.
Exactly the same issues of system tuning as discussed at the end of the Interconnect Cable section apply, so get to know your system first, and upgrade your interconnect cables first of all.
Key Lesson #4. I must sound one word of warning here.
With Speaker Cables being expensive, there is often the temptation to buy the shortest length that you can get away with. This can be a false economy - let me explain.
For most people, if you buy 1 meter long interconnect cables, they will probably work whatever you do with your HiFi, even if you move it to a new location or move to a new house. However the same can't always be said for speaker cables, you can't just join two together, or at least, you shouldn't!
So if they are too short, there is nothing you can do except buy longer ones. It is generally wise to buy them a bit longer than you might need, or at least, don't buy very short cables - it may end up costing you twice as much in the long run.
There is one further issue to consider, that can also add significantly to speaker cost.
Many high quality speaker are what are called Bi-Wire or Tri-Wire, whereby separate sets of speaker cable can be used for each driver or set of drivers (speaker cones) within the speaker.
Given that we have already said that speaker cables cost much more than interconnects, you can see why someone with an unlimited budget might Tri-Wire their speakers with three sets of $60,000 cables, and suddenly get into the territory where they could buy a nice house instead!
Anyway, I'll give a bit of practical of advice here that might help.
In my experience there is no question that Bi-Wiring, or Tri-Wiring makes a noticeable difference. It generally improves the soundstage and significantly crisps up the sound, giving better and attack and tighter (not louder) bass. It is not a night and day difference, but is very noticeable to the audiophile.
- If you are starting out out on the upgrade path (i.e. your current speaker cables are just generic / cheap), you may be in the dilemma of asking yourself whether you should be buying one set of more expensive cables or two sets of cheaper cables to Bi-Wire. My advice would be always go for one set of much higher quality cables, as they will almost definitely sound significantly better.
- If you already own one set of good cables and are now considering an upgrade to facilitate Bi-Wiring, don't assume that you should be upgrading the cables to that supply your High Frequency section (In Bi-Wire one set of cables supplies the Hi Frequencies and the other supplies the Low Frequencies). With everything that I have said above about the High Frequencies supplying all of the visual cues as to the environment and timing etc., it would be entirely logical to assume that this is where your best cables would go. However in my experience, really good cables can 'sometimes' have a more profound effect in tightening up the bass than improving the treble. There is no rule here, I am just saying that as with everything in HiFi optimisation, play around, experiment, listen carefully and see what works best - you just never know!
Lastly, and of course this applies to both interconnect and speaker cables, be careful where your cables lie in respect of power cables. The worst thing you can do is run speaker cables side by side with power cables. Sometimes they have to be near each other, try to have them cross each other at 90 degrees. It avoids RF interference.
Recommended Furutech Interconnect cable
Power cables are, as said above, the area that perhaps makes the least difference,and for many audiophiles, they will never venture into the the significant power cable upgrade territory.
Never the less in the context of an excellent audio system, when everything else is working and optimised, there are big gamins to be had.
Really this area is not merely about the power cables themselves, but in fact a huge subject that encompasses may possible avenues of upgrade.
- A dedicated earthing system for their HiFi
- What we generally call a dedicated spur, or in simpler terms a dedicated HiFi power circuit, just like your bathroom may have it's own circuit.
- High quality electrical conditioners. A notable example would be the IsoTek equipment, some of which costs around the $25,000 dollar mark. Many of these systems completely regenerate the electrical supply, effectively leaving no possible interference connection with the original electrical supply.
- Some people, although this is more rare, implement a system that converts their electrical supply to a balanced configuration. This is system that inherently removes electrical noise - essentially the same concept generally used on stage or in recording studios for most instruments and microphones. Balanced mains used to be a super specialised area with very expensive installation costs, usually by a qualified electrician, and many ordinary electricians would baulk at the very idea, despite being perfectly legal under most con tries regulations. However in recent times various manufacturers are introducing less expensive but still very effective units, notable examples being from Russ Andrews, that don't requite anything other than plugging it in, in other words they work just like an extension lead.
As with everything said above, there are no concrete rules. Generally speaking it is far more profitable to put your investment into interconnect cables first, and then speaker cables second, and then possibly investigate the electrical power components. But just imagine you live in a place where the electrical power has huge problems, perhaps you live next to an industrial complex and regularly struggle with electrical circuit born interference - it may well be that the best investment you could make would be in some sort of good quality power conditioning.
One thing, don't confuse the the cheap common surge protected extension leads that are commonly sold for computers with the kind of equipment described above - they have little or nothing in common.
Some final thoughts
There will always be people, especially writers on the Internet, that will try and tell you that it is a complete waste to spend money on expensive audio cables or other accessories. Sometimes they will also provide scientific explanations as to why one cable is just the same as another.
However, millions of audiophiles around the world would beg to differ - they are not deaf or naïve, they are people who love music, and generally don't part with their hard earned money unless they they genuinely think that a product makes their system sound better.
If you are unconvinced, I urge you to visit a high quality HiFi retailer and ask them to demonstrate the difference between some free wires and something quite modest but decent, maybe say some $250 cables in the context of a modest by proper HiFi - take your favourite music along and I think you will be convinced.
In a similar manner, I urge you try and be open to some of the more interesting products on the market. When I first heard of the Nordost Eco3 spray (pictured above) and heard that it was an anti static spray that you wipe on your high end cables every couple of weeks, I admit that I laughed and thought that the idea was ridiculous. I soon changed my mind when I had tried it, it brought about an admittedly subtle, but never the less clear increase in detail or definition of the sound. I was impressed enough to start using it. So, you just never know!
Quality Audio cables are not all about spending thousands or tend of thousand of dollars - some of the companies here that have stratospherically priced cables also have some very modest stuff too, and it is still a worthwhile upgrade.
The bottom line is this, music is not ultimately about scientific measurements, graphs of frequency responses and spectral plot analysis (if you don't know what this is, don't worry). Music is supposed to stir the soul. Either something helps you enjoy your music system more, or it doesn't.
Only you can decide!
A list of high end companies that you might want to investigate
The Chord Company
© 2014 Rev Dr Nick Catley, B.A. M.Div. PhD. MInstLM. FBCS