Do Cables Really Sound Different?

November 19, 2013

“Cables make no difference!” If that’s what you believe, thanks for stopping by, but you’ll probably want to move along. But, if you’re wondering if different audio interconnect cables can change the sound of your hi-fi system, and are willing to experiment for yourself, stick around. I have an experience to share, and a tip for how you can test some of the best cables on the market.

If you’ve ever read a review or asked for advice about interconnects, power cords or speaker cables, it’s likely you’ve been met with conflicting views, heated debates and plenty of flame throwing on whether cabling actually makes an auditory difference in your sound system.

There are clear lines drawn between camps in the world of audiophilia. In one hemisphere you have the population that firmly believes cables cannot possibly change the sound of your system (providing they’re not defective or of extremely poor quality), and that any differences heard between cable designs are simply the result of expectation biases and placebo effects. Then the other side of the audio world is full of audiophiles that deeply believe even the slightest variances in cable construction, design and materials create completely different sonic signatures. And then, finally, there’s the rest of us hi-fi enthusiasts that are still trying to find our place in the diverse and conflicting world of audiophilia.

So who’s right? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. Even ABX testing ends up showing mixed and split results, leaving any conclusion open to heated debate by zealots from all sides—basically, it’s a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself.

“People become passionate about their beliefs (right or wrong) and will construct arguments to ‘prove’ their point. And, so goes almost any belief about all things audio,” warns John Pharo, consultant at The Cable Company and a hi-fi enthusiast since the mid-1960s. “There are a number of reasons why cables are so controversial and polarizing. But keep in mind that there are cables designed by actual degreed scientists that really know what they are doing, like Jim Aud, founder of Purist Audio Design, and Caelin Gabriel, founder of Shunyata Research, for example. Of course, cables certainly exist that are sold more on the merits of their marketing rather than sound engineering.”

So what’s a hi-fi enthusiast to do? Experiment.

As John points out, “The level of system, listener experience, and quality of the music can all impact test results. In some systems, cables will make very little difference to the sound quality; in others they make a very large difference.”

In other words, the only way for you to know what impact different cables will make is to test them in your system, in your listening room, with your music, and obviously with your own open ears and mind.

As a relatively new hi-fi enthusiast myself, and a journalist in my professional life, I like to question those more experienced than myself about the things I’m most curious about. I also try to experience things firsthand. To that end, I think I have officially driven The Spirited Uncle M nuts with hi-fi inquiries and requests to do product shootouts in The Sound Lab. At least that’s why I think he provided me with three different sets of “entry-level” interconnects right from the get-go with the simple order to let my ear be the judge.

My first hi-fi setup included the Rotel RCD-855 CD player, NAD C 326BEE integrated stereo amp and a pair of Axiom Audio M3v3 bookshelf speakers. Following a shootout against the Rotel RCD-855, I’ve since replaced it with the Sony DVP-S9000ES SACD/DVD player. As a result, I was able to test the Linn Black, The Chord Company Crimson, and WireWorld Equinox III+ RCA interconnects on both the Rotel and Sony players. Below you’ll see some of the manufacturer descriptions of these cables worked in, but I never researched these cables prior to listening to them—meaning I had no idea what they were marketed to sound like. Here are my impressions based on extensive listening to The North Borders by Bonobo.

Linn Black

The Linn Black interconnect was the first cable I started out with between the Rotel and NAD. According to Linn, this cable is derived from the low capacitance polystyrene dielectric cable used originally to carry the signal from a turntable and cartridge to a pre-amplifier. It’s constructed with a 45-strand copper conductor and single-layer braided shielding.

To my ears, this cable and setup expressed the typical English sound characteristics: a tad warm, laid-back, earthy. There’s no doubt that it was a musical and easy-to-listen-to combination. I suspect vinyl-lovers and tube-enthusiasts will appreciate the resolution and sonic signature of this cable, which seems best suited for jazz or taming recordings that lean to the bright side. Overall, the build quality is as you’d expect from Linn. Minimalist in design, solid construction, the connectors grip the jacks firmly, the cable is very flexible, and the matte jacket resists showing scuffs.

The Chord Company Crimson

I next compared The Chord Company Crimson against the Linn Black in the same Rotel/NAD combo. This entry-level interconnect from The Chord Company was designed to deliver defined bass lines, dynamic drums and clear vocals. The Crimson cable is constructed from two sets of multi-stranded oxygen-free copper conductors, arranged in a twisted pair configuration and protected by a dual-layer shield.

Against the Linn Black, the Crimson seemed to lack some low-end oomph and warmth. While the presentation initially sounded thin, it was immediately clear that the bass response was simply tighter and more defined with this cable. I’d say the Crimson cable also emphasized the upper mids and highs with better detail resolution. Overall, the sound is very crisp and clean, and leans slightly to the brighter side of neutral. On vocal tracks, like “Heaven for the Sinner” featuring Erykah Badu and “Transits” featuring Szjerdene, the vocals were more forward and articulated in comparison to the warmer, laid-back extension of the Linn Black. I’d say this is a nice cable for those that like a neutral, but detailed sound at the expense of some low-end punch. Again, construction is what you’d expect from an audiophile-grade company. The red jacket is rich in color, sturdy and very flexible. The gold plated connectors are of solid construction with no play and retain a secure grip on the jacks, although they are slightly less grippy than the Linn Black connectors.

WireWorld Equinox III+

The WireWorld Equinox III+ interconnect was the final cable in this comparison listening test. From what I can gather, this is the most sophisticated cable design of the three, consisting of a clear PVC outer jacket, black and red textile shield, and two layers of alternating Teflon tape and 85 polymer-coated grain-optimized copper strands wrapped around a polypropylene core. According to WireWorld, this cable was designed to have a natural tonal balance across a wide frequency spectrum.

Running this cable between the Rotel and NAD produced the meatiest sound of the bunch. Without a doubt, this cable exhibited the fullest low-end response that bordered on becoming muddied. At the same time, however, I felt there was little to no compromise in detail throughout the rest of the dynamic range. I wouldn’t call myself a bass head, but I definitely prefer a full, punchy low-end with a smooth transition into the mids, and detailed, cutting highs (is that too much to ask for?). To my ears, the WireWorld Equinox III+ managed to accomplish this best despite the somewhat over-emphasized low-end when paired with the Rotel and NAD. As for the construction, this cable appears to be the thickest and least flexible from the group. Still, you’ll have no trouble flexing it in tight spaces. The RCA connectors are also the beefiest of the bunch with the strongest grip on the jacks. I’d say the overall construction is the best among the three.

Rotel vs. Sony

Now, I mentioned that I had the opportunity to test these cables on both the Rotel RCD-855 and the Sony DVP-S9000ES. To some surprise, the cables did perform slightly different on the Sony.

If you had a chance to read my shootout between the two, you know that my conclusion was that the Sony resolved better detail throughout the dynamic range, albeit at the expense of the warmth the Rotel is noted for. That said, for whatever reason, the sonic variances between cables on the Sony were more subtle.

The Linn Black and The Chord Company Crimson cables actually sounded more similar than different, while the low-end extension of the WireWorld Equinox III+ became far more balanced across the dynamic range when mated with the Sony. When running the Rotel, my cable of choice was the Crimson, because it balanced the Rotel’s warmth and delivered a more neutral, yet detailed sound. When pairing the Crimson with the already detailed Sony, however, I was left wanting more gusto from the lower end of the spectrum, which the Equinox III+ seamlessly delivered while retaining all of the detail from the mids and highs I was looking for.

What this experiment means to me is that different interconnect cables can make a difference to the sound of your hi-fi system. I suspect you can make a case for diminishing returns as you get into the very high-end and esoteric offerings, but again, you never really know until you try. Now knowing firsthand that the sonic differences between cables are also somewhat component-dependent, I suggest demoing as many high-quality cables of different design and construction available within your budget before making a final decision. Find the cables that sound best to you.

Don’t let your hesitancy to experiment with different cables be a limiting factor in your quest for Audio Nirvana. “Yes, you will often be flamed for speaking of your upgrades, tweaks and experiments. Just accept that it will happen and try not to take things personally,” John advises. “After all, if someone is already set in their conclusion, nothing you or I say will convince them otherwise. You cannot change a closed mind.”

Experiment. Have fun. Enjoy the music. And don’t forget to stare with your ears.

Find Your Best Cable

I told you that I knew of a way for you to test some of the best cables on the market. Here’s how. The Cable Company offers U.S. customers access to an extensive “Cable Library Service.” The Cable Library has over $2.5 million worth of interconnect, speaker and power cables from more than 60 manufacturers that are available for a two-week in-home audition. When you decide on the right cable for your system, The Cable Company will have the manufacturer make up a new set to spec for you. Only a 5% deposit via a credit card against the value of the cables that you’re auditioning is required. While the deposit is non-refundable, it will be applied towards any purchase. You’ll also have to pay the round-trip shipping expenses for auditioned cables, but in the grand scheme of things, this service can save you hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars by making sure you choose the right cable for your hi-fi system the first time around.

The Cable Company can be reached at www.thecableco.com, by email at cable@thecableco.com or by phone at 800-328-9973.

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7 comments

  1. Hi Derrick,
    Have you ever tried the Silversonic D H Labs Air Matrix interconnect cables? They are one of the BEST kept secrets in affordable interconnects that will rival the Big Boys. Cables Are Us

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Odd that you would ask specifically about those. Maybe you saw my picture of them on Instagram? Anyway, yes. The DH Labs Silver Sonic Air Matrix interconnects are an excellent cable. DH Labs is another company with real science behind their products, but they are a bit less mainstream. Both myself and TSUM use their cables in our systems. The Air Matrix is a cable that just gets out of the way of the music. It's constructed with very high quality components. And, you can occasionally find them used for very good prices.

      Delete
  2. Still, the eternal conundrum is this: They may sound "different", but which sounds "better"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very true; that's going to be up to your ears to decide! We all have different tastes and listening abilities, and you'll have to try some things to find what fits your preference.

      I guess I am lucky in that I have an uncle with a huge variety of cables that I can try for myself. My suggestion would be to borrow cables from other hi-fi friends to experiment with, buy from a store that allows a trial period, or use services like The Cable Co's to audition different cables before committing to your final purchase.

      Of course, the easy thing would be to just pick a single well-made cable and forget about the possibility that any others would make a difference... but where is the fun in that?

      Delete
  3. Hi Derrick,
    In your quest to reach Audio Nirvana, Silversonic D H Labs makes an interconnect that takes the Air Matrix into the next level of sonic realism and musical enchantment. The Revelation interconnect is without a doubt a giant killer in the world of interconnects and should be added to your audition list. Cables Are Us

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is not a serious article on the subject of whether cables make a difference, but rather just a promo for the 'cable company', which pays for the advertising/hits directed from the blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, but you are incorrect; I receive no compensation from The Cable Co and they have never purchased advertising on my blog. Thanks.

      Delete

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