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BITS OF WIRE & PIECES OF STRING:

Why cable reviews are almost useless

[Italian version]

Manufacturer: Charm Cable Constructions Inc
Product: Pieces of Wire
Approx.cost: from 15 € to thousands
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: July, 2005

Charm Cable Constructions Inc bring to the market 3 cables spearheading their exciting new range of bits of wire with unfeasably butch plugs that'll unscrew the sockets on yer average integrated amp quicker than a Snap-On torque-wrench. The Upquark and Antineutrino interconnects and the Lectron speaker cable redefine audio system synergy as much as they they rewrite subatomic particle physics lore. TNT authors have recently taken a new look at some of the established doctrines of domestic audio (the kind that make pro-audio workers laugh) including Goeff Husband's scrutiny of the vta debate and Hartmut Quaschik's September 2004 look at the Linn LP12, and these ramblings do not promise as much of a paradigm shift.

So today we take a look and listen to "cables", as they are pretentiously termed in the audio business (previously "cables" were used to secure ships to docksides or latterly carry telephone signals accross oceans) or "bits of wire" as one of my cynical music-loving friends more accurately describes them.

Particle physics experiments are usually undertaken by colliding atoms of one element with subatomic particles from another element in VERY BIG bits of laboratory equipment that are the lab equivalent of top-fuel dragsters in a world of economy hatchbacks. And yet, even these have been described as like colliding 2 wristwatches together and then hoping to learn how they work from observing how the bits fly apart. So learning about particle physics is jolly difficult. But hifi cable manufacturers seem to know stuff about particle behaviour that are as yet unpublished in Nature or Scientific American.

A synchrotron (sometimes called a synchro-cyclotron) is a circular accelerator which has an electromagnetic resonant cavity (or perhaps a few placed at regular intervals around the ring) to accelerate the particles, unfortunately these have to be very cleverly designed because everything has an irritating habit of becoming non-linear at very high speeds (like several motorcycles I have owned).
According to the Fermilab Cyclotron site, TESLA technology Superconducting accelerator structures of niobium, the so called resonators, are components of the future linear accelerator. So that's clear then, a big lot of money is needed to make stuff out of exotic materials that operate at ridiculous temperatures in order to learn what electrons and their ilk do on their days off (because these are hardly the normal workaday activities of the average subatomic particle zooming around in a cup of coffee).

[bigger_cable=bigger_penis]

Hifi cable manufacturers should take a year out and go tell the physicists how subatomic processes work because they could save the millions of euro that the new synchrocyclotron is costing at Cern (Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire not the Cerne Abbas giant who is a prehistoric chalk carving of a giant naked man with a large erect penis on a hillside near the village of Cerne Abbas in England), even the Swiss Proton Users' Group (and who'd admit to owning/driving a Proton, even in Switzerland?) singularly fail to mention audio cables anywhere on their website. How can two so mutually interested pioneering areas of science so fail to recognise each other's contributions.

[hifi_wire_or_synchrotron_detector?]
Particle collision in the TESLA detector

In the center of the future TESLA detector are various detecting devices to trace the paths of the particles: the vertex detector (green), tracking chamber (red), electromagnetic calorimeter (blue) and hadronic calorimeter (black). The particle bunches are made up of electrons and positrons which hurtle in opposite directions through the beam pipe (blue), entering the detector from both sides and colliding in the center of it. The results of this "collision event" are symbolized by the colored tracks and points (Source: DESY Hamburg). This is splendid research that will surely change hifi cable construction in the future, so it must be worth every penny.

Whenever we discuss bits of wire, sorry, "cables", we are right back in the territory of the 70s subjective vs objective debate; one which still rages among certain folk. There is a perfectly valid psychological explanation for the heat of these debates that has nothing to do with audio, art or science. Good science and good engineering are largely a matter of amassing sufficient repeatable data to be able to draw hypothesis and use these to make reasonable predictions of what might result from a certain action. This must be checked by experiments that test these hypotheses. Very simple really, one might think.

Repeatable personal observation provides us with uniquely validated evidence more than the rhetoric of church, state or audio advertisement. But there are those who cloak themselves in the language of science who insist that phenomena do not exist if they cannot explain them in their own terms, rather like the tobbacco companies who until recently insisted that no causal link could be proved between smoking and lung-cancer, may have been a technically accurate statement at the time but was a lie in any other conventional phenomenological encounter with evidence, and was illogically extended to the hypothesis that therefore cancer was not caused by smoking. For example there are still those who insist that we cannot hear differences between bits of wire in audio systems because they have cannot envisage how such differences could exist. They use logical argument to override sensory experience, which is how many of us manage to spend years living unsatisfactory lives because we ought to do what we are doing, because we have been told that is the way to do it.

To me those objectivists who refute all cable differences are merely taking a position similar to the Rennaissance religious backlash against new knowledge of the solar-system. The objectivist position is equal in evidence base to any other religious faith.

The Subjectivists, on the other extreme, know that copious doses of money & snake-oil & pixie-dust (mined until quite recently in the English county of Cornwall, whose residents don't call themselves English, but Kernow, where it is still called Piskie-dust) will transform the electrical signals entering & leaving amplifiers from ignorant neanderthal electrons leaping from cave-to-cave (electron holes) into elegant sophisticates possessed of the savoire-faire of soundstage & screen.

The cable-charmers imbue bits-of-wire with mystical magical properties not yet known to science, but familiar to spiritualist mediums. This subjectivist position ranks alongside faith healing in its adherence to an empirical evidence base backed by academic rigour.

Now I know that I have angered both the Objectivists and the Subjectivists in equal measure. They are both suffering from the same psychological condition: an inability to cope with uncertainty. Indeed, they may suffer from a fear of uncertainty. To both groups, "uncertain = unsafe". The objectivists want to measurable-repeatable readable test results that clearly state that there is a difference between A & B and that the difference proves that A is better than B and therefore might justify higher unit cost. The subjectivists need to know that they will hear that A is better than B because several other people say they have heard that A sounds better than B and that there is unlikely to be an even better C because only A has ingredient/process X.

In this postmodern age there is an argument that all stories are equally valid and equally true; that there are no metanarratives (of which any doctrine is but one attempt) and that each of us carries our own unique story including our own unique engagement with the world. So my measurements are as good as yours and your pixie-dust is as good as mine. So anything I write about any piece of audio equipment is just my story and you may as well not bother reading it. Equally I shouldn't bother writing it. Except that I am driven by nearly 30 years of experience of reading the audio comics and finding that much of what I read doesn't correlate to my own experience in any way. Much of it seemed to have been written from a point of view of vested-interest, whether material or emotional, and some from sheer gullibility both objectivist and subjectivist. Experienced audio readers gradually learn whose opinion they trust in what area, but neophytes can pay a very high price for these lessons, both in finance and sound quality; I was lucky to be impoverished enough to learn by DIY experiments and solutions.

My long history in encounters with bits of wire began as a 15 year old in 1974. A friend & I were experimenting with any aspect of our audio arrangements we could think of as we had no money, no sense, and an excess of time because the girls that we liked had no interest in us. Faffing about with speaker wires cropped up as part of our desperate efforts to make silk-purses from the sows-ears our meagre incomes could buy. We began simply with the idea that thicker speaker wire would offer less resistance and therefore allow a better relationship between the amplifier and the speaker load. We were only basing this on basic school physics lessons and poorly understood library books. We were surprised to hear a big difference from a couple of lengths of 20A ring-main cable (2.5mm^2 solid core with earth drain pulled out) compared with the thin figure-of-8 "bell-wire" supplied with speakers. Naturally this prompted further experiment with 30A cooker installation cable making even better bass, which we simply attributed to better damping factor, knowing of no other parameter.Then my friend obtained a large quantity of (used) TV downlead and we tried this, not in it's coaxial centre-hot, screen-return configuration, but centre & screen joined at both ends and 2 runs to each speaker. We were amazed by the results on every speaker we tried them. We followed this by removing the crossovers; mounting x-over close to the amplifier and tri-wiring to the drivers, based on not having any more ideas of what else to do with our vast cache of 75ohm downlead. We assumed that the improvement we heard was due to further impedence reduction and the fact that we had hard wired every connection except the back of the amplifier, because we couln't afford to buy 12 pairs of connectors.

Then in August 1977 HiFi News & Record Review published a translation of Jean Hiraga's seminal La Nouvelle Revue du Son article on cable-quality and sound-quality "Can we hear connecting wires?". The impression that article made was such that I can remember where I was (on a boat) when I read it. It amazed me that someone with access to really good equipment could hear cable effects when we thought these effects were entirely due to our cheap used junkers, homebuilt speakers and adapted PA & instrument amplifiers. We had thought sound differences between wires was due to the inadequacy of our equipment, not to the gilding of our ears, but now we knew we had been elevated to the ranks of the golden-eared, and still just schoolkids too.
This psychological response is a behavioural reinforcer:
we can hear cable differences therefore we are special;
everytime we hear cable differences we feel special;
to hear cable differences is to feel special.

This is a generation of people who are the beneficiaries of improving widespread education, but who were raised and educated to believe that what is written is of more value than what is personally experienced; that somehow an opinion that has made it into print on paper has greater weight than our own sensory experience. The most valid shadows on the walls of Plato's cave are those written about and printed. At school we are taught that any opinion we expressed had to be validated by references to opinions printed by someone else earlier. My day-job occasionally involves research and writing, and editors won't allow statements unsupported by a similar previous opinion; paradigm shifts are a tough call in this environment. One is supposed to be able to refer to someone else writing something similar earlier.

One manufacturer who wanted knowledge of the widest range of system contexts before deciding whether to market a prototype, used to loan me bundles of experimental cables in exchange for feedback. I also suggested design ideas to him that I was then able to try as prototypes. In the process I was lucky to undergo a very steep theory-into-practice learning curve, without spending hard-earned cash. For all those armchair theorists & commentators this is a salutory lesson in the realities of audio development. Something as simple as a piece of wire may completely defy your carefully constructed theory, despite experience of many ready-made cables.

One such opportunity was to try four wires of equal length and identical plugs featuring two alternative constructions and two alternative conductor materials. This enabled a reasonable attempt to find out what-affects-what in various systems. There were also some additional variations on each theme to spice the experience. I tried them in my own system and in some very different systems belonging to friends.

In each of two conductor materials there was a choice of multistranded or solid-core of similar total cross-sectional area. There was also a much thinner version of solid-core in one of the two materials. To disguise the identity of the manufacturer I will name them only by letter. Conductor type A is a very popular type used by many suppliers and conductor B in expensive applications by very few makers.

The results were clear and unambiguous: the successful application of a type of construction was system dependent. Conductor material was not system dependent.

Construction also made a distinct contribution that which remained similar throughout, but advantageous in one system and less so in another context. In interconnects the construction type was most important in terms of system compatibility. "Flat Earth" systems (for example Linn & Naim or Pink Triangle & Exposure, which dates when these experiments took place) needed multistrand interconnects, whereas high-end Sound Practices type all valve (tube) systems needed solid-core conductors. This was a more significant system synergy consideration than conductor material type. Any system outside these two very broad categories was unpredictable. A system with a Croft Micro (valve) pre-amp and a big Rotel solid-state power-amp needed a solid core pre-to-power interconnect but a Naim NAC42 pre-amp feeding EAR509II (valve) only sounded right with multistrand interconnects. No obvious patterns emerged though.

Materials quality seemed to affect the type of sound, its voicing and characteristics, but not its system compatibility. If solid-core silver suits a system better than multistrand, then solid-core copper will suit the same system better than multistrand. In our tests conductor B always outperformed conductor A once the preferred construction was identified in any application, but the wrong construction choice was always obvious whatever the material. The biggest lesson was that materials quality could only be judged after the construction type for that system was identified. Given that different manufacturers often favour different construction characteristics, meaningful comparisons between brands are impossible outside the context of each individual system.

[pixie_dust_accelerator]

Wires do make a difference, but not much. My only BIG DIFFERENCE experiences have been loudspeaker cable, nearly always with very weird construction. Each example would be enthused over by another reviewer and yet dreadful in my system. One occasion rendered a whole system unlistenable and I thought something was horrbly and expensively wrong with the amplifiers. Investigation proved the high capacitance cable reactance was a serious mismatch for the minimalist crossover. More indcuctive dumbell section (Naim NACA4 at about £3 per-metre in those days) sounded OK in that system, but the rave-reviewed £50 per-metre flavour-of-the-month sounded like tortured cats through megaphones. This does not make it a bad cable, just unsuitable for that system.

For loudspeaker wires I suggest you keep it simple, use straightforward construction types of low resistance and avoid highly capacitive or inductive types. Then stop obsessing about it. That magic synergistic connection between your present amplifier and present speakers will look like a horribly expensive mistake when either gets upgraded. Biwiring does make a difference with some crossovers but a fully active system is the only way to go really.

Conclusion

Writing objectively about bits of wire is impossible. Reading about bits of wire is at best ambiguous and at worst misleading without comparable contexts.

From late Summer bats used to fly into my garden every evening, and along the nearby river feasting on the insects swarming in clusters there. They haven't appeared since developers demolished some old industrial sheds 1/2 mile from my garden, but when they return I'm sure they'll bring some pixie-dust that'll make me hear all the stuff we're supposed to hear. When it happens I promise I'll sell it on the web so you can hear it too.

I haven't had that "everything snapped into focus" moment ever in any parameter with any type of gear... yet...perhaps I just didn't take enough drugs when I was younger? Cables are useful and do make a difference but cables just aren't that important to anyone whose income does not depend on their advertisements.

© Copyright 2005 Mark Wheeler - www.tnt-audio.com

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