The Audiophile Cable Fantasy

I was going to leave cables alone as it felt too much like shooting fish in a barrel, but I keep seeing articles that conflate all critical comments and questions concerning audiophile cables with “trolling”. Of course there are bad mannered gangs of internet crusaders out there, but reasonable, sceptical questions are not “trolling”.

In no particular order I would make these points:

live and let live

The notion of “live and let live” is a very fine one, of course, but merely by publishing a statement (like the one you are reading) the writer is implicitly criticising those who don’t agree with it. Hopefully they have something to back up their claims. The cable fraternity is effectively saying that all sceptics are philistines who cannot hear the subtleties that they can, yet without any reasoned argument for this claim. Their views influence all hi-fi discussion forums and confuse newcomers. Feathers are ruffled. It isn’t surprising that some people react negatively.

Developing one’s own audio system focuses the mind

If you are using DSP to create crossovers and to correct your system then you are very much in touch with what the signal is, and does. You are pulling the signal apart, processing it based on actual measurements of the system, and then putting it back together again in the analogue domain. There is no need for there to be anything mysterious or magical going on in the cables. If the cable provides adequate shielding and tolerable values of L, C and R (this is nothing special), can handle the current comfortably, is linear from the highest down to the lowest possible signal levels, and has no unwanted exotic properties like microphony then nothing more is required of it. All of this can be measured and quantified objectively, although it would be a pretty uninteresting exercise as almost all cables would be very similar.

An active crossover system throws a further spanner into the works of the audiophile cable fantasy. If the cable is only passing a small part of the spectrum then is it likely to have any of the following attributes taken from a real cable review: “substance, color, clarity, presence, scale, drama, flow, momentum, impact, humanness”? What happens when we combine cables with a mixture of these supposed characteristics? It gets even sillier when the signal is converted into numbers (digitised) and yet the cables used to convey the digits are thought to possess those self-same attributes.

Does science work or not?

If audiophile cables “work” then science and engineering do not. Science and engineering have no explanation for how one cable could give the sound “drama” and another not. (Well they do, and it’s called “placebo” or “expectation bias”). They can, however, explain how the capacitance of one cable, in the non-critical context of an audio interconnect, might roll off the treble by 0.01dB more than another cable. But any mythical ‘goldilocks’ RLC characteristics could be copied in cables costing $2 per metre, anyway. (If a troublesome troll insists on making that point, the cable industry goes on to imply that it’s more than just RLC.) Science and engineering certainly can’t explain how one ethernet cable could sound different from another. This stuff wouldn’t be controversial if there was any published research anywhere that showed how a cable can physically affect sound in any but the most benign, predictable ways. There isn’t. And yet science and engineering produced the basic hardware upon which the “tweakers” work their miracles. Funny that.

“placebo” is a real phenomenon

There is actual research that shows that placebo is real. Audio would be the perfect area to study it. Placebo is sufficient to explain all cable-related sonic effects, and until objective measurements show otherwise it must be the default assumption for any cable-related claim.

“I ran a cable design company…”

“I ran a company designing cables and we explained to people how they work” – is, to a rationalist, no different from saying “I run a crystal healing centre and we have leaflets that explain how all our procedures work.” More in the form of published, verifiable research is needed before a judgement is possible. Simply making statements like “Our copper is 99.9999% pure” does not tell us anything about how it influences the sound (i.e. not at all). Even saying “Our copper is 99.9999% pure which makes it 1.006 times as conductive as ordinary copper” doesn’t tell us anything either, if the only effect of a tiny increase in conductivity is an immeasurably-small increase in volume and nothing else. It isn’t enough to make scientific-sounding statements – that may even be correct – if they mean nothing in terms of the effect on the sound. Leaving the punter to draw the wrong conclusion would be a cheap trick.

The signal and power have already come through miles of cheap cable…

…so what difference can the last metre make? I asked this on one cable-related blog but was told I just didn’t understand otherwise I wouldn’t be asking such a stupid question.

On a related point, why don’t they use special cables in recording studios? Or research establishments? Or hospitals. Or the military? If lives depended on it then you’d have thought the professionals would have cottoned on by now.

Micro-diodes are rectifying our signals

Cable people often say that copper oxide is forming “micro-diodes” that are rectifying the signal (it’s not just about R,L and C you see). A copper oxide/copper diode can occur and has a forward voltage of 0.2V, so the micro-diodes idea might hold water if there were any micro-diodes in the signal path – but there aren’t. The connectors are bonded to the copper directly (if not then they’re defective) and the signal makes its way down the multiple copper strands where it is immaterial whether they are in direct contact with each other or separated by “micro-diodes”. There is no potential difference between the strands because they are bonded to each other directly at the connectors (and are no doubt in direct contact elsewhere) so no current flows across the “micro-diodes”. The multiple strands behave as a single piece of copper. If there’s anything wrong with this explanation it would be a lovely piece of research work for someone to do. The rectification must show up as distortion, or it doesn’t exist.

No one likes to see people being ripped off

Finally, there is an element of not wishing to see people being ripped off. In most areas of business there are standards and laws to prevent gullible people from being taken advantage of –  even if they are happy about their purchases. I could launch a new brand of petrol that used the power of placebo to convince people that it gave them more miles-per-gallon and made their engines last longer. I might even be sincere, believing that my new additive really worked, based on some measurements-free pseudo-science I had made up. People would buy it, and be happy about it, but there are laws to prevent me from making money that way unless I can prove my claims objectively. Not so in the audio industry.

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