I came across an article on mybroadband.co.za, entitled “We compared specialised audio cables with a cheap wire — and there was little difference” and I thought immediately to myself that here
lay an opportunity to spar with someone who dares to challenge in the Great Cable Debate. After all, we audiophiles know all about cables!
But if I’m honest?
We have just come off a review of a R3.5m sound system with cables in it that look like they could dredge the Titanic up from the murky depths. These cables alone probably cost more than a complete good mid-level system! And it got me to thinking. About cables. Again…
Cables are quite possibly the most objectively subjective component within a system. By system I mean a hi-fi setup designed to produce music – whether this be in the hallowed grounds of stereo or the more rarified atmosphere of multi channel home theatre. For the purposes of establishing a point of view however, I am going to stick with a stereo setup because for me the intention of high end audio is the pursuit of the impossible. Namely the replication of a live music performance within the comfort of your own personal space.
High end hi-fi was once described to me as being a bit like the sonic equivalent of looking through binoculars backwards. In other words, the hi-fi performance is very, very far away and what we try to do in our hobby is bring it closer and closer to us so that we can enjoy it all the more.
How close does R3.5m get you? In some instances it feels like within touching distance actually. Eric Clapton, with your eyes closed, could be in the room, right in front of you, delivering a personal performance just for you. Far from CD being the death of vinyl, the internet has made itself the death of CD with streamers these days being able to digitally, and with near perfection, replicate what it is that a sound engineer has recorded and laid down in his attempts to create an authentic rendition of Eric’s singing.
And for me this is the point. At every stage in the process of obtaining a sonic picture of a person generating actual music you have the potential for change. Digital streams can be reclocked, bits can be left off and recreated, sonic signatures can be altered. Power interference can create disturances ‘in the force’. These changes might be for the better and they might be for the worse. But each change is a change and if you are good enough and know what you are listening to, you can hear them. A 3.5M system can show you that as clear as night and day.
Where does that leave us with cabling? Objectively we should not be able to hear the differences between conductors that on paper present similar performance statistics. The same applies to amplifiers, digital front ends, streamers, pre amplifiers and speakers.
Yet we hear differences between these all the time. Why?
It is because in some instances physical construction changes sound patterns – think speakers by way of example. A panel speaker typically has a more natural and open sound than cone derived speakers because there is no point source. And speakers can change their performance as the load on them instantly changes all the time. As the volume increases distortion can creep in and this can come from the amplifier or the speaker or both.
What you have is a highly complex interaction of many many different processes all taking place simultaneously to try and bring Eric into your room as faithfully as he was standing when he was recorded.
In my mind, after many, many years of doing this, I like to think that cabling plays a role. I use silver interconnects with the best possible clamping attachments and silver speaker cabling because I am absolutely convinced that the cables perform consistently, to a high standard across the full listening spectrum and that they do not add or subtract to the performance. I will use them on cheap entry level systems and on high end audiophile systems purely because they have become reference materials for me. Also, the law of diminishing returns as and when applied to cables also means that to deliver a quantifiable step forward (for me) would mean I would need to sell a kidney.
There is part science and part religion to all matters in the high end of audio, and because we all have different ears, we all perceive sound differently, and we all have different emotional connections to music (the universal language) – cabling falls into the realms of complete subjectivity when the objective measurements (as far as the ones that are measurable) remain the same. If I had an R30 patch cable in my R3.5m system would I hear it? I’d like to unequivocally say I would, but would I subject myself to a blind listening? Maybe, in my own reference system, one day, perhaps, after much beer.
Alternately, anyone got R3.5m lying around for donation to this most worthy cause?