It is now widely acknowledged that cables significantly affect how your system sounds. However it is still common for people to underestimate this important fact. We have heard many testimonials of sceptics who have been astonished at the difference that simply changing a cable can make. Some folk would go so far as saying they can make more difference than changing something like an amplifier or speakers (this is sometimes true).
Why Cables Affect Sound Quality
The notion that cable design is simple and modelled on electrons flowing in an orderly fashion down a conductor is to go back 30 years. Back then most experts said cables made no difference. Before that they said turntables made no difference and how wrong they were.
It is still common to find those who believe any difference in the sound of a cable is due to basic electrical values of – Impedance, Capacitance and Inductance. However you can have 2 cables with identical electrical values and they will sound vastly different. There is clearly much more going on than just these factors.
In more recent years it has been generally accepted that Cables:
- Conduct different frequencies at different speeds.
This produces blurring of the sound and intermodular distortion due to a signals arriving at the wrong time (phase errors) .
- Attenuate (reduce the volume) different frequencies differently.
This alters tonal balance.
- Store and discharge signal energy due to capacitance effects.
This introduces smearing blur and lack of clarity.
- Resonate electromagnetically at certain frequencies more than others.
This introduces significant tonal inaccuracy and harmonic coloration.
- Resonate mechanically at certain frequencies more than others.
This introduces degradation to clarity.
The above list is far from exhaustive but should suffice to demonstrate that there are complex and intertwined problems to overcome.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into too much detail but it’s probably worth explaining phase error which you will see mentioned in more recent cable reviews. This is complex but put simply it’s about ensuring that signal waves all arrive at the time they are supposed to. Easier said than done! The problem is that unless the design is right, high frequency signals may arrive a little ahead of low frequency signals. The signals then interact differently than they should and distortion results. The end result is a blurring of the sound and distortion.
We would go further and say that cables can distort even a single frequency. For example silver plating is often used for various reasons. However there is a problem here which means that this “enhancement” is not an ultimate solution. Silver conducts electricity slightly faster than copper so the portion of signal travelling down the copper will arrive later than the portion travelling down the Silver and this is trouble for ultimate sound quality.
Theory Does Not Explain It So It Can’t Be True
Theoreticians will no doubt tell you that this explanation is nonsense because the time difference is so small that it cannot possibly make any difference. This comment may well be true but the theory is only gradually catching up with what we find in subjective practice. There are other factors in play here like the delay and length of time involved in cable resonance. Think of lightening – a momentary flash then long delay till you hear the thunder, then the roll of thunder going on for a loooong time.
No theory has yet explained the phenomenon of directionality in cables or how lightning can go upwards into the ionosphere. In fact NASA scientists first stated that the pilots who witnessed such things were hallucinating until they got video proof. There is a lot we don’t understand.
But You Can’t Measure It?
Apart from theory I have friends who say “if you can’t measure a difference then it only exists in people’s imagination.” The interesting thing here is that there are subjective effects heard in cables which were rubbished 15 years ago and are now being measured because technology has caught up.
Even now I doubt you could measure any difference in signal passed through cryogenically frozen wire and unfrozen wire. However in blind listening tests there is no question that cryogenic freezing does improve the subjective performance of a cable.
If there is a clear difference in blind listening tests sceptics should face the possibility that theory & measurement has not caught up with reliable observations.
This is just one example of many things we have observed about cable treatments and configurations.
Better cable design reduces signal degradation. This is a huge subject and we mention the above examples to illustrate why cable design makes such a difference. For over 25 years Origin Live has designed and innovated for audio cables. We produced the very first solid core design specifically for audio. We were also the first to use differing strand thicknesses within a conductor (an idea in common use today among leading cables).
Cable manufacturers propose many theories and offer various solutions such as
To Smooth and Improve Linear Signal Flow the Conductors Themselves Can Be Treated.
- Mono-crystal structure to reduce grain boundaries in the metal
- Cryogenic freezing to reduce discontinuities in the metal grain structure
- High purity conductors
- Creating ultra smooth surface finishes on strand surfaces
- Treatments to “burn in” and condition cables
- Plating with variants such as Silver, Rhodium, gold, Nickle, Tin etc.
- Insulation and coatings to improve dielectric properties
- Golden ratio of different strand diameters
- Mixes of material
- Mechanical damping via pressure binding, clamps, cable risers, heavy insulation etc
- Special weave configurations
We could add at least 20 other factors to the list above and this soon adds up to tens of thousands of possible variants – all of which will sound different to one another.
Origin Live arms have won a reputation offering the best value for money and often outperform arms at over 4 times the price (just read the reviews!).
Both our budget and high end arms have received coveted awards so you can be assured of outstanding quality throughout the range.
The difference in sound quality between tonearms is achieved through decades of development, costly materials and time consuming production necessary to produce high quality parts. This also explains the significant performance improvements which exist between each arm in our range.
This title is not said lightly. I have read over 4 Hi Fi magazines per month for many years and see countless cable reviews. As a cable designer with many years experience in the field, it has become all too apparent that this subject needs a lot of clarification. Origin Live’s very first product was a cable. In fact, back then in 1986 the company was known as “Cable Design”.
Is Cable Choice a Lottery?
Finding the best cable for your system can be like a shot in the dark. Some users have to try numerous cables before finally getting the results they want. Without meaning to sound arrogant I would suggest that reviews and specifications need a lot of help in their interpretation for reasons which will become clear later on.
Origin Live don’t offer a cable to suit every system and we do not believe that there is such a thing as “the best cable”. We do believe however that there is “a best cable for your system”. This article provides plain talk that could save you a great deal of time and money.
At quite a few Hi Fi shows I have been accosted by sales representatives extolling the wonders of a new cable that we “must” try in our system and be “blown away”. Not being completely cynical, we usually give them a whirl. The interesting thing is that in spite of sometimes consisting of solid silver and costing many times more, we have only found one of these offerings superior and this was 11 times the cost. I hasten to add that auditioning was by impartial consensus, as we usually have non-staff present in the comparisons.
This story is not to say that most cables offered are poor but rather to illustrate that no cable will ever suite all systems. In the world of Hi Fi equipment, cables seem to be one of the most system dependent items by a colossal margin which is one reason we hardly ever submit ours for review.
Myths and Dogmas
If you’ve read cable reviews, you will be familiar with various theories about their design. Before commenting on various cable philosophies you may want to know a little of our background for credibility. Origin Live started in 1986 by designing the very first solid core cable ever produced specifically for Hi Fi. This cable continues to be a fantastic cable for valve amplifiers and only a month ago replaced the “reference” cable used in a reviewers system. We later developed highly configured stranded cables and Litz wires. Walrus Hi Fi described our cables as “the best kept secret in Hi Fi”. These comments should allay fears that the following comments are merely fanciful ideas. Cables are highly controversial so let’s consider a few dogmas.
Silver is the Best Material for Conductors in the Cable?
Silver wire seems to increase clarity, sometimes remarkably. However it can also sound rather harsh and bright in the wrong system so one has to be careful.
PTFE is the Best Insulation Material?
PTFE has the best figures for practical insulation (apart from air or a vacuum). However, we have found it is not necessarily the best dielectric to use in cables – testing shows that it shifts the tonal balance towards brightness along with a reduction in bass weight. This can be accounted for in the way that dielectric properties vary with frequency. There are materials that seem to transmit more evenly across the whole audio frequency band.
If a Cable Has a Great Review Then it Must be OK
As we’ve already discussed, cables are very system-dependent, so any cable review that doesn’t mention the system used is of questionable value. As you will read in a moment, you can glean a certain amount of useful information from a cable review if you know the context.
Twisted Cables vs Flat or “Dumbell” Cables
The most fundamental difference between cables is whether the conductor cores are twisted or run parallel with one another. Your system will have a clear preference for one of these 2 types of cable. So when you compare cables, start by comparing a flat cable to a twisted one, rather than a whole range of say, flat cables. Once you know your system preference, you have immediately narrowed down the field massively.
Twisted cables offer a lower inductance load, which is generally considered a good thing from a theoretical stance. However, flat cables can sound better in certain contexts and have the attraction that they can more easily be fitted under carpets. If you are after the best sound don’t let this convenience sway you. A twisted cable can make a dramatic difference.
Subjectively, twisted cables bring the midrange forward and tighten up the bass. Spacing the conductors further apart and not twisting them has the opposite effect – they give the bass a more relaxed feel with longer decay of notes. Knowing this simple fact can help you correct a system imbalance by matching it to a more suitable cable.
If you have valve amps, you should almost certainly choose twisted cable as this will tighten the bass by reducing the inductance load. Valve amps are notoriously load sensitive which is one reason this works.
Certain amps like Naim, Exposure, and Linn have been designed for use with dumbell cables (flat & spaced) – it’s usually best to stick with flat cables for these amps to give best sonic results. More importantly you can invalidate the manufacturer warranty by using a non-recommended cable.
Higher performing amps tend to use less negative feedback and sound better with the easier load of twisted cables. For example most Class A amps will prefer twisted cables.
Sometimes the above guidelines are invalidated because an amplifier or loudspeaker response is not even. For example if your system gives a very forward sound in the mid-band, you may find that a dumbell configuration works best.
You should be aware that this is a tricky area where there are many exceptions to the rules. The best policy is to experiment between the 2 types of cable, and this should leave you in no doubt as to which is best for you.
Stranded, Litz or Solid Core?
Most cables consist of thin strands of wire bunched together to form 2 conductive cores. However there are alternatives in the form of “Litz” and “solid core”. If you don’t know what Litz wire is, then it’s best described as a bunch of thin wire strands within a conductor, in which every strand is individually insulated from it’s neighbour. Favoured in many high-end cables, this configuration has the advantage of completely eliminating signal degradation caused by electricity jumping from strand to strand as it passes along the cable. Electricity “jumps” in normal stranded cable because it travels the quickest path. The bunched strands making up the cable do not run straight, but have a light twist to hold them together for manufacturing reasons. This twist causes “jumping” but any bend in the cable will have a similar effect. As one might expect, elimination of the jumping effect manifests itself in a very pure sound, devoid of grain and background haze.
A well designed Litz wire always seems to perform well as an interconnect. However for speaker cables it is not as consistent, perhaps because it presents a higher impedance for low frequencies. On account of this, it’s best avoided as a speaker cable on valve and low power amplifiers. For anything over 40 Watts solid state, a Litz cable can be a huge advantage.
Solid Core cable is usually a single, relatively thick conductor instead of a bunch of thin strands. Similar to Litz, there is no signal degradation caused by electricity jumping across boundaries and as you would expect, the sound is pure and transparent.
The tonal balance of a solid core wire is affected by the thickness of it’s core. Thin solid core wires (less than 0.5 sq. mm cross-section) are highly transparent but bass light, thick solid cores on the other hand are bass heavy (2.5 sq. mm cross-section 30 amp mains wire) – mains wire with conductor cross-section of 1 sq. mm is about right for many systems and still popular in some quarters.
A large diameter solid core wire such as Origin Live Soli-Core is highly favoured by valve amp users. No one really seems to know exactly why thick twisted solid core wire works so well on valves but it outperforms exotic alternatives including Litz wires.
Plugs are influential on sound – yes, dare I say it, they are surprisingly audible. Different plugs influence the sonic characteristics of a cable significantly. Plug design is worthy of a separate article so I’ll save this for a later date. We are meticulous when it comes to sound quality and the fact that a plug is made from copper as opposed to brass is just the start. In a future bulletin we’ll look at the results of testing 4 copper plugs made by WBT, Furutech, Harmony and ETI.
We have only hinted here at some of the research conducted into cables but hopefully this article is of some help.
- Avoid tin plated cables.
- Always allow at least a couple of hours break in time for cable tests but 40 hours to be sure.
- Cryogenic treatment works.
- Claims regarding metal purity and crystal structure are important but of little account if the cable configuration and a whole range of other things are not right for your system.
- Cable comparisons must be carried out in your system or they are of little value.
- Don’t pay too much attention to the hype in brochures or reviews – my first introduction to cable comparison was with a highly reviewed £8/meter Oxygen free, high pressure wound cable (pressure winding reduces strand vibration and “jumping”) against a £0.32p/metre mains wire. The mains wire won hands down in a very standard system.
A reviewer recently commented to me with his usual insight, on an amplifier with class-D power supply. The story went like this “I was impressed for the first half hour, the sound was so clean and I thought I was onto something. After half an hour, I don’t know why, but the music just became boring and clinical – it just didn’t sound like real music.”
There are any number of explanations for this syndrome which is not unusual. I would like to suggest that one probable reason has to do with something rarely spoken of – Harmonics – these are so influential on music but also highly complex.
To illustrate by example, my son recently wanted to upgrade his violin. The violin specialist related that the sound produced by a good violin will carry all the way to the back of a large concert hall whereas an inferior violin is absolutely incapable of such a feat.
The explanation given was that the overtones (harmonics) of the better violin interact with the primary notes to propagate them better through air. It’s a bit like sprinting – your legs do all the carrying but try not swinging your arms or swinging them in the opposite direction to normal. Harmonics may well be what arm swinging is to running. This is obviously a simplistic illustration of a highly complex subject but it should give pause for thought.
If harmonics help sound waves travel in air, it’s not much of a stretch to surmise that they affect electrical waves traveling wires. Normally the sonic differences between wires is explained in terms of skin effect (the tendency for the current to flow down the outside of the wire) but this is doubtful as it only occurs at very high frequencies outside the audio bandwidth (intermodulation effects in this case are of a very low order). Others theorise that because the impedance (resistance) of any wire varies at different frequencies, it handles low frequencies differently to high frequencies. This is certainly true but not the whole story.