What makes a better Cable and Why

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 from 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 can be represented by a simple model of 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 only to the 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 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.

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 on it’s own may well be true but theory is 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. This is so theoretically impossible that 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.
Progress can often be made when it’s acknowledged that current technology is limited. A great example of this is the way in which dogs can smell different types of cancer in people. There are highly advanced instruments which can detect the individual particles which make up the smell from cancer but they cannot identify cancer. The explanation given was taken from music comparing particles to “notes” and the overall smell to the “tune”. Instruments hear the notes but they cannot hear the tune. The “tune” is incredibly complex and beyond the ability of instruments.

Many proposed solutions

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 electrical flow, the conductors themselves can be treated
  • Mono-crystal structure to reduce grain boundaries in the metal
  • Cryo-genic 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
To adjust tonal balance and equalize the conduction of different frequencies the following are examples of strategies which make a difference:
  • 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.