Copper

Another of the matters that I intend to explore regularly on Hummadruz is the veritable trash mountain of  hifi audio myths. Superstitions and irrational belief systems flourish in places where there is a substantial amount of subjectivity and a stratosphere of opinionated experts – especially where there is considerable profit to be had. High end audio is the perfect place to find plenty of hokum.

It’s hard to know where to start with ‘professional’ hifi. There is so much misinformation and gobbledegook that pretty much wherever you turn there’s some implausible gadget or other for improving your sound, from gold-plated digital connectors, through pens that make CDs ‘clearer’ to (quite unbelievably) expensive wooden knobs for your amplifier. And that’s not even tippy-toeing into the world of serious audio fruitcakes.

Today I’m going to examine the simplest, and perhaps the most exploited of all hifi components: speaker cables. The hyperbole spouted by the vendors of these products is voluminous. Their ‘oxygen free, polarized di-electric, elevated-off-the-floor, cryogenically chilled’ cables will make your muddy cloth-filtered music sound like it’s been triple-washed in Persil! It’ll come out of the speakers at a fidelity beyond studio quality!

What’s going on here? Can some bits of wire really make that much difference? Well, yes and no. First of all there’s an important point to note about speaker cables – they carry a much higher level signal than anywhere else in the audio chain because by the time it gets to them it is amplified. In practical terms, what this means is that your actual modulated raw audio signal is at its most powerful going from your amp to your speakers. Why is that important? Because by this time the electrical signal is bumped up way beyond the noise level of all the other components in the system – most of the stuff that can be done to affect the fidelity of the signal itself has already been done.

That being said, what then becomes significant is the best way to get the electrical signal from out of your amp into your speakers with the least impediment possible, and this essentially comes down to one thing: providing the happiest and least reactive conduit for your excitable electrons to travel along. Now there are some mitigating factors involved: no matter how good your path is there is some wear and tear on how well the electrons fare. They are effected by the quality of the conductor, the distance they have to travel and other electrical phenomena such as capacitance and inductance. But here is the critical point: none of these things are really much of a problem in ten feet of speaker cable. In addition, even if you were able to demonstrate some non-optimal electrical artifacts over such a short distance, it is unclear what effect, if any, these have in relation to audio fidelity.

So. What is the most important factor to consider in getting your electrical signal to your speaker? Just one thing: lots of copper. Copper is a terrific conductor of electricity. It’s very kind to the electrons as they pass though, giving them the easiest path to travel that they could ever want. And when we’re talking about ten feet, all being said, that’s really not that much copper.

I’m now going to give you a tip that will save you hundreds of dollars and make your hifi system sound as good as the very nerdiest of your audio-buff friends: for your speaker connections, forget all about the oxygen free, diode rectified, dipped-in-chocolate, used-only-by angels $400-per-foot Pear cables and instead just use a good quality, large gauge twin-core electrical cable.

That’s it! Use some wire like this and no-one on the planet will be able to tell the difference between it and the most expensive cable you can buy! I found the stuff above for less than $2 a metre and you can do even better than that. Sum total for speaker cable for my studio: $45. And that’s for a full 5.1 sound set up, with 6 speaker sources. I could have spent many hundreds of dollars – thousands, even – if I’d done it with a fancy cable brand.

And, in case you’re still wavering in your point of view, consider this story:

In 2007, James Randi put forward his famous Million Dollar Challenge to the makers of Pear cables, defying them to demonstrate in a double blind test that their product would outperform a cheaper good quality cable of the same length (‘outperform’ in this context is understood to mean that it would reliably and repeatedly be preferred as more accurately representing the audio it carried, as assessed by an experienced listener). Predictably, after first calling the Challenge a hoax, and then resorting to ad hominem attacks against Randi, Pear’s CEO Adam Blake refused to participate. This is an unequivocal admission of flim flam. If your product performs as claimed, you can only come out of the Randi Challenge looking absolutely golden (with the added advantage of $1000,000 cash in your pocket). If you back out, then this surely indicates that you are afraid that the results will not bear out the hyperbole in your marketing. There have been, to date, no double-blind experiments that have demonstrated in any way that a cable that costs you thousands of dollars is any better at rendering audio than a good quality one of under a hundred. Indeed, tests that have been undertaken, like this ad hoc (but reasonably conducted) trial made with audiophile Mike Lavigne as the expert listener, tend to show that expensive cables fare no better than cheaper alternatives (something which Mr Lavigne quite admirably concedes).

Audio buffs like to pontificate ad nauseum about the how much difference the supposed ‘high end’ speaker cables make but to those of us who work in the business they just look like nitwits – we don’t use those kinds of cables! So what these people are claiming is that they can hear better sound in the reproduction of the material than we heard when we made it! That, of course, is an absurdity of the highest order.

I’d like to end with a true story. Many years ago, a hifi aficionado acquaintance of mine invited me around to hear his new system. He had spent many thousands of dollars on components, and waxed lyrically about his new speaker cables, which, he said, had improved the fidelity of his music by an impressive order of magnitude. Knowing about my skepticality of such claims, he swore that even I would notice! He sat me down and pressed play on one of his favourite jazz recordings. Could I perceive a superior sound quality? Was I astonished at the clarity of his sound? Well, not so much – I spent a more than a few minutes coming to grips with the fact that his speakers had been wired out of phase, a much more egregious degradation of the listening experience than even speaker leads made of string would have inflicted. And something that he had not even noticed. After we fixed the connections, he went on to maintain that the cables were responsible for a whole new realm of clarity in his listening experience.

‘But what are you comparing them with?’ I asked.

‘With the old ones,’ he said.

‘But you’ve just set your whole rig up in a new room, and you have new speakers,’ I said. ‘How can you possibly tell?’

‘You’re such a skeptic!’ he cried.

And he was right, I am.

Now I’m not suggesting that all hifi buffs would make such obvious mistakes as these, but the thing is, my friend had invested so much money and faith in his speaker cables that he had little choice but to believe that he was witnessing superior sound reproduction. And I do suggest that this phenomenon has more than a little part to play in influencing the subjective experience of listening to recorded music.

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2 thoughts on “Copper

  1. So true…… Investing hundreds of dollars in fancy cables is equivalent to a religious conversion and attempting a rational examination of the claims of such an investor is as pointless as attempting one with the “born again”.

    On a different note: I’d like to read your take on the issues raised in the following article and debated in its comment thread. Could a new audio codec/format/whatever truly provide a better listening experience? http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/neil-young-trademarks-new-audio-format-20120403

    • Oh, yes, there is room for better quality in audio codecs. All this is about really is finding ways to improve the compression ratio vs the fidelity loss. If you start with a hi quality digital recording at 96k 24 or 32 bit, say, you have nice sound. But that makes a big file – so compression formats are competing to give you the best version of that but with a smaller file size. Neil Young is being optimistic about patenting a new format though, since there are so many of them. An open source format called Opus has just been put out in the wild and the specs on that are rather impressive:

      http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-09/15/opus-codec

      It leaves all the others in the dust, as you can see. But it’s open source, so to all the companies who want to control your listening experience that’s the same as Communism.

      How much better can these formats become? Well, that’s a matter of computer science. Certainly AAC is better than mp3. And Opus is plainly better than AAC. None of these, however, are better than uncompressed audio. The gap will become smaller and smaller, but the question is whether file size will even matter in a few years.

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