Personal Technology: Cable Guys

Audiophile-grade cables—the elaborate wires that connect the components in an audio/video system—have done more to undermine the credibility of specialty audio than any technology, product, or claim.

The debate over the benefits of high-end cable began some 25 years ago when manufacturers attempted to improve the pipeline carrying the signal by improving the quality of the wire. Today, specialty cable represents a billion-dollar-a-year industry, but opinion on its merits remains mixed.

The truth is, unless you have a top-of-the-line system, these cables will make little, if any, difference in the overall performance. But without them, you cannot realize the full potential of a high-end system. A mass-market-grade system cannot reveal the audible gains of superior cables, which—admittedly—are subtle. High-quality cables generally produce cleaner sound and clearer musical details, as well as quieter “background noise.”

The high price of the cables—as well as the argument for their use—is a matter of physics. Specialty cable incorporates more raw copper and other metals because their molecular structure more accurately carries the signal that is converted to music at the loudspeaker. Solid silver, silver-plated copper, a mixture of silver/copper/gold strands, and ultrapure copper are other materials frequently used in specialty cables. The wire’s insulation—which might include cloth, paper, plastic, or Teflon—and the gold-plated connectors add to the cost as well.

Specialty cables also address pollution—the distortion caused by radiation from TVs, cell phones, the rest of the A/V system, and anything else that might corrupt the audio signal. The manner in which that the cables’ strands are woven together, the judicious amounts of copper insulation, and the assorted layers of plastics and cloth all provide protection from pollution. “In systems designed to achieve extremely high performance, properly matched cables can be among the most critical components,” says Karen Sumner, president of Transparent Audio, maker of the $30,000 Opus MM speaker cable.

Considering the cost of the finest cables, skepticism is understandable. “There are still some who believe that cables are a scam, but they are listening with closed ears,” says Noel Lee, president of Monster Cable, the largest specialty cable manufacturer. Still, says Sumner, the highest-priced cable is not necessarily the best option. “If an individual auditions two different cables and hears no difference, she or he should definitely purchase the lower-priced cable. No cable can justifiably command a higher price unless it offers commensurate performance.”

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