Most of you know I’m not a believer in the sonic enhancements attributed to fancy, expensive cables. The simple fact remains that audiophiles love to argue and rant about this issue — usually from their own very subjective point of view.
The other day someone posted a question on a FB group asking whether upgrading the power cables on his system was worth it. Of course, there were immediate comments from believers and non-believers. But what surprised me was a response by a staunch supporter of expensive power cords that the reason the most listeners can’t appreciate the “improved low level details and sonic accuracy” delivered by an upgraded power cord (as well as interconnects — analog and digital — and speaker cables) is because their systems are incapable of “resolving” the new level of fidelity. In simple terms, it’s not that the cables aren’t affecting the sound of your system. It’s that your system isn’t good enough to reproduce the improved fidelity. Therefore you don’t hear any difference.
This is a fairly common response. When challenged with facts, measurements, and physics, cable advocates fall back and blame the equipment — or your ears. The marketing people at the cable companies and the reviewers that continue to push their agenda have done an amazing job. They’ve convinced audio enthusiasts that spending $200 to $3000 on a single IEC power cord will “dramatically” enhance the sound of your system. Instead of spending that money on appropriate room tuning solutions, we’re told to buy adhesive dots to place around the room or invest in a power cord with unobtainium plugs.
So I responded to the challenge. I offered up my own studio, as a place I believe should be more than able to “resolve” the slightest changes caused by a deluxe power cord. After all, my mastering studio sits on its own rubber isolated concrete floor ($25,000), was designed by an award-winning studio architect ($20,000), built by a team of highly trained craftsmen who specialize in studio construction ($139,000), equipped with state-of-the-art analog and digital equipment (Euphonix, Benchmark, Meridian, Bryston, B&W, Oppo – $250,000), wired with cables from Audience and Cardas (provided by the companies but valued at many thousands), and tuned by the acoustics guru Bob Hodas ($700). I’ve been mixing and mastering records in my main studio for over 10 years. Many of you have heard the results. Engineers like my friend Jack Vad of the San Francisco Symphony called it, “among the best sounding rooms” he’d ever heard. So I’m very confident my room can resolve music at the highest level.
Some years ago, a small custom cable designer and builder based in Atlanta offered to send me his best power cord for evaluation — a 6-foot, $3000, blond braided IEC cord (it came in a velvet bag and wooden box). He was very confident that I would experience dramatically better “sonic details and instrument discrimination” when using his power cord on my Benchmark DAC 2 HGC. So I borrowed a second Benchmark DAC 2 and setup a parallel signal path from my digital source to my monitor system. A simple push button on my console switched between the output of one DAC (with the expensive power cord) and the other (equipped with the stock IEC cord that shipped with the unit). It was a blind A|B comparison. The question was simple — do the two sources sound the same or different (the levels were carefully aligned and measured)?
I ran the test with a variety of music sources, genres, labels, and formats. A group of professional audio engineers that work in other studios in the building (including a Grammy award winner) couldn’t detect any difference — and neither could I! I simply let them listen and switch between the DACs — and no one reported hearing even the slightest change. If the designer of the cable notices a “dramatic” difference at his place, I don’t know how he does it. In my “high resolving” studio, no one could hear any fidelity change when using a $3000 power cord vs. the $1.50 one that is supplied by Benchmark (and which they recommend!).
Sure, we all want to have the best possible equipment and to maximize our listening experiences. But if I were to create a list of things that will make the most impact on your sound in descending order, power cords would be very near the bottom (followed only by green magic markers). Great recordings would be near the top followed by the acoustic environment in which you listen to your music and then the speakers. These things make a huge difference.
Don’t ever let someone blame your equipment or your ears when making subjective — and usually ridiculous — claims about accessories and tweaks. Use your ears and brains — and remember the famously discredited video about “audio enhancements” provided by ever more expensive AudioQuest HDMI cables from early in the year. If there is an “unbelievable” change, someone is juicing the results.