The Whole Thing Is A Fraud: High-End Cables
By Mark L. Fischer
[Editor’s Note: The following comment deserved to be featured as a guest article…and was used with permission.]
Feel free to reprint this or do whatever you like with it. This is not a personal opinion, it is a professional opinion. Among the many jobs I’ve had in my career, I was for the last three of the twelve years I worked there, the chief electrical engineer of Bell Communications Research, at the time the largest research consortium in the world. Audio is just a hobby for me, something I don’t take very seriously. Good thing too, I’d be in a dither also if it were my profession instead.
Never have so many been so confused and misled by so few. To hear people who call themselves audiophiles and those who market products to them tell it, you’d think wire is a complete mystery, a black art. But the truth is that of all the things scientists and engineers understand about electricity, wire has to be at or near the top of the list. Does wire matter in an electrical circuit? You bet it does. That’s why industry has created so many kinds for different applications. What is its legitimate purpose. To connect circuit point A to circuit point B with an acceptable minimum of loss, induced noise, and radiated noise. What is the standard by which wire can be judged? A shunt, no wire at all, just a direct adjacent connection. What is not a legitimate function of wire? To act as a control to deliberately alter a signal. In that function it is absolutely awful, we have far better tools for that. So the first thing audiophile wire manufacturers have to do to sell you their product is to convince you not to use those tools and they have largely succeeded. That’s when the games begin and the money starts to flow from their customers’ bank accounts into theirs.
How then do wires actually work. Scientists understand electrical conductivity right down to the quantum mechanics level of how electrons escape the pull of nuclei and flow under the influence of an applied electrical field. They also know how to shield wire effectively both electrically and where necessary in rare occasions magnetically. Electrical engineers know how to model wire mathematically by creating equivalent lump sum filter parameters circuits from what is actually a distributed parameter filter. They also know how to integrate that model into network equations connecting the source to the load to accurately predict exactly how wire will function in any given circuit.
Mainstream wire manufacturers are not ignorant or stupid either. Then know how to design wire using various geometries, insulation and conducting materials and manufacturing processes such as annealing to create wire that is optimal for any conceivable electrical function at the lowest possible cost. They offer a staggering array of product for every application or problem they can think of. The products created for both professional and consumer audio systems are child’s play for them compared to really challenging problems.
The success of the audiophile wire industry is based entirely on the utter ignorance of the market.
The success of the audiophile wire industry is based entirely on the utter ignorance of the market. Notice that whenever these manufacturers advertise their products, they almost invariably discuss qualitative issues, they rarely if ever give hard numbers to their theories let alone put them in a technical context that will indicate to what degree what they say is significant. And so the whole thing is based on hope and fear among potential customers. That is why I think the whole thing is a fraud. Before this cottage industry got started, nobody thought audio equipment customers would be stupid enough to believe any of this. They were proven wrong.
30 thoughts on “The Whole Thing Is A Fraud: High-End Cables”
Hello MR Fischer
I have a pair of RCA interconnect cables with arrows pointing in one direction. I have always been afraid to remove the sticker. Should I be?.
That depends on what is under the sticker. If it is a toxic liquid, it might leak out. Also don’t remove those tags from your pillows or blankets….until after you pay for them. Then it is perfectly legal. BTW, why would you want to remove the stickers? If you do you’ll have to wipe off the glue or risk getting your hands sticky with it. Audio signals are AC. What possible difference could direction make? Current flows alternately back and forth in both directions. Go figure.
There can be 2 reasons why there is an arrow on a wire.
The audiophile reason is that cables are directional, the signal flowing in the direction of the arrow yields a better sound quality. 🙂
Technical reason: it is not a true coax cable (standard RCA) but a dual wire and a shielded braiding.
Good engineering practice is to connect the sleeve to the chassis of sender and leave it floating at the receiver (otherwise you run the risk of an earth loop) hence the arrow.
I own quality power and interconnect cables but certainly not ultra expensive ones. The brand I own makes quality constructed cables at both their entry level and extreme level. I choose to own quality cables to ensure that the materials used for the conductors and connectors are of adequate size and include the best conductive materials such as copper or silver. I believe it is important that the cables fit tightly and securily in the wall outlet and RCA and XLR receptacles on the back of my gear. I have a dedicated house circuit for my audio system and use a quality wall outlet to ensure maximum conductivity.
You can carry the argument for quality cables to the extreme in both directions.
Having well built cables adds to your personal satisfaction regarding your system. Certainly, we all want to have good connections and the right cable for the right task. But there is no need for the stupid expensive cables promoted by the companies that make them, the reviewers that push them, and the audiophiles that swear by them.
It’s really sad what has happened to audio, it has been marginalized because the powers that be would rather sell ridiculously overpriced ‘tweaks’ to a few (I’ll say it) suckers than reasonably priced, well-engineered gear to a lot of people. It’s one of many reasons that high-quality home audio is an endangered species,. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most people love some form or other of music and would welcome good home reproduction of it, but are probably put off by assertions that they have to spend the price of a used economy car on cabling, You don’t; in fact, you’d probably get 100x the return spending 10% of the same money getting the room acoustics right. A look at system photos on Audiocircle to cite just one example shows that many people don’t get it; it is common to see big cabling/tweak dollars in systems that have, say, planar speakers in front of glass patio doors. But many of the same folks can go on for two pages about how much of a difference their $800 power cable made. Sigh….
I would never recommend shortchanging quality or safety. My standard specification for ordinary receptacles for laboratories of all types is Hubbell 5362. Its current retail price seems somewhat higher than it was years ago but it is not nearly in the same league as audiophile products like Wattgate. It should be available in any electrical supply house. The full retail price has risen sharply from about $5 years ago to closer to $30 for some unexplainable reason. Contractor prices are half or less retail. The Hubbell 5352 is also an excellent product at a somewhat lower cost. The Hospital grade versions of these receptacles are slightly sturdier but their main feature is that the ground pin is the first to make, last to break to reduce the risk of sparks around hospital beds where oxygen may be in use. Do not buy isolated ground receptacles. They are for special applications in industrial buildings only. They are of no value in a wood framed building and offer the risk of not having a ground if you don’t wire a bonding jumper between the equipment ground screw and the safety ground screw.
I have no objection to heavy duty power cords. Power cords of the same gage as your house wiring should be fine whether it is no 14, 12, or 10 AWG. SO cord makes an excellent power cord. Some people like the heavy duty orange extension cords you can buy at Home Depot, Lowes, and other stores. Hubbell also sells a complete line of connectors including IEC connectors and all types of twist lock connectors. You can buy cords in stores but be sure to get one with a UL listing. NEVER try to shield a power cord yourself. The ampacity of the cord is based on exposure to free air. Enclosing it can result in dangerous overheating.
If you want high quality signal cable, look to Belden. Contact a Belden sales rep for technical advice about the type of wire best for your purposes. You can add extra shielding to interconnect wiring yourself if you think it is necessary. AQ’s web site shows you how their wires are constructed. There’s no magic to it. The signal conductors in the twisted pair shown on the cutaway diagram. It shows them separated by an insulator which is how they maintain the twist. The bare stranded wire inside the lower left hand corner under the first layer of foil is the drain wire that you ground to your amplifier or other equipment. Alternating layers of insulation and foil are applied, 3 layers or 5. you can make these yourself out of aluminum foil and tape although you will not get the rf absorbing properties claimed for the carbon composite insulation layers. Just be sure to keep all of the foil layers electrically separated from each other. You can apply an outer layer of tape to make the protective jacket. The only problem I’ve ever had with induced noise was with phono cables because the signal level is so low. You can buy high quality connectors at most electronics parts supply houses.
With speaker wire heavier gage is better. Some people like to use the wire in those orange power cords or they like outdoor landscape lighting wire. Both work fine. There has been some concern about skin effect resistance which increases losses slightly as frequencies increase. This can be a problem for industrial motors that have VFD speed controllers. The industry has a solution for this problem too, tinned VFD wire available in may gages. Virtually all of them will have three conductors because they are designed for 3 phase motors so you’ll only use two. Some also have a separate pair of wires for a tachometer signal output sent back to the VFD. You won’t need that. You also won’t need the fact that they have special insulation good to 2000 volts to reduce deterioration from corona effect.
Whether the wire is made from 99.999999% OFC copper, has a million strands, is silver, has some peculiar geometry, or is plain ordinary copper wire, it is described by the same electrical circuit equivalent model I referenced in my previous postings. You can look it up by googling the Telegrapher’s equation and looking at the equivalent lump sum parameter circuit for what is actually a distributed parameter filter. If the parameters are the same, the performance will be the same no matter how it is constructed.
It’s your money, not mine. I am not in this business and it will not affect me by one cent no matter what you buy. This is my opinion. Others, especially those who are in the audiophile wire business or are hobbyists may disagree and that is fine with me. Frankly I’m tired of the audiophile wire arguments. If you believe what the wire manufacturers tell you and enjoy what you have purchased, I’m happy for you. Most audiophiles believe in it and I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinions, I’ve just offered my own opinion based on my knowledge and experience. I’m not on any kind of crusade to save the world.
Very helpful Mark, thanks.
I fondly remember my first big wire upgrade in the 70s, going to the hardware store and buying lamp cord to trade out the hair thickness wire I had been using previously. Of course that was to use with my Bose 301 speakers I bought the day they hit the market (with the money my mom sent me to buy textbooks). I just sold those speakers a month ago on eBay, having not used them for 20 years after learning my lesson about Bose 🙂
I came across this video about digital reality.
It’s from the Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Prof. Neil Gershenfeld .
Very well stated, Mr. Fischer !
We had a “discount hi-fi” store in the small college town I live in. Key word “had”. I watched him make a complete moron of himself trying to drive a pair of high dollar, inefficient speakers with an underpowered amp and lamp cord. His rationale behind the demo was to put down the only real audio store this town has ever had because they sold a modest, consistent speaker cable. They always insist they solder the banana plugs (or whatever terminals you wanted) to ensure that same consistency. It wasn’t any esoteric cable, just heavy gauge ofc cables to avoid voltage drops on long runs or to make the most of things. It didn’t include “conditioning power cables” or any other voodoo. The discount guy fried the speakers at minimum, probably the amp as well-it happened fast, and the smell of ozone was thick. My point is you can under do it, but not as easily as over doing things these days. By the way, when you buy a 1-2 meter power cord for $12K do they install a separate service/ breaker box and rewire your home for that? That might make sense if your home is from the 1920’s.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, just a little info for those who don’t know how recordings are made. Whether you like vinyl, cds, or downloads, this is just some of the equipment used to make them. How do you think recording engineers get the sound they want you to hear, with magic wires? For those of you with faint hearts, don’t look. For audiophiles it’s worse than watching how sausages are made.
Today a lot of it has been replaced…with software based work stations that have even more controls, more channels. And this is only part of it. Direct to disc? I don’t think so. Even without compression risking overload your record has a signal that was equalized by 40 db over the audible range. Without that your record couldn’t even be cut.
Digital download lovers, you think you got away scot free? Nope? Your signal was broken up into a large number of segments called packets. At the source’s ISP those packets are transmitted separately by countless means including fiber optic, satellite, microwave, wire, in different paths, sometimes all over the world. Then when they get to your ISP, they’re all put back together again and sent to you. And you are worried about two feet of HDMI cable? Hah!
Here is the interesting thing to me. One would think that companies making audio components costing $10,000 and up be very vocal on exactly what cables are required if they offered “Jaw dropping” differences. Otherwise I just spent $XX,xxx and I didn’t get that jaw dropping experience !!
If I were a component manufacturer I’d tell my customers save that $10,000 in cables and upgrade to my better line of amplifiers … or a get another Benchmark DAC for free for your work office with the money you just saved by not buying that $5,000 “directional” Ethernet cable you were thinking of buying. Or in my case go buy another 300 Jazz LP’s 🙂
Directional – directional Ethernet cable … The internet only flows downhill in Audio I guess 🙂
I just read this @audiostream on a review of Wireworld Cable Technology Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0
“I have listened to many USB cables, but I will state at the outset of this review that the Platinum Starlight 7 is an impressive sounding USB cable. The cable is extremely revealing with an upfront sound that is vivid and exceptionally focused. It is as fast sounding as was its predecessor, the Platinum Starlight, but unlike the older cable, has more weight to the sound. The Platinum Starlight 7 adds a subtle richness to the sound that was lacking in the Platinum Starlight. Resolution of detail as well as micro dynamic qualities of voices and the music emerge with a clarity that I have rarely heard in high end USB cables. The overall dynamic qualities of this USB cable were also exemplary with power and slam exhibited at the low end. The soundstage rendition of well recorded acoustic music was wide and deep with wonderful reproduction of the acoustic space of the recording venue. Spatial cues and imaging were first class when listening to music with the Platinum Starlight 7”
“It is as fast sounding”
“has more weight to the sound”
“adds a subtle richness to the sound”
adds??????? and USB DIGITAL cable?????
I’m utterly flabbergasted by the way some people can throw so big lies to your face like that.
They really think we are fools.
Unfortunately, those reviewers actually believe there is a difference. I’m convinced some people can “hear money”, believing that there must be a commensurate increase in quality with price, even in something as ridiculous as a USB cable.
Once upon a time a long time ago I was installing an electrical substation and as a joke for an upcoming audio show I was going to, I had my electricians cut off and strip the ends off two 18″ lengths of 500 MCM THHN/THWN I was installing on the load side. Each one is about the size of a sapling tree trunk. I tie wrapped them together to make them look like enormous speaker cables and I also took some Teflon jacketed thick Ethernet backbone cable with me. My electricians warned me that if the police saw what I had in my attaché case they might judge the 500 MCMs as a cosh, a club like weapon.
Would you believe people at the show asked me where they could get some of those themselves for their hi fi system?
I seem to remember Nelson Pass answering someone about what speaker cables would work best with his amplifiers and he replied, “anything reasonable, certainly something that would cost less than the amplifier.” It was kind of a joke.
Anyway, he’s a practical man and he has an article on his thoughts, just to throw it into the ring…
One really telling sign is that rarely, if ever, high end cables are rated in any way or form. That is not how i buy my cables, i need to know everything i need, it’s electrical properties, temperature range for insulation, insulation chemical properties in case of install.. There are literally cables that cost 5 figures that do not give you their gauge. When i had the chance of asking this from AQ head, apparently, this information that i essential for any audio professional, is trade secret..
This is also followed by “try it, we have nn-days return policy” for any question on measurements or data… I simply can not put unknown cable of unknown properties on my system to “try it”, allthou i’m 100% cure they do safe, good cables, if my house burns down, i’m at fault of using unrated cables..
I do feel that this angle should be focused more upon, i feel it is the only legitimate way of taking their reputation to the level they deserve: amateurs.
Get a reasonable quality of cables and you’ll be fine. Avoid the big expensive brands…you’re buying air.
Audiophile Cables are absolutely necessary to any music lovers who need high fidelity in music reproduction.
I agree that there is no comprehensive knowledge to a large part of the audiophile consumer, and this may be an element that takes advantage of certain companies that manufacture cables.
I manufactures handmade SPECIALIZED cables for audiophiles for the last ten years, and I can say with great confidence that a large part of world production audiophile cables offer The maxima in qualitative music reproduction
I would politely disagree. Cables might change the fidelity slightly but they are hardly worth the expense.
Great info Mark, thank you. My question is regarding speaker cabling gauge, I’ve read that using thicker wire us best, but are there any detrimental affects for thicker wire and short runs?
In my system now I have Belden (made by Blue Jeans Cable) 10awg wire for the front 3 speakers, all are about 6′ in length. I recently acquired a new AVR and haven’t been totally satisfied with it. Recently at a local Magnolia store inside Best Buy I was describing my system to a salesman who was surprised I was using such thick speaker wire and asking me ‘why would you do that?’ He then told me that was most likely the cause of my discontent with my new system and I should change out the speaker cables. To his credit he didn’t really try to sell me on anything but told me they use AudioQuest X4 in the store and he was happy with it.
Are any issues using thick cable for short runs? Thanks
The guy at Magnolia is clueless. The shorter the run, the better. And the larger the gauge, too.
I think it is worth the money to get quality cables. That means; made with quality materials and assembled with the best workmanship.
Canare, Belden, Mogami, etc are all good sources of cable material. Connectors can be made from a variety of solid manufacturers as well.
These are my personal recommendations based on experience in manufacturing and testing , as well as a hobbyist.
KnuConcepts for speaker cables. High strand count makes them very flexible and smaller profile for ‘neatness’.
I don’t think there is a cable worth more than $100 for AV application, unless it has an extraordinary length.. That leaves a wide range of a few poorly made ones at the very bottom. Towards the high end, cables using the best ‘ingredients’ and made to the highest standards.
You don’t need sliver coatings either. Just pure high grade copper does the job.
Making your own is more of a craft than an art, and is one way to save money and still have a quality product you can take some pride in. There are many plans on the internet with good instructions on fabrication.
I avoid buying cables with jacketed coverings or heat shrink over the end connectors. Cut one of those back once, unscrewed the connector shell and found some of the sloppiest solder joints imaginable.
This was a so-called ‘higher end’ cable.
Monster was a good brand when they hit the cable market, against a lot of junky cables some 30 or 40 years ago. Now most of them are way over-priced, and competitive ones for less money can be found.
if you want to narrow the field, I would pick Monoprice on the lower end, as a brand that is consistent, and with good quality for the price. On the higher end is BJC, that is Blue Jeans Cable. Very robust, made to order cables, with detailed specs that the company stands behind, and in fact provides tutorials on cable design and application that are not written by a mad scientist.
Not particularly cheap, but a ‘fair’ value.
A bit higher and mostly for Power Cables, is Pangea (through Audio Advisor and Amazon). Stay with their entry level cables, and you will not have to get a loan. One last one and a little cheaper is Ice Age Cables.
Plus they sell parts so you can assemble your own and save enough for a decent dinner..
That’s about it! Stay wired!
Coming to this convo a couple of years late, as I just pulled my low end audiophile equipment (bought used, likely stuff that sold for between $1-2000 originally, well-made by people who cared, McCormich and B&K) out of storage. But in’t this really about quality of manufacturing, sourcing and design? Seriously the people who say use the $3 radio shack cables, b/c the expensive ones are sheer voodoo? There has to be a happy medium, and as there are always corners to be cut, there are minor tweaks to any process that improves the quality of whatever good or service is being produced. And physics, medicine and chemistry are full of surprises. Just because something makes no sense at the time doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. The the biggest thing for me is buying stuff that won’t break or degrade, so that means from people who care about what they are making, not just the dollars. So cables in the $75-100 dollar range make sense, as there doesn’t seem to be much between Monster price points (I assume that stuff is pure marketing ) and the next step up–and I’m not a DIY’er (I have 20 year old Kimber PBJ connectors also coming out of storage–maybe $90 retail back then–I’ll let you know if they’re still working, lol, ie the insulation hasn’t degraded (stored close to highways in 2 separate locations–first place even partially exposed to the elements, ie a storage place that was pretty low end)
Oh, and sorry I just saw after typing this that the previous poster said the same stuff–oh well!
Sure, there’s a need to cables that are designed and built to high levels of reliability with good parts. But the fundamental assertion that swapping out cables of various price points is the proper way to optimize the sound of a system is absolutely ridiculous. We don’t do that in the professional realm and it shouldn’t be recommended for audiophiles as well.
When I was into my hi-fi many years ago I gt sucked into these incremental increases that could be gained by tweaking this or replacing that. At the time Marantz were selling their standard CD63 for about £270. You could get a better performing SE version for £350 or go the whole Ki signiture version for £500. This most expensive version had been ‘breathed’ upon by the now legendary Ken Ishiwata. It had more expensive components within together with extensive copper shielding and chassis enhancements. When listening to the three players even I could hear differences to the sound quality. One thing struck me though, each and every CD player had exactly the same cheap two strand wire. Surely the the flagship version should have had better cabling? At least something like kettle cable rather than puny radio wire. It seems that Ken didn’t think that changing the power chords would change a damn thing regarding sound quality so I’ve never bothered since either.
Thanks Nigel. Yep, looking inside even the most expensive components or speaker cabinets reveals the same 10-12 gauge stranded wire. Yet, I read posting everyday on FB about new cable designers coming back into the business with even “better” sounding power cords. Argh!
‘Tis better to broadcast than to receive.
Preach it man. The insane amounts I see so many people in the hobby pay for rediculously overprice wires/cables in mind blowing.