Audiophiles, Cables and the Quality Delusion.

When I worked at Dick Smith Electronics I had one of the greatest staff benefits around: all items in the store could be had for cost price plus 10%. This meant for heavily marked up items (the most common things being add-ons or bulk items) I could get them for a steal, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than what the sticker price was. One particular area where this came in handy was audio/video cables as they were routinely 10x~20x their cost price. Being the budding audiophile that I was these cheap cables were a godsend, allowing me to hook up my various bits of AV equipment for a fraction of the cost. One thing started to become apparent though, the shelf price difference between the premium cables (them fancy gold plated, oxygen free copper deals) was no where near the gap in their cost price, leading me to wonder what the difference really was.

Once I began my studies at university however the differences, or more aptly the lack thereof, became quite apparent. Indeed there was little difference between those cables, especially when used in real world circumstances. Further I was confounded by the idea that digital signals, ones carried by optical TOSLINK connectors, could be somehow influenced by the transmitting cable. In my own tests with some of the cables from the store and the same cable that came with my MiniDisc player (yes, I spent way too much on one) I couldn’t find any differences in the resulting recordings, despite the store cables being noticeably thicker.

The reason for this is, whilst there’s a little bit of room to argue that a better quality cable will produce a better quality signal for analog, a digital signal either makes it through completely or not at all. The cable quality then, whilst needing to be above a certain threshold for it to work, makes no difference whatsoever once its past said threshold. This hasn’t stopped the premium cable manufacturers from claiming otherwise however charging rather ludicrous for products that amount to, let’s be honest here, nothing more than a $5 cable. I’d also go as far to say that  premium cables for pure analog signals aren’t worth it either, especially at the price point that some of them command.

Of course I don’t believe you should just take my word for it (however compelling you might find it to be) nor do I advocate running out and spending wads of cash on cables to see if there’s a difference. Instead just have a look at posts like this one on Audioholics where self proclaimed audiophiles could not reliably distinguish between a premium speaker cable and ordinary speaker wire (and even coat hanger wire). Indeed anyone who’s attempting to sell you cable based on the idea that it will somehow improve the quality of the picture or sound on the other end is either deluded, misinformed or simply ignorant of the underlying science that governs modern audio visual equipment.

There will be those who will say that I don’t understand the differences and that there’s tangible benefit in getting these ludicrously over priced cables. In all seriousness those expensive cables might actually sound better for them, through some wild psychoacoustic  placebo effect where they’re actually willing themselves into believing that its better. It’s an unfortunate situation for them as the cheaper cables (as long as they’re aware of them) will in fact sound worse. It’s from these people that the premium cable manufacturers will continue to extract value and unfortunately I don’t believe there’s a whole lot that can be done about it.

So if you’re on the fence about getting those expensive cables or if you don’t know if you should then the answer is pretty clear: don’t. Your cash is much better spent on a higher quality TV set or speakers than it ever will be spent on cables to connect those devices together. Should a salesman tell you otherwise ask for a demo of them side by side and see if you can spot the difference yourself. If you do then I won’t stop you from buying them, but know that in reality the difference is all contained within your head.

5 Comments

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  1. Very much agreed. HDMI is probably the worst offender in this category as everything (audio, video and other data) is all digital yet there’s still numerous cables claiming the benefits of whatever esoteric process they implemented to “improve” the signal. Unless there’s a DSP in there you won’t be doing anything like that.

  2. Harro!

    Digital – I buy cables from ebay that cost $2 and $3 to ship. As you said, you get your 1s and 0s or you don’t. Still, mega expensive cables can be found. This review of this one makes little sense to me http://www.whathifi.com/review/van-den-hul-ultimate. HDMI is also ridiculous as every time they release a new standard someone puts a new sticker on their HDMI cable box and bumps the price up. I think the difference between a 1.3 and 1.4 cable is a twisted pair not being twisted.

    Analog – Someone, somewhere with expensive enough gear must hear a real difference. At the ridiculous end of the scale (some people have no problem spending $100k upwards on stereos) people are wiring separate mains circuits, using mains filtering, high end mains cables, high end speaker cables and high end device interconnects. Actually a quick check of What Hi-Fi’s most expensive cable on review says something simliar http://www.whathifi.com/review/atlas-mavros-5m%29. Analog gear is all about nice smooth sine waves. The cleaner the materials and source, the smoother the sound.

    Possibly with cheaper gear the difference isn’t noticeable as the gear isn’t capable of reproducing the benefits.

    I’m not trying to justify pricey cables and I have never heard a difference or tried to hear a difference. If you are worried about sound quality I guess choosing the right equipment for your purpose and taste takes priority. Dad has an excellent 2 channel stereo (power amp, pre amp, even expensive cables). It’s much better at reproducing music recorded a couple of decades ago than my Onkyo TX-NR1008 and Wharfdale setup is.(speaker cable was $100 for 50M 🙂 ) Pipe some dance or hiphop through my system and it is a different story. Battlefield 3 is also ridiculous 🙂

  3. As I alluded to there’s some wiggle room for argument in the world of analog that better cables = better audio/video reproduction but the difference in price rarely justifies the end result. Indeed your money is usually far better spent on the least efficient and most error prone part of the system: the speakers. I think we’re in agreeance here though, your money is far better spent on the equipment than it is on the cabling 🙂

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