Cables: Do they sound different?

There is really no doubt in my mind that cables sound different. Its amazing how much controversy there is on the net about cables not making any difference. Of course, objectivist magazines also adopt this view. Sometimes the difference is very significant (i.e. can easily be noticed in a blind test), and sometimes the difference may be difficult to spot.

Better cables are definitely more detailed and with a good cable, you begin to hear things in a recording previously unheard. Further, soundstage is increased.

In Singapore, you basically can't borrow cables. I think only Richard Seah loans out his JPS cables for home trials. Other than that, you're just buying on recommendations, unless you can borrow cables from your audio enthusiasts friends.

My personal opinion: Sound quality for cable depends heavily on quality of the materials used. High quality copper sounds better than lower quality copper. More expensive and exotic diaelectrics help to reduce capacitance, provide better shielding. Connectors also form a big part, and good connectors cost more.

There are several grades (I'll follow the AQ terminology):
LGC (long grain copper) :- slightly higher quality than bell-wire, standard for cheap cables
FPC (Functionally Perfect copper) :- 99.99% purity and used in AQ Midnight, XLO 6A etc.
FPC-6 (laboratory Grade) :- 99.99997% purity. Used in AT Argent, Sterling (mixed with silver), and in XLO type 5 and 5.1.
FPS (Functionally Perfect Silver) :- used in cables like AT Dragon. Roger Skoff thinks that FPC-6 is better than FPS though...

Nice to see US companies providing info on what their cables are made of. For companies that don't, could they be selling snake oil by overpricing their cables? :)

Oh yeah, since XLO 6A and AQ Midnight both use FPC, shouldn't they sound the same? Well... there are differences caused by:

  • XLO - Teflon diaelectric and outer jacket, AQ - Carbon loaded polyehylene diaelectric and PVC outer jacket.
  • XLO - 10 AWG conductors (i.e. larger), AQ - smaller 18-20 AWG conductors (but probably more of them).

    Of course, things like cable geometry count,i.e. how the conductors are wound round each other etc, and measures taken to damp vibrations. (but fluid filled cables? duh)

  • Cables - How Significant are they?
    I am generally a cable semi-skeptic. My opinion was that generally, cables do sound the same and that similarly priced cables offer similar levels of performances though there may be tonal differences to suit differnt systems (eg: bright, laid back etc). Further, there are definite diminishing returns to cables.

    So when I plugged in my 0.5m XLO Type 1 interconnects to replace my 1m Nordost Blue Angels I wasn't expecting much. However, the differences I heard were quite significant.

    • Better bass - expected, as flat cables aren't know for great bass
    • Increased clarity in vocals
    • More focus (pinpoint imaging, even) on vocals [note, a small but noticeable improvement]

    It was such that I have been relistening to all my CDs against. A CD that I rediscovered was Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes which sounded a wee bit too thin previously. Now, the voice gained greater body and focus and I know why I loved it originally. I kept on listening to Little Earthquakes again and again and I've added it to my 'Desert Island Discs' list. :)

    What sort of explanations do I have for this? By right, moving up from my 1m Nordost Blue Angel ($225) to my 0.5 XLO type 1 ($240) should only have minor improvements but maybe:

    • The interconnects work synergistically with my XLO type 6A speaker cables, suggesting that we should stick to the same brand of cables.
    • The 0.5m length is superior to a 1m length, especially given the tangled mess the 1m cable causes. Less chance to pass next to power cables etc, RFI, etc.
    • The Nordost Blue Angel was either a lousy interconnect or one that doesn't suit my system whilst the XLO is a better match.

    Note: I bought the XLO expecting at most minor improvements to the bass. I bought it because the 1m cable was getting tangled up as it was too long and also, I can use the Blue Angels to connect up by Home Theatre system. Do I regret buying the Blue Angels. Yup:) oh well...

    Yeah, yeah, so which one is better

    Personally, I feel that there are different 'grades' of cables and similarly priced cables do offer similar levels of performance, especially those cables priced 'in the middle'. Cables at the extreme ends - very cheap and very expensive, appear to be a different case. For cheap cables, there are a few bargain gems, and for very expensive cables there are probably quite a few that are a waste of time (I wouldn't know cos' I've no experience with $1000+ cables [yet?]) Waste of time meaning that the cable may have been constructed with unnecessary features in order to boost the price.

    Having said that similarly priced cables usually offer the same level of sonic performance, this means that I am subscribing to the belief that cables are basically tone controls. Or to put it more politely, cables have different designs in order to cater for systems with differing sonic characteristics.

    Cable Knowledge

    Any knowledge I have about cables comes from reading about them in magazines, and more importantly, the opinions of owners of such cables. So the guide I present here is based in part on my own experience, but is largely anecdotal. But I believe that the persons expressing the opinions are honest about it.

    How much to spend to speaker cable/interconnects?

    I would seriously recommend getting a decent cable for starters. The dirt cheap cable is pointless. Bypass the cheapo Cabletalk 3.1 and QED Qudos and start at at least Audioquest type 4 (single wire). Then use type 4 to bridge the biwire terminals on your speakers. Type 4 will keep you happy for a long time, and if you upgrade, you can always use type 4 as a power cord (at your own risk :))

    Interconnects matter as much as speaker cable. Garbage-in-garbage-out dictates that interconnects are more important. I'll agree with that. The next point is that generally, you should get cables of the same brand. But because cables are sooo tweaky, we like to mix and match.

    UK vs US interconnects
    Summary of all this gibberish: In the realm of budget cables, tiny variations in price are critical, and as US interconnects are cheaper than UK ones, US interconnects are in all cases involving budget cables strongly recommended. 'nuff said.
    Soniclink Pink at $85/1m pair is aggressively advertised in the newspapers with a '5-star recommendation'. Personally, I find UK interconnects overpriced compared their US counterparts. However, the influence of What Hi-Fi? is definitely very strong and What Hi-Fi? clearly favours UK made cables (for what reason I wouldn't know). Also, the counterbalance - Stereophile, does not really deal with cheap interconnects; so it appears to someone reading Hi-Fi mags that the good budget interconnects come from UK. (not!)

    Note that in What Hi-Fi?, Audioquest Topaz and Straightwire Chorus took the honours (along with an equal number of UK cables of course) in the '97 awards. Thanks to Pertama, AQ Topaz is incredibly cheap in Singapore, so cheap, theres really no point in even considering UK interconnects like Cable Talk monitor, IXOS Gamma, SonicLink etc. (actually, AQ is so cheap, get Quartz as your starter interconnect if you have no idea what else to buy)

    Though the debate as to the virtues of UK vs US Hi-Fi rages, in my opinion, the US is in the lead when it comes to producing cables. Maybe its just that production costs are higher in the UK and after all, cable prices are raw-material based (i.e. cost of FPC copper, silver, teflon etc). Also, UK cables are expensive here compared to US cables, IXOS cables brought in by Klas are really expensive relative to the UK list. Duh.

    Well, its not that I'm knocking UK cables, but I'm trying to correct some possibly skewed perceptions due to aggressive advertising of UK cables and the reliance on the '5 star' rating in What Hi-Fi?

    The facts in the UK are simple economics. AQ Topaz costs a mind-boggling 60 pounds. Because AQ is so expensive there, it gives UK producers an incentive to produce interconnects to compete with the 60 pound Topaz. If AQ Topaz cost 40 pounds, the UK producers wouldn't have much hope in competing. Cables are all about raw material cost. Cost of the RCA connectors, the conductors, the diaelectric, etc. (Topaz is just an example, subsitute Prism 11 if you're a Tara fan etc) I note how UK cable makers don't want to describe whats inside their cables. Probably because at each price point, the materials they use are cheaper than that used by their similarly priced US counterparts.

    The facts in Singapore are simple. US cables are cheaper in Singapore compared to UK cables. The sole distributorship rights for the best budget cables, Audioquest and Tara, have been secured. Currently, there are many up and coming 'hi-fi' shops spurred on by the growth of Home Theatre. They need cables to sell, and may be unwilling to accept the terms that the AQ and Tara agents put forward. So whats left are the UK cables. (this is a gross generalisation perhaps) Its not that they're bad cables, its just that they're overpriced. And for budget cables, this is basically fatal. Admittedly, at the higher end, like Van DenHuls The One, the higher price is not as important as the sound.

    But you can't help but notice that UK speakers cables are all very tiny. For the money, theres not much 'cable'. Of course, they'll all say that small thin cables can sound as good as the bigger US garden hoses. Sure, thats possible. But why should so little cable cost so much????

    Note: QED 30 pound interconnect rated by Hi-Fi Choice as better than Kimber Hero and PAD Elementa. The PAD I can understand, but the Hero? More news when I read the article, solicit more opinions. I'm sure that QED interconnect will be sold here soon 'best buy', '5-star' etc. What Hi-Fi also gives it 5 stars but says it sounds 'sat-on' compared to more expensive cables. Hmmm, what does that mean? :)

    Footnote (Dec '98): So far, the only UK cable with a sane exchange rate is Van Den Hul. Lets take a look:

    • QED Qudos SIlver - GBP 5/m = S$15 ?!#$%
    • Van Den Hul CS 122 - GBP 12/m = S$19.80
    • Van Den Hul Cleartrack - GBP 7/m = S$10.80

    If all UK cables had this kind of exchange rate, they would have a chance to compete with the US cables.
      Can a cheap cable sound better or as good as a more expensive cable? Sure.
    • On a cheap system, the difference between a $50 cable and a $1,000 cable are not obvious (or may not exist).
    • A more expensive cable emphasises transparency which shows just how harsh and brittle cheap solidstate hi-fi sounds :) Audioquest type 4, a budget cable, appears specifically voiced to be warm and gentle to deal with budget equipment.
    • If you look at UK mags on cheap cables - the ones the get 'best buy' are usually 'exciting' cables [probably emphasising high frequency energy to compensate for lack of detail]. High end cables don't do this. XLO sounds 'fast' but 'fast' is not about emphasising treble...
    • More expensive cable has severe compatibility problems (eg: with impedance).
    • It really is better? [but I think you'll be hard pressed to find a 'cheap' cable better than the cables found below]

    Network Box Controversy

    Well, you've probably seen those huge cables with huge network boxes from MIT and Transparent. Sure there're cheaper models too. But generally, you're paying extra for the box. Does it 'work' can't be answered because they don't manufacture 1 without the box. Anyway, its not really relevant to the average Singapore with small rooms cause these things need loads of space. (if you can afford the space you probably don't need buying advice, probably any cable will make your Grand Slamms/Genesis sound good :))

    Speaker Cables
    Budget Cables
    Cable Talk The standard 'Singapore' budget cable is Cable Talk 3.1, a multi-strand cable which is pretty decent. But it is a budget cable and its not worth buying a 2nd run to biwire. Far better gains can be had by buying better cable

    Audioquest Type 4 The first building block towards a great system. Stereophile recommended, What Hi-Fi 4 stars, Hi-Fi Choice no recommendation. 4 seperately insulated solid core long grain Copper wound in a litz configuration. This is an 'all-rounder' and if coloured its coloured on the side of warm-approaching-neutral and its a steal in Singapore, thanks to Pertama, the mass marketers: UK price- 4.95 pounds/m, US price - US$8/m. Singapore price - S$6.90/m !!!

    Middle Prices Cables -- Best choices here! All cables here are imported by the reel and custom lenghts can be arranged

    AudioQuest Indigo+ /
    Even if you have a dirt-cheap system, get Indigo. It errs on the side of warm-approaching-neutral so it won't be to ruthless in revealing how bad your system is :) Once again, Pertama brings this in a bargain prices and more importantly, it brings in whole reels on Indigo and can cut them to custom lengths!. Standard Audioquest length is 2.5m which is too long for small Singapore homes. It goes for $20+/m I think. And please don't biwire a single run of Indigo, get Midnight if you have to biwire.

    Kimber 4TC Yes, the Bose dealers (Atlas Sound, SunTec City) sell decent cable :) I think the 4TC go for $20/m. This is an all-rounder cable. Reasonably neutral and moderately revealing. Barry Willis of Stereophile uses 4TC for treble and 8TC for bass when he biwires.

    Van Den Hul CS-122 Silver plated copper multistrand. Seperate positive and negative leads with carbon shielding. Thick. And only S$19.80/m. Received positive review from Hi-Fi Choice. It doesn't have the harsh and brittle sound associated with silverplated copper. I'm using it as powercord and biwire jumpers.

    Nordost Flatline Gold The cool looking flatline cables sold by Margil (1st floor Adephi). However, in this price range, pricing is everything and when you look at the US retail prices, Nordost products are really overpriced in Singapore. My friend (whose ears I trust) owns the flatlines and tells me that they're not very spectacular in the midrange and treble and you lose a bit in the bass. Whereas, everyone who owns AQ Indigo+ thinks its the greatest cable they've ever used...

    DH Labs T-14 This is the speaker cable that was the subject of 2 reviews in Soundstage. Both reviewers love this cable. Music Frontiers (4th floor Adelphi) sells and uses this modestly priced cable in its demo system. (i.e. where I bought my Triangle speakers) I spent some time auditioning the Zephyrs and I would say that the cables (which were double biwired into the Zephyrs) were impressive. I also asked to listen to the Zephyrs single-wired (nice salesman :)) and at that time, I couldn't hear a difference. There is good tranparency in these small thin cables and for those who don't like garden hoses, this is a good buy. ($20+/m I think)

    Tara RSC Prime 500/ Prime 1000 RSC Prime 1000 is just the biwired version of RSC 500 with twice the number of conductors. Tara RSC products have a fine reputation of having expansive soundstages (can't confirm without A/B tests), and a gentle, more laid back sound. They're garden-hose thick and an ugly white colour, but a good choice for bright systems. Probably a better tone control than the MF X-10D. Sold at Asia Sound (Adelphi 4th floor). Note: gentle laid-back does not equal dull and lacking in detail in this case.

    Technically Upper-Middle, but to the average person, this is the High End :)
    XLO 6A Purple Reign! I own a pair of 6As and I find them delightful. Generally neutral tending to dry, and so clearer and cleaner than AQ Midnight which sounds veiled but warm in comparison. Great rhythm and pace. Criticised for not having as big a soundstage as competitors; but its all relative, compare it to the Indigo and the 6As soundstage seems big. Visually? I think the purple n' green is pretty funky :) In the meantime, lets boogie... (6ft pairs and longer from Audio Suite, B1 Adelphi) Note: dunno how long the sale lasts, but type 5 going for $800 for 6ft pair..

    Tara RSC Reference/
    Master Gen.
    Reference is about 1/2 the price of Master and is a very inexpensive cable. Pricewise, competes with Midnight and if you're going a single-wire route, a much better deal than Midnight, which is just a 'bigger Indigo'. I think Master still clocks in at under S$1000/- a pair, so its a good buy. Standard Tara sound, relaxed, with detail present but bubbling gently...

    Cardas Cross Cardas cables have a rich luxurious midrange and when I listen to music at Kingsley (Adephi 3rd floor), there is a undeniable richness to the sound. Maybe its the amps that do it (they're Conrad Johnson dealers after all), so I'll have to say that the Cardas cables definitely operate synergistically with C-J equipment.

    Nordost Blue Heaven Overpriced in Singapore, its still worth looking into though, but consider very carefully. If you can get someone to bring this back from the US, so much the better. Trade bass for midrange transparency. Also, you can have custom lengths. i.e. they cut it from the reel and terminate it for you.

    AQ Forest Dunno why this cable has been ignored. Quite a few reviewers actually use this cable. I think even What Hi-Fi likes it. This is probably the poor man's Argent, and is of course, a definite improvement over Midnight. Of course, you'll have to accept AQ's standard 2.5m length which might annoy you, since for those with small rooms, you'll be paying for cable you don't need, and you'll have the big problem of trying to bend the garden hose.

    JPS Super-
    Well, the editor of our local hi-fi mags uses JPS and so do a few in my list of enthusiasts. The word 'transparency' is often used in relation to this cable. I believe that Richard Seah (Soul of Music Adelphi 3rd floor) actually allows home trials.

    Out of my League
    XLO type 5, 5.1, Limited Edition, Tara Decade, The One, Cardas Gold Cross, Kimber 4AG/8AG, AQ Dragon , Transparent, MIT etc, etc

    Van Den Hul (Kingsley- Adelphi 3rd floor)
    Straight Wire (Absolute Sound - Adelphi 3rd floor)
    Siltech (dunno where)
    LFD (Studio 1 -Adelphi 1st floor)
    Vampire (Adephi basement...)
    NVA (HTS at Rochor? State of the Art?)
    Synergistic (Musicbox)

    LAT - Audio Lab (shop which replaced Music Frontiers, the DH Lab shop)
    MIT/Transparent - due to Lung's enthusiastic endorsement of Transparent Cables, I had better inform people that MIT is Stereophile Audio, Transparent is from High-end Research.
    Harmonic Technology - Richard from Soul of Music has decided to bring in this new brand of cables because JPS wasn't selling too well due to its highish-price.

    XLO Type 1 (under $300) - Note: XLO has upgrade their line, but prices are basically the same Stereophile Recommended Component, and more importantly, you can special order a 0.5m length for only $240! (may increase due to currency crisis...) The 1m length is $300++.

    Audioquest Quartz (under $200)
    Other AQ models
    Pertama occasionally brings in 0.5m lengths. Its under $200. If you're using AQ Indigo/Midnight/Type 4 etc, this is a natural choice.
    AQ Topaz is a What Hi-Fi winner and is 2 levels below Quartz (Ruby in between, but Ruby's RCA connectors are reportedly too tight). Its also real cheap.
    (under $100) DH Labs Interconnect Availabe for $85 for a 0.5m length from Music Frontiers. This is incredible value. This is a very well regarded cable and has been rated in soundstage as better than AQ Quartz (technically- this should be 'better than AQ Quartz in the reviewers system') Note: MF closed. Who's bringing in DH labs now? Anyone know?

    Tara Labs -- various Tara interconnects are generally well regarded in the audiophile community, from their cheapest Prism 11, to the mid-priced RSC CD. Only problem - Tara cables are incredibly stiff. If you place the equipment in standard British type racks (Target, soundstyle, etc), you will have problems bending the 1m cables.

    Kimber PBJ/Silver Streak These interconnects are open and bright sounding. But then, my Blue Angels are supposed to be too bright, but I do find them OK for well-recorded material. Anyway, I'll be getting my type 1s soon.

    Others Of course, the interconnect equivalents of recommended speaker cables like JPS would be recommended as its good to have the same brand of cabling throughout (unless you know what you're doing...)

    Kable Komments (with apologies to Kimber Kable :))
    I'm going to put comments by other enthusiasts about cable here. Feel Free to contribute.

    Nordost Blue Heaven

    Interconnects by Kenneth: The [Blue Heaven] i/c's really open things out and have really good bass, contrary to the popular belief that flatlines give lacklustre bass. A bit on the bright side but otherwise thoroughly enjoyable. They totally superceded my now-supplanted -for-good Black Knights.

    Speaker Cables by myself: The speaker cables are similar. It will sound more open than cheaper cables, but when compared to similarly priced cables such as the XLO6A, its openess is about the same. However, there is greater midrange coherence and focus (some may call it spotlighting). Bass is good, but XLO is still king of tight hard-hitting bass [but after biwiring, the XLO produces too much bass :)]. Anyway, Blue Heaven and 6A have the same amount of detail, and after considerable break in, the Blue Heaven still sounds too bright. So I biwire with XLO on top, Blue Heaven on the bottom (midrange/bass).

    JPS Superconductor
    By JR: JPS Superconductor - after browsing through your contributors' systems, I noticed that JPS was highly recommended by Leon. So off I went to the Soul of Music, came home with half burned-in JPS, replaced my Transparents, powered up, and was STUNNED. What a difference this cable makes !! I had to lower my REL settings to the minimum this time at 33 HZ ! Excellent soundstage, and everthing really sounds real (like ... I didn't know that sounded like that) ... just pure signal alright, and they haven't burned in fully yet. An excellent value for money cable

    By Leon (Editor of our local hi-fi mag):- I've mentioned it in my magazine and l'll mention it again. This has got to be one of the most neutral cables l've had the pleasure of coming across. I bet anyone who's owned them will simply refuse to part with them. Count me in. It's nice to see a few owners in these pages. Spread the word guys