Archive for Snake Oil

The ESP MusicCord PRO, an audiophile power cord

You already know my bias here–obviously I’m going to say the ESP cord is a scam. But I honestly believe in testing things to determine the truth. If the results defy my prejudices and prove me wrong, I will always own up to it and give credit where credit is due.

A friend loaned me an ESP MusicCord PRO for testing. Rather than relying on my own ears, and opening up the possibility that somebody might say I was lying, or that the test wasn’t fair, instead I did a single-blind test on TalkBass, where everyone could decide for themselves what they were hearing. Here is the link to that test. I did a previous test that was also informative, but had many flaws in methodology so I nixed it; however the flaws did not change the validity of the results–they only pointed out the need for more stringent methods.

I took a pre-recorded bass track, and ran it through a tube amp with a post-power-section line out, and then recorded the resulting output. I powered the tube amp with the MusicCord, and with a flimsy cheapo 18 AWG cord of the same length. I recorded one track with one of the cords, as a “control”; then I recorded two more tracks, one with each of the two power cords, for comparison. Absolutely no post-processing was done to the tracks. Then I posted them with the simple question “which track, A or B, sounds like the control?” Since the source material was identical, any audible difference could be directly attributed to the power cord swap. If a majority of people could tell that one track was “more like” the control than the other, then that would suggest there was merit to the idea that the power cord could have an effect on the sound.

The result, predictably, was that there is no evidence of any audible effect from the cable. Just as many people “got it right” as “got it wrong”, and 80% said they could not hear a difference at all. And more to the point, ESP claims the difference is obvious, like night and day. Their video “proving” the effect has a dramatically audible difference. But in my test there is absolutely NOT a clear or night-and-day difference. Even the people that thought there was a difference admitted that it was a barely audible distinction, and that the perception vanished after one or two more listens to the tracks.

So even if we were to cling to the few people that “got it right”, and ignore the statistical evidence outweighing them, we would still have to question whether ESP’s “proof” was created in a legitimate, unbiased manner. Actually we know it wasn’t, because the musician visibly plays more enthusiastically when using the MusicCord, and this changes the tone, the dynamics, and the amplitude. He also begins playing lower notes at the point where he says how much fuller the lows sound. So their “proof”, their demonstration, is in fact a lie. A cynical, predatory, calculated lie, with no other purpose than to extract your money.

It’s exactly like the pills and potions that promise a larger “manhood” or a cure for baldness. They proliferate until the Feds get enough complaints about individual brands to investigate and shut them down. So far, there have not been enough complaints about these fraudulent power cord advertisements. And unfortunately, there is no way to prove that a person doesn’t hear an improvement! So as long as the only thing the cable-makers claim is that their cords “sound better”, there is really nothing the regulatory agencies can do about it.

It’s worth noting too that the $160 ESP is actually one of the cheapest audiophile power cords out there. Some of their competitors cost ten times as much, no exaggeration! Each one of those companies has customers, too–and those customers develop such belief in the product that they will not only swear they hear the difference, they will even evangelize other audiophiles to buy the cables too. This frees the vendor from even having to make their own fraudulent advertisements! The suckers do the dirty work for them.

For your continued amusement, here is another TB thread on the same subject. And here is an article about a double-blind (ABX) test on a MUCH more expensive power cord.

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Product endorsements versus the truth

Whenever you find yourself in a technical discussion about whether a given “miracle” product actually does what it claims, WITHOUT EXCEPTION there will be at least one person who says “Mick Bigtime endorses it, and Mick is world-famous for his artistic accomplishments, so obviously the product must do what it claims.” Some of the more realistic-minded people in that category will say “whether it does or doesn’t do exactly what is claimed on a technical level, Mick likes it and therefore it does something good, and that’s all I need to know.”

There are so many things wrong with those lines of reasoning that it makes my head explode.

First, there are a lot of other reasons why an artist may endorse something. Sometimes they just like the reinforcement it gives to their famous status. Sometimes they like getting a discount on their favorite brand or getting backline support. But the main, most important reason is that they are just as prone as anyone else to being fooled by psychological factors that make any of us hear things non-objectively. Being famous does not give anyone the power to defeat their own brains.

Being a successful musician does not automatically give someone an engineering education on how their equipment is designed internally. It does not mean they understand the real reasons why a device will seem to work a certain way. When they talk about the science behind the gear, nearly always they are just parroting what they were told by the people that sell the goods. The “defenders of the faith” will say they don’t need to know why something works the way it does–they just trust that if a sucessful artist likes it, then it works, and that’s all that matters. But when the artist has bought a bill of sale, bought into the claims of a manufacturer without really understanding, and allowed themselves to be fooled, then the faithful are sucked in with them, like debris in the undertow.

I’ve heard some endorsing artists say “I get paid for the quality and sensitivity of my hearing, so I know that what I heard is real”. The thing is, that artist only knows what they heard–they typically don’t know why they heard it. And this is important because when they (as endorsers) go around saying they heard such-and-such a tonal effect from some great product, they influence other people to buy that item, even though those other people will probably not get the same results! Or more importantly, they may be able to get the exact same results without spending so much money.

For example, my favorite axe to grind, instrument cables. If a certain cable is claimed to have “deeper lows and smooth warmth”, odds are it had higher capacitance relative to whatever other cable it was being compared with. If it is claimed to have “bright sparkling highs and fast transient detail”, odds are it had lower capacitance. If it’s a $200 cable and Mick Bigtime endorses it, then Joe Consumer will think he has to spend that kind of money to get those tones. But instead he could just shop for cables by paying attention to their capacitance, and get ones higher or lower according to taste, for normal working-man’s prices.

Of course there are cases where it’s all in the imagination, as with boutique power cords. There are no excuses there, no matter how famous the endorser, no matter how good their ears–any difference they heard with a super-exensive IEC cord was strictly imaginary. Same goes for high-end HDMI cables, and other digital cables. People who endorse imaginary things, and the people who spent big bucks based on those endorsements, need a serious freaking wake-up call.

That’s where science comes in, and that’s why it is seriously worth your time to pay attention when somebody who has no financial stake in the product makes an effort to explain factually HOW the product does or doesn’t work. It’s not a case of “lab nerds listening with their calculators instead of their ears” as some kind of enemy to “real musicians who know what they hear”. In fact those so-called nerds are trying to help the musician get better results for less money! Once you have learned some science behind the products, you are not so dependent on the hyped sales pitch from the vendor; and you won’t be fooled by the misleading appeal of a famous person’s endorsement.

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Marketing copy writers: quit while you’re ahead!

Lately I’ve been especially irritated by one particular aspect of much of the advertising copy in the music-gear world: the tendency to take a good product, with perfectly legitimate good features, and make it disgusting by advertising false or misleading features instead.  This is probably prevalent in other fields too, like cameras and cars, but I don’t pay attention to them as much.

One example is instrument cables.  You’ve seen my post about “snake oil” claims, and you may have seen me ranting on this subject over on TheGearPage; but what really bothers me, more than the falseness of their claims, is that the cables usually have legitimate good merits—so why not focus on those in the ad copy?  Why not say “our cable has extra rugged construction, great flexibility, heavy-duty plugs with extra strain relief, and beefy solder joints” instead of all that nonsense about fat wires for bass and thin wires for treble, or “time aligned” signal transfer, or transmission-line theory applied to non transmission line cables.  Why lie when you have perfectly good truth to tell?

Evidence Audio is a perfect example of this. Their “Lyric HG” is actually one of the best-quality cables on the market, with excellent real, measurable performance. Yet the Evidence website and marketing materials are drenched in utterly irredeemable bullshit. Not just hyperbole, but outright lies, weasely misinterpretations of “science”, and tonal claims that are nothing but fantasy.

Another case is the Tech21 “1969″ amp head, about which my TalkBass acquaintances will have seen me arguing already.  The amp is probably really good—it has many fine qualities, well worth advertising.  But they decided to crap all over it by making ridiculous claims about “analog wattage” versus “digital wattage”, and asserting that because their amp is analog, therefore it works like an all-tube amp, and making a big deal about how “digital” amps have limiters because they sound bad when clipped… ignoring the fact that most analog solid-state amps also have limiters, for the exact same reason.  And ignoring the fact that most so-called “digital” amps are analog but with a switch-mode power supply…  They could have just said “our amp sounds awesome when driven into clipping, just like an all-tube amp, unlike most other solid-state heads”.  This is a great selling point, a real desirable feature, and it could plausibly be true.  Why all the misleading sleazery instead?

I’m sure I’ll think of more examples later, and expand on this post.  Bottom line though, copy writers: stick with the legitimate good qualities of your product—your customers will respect you for it.

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Snake Oil! (part 4, tubes/valves)

Is there anything, in the world of musical equipment, more hyped than tubes?  Every catalog and every gear website is laden with chatter about the warmth, fatness, and “vintage tone” you’ll get from their tube pedals, preamps, amps, rack processors, and gadgets of every type.  The ads for some effects boxes say they’ll give you all the rich, creamy tones of a classic tube amp, even if there’s just one tube stuck in there with no clear function.  And sellers of tubes will go on at length about the amazing tone, clarity, frequency range, smoothness, and “depth of sound stage” that their special tubes will provide.

It’s not all lies, exactly, but there is an awful lot of empty and meaningless hot air in there.  Here’s why:

The classic/vintage designs of tube equipment include preamp tubes, an output transformer, large filter capacitors, and (in the case of a tube amp) a bank of power tubes—and all of those elements have a cumulative impact on the sound.  Additionally they are designed so their tubes are supplied with ideal amounts of voltage and current for optimal performance.

Compare all that against a typical preamp or pedal marketed as having “a real tube” for warmth and fat vintage tone: it will have one or maybe two preamp tubes, but none of the rest of those other components and qualities.  Often the voltage and current are just barely enough to operate the tube, with no regard for whether the performance of the tube is even any good, let alone having the tone qualities they advertised.  Sometimes the tube has no perceptible effect on the sound; sometimes all it does is add noise; and sometimes the “vintage” tone it gives is just a mushy, inarticulate degradation of the signal.  Among people who understand the difference, these products are called “toob” effects/amps, to mock the bogus use of a tube for marketing purposes.

To be clear, not all preamp-tube devices are bogus.  A skillful engineer, using design principles for optimal performance rather than convenience or low cost, can get amazingly good tones out of a single preamp tube.  But the unfortunate majority of musical equipment products on the market were made with convenience and low cost, the bottom line, as their primary design goals.  Even reputable brands fall into this trap: one of their engineers may come up with a great new product, but then the marketing and accounting departments tell them “the retail price will be too expensive, and the parts are costly and hard to source, and we don’t have assembly/repair workers trained in handling high voltages.  So make it cheaper, with fewer parts, use a standard 12AX7 tube, and make it run on low power.”

To make the accountants and executives happy, a lot of the time these engineers (under pressure for both cost and delivery time) just borrow an existing prefab simple low-voltage 12AX7 gain stage design, and stuff it into whatever preamp or effects pedal the brand is making.  So now the brand doesn’t have just a delay pedal, they have a TUBE delay pedal, with thick, warm tones just like the greatest classic-rock guitar solos!  Or instead of a bland amp with no great features, now they have a super-versatile dual-function preamp that can give you everything from crisp modern tones to rich, fat vintage tones, at the flip of a switch!  Sometimes those proclamations are just hyperbole, where there is a tonal effect but it’s not that great; but too often those claims are outright mealy-mouthed lies.  And their whole purpose is to gull you into buying another new product, even if it can’t deliver what it promises.  And you know what—they can get away with it, because claims of tone are subjective; so as long as there is “a real tube” in the circuit, the manufacturer is not violating any truth-in-advertising laws.

To complicate matters more, all of these tone descriptions—whether legitimate or bogus—are totally relative.  What sounds “amazingly rich and detailed” to one person may be far too subtle for another person to even notice.  Imagine you hear someone describing a car they just test-drove, and they say it had terrific handling, impressive acceleration, and better fuel efficiency compared to another car they tested; how do we know their frame of reference?  Are they describing the difference between a new Honda Accord and an old Dodge Ram Wagon–or the difference between an Accord sedan DX and an Accord sedan LX?  There’s no exaggeration in that analogy—sometimes one product really does sound remarkably different from another, but very often when people describe the difference between tubes, they are describing qualities that the average listener just would not perceive unless they were told to listen for it.

That of course leads straight into the problems of biased perception, that I have mentioned in previous posts.  We see and hear what we expect (or hope) to see and hear, almost universally.  It is very difficult to avoid these distortions our brains and ears impose on the objective, testable reality.  When people “roll” tubes (swapping various different tubes into one piece of music gear), there is almost no way to prevent hearing some very biased and distorted version of the truth—no matter how perceptive and well-intentioned the listener is.  When you are just listening for your own benefit, there is no problem with those perceptions, they are as good as reality; the problem arises when you read other peoples’ opinions and claims.

But wait—there’s more!  In addition to the real or perceived differences between tubes, and in addition to the question of appropriate voltage and current supply, the fact is any tube gets a large part of its tonal qualities from the rest of the entire circuit it’s built into.  Some preamps (for example) are designed in such a way that a Telefunken ECC83 will sound very different from a JAN GE 12AX7 or a modern Chinese generic; while other preamps will sound pretty much exactly the same regardless of what tube you use.  Sometimes a careful tube designer will actually choose a specific Chinese or Russian generic 12AX7 and design their preamp around the performance characteristics of that tube, such that “upgrading” to an expensive vintage tube could actually downgrade the performance of that preamp–or at least not result in the positive tone change you hoped for.  Also, there’s no one correct understanding of what “tube sound” is anyway—tubes can provide mild grit, subtle warmth, raging fuzz, and even sterile cleanliness!  Some of the most high-fidelity sound reproduction systems use tubes.  It all depends on the circuit design; so when looking at gear to buy, you have to ask this question: what is this specific product designed to sound like?  Just because it has tubes doesn’t mean anything, so is it intended to sound even remotely like what you want?

Bottom line, you can’t make assumptions.  Some of the variables are hidden; some of the language is wide open for interpretation; and some of the sellers are liars.  Always listen for yourself, and never trust the hype.

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Snake oil! (part 3, speakers)

Among musicians and pro-audio people there is a lot of confusion about the power handling and frequency range of speakers and speaker cabinets.  Part of this confusion comes from not quite understanding how to interpret the ratings, and part of it comes from the fact that a lot of the published ratings are terribly misleading, and some are outright lies!

The power handling of a speaker is usually determined by feeding “pink noise” (a wide spectrum of frequencies all at once, with lower frequencies having higher power) through a power amp into the speaker.  The amplitude of the pink noise signal is gradually increased, proportionally raising the wattage output of the power amp, until the speaker burns out.  The manufacturer then picks a nice round number (like 300 or 1000) of wattage just below the point where it burned out, and publishes that as the power handling of the speaker.  It’s technically “true”—but the reality is that actual music has drastically spiky peaks in amplitude (very different from a stable sine wave) that are focused in narrow frequency ranges.  A test tone or pink noise causes very steady, smooth speaker motion, with one level of wattage; while the intense transient spikes from instruments and music can produce a huge range of wattage peaks and valleys, and can make the speaker work much harder.  This essentially renders the pink noise rating meaningless, or at best excessively optimistic.

Speakers have more meaningful specific technical attributes, such as Xmax or Xlim, that describe their actual handling of the physical work of producing sound waves; these attributes paint a much more accurate picture of the amount of abuse a speaker can take, in real-world applications.  Unfortunately many speaker retailers don’t publish these specs, and even when they do, you almost have to have a college degree in speaker design in order to understand and interpret those specs correctly.  This is where it’s good to make friends with somebody who actually does have that type of education and knowledge.  My point here is not that you should look at Xmax and Xlim specs, but rather to show how little it helps to even bother with the wattage ratings the manufacturers publish.  With not-so-great mechanical handling specs, the speaker will “fart out” and distort long before it reaches the max wattage it’s rated for.

To compound matters, the physical performance of a speaker is heavily dependent on the cabinet it’s installed in.  The physical structure of the box, its porting, and interior baffles and shelves, have a huge impact on the efficiency and useful frequency range of the speaker.  So a speaker that is rated for 20 Hz to 20 KHz may only be able to usefully project from 80 Hz to 10 KHz (for example) when installed in a non-optimal cabinet.  And the design of the cabinet also hugely impacts the volume various frequencies can reach without speaker distortion, so again you’re looking at a situation where the wattage rating of the speaker has pretty much nothing to do with how loud the speaker cab can get before breaking up.

The sad thing is that speaker cab manufacturers intentionally take advantage of what the general public doesn’t know.  For example they publish that their cab is rated down to 35 Hz, even though the tuning of the box means the true 3 dB down point is more like 50 Hz.  The cab maker will fudge these numbers by testing at different distances, different volumes, and in rooms that reinforce those low frequencies; and they get away with it because they are not obliged to follow any official standard for testing.  Even “good” brands do this, and they excuse it by saying that’s the only way they can compete in the market against the other dishonest brands.  After all, if a typical consumer wants a wide frequency range, and if they don’t know the science behind acoustic design, they will just read the specs provided by the manufacturer—and that’s perfectly normal and reasonable to expect!  But then the consumer will read specs saying one cab has a range of 20 Hz to 20 KHz (a lie), and another cab has a range of 60 hz to 10 KHz (the truth), and which one do you think they’ll buy?  So even good brands are essentially forced to lie, in order to compete.  This has resulted in a very unhealthy market where almost none of the specs can be trusted.

Really there are only two practical solutions to this dilemma: either get yourself deeply educated on the science of speaker design and acoustics, or identify some reliable people who are in fact educated in these fields, and ask their advice.  Don’t just take the word of your neighborhood amp tech, or a guitarist buddy, without checking up on their claims.  There’s a lot of people out there reciting old myths, bad science, and falsehoods, and proclaiming them as indisputable facts.  Even the speaker, amp, and cab manufacturers do this!  So ask around, and get as many responses to your questions as you can, even if the question is as simple as “how much power can this speaker handle”.

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Snake Oil! (part 2, power cables & conditioners)

In the previous post I talked about audio cables, and how there really can be audible or functional differences between them, even though you can’t believe the manufacturers’ claims.  The same is true with power conditioners, but unfortunately with “audiophile” power cables and outlets, there are no facts supporting the claims around those products at all.

The proof against audiophile power cables and outlets is easy and clear.  Nearly all powered musical equipment runs on DC power internally—the power from the wall is converted from AC into DC immediately, before the power connects to any part of the audio processing.  Sellers of special power outlets and cables rave about how their products correct the phase of the power, and smooth or filter any irregularities in the AC waves—but DC doesn’t have waves! DC doesn’t have phase!  It doesn’t matter what those outlets and cables do to the AC, because the power is converted to DC before being used, and any changes made to the AC are completely eliminated in the process.

Additionally, most electronics already include noise filtering in their power conversion circuit.  With the exception of a tube amp or preamp using AC to power the tube filaments, there is literally no way that these boutique power cables and outlets can have any impact, audible or otherwise, on the operation of your gear.  And even in the cases where AC is used internally, there are lengths of thin wire carrying the power from the external cable to the internal components, and these wires essentially undo any benefit of the thick, scientifically-braided, phase-corrected external cable.

You’ll see plenty of testimonials supporting these products because people do convince themselves they hear differences, but in every case it is just placebo effect.  The only thing you should look for in a power cable is sufficient wire gauge, and decent construction.  Inadequate wire gauge can perform worse, so if you want to upgrade from a flimsy factory-supplied IEC cable, just get one with thicker wire gauge (inside the insulation).

Power “conditioners” are tricky business, like audio cables.  They do perform a legitimate function, and there are differences between them; but again the manufacturers and sellers of these products make such outrageous claims about the supposed benefits of their devices that you really can’t believe a word of it.

Most conditioners are just a strip of outlets, like a cheap power strip you’d buy at a hardware store, with some simple noise filtering and surge protection.  The amount and quality of the noise filtering is usually not any more or better than what is already built into the equipment you’re plugging in.  Only quite old, cheap, and home-made gear may not have any built-in noise filtering, and would benefit from the filtering in the conditioner.  And the surge protection, while useful and completely valid for all equipment, is usually not any better in a $200 Furman or Monster deluxe power conditioner than it is in a cheap office-supply outlet strip.

Note too that the surge protection components in all of these devices are self-sacrificing, they self-destruct when hit with power surges.  So a $200 conditioner becomes almost worthless after only a few surges–but you’d never know it externally.  There’s no smoke or indicator light telling you that the device is now just dead weight in your rack.

The main actual benefit of a rackmount power conditioner is that it conveniently mounts in a rack; but you can easily screw a regular power strip onto the back lid of any rack.  Some of these devices come with lights or outlet testers, and those are fine but they are also available more cheaply in other forms.  Some may have sequenced switching or isolated outlets—those are among the few features that I feel are actually worth paying for.

Many people believe a power conditioner will correct any problems with low or high voltage from the wall, but that is false.  Of course the manufacturers lead you on with those beliefs, talking about the “clean and pure” power their conditioner will deliver; but they are just weaseling around with misleading words.  A power “regulator” will provide that voltage-leveling function, but those cost at least twice as much as a power conditioner, and sometimes quite a lot more.  Additionally confusing the issue, in earlier decades the word “conditioner” was used to mean a regulator, but that hasn’t been the case in a long time.

Making matters even more difficult, power regulators and conditioners can limit the amount of current available for your equipment to draw.  For most rack gear, keyboards, and other electronics, the current available through a conditioner is entirely sufficient; but a large amp, especially a high-wattage power amp, needs to be able to draw a lot more current than a typical conditioner can provide.  So you can actually downgrade the performance of your amp by plugging it into a power conditioner.  Many amp manufacturers recommend against using conditioners for this reason.

So what do I recommend?  Run your high-wattage (high current draw) items direct from the wall, unless you get a conditioner that states it has a high current capacity.  Don’t pay too much for a conditioner, when a cheap outlet strip is just as good in most cases.  If you need lights, get a clip-on book light.  If you need an outlet tester (which is a very good idea!) get one from a hardware store–they are small and inexpensive.  Sequenced switching is useful for making sure you don’t send loud power-on surge “pops” through your speakers, but the same thing can be achieved by just switching your power amp on/off by hand separately (you just have to remember to do it).  Isolated outlets can be beneficial, because different devices are designed with different grounding (earthing) systems, so sometimes ground loops or other noise problems can show up if two devices share a common ground.  Not every device or rig will benefit from isolated outlets, but it can help sometimes, and it can’t hurt—so I do look always for that feature.  The TrippLite Iso-Bar product line has isolated banks of outlets, and they are well-designed in general, and you can find them at reasonable prices on Ebay.  No snake oil, just honest verifiable functionality.

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Snake oil! (part 1, audio cables)

OK, this post will seem obvious to some of you.  Not my most original or novel thinking.  But people do regularly email me asking my opinion about audio cables, power cords, power conditioners, and other “audiophile” concerns, so I figured I should set those opinions in one easy-to-find place.

Audio, instrument, and speaker cables: Tricky business, because on the one hand there really can be audible differences between cables, under certain circumstances; but on the other hand, most cable manufacturers tell so many lies and exaggerations about their cables that you pretty much can’t believe anything they say.

The first thing to know is that cables have a property called capacitance, which is their ability to temporarily store a charge, like a battery.  The capacitance of a cable is chiefly determined by the length and diameter of the wire.  Capacitance is a key part of any filter (a circuit that adjusts the relative levels of certain frequency ranges, like EQ).  In the simplest terms, in the filter formed by a cable connecting two pieces of gear, the higher the capacitance = the more the high frequencies will be rolled off.  This is how a passive tone pot on a guitar or bass works.  This effect is responsible for the vast majority of audible differences between cables.  For example, if you have two identically-designed cables, one of them 2 meters and the other 10 meters, the 2 meter one will sound brighter and more energetic.

It is possible to design a cable for lower or higher capacitance without changing the length of the cable, but this is where it gets shady.  Monster advertises some of their cables as “enhancing bass frequencies”—but what they really do is reduce the high frequencies, making the bass seem louder when you turn the amp up.  A large percentage of the “technology” and “advanced design” that cable brands advertise are just bogus, not actually providing any benefit to you.  All the fancy graphics, charts, and techie words on the package were just whipped up to get you to spend more money.  Really what it boils down to is: trust only your ears, not what is written on the package or on the brand’s website.  Of course your ears can and will mislead you too, but they do it innocently and harmlessly—your ears are not trying to take your money.

The biggest quality I look for in a cable is reliability.  How well were the plugs made?  How good is the soldering that connects the wire to the plugs?  How flexible and resilient is the outer insulation?  Is there some sort of stress relief boot where the cable joins the plugs?  How thick is the wire?  Don’t assume that the outer thickness of the cable indicates the diameter of the actual wire—cheap cables often have very skinny wire hidden in very thick insulation.

Believe it or not, gold-plated plugs are not a sign of quality!  They work well when new, but when used in a humid environment the bond between the gold plating and the cheap metal underneath can corrode, causing worse conductivity.  I like nickel plated plugs instead, as they resist that sort of breakdown.

Good brands of bulk cable include Canare, Belden, and Mogami (although Mogami’s consumer-packaged prefab cables may not be all that special).  For a guitarist, a super-low-capacitance cable like Elixir or George L may be beneficial for their extra high frequency capability, but for a bassist those extra high frequencies are not always wanted or useful.

Many people say they are willing to pay extra for Monster cables because of the replacement warranty offered by Monster—and it is a legitimate warranty—but there are two things to consider: (1) the actual quality of their goods might not be worth the high price, without the warranty; and (2) lots of other cable brands are now offering very similar warranties, so you have plenty of options.

As far as the super high end of audio cables, personally I think it’s all a bunch of nonsense.  There is not any real science to support the claims made by most of these companies, and they rely on people being willing and able to fool themselves into hearing amazing improvements in the sound.  That’s why there are so many testimonials and reviews proclaiming that these high-end cables are so incredibly great: because people will in fact hear what they want to hear.  This is just a simple, reliable, well-established fact of human psychology and physiology.  It is not an insult to anyone.  People expect to hear a difference (or they expect to hear no difference) and sure as daylight, they hear it.  This has been proven countless times.  In one study it was shown that people could not reliably hear the difference between a Monster speaker cable and a length of coat-hanger wire, if they couldn’t see which one was being used.

It works for the other senses, too: another study involved renowned wine connoisseurs, where cheap wine was secretly poured into bottles from expensive brands.  When the wine was poured for the tasters from the cheap-label bottle, they described it as bitter, crude, and unpleasant; but when the same wine was poured from the expensive-label bottle they without exception described the taste as lovely, refined, and full of subtle nuances.

Again, this should not be taken as an insult by anyone who has formed their own opinions about one cable or another.  You heard what you heard, and that’s undeniable.  Just be aware that what you heard may have only existed in your experience, and may not have an objective reality that will apply to anyone else.  And most people don’t have regular access to double-blind ABX testing environments, nor would they want to go to the trouble—especially when all that really matters is what the individual user hears.  All I’m saying here is, don’t get fooled by other people’s intentional or accidental pressure for you to believe in or expect glorious results from an expensive product; and when telling others about your experiences and opinions about any cable, don’t assume that what you heard is what anyone else will hear.  Our perceptions are so funny, in that all reality has to first go through the filters of our brains (full of expectations and patterns), before we consciously perceive anything.

Post Script: I have just learned of a boutique 1-meter-long USB cable, costing about $3000 USD, intended for audio interfaces.  It has metal mesh around the insulation, and it’s like 20 mm thick.  The person reviewing it gushed about the “amazing tone” and “lack of harshness” from this cable.  People, it only carries binary data!  It literally cannot affect the tone of your music, or add/remove harshness!  The data is the same no matter how “good” the cable is.  I mean, an actually bad cable can potentially corrupt data, but any cable that is not defective will convey the exact same data!  Which means the exact same sound.  It boggles the mind that anyone would fall for such an obvious fraud.

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