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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5 Comments »

  1. Evan said,

    April 7, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Great post. It’s always good to hear from someone who knows the science behind these types of things. I’ve read most of this before, but not so coherently and comprehensively all in one place.

    It’s only loosely related, but this reminds me of a blog post I saw recently about why you should never pay big bucks for “deluxe” HDMI cables: http://www.mint.com/blog/trends/the-rip1/

  2. Greg said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    Good rant, I’d like to hear your thoughts on these audio mains cables. You know, the £100 ones that power your bass amp and apparently improve the tone.

  3. Cyrus said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

    You’ve probably noticed by now that I covered that subject in “Part 2”. It doesn’t take much to debunk those shameful frauds. I wish there was something more substantial to the claims around audiophile mains cables, so I could spend some time exploring the pros and cons, and debating the finer points. But sadly, they have no pros, and no finer points. They are just a sad joke.

  4. Mike said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    Just recently stumbled across your blog, and have enjoyed reading the entries under Snake Oil on cabling. I’m an audio enthusiast who is amazed at the claims made and prices asked by cable manufacturers these days. In that vein, I was wondering if you’ve seen the claims being made by a cable manufacturer called High Fidelity Cables about a technology called magnetic conduction, which they claim to be able to implement in the production of interconnect and speaker cables. Not only do they claim that magnetic conduction is the best way to transmit an audio signal, but that they have developed a way of “pre-applying” this technology to audio cables so that distortion levels drop lower than possible in normal cables. They claim their cables are based in studies done at the University of Toronto, and that they are measurably superior to regular cables. Their web page contains numerous links to reviews claiming the cables are the best sounding ever. As an example of their pricing, they offer three models of interconnects ranging in price from $1600.00 a pair for a meter length to a mind-blowing $4900.00 for a meter pair! Can’t help but wonder about their claims. Sounds like snake oil?

  5. Cyrus said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    Yes, certainly it is snake oil, of a specific kind: promoting irrelevant or imperceptible facts as though they were significant. In other words, I’m not saying they’re lying—I’m just saying they are using the same sort of misdirection that many other cable brands use when they talk up the transmission-line behavior of their cables, even though their cables are never used as long-distance radio-frequency transmission lines. For example, the Magnetic site says:

    “A testing facility in Canada contracted by Magnetic Innovations LLC tried testing very low level signals, as low as -59 dB from a full signal strength of 2 volts. They discovered that long after conventional audio cables significantly obscured test signals, High Fidelity Cables were still at work clearly transferring this low level information. In controlled tests, a system wide reduction of 14% THD and 14% IMD was measured. Signal to noise ratio improved by 1.5 dB which is significant.”

    That sounds great, and it might even be true, but the distortion of regular conductive cables is so low as to be barely measurable; so reducing that almost nonexistent amount of distortion by 14% is kind of a laugh. It might be meaningful in microscopic neural surgery, but not in music reproduction, not by a long shot.

    The change in signal-to-noise ratio is also misdirection, because passive cables cannot by themselves introduce any noise at all. What they CAN do is shield against external noise sources, and they do this to varying degrees of success. There is not one normal, standard S/N ratio for traditional non-magnetic audio cables. So for Magnetic’s claim to mean anything, they would have to first establish that they were comparing their system against a cable with the best possible noise shielding, in order to demonstrate that shielding alone can’t achieve the same result.

    As far as the “numerous reviews claiming the cables are the best sounding ever”, testimonials are the standard model for snake-oil sales throughout history. It has always worked, and will probably keep working on suckers until the end of time.

    Thanks for letting me know about this cable company though–I will be keeping an eye on them!

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