THE AUDIO, VIDEO AND COMPUTER CABLE CONTROVERSY
THE QUALITY OF YOUR CONNECTING CABLES DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
by Mark B. Anstendig
©1996 The Anstendig Institute
Probably the largest single controversy in the electronic world is over whether expensive connecting cables make a difference. Many people insist that high end cables make a difference in sound and video quality, and improve the operation and dependability of computer systems. Others feel that different cables make absolutely no difference. Audio reviewers have even conducted double-blind AB tests, switching between setups with and without high-end cables, which they believe proved that there was no noticeable difference.
It is a well-known scientific fact that only the sense of sight has a means of comparison that meets scientific standards of accuracy: the direct visual comparison of color-tones, but only if they are directly next to each other with absolutely no space between the colors.1 No matter which sense is used, the undependability of our memory for sensory impressions is the weak link in all comparisons of sensory impressions. Direct visual comparison of other things besides color tones retains some degree of this accuracy, depending upon the type of object and the demands made upon our memory. Attempts at direct comparisons with any of the other senses do not meet scientific criteria for accuracy and are, in fact, highly inaccurate due to the undependable, vacillating, and adaptive characteristics of our memory for sensory impressions as well as the adaptive nature of the senses themselves. In fact, direct comparisons are actually impossible with the other senses, even with so-called AB comparison methods. They are simply a misapplication to other senses of procedures that are only possible with sight.2
The Anstendig Institute, like anyone with an audio, video, or computer setup, is involved with the problem of cables in the installations it uses for its own work and has, with the help of Monster Cable Products Inc., been able to complete a long-term investigation of whether high quality cables make a difference when used in practical, everyday situations.
Clearly, better cables would not make a worthwhile difference in a low-end hi-fi system with cheap speakers, which is not able to produce the finer nuances that would be apparent if high-end cables really allowed more detail to pass through them.3 Currently available CD technology also is lacking in these finer nuances. With CD’s, better cables might improve the informational aspects of music (timbre, sound stage, image size and definition, voice spacing, i.e., aspects of sound that do not contain expressive nuance). But expression is the treasure of sound. Most of us want to be emotionally “moved” by our music and CD simply does not capture the finer differences in the articulation of expressive nuances that high end cables might reveal.4
In the visual field, there is a similar lack of detail in low quality TV and video equipment, which means most low-priced equipment in the consumer market. Such equipment, though often watchable, usually does not have a level of image quality that would reveal differences between cables.
Do better cables make a difference? That better cables lessen mechanical failure is one thing, about which there can be little argument. It is The Anstendig Institute’s experience that the main annoyance in audio and video systems is system failure due to mechanical failure of poorly manufactured cables and, especially, connectors. The purchase of well-made, entry-level high-end audio and video cables, with well-designed, professional-quality connectors will save many problems over time. Connectors pull out, inadequately supported connections (wire to connector) break, and connectors oxidize (gold-plating helps here), to name some of the possible problems, most of which usually occur right in the middle of an important audio or visual experience.
Beyond the mechanical differences between poorly made and well made cables and their break-down over time, the controversy over real, noticeable differences in results using high-end cables becomes more difficult to prove.
With video, it is generally understood that the totally different frequency range of the video signal and other considerations in the electronic makeup of video technology require different cables, specifically formulated for video. The cables supplied with TV and video equipment already are such cables. Differences between standard and higher-end cables are subtle and may not, with present TV standards, make enough difference to warrant a large expense for high-end cables. The choice depends upon the quality of the TV and personal visual acuity, because the eye is much more forgiving of small amounts of image degradation than the ear is of sound degradation. But cheaper video cables are prone to failure. The connectors do not hold up and signal leakage is often a problem. Our cable company once measured RF signal leakage from our house. Our RF cables were leaking signal and had to be replaced. The company explained that signal leakage due to inadequate cables is so prevalent that they replace the cables free of charge. We recommend that cable users check all RF cables with their cable supplier. Owners of Camcorders and VCR’s should use the best cable they can afford for copying to avoid any possible loss of image quality in the duplicates. The difference may not be noticeable on low-fi systems, but eventual system upgrades will make them apparent.
With computers, the allowable cable length with certain computer cabling is one incontrovertible area where higher quality cables really make a difference. Cables for SCSI connections have to be kept relatively short, or they will fail. There is a maximum allowable length for the sum of all cables connecting devices on the SCSI chain. Exceed that length and the system fails. But certain high quality cables will allow that limit to be extended substantially. The same applies to monitor cables. In other words, better cables simply have better conductivity and transport the signal farther with a lot less loss in signal strength as well as less other interference that also degrades the signal. That is clear proof that there certainly are important differences in cables.
It is more difficult to prove that audio cables make a difference in what we hear. Purely digital connections involved in CD components might possibly have problems similar to those with computer cables. But, most analog audio components do not simply quit if the signal gets weaker. They pass on a weaker signal to the speakers and the listener has the option of raising the volume. Unless the cable is defective, the signal almost always gets through in at least recognizable, if corrupted, form. Most listener’s hearing is not trained to notice subtle differences in expressive nuance, even though they profoundly affect the ultimate listening experience. And if there is less high-frequency content or less accurate reproduction of dynamic-expressive content of the sounds, most people would have no way of knowing it, since they were not present at the recording and are not conversant with the artist’s work.
The Anstendig Institute has been able to set up two complete sound systems in separate rooms, both of which use the same components except for the cables. One room used entry-level Audiophile cables (Monster Reference) and the other room used high-end cables (Monster “M” series). We used and compared the two systems for over a year5. We familiarized ourselves over long periods of time with the same recordings in each of the rooms and both rooms played mono, so that we could concentrate on musical content.
It is our firm conviction that there were differences in the playback between the two rooms and that those differences lie in the most important aspect of sound, especially music: the expressive nuances. Since both rooms had equalizers,6 differences in instrumental and other timbre were minimal. But there were important differences in delicacy and accuracy of nuance between the rooms, and those differences became negligible when we replaced the Reference cables with “M” cables.
Differences in expressive content are difficult to describe and to prove. We have familiarized ourselves enough with the differences in experience between the two rooms to be able to confidently say that the music contained noticeably more subtlety in the “M” cable room and that it “moved” us more deeply due to that added expressivity.
But audiophiles want immediately hearable, objective proof. And so did we. While we have always felt that we heard more expressive nuance with better cables, it was exceedingly difficult to find an example that is both informational and expressive in which we could clearly hear something with the better cables that was obviously missing with the lesser cables. We found it in E. Power Biggs’ record “Heroic Music for Organ and Brass”. In the first selection, the famous “Trumpet Voluntary”, the trumpet trill on the second note of the theme clearly demonstrated an objective, hearable informational-expressive difference between the two rooms. This trumpet player has a particularly wonderful, overtone-rich tone, without harshness or hard edges on attacks, a tone bordering on a true “dolce”. Thus the trill is particularly rich in first order harmonics, which give the sound a regal, wonderfully relaxed, elegant richness. In the “M” cable room, these harmonics were not only clear in timbre, but also clearly articulated in the trill. In the “reference-cable” room, the timbre of the harmonics was still there, but clearly less rich. Most importantly, the articulation of the harmonics during the trill was smeared and unclear and a slight hardness had crept in on attacks. In other words, only the better cable was able to clearly pass the complex fast articulation of the harmonics in the trumpet trill and the subtle, delicate, but extremely fast “rise’ of the tone on the attack. The extreme speed of the trill highlights otherwise less noticeable shortcomings of the lesser cables--shortcomings that do have a profound effect on the final musical experience.
We can, therefore, report that there is a difference between cables. In fact, with the right program material, that difference is objectively hearable. But, even when not clearly noticeable, it does make a difference in the experience of the program.
How important is this difference? Will not having high end cables greatly diminish the listening experience? These questions bring up a problem of priorities. Obviously, someone spending a small fortune on highest quality audio components would be foolish not to also invest in highest quality cables. But what should the careful buyer on a budget do?
Our recommendation is to first buy the best components you can afford and add better cables as you can afford them. Cables can be bought one piece at a time, but an amplifier or preamp cannot. The source components (i.e., record players, tape machines, video recorders, etc.) should have the least compromise.7 There is one exception: for taping, you should always use very high quality cables between the source and the recorder, since essential information which is not captured on the recording cannot be put there later.
1 The Anstendig Institute’s paper “AB Testing, a Misapplication of Visual Criteria in Sound”. That paper explains the problems in all comparisons of sensory impressions with any of the five senses and explains how such comparisons and evaluations need to be conducted in order to be accurate. It shows why AB testing is invalid as a method of comparing sonic examples.
These facts about sensory perception were well-known to the
optical and scientific communities in the first half of this century, as
optical and camera manufacturer’s struggled with the problem of focusing
cameras using the naked eye. Readers not already familiar with them,
particularly those of the scientific and technical communities, should read and
digest our papers as well as the texts of the
3 We recommend caution with internally damped speakers. It is our suspicion that such speakers dampen expressive detail as well as rear-radiating vibrations.
4 We want to make very clear that these comments apply solely to flaws in the digital technology currently available commercially and not to the process of digital recording, per se. New digital technology, capable of reproducing finer nuances, will eventually be available.
5 In accordance with procedures laid down in “AB Testing, a Misapplication of Visual criteria in Audio”.
6 See our papers on equalization.
7 We do not mention anything digital, at the moment, because CD, digital surround, laser discs, etc., all do not yet have adequate digital systems to accurately reproduce expressive nuances. Better digital systems have been on the drawing board for a long time, but the industry has not yet agreed upon a standard.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.