The Cable Guru: An Introduction

The Cable Guru: An Introduction

That’s me, the Cable Guru

Welcome to The Cable Guru, a pseudo-scientific new column in PMA Magazine dedicated to the subjective truth about hi-fi cables.

And yes, the title refers to me. I’m a cable guru, with a minor in tweaks and accessories which I’ll also be covering in this column. I am, truth be told, a self-appointed guru with no formal training or academic credentials to be a cable guru any more than you can be. But like most cable-liking dudes, and by dudes I mean the ladies, too, I know the most important criterion that makes a hi-fi cable good or not: it either sounds good in your system or it doesn’t.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I am a Zen guru, not an electronics one. I believe in good science, but when it comes to my listening preferences, and as far as this column is concerned, my ears and not a set of measurements will determine what cables or accessories sound good—or don’t sound, if you prefer—at least in the context of my listening room and system. Tests will be done solely via my ear canals, point-to-point wired synaptically into my brain, the signal path as short as possible around any cartilage. Results are determined based on the trinity principles of the mind, the ears, and the body—principles to do with human perception and the spiritual reception of music.

And while it may take no academic credentials to be a cable guru, I have a history: I’ve been into better cabling ever since I installed a pair of specialist interconnects into my stereo that resulted in me hearing an abundance of musical information and nuance I never knew my system was capable of. And I most certainly do believe in cable break-in, some measure of it anyway, as do the smartest, most enduring hi-fi cable companies, who share a general consensus that what causes cable break-in is mostly due to the conductor’s molecules having settled into current-flowing pathways.

Respected cable manufacturer Cardas has, for years, included a cable break-in guide with their cables, which states: “All cables need a break-in and warm-up period. Better cables require longer break-in. With all cables, the more you play them and the less you move them, the better they will sound. Current flowing through the cable during break-in, and each warm-up period, will relax the structure of the strands.” 

Most importantly, I’ve heard break-in happen a gazillion times, no exaggeration—a sudden expansion of the soundstage, a snapped-togetherness in the overall picture, with better defined frequency extremes, and a warming up and fleshing out of tones. The best part of it happens in one burst of clarity after many hours of varying degrees of murkiness. If you’re lucky enough to witness it while you’re paying attention to the music, it’s a fantastic thing, and usually not subtle in my experience, which is why after 30 years of being into hi-fi I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that there are people out there who purport to be into hi-fi—saying they love sound and agree that sonic differences exist between components —yet claim to have never experienced gear break-in.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, my cable guru powers are not a curse; I’ve always loved cable discoveries. For one, cable upgrades don’t have to cost a lot of money. Second, cables are fun when they work, because they enhance what you already have and spent money on, making the rest of your gear and your whole system sound better. What’s not to love?

Slip-on RCA connectors
Lock-on RCA connectors
XLR (balanced) connectors

A bad connection, that’s what. One caveat with cables, and here I’m referring primarily to RCA-terminated ones because I see this being more of an issue with those than with XLR-terminated ones, is that, regardless of their quality, RCA connections need to be tight. None of this loosey-goosey pressure between the connector and the input or output jacks. If you have an attached cable that a two-year old could easily yank off its jack, get it the heck out of your system. If you have an attached cable that causes a loud buzz to come out of your speakers whenever your leg skims it, get it the heck out of your system. There are different connectors on the market, some you “lock on” to the jack and others you slip over it, and while lock-ons should theoretically offer the tightest connection, I’ve tried both, and some slip-ons fit better than lock-ons. It depends on the relationship between the size of the connector and that of the jack, and that can depend on the respective jacks of the two components the cables are attached to, which may not be the same. But hey, no worries, we’ll get through this together. Bottom line: the music signal needs a gapless, quiet, unobstructed path from one component to the next, which also means cables and jacks should be cleaned periodically to remove signal-degrading debris and contaminants, and to prevent oxidization.

The 2022 Cable Convoy

I’ll get more into cable design, connectors, shielding, cleaning solutions, tweaks, and tricks as we go on, but consider this text my introduction to a new PMA column in which I’ll be evaluating the performance of a variety of cables and accessories from different manufacturers—and believe me when I say there’s a convoy of audio goodies on its way here right now from fearless manufacturers who believe in their products and want you to hear them.

This column’s mission will always be to point out the attributes of each product so that it might help you determine which product might work best for you, in your system and in your room. As always, it’s about synergy. That’s the Cable Guru way.

In the meantime, breathe in, breathe out, and take it easy.

Up Next: “The Cable Guru: On your mark, get set,…”

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