The Cable Guru: On your mark, get set,…

The Cable Guru: On your mark, get set,…

Welcome to this second installment of the Cable Guru, an appreciation series on audio cables and, to a lesser degree, accessories. Why appreciation series and not an out-and-out review or cable shootout series? A couple of reasons: first, the cable companies I solicited are enduringly successful. They know their business and wouldn’t send me a design they weren’t confident in. The question is really not whether the product I get from them will sound bad, but, rather, will it sound good in my system?

Which doesn’t mean I’ll never discuss a cable or accessory from a start-up company. That said, if a nascent company sends me a product that ends up not suiting my system, I’d rather return the product with an explanation of how it didn’t work in my system, than publicly bash the aspirations of a small company that sent me something in the hopes I’d like it. There’s no fun in crushing underdog dreams. As with people, I’d rather focus on the strengths of a cable than point out in what way that cable is less than something else. A good-looking person is so because of their combination of qualities, not because their nose or chin isn’t quite as symmetrical as another person’s. Individual qualities are important, but so is the whole package.

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The Cable Guru has an ecofriendly idea

Instead of bad-sounding products, what I expect to receive from the blue-chip cable manufacturers I’ve contacted are products that will deviate from each other in design and sound. As commendable a goal it is to design something that is sonically neutral, the truth is that anything in the signal path will imprint its personality on the sound. Some products do so less than others, but that’s about it. The guru way of dealing with this reality is to keep in mind that every object that is art-oriented—and audio gear is art-oriented—is an expression of its creator and that creator’s vision. With that in mind, I expect some cables to excel in soundstaging, some in tone, some in bass, you get the idea. Where a cable might prove problematic for certain systems, say, if its tonal balance seems a bit bright or dark, I’ll be sure to mention it.

My solicitation to cable companies consisted of sending an email asking if they’d be willing to lend me a COAX  digital cable, a pair or two of RCA interconnects, and an 8ft pair of banana-terminated speaker cables, to be evaluated among identical products from competitors. A condition was that digital cables and pairs of interconnects should retail for around $1000 US each or less, while pricing for speaker cables should fall somewhere between $2-$3000 US. Additionally, I told companies they could send me audio accessories for future Cable Guru installments. Some companies jumped at the offer, some are still thinking about it, some ignored my email, and one wrote back to take me to task for using the term “mid-fi” to describe cables in my requested price range: “Sorry, we can’t help you,” the company said. “We don’t make mid-fi cables.” From that point on, I used the term “mid-priced hi-fi” in all my correspondence.

Another potential problem with pointing out a cable’s alleged flaws is that a cable may sound this way in my system, but that way in yours. You and me have different systems that reflect our respective sonic priorities. Our systems are connected to different electrical grids, and operate in dissimilarly-shaped acoustic spaces. Most of us also use a combination of different cables from different manufacturers. All of which will affect, in unpredictable, nebulous ways, to some degree, the sound we hear.

This unpredictability is one reason why some cable designers prefer having their cables evaluated in a system that uses only their cabling—what some of us call a cable loom. I get the appeal of a loom, for both the audio manufacturer and enthusiast. But for this column, I wanted to keep things small-scaled and manageable, by starting with a few cables of the same type—not too many that I can’t remember if it was cable A or V that had the plumper bass. So, in order of audition across successive future installments: digital cables, interconnects alone and with digital cables, speaker cables alone and with the other cables, to finally end up with looms (minus the power cords, which will be for another time). During this process, I plan to prevent members of my family from distracting me while I listen to music, scribble down notes, and reveal my findings to you.

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The Cable Guru is not above performing earthly tasks for the missus

As previously discussed, I am a Zen guru, not an electronics one—I prefer to base my judgments of a cable’s sound on what I hear rather than on what I read on a spec sheet. However, there are a few technical aspects I will touch on in search of correlations and support with what I may hear. These include:

A cable’s velocity of propagation (VoP), which refers to the effect of a cable’s dielectrics (insulation material) on the speed of the electrical signal. The VoP is represented by a percentage, which reflects how quickly the signal passes through the cable in comparison to the speed of light. That means that a cable with a 75% propagation velocity is passing the electrical signal at 75% the speed of light.

Cable dielectrics include PVC, Polyethylene, air spaced polyethylene, PTFE (Teflon), and air spaced PTFE. While some materials have better VoP potential than others, implementation of those materials is key to the sound.

Other important considerations are that the cable be properly shielded to avoid noise-inducing EMI (electromagnetic interference) contamination, and that its electrical resistance be as low as possible.

All of this and more, arriving in a calm and orderly fashion, very soon.

Until then, breathe in, breathe out, and be kind to others.

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