From Audio Basics, Volume Nine, Number One, January, 1990
O.K. guys, we are really not stupid or deaf. We do realize that it is to our advantage to insure that our audio components are used to their maximum potential. The more faithful our equipment is to the source music the more people will like the results and the more equipment we will sell. Thus it is obvious that using interconnect cables or speaker wires that interfere with the performance of our equipment is contrary to our (and our client's) best interests and refusing to recommend or sell interconnects or cables that really are a more transparent window to the performance would be short changing all of us.
Of course this admission is true if, and only if, there really are cables and wires out there that are "better components" and that really do screw up the music less. Remember, the best we can do is to not screw up the source material. Any changes we make to the source material - even changes we temporarily like - have an easy to remember name. These changes are called distortion.
Now I have seen many quasi-technical dissertations out there recently purporting to show that different wire constructions have different pulse characteristics (of course they do, but at what frequencies, and under what test conditions?) Unless the tests are conducted with battery powered generators and oscilloscopes, any ripples seen on pulse tests are as likely to be grounding interactions as indications of cable merit. And, if you want to know more about adverse cable loads affecting amplifier performance, ask Polk Audio about their ill-fated Cobra Cables which tended to blow up output inductorless amplifiers - a cable and amplifier interaction that everybody could hear.
I am not sold on the purple prose advertising claims either. Unfortunately there have been claims made in the esoteric press that the brand and finish of the varnish you put on the wood planks holding your wires apart make just as much sonic wonderment as the type of wood and brand and construction of the cables themselves. And then there are the others that absolutely claim that extraneous transducers in the listening room foul the musical experience beyond repair too. You must use only one set of speakers and remove all other transducers (even the telephone). Obviously, to determine if this is really true, one would have to remove all the speakers and poke out one ear with an ice pick to get down to the real purists' goal of only one vibrating membrane in the room (whoops -better cut your throat too to get rid of those vocal cords). Naturally this advice means that listening to live music is a futile endeavor - all those vibrating membranes from all those instruments - an impossible situation. Sorry guys, I can't get past the hype or the quasi-science. But I am willing to reevaluate my position based upon real evidence - the evidence that any interconnect cable or speaker wire can make a meaningful improvement in my listening experience in my own system. All you have to do to make a believer out of me is to send me some cable that allows me to hear the evidence.
For your information, the listening room is a really dead and stiff 26' x 17' x 8' room carpeted and draped with stiffened walls, a concrete slab floor, and lots of reflection absorbing treatment (everything from velvet to cork). Believe me, it is a good sounding room because it has very little sound of its own and it supports deep bass power without booming.
For loudspeakers we can choose the B&W Matrix 801s (with the crossovers rebuilt to eliminate magnetic interaction between the sections and crosstalk thru the protect circuits), most any of the smaller B&Ws, or Acoustat Spectra 11 electrostatics. The drive electronics are ours, and range from very inexpensive and very neutral solid state units to vacuum tube units of significant musical appeal, to our very best hybrid vacuum tube - power fet units that are capable of processing all the dynamic range and "aliveness" of the musical experience best of all. All amplifiers are stable into huge inductive or capacitive loads and all preamps will drive a standard IHF load (10,000 ohms in parallel with 1000 picofarads) so that significantly strange cable or wire load characteristics will have no affect on the linearity of our driving electronics.
We will need two speaker wire runs of about 25 feet each terminated to fit into heavy duty 5-way binding posts at each end. We will need two sets of interconnect cables terminated in RCA phono plugs, one set to run between the preamp and the power amp, and a second set to run between the source (CD, tuner, phono, or digital tape) and the preamp. Each should be 3 feet to 6 feet long. We will need the capability to separate the two conductors by about a foot at each end, depending upon the amplifier configuration so don't supply cables or wire that preclude this possibility. You will need to donate the cables to me because I simply cannot afford to pay for all those really expense wires out there. You will not get them back in one piece because we will cut up the wires and cables as a last step in our evaluation process to evaluate the construction and to see how well the wires are terminated to their connection plugs. I will return the wires and cables to you at the end of the evaluation process or pay your retail price for any we find so useful we want to keep for ourselves.
There is almost no downside risk for you, cable manufacturer. I will not say anything nasty in print about any specific brand as long as its mechanical configuration is not hazardous to the reliable operation of the equipment. I will not tolerate out of spEC RCA plugs that deform or fit loosely in standard RCA jacks and speaker wires terminated in fuzzballs or spade lugs that are so oversize that they can easily inadvertently short together. Other than that, I will only report good news - cables or speaker wires that tell me I am wrong in suggesting that premium cables are not useful. Hey guys, I have been giving away thousands of dollars in profits and turning off audiophile customers because we have not been willing to sanction what we (so far) have been unable to hear or measure. I really want a good sounding brand of cables and wires to sell! The only condition - it actually has to show me that it really is "good sounding" and is reliable.
How are we going to test your cable? First we are going to measure its resistance, capacitance and inductance to see if there are any unusual basic electrical characteristics. Then we are going to plug them in and sit back and relax and enjoy the music. You will be "competing" with an old (late 1970s) set of Monster Cables (they have stood up to lots of plugging and unplugging without breaking) or with plain hardware store 16 gauge lampcord and with a variety of interconnects acquired over the years ranging from early Fulton Cables (the plugs broke) to Cotter Cables (the third ground induces excess RFI) to our normal assortment of Radio Shack and old Dynaco supplied cables.
We will use the same listening evaluation process that we do with prototype electronics designs. We will use (or randomly not use) the cable or wire first on one channel only with the system switched to mono. The party making the connections will do it at random and leave the listening room without telling us what is connected (or not connected). We will then use white noise and music to try and determine if there are any differences at all we can perceive between the two channels. White noise is a really useful tool here because it is a sustained and repeatable signal, unlike music which is always changing in content from moment to moment. We have also come up with a methodology of placing a matched set of speakers in our very non-reflective room so that we can listen to either exactly on axis at the same time, getting rid of the considerable frequency response variations that occur with even the best speakers as you move even slightly off access to either. If then there are repeatable white noise differences that seem to be simply differences in level (a lower resistance speaker wire will sound slightly louder) we will have the cable installer come back and adjust the balance control to equalize input levels to the speakers (measured at their terminals). Then if we still seem to hear differences between the channels (on white noise or music) we will try and judge if they are "better - worse" differences using a variety of musical samples we like to listen to because we keep hearing more and more music in them as the system really becomes more transparent. And finally we will see what cables we are listening to. This procedure tends to keep us honest. No, we won't use switch boxes to make instant A-B tests (their common grounds cause indeterminate interactions between the devices under test and we have a great deal of trouble making any value judgments at all on a instant A-B basis - it just isn't the way we listen to music in the real world). Finally we will simply stuff in the cables in a complete stereo setup and use them for a few days. Sometimes it takes a while for irritations in the music (or lack of irritations) to sink in.
Finally after we have had time to repeat this process with all cables and speaker wires we receive, we will write herein of any cables or wires that we used that actually seem to enhance our listening enjoyment. We will also recommend said cable (if any) to you dear readers, and let you know why. Obviously we will try and arrange to sell the cables and wires too if we find something really worthwhile, we do have to earn a living.
So there, dear cable manufacturer, help us eat crow. Put some action where your mouth is. Don't just write letters to Audio complaining that we have slurred you. Send us some cable and speaker wire samples and see if you can help us prove we were wrong. Remember (outside of reporting on inept mechanical construction) I am not going to tell the world I don't like your cable. Actually, if I hear cables I don't like that proves I am wrong in any event, as it would prove that there is something about cables we can hear that we don't understand. However, I will only report on those cables (if any) that I do like. I am not one to turn down the opportunity to earn an honest profit and to add value to my clients' audio systems. Give me the chance to do it. However, unfortunately, I suspect you won't. I am going to be surprised if we see even a single sample of wire or cable from a hi-fi supplier. No, private readers, don't send me your own "pet" exotic cables - I cannot deal in one-offs or stuff not in current production or wires or cables modified or abused subsequent to its purchase. To be fair I must have factory supplied fresh samples only. I think many esoteric suppliers would rather complain about my Audio editorial than to provide me with the evidence to make me change my mind. I hope this isn't the case. I hope you cable suppliers really have something good. There is room for more good work in the quest for true high fidelity. I want to hear your best offerings.
Frank Van Alstine
Copyright, Audio by Van Alstine, Inc., 1990. No part of AUDIO BASICS may be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without the permission of the publisher.