Enjoying your favorite ditty or creating your own music is a deeply personal experience. Preferences vary from one person to another and hearing is highly subjective. And these are why a lot of myths about audio equipment crop up over time.
Here are the 5 myths about high-end audio cables debunked:
- You can hear a significant difference between $3 and $5,000 audio cables.
- Companies that sell high-end cables are still around
- Expensive cables instantly make everything sound better.
- High-end cables limit the skin effect.
- Breaking in your audio cable makes it sound better.
What are these myths that you should not fall for, and what’s the issue behind each one? Sift the facts from the fiction: read on!
1. You Can Hear a Significant Difference Between $3 and $5,000 Audio Cables
Audiophiles insist that you can hear the difference between a cheap and high-end cable. And many times, they have tried to prove it scientifically by conducting blind testing on two or more cables.
When it comes to the blind listening tests, participants have no idea what kinds of cables are used. They just listen and then rate the audio quality that they are listening to. You wouldn’t know if the wires used in the system are cheap ones or a high-end product. As such, you won’t have any biases when rating.
The premise of blind testing is that if there is a real difference between high-end and run-of-the-mill cables, you will rate the high-end cables as better sounding. That will hold true even if you don’t know that you are using a high-end cable.
The thing is that most of the blind tests done on cables have largely been inconclusive. Some tests show a marked difference favoring high-end products. Others indicated that sometimes, people like the sound of cheap cables.
It doesn’t help that most blind tests conducted by audiophile groups, magazines, and equipment manufacturers show that high-end cables do indeed sound better than cheap ones. Meanwhile, third-parties who had blind tests show that people can’t hear the difference, and sometimes, people eschew the more expensive cables.
An example for the first scenario is this study from Hi-Fi+ Magazine, Issue 34, which shows that their respondents preferred high-end cables and absolutely didn’t like the lower-priced products. The problem is that they only had four participants in the study. They included only those that can be considered audiophiles, including one designed one of the cables they tested, audio equipment salesmen, and an electronics research engineer.
As you might have guessed, the sample is problematic. The small sample size, for one, puts into question the validity of the study.
What’s more, these subjects were not picked out randomly. This makes the study lack representation because it’s not only the audiophiles who are buying high-end cables.
According to this page, you cannot make any valid statistical inference when using a non-randomized sample. Plus, there’s also this bias that can affect your study’s results.
Simply put, it’s hard to draw conclusions that would apply to the general public from the opinions of only four people. Plus, choosing only engineers and audiophiles already introduced some bias into your study.
But what about ordinary people? Well, some studies included them into the mix, too.
Another Flawed Test and Misleading Conclusion Writing
Stereophile has its own blind test. The problem is that the cables were skewed towards the more expensive end. They tested four different wires, three of which were priced from around $1,000 to $8,000.
Only one was priced at $3. There were no cables to represent the middle range. And their results show that price isn’t really a guarantee that a cable will sound better.
According to their participants, the $3 cable performed much better than the $8,000 and $1,200 ones when it came to bass. Overall, the $1,200 cable sounded better than its $8,000 counterpart, while the cheapest cable languished in the last place.
But the thing is, percentages, in this case, can be very deceiving. The test had 55 participants, but only 40 submitted their voting sheets.
As such, the real numbers you are talking about here are:
- Eight people liked the cheap cable.
- Nine people liked the $8,000.
- Twelve people liked the $1,200 cable.
- Eleven people liked the $1,000 cable.
When audiophiles say that you can just hear the difference, we’re pretty sure that they wouldn’t present this data as proof of their claims. Eight people in 40 didn’t hear the difference. And only nine people did.
What’s more, Stereophile.com didn’t conduct statistical significance tests on their data. For all we know, these results were just a fluke, and that the participants didn’t really recognize the difference in sound quality, they just guessed right.
Even a Wire Hanger Will Do?
The StarTribune’s Don Lindich writes that you should not spend more on speaker cables. Get one that’s within your budget if it works for your system. He also describes high-end cables as “a shameless rip-off.”
And how else can you describe the myth of high-end cables but as a rip-off? When in reality, coat hangers can be used as wire cables.
In objective tests conducted by SoundGuys and Android Authority, no significant differences were detected between coat hangers and premium cables. Their clinical trials showed that whatever differences there are, it was not going to be audible.
Their subjective tests found that among SoundGuys listeners:
- 47 percent saw no differences between the two.
- 29.5 percent preferred the coat hanger.
- 32.4 percent preferred the premium cable.
Combining the results of readers from Android Authority with the ones from SoundGuys, it showed that:
- 1,456 people preferred the coat hanger.
- 1,049 preferred the cable.
- 694 didn’t detect any difference between the two.
In short, more people will buy a coat hanger, and this will sound better to them than more expensive cables.
2. Companies That Sell High-End Cables Are Still Around
One of the arguments or proof that fans of high-end cables offer is that retailers such as The Cable Company and manufacturers such as AudioQuest, Zu Audio, and XLO have been in business for so long.
As such, if there really is no difference between high-end and cheap cables, then there is absolutely no reason why these companies will still be in business today. For audiophiles, the longevity of these companies is proof that there is a significant difference between high-end and regular cables.
But Monster Cable is a warning sign and a cautionary tale. In 2012, the company sold around $1 billion of its products. For years, their headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre, was something everybody wanted to wear on their ear.
Around six years later, the company recorded a decline of 95 percent in their sales. Signs of trouble are everywhere as the company laid off a significant portion of its people, and the company’s founder Noel Lee is using his own money to make up for the lack of cash.
The 40-plus years of existence doesn’t really mean anything for a company like Monster Cable. With the decrease in sales came the staggering losses, which averaged more than $28 million for 2016 and 2017.
Were These Products Better?
Perhaps. The company did drop a lot of research into its products, with dozens of patents in its portfolio.
Or perhaps not. The company also dropped a lot of money into marketing and brand positioning. In fact, for the earlier part of Monster Cable’s existence, they focused more on using other products that dared to use the word Monster in their names.
What’s more, we know that the placebo effect exists. That’s when a patient feels like they are getting better, thinking that they are getting a good medical treatment when in reality, it is just cornstarch inside a capsule.
When one spends more money on a set of audio cables, it is easy for someone to think that it sounds better than other cheaper alternatives. We are told all of our lives that premium means spending more money.
Double that with the branding and marketing that went into Monster Cable’s products, and you can see how people can be biased into thinking that their more expensive cable does sound better.
3. Expensive Cables Instantly Make Everything Sound Better
Audiophiles swear that the extra hundreds of dollars they plunk into their audio cables make a difference in music sounds. But that may not be entirely true.
Even if you do concede that using high-end cables does make a difference, it’s not as significant as the improvements you hear when you upgrade to a better turntable, speaker, electronics, or other components.
If you have modest components and electronics, having an expensive cable will make these sound better than what is possible. Take, for instance, high-end speakers.
These speakers are better because they produce audio that delivers accurate sounds that are faithful to the audio signals. They often have growling bass, clear voices, and the right balance of frequencies.
They have more drivers and a better-designed cabinet, and they’re built to last longer as well. The same thing is true with phonographs, digital to analog converters, amps, and other components.
If you want better quality sound, figure out first if your system already delivers the sound you like. Then invest in more expensive cables. It should not be the other way around, with you thinking that high-end wires would magically make your speakers and turntables sound better than what it is physically capable of.
4. High-End Cables Limit the Skin Effect
When presented with the fact that an audio cable works regardless of the price you pay for it, audiophiles will drop “the skin effect” on you. They will argue high-end cables limit the skin effect and give you better sound.
What is the skin effect anyway? Electricity tends to distribute itself as it travels through a conductor.
As such, electricity is more likely to travel on the surface rather than the center of the conductor. What happens is that the audio signal theoretically is weaker. However, it has been shown that while the skin effect is a real problem for high-frequency applications, it’s mostly negligible when it comes to audio signals.
This means spending $1,000 on an audio cable just because of the skin effect will probably not make sense because there’s not much to counter anyway.
5. Breaking in Your Audio Cable Makes It Sound Better
Some companies claim that you should break in your audio cables to make them sound better. They say that the insulation needs a stream of the current to re-arrange or align itself to the audio signals.
After breaking in your audio cable, the insulation will absorb less of the audio signals, and this, in turn, will lead to less distortion. However, the whole idea doesn’t make sense.
Audio signals are alternating currents, and they are random. You cannot align anything with a random signal. As such, breaking in is a baseless claim.
Breaking in your audio cables cannot be measured. You also cannot hear improvements unless it is because of the placebo effect. If you test an audio cable and don’t like what you hear, it’s better to just buy another product rather than fall for the breaking in myth.
So What Exactly Do You Need?
Many people would recommend getting better equipment rather than buying expensive cables. Buy better speakers, swap out your old phonograph, or perhaps use a more powerful amplifier.
If you have an excellent system already in place, then you could just get the appropriate cables. The rule of thumb?
The longer the wires you need and the lower the impedance of your speakers, the thicker the cable should be.
Most people would have speakers that have an impedance of eight ohms. For that kind of setup, you will need a 16-gauge cable. With this kind of cable, you can wire your speakers from 48 feet (14.63 m) away.
Further, if you can hear a difference and it just so happens that the better-sounding audio cable for you is a more expensive one, then you must consider buying it. But it makes no sense to spend more if you don’t. Go with the cheaper wire.
Why Do Audio Cable Myths Continue To Exist?
The short answer is that people continue to believe in them, despite the lack of science behind these myths. These audio cable myths have been around for years and decades, and there will always be somebody who would say that higher-end cables do sound better.
And presented with science, audiophiles have questioned the method of why double-blind testing should not be used for audio cables.
That same article points out why it is difficult to prove the differences between two audio cables because hearing and listening are subjective. The conditions can often change and at varying degrees. The truth is that it is really up to the listener if they hear a difference between two cables or not.
Audiophiles and Wine Snobs
In 2001, a study showed that “wine experts” can be fooled into thinking white wine dyed red is actually red wine. In the survey, enology students described the taste of white wine using the words that they used to describe red wine.
This means that your preferences can easily be fooled by your biases. In this case, your brain is registering red wine, so it starts to think of it as red wine, and all other senses such as smell and taste take that cue and run away with it.
Your senses can trick you into thinking that a pricier pair of cables do sound better. That, and the placebo effect, should account for why some audiophiles swear they hear the difference.
Money, Money, Money
One thing is apparent though, there will always be people who are going to earn from these myths. From audio cable manufacturers who charge anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars for audio cables that perform no better than coat hangers to people who will offer services that at best sound shady.
Take, for example, the $25 per cable that you need to pay for audio cable break-in services. You spend that much to make sure that your lines are broken in, which can take weeks or months if you have to let them settle in with regular listening use.
These services claim that they can break in using special CDs, and some even offer burn-in generators. The EE Times calls these services and the break-in concept “nonsense.”
Further, some online and brick-and-mortar magazines, retailers, and “experts” are financially supported in part by audio cable manufacturers. As such, they are in some way obligated to return the favor.
For instance, having a double-blind test that includes only four participants and one of them an audio cable designer and then passing it off as a valid and credible study? Serious researchers will have a field day picking the methodology apart!
Or those who write different conclusions and notes to support whatever it is that they want to say. Like saying “more people preferred the high-end cables” when the results showed that the actual difference between those who can’t tell the difference and those who “liked” premium audio cables is one.
We are not saying they are lying. It is true that having 9 people like something as opposed to 8 who do not can be written as more people liking that something. But you can see where the problem lies.