Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback?

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I posted an article earlier today about a hi-fi journalist who believes in magic, thinking that there can be differences in digital cables between, say, computers and DACs.

Joe Cox, the editor of What Hi-Fi?, who follows [update: who used to follow me] me on Twitter, said this:

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This made me think about an experience I had last week. I went to Cambridge to attend a recording session of the King’s College Choir, in the astounding King’s College Chapel. I spent an afternoon watching the session, talking with the executive producer, and with the recording engineers (from Abbey Road Studios). One thing that I found interesting was the cabling they used. The session was being recorded at 24/96, for release in 5.1, and there were about 24 microphones altogether. I asked if there was any fancy cabling, but the executive producer said, no, “just miles of copper.”

In other words, when recording engineers set up to record very subtle music – this was a choir in a chapel, and the sound is very complex – they don’t use anything other than cables which, most likely, are thick and robust enough to withstand rolling, unrolling and people walking on them. If even recording engineers don’t use fancy cables, then why should anyone think that expensive cables are necessary to play back music; let alone expensive digital cables?

No, just as high-resolution music is just a marketing ploy, so are expensive cables. Yes, there is a minimum that needs to be used. For analog, a cable that is too thin may have problems sending electricity from an amplifier to speakers. And with digital cables, there are standards to respect: USB 2, for example, is slower than USB 3, and some cheap USB cables may not be able to handle the faster speeds. The same is the case with Ethernet cables: there are different categories of cables (this is an ANSI standard), which guarantee specific data throughput, and the maximum length of cables.

So not only do cables almost never make a difference, if they did, you’d imagine that recording engineers would be using the best they could get. They don’t.

Of course, you could also use coat hangers




9 replies
  1. Gareth says:

    I think you’re missing the key phrase in Joe’s tweet: “We report what we see/hear in test conditions”. That doesn’t mean that there actually are differences, just that they hear them. The psychology involved is potentially interesting…

    Reply
  2. Sean Elliot says:

    I am enjoying your current ‘anti snake-oil’ crusade against the audiophiles. Gareth raises a valid point – almost all of this stuff is psychological. The HI-FI reviewers are apparently noticing a difference. The science (and common sense) says otherwise – so what are they hearing/feeling/imagining?
    The other point of course is that normal people do not listen to music in a ‘test environment’ for pleasure. People enjoy music for the music, however it may be consumed. In the car, on a bus, sat in front of a computer, whatever – enjoy the music however you like. I don’t tolerate poorly recorded or awful sounding recordings, but by the same token, I don’t obsess over whether I’m hearing it ‘unaltered’ by my cables/amp etc. Yes it might sound even better if i spend a few hundred pounds on speakers/headphones but I can still enjoy the music if I listen to it in the car or on earpod headphones irrespective of how it’s wired up/plugged in.
    I compose and record my own music at home – I make sure that no unwanted buzzes/squeaks/glitches get onto the finished recording, but as far as recording path goes – I use whatever I need to get the signal into the computer/recorder or whatever i’m using. If it still sounds ok the next day, then it’s ok. I’m not going to re-record the same guitar part the next day with an £800 100% oxygen free copper/electron aligned cable to see if I can make it sound 0.00000000001% better.

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Damn good comment! I wonder about that; we’re already using AirPlay and other ways of streaming, which can even stream audiophile-approved lossless files. I wonder what they say about the airwaves.

      That makes me think: will streaming music put cable manufacturers out of business? (I think I may write something about that.)

      Reply

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