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Precious Metals: About Those Expensive High End Audio Cables

On May 18, 2016

If humanity had devoted as much time to the business of clean energy research as it had arguing about 'audiophile' cabling on the internet, my car would sport a fourth gen hydrogen fuel cell with Mr. Fusion instead of the wholly worn out controlled explosion it currently does. I don't believe that any single subject that is the source of as much contention as cables. As a result of this, there is as much myth and obfuscation as there is genuinely useful information. It is highly unlikely that the score will be settled in one piece on Vinyl Me, Please but we can at least try and objectively look at what the impact of cabling is on your system and what you may and may not consider worthwhile.

First, lets go right to a spot of absolutism. If your position is that cables make no difference to the performance of your system, take them all out and tell me how it performs. Don't worry, I'll wait. Unless you are one cool cat in possession of a 1920's clockwork gramophone, I'll wager that without the means of sending signal from one place to another- from the cartridge to the preamp and from amplifier to speakers to name but two, your system won't do terribly much- and this is assuming that you left the power cords in place. Vinyl playback needs cabling to function so having cables makes a fairly hefty difference over not having cables.

Now we've got the most absolute point of cabling out of the way, we can make some other fairly sensible suggestions too. The conductive part of the cable ought to be made out of a material that is good at conducting an electrical signal and in turn insulated for safety and ease of use by a material that isn't. As it is a good idea to have the wherewithal to use the cable more than once, having it terminate at plugs that allow it to be connected and removed repeatedly is also going to be handy. So we can hopefully all agree that cables are very useful and having cables that are safe, effective and reusable is also a good thing.

Nailing the Basics

The good news is that cables that meet this basic shopping list of requirements are not expensive- in fact they are frequently given away in the box with many products. This being the case, what are the arguments for going any further than this and choosing an aftermarket cable over the one free in the box? First, we need to be clear that not all free cables are created equal. Some companies put some very well assembled and thought out cables in with their products. If this is the case, you should pat yourself on the back for your sound purchasing decisions and go and listen to some music.

If the generosity of the company doesn't stretch to this (or indeed if they haven't supplied any cables at all), you might want to consider a few little details specific to vinyl playback. The first is that- as has been mentioned on this blog before- the signal that travels from your cartridge to your preamp is tiny. With less than half a volt of signal to handle, cabling doesn't need to be particularly burly but it does benefit from being well shielded and correctly earthed to preserve that minuscule signal and protect it from interference that can result from other signal cables or power leads. Good quality plugs that make a firm connection with the terminals on your electronics will also help.

For your speakers, choosing a cable that doesn't induce too much resistance and capacitance is going to help your amplifier do its job. If you are in the habit of moving equipment regularly, you may find that having the cables terminated saves valuable time when you reassemble it and avoid any stray wires leading to shorts or other unfortunate issues. Having cables that are roughly the same length on both sides is going to make the life of your amplifier a little easier too.

So far, all of these recommendations still don't require to buy cables that cost a great deal of money. All of these criteria can be met for products that cost the same as a round of drinks and can be had from companies like Blue Jeans Cable, Van Damme and Monoprice. Once you have bought them, unless you lose them or go at them with a sharp object, they should last you forever, making them a reasonably solid value choice too.

Leveling Up

Of course we all know that cabling does not end anywhere near the 'round of drinks' level of pricing. Flagship products from some manufacturers can exceed $10,000 per metre of cabling and have the sort of dimensions you might at once assume are more in keeping with a transatlantic telecoms device. Rather than fuel the fire either way as to whether these devices are worth their asking prices, I would first point out that their existence isn't itself an issue- you are no more forced to buy them than you are a watch with a tourbillion movement or coffee that passed through the digestive tract of a random animal first.

It is also worth noting that an argument I've seen made on quite a few occasions that likens these devices to homeopathy or psychic reading or some other process that has grave doubts to its actual effectiveness, is also unfair. An extremely expensive cable will still do the job it is designed to do and be in no way inferior to a 'normal' cable. Whatever decisions you make on the basis of value do not (usually) apply to the functionality of the cable itself.

On the thorny issue of whether it is actually better than the normal cable, I shall sit astride this handy if uncomfortable looking fence and state that by preference, I tend to prefer areas where I can refer to measurements about what is going on (although, please note that from this you should not infer that I'm looking for absolute accuracy in my home listening) and cables are a little tricky in this regard. This being said, there have been occasions where I've done careful tests in the expectation of not hearing a difference and been surprised by what I heard. 

If we leave the high end world to its own devices though, it makes good sense to have some sturdy, fit for purpose cables in your system and doing so should not break the bank. If you want to dabble in the more esoteric levels above this point, rest assured that there are any number of companies to choose from and upgrades can be from a few dollars to several thousand depending on how far you want to go. Make sure that you think that doing so it worth it though and make sure you are happy with the components you are using first before splashing out big in this sort of area. Above all, your decisions are yours alone as are other people's. In the entire time we've been arguing about cables on the internet, very few people have ever changed their minds on the subject. Let's get connected up and then talk about the music instead.

Profile Picture of Ed Selley
Ed Selley

Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.

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