Submitted by Kuosch on Fri, 2020-05-15 - 15:53

One of my pet peeves is cabling, especially the fancy type. I'm not especially bothered by the overpricing of some items, as it is easy to not buy such ridiculously marked-up products, but what really grinds my gears is marketing with hype and false promises. Unlike sellers might want you to believe, changing a single cable cannot dramatically alter your audio experience, provided none of the cables are broken. Problem is, human brain is fallible and prone to hearing differences where both common sense and laws of physics say there cannot be any differences. Obviously I expect a product I paid 10 times more to be perceivably different. There are tons of different factors such as expectation bias, mood, and even aesthetic preferences (compare to why red cars are perceived to be faster). This makes verbal reviews extremely subjective and of little worth to anyone but the reviewer. Thus the only way to reliably compare these products is a blind listening test. Here are a few of the most ridiculous buzzwords I've seen used to market cables for audio.

directionality

Cables carry signals, and the cable itself doesn't know which way the electrons are travelling (actually due to impedance differences at connectors, there are waves travelling both directions at once). In case of digital cables, this _might_ be true, but only because lines are crossed over at some point, and in such cases the ends of the cable will have different connectors.

digital signal fidelity

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the whole purpose of digital connections is to decouple the signal and the message, rendering the digital audio impervious to outside noise, as long as the interconnect is not broken.

break-in

it's a cable, not an engine. Motors require careful break-in periods because their manufacturing tolerances aren't perfect and metal surfaces slide against each other until they've had a chance to polish with use. Cables and semiconductors have no movable parts or friction surfaces, they carry electrons and there is absolutely zero need for any sort of break-in periods.

skin effect

This is a real phenomenon, but it largely matters only in radio frequency range, and here are no radio frequencies in audio. It is not generally worth it to go for skin effect mitigation in audio cables. There might be a benefit in very thick speaker cables, but in vast majority of cases there won't be a noticeable difference.

cryogenic treatment

If it has effects, they are usually undone when cable is brought back to room temperature. I cannot suggest anyone to run cryogenic cooling system to keep their cables frozen... also such a system would be too loud for comfortable listening.

power cables

Seriously. The electricity travels a long way in the city grid, then dozens or even hundreds of meters in house wiring (usually obtained from lowest bidder). What difference would one or two meters of top quality cable make after all that? Extremely little. I would pay more attention to equipment power supply than the cable supplying the electricity to said PSU.

silver

Yes, silver is a better conductor than copper (by about 7 percent). But does it matter? Not really. Since silver is also substantially more expensive than copper, you can get a thicker copper cable and still save. And as resistance is linked to cable cross-section area, you'll get a lower resistance cable cheaper. Also your purpose matters. The longer a cable, the thicker you want it to be. And speaker cables (for passive speakers) have to carry all the current from amplifier to speakers, so they should be of lower resistance to minimise transfer losses. But for signals thick cables are generally not necessary.

helium filling

Palm, meet face. Seriously, I just saw an ad claiming this. Problem is, helium is a very tiny molecule, so small that it readily diffuses itself through any container wall. It just slips between the atoms that make up a steel sheet, for example. So putting money towards helium filling is like buying air in a bag. You're not going to get much out of it.

Bonus: Power conditioners. This one is nasty, because there are real, functional, and in certain cases necessary products available. But the real deal will be somewhat big, with multiple outputs and plenty of circuitry to clean up the electricity. The problem is the little plug-in devices that fit in your palm and have one input and one output only. From an electrical standpoint, most of these devices are a scam. Any claims of magnetic alignment you might hear are straight up lies (I know enough electromagnetic field theory to tell you that's not how magnets and electrons work). Typically these devices are nothing but a couple of capacitors and with good luck an inductor, but if placing a ridiculously overpriced high-pass filter in your wall socket does anything your equipment power supply doesn't, you should consider switching gear to something with a proper PSU first. And in case you think your house has issues with electricity, go get an electrician to see about it before wasting time and money on these sorts of products.

So what are good reasons to get fancy cables? Well, if you enjoy them, of course. If a product pleases you and fits your budget, go for it. Just don't rationalise your purchase with some mystical superiority of your choice. Aesthetic preference is a good reason, pseudoscientific gibberish isn't.