Past columns from The Entry Level are also available.
One of the most visible of high-end products is the premium speaker cable. Even Home Depot stocks quantities of Monster Cable, a very well known brand. I often have people who find out I'm a serious audio enthusiast ask me about Monster Cable in particular, wanting to know if that whole expensive cable thing is a bunch of hooey or something they should be concerned about. The answer, of course, is that it's somewhere in the middle of those extremes. While everyone agrees that keeping speaker cable lengths as short as possible is always a good idea, there's not much else that's universally recognized as true. This month I'll hand over the results of my recent cable testing, something I had intended to complete for a long time now. Why did it drag on for so long? Well, there are a couple of stories there.
When I first started accumulating speaker cable to compare, I was using Klipsch Forte II speakers. These had proven to be very useful at highlighting differences between CD players, amplifiers, and interconnects. Unfortunately, when I started swapping speaker cables I was disappointed. Models that should have sounded different didn't. This is a recurring concept in my Entry Level columns I'll repeat:
Why is this the case for speaker cables? There could be a number of reasons. If your system is fundamentally flawed, and is doing something to mess up vital portions of the music before they get out of the amplifier, you may find that the cues that distinguish good speaker cable from bad are wiped out before they get there. If, for example, you had a CD player or interconnect that doesn't properly present high-frequency detail, you can find that cables that differ only in how they handle those frequencies will sound indistinguishable to you.
Speaker cable is difficult to deal with because it's sitting right in the middle of the precarious amplifier/speaker interface (see my Rotel RB-956AX review for background on speaker impedance issues). If that interface works well, you may find that changing cable there doesn't make a whole lot of difference. Conversely, a good match there can reveal cable problems that would be masked in a setup where the amplifier interaction was degrading the quality significantly. Still, speaker cables are far less likely to be a major problem than interconnects are because there is so much more power flowing through them. A low voltage signal, like the line-level connection between components, is more likely to be degraded by cable problems, induced noise, etc. than the high signal levels flowing to your speakers.
So what I'm telling you is that unless the rest of your system is fairly well constructed, and you've got a somewhat permanent match between amplifier and speaker, spending lots of time with speaker cable substitution is time wasted. This is one of the last things I do with a system I'm constructing. The differences are there, and worth chasing after in many instances, but doing so prematurely is misguided in my eyes. If you're still working on component selection, what I'd suggest is getting "known good" cable that isn't too expensive, dropping it in, and postponing the final selection process until your system is almost finished.
This presumes you know at least one good speaker cable to buy. For budget systems, I have a number of suggestions. My favorite recommendation is to call Audio Advisor and order the TARA Phase II/TFA speaker cable. This comes in lengths from 6ft to 25ft, and a pair will run you from $60 to $160. It's been on "close-out" in their catalog for as long as I've been receiving it, but they keep selling it. It comes terminated in spades, and you can purchase banana adapters that will screw onto the ends. That gives you maximum flexibility for connections, if not maximum fidelity (any adapter is going to degrade the signal a little bit, but it isn't a big issue here). I've never found a system that this cable sounded bad in; maybe not optimal, but never incompatible. Another option is to buy a decent set of Monster cable, which runs around $30 for a 10 foot set. These are the only real choice for systems with speaker connectors that won't take spades or bananas firmly, like many spring-loaded terminals on inexpensive equipment (some of these can take bananas, though, so you should check). Either one of these choices should be suitable for a starter set of speaker cable, and you may find that these are all you'll ever need.
When I had a really inexpensive system and the Klipsch speakers, speaker cable changes were barely audible. While it's possible you could have dramatic improvements in low budget systems you try speaker cable upgrades on, it's not common in my experience. Switching to more upscale equipment and Magnepan MMG speakers left me unable to really test my stable of cables properly, because the binding posts on those speakers are non-standard. My speaker cable showdown didn't happen until I get familiar with the NEAR 50ME.
The impressive NEAR 50ME II speakers feature two sets of five-way binding posts on the rear. This way, you can bi-wire with separate speaker cable for treble/midrange and bass, or even investigate multiple power amplifiers. Shipped from the factory, you find two thin metal bars that jumper between the high and low frequency connections. NEAR dealer Bob Trollinger from Avalon AV mentioned to me one day that many of his 50ME customers reported substantial improvements replacing that jumper with regular speaker cable. I've seen this before; AudioQuest even sells little interconnects that replace the metal bars connecting preamp and power amp sections in integrated amps or receivers. To properly address this issue, I merrily visited a number of dealers and got sample one foot sections of speaker cable at numerous price points. After all, the stuff doesn't seem so expensive when you're only buying a foot.
Most of the cable I tried didn't really seem any different from the stock jumper bar. One did stand out as being a clear step up. Here's what you do. Buy a foot of AudioQuest Type 4. Slit the outside jacket and remove the four solid core conductors inside. Cut pieces a little bit longer than you think you'll need to connect the two binding posts. Strip one end as big as the diameter of the binding posts. Now, feed the individual cable through the holes in the middle of the binding posts; it will just make it through. Tighten down the end you stripped, and cut the excess length off. Remove the cable, strip the other end, and re-thread through, this time tightening the posts over the bare wire at both ends. The connection will be fairly tight, but the circular core of the wire will prevent you from getting as solid of a feel while twisting as you would with a spade connector. Regardless, for about $2.50 a single foot of Type 4 will provide a set of jumpers that far exceed the normal connection between the binding posts. Bass was more solid, detail improved, and the soundstage really opened up. Experimenting with the jumpers on bi-wire capable speakers is inexpensive, fun, and can provides potential for improvement beyond what you'd think substituting an inch or two of wire could make. If it doesn't work out for you, you're only out a few bucks, so don't complain to me. Another thing to try is changing which terminals you plug the regular speaker cables into. I believe I liked the sound slightly better with the high-frequency section getting the amplifier signal, then passing through the jumper to the bass. This was not as obvious of a difference as the other cable substitutions I tried.
Why are these speakers so much easier to pick speaker cable changes out with? Well, first off they're just much better speakers than the ones I'd tried before, just as everything else in my system has improved. Another potential factor is that these are 4 ohm speakers (unlike the Klipsch ones) without a simple impedance structure (unlike the Magnepans). All other things being equal, a slight different in resistance or other electrical characteristics is going to have a proportionately bigger impact when the speaker impedance is lower. If your speaker impedance were totally flat, this wouldn't be an issue, but this is rarely the case. Another thing that can magnify cable issues is if you are using very long lengths of cable. A ten foot run really shouldn't be an issue no matter what you're using. But if you've got a setup with, say, 50 foot cables, you risk serious problems. Every extra foot ads more resistance, capacitance, and inductance. Try and keep cables short for best results.
The five-way binding posts meant I could try every type of cable I'd accumulated over the previous year in 8-10 foot lengths. So I did. Here's the results (pricing here is approximate):
Since we couldn't decide TV channel to watch, I banged my beer can on top and watched both. Or something like that. One of the big advantages to bi-wiring is that you can optimize your system so that the speaker cable that best matches each of the frequency ranges is utilized. Since the obvious winner at the top end was the DH Labs, and the clear best choice for bass was the TARA, I wired the speakers appropriately. The improvement over any of the single cables was phenomenal. Many areas I thought the NEAR speakers needed improvement in were brought to much higher performance. I finally felt as if I was utilizing them to their full potential.
Some suggest that the advantages to bi-wiring go beyond the ability to match cable to the speaker better. When you try to move a speaker driver, the magnetic properties of the cone and voice coil will fight your efforts. This generates what's called back EMF; this is a voltage that is a sort of feedback into the power amplifier. Since it's typically woofers that produce the most back EMF, giving them a separate run of cable could possibly reduce the amount of smearing in treble information from this effect. There's little objective support for this view, but your typical high-end fan will swear by bi-wiring as a panacea even if the same cable is used for both runs. I can't confirm or deny that, but it's worth trying in your system if it's capable of that configuration.
One final warning about bi-wiring. Even though the DH Labs and TARA cables were the clear best choice in one frequency range, that doesn't necessarily mean that the best overall results are using those two. The midrange of the NEAR 50ME is not its strongest virtue, and using cables that reduce the treble and bass could give shift the tonal balance to something some find more balanced. The sum is rarely equal to the parts in this context.
Many people state that network cables like those from MIT are a just plain bad idea. After all, you're adding extra components to the signal path that don't need to be there. In a perfect world, you shouldn't need network cables. Their manufacturers make a variety of claims about why they are audibly better, and I find these of questionable factual basis. Some claims, like improved signal/noise ratio due to reduced out-of-band noise, seem reasonable but are of questionable value. However, one thing network cables certainly do have going for them is that they prevent many really high (above audio) frequency problems. Some amplifiers, whether by design or by poor engineering, have trouble dealing with very high frequency loads. They can oscillate and otherwise distort, causing problems that percolate into the audible region. Network cables can prevent this sort of thing from happening, so their existence could be justified based solely on correcting this sort of behavior. I don't blame the cable manufacturers for introducing a product that addresses a need in certain parts of the market. Whether it would be a better idea to just get an amplifier design that wasn't susceptible to such things is another question beyond the scope of today's discussion.
Depending on who you ask, speaker cables could be described as either an essential component that should be the first thing to upgrade or as a easily optimized item that it is trivially easy to do perfectly. Expensive high-end cables that sound different, some claim, merely distort the signal in some way that's pleasing to certain listeners. I don't buy that, because some of the more pricey stuff I've tried measures better than the less expensive models as well as sounding better.
What type of cable would be right for you? I've given a few pointers to ones I've liked for various things. Unfortunately, it's not likely things will work out exactly the same for you. Recently I've come to notice a pretty strong correlation between different cable construction and their sonic characteristics. Much of this fits with typical audio lore: "silver cables are bright", "solid-core cables have good bass", "stranded cables destroy high frequencies". There seems to be some truth to these observations. What I recommend doing is getting samples of some different types of construction. Don't just look at a couple of models from one manufacturer, get cable from a couple of different places that are made with a variety of techniques. Mix 'em up, and see what works best for your system. Trying one cable from each of the major classes should give you a good handle on whether your system is sensitive to speaker cable at all, and if so what type of construction may work best.
Want more food for thought on this topic? See Greg Weaver's Loudspeaker Cable tutorial, which I found to reach a number of the same conclusions I did independently. When I read someone else's comments on a subject and they match very closely to what I've concluded, it makes a pretty strong case in my mind for the results being real and not some placebo induced fancy on my part. Another chunk of the archives to check out is our fearless leader's early look at the DH Labs cable, which provides another perspective on that cable's performance that casts it in a different light.
This is the 12th in my series of Entry Level columns, and it wraps up my original vision for topics. I've got some different territory I'll be entering in the near future. When I started in July of 1996, the goal was to provide some guidance to the budget equipment buyer who didn't know where to start. While cleverly disguised as traditional reviews, the main thrust has been my own feelings on what's important at this part of the market. Too many of the high-end reviews of affordable equipment come from people unfamiliar with just how much you can get for a small number of dollars, and fall into a "Hey! This cheap stuff is actually good!" mindset. This seems to tick off many people who rightfully think that paying "only" $500 for a piece of equipment is actually real money. I know I'd rather get the opinion of someone who takes inexpensive equipment seriously while still appreciating the capabilities of the more upscale gear. At the same time, I don't necessarily want a review from someone for whom the component is the best they've ever heard simply because they're used to less competent ones.
While I could continue to look at $500 amplifiers or $1000 speakers all day, I don't see how that's really productive. Fact is, audio is too personal to buy your equipment based on regular reviews. You should investigate what it is you value, and see what components fit your needs based on that. Every month I get e-mail from people asking "should I buy the 123 from ABC or the new 789 from XYZ?". I rarely have an answer; often I haven't even heard one or both of the pieces. The better choice is sometimes obvious once that person considers what their own priorities are. After all, when in the real world, I often consider even reliability and service concerns above sonic ones.
One point that I hammered into almost every article in this series is that audio doesn't happen in a vacuum. You can't look at a component and say that it is "good", "bad", or even (uh-oh) "recommended" without knowing in detail what the person who might be buying it values. I don't buy little tube amps, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't as long as you understand what the tradeoffs are with that kind of purchase. I hate expensive mini-monitors, but that may be the perfect thing for what you want. Until you figure out your own priorities, and become educated to the strengths and weaknesses in different types of designs, reading most equipment reviews is only going to confuse instead of enlighten. Packing in that kind of information was the real goal of the Entry Level, and I'm glad to find that I've helped a number of people who weren't finding useful suggestions in the context of a normal audio review. Nobody knows what you want better than you do, and until you ask the right questions you won't get the right answers.