Detecting differences among cables

Obviously, one of the great audio controversies is whether after a very low bar threshold there is really a detectable difference among cables, whether transmitting power or signal.  Skeptics (I'll label them "nay-sayers") generally state that any discernable audible differences whatsoever are wishful thinking; many audiophiles state that most definitely various well-designed cables can cause clearly distinct differences in the resultant sound -- provided the rest of one's system is sufficiently refined to be able to deliver a level of performance otherwise good enough to hear them.

I have belonged to the latter camp for the past 20 years.  At that time, my equipment dealer loaned me four different speaker cables to try.  I had no favorite among them when I began my evaluation one afternoon.  By the end of that day, it was evident to me that the Transparent Audio cable sounded the best -- better than both the speaker cable I had been using and the three others I was trying out.  Over the ensuing years, I generally purchased well-reviewed, but hardly outrageously expensive, interconnect and power cables whenever I bought a new piece of gear.  I was always pleased with how my audio system sounded afterwards; my practice had served me well.

AXPONA 2019 was a real eye-opener for me when I attended a 30-minute demo of competitive high-end power cables sponsored by Audioquest.  Two things became starkly evident: all of them caused the music to sound much better than when an ordinary 12 gauge power cord was used; and there were discernable differences even among those very expensive power cords.  Both to my ears and to those of most of the other members of the audience at that session, the Audioquest and Shunyata cables resulted in a more musical sound -- but not identically; the Nordost and one other cable whose manufacturer I forget were less clear and less musical.  Can I describe how they were less?  Not specifically anymore, but I still remember that they were.  As a consequence of that demo, I decided to upgrade my interconnects between my preamp and my power amps and my speaker cables.

One take-away from that demonstration was that, to hone in on what might be an audible difference between two cables, not only must the rest of one's system be up to the task, but also the music played has to be well performed, well engineered, and well reproduced in the media serving as its source.  What I did was to choose outstanding source material in which I selected certain short and distinct passages that provided me the opportunity to discern various attributes such as inner detail.  An example of this is the brief chorus in Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" -- "this world is only gonna break your heart".  The only part of that sentence I could clearly make out effortlessly before I started my upgrade exercise were the "k" in break and the words "your heart".  Other examples I used ranged from how a small percussion instrument sounded in Ludivico Einaudi's "Life" in his In A Time Lapse album to the overall realism in terms of "being there" and identifiable dimensionality of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson introducing "Ghost Riders in the Sky" in their VH1 Storytellers album.

I spent a lot of time, effort and (unfortunately) dollars in my determination of my new cables.  Ultimately, what I chose were Wireworld's Silver Eclipse speaker cables and Equinox (XLR) interconnect and Shunyata's Delta XC power cable connecting into a Shunyata Denalit 2000/T power distributor (my amplifiers have integrated power cords).

The improvement in the audio quality of my system became very evident.  All the words of the "Wicked Game" chorus, for example, are now clear and easy to understand.  Instruments sound a bit more real, as do voices.  These new cables also have had one more benefit which both my wife and I find astounding.  Heretofore, whenever we watched a movie, we needed to have subtitles displayed in order not to miss hearing/understanding some of the dialogue.  No longer!  The improved clarity of the sound is so profound that in most cases we no longer need those subtitles.

In conclusion, I tend to think that the "nay-sayers" probably fall into two categories.  There are those people who simply don't own systems good enough to enable the differentiation that is there and those who do own excellent equipment but don't expend the effort necessary to design a conclusive trial that would enable them to hear that differentiation.  However, my own experience has provided me with the proof that there really is a difference among cables and that this difference is discernable. 

@turnbowm - I agree with your observations - well designed amps with large power supplies tend to show the least improvement when auditioning power cables on them - for the most part :-)

However, the more budget oriented source components (i.e. < $3000) will show quite a nice level of improvement with the right power cable - provided the IC’s and Speaker cables are also very good..

Once you have cables that perform well on the source components and good speaker cables, your amp will then be able to demonstrate what it is capable of when its power cable is replaced. The improvement tend to be in the area of improved clarity, like the more subtle venue acoustics (i.e. echoes and reverberations) and a larger and more "focused" image

For example - I thought my my Bryston B135 had reached it’s "limits", but once I got great power cables on my Simaudio Moon Phono stage and my Bluesound Node 2i streamer, plus the interconnecting IC’s and speaker cables - upgrading the power cable made it clear that, it too was capable of even better performance by replacing the power cable.

If I’m asked which cables to replace first - I "generally" recommend...
1. Speaker cables
2. Interconnect
3. Power cables

I say "generally" because Cables are perhaps the single most complex area of an audio system and without acquiring considerable knowledge about cable designs, then getting the right cables in a system is a bit if a crapshoot.

You can rely on recommendations - but you really should know everything about the system they are resident in before taking the plunge and laying out hard earned cash on something that might not be a good match in your system

You can opt to buy based on Brand Name

But what brands are well designed?

These are my three favorites...
- InAkustik is one brand that I really like because of their advanced geometry and stellar performance
- Nordost uses some advanced geometries and it’s power cables were the first I auditioned that made a significant improvement. I also like that their cables are one of the few that have low capacitance AND inductance - which is quite an achievement
- Cardas is another brand that uses advanced geometries and they seem to perform exceptionally well on tube gear.

There are other brands, but for me, these companies lay out their geometries and cable spec’s for the world to see
- no "secret stuff" or "weird science" involved
- just very solid designs that make sense and perform really well.

Regards - Steve

Nice discussion,  thanks op , and you other guys for all the good posts . 
Haven't had the opportunity to try all of manufacturers named above but will certainly try to get nordost home for comparison next to my chord , Cardas, Shunyata cables..
And to all ney sayers , i believe there is a forum called "audio science review" some kind of cult where they are dwelling in cable denial , maybe that's the place for you guys ;-)
@joseph796 - Randy - First - my apologies for the "War and Peace" sized posting
- I hope you find this useful :-)

My audition list is ever changing, but I’ll share some of the artists and/or tracks that tend to stay in my list and which "metric" I use them to assess

First, to help understand my listening environment
- my speakers are around 8ft apart
- I sit approximately 9 ft from my speakers
- the speakers are 8ft from the wall behind them
- the ceiling is about 7.5 ft high
- The floor is carpeted
- the area where the system is located is 17ft wide
- the room is around 42 ft long and irregular shaped at the far end
- I am fortunate that this particular room required very little in the way of acoustic treatments.

To assess Dynamic Performance I find many tracks from The Police and Roxette to provide extremely crisp guitar work and very dynamic drums

To assess the size of the image...
- The Best of Supertramp has a very nice depth to the image behind the speakers
- Is this Love - Bob Marley provides an exceptionally wide image with precise placement of artists/instruments that exceed the width of the speakers on left and right sides
- Hide and Seek, by Imogen Heep is one of those tracks with superb engineering that places some of the echoes just behind my head

To assess details and clarity I tend to use tracks of live recordings in larger spaces with great venue acoustics...
- Papas Callentes by La Chimera - superb Venue acoustics and large image
- Undring by Sigmund Groven & Iver Kleive - this is a lone Harmonica with a Pipe Organ inside a church
- Miroslav Tadic - album: Window Mirror - a superbly recorded solo guitar in a venue with superb acoustics
- Marianne Thornsen - Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major - Allegro - the better performing cables provide much smoother violin solo passages and more precise imaging
- Brass Splendor by the Phillip Jones Brass Ensemble - the best track is Fanfare for the Common Man - the opening of this track has a huge gong that provides amazing textures across the frequency range. But there are many tracks on this album that sound superb on a good system.

Also - the transient peeks of Pipe Organ music can put significant demands on an amplifier, so I tend to use this music to assess a power cable’s ability to satisfy amplifier demands for current

As I progressed with my cable development I found that many tracks there seemed to be an awful lot of venue acoustics (echoes/reverb) so to eliminate the prospect that some of this was actually being generated within the room, I went into my library to find tracks with very little to no engineered echoes and reverb. Norah Jones is one artist that had a few tracks with no "engineered effects", so it is as if she in right there in your listening space.

Once I realized that those echoes and reverberations on other tracks were part of the recording, it provided another aspect to the music that I could use to assess details and clarity

Other artists on my playlists include...
- Diana Krall - outstanding piano, acoustic bass and very subtle venue acoustics
- Holly Cole- outstanding acoustic bass
- Joan Armatrading - great acoustics and details
- Dominic Mancuso - amazing acoustic guitar details
- Susannah McCorkle - great image
- P!nk - her acoustic tracks are very good and other tracks very dynamic
- Xiomara - great imaging and details
- Jack Johnson - great details in his guitar work and voice
- Peter Gabiel - the album So
- Dire Straights
- Mark Knopfler

Many of the tracks I have in both Digital and vinyl formats, so I can assess both source types using the same tracks

Unfortunately, most of my "choice" vinyl albums I use for assessing the analogue side of my system are very old and probably no longer available, like Songs from the wood (Jethro Tull) and The Steeleye Span Story. Older Taj Mahal albums I like better than his newer albums.

BUT if you should be in a store that sells previously enjoyed albums and come across an album called Better Days (1973) with Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Baron, Amos Garrett, Geoff Muldaur Christopher Parker and Billy Rich - it is one of the best engineered albums of that time and even with all the pops and crackles - it transports you to what appears to be the hall in which it was recorded, with the guys just sitting around playing. The details and clarity are outstanding and the image and venue acoustics are simply amazing.

Also, to help you understand a little about me...
- I’ve played guitar for over 50 years - bass, acoustic electric slide, lead & rhythm
- I was taught Piano at the age of 8, but gave up at 13 when I got my first guitar
- I’ve played in a band with keyboard, sax and clarinet
- I played drums in a marching band for a couple of years
- I’ve tried mandolin and harmonica
- And my siblings all played various instruments

I mention this is because it gave me a very good "appreciation" for the various nuances associated with real sound of instruments, as opposed to the recorded sound, which sometimes mutes them
- the many harmonics that each instrument produces
- the dynamics associated with each instrument.

My system:
- Custom built turntable with Soundsmith’d Denon DL 103 cartridge (modified mount)
- Simaudio Moon LP 5.3 phono stage
- Bluesound Node 2i - ethernet connected to NAS drive and internet
- Bryston B135 integrated amp
- Gershman Acoustics Sonogram floor standing speakers
- cables: DIY Helix cables (mentioned in other Agon threads)

If anyone has a real favorite album that demonstrate great sound engineering and imaging please share it and why you like it so much.

So many albums- so little time - Regards Steve

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