Some Thought on Cables and Tweaks


What is the mechanism by which a cable or tweak produces an audible difference in a system? It seems clear that the flow of electrons is being altered or colored in some way. We sometimes hear talk about the best cables doing nothing and we sometimes hear the word "neutral" when referring to cables but I personally feel these are both inaccurate descriptions. A cable cannot be doing nothing. The physics militates against this claim. And, frankly, I don't know what the word "neutral" means when referring to cables.

I don't think any tweak maker would claim their tweak was doing nothing or is “neutral”. I don't think that customers would line up for their products under those conditions. But I find it interesting that cable customers line up under those very same conditions. My question is this: what is the difference between a cable and a line tweak in this respect? After all, some tweaks are even incorporated into cables.

Has any cable maker or any audiophile or any physicist -- actually seen electrons during the process of being altered or colored? I doubt that anyone has. Can anyone say with complete accuracy what is actually going on in cables or tweaks to produce the results they produce? I doubt that anyone can. There are few cable or tweak makers who will admit to this.

It seems as though the proof for what goes on with cables and tweaks is mostly empirical. The physics may be understood by some -- to one degree or another -- but the proof is in the pie. To tell you the truth, that's good enough for me as long as the resulting sound is good. I am not very intellectual when it comes to the sound of my system. But I am curious as to how much cable makers really know about what their cables are doing because most of the cables I have had in my system have been nothing to write home to Mama about.

Some cable makers and tweak makers produce more verbiage than you can shake a stick at to describe what their products do. How many cable makers or tweak makers really understand the physics of their products well enough to describe accurately what is going on with their products? I believe they have mostly arrived where they are at not through understanding the physics of cables and tweaks but by experimenting -- with metals -- with "geometries" (whatever that word means)-- with dialectrics -- with shielding. I believe most of the theories being promulgated for most of the cables and tweaks are an afterthought. The best makers come up with products that create great sound. The rest -- well, let's be kind and say run-of-the-mill.

There are a whole lot of audiophiles chasing a whole lot of cables and tweaks based on manufacturers’ claims. But how reliable are those claims that have high end audiophiles chasing one product after another? If even a fraction of those claims were true then there would be a lot less chasing going on. I mean, how many truly great cables and tweaks are there out there? A lot less than are advertised as being great. IMO.
sabai
I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. Marketing goes a long way to influence purchasing. Purchasing can be triggered by a host of reasons, some of them obsessive on the part of the buyer. People in marketing know this and prey on it.

Your description of the various types of dielectrics pretty much sums it up, for me. The less, the better. Purity of metal as conduit goes a long way as well. Beyond that, who really knows? System synergy then comes into play and all bets are off.

As for the 'neutral' nature of a cable goes, I find it funny how review after review touts the neutrality of a cable in one area only to go on about what it does to the extremes as an afterthought, rendering the cable only neutral in the one area mentioned. And just when it was declared neutral, the soundstage is not as wide, or deep, and the performers recede or come forward, or something else is heard in a more convincing manner at the expense of another aspect.

Neutral? Hardly that. They just negated the claim.

I think if reviewers were to claim something sounds more authentic, in one way or another, and leave it at that, it would be more believable. But to claim, across the board, better neutrality and then go one to relate the drawbacks of other areas of performance kind of diminishes the veracity of the reviewer unless he/she goes to lengths to explain just how and where this neutrality lies within reproduction and leave it at that. Anything more makes it an over the top selling point.

All the best,
Nonoise
Sabai, maybe you are looking for something more mysterious, but here are some reasons why some cables sound better than others, or more neutral.

1. Higher purity metals - less impurities; e.g., 0.99999 % copper vs 0.999 copper.  Oxygen free, single crystal, etc.

2. Silver vs copper; silver with gold content, etc.

3. Solid core vs stranded conductor

4. Twisted pair vs parallel wires

5. Flat vs round vs oval conductor

6. Use of multiple conductors of varying gauge

7. Very thin versus medium or heavy gauge conductor

8. Shielded vs unshielded 

9. Better, higher purity materials for connectors

10. Better solder/welding technique for connectors

11. Better dielectric material, e.g. Teflon or air

12. Sufficiently long break in period using break in device

13. cryo'd vs uncryo'd - more homogeneous atomic structure of crystal conductor

14. Balanced vs unbalanced

Cheers, gk
Nonoise,
Your comments ring very true. If we look critically at reviews instead of accepting what is said at face value we can find all sorts of contradictions -- and ample evidence of outright manipulation. It has been mentioned many times that it is rare to find a negative review of any audio product. I believe this is a true statement. This begs many questions. It calls into question, ipso facto, the veracity of many comments in audio reviews.

Geoffkait,
Better does not mean neutral to me because I have no idea what neutral means when referring to audio cables. I don't think anyone has ever elucidated this term in such as way as to elicit agreement on its meaning -- and agreement on what cables reach this standard. Since all cables are altered or colored by their make-up I think it is obvious that no cable can call itself neutral.

Your list is a very comprehensive compendium of the various factors that affect the quality of cables. But I don't believe all of these factors will always make for better cables. For instance. I have an active cable that sounds awful in my system when the MPC is connected. The MPC must be disconnected for the best sound to emerge. I think a number of your other points could be the subject of lively debate, as well. Nonetheless I do agree that the total absence of any of these factors will make for a poor sounding cable.
Sabai, you’re definitely on the right track. A couple decades ago, when I was first beginning to investigate what it was that made one speaker wire or IC better than another (at around $600 a pair or less), I wondered, when it came to geometries for example, why every maker seemed to choose a different one and yet they each invariably claimed that theirs alone was THE best one for the application. I didn’t know much, but knew they couldn’t all be right. Overall, I think trying to evaluate wiring simply by relying primarily on reviews is pretty dicey. At some point you just have to break down and consider as much of the underlying physics you can unearth to get at what makers are clearly not telling us.

As far as the physics go, cables can indeed be said to be doing something and by definition that something is necessarily bad. I first learned about this when looking into the ‘system-wiring-all-by-the-same-maker-vs-the-mix-n-match-approach’ debate. The argument for using wiring all from the same manufacturer (or from the same series) goes something like this:

Every wire injects its own unique set of timing errors (electron group delay pattern signature) that can be seen in an oscilloscope with respect to the original test signal, so no wire is perfect in that regard. These errors are the sum total of the wire’s physical elements: metallurgy and gauge, geometry, insulation and connectors. If, for example, each pair of multiple IC's in a system is electrically different (different brands) from the others, then all their individual group delay patterns will be different. That means that their total impact on timing within the system will simply be the sum of the delay patterns of all the pairs. And, if all the pairs were identical, they would simply all have the same pattern and they would all effectively 'overlap' in their timing signatures (while not increasing in amplitude) as seen in a 'scope and, in that sense, therefore act more like a single pair of the IC's in question. Multiple differing timing delay patterns are understood to combine to cause an increase a system's tendency to make the music sound a bit more like it's being electronically reproduced, or more “canned”. The longer the delay and the larger the amount of it there is, the worse the sound.

It may not be quite possible for a maker to get their accompanying speaker wires to have precisely the same pattern as the analog IC's, but any of them worth their salt can get reasonably close and this is what they traditionally try to do.

But, what is all this going to matter if all the IC's in a system are built identically if they are of crap quality to begin with? Yes, all their timing delay patterns are marvelously indistinguishable from each other...they just happen to sound like $hit (the combined scope pattern is severe). As you go down the scale in QUALITY, Not necessarily price, this is what you begin to run into, so everyone has to be realistic about it. OTOH, as you go UP in quality, there begins to be at least a reasonable expectation that the vast majority of the wiring you're going to run across all tends to have rather benign delay patterns anyway, so very small, and therefore so innocuous, that individual contributions won't likely be adding up to something too objectionable sounding at the speakers. And at that point the consideration is on other characteristics of the wire being considered: their tone, speed, dynamics, etc, etc.

But, in regards to your op, Sabai, maybe my main point here is simply the model that wiring, when using an oscilloscope anyway, is not so much ‘doing something magical’ as all the makers would plainly have us all believe, but rather that the best wires can, and should, be thought of as simply satisfying Ohm’s Law the best and otherwise simply managing to do the least harm in the system. The rest may amount to little more than descriptive language…not that that’s all useless – I’m no objectivist. It’s just that I think that descriptive language should never be substituted for a more proper understanding that can be had through the basic physics involved – even if the reality is that we’re left by the makers to try to uncover all that for ourselves. Cheers.
Ivan wrote,

"But, in regards to your op, Sabai, maybe my main point here is simply the model that wiring, when using an oscilloscope anyway, is not so much ‘doing something magical’ as all the makers would plainly have us all believe, but rather that the best wires can, and should, be thought of as simply satisfying Ohm’s Law the best and otherwise simply managing to do the least harm in the system. The rest may amount to little more than descriptive language…not that that’s all useless – I’m no objectivist. It’s just that I think that descriptive language should never be substituted for a more proper understanding that can be had through the basic physics involved – even if the reality is that we’re left by the makers to try to uncover all that for ourselves. Cheers."

Not sure I go along with your generalization that cable makers use language that suggests they believe, or wish us to believe, cables are "doing something magical." On the contrary, reading what most of the major cable makers, including high end cable makers, say on their web sites, it's clear they wish to present their products in the best possible scientific light, including research, theory, and manufacturing techniques. Most cable makers also take pains to characterize their products in terms of purity of metals, special geometries, special dielectric materials, special connectors, special treatments they might employ such as cryogenics, etc. The cable makers I am referring to include Kimber, Cardas, Shunyata, Nordost, Audioquest, Purist Audio, and many others.
Ivan_nosnibor and Geoffkait,
Your points are well taken. Using a so-called "loom" from one well-known cable maker turned into what I will politely call the wrong decision for my system. The claimed synergy was pale in comparison to what it was when I mixed and matched.

Selling the concept of a "loom" is a very profitable thing. It is an easy concept for a maker to sell based on convenience and superior results. Unfortunately those hoped-for results may not be there and all youo are left with is the convenience that works mostly in favor of the maker. I have read "looms" work well for some audiophiles. They have not worked well in system.

Manufacturers can claim anything they wish based on whatever they wish. But you will never know the truth until you get their products into your system. I have had "looms" from two well-known cable makers. In one case, their highly heralded cables seriously constricted the sound stage and reduced most other parameters, as well, including low level detail and transparency. Their marketing is largely based on the charm of the owner and designer -- and all the hype they can muster with the active support of various audio reviewers. I learned a lot from this experience -- caveat emptor and don't believe everything you read in the reviews of prestigious audio reviewers.
Geoffkait, didn't mean to imply that makers were totally untrustworthy, but was responding in part to Sabai's comments:

"Some cable makers and tweak makers produce more verbiage than you can shake a stick at to describe what their products do. How many cable makers or tweak makers really understand the physics of their products well enough to describe accurately what is going on with their products? I believe they have mostly arrived where they are at not through understanding the physics of cables and tweaks but by experimenting -- with metals -- with "geometries" (whatever that word means)-- with dialectrics -- with shielding. I believe most of the theories being promulgated for most of the cables and tweaks are an afterthought. The best makers come up with products that create great sound. The rest -- well, let's be kind and say run-of-the-mill.

There are a whole lot of audiophiles chasing a whole lot of cables and tweaks based on manufacturers’ claims. But how reliable are those claims that have high end audiophiles chasing one product after another? If even a fraction of those claims were true then there would be a lot less chasing going on. I mean, how many truly great cables and tweaks are there out there? A lot less than are advertised as being great. IMO."

But, reading my post cold, Geoffkait, I think I understand how you could reach that conclusion. I didn't really make myself all that clear on it. BTW, I pretty much agree with what Sabai is saying, there is a lot of hype, although I do think that nobody understands everything there is to possibly know about wire design and that arriving at a given design through experimenting rather than simply by (esoteric) physics can end up being a good thing, if they are thorough enough. Then again, one of my sources for background on this kind of topic, Alan Maher (of Alan Maher designs) has put forward a theory that, while I'm unable to prove, seems pretty intriguing. According to him, the best way to lower resistance in a system is to manipulate things by raising inductance, which he has been able to do very effectively using his crystal-based technology, which certainly extends the audio bandwidth and hugely lowers noise (I say this I've seen it work extremely well in my own system as I'm a satisfied customer). But, the theory of his is this: that once you've done this to your system to a sufficient degree, this in effect levels the playing field for all the wiring in the system and that ultra esoteric cables, which are manipulating ohm's law in their own right, are in effect masking a problem, but that, once your whole system is taken care of with Alan's approach, then the expensive wires are simply still masking the sound in an attempt to mask the original problem, even though that problem has been fixed. That means that, if you go his route, then more coneventional (much less expensive) wiring is all that is needed to get top flight sound, according to Alan, anyway. Someone's snakeoil alarm may be going off right now, but I've heard enough in my own system to suspect he is on to something. The implications for the audiophile community are huge (no more dependence on $$$$ cables), but this is a new idea that may take a while to catch on. I DON'T want to hijack the thread here, but what would it be like if no one truly had to bother with expensive wiring? Just possible food for thought is all. Regards to all.
Ivan_nosnibor,
This is an intriguing thought. All I can do is speculate.
Ivan wrote,

"Alan Maher (of Alan Maher designs) has put forward a theory that, while I'm unable to prove, seems pretty intriguing. According to him, the best way to lower resistance in a system is to manipulate things by raising inductance, which he has been able to do very effectively using his crystal-based technology, which certainly extends the audio bandwidth and hugely lowers noise (I say this I've seen it work extremely well in my own system as I'm a satisfied customer)."

It's much more likely, rather than lowering resistance, crystals simply reduce vibration and/or reduce RFI in the system. I.e., wider audio bandwidth and lower noise result from better signal to noise ratio.

Nice to see crystals are going mainstream. :-)

Geoff Kait
Machina Dynamica
One might think, by reading some posts here, that there were bus loads f cable "manufacturers". The reality is there are few "manufacturers" of cable, but bus loads of "assemblers". It would surprise many how often a new "special" cable is identical to dozens of others. It's called bulk cable. Oh yeah, there's that "made to our specifications" disclaimer. Few cast and draw their own wire. I've already posted a few times my thoughts about using "neutral" more/less as a descriptive term. I don't expect Some here to be objective about "magic beans".
Mt10425,
With all due respect, there must be at least 100 high end cable makers -- enough to fill more than 2 buses.
It would not be terribly surprising if many cable makers did not actually
manufacture their own wire any more than it's no big surprise high end
amplifier manufacturers don't fabricate their own capacitors, resistors,
Tubes, transistors or wire, or that many high end speaker manufacturers
don't fabricate their own drivers. Nevertheless, there remain a great many
options for those cable companies that order wire, including type of metal,
purity of metal, gauge of wire, flat wire, round wire, oval wire, solid wire,
stranded wire, cryogenically treated wire, whether the wire must be labeled
for directionality, etc. Of course, the wire is not the only factor involved in
how the final product will sound. Ya got yer jacket, yer dielectric material,
yer connectors, welding or soldering method/technique, etc. Geez, it
almost seems like making cables is an art.
Hi Geoff. I expected you to side with the "art and a leap of faith" group. And you did. What you also did was express the thinking that many components, speakers and cables are just re-branding of OEM items. Obviously, there aren't as many "new" ideas and products as promoted.
Geoffkait wrote:

"It's much more likely, rather than lowering resistance, crystals simply reduce vibration and/or reduce RFI in the system. I.e., wider audio bandwidth and lower noise result from better signal to noise ratio."

That is indeed how his products first started out (back in the '90's) and I used some of those too, but according to Alan he has actually since taken things to a whole 'nother level (his 2012 "Quantum" line) in order to maximize inductance (don't ask me how, he's not entirely letting the cat out of the bag) and thereby drop resistance throughout the system.

Cheers.
Ah, Quantum. Sure, why not?

:-)
I know, I know, everybody has that reaction these days (including me!) :P
Ivan wrote,

"I know, I know, everybody has that reaction these days (including me!) :P"

We should implement a don't ask don't tell policy. ;-)

Geoff Kait
Machina Dynamica
We Do Artifical Atoms Right
Mt10425 wrote,

"Hi Geoff. I expected you to side with the "art and a leap of faith" group. And you did."

As opposed to what, the "see a hoax behind every rock" group?

"What you also did was express the thinking that many components, speakers and cables are just re-branding of OEM items."

By that logic, NASA and Ferrari are re-branders.

Obviously, there aren't as many "new" ideas and products as promoted."

Well, not that you're aware of anyway.
NASA and Ferrari. That's funny Geoff. But so are ...oh never mind.

Sabai - wire manufacturers ( a couple of bus loads) vs assemblers (population of a small Asian country). With all due respect of course.
Mt10425,
Are you referring to wire assemblers?
Goeffkait wrote:

"We should implement a don't ask don't tell policy. ;-)"

OK, then I won't ask you. ;-)
No, cable assemblers. The ones who claim some kind "Special" cable discovery and market like they invented the wheel.
09-01-12: Sabai
Better does not mean neutral to me because I have no idea what neutral means when referring to audio cables. I don't think anyone has ever elucidated this term in such as way as to elicit agreement on its meaning -- and agreement on what cables reach this standard. Since all cables are altered or colored by their make-up I think it is obvious that no cable can call itself neutral.
Hello Sabai - I agree with you that the meaning of the term 'neutral' is controversial. Personally, I understand 'neutral' to mean 'degree of absence of coloration.' And I understand 'coloration' to mean 'audible inaccuracy.' If neutrality is thought of as a matter of degree, then the fact that all components (including cables) are colored doesn't invalidate 'neutrality' as a concept. Even though all components are colored, some are less colored (i.e. more neutral) than others. IMO, of course.

In a long and contentious thread, I proposed that the neutrality of a component, including cables, can be judged with the following method...
If, after changing a system element, (1) individual pieces of music sound more unique, and (2) your music collection sounds more diverse, then your system is contributing less of its own signature to the music. And less signature means more neutral.
That method implies that judgments about neutrality are always relative, never absolute. But a relative judgment can still be valuable, IMO.

As to the question of why there is so much disagreement about cables, I believe the answer is that the audible characteristics of cables are largely extrinsic, and therefore system-dependent. This is of course a common observation about cables, and to a lesser extent about other components.

IME, what is true for cables is true for tweaks. Their audible characteristics are largely extrinsic, and therefore largely system-dependent. Perhaps even more so than cables. That may partly explain why there is so much disagreement about tweaks.

Bryon
you can measure some parameters associated with cables. but there are probably some which cannot be measured, which is why objective measurement does not fully correlate with listening.

as for tweaks, who knows what to measure.

i think one has to be an empiricist and use tweaks and listen.

remember the placebo effect and also the ear's ability to detect differences.
Bryoncunningham,
Your points are very well taken. You stated, "And I understand 'coloration' to mean 'audible inaccuracy.'" This is interesting. You seem to mean "the more color, the less accurate". If I understand you correctly, I would agree with your statement. Now we have to look at describing what we mean by "color". That's a tough one.

Mrtennis, you stated, "you can measure some parameters associated with cables. but there are probably some which cannot be measured, which is why objective measurement does not fully correlate with listening." I agree completely. The human ear and human brain are infinitely more subtle than any measurements. That's one reason I take John Atkinson's measurements with a grain of salt. Unless you listen to what he is describing there is little meaning in the numbers, per se.

You also stated, "as for tweaks, who knows what to measure. i think one has to be an empiricist and use tweaks and listen." Once again, I agree completely. Only experimenting and listening can tell the tale.
Mrtennis wrote,

"you can measure some parameters associated with cables. but there are probably some which cannot be measured, which is why objective measurement does not fully correlate with listening."

Just curious, has any audio reviewer ever measured any cable for distortion and noise? Has any cable company published distortion and noise data? Have any independent individuals measured cables for distortion and noise? Finally, has any audio organization such as AES ever published data for cables, I mean other than R, C and L? Has anyone anywhere ever correlated measured data to the subjective sound of any cable or group of cables?

Cheers
Mr G: Here's one company that has/does ( http://www.analysisplusinc.com/ )( http://www.analysis-plus.com/design_whitepaper.html ) ( http://www.analysis-plus.com/design_main.html )
Geoff, my bad, didn't dawn on me you had included your introduction until I was away from my computer.

John Robinson
(no credentials worth mentioning ;-)

Thanks, looking forward to more.
Rodman99999, thanks for the link. Their cables are actually quite interesting.

GK