Speaker wire construction and sound quality

I'm not new to mid to high end stereo listening but have concentrated, over the years, mostly on the obvious equipment choices such as amplifiers, CD players, loudspeakers, etc. Most recent decisions regarding these have been based on information and advice found through forums such as this and, for the most part, have worked out well.

In the old days (50+ years ago) when monaural was king and high volume strong bass reproduction was the goal of most young pursuers of high fidelity, speaker wire construction and quality were not common subjects of conversation. Everyday electrical extension cord in those days was the cable of choice. In the past twenty or thirty years my approach has not been that much different in that I have simply chosen specialized and relatively expensive heavy gauge wire and left it at that.

Things have changed. The choice of speaker conductor has become a big deal and I simply don't understand the technical arguments supporting one type or another of the available choices. For the most part I'm pretty happy with my system but am always looking for ways to reduce brilliance/shrillness which I am very sensitive to because of a hearing condition called hyperacusis.

I've tried some of the more obvious fixes such as tube based DAC's and they definitely have helped. FYI, my basic system consists of the following: Rogue Audio Sphinx integrated hybrid amp, Shanling solid state CD player, California Audio tube DAC and Martin Logan Odyssey speakers. This was not a ground up designed system, just what it has ended up being as a process of piecemeal evolution.

Getting back to speaker wire, is there really that much difference in sonic quality related to a choice of the many that are available? I've read many articles on the subject and the opinions vary greatly to the extent of being totally contradictory to one another. I don't have a super audiophile system, I know, but are there some basic considerations that one should take into account in making a choice, and is there any advantage to bi-wiring?

I'm not that good at describing sound character because I don't have a good handle on the terminology but I do know brilliance when I hear it. It was suggested by someone whose knowledge I respect, that speaker wire could have a positive effect in resolving the brilliance issue while maintaining detail. As an experiment, he loaned me a pair of cables that are highly reviewed and cost over $5000. I can't afford something like this but was curious to see if I could tell the difference; I couldn't. I even tried the same experiment with my pair of Jamo Concert 8 bookshelf speakers using the same music ( Jazz at the Pawnshop) thinking they might be more sensitive to subtle changes, and still could not discern a difference. I realize that this could be as a result of my own observation deficiencies but would very much like to hear what you all have to say about this issue.
Very nicely written post, if I may say so.

While speaker cables can make a difference in the direction you are seeking, to a greater or lesser degree depending not only on their own characteristics but on various technical characteristics of the speakers and amplifier they are connecting (more on that below), IMO the change you are seeking involves a much greater magnitude than cables are likely to provide.

My suggestion, assuming that you want to continue to use the Odyssey speakers, would be that you consider changing to an amplifier having a tube-based output stage. For two reasons:

1)As with most electrostatics, the impedance of your speakers descends as frequency increases, being spec'd at 4 ohms nominally but only 1 ohm at 20 kHz. As a consequence of the negligibly small output impedance that amplifiers having solid state output stages almost always have, the amount of power they deliver will increase approximately in proportion to a decrease in load impedance (until the amount of power that is called for exceeds their capability). That effect will occur to a significantly smaller degree in the case of amplifiers having tube-based output stages, because their output impedance will not be negligibly small in relation to speaker impedance.

Therefore an amplifier having a tube-based output stage will tend to deliver less high frequency energy to your speakers, relative to the amount of energy delivered at low frequencies, than will an amplifier having a solid state output stage.

2)Solid state amplifiers tend, more often than not, to use greater amounts of feedback than tube-based amplifiers, which in turn can enhance certain distortion components that are subjectively perceived as added brightness, even if the magnitude of those distortion components is very small.

Getting back to speaker cables, keep in mind that the sonic effects they may have can be expected to be proportional to length. The shorter the cable, the less difference it is likely to make. Their sonic effects can also be expected to be dependent on the impedance of the speakers (the lower the impedance, the greater the degree of difference cables can be expected to make); on how that impedance varies as a function of frequency; as well on various characteristics of the amplifier that is being used (including the amount of feedback, output impedance, bandwidth, RFI susceptibility, and other parameters).

Most of those factors have little correlation with the musical resolution and sonic quality of the system. My perception has been that audiophiles who strongly espouse the differences cables can make often tend to make the (IMO) mistaken assumption that the ability of a system to resolve musical detail and its ability to resolve differences between cables and other hardware go hand in hand, when in fact the opposite could just as easily be true in a given case, as could any partial degree of correlation in between.

-- Al
All wire sounds different in different systems. The only way to determine if the cable works to your satisfaction is hearing what it does in your system. Sure, you can take suggestions, but there is no right answer but yours. The maker of my electronics told me they recommend Cardas - they even label their own Cardas cables....and to ME almost any other cable sounds better in MY system than does Cardas. I have heard Cardas sound great in other system, but not in mine. If the manufacturer of your speakers has provided 2 speaker connections for biwire.....it was designed with that in mind, and my experience proved that bewire does sound better. The most dramatic improvement using wire is from power cords, than interconnects, than speaker wire...in that order.
I'd agree with Stringreen. Also, try isolating specific details like a cymbal strike or a repeated piano note. Sometimes the difference between cables is as subtle as a little smearing of the image instead of a really sharp well-defined one. Also, certainly not intending any disrespect, not everyone's ears can hear the small, often subtle details between cables - or for that matter, different people might hear different things from the same cable change. Changing cables can make a big difference, or none at all if the person listening can't hear them. I have friends who can't hear any difference between lamp cord and expensive cables. They still love their music though.
FWIW, my former system with stats and SS amp was also shrill. After some investigative work, the primary culprit turned out to inexpensive power cords with silver plated wiring. They were on both the speakers and amp. Huge improvement when I swapped them out for HQ copper.
If I smoke a bowl or a bong and play same track before and after, I can assure you that it's a great tweak and it works:-)
Remember the good old days lots of audiophiles did that simply because there was not as many choices as it is now.
Actually, Audiophiles had a third choice back then, called reefers. They were a main contributer for causing Audiophile Madness.
Almarg, your explanation of impedance related high frequency reproduction of electrostats is an eye opener for me. I had been aware that there is a corresponding impedance reduction as frequencies increase. The fact, then, that some relative exaggeration of higher frequencies would result makes logical sense but I had never put two and two together until your post.

I've assumed for some time that addition of tube based components could improve my situation but, primarily for reasons related to cost, decided to incorporate DAC's behind the CD player, DVD player and Sony multiple CD jukebox instead of biting the bullet and investing in an amp with a tube based output section. A tube DAC, BTW, significantly improved the jukebox to the extent that I can now actually use it without lowering the volume to near inaudible levels.

I also thought that my latest addition of the Rogue hybrid amp would solve my problem but, although it may be one of the best amplifiers that I've ever owned, it doesn't altogether resolve the issues that I have which are caused, at least partly, by my hearing problems. It looks like I'm adding tubes to the wrong end of the sound stream. I'm very glad to learn, though, that I don't have to sacrifice detail to deal with brilliance.

Grimace, I'm not offended in the least by your comments regarding one's ability to discern subtle differences such as those related to speaker wire characteristics; I think I am one of those who has real difficulty in that area. As you also stated, though, and even with my age related hearing deficiencies, I do enjoy my music as much as the next guy. Maybe this is even an advantage because it reduces the number of decisions that I'm faced with.

Thank you for the important input you all have shared with us. Although I thought i would never consider letting this Rogue Audio amplifier go, I'll be looking into the possibility of acquiring an amplifier with a tube output stage as my next quest. Perhaps I'll be able to borrow one to test from one of my friends before I make what would be a significant sized investment for me.
Basically what I'm reading is that folks are suggesting various ways of inserting tone controls into a system. Why not simply do it right and find a high-quality parametric EQ that will allow you to precisely tailor the sound for your hearing anomalies?

Messing around with amps, preamps, cables and such is, IMHO, a very hit or miss way of doing it. I would tackle the problem using a piece of gear expressly designed for the job at hand.

Barring that, finding speakers that attenuate the troublesome frequencies would seem to be your next best choice...

Thanks, RW, that thought of an equalizer crossed my mind, especially in view of the fact that my amp has no tone control, but I was afraid that the reduction of those perceived offending frequencies might adversely affect overall sound quality....and maybe that's a good thing.

On the other hand, though, it makes a great deal of sense if, for no other reason than reasonable cost to, at least, determine where the offending frequencies occur. I have used a sound generator in an attempt to pinpoint those areas of discomfort but the problem seems to be more complicated than that related to single frequencies. I believe that the range I'm most sensitive to is closely on either side of 5000 Hz and any frequency above 8000Hz is inaudible to me.....I'm getting old.

I am generally very happy with my system which I believe compares favorably with systems having much higher price tags and I agree with and appreciate your other comments re equipment. However, there is a limit to how much more I can justify spending on this. I WILL purchase an equalizer based on your suggestion, something that I probably should have tried ages ago.
Regarding equalizers, the DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core includes among many other functions a sophisticated parametric equalizer implemented in the digital domain. It has been receiving a lot of favorable commentary in the high end audio press, as well as from some users here at A'gon.

It sells for $1099 in the USA. I've heard that they are back-ordered at this point, btw, to the extent of several weeks.

My guess is that this implementation would allow you to accomplish the equalization you are looking for with lesser side-effects than any analog equalizer selling at a comparable or lower price point.

If your CD player includes a Toslink digital output you would be able to connect that to the DSPeaker. If it does not provide a Toslink output, you would have to connect the analog output of either the CDP or your DAC to the DSPeaker, which would introduce an additional A/D conversion (within the DSPeaker) into the signal path. In either case, you may ultimately find that the DSPeaker's equalization function in combination with its internal DAC would enable you to eliminate your present DAC from the system.

Also, at a lower price point (about $350), a number of Audiogoners seem pleased with the digital equalization function provided by the Behringer DEQ2496. It provides Toslink, balanced (XLR) AES/EBU digital, and balanced (XLR) analog inputs and outputs.

Good luck! Regards,
-- Al
If you have great front end components and great amps, you need great speaker cables to hear them properly. By great, I mean that they should reproduce the entire frequency spectrum with the least amount of distortion. The more expensive cable designs take pains to reduce distortion.

One other thing to remember is that it may be difficult appreciate the differences between good and great speaker cables if the upstream components are in some way lacking.
I'll attempt to address those pieces of info that I left out of the discussion. I don't know how my equipment measures up to audiophile standards but they are as follows: CD through speakers are as described in my original post. My interconnects are Straight Wire Encore and I can't remember (or maybe never knew) the manufacturer of my speaker wire. It is about 15 years old and came from a roll at a high end audio equipment provider. I have locking banana plugs at the amp which are biwired with spades at the Odysseys. They are slightly over 3 meters long each and the individual biwire conductors appear to be 12 gauge.

I feel like my Rogue Audio Sphinx hybrid is a superior performer especially in its price range. The only two components, then, that I question, partly because of their age, are the solid state Shanling CD player and the California Audio Labs DAC.

Most of my problem probably stems from my own compromised hearing issues and several relatively experienced listeners have commented that the system provides very good and accurate sound. What I'm working on, then, is finding a fix that addresses my hearing problem, not necessarily a serious deficiency in my system.

I will probably try an equalizer next but am concerned that I won't be able to afford a unit that doesn't add any other problem.

Broadstone, what are you using for the digital interconnect between the CD player and DAC, and how long is it?
TIs49, that interconnect pair is Straight Wire Encore and is one meter long. I got it before I recognized my hearing problem and during a period when I didnt think think interconnect quality had any real impact on sound quality so don't remember why I chose it.

Broadstone, I'm assuming the Straight Wire Encore pair is between the California Audio Labs DAC and the Rogue Audio Sphinx amp. My question is, what is the cable between the Shanling CD player and the California Audio Labs DAC? It would be a single cable from the digital out on the CD player, and would be either coax or optical.
Thanks, TIs49. That coaxial cable is also Straight Wire. I bought it at the same time as the others and it is also one meter in length. . I don't remember the model.
Broadstone, now it makes perfect sense, thanks. I am very familiar with Straight Wire cables from the time you have stated, and recommend you try a different coax digital cable. It may sound a little crazy, but its length should be no more than 12 inches, or at least 1.5 meters. Take a look at this technical paper,


Also, the RCA’s should be a 75 ohm connector, as so many RCA’s vary in impedance with some being as low as 25. I’m sure your cable just has the typical Straight Wire RCA connectors. Using a properly designed coax digital cable will help minimize jitter and impedance mismatch between your CD player and DAC. The result should be a smoother sound with a reduction of harshness in the treble.

Here’s a basic well designed digital coax cable for less than $30 that you could try.

Hey Broadstone,
leveraging on Almarg's post:
As with most electrostatics, the impedance of your speakers descends as frequency increases, being spec'd at 4 ohms nominally but only 1 ohm at 20 kHz.
The reason for this is that electrostatic speakers are essentially one big capacitor! The perforated metal panels in your M-L are what they call "stators" or "grid" & they are stepped up to a rather high voltage (100s of volts) & the see-thru diaphragm is probably the thickness of 2 Saranwrap sheets is called the rotor/diaphragm. The construction of an electrostatic speaker, thus, is essentially that of a capacitor - the 2 metal perforated sheets form the 2 electrodes of a capacitor & the diaphragm is the dielectric material.
Here are a couple of links for you to read up on electro-static loudspeakers:

So, given that an ESL is a big capacitor, not every s.s. or tube amp can drive this large amount of capacitance. In fact, most s.s. amps cannot. S.S amps go into oscillation i.e. they become unstable with a large capacitative load. This can manifest itself as "shrillness" that you were/are hearing. In fact, it is well-known among ESL owners that "special" amps are needed to drive that speaker. Thus, there is good reason that Roger Sanders makes a power amp for his ESL.
If I had to take a wild guess, I bet that your s.s. amp was oscillating while driving the M-L. Oscillation is really bad for the power amp - not only does it create odd-harmonic distortion that destroys listening pleasure but it also literally destroys the s.s. amp over time. Oscillations in a power amp output stage can create high peak currents that can destroy the output transistors (BJT or MOSFET or JFET) over time.
By switching over to a tube amp, as Almarg already indicated, you reduced the amp's ability to source power into a low impedance & you also added increasing output resistance at the amp output - tubes, by their physics, have higher output impedance (which, in technical terms, is like adding an ESR to the capacitor, which adds a stability zero in the overall freq response & could be stabilizing the amp). You stumbled upon a partial solution for reasons unknown to you.
As Almarg already indicated - make sure that your power amp is designed to drive a highly capacitative load. Most amps in the market are not.
Hope that this helps.
(boy, your username sounds like a CIA operation!!) it might be good for you to read this particular thread on what the essential parameters are for good cable design:

Broadstone, you've made reference to also having a pair of Jamo bookshelf speakers. Have you tried these at different volume levels, and do you still have the treble issue, or is it totally gone?
Thanks, TIs49. I ordered the Canare cable that you suggested and will let you know if there is a difference, to the extent at least, that I'm able to discern.

Bombaywalla, I see what you mean about my identity title but it is simply the English interpretation of my German last name. When it comes to ESL's, I have used them for many years starting with a pair of Acoustats. Since then I have owned 4 sets of Martin Logans and built a single panel myself using materials and electronics purchased on eBay.

All that being said, I never actually went further in my understanding of them beyond the basis of their operation. I have always enjoyed their sound and would still not question using them except in light of the fact that they may be a significant factor in my extreme hearing sensitivity. Your discussion regarding distortion related to capacitive influence of the stator panels would be a major factor as regards ESL's in general and makes sense. However, in my use of the much more highly efficient Jamo Concert Eights, I experience the same problem but, because of their detail and very tight bass, they're better for listening at lower volumes.