Choosing Cables for Your Audio System – 9 Important Points to Consider
Cables make a difference in how your system sounds
There are a couple of commonly held beliefs to this assertion –
- Of course, cables make a difference. Everything in the audio chain does. Choose wisely.
- Cables aren’t that important. Any decent cable is all you need for your components to sound their very best.
Belief #2 is widely held among enthusiasts who have never experienced the transformation of a system’s sonic abilities by upgrading cables, or by experimenting with different cables. Most of you reading this right now would probably not feel this way or are at least open to understanding how cables influence the sonic presentation of a performance audio system.
Regarding Belief #1….
I came to understand early in my audio journey that any changes I made to my system -- cables, components, “tweaks” -- all produced audible results…..for better or for worse! This also made things more engaging, mysterious, and fun. And sometimes more maddening. Along with countless observations by many customers over the years, this serves to validate Belief #1. The “for better or for worse” perspective is one I encourage all performance audio enthusiasts to consider before and after any system “upgrades” or changes. Any difficulty involved in making these subjective analyses is alleviated by the reality that each observation simply needs to be made “in your opinion”.
My time immersed in the joys of this hobby, as a business owner, a cable designer, plus in countless conversations with clients and fellow audio aficionados has led me to know and to accept this as truth -- high quality cables connected to high quality audio components can produce rather dramatic changes and improvements in performance. The more difficult element is making decisions that will produce desirable results. Results that make you smile, and that make you feel your money was well spent.
You may ask, so how do I make decisions that are right for my system? Let’s explore this.
The tonal character of your system
An audio system’s tonality, in my opinion, and more importantly in your opinion, represents a fundamental cornerstone to make cable choices from. Do your system’s sonic perspectives satisfy you, tonally? Is your sound pleasingly warm, rich and textured, yet nicely airy, clear and detailed? Is the sound too cool, too aggressive, too sterile, or fatiguing? Does the warmth of your system make it sound soft, lacking in clarity, or air? Is it opaque or veiled? Is there a lack of body to the sound? Is it a little threadbare, maybe too airy?
Some of these factors can and should be addressed with component choices. Your components should be doing the heavy lifting, sonically speaking, and have a synergy that is mostly satisfying to you, with most recordings. That said, if you are generally pleased with your sound, but are looking for a “next level” upgrade, quality cables can and will add enhancements, and bring forth nuance in your favorite recordings in numerous, and significant ways. In similar fashion to a component upgrade.
With an opinion established about where your audio system is at tonally, you form an essential foundation to make cable choices from. If your system is more neutral sounding, it’s detailed, clear, and open, yet not fatiguing, thin, or cold sounding, you have assembled a group of components that play well together tonally, and this system is a good candidate for neutral sounding cables. Bear in mind, interactions with your room also may add unwanted reflections that can create some unwanted brightness or glare. This may be another topic to cover in more detail in another post.
On the flip side, if your music sessions are cut short at times because of listening fatigue, if things can sound a little bright a little too often, your system is a good candidate for a warmer sounding cable choice. Power cables can be a huge help here. More on this topic later.
Lastly, if your system is sounding a bit too warm, rolled off or obscured on the top end and mid-band, or there seems to be a loss of openness, clarity and detail, again, this is a system that is a good candidate for a more neutral sounding cable.
Breaking cable choices down in a manner such as this may seem overly simplified, and in some ways it may be. There are other factors to consider. Nevertheless, system tonality provides a good place for you to get started. An understanding of what you hear, what you appreciate about your sound, and what you don’t, will go a long way to ultimately find a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in your hi-fi listening sessions. This is a goal all of us music loving audiophiles should put at the forefront as we are making decisions for our systems.
So, what makes for a warmer sounding or a more neutral sounding cable? Read on….
Wire Designs, and Connectors. How do metals and plating options factor in?
Different conductive materials, different metals, sound different. Here we can circle back to Belief #1 from our first topic of discussion. This is a plain and simple fact, which is due to unique conductive properties or abilities of the metals and serves to simplify making the best cable choices for your audio system.
Pure copper wires sound warmer, and in certain applications, possibly to an undesirable extreme. Pure silver wires sound very neutral, and in many applications to an undesirable extreme. Pure, 100% silver signal cables (interconnect and speaker), or power cables are invariably a more difficult fit in audio systems when dialing in tonality. Digital cables are an exception, when it comes to pure silver. More on this down the road.
It is because of these ideologies that Audio Art Cable uses high-purity silver plated copper wires, or a hybrid fusion of pure copper and silver-plated copper wires for virtually all our cable designs. Designs we feel offer a best of both worlds approach, with a more balanced sounding tonal character, and a dynamic, clear, live, open presentation.
High-quality cables, however, only get the signal most of the way there, and then hand the signal off to a connector part, which then hands the signal off to the downstream component. Connector parts also take the signal handoff from the upstream component. It’s a strongly held philosophy here at Audio Art Cable that the performance of a high-quality, high-purity wire will be limited somewhat to the quality, the design, and the conductive properties or abilities of the connector part itself. Again, this is a topic that merits further discussion in the future.
For the purpose of simplifying connector part choices relative to fine-tuning the tonal perspectives of your system’s presentation, consider this:
Gold plated connector parts = Warmer
Rhodium plated connector parts = Neutral
Silver plated connector parts = Neutral
Pure Silver connector parts = Neutral
Which will lead this discussion to...
Copper, or silver based connector parts vs brass
The purpose of using brass as a connective and conductive element in an audio connector serves two purposes:
- The rigidness of this metal makes it an ideal material to use for the purpose of mounting and dismounting the part.
- It’s a cheaper material, making for a lower-cost part.
Invariably, it’s the cost factor of brass, and not it’s stiff-factor efficacy that skews a cable manufacturer’s decision to use it in a design. I say this simply because more conductive, and certainly more sophisticated sounding, copper (or silver) based parts are available on the hi-fi market! Just look at our step-up cable collections.
Consider these electrical conductivity statistics from the Material IACS (International Annealed Copper Standard) --
|Then down at #5...|
Brass– which does contain some copper – is far less conductive because it is made up of additional materials that lower its conductivity, making it less than 100% suitable for performance audio purposes.
Now, brass based parts can and do offer solid performance when used with high-purity wire for entry level cable models, and their sonic shortcomings are forgivable at entry level prices, and generally unrecognizable when used with entry to lower-mid-level audio systems. Often, however, brass based parts are spec’d into step-up designs by cable manufacturers. The low-cost parts are then used with a quality wire bought in bulk at a low price, and the finished product is then pitched with the wire type factor out front. Throw a nice-looking jacket on it, and a good looking brass based part, and Voilà! You’ve created a “step-up, high-performance” audio cable that looks the part, and can be sold at an inflated price with more profits attached. This is done more often than you may suspect in this industry.
In order to coax the performance your components are truly capable of, and as a result, the most enjoyment from your audio system, I cannot advocate choosing high purity cables made with quality, copper-based connector parts strongly enough. The details of how copper based parts present the music so differently will be expanded upon in a future post in this blog.
But wait, if I pick better cables with copper-based connector parts, how much is this going to cost??
To be continued...
- Upgrading at the power receptacle
- RCA vs XLR
- One brand vs mix and match looms
- Keep everything You-Centric!