Sometimes a Cable Isn't Just a Cable
November 9, 2014
about an expensive USB cable that claimed to increase the quality of music playback from a digital hard disk. That claim, of course, was complete and utter nonsense, as the playback is digital, so apart from bad soldering or cutting the cable, the playback remains the same—because it is, you know, digital.A while ago I blogged
I read about that particular fraud on Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture blog. He is a well-known music producer and engineer, and has written several books on music and music production. On his blog, he has a lot of articles where he criticizes those ultra-expensive cables as being good for only one thing: emptying your wallet. So I was a bit surprised to hear him say on an episode of his podcast, Inner Circle, that he actually tested some expensive cables, and found them very good.
Now to be precise, the cables he tested were not for digital transmission (like the example above), but for analog transmission from a microphone or instrument, such as from an electric guitar to an amplifier. While the digital signal can hardly be corrupted, analog signals can indeed be degraded (by distance, the presence of other signals nearby, or other factors). So at least there is an upfront possibility that a good cable can increase the quality of the signal.
As Owsinski relates in his podcast, he actually got these cables for free from Wireworld Pro Audio. That is a first sign that the vendor has confidence in their own products... a fraudster would not do that unless the circumstances of listening could be completely controlled and, of course, influenced. So when these cables were tested, he found that the sound had more clarity overall, and the bass had more depth. Though he confirmed to me that he did not test them blind, he did state explicitly that he heard the difference, and that it was quite remarkable to his ears (he's an expert). He also mentioned that he got a lot of cables (again, a good sign that the vendor trusts its products), and was able to give them to colleagues. They, too, were very impressed, one guy (as Owsinki related to me) even changed out all the cables in his studio.
How does it work? I'm not an expert in the field, but Wireworld illustrates on its website how these cable are different. Basically, the multiple, high-quality conductors per signal are all in a plane, and the different planes are woven together like a DNA-helix. It is also described in this US patent application.
I have no idea why that would work, though I found in a study that the multiple, high-quality metal conductors decrease the "skin" effect, in which the signal passes through only the top part of the metal wire and not the entire surface. Minimizing this effect results in less compression and better fidelity. The thick insulation and the weaving might decrease the proximity effect, avoiding the displacement of current by adjacent conductors and therefore the loss of signal. To be honest, Owsinski thinks that the connector also helps with the overall sound improvement (and, no, gold-plating doesn't improve sound quality).
This brings me to an important conclusion for us skeptics: even though it wasn't done blind, the experts really noticed the difference. I wouldn't necessarily hear the difference myself, but as with other matters (medicine, climate science, and so on) I'm willing to trust the experts and their judgments. Also, it shows that you need to keep an open mind as a skeptic—sometimes there really is something to a purported phenomenon. Owsinski repeated multiple times that he was indeed skeptical, and that he was really surprised at the results. However, do note that Wireworld also sells those digital USB cables ... and unless an experts tests those and hears a difference, I recommend caution.
Owsinski was also very kind to send me a study from stereoplay.de (to which I referred also above), where they tested high-quality analog cables (they cost 300 to 500 euros per meter and I'm not kidding - that's the midrange price), both quantitatively and blind by a panel of expert listeners. The cables were also compared to a "direct" connection, meaning a connection as short as possible between the different sound sources and the amplifier. All tests have been registered and the full audio files are available online [link in German].
Two important take-aways from this study: one that the signal quality can really differ when measured quantitatively, and that a high-quality, big-name cable doesn't necessarily perform better when compared to lesser known brands. Secondly, one really needs to listen to each cable (preferably over headphones) because opinions differ. Owsinski related that, too; one of his colleagues, a guitar player, didn't like that the tested cable gave too much high-end frequency. So it makes a difference, but you have to listen and find the cables you like. And most importantly, don't be too skeptical, trust the experts.
I wish to thank Bobby Owsinski for his time spent emailing with me and sending me reading material. And for his podcast and blog, too, of course!
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