While it's probably perilous to guess which cables "make the most difference" (just look at the different opinions here), arguably, other than very-low-voltage phono cables that can pick up interference easily, I'm guessing that speaker cables probably can make the most difference in a sound system on account of longer lengths and the fact that speakers are low impedance devices. As a result, the additional resistance, inductance, and capacitance of speaker cables may be relevant to performance.
Furthermore, in extreme cases one could run into systemic instabilities, for example years ago the Polk Cobra cable was called an "amp killer" on account of high capacitance and very low inductance. This Nelson Pass article from back in 1980 listed that cable as having 500pF/ft capacitance and discussed the need for a damping network to avoid high-frequency oscillation with high bandwidth amplifiers. Clearly sometimes the amplifier might "see" the difference a cable introduces even if anomalies are inaudible.
Recently, with going from using my Emotiva monoblock amps primarily to the small home-assembled Hypex nCore NC252MP, I had the need to make a pair of longer cables. For a number of years, I've used some Canare 4S11's as speaker cables. They're great and I could just buy more. But since I've been spicing up the look of the system lately with gold amp face plate and the thick blue "audiophile" power cable, I figure let's just buy some inexpensive but good speaker cables and "dress them up" for looks since it's not that difficult. :-)
IMO, it doesn't take much to make cables look good enough to impress. They just have to be thick and dressed up with a pleasing outer sleeve. Beauty however is in the eyes of the beholder so for this little "build", I thought I'd try something different and put together a multicolored cable as shown up top for fun. Here's the outer sleeve I picked - a braided "30ft PET Expandable Braided Sleeving" of 1/2" diameter which costs <US$10 for the wires I'll be using.
There are a number of colors to choose from for the braid material off Amazon. I just went for the dark green-black for some contrast (I have some blue-black as well which looks nice and more subtle). Notice that I have the lighter in the image as a reminder that after you cut the sleeve, unless you have a hot knife, to prevent fraying of the ends, just use the lighter and melt the edges a little so they stick together (don't hold the flame to the edge too long, ~5 seconds enough).
The wire that will run inside the sleeve is the inexpensive KnuKonceptz Kord Kable 12AWG speaker cable which can be had for <US$30/50-ft:
It's basically a slightly translucent blue-colored zip cord. It's very flexible and easy to work with, made of 12AWG 4N (99.99%) OFC (oxygen free copper). It has very fine strands (294 listed per conductor). There's some greyish/silver writing on one of the runs which I use as the "+" wire. (Needless to say, there's no "directionality" to wires which apparently a company like Chord Cables still maintains!)
For connectors, I used these GLS Audio locking banana plugs, US$40 for 20-pack (10 red, 10 black). Good construction, gold plated. A favourite over the years for me as the twist locking mechanism works well to allow snug connections with speakers and amps.
The construction is relatively simple...
I wanted at least 9' cable lengths with biwired connectors for the speaker end. So for each cable, I cut 2 lengths of ~10' wire. Twist the two together for each cable and used some electrical tape to keep it together temporarily - I didn't bother twisting too tightly, around 5 twists/foot. As you can imagine the effective length of the 10' wire will be shorter with the twisting:
Now cut the sleeves to length. I'm targeting about 9' cables, so I cut about 9.5' to accommodate for some horizontal stretching when the sleeve slips over the paired wires which will decrease the total effective length:
Slip the expandable sleeve over each paired twisted cable:
The 1/2" diameter PET sleeve will stretch a little bit and should be able to slide over the paired speaker wires without too much difficulty. We want this to be relatively snug and make sure to stretch to out keeping the wires taut inside also.
I've got a box of 1:3 double-walled adhesive-lined heat shrink tubing for the ends to keep the braid over the twisted wires in place. I used a 1/2" x 3" shrink tube for each side where the cables exit the braid, removing the temporary electrical tape above of course. A few seconds with the lighter over the heat shrink tubing does the job, careful not to burn/melt the plastic:
Here's what it looks like now with the heat shrink tubing applied to ends of both cables:
Because I might want to use these cables with my Emotiva monoblocks that have terminals 6" apart, notice that the ends that connect to the amplifier are longer. I would now split the exposed speaker cables and trim so on the amplifier end, the cables are about 8" long, and on the speaker end, trim down to about 5". I'll twist together the two (+) and (-) runs for the speaker end. This should make sense when you look at the final cable.
Strip back ~1" of the 12AWG cable to expose the copper conductors. On the amplifier end, I'll twist the (+) and (-) wires together. Here's what the wires stuffed in one of the GLS banana plugs looks like for the (+) amplifier end, secured down with the small set screws:
On the speaker end, since I'm creating bi-wireable cables (not that I believe this makes a difference, but it does provide more surface contact), I'll just be connecting a single 12AWG cable to each banana plug.
Here's the final product, notice I used some 1/4" and 3/8" red/black heat shrink tubing to keep the twisted wires together and for indicating polarity.
Remember that each conductor is 12AWG, so two of them combined would be the equivalent of 9AWG from amplifier terminal to bi-wired speaker connection. Since I've never heard bi-wiring making a difference (nor measured a difference), I'll just keep my speaker jumpers in place and connect the two banana plugs as a way to increase surface contact.
|Speaker cables connected to Hypex NC252MP. You can see the "HiFi Audiophile Power Cord" discussed last week in the picture as well with similar blue hue. The system cables are getting a little more colorful. :-)|
Okay. So, with the construction reasonably clearly laid out I hope, in the next while, let's jump into speaker cable measurements and have a peek at the electrical parameters of this DIY cable. We'll also compare the numbers with standard zip cord and other wires I have around here and discuss if there's ultimately much to "worry" about with speaker cables...
Suffice it to say, the DIY speaker cables sound great so far even without "burn-in". Good for the next few years I reckon or at least until I get tired of the appearance or want some more fashionable ones. ;-)
To end off this week... Let's spend some time thinking about audiophile claims like the "sound" of USB cables along with a few other questionable audiophile claims.
Have a look at Darko.Audio's recent "EXPERT opinion" interview with Paul McGowan (not sure why anyone has to shout the word "EXPERT"). I listened to most of it while doing other things so might have missed some good parts. Once awhile I caught an "interesting" tidbit and made a note to review what was being said.
Before I get into this, let me say that I met Paul McGowan last year at RMAF 2019 and we chatted briefly about his new speakers. He seems like a nice man who presents a friendly face to the public on behalf of his company, PS Audio. Likewise, John Darko seems like a likable reporter / writer / presenter. None of what I'm about to say is "personal"; this is a debate about truth, how we seek it, and what level of evidence is needed before we accept ideas as "facts". Paul McGowan is free to speak, Darko has his place as a member of the online audiophile press. Likewise, I have opinions about these things as a hobbyist and consumer, with a desire to cut through the layers of "folk wisdom" built over the decades of audiophile culture. Like most cultural beliefs based on historical antecedents, some ideas might still be true, and others might need to be discarded as we get into the 2nd decade of the 21st Century.
Beyond the initial pleasantries in that interview, by 24:00, we are fully in a discussion about "deferring to experts", specifically regarding the topic of the audible differences between cables (especially USB cables). Darko says that this deference is "an unfashionable thing these days". Remember that the argument of "appealing to the authority of experts" can very easily be a logical fallacy when not applied properly (here's a nice review from The Logic of Science). Tell me, if we are to present the testimony in this interview in court, when it comes to USB cables, what kind of "expert" should Paul McGowan be introduced as? He is an engineer yet provides no objective data when consulted here. He hasn't performed any controlled experiments to report whatsoever in the interview (just some audio show a number of years ago where "8 people" apparently turned heads ~3:45). Is he an expert in USB cables, USB transceiver hardware, or USB software drivers? If not those things, is he then being promoted as an "expert listener" speaking as a "witness" rather than arguing based on USB engineering expertise? If it is the latter, is his endorsement of USB cables strong "proof"? Essentially, is the evidence being presented here simply a person's opinion (without other corroborating evidence), and what is the material engineering expertise being referenced from which the opinion is derived? To that final question, there appears to be no engineering evidence, and this is all opinion while nobody denies that McGowan has spent years in the industry.
Let's now turn to Darko's apparent exchanges with engineers who almost unanimously agreed that USB cables make a difference (~32:00). Among the various engineers surveyed, is the opinion of this group of presumably audiophile industry "experts" even close to the opinion of the "majority consensus"? Did he e-mail or interview the digital engineers at Apple, HP, Microsoft, TI, Intel, Qualcomm, AMD, Broadcom, Marvell, Renesas, STMicro, XMOS, etc. who employ expert engineers in designing the USB hardware; some of their components ending up in all kinds of places including audiophile products? If he were to conduct a broad survey, how many percent of engineers do we think would accept that expensive USB cables could "sound different" than typical generic USB 2.0 cables that satisfy basic specifications? Maybe Mr. Darko can ask a few more folks and get back to us on that question.
At 27:30 - Darko claims "the thinking used to be immutable ones and zeroes" when it comes to digital audio. Actually, when did this substantially change? I still think "bit perfect" is pretty darn important. Who's playing "catch up" here as if the audiophile world has discovered something special about digital data transmission? IMO that's simply Darko's wishful thinking. Someone please tell us when for example computer users finally discover that a fancy USB cable results in a prettier photographic print from their color inkjet because jitter is lower and the ink droplets are now even better resolved and aligned...
35:00 - McGowan: "If we can hear the difference, we should be able to measure it" but "we currently don't know how to measure ... perceptual differences" such as those resulting from cables. Hmmm... If we're still talking about USB cables here, what is there to measure but the accuracy of data electrical signal shapes and the resolution of the DAC; both of which can be done? What other ultimate acoustic property does he think is embedded in the digital data such that a cable might manipulate said property typically in a "good" sounding way?
36:00 - Speaking of looking for proof for the claimed nebulous and hypothetical perceptual differences that currently cannot be measured:
"I think it could be measured if somebody wants to spend the time"... "I neither have any desire to prove it, nor would I spend PS Audio's engineering budget in search of it..."Wow. Lemme get this straight... So here is a "high end" ("perfectionist audio") manufacturer who believes that certain as-yet-not-understood phenomena exist. He believes that these special properties can be measured. That it's clearly audible. And he doesn't want to spend any engineering budget trying to understand the phenomena!
Apart from the "high end" audio companies, who else does he think should be pursuing an understanding of this then? Isn't it only "you guys" who answered Darko's e-mail in the affirmative around the sound of USB cables that actually believe there is such phenomena? In fact, as competitive companies, shouldn't you all be trying to understand this? To be the first to capitalize on true innovation by engineering the beneficial effects based on knowledge and evidence? In fact, can't you even "reverse engineer" whatever this quality is by examining and dissecting the cables that are able to optimize the sound from your equipment? A comment like this suggests that he doesn't really see the effect as important enough to invest in, and that there is little potential benefits for the company. Perhaps this is a good example of "don't listen to what people say, watch what they do".
37:50 - Darko speaking of audiophiles using AmazonBasic USB cables: "it is also financially advantageous" for the cheapo audiophile to basically not spend money.
Of course, aren't we consumers?! What consumer wants to spend egregious amounts on something that's not clearly shown to work as claimed (I believe the technical terms are being "ripped off", "exploited", "swindled", "conned" or "cheated")? Like any other consumer group, for the most part, we're spending hard-earned after-tax dollars on our non-essential "toys". It's not up to audiophiles to just give money away out of the goodness of our hearts as if these companies are charities! Consumers need to see value in the products, and it is the job of companies to gain the trust and shoulder the burden of proof that their products (cables for example) are worthwhile. Let's not be naïve; "snake oil" companies do exist.
Darko hypothesizes that it works the other way as well. It's financially advantageous for cheapo audiophiles to purposely claim expensive cables make no difference so they save some $$$. Yes, as consumers it would be convenient to save money for other things like nice vacations or tuition for the kids. But let's think of it this way... A "snake oil" company can potentially reap thousands of dollars from unsuspecting customers. How can cheapo audiophiles warning against snake oil reap such rewards for themselves? This "conspiracy" of the cheapo audiophile does not actually "cut both ways" in any symmetrical fashion.
39:50 - McGowan: Speaking of Ted Smith's DAC FPGA code, he makes a rather surprising allegation. Apparently, simply doing "another compilation" with the "same exact code", "sounded completely different". Hmmmm, sounds more than a little fishy. What exactly does "completely" mean in the absence of any measurable quantity? You mean the "completely different" audible difference doesn't exist in frequency, time, identifiable distortion or noise domains of sound quality? Let's bookmark this comment as something we might want to bring up in the future if he clarifies this somewhere.
43:00 - McGowan is doubling down on jitter as "definitely audible" and somehow important for the PS Audio DirectStream DAC. He claims Audio Precision equipment is "not capable of measuring jitter at the levels" they're talking about. For the record, notice that Ted's DAC is rather noisy for a modern converter (Stereophile, Audio Science Review). So what level of jitter is he and Ted Smith talking about that is so severe that it's audible above the already measurably poor DAC noise level? Remember to check out and listen to the jitter demos I posted a couple years back and decide for yourself just how much jitter needs to be for audibility. AP gear unable to measure this? I don't think so...
43:45 - McGowan claims sometimes FPGA code leads to configurations where processing happens on the "outer edge of the chip where it's really noisy" and "tends to sound worse". Well that's unfortunate that a ~$5-6k DAC has audibly noisy internals like this, isn't it?
As I've said before, people can say anything and human imagination is boundless. Darko can hypothesize about whatever he wants to believe about cables. McGowan can say whatever he feels as an "expert" in various things. But where is the evidence that this isn't all just wishful thinking or even delusional if they truly believe in what is possibly a false "reality"? Obviously there isn't any evidence presented in this interview. McGowan even claims he doesn't "have any desire to prove" these beliefs. No measurements. No controlled listening. No interest in testing even. "I believe him because he's an expert" seems to be the ultimate message. I'm sorry, it's hard to buy that line of reasoning, Mr. Darko.
Beyond the cable discussions, McGowan essentially tells us that the Ted Smith PS Audio DACs are rather noisy devices such that Mr. Smith needs to be careful with each compile of the firmware! Also, his digital circuitry is prone to having timing issues causing audible jitter! Jitter to the point where not-so-young-looking guys like Ted Smith and Paul McGowan are able to hear issues (remember that jitter anomalies tend to affect higher frequencies). Considering how many inexpensive high-performance asynchronous DACs we have available with low noise and good jitter performance these days, if McGowan's comments are true, Ted Smith's DAC certainly doesn't seem all that impressive!
With the PS Audio YouTube channel having about 1000 videos in which Paul McGowan discusses all kinds of questionable topics (I recently ran into his take on "Why do cables have direction?" for example), maybe it's time he accepts taking Ethan Winer's challenge for a public debate on some of this. Now that would probably be a more useful video to watch at this point.
In other news, Audio Science Review measures the Kimber Kable B-Bus USB cable (simple looking US$50). No surprise. Bit perfect USB cables do not change overall sound, jitter, or add distortion from DACs. I saw this lack of effect even back to 2013 when I was using the Creative E-MU 0404USB ADC as measurement device with an old asynchronous CM6631A USB-to-SPDIF converter.
Seriously folks, take a deep breath and push aside what audiophile company "experts" or "journalists" likely influenced by industry support have to say. Likewise, clear your mind of my rebuttal. Call up an audiophile buddy to help switch cables and try unsighted listening with an expensive USB cable and one that meets basic specs (not error-prone poor cables like these). I think you'll find that there is no audible difference worth spending anything >$50 on after a few cable switches with your favourite music. Again, nothing wrong with spending more money for the looks, luxury, fashion and other "non-utilitarian" benefits! ;-)
If you still hear a consistently significant change, please leave a comment about which cables you used, with what devices (computer, DAC...) and what you heard. This might be useful for those who want to look deeper into this even if I'm not able to.
Remember, gimme your results on the blind test! I made it as a simple ABCD ranking task, completely gain matched, and feel free to take your time and in the comfort of your home. Survey is open until the end of April 2020. These conditions are not too different from Mr. McGowan's blind test preferences stated in his "Do double blind tests work?" video BTW.
Time for me to go listen to some music. Recently I read a recommendation for Coltrane '58 The Prestige Recordings (DR12, about 1/2 the tracks mono) which I listened to last night (it's 5 CDs so I have 3 more disks to get through in the next few evenings!). Yes, the collection is great and well recorded overall. On a good system, I think you'll notice the relatively high noise floor as these performances were captured more than half a century back!
For all the Gen X audiophiles who grew up with pop from "our day", Richard Marx just released his new album LIMITLESS this past week. A bit processed, loud and "shouty" typical of music production these days akin to the all-caps stylization of the album title. Otherwise, an enjoyable collection. Nice duet on "Strong Enough" without too much cringe-worthy teenage lyrics sung by an older man - dude's 56. My, how time flies. :-)
Hope you're enjoying the music.