Do Signal Cables Actually Matter?
In some circles there is a great deal of debate about whether signal cables, mainly analog interconnect and speaker cables, actually make a difference. Some are adamant that they do and it is significant. Others feel very strongly and vociferously express their belief that not only do they not matter but anyone who says they do is delusional and that anyone who makes them or sells them is a fraud and a thief. There seem to be few occupying a middle ground.
Those who say they can’t make a difference typically maintain that the only properties that can be involved are resistance, capacitance and inductance and that those are so low as to not be an issue. They maintain that science is on their side. Unfortunately this approach ignores one of the basic concepts of science which is that you conduct an experiment, make observations, and draw conclusions. If the results don’t agree with the hypothesis you had going in, obviously something is not being accounted for or the theory itself is wrong.
Audioquest takes the view that all cables are bad and the very best ones are the least bad. I agree with that perspective. No matter what anyone may claim, a signal cable can’t make the signal any better than what is being fed into it. You can get into a “two wrongs make a right” debate but that’s a Bandaid at best and you end up buying tone controls, not cables that get out of the way. If your need for that tone control changes… whoops.
I’m going to focus less on the technical reasons for why cables do what they do and more on how to figure out how to determine if they actually do anything. There are far better places to read about the technical rationale for it. I would suggest Audioquest’s site and Cardas Cable’s site. I’m a long time Audioquest dealer.
Without wading into the technical and theoretical waters the very easy way to make a determination is to simply listen to them. However I strongly recommend doing so in a very relaxed environment completely controlled by you, the listener. The best way to do this is to borrow them from a willing dealer, like me, and take them home over a weekend where you can relax and not be told by a salesman, like me, what you should hear. You can certainly analyze them and determine which parts sound better (or not) but the ultimate test is if you find you are more in touch with you music. That is, after all, what this is all about.
If pressed to describe sonic attributes you may encounter during comparisons one of the easiest to explain is what I term smearing. By this I’m referring to high frequencies that sound wrong and harsh even though they may measure flat in frequency response. The example I typically use is the sound of two hi hat cymbals hitting one another. If you’ve ever been around a live drum kit, you are familiar with that distinctive clanging sound. It should, and does, sound like two pieces of brass hitting one another. All too often the reproduced sound is more electronic sounding with a haze that obscures the definition of the actual brass. Instead you get a smeared electronic substitute. It is very common and screams that you are hearing a poor representation of a real event.
Great cables can be very expensive. However very good ones are moderately priced and we regard them as system components themselves. Once again the only way to cut through all the chatter on this, pro and con, is to borrow some and see what you experience. I’ve been doing this for decades and I have never argued with any customer about their impressions after borrowing cables. They were good enough to do their part. Their subjective impressions are their own. I always appreciate their willingness to have an open mind and conduct the experiment.