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Audio Cable "Break In" Science or Psychological?

by August 29, 2004

Cable Vendor Claim
"'Breaking in' a cable has everything to do with the insulation - not the wire itself. The insulation (or dielectric) will absorb energy from the conductor when a current is flowing (i.e. when music is playing). This energy-absorption causes the dielectric's molecules to re-arrange themselves from a random order into a uniform order. When the molecules have been rearranged, the dielectric will absorb less energy & consequently cause less distortion." - Audioquest

Audioholics Response

Thus their conclusion is the dielectric , not the wire causes distortion! Claims regarding insulation molecules "aligning" with a signal, skin effect, strand jumping, etc, are anecdotal at best. Let's not forget that an audio signal is AC, and effectively random from a physical perspective. Nothing can align to a random signal by being anything other than random - exactly the state they claim is "cured" by injecting a signal.

"Break In" is not a proven audible or measurable phenomenon. The perception of changes in sound quality with time is likely attributable to the classical placebo effect, i.e., a listener anticipating a possible audible difference is predisposed to hear one whether or not it exists. Note that Audioquest isn't the only exotic cable vendor that claims cables "Break In". This is actually quite a popular myth touted by many other exotic cable vendors and cable forum cult hobbyists alike.

Audioholics Forum Feedback Response

Fellow Audioholics.com forum members recently engaged in a discussion about the cable "break in" myth that I felt was invaluable and worth turning into an article. Rather than diving into the technical aspects of the cable "break in" myth, our forum members discussed the physiological ones and how exotic cable vendors may be playing on this scenario to hook unwary consumers into believing something which they cannot prove through measurements, analytical analysis or controlled Double Blind Listening Tests (DBT's). Incidentally, we allow DBT discussions in any of our forums...

"So is cable break in just a ploy for getting people to keep the cables beyond the return period, or perhaps long enough that their desire to do anything about the lack of any improvement is gone?" - Paul F

"I think there's more to it than that. There is a neural adjustment effect that occurs when a stimulus we are accustomed to changes, known as 'habituation'.

When you change to new cables, there may appear to be an audible difference. If this seems to be for the better, well and good - you'll keep the cables. If the cables seem marginally worse than the old ones, the 'break in improvement' claim will encourage you to persevere with them for a while. Over this time your auditory system will habituate to the new sound balance, resulting in a perceived improvement. If you then swap back to the old cables for a 'fair' comparison, they will probably sound worse, as you are now adjusted to the new ones.

The second effect that comes into play is our suggestibility. Some people are more suggestible than others, but most of us are surprisingly open to persuasion. Expensive audio cables are an almost ideal example: we are persuaded to get them because they will improve the sound, and will get better over time, they cost a lot of money so they ought to be 'special', we've gone to some to get them because we want a change for the better, we'd hate our choice to be a failure, it would be a hassle to return them and start again, and most importantly, the judgment is purely subjective and very susceptible to emotional influence.

Under these conditions, the chances are we'll convince ourselves the new cables sound better, even if on someone else's identical system they might sound slightly worse - after all, 'worse' is subjective, and they have to break in, right?

In reality, there probably won't be a significant audible difference, but our expectations and suggestibility will manufacture one.

There are probably quite a few old-hands who are resistant to these effects, you know, the cynics and pessimists but it doesn't matter to the snake-oil salesmen, there are enough suggestible people seeking auditory nirvana for them to prosper, get rich, afford swanky web sites, buy advertising space in all the glossy magazines, and still give a decent mark-up to the retail outlets." - DLorde

Interestingly, the New Scientists recently commented on the London Heathrow Hi Fi Show, saying that among the cables selling for up to £30,000 for 6 metres, they found Quad demonstrating their latest speakers to great enthusiasm. The orange cable to the speakers looked oddly familiar. When asked about it, Tony Faulkner, the recording engineer demonstrating them (who'd used the speakers as monitors while recording Saint-Saen's complete works for piano & orchestra, Gramophone's Record of the Year), said of the cables:

"Yes, they would look familiar if you have a garden. Before the show opened we went over the road to the DIY superstore and bought one of those £20 extension leads that Black & Decker sells for electric hedge-cutters. They are made from good, thick copper wire, look nice and sound good to me. The show's been running for three days and no one in the audience has noticed..." - New Scientist Magazine


About the author:
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Gene manages this organization, establishes relations with manufacturers and keeps Audioholics a well oiled machine. His goal is to educate about home theater and develop more standards in the industry to eliminate consumer confusion clouded by industry snake oil.

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