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Should You Use Audio Cables as Tone Controls?

by August 19, 2022
Cables as Tone Controls

Cables as Tone Controls

Fancy CableIn this article we discuss if cables should be used as tone controls to alter the sound of your system or if they should be transparent and accurately transfer the signal without alteration.

The cable debate has to be one of the most contentious in the world of audio. Do cables make a difference, and if so, how much of a difference? Are expensive cables worth the money? Are they even better at all? Among audiophiles, attitudes about cables are all over the map. Heck, even among cable manufacturers, there’s no consensus. Some purveyors of pricey, exotic cables claim that swapping out your old cables will transform your whole system. And they make these claims without providing any explanation as to how their products work, or what makes them sound better than another option. Other cable manufacturers, like Audioquest, do offer some insight into the thinking behind their designs, but doing so just opens the floor for criticism and questioning from skeptics with the technical background and engineering knowledge necessary to challenge their approach to cable design.

Then you have companies, like Blue Jeans Cable, claiming that a simple and affordable (but properly engineered) cable is plenty good enough, and that the expensive stuff won’t actually sound any better. Some members of the audiophile public are open-minded (open-eared?) folks who only care about their own listening experience, and aren’t worried about measurements or technical details. They might say, “If it sounds good to me, what else matters? I don’t need to understand exactly how my new dishwasher works — I can tell that the dishes are cleaner!” On the other hand, there are listeners with a more technical attitude and a healthy skepticism of products that they view as snake oil. These are people who need to know how and why things work. They see audio engineering as more of a science than an art. They might say, “Of course measurements are important; these are devices designed to carry, manipulate, and reproduce an electrical signal. Someone has to design and build these things — they don’t just materialize from fairy dust. If two cables behave the same electrically, they must sound the same! If you hear differences between them, it’s all in your head.”

"Only poorly designed cables are sonically distinguishable"

— Gene DellaSala, Audioholics

Why Do Audiophiles Fall for Placebo Effect  - YouTube Discussion

And this brings us to a YouTube video recently published by Chief Audioholic Gene DellaSala, discussing the placebo effect as it pertains to audio. Gene explains that the expectation of a change or improvement in sound quality can cause listeners to believe that such a change has occurred, even when no meaningful change has been made. We know that the human mind is powerful enough to convince participants in pharmaceutical trials that a simple sugar pill has reduced their pain, cured their nausea, or altered their mood. It’s NOT hard to imagine that the same concept is at work when an audiophile swaps out an old, inexpensive cable for a shiny new one with thick conductors, silver-plated connectors, and a beautifully-woven jacket. (In 2020, Audioholics reviewer James Larson wrote a thorough and well-researched article discussing the ways in which a listener’s expectations and general state of mind affect the perception of what is heard.) Gene’s video sparked a lively discussion in the comments about the potential use of cables as tone controls. That is, if you believe that various cables sound a little different from each other, is it worthwhile to try lots of different ones to tweak the sound of your system so it’s more to your liking? It sounds reasonable enough, and to some it might even sound like fun. There’s nothing wrong with that — even Gene says he’s all for experimenting. After all, you’re not hurting anyone. But Gene will also be quick to tell you that it’s not going to be the most effective, nor the most cost-effective, way to get the best sound from your system. Personally, I am not as much of a cable skeptic as Gene is, and I believe that I have heard real differences among cables. (And I appreciate the fact that, here at Audioholics, you can admit to this sort of thing without being burned at the stake.) But Gene and I are in complete agreement that there are other ways to tweak or improve the sound of your system that will have much more significant results — both measurable and audible — than buying new cables.

Cables as Tone Controls?  - YouTube Discussion

"Anybody is welcome to experiment and see what they like. Even if there is no electrical difference or acoustical difference, even if the placebo (effect) is factoring in… do what you like. Do what makes you happy… (but) it takes a really bad cable to make a measurable difference. Room acoustics and EQ are far more effective tools at optimizing sound than using poorly-designed cables as tone controls."

— Gene DellaSala

1. Room Acoustics

Vicoustic Room Treatment

One of the most effective ways to improve the sound of an audio system is to pay attention to the acoustics of the room. To be fair, it’s not an easy task to achieve an acoustically ideal environment without an awful lot of expertise and free rein to apply whatever kind of room treatments are needed — even if they make your living room look like a recording studio. But throughout Gene’s career in the audio industry, providing both professional consultations and friendly advice, he’s seen his fair share of high-quality audio gear shoved unceremoniously into rooms with vast, uncovered windows and hard tile floors with no rugs. Without some absorption, there’s simply no way to achieve good sound. Even the careful application of curtains and area rugs can start to change things for the better. On the other hand, Gene has also seen countless over-treated home theaters with so much absorption that the sound is stiff and lifeless. (This is one of the most common reasons why some people can’t get satisfying two-channel audio performance from a home theater.) Although the subject is complicated, there’s no doubt that room acoustics play a much bigger role in your system’s sound than cables ever could. To get started on your room acoustics journey, check out our many articles on the subject, such as Room Reflections & Human Adaptation for Small Room Acoustics by Dr. Floyd Toole, or this video discussion with Anthony Grimani about Room Acoustics and General Placement Guidelines.

Room Acoustics Summary & Placement Guidelines  - YouTube Discussion

More than 50% of the sound quality you perceive comes from the acoustical character of the room. How come? More than 50% of what enters your ears is from sound waves that have bounced around the room surfaces after leaving your speakers! It stands to reason, then, that you should pay some serious attention to those room surfaces. Acoustics may seem like a complicated and confusing art form, but by following some simple rules, you can in fact get great results. Apply absorption to about 15% of your wall and ceiling surface area. The absorption material should be at least 2-inch-thick (5 cm) dense fibrous material and should be spread out evenly throughout the room. Apply scattering surfaces (diffusion) to another 15-20% of your wall and ceiling area. Diffusion should be at least 2 inches (preferably 4-6 inches) deep and interleaved with the absorption. Use 2D diffusion (scatters into a plane) towards the front of the room and 3D diffusion (scatters into a hemisphere) towards the back and on the ceiling. Include some form of bass absorption, usually placed in the front or back corners of the room. Bass traps should be made of dense fiber foam material 18-24 inches deep. Models that have a semi-rigid front plate offer improved performance.

— Anthony Grimani, expert in Home Theater Acoustics and Design

2. Speaker and Seating Positioning

The placement of your loudspeakers and your listening seats is another area in which small changes can make a real difference, often without costing you a dime. Have you ever walked into a friend’s listening room to find an expensive center-channel speaker sitting on the floor, or large tower speakers jammed up against the walls? If you have, then you know that proper speaker placement can make or break the sound of an audio system. My brother got married recently, and because he didn’t have time for a bachelor party, his friend Seth invited the guys over for a casual dinner and hangout at his swanky Los Angeles townhouse. Seth had recently bought a new audio system and was keen to show me his beautiful turntable and KEF loudspeakers. He said he planned to upgrade his stereo receiver to something more stylish and high-end. There was nothing wrong with the gear, but the sound was awful. Those KEF speakers were not equidistant from the main listening area, nor were they at the same height (one was on a tall shelf, the other on a side table). They weren’t even facing in the same direction! Seth could spend ten grand on a new amp, but it wouldn’t make a difference with the speakers set up like that. New cables? Forget about it. I sighed with relief when he asked if I had any suggestions about improving the sound.

front-wall2

I was reminded of this unusual scenario when watching a recent video by PS Audio’s Paul McGowan. (I’m a fan of PS Audio electronics, though Gene questions McGowan’s enthusiasm for high-end Audioquest cables.) In the video, Paul says that “loudspeaker setup is probably the most important thing that you’re ever going to do to get great sound. Everything else pales (in comparison). Even the best speakers in the world, improperly set up, sound like dog doo.” Hard to argue with that. With a two-channel system, it’s not rocket science. Start with an equilateral triangle, in which the listening position is the same distance from each speaker as the two speakers are from each other. Give the speakers some breathing room from the front and side walls, and then do some experimenting with various changes. As long as the two speakers remain equidistant from the listening position, you can move things around, changing the sound as you do so, until you find what you like. With a home theater, things get more complicated, but there are plenty of guidelines from pros like Anthony Grimani about proper speaker angles, distances, and so on. If you need more hands-on help, seeking a consultation from Gene or from a professional home theater installer can be a cost-effective way to get moving in the right direction.

You wouldn’t believe how much the sound of a speaker changes based on its position in the room. Even movements of 6 inches can have a profound effect! Your goal should be to position the speakers to achieve smooth, neutral frequency response…. At the same time, the speakers need to be at specific places relative to the screen and seats. This can make for a maddening set of compromises and contradictions. You have to play within the limits of the rules. The interaction between the room and subwoofers is even more dramatic. Changes of 1 foot (30cm) in subwoofer placement can have a 20 dB effect on the sound level at some frequencies.

— Anthony Grimani

Maybe you have your speaker placement dialed in to perfection, or maybe there’s no easy way to move your speakers because they’re installed behind an acoustically transparent screen or bolted to the walls. You still have the option of moving your listening seat, and doing so can function as a positional EQ. When you move your listening seat forward or backward, you’re altering the frequency response that you’re hearing at that listening position. In many cases, one of the most beneficial changes that you can make is to move the seats away from the back wall, even if your room setup dictates that you can only come forward a small distance. If you have the flexibility, it’s generally ideal to place the listening seat into the room about one quarter of the length of the room. (So if your room is 20 feet long, you’d want 5 feet between your listening position and the rear wall.) This arrangement puts the listening position outside of the pressure maximum area toward the back of the room, where standing waves and uneven bass are all but guaranteed to cause trouble.

The sound at various seating locations changes in much the same way that speakers change when you move them around the room. This is especially true for lower frequencies, as the standing waves and speaker-to-boundary interference effects are very location-dependent. Try moving your seats a bit forward or back in the room and take note of the effect. Using an analyzer with a good microphone will confirm your observations. While we’re on the topic of seats, a headrest with leather or vinyl surface placed near your ears will totally mess up the higher frequencies due to short sound reflections hitting back at your ears. Use lower headrests or seats with upholstery rather than reflective surfaces.

— Anthony Grimani

Parametric EQ or Digital Room Correction

Dirac Live

Finally, if you’re hoping to make any kind of change (be it slight or significant) to the sound of your audio system, the use of parametric EQ or digital room correction can be a powerful tool. According to Gene, if you use tone controls or parametric EQ, you can vary the response of your system by 10dB or more very easily, and that kind of change isn’t just audible — it’s downright obvious. By comparison, Gene says the differences between cables are incredibly minor. When he measured equal lengths of standard 10 gauge and 14 gauge speaker cable against the expensive Thunderbird cable from Audioquest, Gene found that the differences were within tenths of a dB. He says that those minor differences were attributable to differences in resistance in the cables. (The higher the resistance, the more insertion loss you get, which means you’re going to lose signal level. But changes of tenths of a dB should be extremely faint.) These days, there are powerful digital EQ solutions built into most AV receivers and processors, and you can even find them in some two-channel gear (from companies like NAD, Anthem, JBL, and Lyngdorf). Anthem’s proprietary ARC Genesis software is very effective. High-end receivers from Denon and Marantz use Audyssey MultEQ XT32, while McIntosh’s best AV processors use Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect solution. Trinnov is famous for its powerful room correction solution. In my opinion, the best of the third-party room correction programs is Dirac Live, which boasts the use of “state-of-the-art, patented algorithms to analyze and digitally reduce room impact and enhance speaker performance. Dirac Live delivers a larger sweet spot, accurate staging, clarity, voice intelligibility, and a deeper, tighter bass not otherwise possible. Fully tunable to your preference.” That last bit is key. All of these room-correction solutions can automatically compensate for certain room acoustics problems, changing the sound of your system so that it better matches a pre-determined response curve. But you’re also free to shape the sound however you want, and these transformations can be pretty incredible. Dirac can be found in a wide variety of home theater electronics, from the $1,200 Pioneer Elite VSX-LX305 receiver to the $24,000 StormAudio ISP MK2 processor in Gene’s home theater. Though Dirac is featured in some of NAD’s integrated amps and in the JBL Synthesis SA750 integrated amp, automatic room correction in general is less common in two-channel amps. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be part of your two-channel system. The digital signal processing technology company miniDSP makes powerful and reasonably-priced DSP devices that deliver Dirac Live into any stereo system. For example, the $799 miniDSP DDRC-22D is a digital-in, digital-out box that can be installed between a digital source (such as a streamer) and a DAC. The $949 miniDSP SHD Studio is both a Roon Ready streamer and a Dirac Live DSP solution in one. If you need analog outputs, miniDSP makes other models that offer them. Gene also has had positive experiences in the past using miniDSP hardware to handle multi-subwoofer optimization. I know many people in the audio industry, including both Gene and Paul McGowan, who aren’t big fans of using full-range EQ, preferring instead to correct only the bass region. Dirac allows you to choose the frequency range to be corrected, whether that’s everything below 500 Hz or 5 kHz.

When using Dirac you take a series of room acoustical measurements, (and) then it plots a normalized average of how your speakers and/or subwoofers are behaving in your room for both frequency and impulse response. This is really important because frequency response is not everything for sound quality, but it’s extremely influential to what we hear for tonal balance, overall musical translation, high frequency detail and energy, sound stage, bass power, presence, and depth. And probably most important is the impact on the overall system’s sonic balance. What’s very important to know is the frequency response you hear from a pair of speakers is not 100% the speakers; it’s the combination of the speaker and the room interaction. That means it’s the sound that comes out of the speakers mixed with the reflected sound or echo of the speakers sound that reflects off all your walls, ceiling, and floor that we are listening to, and the reflections affect the sound significantly. This you see more from looking at the impulse response because you can see reflections that are happening in your room at set delayed times, and this can be converted into distance to identify where those reflections are.

— Terry Ellis, audio reviewer and Dirac Live calibrator

Schiit Audio Loki Max Equalizer

Digital EQ solutions are an obvious boon to home theater enthusiasts and audiophiles who lean toward digital files and small silver discs, but what about the old-school, analog-only guys? If you steer clear of digital room correction because the thought of digitizing your vinyl sends a chill of ones and zeroes down your spine, you might be thinking that EQ isn’t for you. Should you consider using cables to tweak the sound of your system? Consider instead investing in an analog equalizer. Though not as common or as popular as they once were, these useful bits of hardware still exist and can dramatically change the sound of your system, allowing you to make less-than-stellar recordings sound better than you thought possible. (They can also make everything sound terrible if you don’t know how to use them, but the only way to learn is to give it a go.) Schiit Audio currently makes three analog EQ devices, ranging in price from $149 to $1499

Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a hardcore cable skeptic, and I do believe that cables can sound different from each other. Whether you agree with that idea or not, the reality is that many other factors have a much greater effect on sound quality. So if you want to tweak the sound of your system, and you’ve been considering doing so by swapping out your cables, you’ll have much more luck by addressing room acoustics, fiddling with loudspeaker and listening seat placement, and/or applying EQ. If you’ve done all of those things and you still want to try out some expensive cables to see if they change the sound of your system, you have my blessing. (Just don’t tell Gene.)

So the question remains - Do you use cables as tone controls? Please give us your answer in the related forum thread below.

 

 

About the author:
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Jacob is a music-lover and audiophile who enjoys convincing his friends to buy audio gear that they can't afford. He's also a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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Recent Forum Posts:

Speedskater posts on September 26, 2022 14:15
For some audiophiles, a little bit of added background noise can add brightness or sparkle.

John Atkinson
August 2005
Background Noise
I think that what the listener perceives with this cable is that at low levels, the sound is fattened and made more coherent-sounding by the dominant second-harmonic distortion. In addition, the presence of background noise cannot be dismissed, as there is some evidence that introducing small amounts of random noise results in a sound that is preferred by listeners. At higher signal levels, transients are accompanied by bursts of higher harmonics. However, these subside as quickly as they appeared. The overall effect is to render the system sound as being more vivid,


So maybe cables that pickup noise or interference might sound different.
highfigh posts on September 25, 2022 12:13
fmw, post: 1574091, member: 26848
When I conducted a bias controlled test of interconnect cables I tested 15 pairs and found one that messed with the sound. It was Japanese and quite expensive. I conclude that finding a cable that alters sound is vanishingly difficult. Most cables at every price level are competently made and transmit the audio accurately.

I once had some “high end” cables manufactured to sell as an experiment. They were thick copper cables made from an “oxygen free” Belden wire used by many high end manufacturers with high end connectors in a blue and white color scheme. I put them up for sale on Amazon with some text that spoke to the quality of the product. I even provided results of bias controlled listening test comparing it to a well known high end cable showing random results. The price was $19.95 per pair. I only sold three pair on Amazon. I gave some away to friends and use some myself. People who look for exotic cables don't want them to be affordable. I can't conclude anything else.

I have discussed this phenomenon with a sales rep who has an expensive system, but has absolutely no idea why he has done things wrong WRT speaker placement, acoustics, using cable stands, etc. When I make “There's a lot of BS going on here”, he just says “It's experiential' and goes on with his bad self, thinking it's all real. He also said ”If it's not high priced, it's seen as ‘no good’ by audiopiles and they really need to lose this idea.
fmw posts on September 25, 2022 12:00
When I conducted a bias controlled test of interconnect cables I tested 15 pairs and found one that messed with the sound. It was Japanese and quite expensive. I conclude that finding a cable that alters sound is vanishingly difficult. Most cables at every price level are competently made and transmit the audio accurately.

I once had some “high end” cables manufactured to sell as an experiment. They were thick copper cables made from an “oxygen free” Belden wire used by many high end manufacturers with high end connectors in a blue and white color scheme. I put them up for sale on Amazon with some text that spoke to the quality of the product. I even provided results of bias controlled listening test comparing it to a well known high end cable showing random results. The price was $19.95 per pair. I only sold three pair on Amazon. I gave some away to friends and use some myself. People who look for exotic cables don't want them to be affordable. I can't conclude anything else.
lovinthehd posts on August 29, 2022 17:57
mtrycrafts, post: 1570727, member: 5380
That makes more sense. Not an AES Journal paper as a couple commentors indicated at Youtube comments on Amir's latest video..
This paper is reference #49 on Kunchur's other wacky paper in JAES where an RCA cable is compared with XLR cable

This is what is on line for this International organization:
IOSR Journal of Electronics and Communication Engineering(IOSR-JECE) is a double blind peer reviewed International Journal that provides rapid publication (within a month) of articles in all areas of electronics and communication engineering and its applications. The journal welcomes publications of high quality papers on theoretical developments and practical applications in electronics and communication engineering. Original research papers, state-of-the-art reviews, and high quality technical notes are invited for publications.

Here is Kunchur's bio at the school:
Milind N. Kunchur - Department of Physics and Astronomy | University of South Carolina (sc.edu)

Audio is not his field.

Maybe he's like the doctor who bought Furutech stuff for the office medical gear….
mtrycrafts posts on August 27, 2022 18:22
lovinthehd, post: 1570709, member: 61636
Amir linked this paper for the most recent video he did, not AES but rather IOSR Journal of Electronics and Communication Engineering
http://boson.physics.sc.edu/~kunchur/papers/Interconnect-cable-measurements–Kunchur.pdf
That makes more sense. Not an AES Journal paper as a couple commentors indicated at Youtube comments on Amir's latest video..
This paper is reference #49 on Kunchur's other wacky paper in JAES where an RCA cable is compared with XLR cable

This is what is on line for this International organization:
IOSR Journal of Electronics and Communication Engineering(IOSR-JECE) is a double blind peer reviewed International Journal that provides rapid publication (within a month) of articles in all areas of electronics and communication engineering and its applications. The journal welcomes publications of high quality papers on theoretical developments and practical applications in electronics and communication engineering. Original research papers, state-of-the-art reviews, and high quality technical notes are invited for publications.

Here is Kunchur's bio at the school:
Milind N. Kunchur - Department of Physics and Astronomy | University of South Carolina (sc.edu)

Audio is not his field.
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