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Rubbing the Snake Oil Out of Speaker Cables

by Mike Duda August 29, 2004

If we purchase expensive and more sophisticated speaker cables, we should expect improve audio reproduction, right? Digital audio, amplifier and speaker technology is now very sophisticated, and just by listening we can detect their contribution to improved audio reproduction.

A high end compact disc (CD) player may cost several hundred to thousands more than typical mass market players, but usually offers higher fidelity and better durability - certainly, it will offer better cosmetics, being less likely to be mass produced from molded plastic and pressed steel. The audio performance is often superior, the mechanical transport may be smoother (in mechanical performance, finish or "sound quality") and more robust, and overall the CD player is likely to be more durable. The price differential is therefore justified by the higher quality components and thoughtful design that makes up the higher end CD player.

Let's move onto the rest of the system. Since we cannot listen to audio in the digital domain, any digital audio needs to be converted back into analog before being reproduced at the loudspeakers. The CD player will have a built in Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) unit to convert the digital audio back to an analog signal. We might even purchase the DAC separately, and spend an additional several hundred to thousands of dollars for the promise of higher fidelity realization.

The now converted analog audio is amplified by a low distortion amplifier, which may utilize advanced "state of the art" solid state devices or expensive vacuum tubes, with a large and stable power supply, and additional filtering compared to the "consumer grade" equipment.

To achieve this type of power and quality amplification, we again could spend several hundred to thousands of dollars, and in most cases, these high end power amplifiers will achieve improved fidelity, ability to drive difficult speaker loads, and cosmetics over typical all in one box solution such as a two channel Receiver or Midfi Power Amplifiers.
This is something we can verify by listening, and making measurements of critical design metrics.

A loudspeaker system, if competently designed, could easily cost several hundred to thousands of dollars or more, and should faithfully reproduce the audio source with satisfying results. The Loudspeakers' inert enclosures are designed specifically to optimize acoustical performance of the drivers, and are wired with quality crossover circuitry tailored to deliver an audio representation as close to the original source as possible.

By spending a little more for a well engineered loudspeaker system, higher quality audio may be realized. We may, verify the improvement in audio reproduction by listening and correlating our results with critical measurements and engineering evaluation to rationalize the added cost of the better product.

So, with all this high-end audio equipment, totaling several thousands of
dollars, is it necessary to purchase costly high-end speaker cables to improve audio
quality? Will the high-end speaker cables really deliver better audio reproduction befitted by its asking price?

Cable Vendors Want to Sell You Magic Medicine

While attempting to produce better audio sound reproduction from our high fidelity setup, we might become easy prey for cable vendors marketing expensive speaker cable gimmicks - especially those that claim that the improvement is greater than you might expect from more expensive electronics. I'm referring to "high-end" or "exotic" speaker cables that are marketed with claims to eliminate audio problems caused by "opposing dielectric forces", "skin effect" or "strand jumping". It may be that these speaker cables are no better, or worse, than a quality set of cables that you could purchase from any electronics vendor, or carefully build yourself, at a much lower cost.

Much the same could be said for the electronics, but unfortunately, a DIY amplifier (or more difficult CD player) is not something that many people would be willing to undertake.

It begs the question - are we really getting audio performance upgrades when we purchase exotic speaker cables? Maybe exotic speaker cable marketing should be carefully evaluated before you buy into the product. If you purchased a larger and more expensive home for your growing family, you would probably want to know more about the neighborhood and the home itself before moving yourself and your family into it. Does the neighborhood have good schools for my children? What are the neighbors like? Will this home be adequate to house my family? Will I enjoy living in this home? Is the home worth its selling price?

A similar evaluation should be made before any purchases that are supposed to improve or upgrade our audio systems, including the speaker cables. Will the speaker cables eliminate skin effect problems? Is skin effect really a problem? Is the cable really worth the additional cost? A manufacturer's marketing may claim to sell a modern physics wonder, but it could be nothing more than a perpetual motion machine.

In other words, "high-end" speaker cables may not improve your audio reproduction as the manufacturer claims, or the phenomenon the manufacturer claims to be distorting, or impeding, your audio may have little or no impact on the audio reproduction. These cables would be an example of a modern day snake oil.

How They Bottle the Snake Oil

Some of you may not know what I mean by snake oil. In the 19th century, medicines were mass produced and mass marketed for the first time, but so were a lot of bogus medicines, too, which made outrageous claims to cure just about anything.

The bottles might have pictures of American Indians on the labels, because folks who bought these shams believed the Native Americans were experts on all kinds of plants native to North America. Cynics ticketed these medicines as "snake oil".

It's amazing what a smattering of scientific jargon can do to increase a product's appeal. In our case, speaker cable vendors' sales literature might contain terms like "opposing dielectric forces", "skin effect" or "strand jumping". Unfortunately, these terms are often misused, or lead to misleading or vague descriptions of problems that may not exist in an audio environment.

About the Audioholics Approach to Cable Articles

These continuing articles are going to evaluate high end cable vendors' marketing claims. At the series conclusion, we should be able to determine if costly "high-end" speaker cables are indeed worth their cost. It's a lofty goal, and there is a lot of material to be covered. Because these articles will be so extensive, it seemed best to break them into several parts, and allow you, the reader, some time to digest each part presented.

These articles will be presented in the following layout:

  1. Each article will identify an audio problem or audio phenomenon that a high-end speaker cable vendor's product is intended to "address" (to fix).
  2. Applying several physics and engineering tools (think of it as applying a physics toolbox), the claimed audio problem or phenomenon will be evaluated. The articles will model that problem/phenomenon to determine if it exists or is significant for audio applications.
  3. Empirical data (test data) may be gathered for a speaker cable product. A high-end cable marketed to fix certain audio problems/phenomenon might be tested against another speaker cable brand that does not market these same claims.

Just like the auto mechanic needs tools to diagnose your vehicle and repair it, we must use tools to evaluate the cable vendors' marketing claims. We are going to use tools assisting engineers and scientist for years-idealized models and applied physics.

What is an idealized model? It's a simplified version of a physical system and is used to predict how a physical system will behave. To make an idealized model of a physical system, we overlook many minor effects to concentrate on the most important or essential features; otherwise, the analysis or prediction becomes hopelessly complicated.

Why use physics? Humans use idealized models to represent audio and electrical principles, and physics is an experimental science that relies on idealized models. Therefore, any idealized modeling of audio and electrical phenomena has physics associated with it. Even engineering tools are derived in some way from physics.

What to Expect Next

Hopefully you are warmed up, and ready to begin diagnosing speaker cables. I did want to mention that I am writing several physics tutorials covering electric charge and electromagnetic physics models. These same models discussed in the tutorials will be applied to our evaluation of exotic cable manufacturers' technical marketing claims.