Talking about cables and their effect on the sound of music is tricky, in part because of the thick scientific explanations, but also because nearly everyone who is alive right now knows a thing or two about wires and cables. We all plug power cords into walls, charging cables into ports and headphone cables into players every single day.
If I was talking about the merits of tubes as power supply rectifiers versus solid state, you might go with me for a while as it is a lesser-known area of focus.
But if I told you that the use of silver, gold, Teflon and air in cable design results in a better-sounding headphone cable, you might think I’m just selling something expensive for expense’s sake. Or to be gaudy or for decoration.
The truth is, we know more today about how the electrical and physical properties of cable materials, jacket materials and wire arrangement affect sound than ever before.
For the builder of a serious hi-fi audio system, cabling is an important area of study, as it has the ability to affect the overall sound quite a bit.
The best way to think about high-end audio cables is not that different materials or designs can improve the sound, but instead that choosing the right cable makeup and wire materials can let your wiring do less harm to the overall sound quality than using the wrong one.
If you took a step out of your comfort zone and read the recommended study materials last week, I commend you. If you got that far, you saw a top engineer at the world’s largest cable maker (and owner of the most cable-related patents) patiently explain elements of the cable equation, focusing first on RCA signal cables.
As Galen Gareis explains, at the signal level — meaning not the speaker cables, but the cables connecting, for example, your turntable to the receiver — thickness of wire is not so important. Wires in this stage can be small, but they need to be able to reject noise in the form of EMI and RFI (electro-magnetic interference and radio frequency interference), since the music that passes through them is about to be amplified a whole lot. Any noise that gets into the signal is made louder along with the music, and that’s one of those things that can harm your overall sound quality.
Another culprit of sound-harming cables is called capacitance. A capacitor is a type of electrical device that does one basic thing, and it’s used all over electronics. A bad cable has the tendency to act like a capacitor when music tones reach a certain height, e.g. high-frequency treble sounds like cymbals and musical triangles.
The type of material that covers the wires themselves determines how high these sounds must be before an electrical charge starts to build in the actual cable jacket, as a result of so much electricity running past it. The best cable jacketing to prevent this, where the effect begins higher than we can hear, is simply and purely air. But the problem with using no jacket whatsoever is that cables can break, get corroded or touch each other, and it’s all over.
We’re just getting rolling on this stringy subject — more next week.
Read more Taylor: coloradodaily.com/columnists. Stalk him: instagram.com/duncanxmusic.