Duncan Taylor / Colorado Daily
Here is an example of a well-designed flat ribbon speaker cable, where the woven green jacket allows for plenty of air contact with the metal.

Relatively speaking, humans haven’t been on this planet for very long. And relatively speaking, it wasn’t very long ago that parents might make a balloon from of a pig’s bladder and give it to their kids to entertain themselves.


Ask a kid how a balloon works, and even a child could tell you that it holds air and therefore its shape. Case closed. End of explanation.

While I haven’t tried asking a 9-year-old how Netflix works, I have seen plenty of modern children gripped in the lock-gaze and stillness it induces. They think it’s pretty fun.

What’s my point here … oh yeah, in a high tech era like ours, life isn’t as simple as it used to be. There can be many, many facets of our modern lives in which we interact with technology we know little about.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve looked at the speaker wires coming out of the back of an amplifier and wondered how music can possibly run through there.

While my fascination remains, I now know how music as an electrical signal gets moved through wires. And it’s still bewildering.

Continuing this series on elements of a serious audio system, today we look at speaker cables and their importance in the overall sound.

Last week, we looked a little bit at sound waves and how time is a major factor in how our brains perceive sound. In the case of noise-cancelling headphones, a duplication of the background noise with a half-wave shift in time causes us to simply not hear the background noise.

Time is the name of the game at this level of audio focus, because the electrical signal of music is made up of myriad waves of different shapes and sizes. For us to perceive the electrical signal as the original music, all the waves need to arrive at the speakers in the exact same time formation as they were sent.

So one of the first things to know about cables is that all frequencies (or notes or tones) need to move through the cabling at the same exact speed, and this is nearly impossible to achieve. Factors like capacitance of the jacket material and inductance between the wires will always cause a little bit of difference in speed among the frequencies.

The slight delay of some higher frequencies compared to the speed of the lower ones in a typical cheapo speaker cable is what’s known as “propagation delay.” Certain factors cause a very slight shift in timing as those pesky higher frequencies hurl their electrons down the wire. The thing is, our hearing systems are designed to pick up these shifts.

So a high-quality speaker cable will utilize a jacket material that resists capacitance, and the wires will be designed with a physical shape and orientation so that inductance is minimized.

All kinds of ideas have sprung from the minds of cable designers over the years, and you can find speaker cables in many shapes and sizes — and sound signatures. One type of design uses a wide, flat ribbon of copper to transmit music. Another arranges hundreds of tiny wires in a specific braid pattern. Some use a Teflon foam to surround the metal in the wires, and some suspend a wire in a sealed tube of air.

There is a certain luxurious quality to music played over well-designed speaker cables. Essentially, it’s your brain saying, “ahhhh,” and basking in the perfect timing of your music’s waves.

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