Monday, December 28, 2009

Cable wars on the boards

Another potential flame war on cables erupted on the Audio Asylum forum this week when one poster revealed that upon opening up a cable from MAC that it revealed itself as repackaged wire from Canare. Cue the usual outrage from some. MAC replied, reasonably clearly in my view, that yes, they used this wire, it says so on their site (now) and that the price charged represents a reasonable return on their design and manufacturing costs. The discussion flowed over on Audio Circle and it is clear there is a strong undercurrent of belief in some audiophiles that 'value' is measured only in terms of parts.

Cables bring out this tendency more than any other component -- if we reduce every amp or cartridge to its materials costs then I guess few of us would buy anything. However, it is easier to recognize the value added in design, assembly, testing etc. when the component adds some real or imaginary complexity to the basic parts.

My advice for all cable purchasers is to first buy some bulk cable from a DIY store and make up a set of speaker wires. You don't even need to terminate speaker cables so just cut, strip, connect and listen. Now you know exactly what 50c a foot can buy you. Calibrate your ears to this sound and then purchase new cables only if they sound better than this to you, in your system, and you find the improvement to be worth the cost.

Those who do this and find they can keep the home made stuff in their systems are lucky, cloth-eared, cheap, deluded, clever, or any other word you care to use. Either way, it should not bother you. For me, I pull out my old home mades every now and again to remind myself of their sound. When I compare that sound to my reference cables, I always keep the reference in the system but I have to say the sonic differences between the basic and the exotic are not so large that they would matter to everyone. But they do matter to me.

I would like to know how a great sounding cable differs in manufacture and design from my basic 12awg because I am curious about why materials and designs matter. Unfortunately, most cable companies are unwilling to speak clearly on this and hide behind the term "proprietary". In this light, it is little surprise that we see the heated discourse when someone reveals the parts involved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cable reviews ongoing and that Spectron stretch...

No sooner had I submitted my Morrow cable review than I set about my next assignment, and wouldn't you know, it's another set of cables. This time I have Grover Huffman designs wiring my set up, including a power cord to audition. Fit and finish is very good but boy, do I hate wrapping my arms around the back of my racks to get at cable inputs. Stay tuned for more.

What this process has taught me, other than small scale cable designers must, at heart, be pretty strange creatures to devote their lives to making this stuff, marketing it, and trying my eke a living out of the results, is that my Spectrons are just plain odd designs for cable folks. Using these amps in bridged mono mode means that any speaker cable must be able to span over 17" of terminal gaps to reach the positive terminals of each amp output. Very few speaker cables come with this amount of spread, if only because few amps are designed like this:

Still, both Mike Morrow and Grover Huffman are gracious enough folks to cope and send appropiately modified cables to work in my set up. Gentlemen both. Now try that with some companies and see how far you get. I am somewhat surprised there is little mention of this stretch in the many published reviews of the Spectron amps, it seems pretty essential to people who will be using it, but there is an exception, Adam Goldfine's review in Positive Feedback makes this point clearly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Morrow cables, a month later

I've lived with the Morrow Audio SP4 and MC4 speaker and interconnects for the last 5 weeks and am somewhat sorry to see them leave. The full review will be out this week in Affordable Audio (Dec 09 edition) but I can say that despite the plain jane looks, these cables work well with my class D system, giving new life to the upper frequencies though at the cost of a little looseness in the bass compared to my references.

Cable auditions are really a pain. I can understand the cynicism of many audiophiles to the pseudo-science that surrounds many descriptions of cable differences and it's difficult not to view with some suspicion the claims of companies who produce what is essentially a uniquely wrapped wire. I think we should though give some credit to the fanatical people who spend their time trying to ensure their cables carry the audio signal better than others because it's become clear to me, although cable differences are rarely massive, there are some flavors that work better in my system than others. Let's forget the cost of those perceived benefits for now, nobody makes you spend your money on them so why should you be annoyed by someone who does? (Well, the answer to that is because it causes you certain insecurities, but that's another matter).

However, I accept that the lack of any firm empirical data on the ability of listeners to identify reliably and repeatedly the differences between wires should give us all pause. I know the arguments, I accept the difficulties of developing such a trial, but why the leading mags display such disdain towards experimental trials when evidence supporting their position on audible differences would lay this ghost to rest, at least for awhile, really does not serve them well. I've tried to encourage Robert Harley to have TAS take this on head first but without luck. I'm trained in experimental design and can run tests on many human perceptual and cognitive phenomena that often elude simple operationalization, so I know it is difficult but it is doable. One could incorporate lengthy 'at home' auditions and black-box style A/B tests, or do a series of different tests with trained and untrained listeners. No trial would slay all objections from either extreme, but wow, if ever we needed some sensible data, this is one area where audiophiles might gain some much needed credibility.