Can stereo cables really make a difference to the way your music sounds?

Bob Metcalfe (Skeptic No 75) might have been reading New Zealand Tone magazine: Bringing Technology to Life, Sept-Oct 2004. The front cover promises “Hi-fi cables: science or hocus pocus”, and on page 46 there is an interview with Bob Noble, “sales manager for respected cable manufacturer Chord”. On page 47 there is a review of three Chord cables. The only science in the interview is the importance of screening to cables since cheap electronics in homes today are “leaking interference back into the same mains power ring that supplies the hi-fi. This degrades the final sound considerably. If you don’t believe me, turn all those other appliances off and see what it does to your hi-fi sound.” Nobody puts the case that there is any hocus pocus to cables.

Reviewer Paul Burgess found the sound of the first set ($275) “big, warm and easy to listen to” but “slightly hazy when compared to the other more upmarket cables” so they “would compliment [sic] a system with a bright sounding amplifier or speakers … (This is a good example of synergy where the cable works with the system to greatly improve overall sound)”. (Me, I would rather entrust equalisation to electronics designed to handle it.)

With the second set ($500), the reviewer Paul Burgess nearly made a big mistake:

“They are beautifully finished in red and black for left and right channel identification and have easy to read arrows showing the correct way to insert them into your system. This might sound a bit over-the-top, but attention to detail can make a big difference to the sound. At one stage I thought my system sounded a bit unfocussed and upon checking my interconnects found I had put one in with the arrows facing the wrong way.”

This claim that cables are made with a directionality is not new, but since audio is carried by a very small alternating current that spends exactly as much time going one way as the other, how this can be so remains unexplained, and I dare say, inexplicable.

The third set of cables ($1200) is oddest of all:

“…for some strange reason, the music appeared to slow down just a tad every time I put these into my system. I put that down to the system synergy principal [sic] and got on with enjoying them. Another possible reason could be that they may have needed more burn-in time. (Believe it or not, most cable improves in sound after the first 100 hours of use.)” He could easily have tested this effect more thoroughly by plugging in a different cable to one channel and seeing if there was an echo. One wonders if he imagines the music backs up in the cable before being let out more slowly…

Note that this is about interconnects, between music players and amplifiers. The increasingly monstrous cables connecting amplifiers to speakers are another story. I nominate Paul Burgess of Tone magazine for a Bent Spoon.

Oddly, the reviews don’t tell you one thing (perhaps the only thing) you might want to know about the cables — how long they are.

By the way, I have a confession. A very long time ago, when stereo was new, I wrote to the Christchurch Press denouncing it as being unnecessary for the reproduction of music: to hear the flutes on the left and bassoons on the right seemed like a gimmick. As soon as I heard good stereo I realised I was wrong — though not completely: stereo is good because more audio information is good, and hearing where the instruments are is a side-effect. I could be wrong again.

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