Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.
Controversial Topics: Politics, Religion, and Cables
Q: What’s the deal with expensive cables? Are they worth the money? Do I need them?
AskAvi responds: (September 2001, edited July 2002)
Cables. He had to ask me about cables.
My opinion on cables is to be practical: while poorly constructed and shielded cables can mask detail in your music, most commercially branded cables are well constructed with proper shielding. Science (and all the blind listening tests I'm aware of) suggests that any differences between quality cables shouldn't be audible, so when you run into someone who swears up and down that they can hear huge differences between cables, be aware that you're entering religious territory.
There are plenty of expensive cable options, some at least start with science and physics - even if the application of these principals isn't audible - and some are based on science and fiction. Even if spending more for exotic cables could make difference in the sound, the difference would be subtle and hardly justify the considerable expense. Therefore, I always use speaker cable designed for speakers (lamp cord should be used with lamps) from companies with decent quality control - but not especially exotic or expensive models. My personal choice is Monster OMC for main speakers (about $1 a foot), and Monster XPNW for surrounds (under $1 a foot, and the jacket is white, which blends in nicely with my walls). For analog coax interconnects I use mid grade Monster or entry level XTC - about $30~40 per pair.
I also use gold-plated Acoustic Research compression banana connectors on all my speaker cables. I've heard the argument that connecting speaker wires directly to the posts can lead to degradation over time by oxidation - a thin layer of rust that forms on the copper wires - but I question how common that really is. I use them because it makes hookup and moving things around easier. And they're pretty. Sonically, they are absolutely unnecessary.
Coaxial digital cables transmit zeros and ones. If the cable changes the sound in some way, these errors should be corrected by error correction circuitry on the other end of the wire. Optical digital interconnects are even more clear cut: either the fiber transmits the light, or it doesn't. Any mechanically sound cable should perform well. A side benefit of optical cables is that it eliminates the possibility of transmitting electrical ground loop hum from one component to the other. Therefore, I use optical connections whenever I have the chance.
Transmitting zeros and ones is not unique to audio components. In the computer world, nobody sells high end printer interconnects or networking cables, because, well, because it would be silly. Don't get me wrong, any network installer can tell you they've run into some "bad" cable - it doesn't transmit data properly due to a mechanical flaw. But the solution is not to spend more money on "better" cables, rather, to use a different batch of the same stuff that was manufactured properly.
Analog Video Cables
Video cables are something else entirely. For TV and VCR connections using composite or S-Video inputs, you aren’t likely to see a difference by stepping up to expensive shielded cables. For DVD players using S video or component video connections to a large and/or high quality TV, I recommend stepping up to moderately priced shielded cables – the better shielding might not make a huge difference, but they don’t cost too much, either. For HDTV, however, it is critical that the cables and the connectors on the cables are of “true 75 Ohm impedance” to pass the full signal bandwidth. Therefore, I would buy the least expensive set of cables that can honestly make that claim.
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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart