The subject of cable (both speaker cable and signal interconnects) has become a most controversial and important topic. Cable choice is a major factor in determining both sonic character and the ultimate capabilities of any modem audio system. While many may disagree on which cable represents the best choice for a given system, certain facts relating to their correct usage are undeniable. What follows are a few of our observations on the topic of high-fidelity cables.
I have always found that, sonically speaking, it is best to keep the speaker cables as short as possible, even if this means going to a longer run of interconnects (Note: There are certain manufacturers that disagree, most notable MIT. However, I still find that with most every cable, longer interconnects/shorter speaker cables are preferable. Listen for yourself). Speaker cables seem to do more sonic "damage" (for a given length) than do interconnects. Additionally, speaker cables cost more per foot than equivalent quality interconnects, so shorter speaker cables/longer interconnects will be less the less expensive option. Add to this thought the fact that many of today’s loudspeakers are bi-wired, and you have a strong monetary reason for adopting this strategy.
Sonic gains can almost always be realized if one will rearrange the system to take advantage of this concept. Place the amplifier(s) as close to the speakers as possible. We have found that 5' - 7' lengths of speaker cable is often very practical. By keeping the source equipment (CD, turntable, tuner etc.) close to the preamp, you can now run long interconnects to the amplifier. If you are now using long speaker cables, say fifteen to twenty feet or more, you will be quite surprised by the improvement this arrangement affords.
The only caveat in this plan relates to using long lengths of certain cables with certain preamps. Generally, preamplifiers with high output impedance (600 Ohms or more), coupled with highly capacitive cables, are likely to cause problems. These sonic distortions are most likely to take the form of a high-frequency roll-off. All solid-state, and most current tube preamps are of low output impedance and should present few matching problems. Check with the manufacturer of the equipment involved if doubts exist.
If you are in the planning stages of a new system or redesigning an existing set-up, consider rearranging the equipment to take advantage of these ideas. I think you will find the benefits well worth the effort.
Most of us are aware that cables undergo sonic changes (improvements) after the first few days of listening. Scientific data suggests that dielectric properties of many insulators (Teflon, PVC etc.) are altered by the application of electrical signals. In addition, many designers feel that the conductor material itself improves after an initial run-in period; the molecules within the structure "align" to facilitate the better transmission of electrons. Sonic improvements resulting from the break-in process vary among cable types/brands, as does the amount of time necessary to realize full potential.
One can expect an overall improvement in the sound of the cable after break-in occurs. Many listeners report a cleaner, more effortless sound with increased detail and focus. Don't expect radical changes (such as tonal shifts), the effects tend to be more subtle, but are nevertheless clearly audible, especially on better systems.
Recommendations regarding the length of time necessary to complete the break-in process range from a few hours to over two weeks of continuous playing time. Note: 7his is the amount of time that the cable is passing signal, not just the time it is simply connected! I find that fifty hours gets you very close with most cables, 100 hours for full performance to be realized. Check the recommendations provided by the cable Manufacturer for specific guidelines.
A perfect connection is one that is "gas-tight." Here, no air or other contaminants would be allowed in to spoil the connection. Unfortunately, this level of quality is practically unachievable with today’s connectors, but our diligence in working toward this ideal will be rewarded with improved sound. A clean, tight connection is mandatory. A more complete discussion of connector cleaning can be found in our article entitled "How To Improve Your System for Free (Almost!)".
All connectors are not created equal. Some are unquestionably better than others when it comes to metallurgy, mechanical integrity, and plating. Fortunately, most of the better cables today come equipped with a good quality connector.
When purchasing speaker cables, always choose spade lugs if your system uses five-way binding posts (most do). Short of hard-wiring (soldering) cables to connectors, spade lugs/binding posts offer the best method of connecting speaker cables available today. Spade lugs offer far greater contact area and are mechanically far more stable than banana or pin-type terminations. (Note: One Company, Nordost, believes their thin lightweight banana is preferable to spades on their cables. Additionally, some listeners really like the locking bananas from WBT).
Do Cables Really Matter?:
Every audiophile agrees that cables have a huge impact on the performance of a revealing high-end system. IMO, quite frankly, if you don't hear differences between cables you either have a very poorly set up system that is unable to resolve these differences or you simply haven't taken the time to learn how to listen (learn the difference between truly listening and simply hearing). Though (some) engineers suggest these differences don't exist, based on formulae or theory, anyone who trusts their ears rather than a slide rule quickly understands that technology, at this point in time, simply has not produced test and measurement equipment that equals the resolution of human hearing.
Many recording engineers, mastering engineers, have been using audiophile-level signal and power cables for years. These folks make their living using their ears and trust what they hear rather than any preconceptions they may,