What to Listen For in Cables
Cables must be evaluated in the playback system in which they will be used. Not only is the sound of a cable partially system-dependent, but the sonic characteristics of a specific cable will work better musically in some systems than in others. Personal auditioning is the only way to evaluate cables and interconnects.
Fortunately, evaluating cables and interconnects is relatively simple; the levels are automatically matched between cables, and you don’t have to be concerned about absolute-polarity reversal. One pitfall, however, is that cables and interconnects need time to break in before they sound their best. Before break-in, a cable often sounds bright, hard, fatiguing, congested, and lacking in soundstage depth. These characteristics often disappear after several hours’ use, with days or weeks of use required for full break-in. You can’t be sure, however, if the cable is inherently bright-and hard-sounding, or if it just needs breaking-in. Note that break-in wears off over time. Even if a cable has had significant use, after a long period of not being used it may not sound its best until you’ve put music through it for a few days.
With those cautions in mind, you’re ready to evaluate cables and interconnects. Listen to the first interconnect for 15 minutes to half an hour, then replace it with the next candidate. One way of choosing between them is merely to ask yourself which interconnect allows you to enjoy the music more. The other method is to scrutinize what you’re hearing from each interconnect and catalog the strengths and weaknesses. You’ll often hear trade-offs between interconnects: one may have smoother treble and finer resolution than another, but less soundstage focus and transparency. Another common trade-off is between smoothness and resolution of detail: The smooth cable may lose some musical information, but the high-resolution cable can sound analytical and bright. Again, careful auditioning in your own system is the only way to select the right cables and interconnects. Keep in mind, however, that a better cable can sometimes reveal flaws in the rest of your system. You should also know that cables and interconnects sound better after they have “settled in” for a few days.
Cables and interconnects can add some annoying distortions to the music. I’ve listed the most common sonic problems of cables and interconnects.
Grainy and hashy treble: Many cables overlay the treble with a coarse texture. The sound is rough rather than smooth and liquid.
Bright and metallic treble: Cymbals sound like bursts of white noise rather than a brassy shimmer. They also tend to splash across the soundstage rather than sounding like compact images. Sibilants (s and sh sounds on vocals) are emphasized, making the treble sound spitty. It’s a bad sign if you suddenly notice more sibilance. The opposite condition is a dark and closed-in treble. The cable should sound open, airy, and extended in the treble without sounding overly bright, etched, or analytical.
Hard textures and lack of liquidity: Listen for a glassy glare on solo piano in the upper registers. Similarly, massed voices can sound glazed and hard rather than liquid and richly textured.
Listening fatigue: A poor cable will quickly cause listening fatigue. The symptoms of listening fatigue are a feeling of relief when the music is turned down or stopped, or an impulse to do something other than listen to music, or the feeling that your ears are tightening up. This last condition is absolutely the worst thing any audio component can do. If a cable or interconnect causes listening fatigue, avoid it no matter what its other attributes.
Lack of space and depth: Using a recording with lots of natural depth and ambiance, listen for how the cable affects soundstage depth and the sense of instruments hanging in three- dimensional space. Cables also influence the sense of image focus. Poor cables can also make the soundstage less transparent.
Low resolution: Some cables and interconnects sound smooth, but they obscure the music’s fine detail. Listen for low-level information and an instrument’s inner detail. The opposite of smoothness is a cable that’s “ruthlessly revealing” of every detail in the music, but in an unnatural way. Musical detail should be audible, but not hyped or exaggerated. The cable or interconnect should strike a balance between resolution of information and a sense of ease and smoothness.
Mushy bass or poor pitch definition: A poor-quality cable or interconnect can make the bass slow, mushy, and lacking in pitch definition. With such a cable, the bottom end is soggy and fat rather than taut and articulate. Low-frequency pitches are obscured, making the bass sound like a roar instead of being composed of individual notes.
Constricted dynamics: Listen for the cable or interconnect’s ability to portray the music’s dynamic structure, on both small and large scales. For example, a guitar string’s transient attack should be quick, with a dynamic edge. On a larger scale, orchestral climaxes should be powerful and have a sense of physical impact (if the rest of your system can portray this aspect of music).
I must reiterate that putting a highly colored cable or interconnect in your system to correct a problem in another component (a dark-sounding cable on a bright loudspeaker) isn’t the best solution. Instead, use the money you would have spent on new cables toward better loudspeakers—then go cable shopping. Cables and interconnects shouldn’t be Band-Aids; instead, cables should be the finishing touch to let the rest of your components perform at their highest level.
Excerpted and adapted from The Complete Guide to High-End Audio (fourth edition). Copyright © 1994–2013 by Robert Harley. hifibooks.com. To order call (800) 841-4741.