Cable Designer Roundtable

Equipment report
Loudspeaker cables,
Digital cables
Cable Designer Roundtable

William Low - Audioquest

Born in 1951, William (Bill) E. Low grew up during a golden era of Western music’s high-speed evolution, from about when Presley went into a studio in Memphis, through at least Dire Straits’ first three albums, a time when awareness of a moving musical frontier was unavoidable. Bill credits hedonism rather than idealism for his involvement with music reproduction. He likes to say that music is the finest recreational drug, and he was hooked from an early age. A wide-ranging liberal arts education at Portland’s Reed College stimulated the far corners of his brain with sociology, psychology, economics, religion, art history, political science, philosophy, physics, biology, and, as a history major, a whole lot of history. This meandering learning-how-to-learn exercise turns out to have been the best cable-designer education Bill could imagine.

Each of you participating in this roundtable is a pioneer, designing cables long before cables and interconnects became recognized as important contributors to high-fidelity music reproduction. Why did you choose to work in the cable arena rather than in other fields of high-end audio?

I never had a plan. I was simply born at the right time. When I started a second hi-fi store in 1978, the audio-cable business in the U.S. was almost two years old. (I use Polk Audio’s introduction of Cobra Cable at the June 1976 Chicago CES as the opening shot in the cable wars.) By 1978, a particular Mogami cable imported by Jonas Miller Sound, Fulton Brown and Gold cables, and Cobra Cable were established in the leading-edge market where I “lived.” I wanted a better cable for my store, and so I joined in with retailer MWK (Middleton, White & Kemp) in Anaheim, California, on an opening order of a cable instigated by Dave Gore (of Quatre DG-250 GainCell amp fame). That “original recipe” cable turned out to be a gigantic headstart towards a continuing evolutionary process. In 1980 I started designing cables and started AudioQuest, and have been climbing that same never-can-reach-the-top mountain ever since.

What are your core beliefs that guide you in product development?

Gee, it’ll sound like one of my ads when I answer “Do no harm.” Cable can only hurt the sound, so the discipline of designing cables means trying to understand as much as possible about the mechanisms which cause change, and then manipulating and juggling those variables so as to cause the least amount of damage. A speaker designer must make hundreds of voicing decisions, meant to accumulate into what that designer believes is a neutral (or at least desirable) voice in a process analogous to sculpting with clay, adding bit after bit. In comparison, a cable designer is more nearly sculpting in wood or stone, trying to take away as little as possible, and trying not to add anything at all. A cable designer does have an absolute reference thanks to being able to compare the sound of a wire to no wire at all (not to a short wire, which is no reference). This comparison is discouraging, but crucial toward making informed intelligent compromises, each of which can serve the goal of predictable neutrality.

Cables don’t create energy. They don’t have a “rising” top end, for example. However, they do distort the audio data in ways which cause the brain/computer to not be able to decode the data (perceived loss of treble) or to misinterpret the data, sort of a fun house-mirror effect (irritation causing the perception of elevated treble). There are many machine-measurable phenomena in audio, and there are many significant ways in which audio data is corrupted which we don’t fully understand. I have been fortunate not to have been imprisoned by thinking that I must already know what is important in cable design. I was never tempted to misapply knowledge from a different application. I have been free to be a genuine scientist, investigating and acting on the empirical evidence—evidence measured by the only “instrument” that counts, the human auditory system of ear/microphone and brain/computer presenting a perceived aural reality to our consciousness. All scope- type testing is only ever valid or gains hierarchy when correlated with the ability to accomplish the stated function, in this case preserving the aspects of music which make it music and not just data. While a noble and worthy goal, the real challenge in audio is not the passing on of more information, it is minimizing the adding of misinformation.

Now that the cable industry has about 35 years of experience under its belt, has cable design approached its pinnacle where further improvements are likely to be marginal? Or will the improvements we’ve seen in, say, the past ten years follow the same trajectory?

Over in the software arena, the packaging of digital audio will certainly evolve to where the data is more robust than it is today, and less easily damaged when passing through a cable. However, the evolution of cable itself will be much slower than in the 70s and 80s, though there will always be room for improvement because there will never be a perfect cable. Even for passing digital signals, cable is an analog challenge, and will improve incrementally. However, the audio industry in general has proven to be one of the least “perfect” markets in existence, often more like perfume than a sophisticated product like a camera. Inferior camera-makers go out of business very fast, but someone will sell, buy, and like even the worst audio, because when the listener is in the right mood and likes the music, even the worst hi-fi can provide great pleasure. In this sense, the greatest possible improvement in cables would be less variation in performance among the various suppliers.

In a field that is overcrowded with competing designs and technical hype, what advice would you give consumers when choosing cables for their systems?

Find a dealer you can trust who fully accepts being responsible for your happiness, and take his advice. The cable brand is not important in comparison. Without any outside advice...gee...maybe listen to entry- level cables from several plausible manufacturers, and when possible (very easy with speaker cable) compare the cables to no-cable in order to learn what the cable sounds like, whether it’s honest and neutral, and not just whether your system favors a dull or an irritating cable.