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Cable Designer Roundtable

The Pioneering Founders of The Cable Industry Discuss the History, Art, and Science of High-End Audio Cables.

It’s easy to forget that just 35 years ago cables were an afterthought in the pursuit of great sound.

Lamp cord and throw-away “patch cords” were the norm. And then, consistent with the high-end ethos of striving for improvement, a few intrepid souls ventured into uncharted territory to create the foundation of what would become an important contribution to realistic music reproduction as well as a major business segment. From humble beginnings in the late 1970s with relatively crude products, the high- end cable industry evolved dramatically, producing highly sophisticated designs unimaginable to someone in the 1970s. Today’s interconnects and cables reflect more than three decades of research into what had been the apparently simple task of moving an audio signal from one place to another. For this Designer Roundtable I asked five of the founding members of the high-end cable industry—who collectively have more than 150 years of cable-design experience—to share their perspectives on this important component category. —Robert Harley

Bruce Brisson – Music Interface Technologies (MIT)

Bruce Brisson engineered the first patented and purposefully built audio cable in 1981, the first of many patents and technologies he licensed to Monster Cable Inc. Many of Monster’s products are still using his technologies today and have become some of Monster’s most enduring and successful lines. In 1984, he founded Music Interface Technologies (MIT), which has been a leading force in the research, design, and manufacture of high-performance audio, video, and AC products.

Since forming MIT, Bruce has also designed or manufactured cables and components for many other well-known audio companies such as Spectral Audio, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Wilson Audio Specialties, Martin Logan Electrostatic Loudspeakers, Goldmund Audio, and most recently Constellation Audio. MIT products are used in many recording studios and have become crucial components in many Hollywood productions. If you have listened to a hit record or attended a hit movie within the past three decades, you have undoubtedly heard many of his products.

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?

It happened rather by chance. In the late 1970s I had a complex three-way speaker system with active crossovers. The system used three stereo amplifiers and therefore three pairs of speaker cable. I had purchased different types of cables as I added crossovers and amplifiers to the speakers while building out the system. So the system used three different variants of cables.

One of the crossovers broke and I repaired it. I then proceeded to hook the system back up. Because I had not paid attention before I tore it down to which cable had been used to hook up the amplifiers to the tweeters versus the midrange or woofers, I cabled the system back together differently. The sound of the system changed. I proceeded to move the cables back to where they had been before I had torn the system down, and everything sounded correct again. I decided to pursue the question of why.

 

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

When measuring correctly using impedance analyzers, one understands that audio cables suffer from at least two resonances. As an example, an eight-to- ten-foot speaker cable will typically possess a series resonance somewhere below 1kHz as well as a parallel resonance somewhere between 150kHz to 250kHz.

Using a form of piecewise network analysis I optimize the cable’s resonances using additional networks, hence the network box found on all MIT cables. Our best cables possess networks that optimize the cable to function without the series resonance down to a fractional hertz, or just above DC. Looking at the high frequencies in the time domain, our best speaker cables yield a useful transient response of 2.8 microseconds, or ~357kHz.

When measuring using our test and measurement criteria, I have never come across any other cable that has a higher useful transient response than that.

The so-called speed or transient of the cable then has nothing to do with the velocity of propagation as others claim. It doesn’t matter how fast the audio signal is transported through the cable. What matters is if there is a difference in delay between some high frequency of interest, and some low frequency of interest.

We also apply proper dampening around the high-frequency parallel resonance so that reflected energy is not sent back down the cable to contaminate the incoming signal. Therefore the cable/network is only dependent on the input signal being applied presently, and not some stimulus from the past. I can’t emphasize how important all of the above is, particularly pertaining to timbre and textures, as well as maintaining pinpoint imaging and accurate soundstage size and proportions.

Next we measure and quantify the articulation of our cables. Articulation tells us how the cable will respond at various frequencies under dynamic conditions. Articulation in an audio- signal-carrying cable is simply a matter of how much energy a cable stores at any given frequency versus how fast the cable releases that energy. If the cable articulates to the same criteria at all frequencies of interest, then the music’s timbre and textures will not be changed. The settling out of the cable is extremely important regarding imaging and soundstaging properties, as well as left-to-right channel delays.

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?

I believe we still have further to go. Some future gains will come via the development of systems where each component’s input and output impedances are held to certain values allowing the cable/interface to be optimized to those values. And some will come from independent research from companies such as MIT.

Today, unfortunately, it is sometimes done sort of “willy-nilly” in the field. Some amplifier manufacturers use 10k Ohm input impedances while some use 100–250k Ohm input impedances. Then a “random” selection of a preamplifier is inserted into the system, in the field, whereby the output impedance is never given any consideration. Then some cable with erroneous specs yielding 1000 nines of purity and bandwidth purportedly extending from DC to light is used to interface those components into something that is expected to function as a linear system.

 We manufacturers must begin to work together to build linear systems. Another word for linear is “predictable.” The random system described above might not articulate the same across the entire audio spectrum, and might also excite every impedance pole within the system. Timbre and textures, as well left-to-right channel delays, might all be affected negatively.

Regarding ongoing work here at MIT, several years back I became aware that very small delays between the left and right ear can be detected by humans. Over the past couple of years I have built five prototype cables dealing with minimizing delays between the left and right channels. In each case, we found when we tighten up the delays between left and right channels we have gained image and soundstage quality, particularly image specificity. Also, as expected, we reduced the background noise of the system by a noticeable amount. But unexpectedly, we also gained desirable timbre and texture improvements. No, I don’t think we are through yet!

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

First, listen to as much live music as you can, and remember it. Secondly, read about music, tuning, temperaments, timbre, textures, pitch, etc. Third, don’t let someone tell you it sounds good if it sounds bad to you.

 

George Cardas – Cardas Audio

George Cardas has a gift for mathematics and electronics, and a love of music. This passion can be seen throughout his home. Musical instruments in every room. Walls lined with LPs, tapes, and discs. A Golden Cuboid listening room with padded walls. A reinforced concrete turntable stand running through the floor to a concrete block poured in the ground. Speakers, amplifiers, preamps, turntables, digital players, and recorders of every type. Prototypes everywhere.

One of those who pushed audio systems from hi-fi to high end, George is always searching for more accurate recording and playback systems. George identified the issue of conductor resonance, and controlled it by using a “Golden Ratio” progression of strand sizes in his cable designs. This insight can be found in the bulk of the high-end cables sold today.

George has developed methods for cable stranding, and created pressure- differential microphones as well as new connector designs. He often works with other designers to produce better speakers, amplifiers, and music-storage systems. His latest venture is in the recording industry, making records, CDs, and AADs to audiophile standards. Helping musicians reproduce their music has always been the focus of Cardas Audio.

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?

Actually I would say that cables chose me! Everything was square in the middle of my interest and skills. I was engineering transmission lines at the phone company, obsessively interested in music, and looking for a way to help musicians reproduce their music. I have always loved solving puzzles and this was the greatest puzzle I had ever seen. At the time I was involved with some local musicians who were literally selling their blood to make payments on their instruments. I had figured out a key part of the cable equation and the rest is history. I put my friend Kip Dobler to work making prototypes and eventually terminating the first cables.

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

Interesting question! I believe that by seeking perfection in all that we do and associating with others of like pursuit we are on the path to understanding perfection itself. The dynamic range and simple genius of the two-channel stereo makes it the perfect pathway for development. I believe that the human hearing/nervous system is the ultimate tool for sorting out what is of highest quality. The product’s relationship to the musical signal is best measured with this tool.

On a theoretic level, I believe that the telephone transmission line is a huge magnifying glass for the anomalies of cable itself—the resolution of that model within the cable itself rather that with corrective networks was my ultimate goal.

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?

I would say the process of perfecting what we are doing is an attitude not an end. Understanding and dealing with the things that affect cable performance is a dynamic, and if we are not vigilant we will regress to the easier ways. If the object becomes taking care of investors or simply satisfying tests, we might as well start over.

We will progress as long as we have the passion for perfecting what we do.

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

The Internet is the great leveler of all that is hype. I would say the answer is clear: simply listen and feel, share what you have experienced with the world, keep your eyes open. There really aren’t many different conductor designs, and there are many more people trying to hop on bandwagons that there are actual wagons. Musicality can be achieved in the simplest of systems if they are well focused. Work on focusing a nearfield system first—it will serve as your best tool in the end. If cost is an issue, start with simpler straightforward designs that focus on good symmetry in construction and excellent materials. Realize that the best design is not necessarily the most expensive design and that the things you are looking for will be found in the relationship of the music, the manufacturers, and their components. Look for products that are born of the passion for the sound of music.

 

Ray Kimber – Kimber Cable

Established in 1979, Kimber Kable is the brainchild of inventor, engineer, and entrepreneur Ray Kimber. Ray’s fondness for new discoveries and experimentation began in the first grade when he built a crystal receiver, which he tweaked, without help or knowledge, by adding to it a set of army-surplus headphones. While working at a sound and lighting company in the 1970s, Ray discovered a technique for braiding cable that not only reduced noise, but also improved fidelity. He figured that if weaving cable could alter the sound so significantly, everything else about cables was on the table for discovery, rediscovery, or investigation. This led him to create Kimber Kable to market his ideas and discoveries.

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?

The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” was the catalyst behind the creation of Kimber Kable. In the mid-1970s I worked at a sound and lighting company in Los Angeles when the first big discotheques were being installed. The lighting systems generated noise that was picked up by the speaker cable. Traditionally sound and lighting systems were not installed right next to each other, nor did ordinary lighting systems have an array of noise-generating fixtures such as strobes and flashing or dimmable lights. But in a discotheque the lights and speakers were installed next to each other. The speaker cable was acting as an antenna array and bringing noise from the lights into the sound system.

We tried encasing the speaker cable in a steel conduit, and while that helped with the noise it also had the unintended consequence of lowering the audio fidelity. I had the idea of counter-rotating sets of conductors in the speaker cable to cancel the magnetic interaction and get rid of the noise. That technique worked; the noise was greatly reduced, but I also discovered that the sound quality also improved. It was that discovery of noise elimination and improved fidelity that set me to developing cable designs and founding Kimber Kable. The final version of the braided-wire concept not only rejected RF but also allowed the system to sound more musical. After this period of discovery I decided to take a risk and begin entertaining the idea of selling my new discoveries.

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

Low noise, high fidelity, low employee turnover, high retained value.

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?

In the absence of some fundamental breakthrough in either metals or insulators I would think that the improvements will be in steps rather than leaps.

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

Buy from a reliable dealer. If there are doubts about a recommendation then try before you buy.

 

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.

 

Edwin van der Kleij-Rynveld – Siltech & Crystal Cable

Edwin van der Kleij Rynveld was born in 1953 and raised in Canada and Holland. A music enthusiast from a young age, he played bass guitar in a high-school band, and built amplifiers and speakers. This led him to complete a university degree in electrical engineering. After college he worked for Philips and Exxon, mostly working with computers. During this time he developed high-end audio products for established companies. His interest in audio led him to publish a paper on small-signal behavior in solid-state devices and vacuum tubes. After working with Siltech for several years as a consultant, he acquired the company in 1992. Edwin is married to Gabi van der Kleij-Rynveld, founder of Crystal Cable.

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?

After finishing university (electronics) I worked many years in the computer division of Philips and later for other computer companies. Simultaneously I helped high-end audio companies with their analog amplifier designs, something I loved doing next to the digital day job. This later materialized in the co-ownership of Siltech, where I could expand my interest into cable design.

As a specialized electronics engineer, I was very curious to know how cables create audible differences in sound. Step by step the mysteries unraveled. For a researcher this is heaven, as very little is published regarding audibility of cables used for audio. This early excitement still lives on today, helped by new and better measurement possibilities combined with the use of state-of-the-art multi-physics programming. With this multi-physics approach many complex combined effects of material and construction properties can be visualized before production even starts. This leads to better results than otherwise possible. We believe this is one of the key reasons for our worldwide success.

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

A) Never think you’re finished; in high-end audio there is no limit to quality. B) Keep comparing listening results with live music—it resets your hi-fi memory (by hi-fi memory, I mean getting used to errors by repeated listening). C) Keep innovating, never underestimate your competitors, and try harder to keep on top. D) Keep searching for new technologies and materials; material science develops fast. E) Make products that are practical, strong, and flexible so that the sound quality doesn’t deteriorate over time. F) Use the best available materials. For both our brands, the highest-quality materials are used, starting at even the most affordable cable. A material example: Siltech Explorer 90i high-purity mono-crystal copper, DuPont Kapton plus Teflon-film insulation. Crystal Cable Piccolo: high-purity solid silver-gold-core conductor with dual-layer Kapton insulation and high-precision coaxial construction. Nowadays it is hard to find equally high-tech materials at this price level. F) Build it to perfection. This is why our company can give lifetime warranty for every cable from Siltech and Crystal Cable. Even 25-year-old Siltech cables still change hands today because of their still excellent sound and lifetime warranty.

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?

I believe large improvements are still possible. As resolution and overall sound quality improve, so will cable performance have to follow. An interesting story: One of my old books dating to 1928 holds an ad from Philips in which a man sits comfortably in a chair reading a book while listening to the Philips Pagode loudspeaker and says “Just like in a real concert hall!” So in that time it probably sounded realistic. Similar claims are made today, despite the difference with that 1928 loudspeaker. It just means what seems real is what we believe in a certain time period.

So for all hi-fi components there is a lot to improve. Now for cables, will they stay? Twenty years ago we believed by now most equipment would be wireless. The digital technology makes it simple now. However, the continuous improvement in source quality, by technique and better recording equipment, gives a great advantage to hard-wired connections. There is no conversion loss as in all-digital systems. Most high-end audio owners are very aware of this. For the highest in sound-quality there is just no replacement for a direct-wired connection.

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

Before spending on cables, make sure the whole system is already acoustically balanced. Correcting large acoustical problems with cables is impossible. Correcting harsh or boomy speakers with cables is equally illusive. If the sound system is already good sounding, then cable can bring the next 30% of quality improvement—the cables can let the system sing.

To start exchanging cables, work from source to the end (loudspeaker cable comes last). The music from the source is of the highest quality in your system, only to be degraded by whatever follows. For example, start by changing the interconnect between the source and the preamplifier input, then the interconnect between the preamplifier and the power amplifier, then power cords to the source components, then loudspeaker cables, and finally the digital cables.

One final note: Cables are as interesting as car tires. Boring at first sight and not the first thing you think of when buying a car, but essential for its performance. Like tires, cables are the connection to the real world.

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By Robert Harley

My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.

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