So “back in the day” (i.e. the 1970s –The “golden age”) we hooked up speakers with ordinary “line cord” or “lamp cord”. And we’re not talking about ordinary speakers, amplifiers, or source components… we’re talking about some of the best the world has ever known (that’s why it was the golden age). We used high quality, heavy gage, braided copper wire and kept the runs as short as possible and made sure that both speaker wires were the same length, and the buck stopped there.
Yes, all the laws of physics still applied back then, and we followed them religiously. Overall resistance is the key factor for “transparency” in speaker cables, and that is an extraordinarily simple task to address. Claims of superior sound quality from exotic materials and wire configurations are just that… claims.
In fact, a listener is far more likely to adversely affect their sound quality due to inferior or improper speaker cable terminations and/or connections than the speaker cables themselves (see Banana plugs or spades for speaker cables?). To that end, raw wire was always the preferred connection method, one less link in the signal path chain.
Enter the 1980s, the digital era, and the era of highly expensive speaker cables which has survived to this day. Listeners knew something was lacking from their music and a plethora of exotic “high end” speaker cables and interconnects ensued. Of course what was missing was all that analog goodness lost forever on the PCM 16 bit sampling floor (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio), but it’s simply easier to look to the wire than to replace an entire music collection and go back to vinyl. And remember, high definition digital wasn’t available for many years to come.
So now that I’ve got two very different reference quality systems, I decided to go back to the speaker wire question. Both reference systems have exemplary front ends, but my Canada reference system has a tube pre-amp (Vintage preamp shoot-out, tubes vs. solid state) driving a high current power amp (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier) into planar loudspeakers (In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics) whereas my Maui system has a Nelson Pass solid state preamp (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) driving a high slew rate power amp (The Audionics of Oregon CC-2. More distortion, more better.) into box speakers (The Venerable Kef 104/2). These are very, very different systems, I love them both for different reasons, and they would reveal any improvements, no matter how subtle they may be, in speaker cables in very different ways.
So speaker cables were the last thing I upgraded in my signal path, having used 12 AWG hardware store copper wire up to that point. I kept the lengths long (but the same left to right) so I could dial in my speaker placement and once I got that nailed down, I pulled the trigger on high-end cables that offered good value and made no false claims. I bought the same ones for both Canada and Maui systems, and even the same length, as it turns out.
They are Zu Audio’s Libtec Cables and are made of oxygen free copper, have cold forged terminations, and are of gorgeous build quality. They sound great! Better than my hardware store copper wire?… I honestly can’t tell. They don’t sound any worse 🙂 I can hear the difference a bad (i.e. highly resistive) cable or interconnect makes in an instant, but hearing the difference between these and the best quality my local hardware store has to offer… not so much. I tried to postpone any critical listening until after the break-in period suggested by the manufacturer (200 to 300 hours), but even then I’d be hard pressed to hear the difference without double-blind A/B listening tests. Would love to do that sometime, but that’s a very elaborate set-up to do properly for speaker cables.
Then there’s the subject of capacitance. While this factors in far less than resistance in the speaker cable arena, it can make a significant difference. Capacitance is an unwanted presence in the accurate transmission of audio signals. Think of it like a small battery in the form of your wire storing an electrical charge. Ironically, many expensive high end speaker cables have relatively high capacitance, which alters the sound accuracy.
Why?… because the elaborate wire cross sections and mix of materials create it. Nothing will have lower capacitance per foot than plain copper wire, and only pure silver will have higher conductance (i.e. lower resistance – but it would be a waste of money to use silver for it’s slightly lower resistance when you can just jump up to the next size of copper wire for far less cost). So how can these high end cables be selling if they have higher capacitance than regular copper wire? The fact is that higher capacitance wire is typically heard as “brighter”, which can be interpreted as an improvement in sound quality rather than the departure from signal accuracy that it actually is. This can be especially true if there is an expectation, due to marketing hype (see Trust your ears…) or even just the impressive esthetics of the wire itself, for better sound quality. This can also be true if there are deficiencies elsewhere in the signal path that the extra capacitance is compensating for, sort of like a fixed curve equalizer.
So what I’m left with is a couple pair of speaker cables that are made of the purest oxygen-free copper and are hand crafted in the USA to the exact length I require and are terminated perfectly for my amplifier and speaker combinations. I know they are unlikely to degrade over time and they look great on my floor, they really do. Having the proper terminations for my amplifiers and speakers makes connections a lot simpler than they would be with bare wire and I know the manufacturer of these cables has done a far better job at making these terminations than I ever could (of course I could never cold forge them myself). I’m happy with my purchase, first and foremost to see if I noticed an immediate sonic improvement (I didn’t) but mainly because I didn’t overpay for what I got and I know these cables will last a lifetime.
Oh yeah, specifications of my speaker cables (including terminations) vs. 12 AWG, unterminated copper wire?…
Copper wire: resistance = 0.002 ohms/foot, capacitance = 15 pF/foot
Speaker cables: resistance = 0.003 ohms/foot, capacitance = 61.25 pF/foot
And… lest you think I’m overly critical of the cable industry, have a look at this link, written by a former Director of Acoustic Research and Head of Loudspeaker Design at McIntosh, one of the most respected companies in the business.