Do speaker cables matter? Is an A/B/X test worth your time?

Almost every speaker cable ABX test has the same result: inconclusive or no difference between cables. Does that mean that no one is able to discern differences between cables? A lot of people swear they can. Are they lying or maybe just fooled by something they’re not considering, or is something about their experiment that’s different from the others?

I feel I have a good perspective and set of experiences leading me to conclude that there *is* something different about their experiment. I don’t know how to explain without a lot of detail and history however. Since this is a long explanation it might be best to just start at the end …

The End:
I believe I have a statistical argument demonstrating that only a small % of people in high-end audio have heard a properly setup system. In my opinion a properly setup system is one that reveals as much information of the recording as is possible and does it with the lowest amount of distortion possible while reproducing a frequency response that is as close to the original recording as possible. If you haven’t heard a properly setup system then you likely won’t be able to hear cabling differences.

I’m including everyone here: dealers, manufacturers, reviewers and consumers. And “tweakers” (neurotic sound engineers for this discussion) who are specifically not dealers and are rarely consumers/reviewers. Some manufacturers might qualify as tweakers, but usually only speaker manufacturers and not even half of those qualify. The tweakers go to great lengths to tweak everything to death (room, source material, equipment). And they never stop tweaking. Going into greater detail here takes paragraphs so I’ll cut it short by stating that I have driven all across the country stopping in at well known manufacturers, many dealers, many consumers homes and many rooms at audio shows. I’ve had direct and lengthy communications with consumers everywhere, and some manufacturers to some degree. My communications with dealers are almost always very brief. They are almost always completely full of $#it and almost always rely on manufacturers to decide how to setup equipment. And it is almost always poorly done. I can go on in detail, but the takeaway is this: Excluding the category of tweakers and manufacturers, I feel I have a sound statistical argument which strongly implies that only a small % of everyone else has ever heard an excellent setup.

You should be very skeptical about that last paragraph. I would have been extremely skeptical if I had read this mid way through my journey, and that was after obsessing on this topic for quite some time. It took me about 3 years to reach this opinion. Here was my path which began about 8 years ago:

First, after reading a large amount on the topic of high-end audio, I proceeded to have several uncomfortable online correspondences with “audiophiles”. Those correspondences proved I had no idea what goes in this industry. It’s a mess with regard to accepted definitions and standard practices. Primarily, it begins with the goals of the high-end listener. What goals are they trying to achieve? I thought it was obvious 8 years ago, and now I realize it’s mostly about personal preference. And even if the goals are strongly tied to “faithful representation of an audio recording”, that gets one almost nowhere. At first I thought there might be just a handful of definitions for what faithful means. Now I see there is no set of accepted definitions. There is only preference. Surprisingly, faithful isn’t even an important goal for some audiophiles.

What a surprising discovery to find that a good % of high-end consumers are not spending their money on a quest for faithful playback!

Second, I started buying and selling equipment and playing around with everything. I had a fairly nice listening room, and I got to a point after about 1 year where I was hearing excellent (my opinion) high fidelity from my own system. It was here that I had my first interconnect experience. I doubted ICs made much of a difference so I tested some out and the difference was dramatic. Eye opening. I thought it was a very important discovery, but it wasn’t really. I simply discovered that some ICs are bad, and it makes no sense to buy cheap interconnects. But what is cheap? I don’t know exactly, but after this discovery I realized that I couldn’t hear any difference at all between good ICs. I expected a gradation here where $300 ICs would sound better than $100 ICs, and then as one climbs above $300 I should expect diminishing returns but improvements nevertheless. I never heard that however. What’s significant about this part of my path is that I inched forward and realized a couple things: improvements in sound were likely to come incrementally at this point, and whatever happened next would have to be completely up to me.

As the wisest in the industry will often say, “get out there and listen to everything that you can”.

Third, as I went around to shows and dealers and audiophiles homes I realized that my cheapo system always sounded better to me. My $3000-$6000 system always sounded better than $50K+ systems. Begs the question of what “better” means of course, and that’s where I went next – trying to figure out what quality all these other guys were looking for. So bit by bit as I traveled around I came away with new discoveries with regard to tone that I wasn’t hearing at home (usually the tone of strings/pianos/horns) and the soundstage which on some occasions was just better than what I had at home. You likely know what soundstage means, but I’ll define it loosely here anyhow as “distinct placement of instruments/vocals/sounds across the space in front of the listener accompanied by some amount of depth”.

Maybe it’s not necessary to spend a lot of $$ to create the best playback possible?

Fourth, 2.5 years into this my system was sounding better as I started moving things around the room and playing with angles and heights and listening positions. I was beginning to think of my soundstage as realistic. Not just convincing. Then two things happened that took me in a completely new direction:

1. I bought a VAC 70/70 300b tube amp. A disgustingly dirty amp that when played though my Joseph Audio Pulsars did something I had never heard anywhere. Prior to this I had no idea it could be done: vocals were now placed about 4-6 feet behind the speakers with speakers about 11 feet apart and 8 feet in front of the listening position. The first few days of this were just eerie – very strange to hear these voices coming from a very well placed spot well behind the speakers. Prior to that I had heard maybe 1-2 feet behind. Never anything close to this though. I couldn’t explain it.

2. I bought Magnepan panels. I set them up as instructed by experts. Horrible sounding. I researched a bit more and setup according to other experts. Much better but disappointing. I gave up on the experts and just started playing around with speaker setup and discovered that the experts have no idea what their speakers are supposed to sound like – every person that I’ve ever known or read about that owns Magnepans sets them up way too close to rear walls. They need to – their rooms aren’t big enough to do otherwise. Once I decided on 12 feet away from the walls (as opposed to the suggested 3-6 foot “ideal” position) the stage opened up and now I heard what panels are supposed to sound like. By far the most realistic sound stage I had ever heard. Great depth especially when I drove them with the VAC 70/70. But how much of this new experience was due to speaker and listening positions?

I thought I was getting closer, but now I was back to having little knowledge as to the common goals and standard practices of high-end audio.

Fifth, I moved to a house with a listening room sloping from 8 feet to 23 feet. Mostly carpeted, but I covered most of the hard floors with rugs. I made and installed very large curtains to split the room in half, made my own baffles, covered windows and hung huge and heavy rugs on walls and coming down from the stairwell. Played around with an enormous number of speakers and placements. Soon new things began to happen. Images were incredibly well defined and placed on the stage with good depth. Performances now took on a presence I hadn’t heard before, because now I was hearing excellent low distortion, high powered, low frequency energy inserted into a larger waveguide. For the first time ever I heard a well recessed and powerful tympany erupting in my home replete with reverb straight off the recording. My 20’x40′ room became a much larger concert hall. Did NOT know that could happen. Not that kind of spatial presence. Never heard that before. At this point I believed I was approaching as good as could be expected, because it was as good as anything I had heard plus/minus the differences that come with speaker choice: more/less/lower bass, more dynamics, and differences in frequency response and dispersion.

Ah ha! Only by putting a lot of effort into this am I achieving something that very few people are hearing with their own systems!

Sixth, after all the traveling and approx 100 rooms visited at 3 audio shows (Denver + Newport) and many discussions turned into friendly relationships with audiophiles and manufacturers and one dealer (the other 15 or so weren’t worth a minute of my time) I was settling down and deciding to take the advice of others and start putting money into cabling and a DAC and a much better transport. Mostly I had decided it was time to actually fork over bigger bucks for my own speakers rather than continue to buy and sell. I slowed all the traveling down and stayed local (Phoenix, AZ). One day I ended up at a Phoenix audiophile’s home to listen to an amp to purchase for a friend. His was another $50k – $90k system. I walked into his listening space with few expectations. Twenty minutes later I was hearing something I had never heard anywhere before. The entire performance came together with the best detail and realistic depth I’ve heard. But that wasn’t the big revelation. The main thing that was new was the “air” surrounding the sound-stage. Hard to explain, and maybe better to say I was hearing all the information off the recording and that included all the information from the soundstage itself. Even if that meant the confines of the recording studio I was now hearing it. I thought I knew these favorite recordings, but it was clear that I did not. The low level acoustic guitar of Adele’s “Lovesong” for instance was convincingly placed at a precise distance and depth from Adele, and I could now hear much more detail of fingers on the fret and the air in between and around vocals and guitar. I could hear the extra information from the recording environment, regardless of studio or live. Regardless of how it was engineered there was clearly a lot of information I had never heard. It was extremely low level but it was there and was a missing piece convincing me of a presence of instruments and musicians in the room.

I had heard something that was much better than my own system. Soon after I visited a new dealer location in downtown Phoenix. I went and listened to the expensive system in a large room of its own. Almost the same experience, but not as much detail. Still, I heard much more air than I did at home and I was blown away by another favorite recording that I was sure I knew: Dire Straits “Your Latest Trick”. I would simply describe it as a “better” sax. A better recording overall. Mostly just more detailed. It was clear to me now my speakers weren’t even close to what I needed, which to match what I heard at these two locations, needed to be at least in the $12K+ USED range ($20K+ new). And I had no idea if my amp was good enough to match up with everything else.

These new discoveries weren’t good things though. I put a lot of time into tweaking my room, and now it appeared that the big boy audiophiles were right after all: I needed extremely expensive source material, cabling, and speakers.

… but two months later I discovered every bit of that thinking was wrong.

The problem was distortion, distortion, distortion and it was all coming from my speaker-room interactions. I purchased $2500 Quad ESL-2805s, a $5500 VAC Phi 200 tube amp along with $7000 Ayre MX-R monoblocks for comparison. My own speaker cable. A lot more tweaking of baffles especially right behind the quads. My own ABX box and I started testing. Cutting to the chase over the course of a week I had moved the speakers around 25-30 times about 1″ at a time playing around with angles and the positioning of baffles behind and in between the speakers. By the time I was done the amps made little difference in terms of the sense of realism. I started using my cheapo $2500 Primluna tube amp just to prove this. Up until the very last minute a week later, and before I needed to pack up and sell the Quads, the sound got better and better and there seemed to be no end to where it could go. At this point the soundstage and air was better than what I heard anywhere – for the first time I had a feeling of everything being in my house. Not just the instruments and soundstage but whatever was in the air around the soundstage. I know that may not make sense – it’s hard to explain. There was a *visceral* conviction that everything involved with the recording was all right there and the soundstage was extremely wide and extremely deep. There was information that I wasn’t able to hear before. Prior to all these new changes my “high end sound” was mixed up by phase interference of the room and speaker placement and distortion coming straight from the speakers. And yet I had no sense that my previous setup was anything but excellent.

I hadn’t ever heard excellent. I thought I had many times, but it was now clear that most of those earlier listening sessions involved improper setups.

When I write that I have a statistical argument demonstrating only a very small % of listeners have ever heard an excellent setup I mean that I’m not even sure how close I came. I know I could have kept on going, but I sold that system (2805s + MX-Rs). I am convinced that only the most neurotic tweakers would do what I did to get to where I ended up. There are plenty of us no doubt, but % wise of all involved in high-end audio? That’s an incredibly small number. I was using a middle of the road DAC (Auralic Vega), a barely qualifying transport (OPPO BDP-105), excellent recordings off of standard digital sources, good ICs (Purist) and my own speaker cables. That entire system cost about $8500 and was mostly pre-owned equipment. The Phoenix dealer (a self-proclaimed guru) was clear that his system was about the top of the line. All told that was about a $120K system. I have no reservations when I claim that my system sounded better. Not in terms of dynamics and deep bass, but overall just “better”. Quads produce better strings and piano – his speakers did not compare in this regard (his were $50K Rockports if I recall). Horns and vocals are excellent on both systems. Tone overall is excellent on both systems, but the detail, imaging and soundstaging simply beat what he had. Why? Distortion. It’s very difficult for dynamic (cone) drivers to approach the crazy-low distortion and excellent frequency response of electrostatic panels. Difficult but not impossible. To do it correctly one needs to tweak the room like crazy, and that means way more absorption than the “industry” recommends (a different topic for a different time). Speaker placement and the areas in between and behind speakers must be tweaked and tweaked some more. And then even more.

So what does all this have to do with cabling? If you haven’t heard as much information as is possible off your favorite recordings then you likely won’t be able to hear cabling differences. You *might* be able to hear differences going from CD to SACD, DSD, DXD etc, but being certain that one difference is “better” than another? That’s the hard part unless your system is setup extremely well.

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Do speaker cables matter? Is an A/B/X test worth your time?