ARE EXPENSIVE CABLES WORTH THE DOUGH?

I'm a psychologist by training who, after a decade of clinical work, founded a business 30 years ago based on solid engineering principles, structured coding, and sound business practices. I'm not easily sold, swayed, or influenced. And so it came as something of a shock to me when I recently replaced perfectly competent interconnects and speaker cables for some astonishingly expensive ones. I did it with my eyes wide open, fully cognizant of those with engineering backgrounds who "know" that cable is cable because they've measured it, and the many Asylum posters who claim that they've never heard difference in any cables they've swapped. I've also noted the claims by those who, seemingly on faith alone, simply dismiss the "rationalists" as wrong. A few short months ago I was in the former group. Count me among the converted, or lost, take your pick. 

 

In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that many years ago I purchased a Hovland Music Groove 2 phono cable because it seemed to wipe away a layer of auditory haze. Perhaps it was the nature of the low level signal coming from the low output MC cartridge, perhaps I should have taken that as an indication that the other cables in the stream could be problematic, but the truth is, I just didn't hear anything when changing cables further downstream. 

 

I always loved music and, in fact, took the proceeds from my first paycheck out of graduate school to a tiny audio store in Keene New Hampshire in the summer of 1973. That first system stood me in good stead for many years but in the early 1990's a so-called friend introduced me to the "high end." I became somewhat obsessed with putting a system together that would lull me into a state of suspended belief. Over about a decade that first high end system evolved. My speakers changed from Theil 3.5s to Sonus Faber Extremas, my turntable morphed into a full blown VPI TNT, my cartridges changed from MM to MC, I added a Theta CD drive and processor and later replaced it with a highly modified Sony SCD-777es, my Conrad Johnson MV-125 and PV-11were replaced with twin BEL 1001 MKII amps and a Hovland HP100 pre. And after sending the BEL amps back to Richard Brown to be upgraded to MK V status, a conversation with him convinced me to replace the mish mash of used MI-330s, Wireworld Eclipse and OCOS cables with which I'd cobbled the system together, with P-1 interconnects ($150/m) and double runs of his S-24 speaker cable ($400+$150/m x2). The BEL cables were physically unimposing, relatively inexpensive, and made no audible change in the system sound as far as I could tell. But they were new, and represented a consistent approach, so there the system stayed for more than a decade.  

 

This past spring my Sony SACD player started having issues. And at the age of sixty, blessed with a modicum of success, I replaced it with the EMM XDS1 single box SACD/CD player. I know there are many who might ask why anyone would buy expensive digital technology when it will, no doubt, be obsolete in short order. The answer is simple: my investment in CDs and SACDs far exceeds my investment in the XDS1, and it is the best single box player I've ever heard music played on, so into the system it went.  

 

Several weeks after the XDS1 arrived I felt something wasn't quite right. Despite my subjective sense that the XDS1 was better in every describable way than the Sony SCD-777es, the system balance was off in some as yet to be determined way. Over the years I've become very certain about one single principle of audio: no downstream component can ever make the music sound closer to the original source than the upstream components feeding it. It's logical, it's obvious, and I've found it to be true in practice. And since I was quite certain the XDS1 was not the problem, per se, I turned to this forum in the hope of finding answer. Among the things I read was an interesting entry from a guy who sells Audio Note gear in Amherst, MA about the impact of interconnects between CD players and pre-amps. While I was skeptical, I reached out to him directly and he reiterated his opinion and offered to lend me some silver Audio Note interconnects to try. A few days later, a nondescript box arrived with thin, silver/grey interconnects; one pair each of Audio Note Sogon ($4,575/m) and Sootto ($8,300/m). These cables contain 50 and 120 strands of 99.99% pure silver, respectively. I know you are tempted to stop reading right now with those prices actually being put out there in black and white; if you love audio, don't. 

 

I won't bore you with the fifty SACDs and RBCDs I used during an extensive evaluation, and I won't subject you to hyperbolic descriptions of the distinctions I heard. But I will say this you with absolute certainty: these cables changed the sound of the music coming out of the speakers. Both were more transparent (and by that I mean clearly passed more spatial and tonal information from the source) than what they replaced or were later compared to, and that compared to each other, although similar, the Sootto cables were obviously in another league. It wasn't close. For the first time in my experience ICs made an audible difference. What I had believed to be competent IC cables were revealed by Sootto interconnects to flatten the sound stage, and they revealed that my system, which I already felt to be exceptional, was capable of projecting a more realistic illusion than I'd known or thought possible. To say I was surprised is an understatement. 

 

As far as I can tell, there are really only three rational explanations: first, that I'm impressionable and there really is no difference in cables and that everything I think I hear is the result of suggestion or a placebo effect; second, that the engineers who "know" that there is no measurable explanation and therefore no possibility of an auditory difference simply do not understand some underlying principle(s) at work, and therefore have not yet been able to identify, much less design a method to measure it/them; third, that those who claim to hear no difference in cables are listening on systems insufficiently transparent to reveal audible distinctions. While my own professional background and training would normally lead me to concede that the first is most likely, my direct experience led me to conclude that in fact, it is the second and/or third scenarios which are more likely to be true.  

 

My current thinking is that the differences I hear are reductions in one or more artifacts that every other cable I've used or auditioned apparently introduce to the chain. And THAT, I believe, is the reason Audio Note Sootto interconnects are superior; they pass nothing but the signal. I suspect that on a less revealing system these differences might very well be less apparent or even inaudible, but I can't concern myself with that here. Introducing the XDS1 had upped the resolution ante throughout the system and the overall system balance had to be restored. Learning that my friend in Amherst was selling two sets of demos, I replaced the BEL P-1 ICs between the XDS1 and Hovland pre-amp, and between the pre-amp and BEL amps with Sootto ICs.  

 

Inevitably, the introduction of the Sootto interconnects led to an exploration of just what artifacts were being introduced by the BEL speaker cables. In the end I compared them to Kimber Select KS-1038, ZenSati #3, Audio Note Lexus XL (copper, fifty-strand), Audio Note SPx (silver, twenty-seven-strand), and finally Audio Note Sogon (previous generation, silver, eighty-strand) speaker cables. Now as I've already said, until this most recent experience, I'd not heard differences in ICs or speaker cables. I've read a hundred times that there is no difference between cables, and I've also read a hundred times more that if there is, that copper is superior to silver between solid-state amplifiers and speakers. I was even told by my new friend in Amherst not to expect dramatic changes from speaker cable replacement. And try to remember, I entered this process honestly believing that cable was cable. Rubbish to all.  

 

Substituting Audio Note Lexus XL in bi-wire configuration for double runs of BEL S-24 speaker cable was a revelation. With 50 strands of copper, Lexus cables seemed to reveal richer harmonic structure. Background seemed quieter, and that was the element I finally ascribed the most specific audible distinction to; somehow Lexus cable was not passing some barely noticeable noise that the BEL did. Whether this is RF or AC noise, or something else, I honestly don't know, but the qualitative change seemed apparent to me within seconds of switching cable. These differences got me to thinking that maybe I should take a listen to silver cable and my friend in Amherst obliged, sending down a bi-wire pair of AN SPx, once a cable Audio Note sold as their best. 

 

With 27 strands of pure silver, the SPx is distinctive in character from the Lexus. A sense of openness and air surrounded notes. SPx seemed to shine a light on each instrument and singer. The midrange and upper register (at least as far as my sixty year old ears can detect) were ravishing. Piano harmonics were conveyed with the absolute ring of truth. Female voice was clear, round, real and luscious. Harmonica was conveyed with the "bite" of attack and rhythm of breathing in and out. What I'd thought was a reduction in the background noise in the Lexus XL cable was there, but that midrange was just very seductive. These two cables are cut with the same pattern but of different cloth. The articulation of real sound in real space was just right with the SPx. It was almost perfect, but, and it is a big but, compared to both the BEL and the Lexus, I felt the SPx seemed to lose weight, perhaps attenuating the lower register just a bit. And the longer I listened, the more conscious I became of this aspect of the sound, so I put the Lexus cables back in place. I was convinced though, that there was something special about SPx; those silver strands offered something that copper, at least copper I'd heard up to that point, couldn't: the breath of life, but at 10x the price of Lexus, I felt it didn't deliver the whole package. 

 

So not entirely happy, I arranged to audition two more speaker cables, Kimber Select KS-3038 and ZenSati #3 (and yes, I'm aware of the snide comments about it really being cheap cable from a Chinese manufacturer "“ and old enough to remember when the same thing was whispered about those cheap cars from Japan). I kept thinking about the wonderful mid-range of the SPx though and wondered what Audio Note's top of the line Sogon ($14,600/m) would convey. Not being willing to spend anywhere near that on speaker cable, on a lark, I contacted several Audio Note dealers around the world to find out if anyone ever parted with first generation (80 strand) Sogon by trading up to the current 96 strand version. Virtually never, I discovered. But in the meantime, once again my friend in Amherst offered to let me borrow his demo pair of last generation Sogon cables with 80 strands of silver, split out into 40/40 bi-wire configuration, but he informed me they were not for sale. This would just be a test drive. 

 

Off came the Lexus XL, on went the Sogon 80. Even with the Sogon split out to bi-wire, 40/40, each 40 strand cable contains 48% more silver than AN SPx. The Sogon retains all of the midrange wizardry of the SPx has, but seemingly even more of it, whatever IT is. Backgrounds are completely black, notes, voices, guitars, piano, strings, simply emerge from space in the manner they do in a real venue. At first, I was listening for a lean bottom end, and then, a double bass string was plucked and the damn note radiated toward me in full glory. I felt it an instant before registering that I heard it. I emailed my friend in Amherst that a CD I'd listened to for twenty years, Jennifer Warnes, "The Hunter," took me by surprise. I like the CD and I've heard it on many systems always coming away with the same impression, "Gee, it's too bad they messed up the recording with the bass overload." Listening to it through the Sogon cable proved me wrong. In the same way less revealing systems compress large amplitude swings into "congestion walls" (most obviously demonstrated with large scale choral pieces), every cable I'd ever heard this CD through couldn't accurately pass the lower register content, instead forging some sort of congestion experienced as bass bloat. Sogon, by compressing nothing seems to pass the signal in entirety. What I'd thought to be a problem with the recording was unmasked as a distortion introduced by cable! 

 

I never intended this to be a report of a cable shoot-out so it is perhaps anti-climatic to report that the Kimber Select KS-3038, ZenSati #3, BEL S-24, and Audio Note Lexus XL all introduced the same distortions in the lower register I now know to be false. In that way they perhaps demonstrated that most "cable is cable." But not all cable. The AN SPx had hinted at something different, but it was the Sogon speaker cable that made a real statement. It is so obviously different from the others that it took me almost a month to determine that the Sogon cables were transferring the truth, and everything I'd ever heard before was not. How am I so sure that? Because I spend a good deal of time every year at the Metropolitan Opera and the Jazz at Lincoln Center venues listening to real voices and real instruments in real space. And my friends, those venues reveal the truth, about vocal power, about real bass in real space, about complex choral projection, about intimate harmony, about the attack, decay and natural harmonics of acoustic piano. The live recordings I listen to convey that, and I am confident that the studio recordings I listen to are also being conveyed with the same degree of fidelity. 

 

The cool aid drunk, the conversion to a believer complete, I struggled to make sense of this experience. Two months earlier I didn't think cables made a difference. Bruce Springsteen once wrote, "God help the man who doubts what he's sure of"¦" This conclusion was a difficult one for me, not only because it upset my beliefs, but because it emptied my wallet. In retrospect that was inevitable. Once you know the truth, how can you ever go back to a lie? It reminds me just a little of the choice between the blue and red pills in The Matrix. Like Neo I chose the red one. 

 

And what about my friend in Amherst? We worked something out and the cables never went back to him. Instead, since I needed about half the length, they were sent to an authorized Audio Note service center to be cut in half and re-terminated so I could run a full bi-wire set at 80 strands a cable. I could go on, but enough already. You've got the picture. 

 

This hobby has a natural progression for those who pursue it, and as my new friend in Amherst likes to say, it resembles an escalator. At first, someone who's not heard a good system is astonished, gets on the escalator, and gets off on the first floor offering a little bit of magic given rational cost constraints. For many, that's enough, feeling absolutely no need to continue. For others, as finances permit, components are upgraded. Too often, this can lead to a period of disillusionment. Systems inevitably reach a point where the quality of the recordings seems to exacerbate the limitations of the hardware, and pleasure in listening to music gives way to listening fatigue and boredom. For more than a few, this experience leads to swearing off the escalator and staying where they are, forever just a little disappointed. For others, taking the down escalator seems to make sense since the music sounded just fine when their systems were simpler. But for an intrepid few who continue on the up escalator, it is possible to arrive at a point where hardware revelations disappear and all that remains are the recordings themselves.  

 

For the lucky few who get there, things remain just fine until some piece of equipment fails. And then just because introducing new equipment into a system this revealing to begin with always messes with it, it takes a real effort to realign all the elements and restore balance. And that's what happened when my Sony SCD-777es broke. Adding the EMM Labs XDS1 upset the balance. The introduction of the Audio Note Sootto interconnects revealed that the existing equipment was capable of inching ever so much closer to the "truth." But it was the Sogon speaker cable that restored system balance, and did so at a higher level of realism than I ever thought possible in my home system. Maybe it's system specific, maybe it's all in my head, but I don't think so. I go home every night now listen to music. I listen for hours. I listen to classical, to pop, to country, to jazz, to R&R. I no longer listen through hardware; I simply listen in wonder to music I thought I knew. On a recent visit, my ninety-two year old mother-in-law sat with me and began tapping her toes to Beethoven's 7th"¦ TAPPING HER TOES TO BEETHOVEN'S 7TH! And my twenty-three year old son sits with me and asks about the operas we are listening to, remembering vaguely that he heard them when he was much younger. And that's why these outrageously expensive interconnect and speaker cables are priceless. If you can possible manage it, find your way to cables of this quality. 

Originally Posted on www.audiosylum.com.

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