After much preamble, procrastination and pratting around, we finally held our first test featuring a panel of our forum users. The subject of cables has been under much debate, and we thought it was high time we invited some of the prime debaters to a face-off at Sevenoaks Holborn branch in central London.
The cable sceptics:
John Fisher had the most trouble in differentiating between cables, which would imply that his decision to use only cheap cables in his home set-up is perfectly justified - he has probably got little to gain from an upgrade.
Pluto believed that while there was some difference in the high frequencies, the inefficiencies of the cheaper cable could largely be solved by adjusting the volume.
The cable believers:
Paul Upton took an early bath though he was able to distinguish between the cables in our first two tests.
Wotslice appeared to have the best intuition regarding differences in the cables, identifying each change correctly and apparently only having trouble in the instance where we didn't actually change the cable.
Since the very idea that one cable could be superior to another had been strongly contested, the stated purpose of the test was simply to establish if the panel could hear a difference between two different types of analogue interconnect - a cheap one, and an expensive one. We invited two avowed cable sceptics and two believers in the potential differences between cables. On the day we tried two types of non-name brand cables from Maplin, one costing £1.99, the other £7.99. For the expensive cable we used a Chord Signature, priced at £500.
We used a standard blind ABX format for the test. The subjects couldn't see what was being changed, or even if there was a change taking place. The same piece of music was played at each listening test 'triplet', first with 'cable A', again with 'cable B' and a third time during which the panel marked down which cable they thought they were hearing.
We considered using a comparator box, which would switch between cables at the touch of a button, although Paul was actively against such a device. Pluto thought that “those people who would argue against the switching box approach (regardless of how well engineered it was) are probably the kind of people who would do their utmost to avoid this kind of high-pressure test anyway”. We decided ultimately that a switching/comparator box would invalidate this kind of test in some eyes, so it's best not to use it.
The first couple of play-throughs using the cheapest cable left none of the panel in any doubt that they could hear differences. Everyone seemed to be aware of a change in volume (the more expensive cable was louder) and of difference in the quality of the higher frequencies. The variations may not have been huge, but they were definitely noticeable, and even arch-sceptic John Fisher admitted to hearing a 'small' difference. All of our panellists correctly identified the X cable in these first two tests.
Things got a little muddier for the next four attempts using the slightly more expensive £7.99 cable however, and everyone admitted to having some difficulty in reliably identifying which cable was which, though all gamely soldiered on throughout the afternoon. Having originally planned to perform ten tests, time overtook us after just six (this still took the best part of four hours).
The stereo system
Marantz SA-7S1 CD Player (£5,000)
Roksan M series Pre amplifier and Mono Blocks (£4,500)
Spendor S6e speakers (£1,500)
1. Enigma - Principles Of Lust from Mcmxc Ad
2. Van Morrison - Sometimes We Cry, from The Healing Game
3. Toumani Djiabaté - Elyne Road from The Mandé Variations
4. The Gotan Project - Queremos Paz
5. Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major - 1. Allegro
6. Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
Unfortunately Paul had to dash off after the first two tracks (which he identified correctly). John and Pluto were 50 per cent right in their choices when they thought they could tell a difference in the cables. Wotslice however proved to be quite adept at assessing the difference in cables, correctly identifying each one, except for track five, when we did a sneaky and didn't actually change the cable. For the record, he said at the time that he was having a lot of trouble choosing on that one.
There seemed to be a distinct volume difference between the cheapest cable and the Chord (the cheaper wire was quieter). This distinction was less obvious with the slightly more expensive 'cheap' cable.
While the differences between the cheapest cable and the Chord were relatively easy to spot, our panellists had noticeably more difficulty in distinguishing between the £7.99 Maplin special and the £500 Chord Signature. The differences were extremely subtle at best. Then again, we would expect that anyone who's prepared to pay £500 for an interconnect, is prepared to listen VERY closely.
This wasn't of course an in-depth scientific test, but it did reveal a few curious points. To be scientifically valid, the test should be a double-blind ABX test, conducted in isolation many hundreds of times over, with people who don't even know what they are listening for. However, from our sample of 20 near-individual tests, we got 14 correct answers. That works out at 70 per cent correct; not enough to be statistically significant, but suggesting that there may indeed be variations in cable performance.
With even our cable doubter in chief, John Fisher, admitting that he detected a 'small' difference during the first two tests, the panel concluded that interconnect cables CAN make a difference.
However, we also discovered that it was much more difficult to detect a clear difference when we used the more expensive 'cheap' cable (£7.99) against the £500 Chord Signature.
Though we proved that there can be a difference, the extent of that difference is of course much more difficult to calibrate. Could it be that some people can appreciate the differences in cables better than other? Wotslice's ability to distinguish differences more readily than the other panellists would seem to imply this. We all certainly have different levels of hearing ability, and different personal requirements when it comes to what we choose to put in our ears.
The experience of our test showed that if you're concerned about getting the best possible sound from your system, it's certainly worth trying different cables. But there's no definitive scale regarding how much you should spend - the traditional argument of ten per cent of the cost of your system may be completely worthless if you really can't hear a difference. If, however, you can detect differences, away from the encouragement of the salesperson, then how much you need to spend will be entirely up to you.
Thanks to Sevenoaks for the use of their listening room, equipment and experience.
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Posted: 10/10/07 07:47:45 45
AVReview is planning a blind cable test in London, November 2007. At the moment we’re thinking of including speaker cable, interconnects and mains leads, from very cheap to scarily expensive. If you’d like to get involved or want to make suggestions as to how the test should be conducted, tell us here.