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Speaker Cable Challenge

Listenin' in the Lab

"Do cables really make a difference?"

We hear that question every day, and there's no simple answer that everyone will agree on. Most people who try high-quality speaker cables like what they hear. But others are convinced that cables can't possibly make an audible difference.

Costlier cables generally use higher-quality metal, and more of it, than "brand X" wire. That could help them transfer signals more accurately from an amplifier or receiver to the speakers. We can measure the electrical characteristics of a cable, like resistance and capacitance, but that won't tell us much about sound quality. The real proof is in the listening.

So, we set up some listening tests in the home audio/video room at Crutchfield Labs. We actually conducted two separate tests: different cables, different electronics and speakers, and some different co-workers for our listening panels. Both panels included a mix of audiophiles and casual listeners.

Test #1: 18-gauge "lamp cord" vs. AudioQuest Type 4

Speaker cable listening panel

For our first test we compared generic 18-gauge "lamp cord" from a home improvement store with AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables. The 18-gauge is a stranded cable with bare-wire connections to the amp and speakers, while the Type 4 has solid-core conductors and was terminated with banana connectors. For this test we used what's known as a "single-blind A-B" format — the listeners don't know which of the two products they're hearing, but the person conducting the test does.

A challenge for any audio comparison is making sure listeners can form solid impressions of the sonic characteristics of Product A and Product B. So, our panel listened to a complete track rather than switching back and forth with brief snippets of music. At one point, we did try the rapid switching approach, but the listeners quickly lost track of which was which. Our test track was "Layla," from Eric Clapton's Unplugged CD.

Most of the panel preferred the AudioQuest cables, with observations like: "the Type 4 sounded more precise — voices stood out instead of getting mashed together." Another listener felt that "drums had more impact, and Clapton's voice had a greater sense of presence." One listener preferred the 18-gauge wire, saying "it sounded more dynamic."

Playback equipment for this test included an NAD C 565BEE CD player connected digitally to the PS Audio Digital Link III DAC. We also used NAD's C 356BEE integrated amp, which drove a pair of PSB Imagine T speakers.

Test #2: AudioQuest 16-gauge in-wall wire vs. AudioQuest Type 4

Our second test, which we conducted about two weeks after the first one, was a bit more challenging. We pitted AudioQuest's 16-gauge FLX in-wall wire with bare-wire connections against the AQ Type 4. This test was "double-blind A-B" — neither the listeners nor the tester knew which product was which.

We wanted to test the in-wall wire because we talk to lots of folks who want to do long multi-room cable runs in their walls or ceiling. AQ's FLX is a stranded wire, but unlike lamp cord, it's actually designed and manufactured for use as speaker wire.

We listened to a couple tracks for this test. "Keith Don't Go," from Nils Lofgren's Acoustic Live CD, has been an audio demo favorite for a few years now. It's an amazing example of how powerful a single voice and acoustic guitar can be.

He alternately brushes and bangs on the strings, and at one point unleashes a shower of pinprick harmonics that seems to float off into the night air. Listening to one of the cables — which turned out to be the Type 4 — those harmonics faded away in a very natural way, and the soundstage was big and open. The 16-gauge wire had the effect of putting a lid on the sound. Tone and clarity were fine, but there was a loss of air and presence.

The next track was a big change musically: "Sloop John B" from the DVD-Audio version of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. As often happens with high-res remasters of well-known music, the track sounded terrific over both cables, revealing layers of detail that made the song sound fresh. One of our casual listeners put it this way:

"The Lab system is so revealing that I heard details I'd never noticed before even with the 16-gauge. The Type 4 tied the various elements into more of a cohesive whole."

We all felt that the Type 4 consistently delivered stronger bass and greater presence on voices and instruments.

We used higher-resolution equipment for this test, including an Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player, connected to the powerful NAD Master Series M3 integrated amp, which drove a pair of THIEL CS2.4 speakers.

If you're interested in experimenting with new cables, we'd suggest trying them in your system for at least a month. Then, reconnect your old cables and see how much difference you notice. For just about any application, if the sound quality of your music matters at all, we'd recommend at least using good 16-gauge wire to connect your speakers.

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