What do the best audio cables sound like?
18th March 2020
What do the best audio cables and interconnects sound like? Part 1 - A guide to mid-band clarity and sound stage precision.
Audio cables make a big difference to how good your hifi system sounds so what should we be listening for?
In this article we are listening to a hifi’s audio presentation to identify areas for improvement, which can be corrected by changing or tuning an audio cable. Once you know what to listen for and what works best for you and your hifi it is easier to choose the correct audio connector for your system.
If you were to compare the images from a cheap camera lens with one that is better engineered, you would see the latter provides a crisper image with better image detail. You would hope that when you buy a better engineered cable, the same thing would happen to the sound; there would be just more to appreciate and what is there would be more accurate.
To some degree this is true. Certainly, the use of cheap conductors, insulation and unimaginative geometry in poorly engineered cables does not allow you to hear all that your audio components can deliver.
Using better quality materials goes some way to improving the quality of musical reproduction. But all design choices in cable design have an impact on the character of the sound, which is why high-end, well-engineered interconnects using better materials all sound different.
We ask what these differences sound like and how changes in cable geometry are important in delivering quality sound reproduction.
What the mid-band sounds like if audio cables are not correctly matched
Most audio enthusiasts are aware when something doesn't quite hang together but it is only when different sounds are compared and contrasted that a clearer picture emerges.
We are going to look at three main areas of performance as outlined by HiFi+ in their review of our audio cable interconnect, ‘…mid-band clarity and top-end air, soundstage size and precision, and bass weight and warmth’. We are going to concentrate on precision or focus in this article.
We will be listening to ‘Moondance’ by Van Morrison, the title track on his third album to illustrate these changes just because it was the first disc to hand.
The overall layout of the soundstage for ‘Moondance’ is drums roughly central at the back with piano on the right along with a brass section in the background.
Voice again roughly central with guitar to the left along with flute and joined later by a saxophone. These are the instruments we are going to use to illustrate what to look out for.
To add some confusion, we will use occasional diagrams that do not have this soundstage layout but I’m sure most will cope with my limited presentation skills.
We start with the cable non-tuned. The overall sound is dynamic, open, detailed with quite good depth and a large soundstage from top to bottom and side-to-side. Bass is weighty and articulate and a little warm, good snap to the rim shots on the drums. Voice clear and piano detailed.
All of this is very enjoyable to listen to but does it represent all that a hifi system is capable of delivering? We could try another cable design to see what that releases from the audio system or we can tune our current cable differently so it better matches the hifi components.
Without tuning the brass and piano on the right have good detail but there is some blurring of information around the images making it less easy to ‘see’ into the mix. The same can be said for the guitar, flute and sax on the left. Some of the image outlines overflow a little making it more difficult to focus on their respective detail.
If we now tune the audio cable with a ‘Vibe’ spacer in loop 5 (as counted from the source end of the cable) and we find these musical images snap into focus.
Immediately Van Morrison’s voice appears to have a better sense of outline and clarity and the same goes for the piano on the right, which is now more distinct from the brass. It is just easier to ‘see’ where the piano notes are coming from and to visualize the instrument itself.
It is also easier to differentiate the notes from the drummer as he strikes the snare and top hat.
Guitar and flute on the left are more separated.
The bass guitar still detailed but has more grip and edge and it has lost that soft edge.
The dimensions of the sound stage are unchanged.
The ‘Vibe’ spacer has effectively improved the sense of perspective and precision across the sound stage, separated the images and allowed us to appreciate more of the detail that was already there.
These changes have come about not because the cable is acting as a tone control or adding its own character but allowing mid-band detail through from the hifi components. A visual representation of this is seen above, with what the un-tuned cable might look like on the top and the ‘re-focused’ cable below it.
If this kind of audio presentation is what you are looking for then the best audio cables should be able to deliver it along with a host of other benefits. However, focus is not to everyone’s taste with some preferring a more involving, less analytical approach to their sounds and fortunately there is more in this audio system to explore, which we will do in the next article, Part 2-Soundstage presentation.