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Old 12-21-2006   #1
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Default the science of cables

Seems like every year or so a new debate begins, concerning cable mythology (really, it is the most appropriate word). Maybe we can shed some light on the debate, by discussing what science ... metallurgy, electrical engineering, etc ... tells us about cables.

I'll start with an anecdote ... "my experience" with cables, if you will. It was an old trick among audio salesman ... even twenty ot thrity years ago ... to swap out RCA cables, and demonstrate what an incredible difference was heard. Even the most tin-eared idiots could hear a difference! Putting aside, for the moment, the strong Power of suggestion, lack of variable control, lack of accounting for presence/absence of human memory effects, and all those things that tend to render isolated, uncontrolled subjective observation meaningless ... could a difference actually be heard? The answer was YES ... but it had nothing to do with the cables, per se. The reason was because simply removing an RCA cable and plugging-in a new one would scrape the oxidation and corrosion from the metal at the surface contact, improving the electrical connection. In fact, unplugging a cable and plugging back in the very same cable could create an audible ... and measurable ... difference

Let's start by stating the obvious : at both the line-level and speaker-level points in the audio reproduction chain, the signal is electrical in nature ... rather than mechanical or acoustical. I suspect most (perhaps not all) would agree with this point. So the question naturally arises ... what electrical properties of the cable matter?

The answer is remarkably simple. The cable is an electrical network, and it's operating with signals whose electrical wavelength is much, much longer than the cable itself. Therefore, what matters electrically are the parameters in the classic "lumped model" : namely, the cable's Resistance (R), Inductance (L) and Capacitance (C). We can completely discount all transmission line effects ... including standing waves, reflection coefficients, and termination impedance matching (excepting, of course, digital audio transmission ... when the signal is digital, it's bandwidth is orders-of-magnitude higher than analog audio).

How the RLC parameters of the cable effect the signal transmission will depend on the source and load impedance ... in other words, what's driving the cable, and what's on the other end. Knowing these impedances will allow us to measure, or predict, any alteration in the audio band frequency response ... aka magnitude and phase versus frequency ... that a given cable may generate. Linear system theory is a well-established science ... not open to opinion or subjective experience.

Any general conclusions? Sure ... for example, it takes a real effort to significantly impact frequency response at the RCA/line-level, because the load resistance is so high compared to the series elements of R and L. You may, however, want to pay attention to the shunt capcitance in interconnect cables ... it's possible that the capacitance may cause some roll-off in the treble, with a long cable (meaning, high capacitance) and high-ish source impedance. Similarly, you might want to pay attention to the series elements of R and L at speaker-level cables, particulary when driving low impedance loads (like low impedance subs, or highly-capacitive electrostat panels).

Anything else matter about cables? YES ... contact metallurgy, as mentioned. Not only can certain metals oxidize and corrode (impacting that parameter R), but dis-similar metals in a pressure contact can create galvanic effects that demonstrate very measurable ... and potentially audible ... effects. Furthermore, we must include the noise-shielding properties of the cable. How significant? Depends, of course, on how noisy the environment is

What's the bottom line? Let's do some make-pretend Q&A:

Q: Do all cables sound the same?
A: OF COURSE NOT ... but the question is meaningless. A rusty, 30 gauge cable that's 40 feet long will obviously sound different when driving 800 watts to your sub, compared to a short, clean 12 gauge cable.

Q: OK ... so what causes cables to sound different?
A: The only parameters that could matter are RLC, contact metallurgy and noise shielding. The significance of each, depends on the exact environment and application.

Q: What about hyperlitz geometries and specific metal elements?
A: If they don't impact RLC and frequency response over 20kHz, they won't impact the sound ... simply because they can't. If the electrical signal is not altered over a 20kHz bandwidth, the sound coming out of your speakers won't be altered either.

Q: What about the "network boxes" on some super-megabuck cables?
A: Of course they can alter the sound, if they are providing a change to the frequency response (magnitude, phase) of the network operating on 20kHz electrical signals. In other words ... if they are providing some degree of equalization, they can change the "sound". Linear system theory tells us that there is simply no other way to alter the signal, or thereby the "sound" of the cable.

Q. Do all cables ... THAT MEASURE THE SAME ... sound the same?
A. No known reason to believe otherwise If you wish to disprove the hypothesis, though, you must of course establish an experiment where all other possible variables are eliminated.

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Old 12-21-2006   #2
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by werewolf
Seems like every year or so a new debate begins, concerning cable mythology (really, it is the most appropriate word). Maybe we can shed some light on the debate, by discussing what science ... metallurgy, electrical engineering, etc ... tells us about cables.

I'll start with an anecdote ... "my experience" with cables, if you will. It was an old trick among audio salesman ... even twenty ot thrity years ago ... to swap out RCA cables, and demonstrate what an incredible difference was heard. Even the most tin-eared idiots could hear a difference! Putting aside, for the moment, the strong Power of suggestion, lack of variable control, lack of accounting for presence/absence of human memory effects, and all those things that tend to render isolated, uncontrolled subjective observation meaningless ... could a difference actually be heard? The answer was YES ... but it had nothing to do with the cables, per se. The reason was because simply removing an RCA cable and plugging-in a new one would scrape the oxidation and corrosion from the metal at the surface contact, improving the electrical connection. In fact, unplugging a cable and plugging back in the very same cable could create an audible ... and measurable ... difference

Let's start by stating the obvious : at both the line-level and speaker-level points in the audio reproduction chain, the signal is electrical in nature ... rather than mechanical or acoustical. I suspect most (perhaps not all) would agree with this point. So the question naturally arises ... what electrical properties of the cable matter?

The answer is remarkably simple. The cable is an electrical network, and it's operating with signals whose electrical wavelength is much, much longer than the cable itself. Therefore, what matters electrically are the parameters in the classic "lumped model" : namely, the cable's Resistance (R), Inductance (L) and Capacitance (C). We can completely discount all transmission line effects ... including standing waves, reflection coefficients, and termination impedance matching (excepting, of course, digital audio transmission ... when the signal is digital, it's bandwidth is orders-of-magnitude higher than analog audio).

How the RLC parameters of the cable effect the signal transmission will depend on the source and load impedance ... in other words, what's driving the cable, and what's on the other end. Knowing these impedances will allow us to measure, or predict, any alteration in the audio band frequency response ... aka magnitude and phase versus frequency ... that a given cable may generate. Linear system theory is a well-established science ... not open to opinion or subjective experience.

Any general conclusions? Sure ... for example, it takes a real effort to significantly impact frequency response at the RCA/line-level, because the load resistance is so high compared to the series elements of R and L. You may, however, want to pay attention to the shunt capcitance in interconnect cables ... it's possible that the capacitance may cause some roll-off in the treble, with a long cable (meaning, high capacitance) and high-ish source impedance. Similarly, you might want to pay attention to the series elements of R and L at speaker-level cables, particulary when driving low impedance loads (like low impedance subs, or highly-capacitive electrostat panels).

Anything else matter about cables? YES ... contact metallurgy, as mentioned. Not only can certain metals oxidize and corrode (impacting that parameter R), but dis-similar metals in a pressure contact can create galvanic effects that demonstrate very measurable ... and potentially audible ... effects. Furthermore, we must include the noise-shielding properties of the cable. How significant? Depends, of course, on how noisy the environment is

What's the bottom line? Let's do some make-pretend Q&A:

Q: Do all cables sound the same?
A: OF COURSE NOT ... but the question is meaningless. A rusty, 30 gauge cable that's 40 feet long will obviously sound different when driving 800 watts to your sub, compared to a short, clean 12 gauge cable.

Q: OK ... so what causes cables to sound different?
A: The only parameters that could matter are RLC, contact metallurgy and noise shielding. The significance of each, depends on the exact environment and application.

Q: What about hyperlitz geometries and specific metal elements?
A: If they don't impact RLC and frequency response over 20kHz, they won't impact the sound ... simply because they can't. If the electrical signal is not altered over a 20kHz bandwidth, the sound coming out of your speakers won't be altered either.

Q: What about the "network boxes" on some super-megabuck cables?
A: Of course they can alter the sound, if they are providing a change to the frequency response (magnitude, phase) of the network operating on 20kHz electrical signals. In other words ... if they are providing some degree of equalization, they can change the "sound". Linear system theory tells us that there is simply no other way to alter the signal, or thereby the "sound" of the cable.

Q. Do all cables ... THAT MEASURE THE SAME ... sound the same?
A. No known reason to believe otherwise If you wish to disprove the hypothesis, though, you must of course establish an experiment where all other possible variables are eliminated.
Do signals travel down different kinds of Wire differently ? Example : Round solid core , multi stranded , horizontal shaped solid conducters ?
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Old 12-21-2006   #3
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Default Re: the science of cables

The only thing to know ... or wonder ... about cable gemoetry, is how it does, or doesn't, impact resistance, inductance and capcitance. Don't concern yourself with skin effect, for example. Yes, the effect is "real" ... but it's insignificant over audio frequencies.

If an audio cable manufacturer or salesman is praising some new geometry, without discussing RLC impact/significance ... no need to listen any further.

For example ... square, round, rectangular cross-section : the Resistance (R) is determined by cross-sectional area only, not shape. Again ... pay attention to audio freqs only, feel free to ignore skin effect.

Inductance (L) and Capacitance (C) can be influenced by conductor shape (and proximity, of course) ... but any manufacturer worth his salt will tell you how significant the effect is.

Bottom line : if no reference is made to the impact of the geometry on RLC ... there's probably a very good reason
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Old 12-21-2006   #4
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by werewolf
The only thing to know ... or wonder ... about cable gemoetry, is how it does, or doesn't, impact resistance, inductance and capcitance. Don't concern yourself with skin effect, for example. Yes, the effect is "real" ... but it's insignificant over audio frequencies.

If an audio cable manufacturer or salesman is praising some new geometry, without discussing RLC impact/significance ... no need to listen any further.

For example ... square, round, rectangular cross-section : the Resistance (R) is determined by cross-sectional area only, not shape. Again ... pay attention to audio freqs only, feel free to ignore skin effect.

Inductance (L) and Capacitance (C) can be influenced by conductor shape (and proximity, of course) ... but any manufacturer worth his salt will tell you how significant the effect is.

Bottom line : if no reference is made to the impact of the geometry on RLC ... there's probably a very good reason
I asked you this , because I have a stack of white papers one inch thick ... and the entire thing has to do with the shape of the conducters , and how it effects resistance , and capacitance. Interesting reading.
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Old 12-21-2006   #5
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Default Re: the science of cables

Jeff, which parameters does dialectric material effect? And how does conductor spacing effect things?
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Old 12-21-2006   #6
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Default Re: the science of cables

bob ... dielectric material impacts cpacitance. And sure, lower tends to be better ... but of course there's a point of diminishing returns. For RCA cables, a quick check of source (headunit, processor) resistance and total cable capacitance ... forming a simple RC low-pass filter, to first order ... will tell you if it's low enough.

Spacing impacts capacitance and inductance. Here's a good thread where we discussed inductance over on carsound:

http://www.audiogroupforum.com/csfor...ght=inductance
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Old 12-21-2006   #7
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Default Re: the science of cables

At audio frequencies shape fo the conductor really makes NO difference..... At RF frequencies it makes ALL the difference.

One thing noted. Remember that there IS audio information above 20KHz assuming that your source can reproduce it. If your cable has enough capacatance to roll these frequencies off, say above 40K, which is pretty unlikely you WILL hear a difference. Why? The first harmonic of 30K is... 15K and we CAN hear these harmonics.

I was not a believer in going above 20K till I did my first mic preamp shootout wiht speakers that had an ultra high extension.... Then i realized how much i was being ripped off by the CD only going to 20K.

But I digress, this is coming from a guy with an assload of CD's in his Car in MP3 format

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Old 12-21-2006   #8
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by chad
At audio frequencies shape fo the conductor really makes NO difference..... At RF frequencies it makes ALL the difference.

One thing noted. Remember that there IS audio information above 20KHz assuming that your source can reproduce it. If your cable has enough capacatance to roll these frequencies off, say above 40K, which is pretty unlikely you WILL hear a difference. Why? The first harmonic of 30K is... 15K and we CAN hear these harmonics.

I was not a believer in going above 20K till I did my first mic preamp shootout wiht speakers that had an ultra high extension.... Then i realized how much i was being ripped off by the CD only going to 20K.

But I digress, this is coming from a guy with an assload of CD's in his Car in MP3 format

Chad
Largely agree Chad ... except, of course, the first harmonic of 30K is ... 30K. The second harmonic of 30K is 60K

And yes ... bandwidth much beyond half the sampling rate of digital formats is useless. For CD's, that means 22.05kHz.
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Old 12-21-2006   #9
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Default Re: the science of cables

Same reason records are still produced and "audiophiles" still use turntables on their $50k home systems ... no cut off points on either end.

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Old 12-21-2006   #10
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by fej
Same reason records are still produced and "audiophiles" still use turntables on their $50k home systems ... no cut off points on either end.
not quite accurate.

It is true that the analog record (as a recording medium) and analog turntable/stylus (as a playback mechanism) do not have a sharp, hard cut-off frequency ... like a digital recording medium (half the sample rate), but the bandwidth is certainly not unlimited. The vinyl record & stylus absolutely have bandwidth limitations as well ... I'll do some research to uncover accurate numbers.

In other words ... there may be no sharp electrical filters in the turntable chain (although I'll have to think about moving coil cartridges a bit more before I state this definitively), but there certainly are mechanical filters that limit bandwidth.

As an aside ... while analog recording media may have usable bandwidth beyond the most popular digital media (CD), the noise floor of the analog media limit their information (as defined by Shannon) to about an order of magnitude less than even 44.1kHz, 16-bit CD.

Last edited by werewolf; 12-21-2006 at 11:03 PM..
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Old 12-21-2006   #11
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by werewolf
not quite accurate.

It is true that the analog record (as a recording medium) and analog turntable/stylus (as a playback medium) do not have a sharp, hard cut-off frequency ... like a digital recording medium (half the sample rate), but the bandwidth is certainly not unlimited. The vinyl record & stylus absolutely have bandwidth limitations as well ... I'll do some research to uncover accurate numbers.

As an aside ... while analog recording media may have usable bandwidth beyond the most popular digital media (CD), the noise floor of the analog media limit their information (as defined by Shannon) to about an order of magnitude less than even 44.1kHz, 16-bit CD.
Ok .... But I have NEVER heard and CD Player at ANY price point , sound nearly as good as a great turntable
Just had to say it , even if it's not relevant
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Old 12-21-2006   #12
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Default Re: the science of cables

I believe that it has to do with the perception of information above the 20k hz "barrier" where CD's cut off. We don't necessarily hear it per se as our hearing is limited to the upper teens, possibly to 20k for some but somehow our brain knows it is there .... It may have to do with the harsh cut off point as opposed to, as werewolf puts it, mechanical rolloff of the analog record.

who really knows at this point. I can relate it to a golf club, if you don't like the looks of it when you set it down you will never hit it well. On the other side, if you can get past the initial look and have good results with a club you ignore its "negatives". Same thing with what you hear .. if it sounds better to you that is all that matters.

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Old 12-21-2006   #13
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by fej
I believe that it has to do with the perception of information above the 20k hz "barrier" where CD's cut off. We don't necessarily hear it per se as out hearing is limited to the upper teens, possibly to 20k for some but somehow our brain knows it is there .... It may have to do with the harsh cut off point as opposed to, as werewolf puts it, mechanical rolloff of the analog record.

who really knows at this point. I can relate it to a golf club, if you don't like the looks of it when you set it down you will never hit it well. On the other side, if you can get past the initial look and have good results with a club you ignore its "negatives". Same thing with what you hear .. if it sounds better to you that is all that matters.
Yes, but isn't finding out WHY it's better important. To continue your analogy, if wouldn't it be nice to have a rating system on golf clubs, one so accurate you could know if you'd like the club before you even held it. If that system could be derived, by math, making it 100% accurate, wouldn't that have advantages over picking up 1000 clubs and giving each a swing, until something felt "right".

Back to the topic. For example, avi likes turntables. If we ran 2 recordings out of a speaker, one from a turntable, and another one from a cd player, and he preferred the turntable, wouldnt' it be nice to know why he preferred it. After all, if we can figure out what it is about a turntable that makes the sound appealing, we could probably apply it to a CD. Just the fact that it's digital vs analog isn't necessarily the issue. We still have real measureable output from the speakers, and if we can get the output that the CD player source causes to be the same as the record player, there would be NO sonic difference, inherently of course.

Sometimes I wonder if audiophiles prefer turntables becuase they know of the inhernet limitations of the CD source. They know it'll cut off a bit over 20k and is actually only playing "parts" of the original song. Whereas a turntable has no inherent gaps in it's timeline and isn't mathmatically structured. It would seem, in some ways, that VERY expensive turntable woudl be essentially perfect in terms of describing the source wave, it has no inherent flaws, only it's ability to follow the path along the record.

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Old 12-22-2006   #14
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Default Re: the science of cables

I would love to know why .. we are all enthusiasts here, but look at the RCA thread (which happens at EVERY audio board at some point, and then usually yearly). What you hear is just not the same as what I hear ... and no science can explain that, well at least at this point. I would love to know why DDD recorded material is usually crystal clear but just seems to lack true warmth (at least IMO) I think it may just be too clean heh. I would like to know why someone listening to their $1500 ipod cable through their $2000 mini amp feels it is better than their $12 cable and $65 amp. Same source material ... what science can you put behind it?

There are facts that werewolf is presenting, there are experiences that AVI and many others are presenting, but at the end of the day we only know for sure what WE like and hear. Nothing science can do about it

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Old 12-22-2006   #15
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by fej
I believe that it has to do with the perception of information above the 20k hz "barrier" where CD's cut off. We don't necessarily hear it per se as our hearing is limited to the upper teens, possibly to 20k for some but somehow our brain knows it is there .... It may have to do with the harsh cut off point as opposed to, as werewolf puts it, mechanical rolloff of the analog record.
If it doesn't manifest itself as signal transduction in the ear, then the brain simply does not have access to the information to "know it is there". However, I suppose it might be possible that ultrasonic frequencies could potentially have an impact through some sort of IMD mechanism, but that would be tough to attribute to a passive cable...
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Old 12-22-2006   #16
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by fej
I would love to know why .. we are all enthusiasts here, but look at the RCA thread (which happens at EVERY audio board at some point, and then usually yearly). What you hear is just not the same as what I hear ... and no science can explain that, well at least at this point.
Sure it can. Absent the proper controls, science can explain it with the known mechanisms of the brain that affect our perceptions. That's why all properly conducted listening tests aim to eliminate the brain as a variable. Easier said than done, of course. But not impossible.

PS - It's also important to point out that "science" isn't the same as deriving electrical parameters, or what's written in a textbook, or even scientific experiments. Science is nothing more than an application of logic. I kinda wish that people would use the term "logic" instead of "science" in debates such as these, and maybe they wouldn't discard an attempt at a rigorous analysis of the problem in favor of their (flawed) senses.

There's also this notion out there that "science can be wrong". But, by definition, it can't be. Scientific experiments can be performed wrong, or (more common) scientific data can be misinterpreted, but the scientific method is 100% reliable. Unfortunately, a lot of people read a media writeup about a study, and that turns out to be wrong and people conclude that science is fallible. No, the scientist might be fallible, and the media coverage of science is almost always just plain ignorant and misleading, but I digress...
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Old 12-22-2006   #17
 
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Default Re: the science of cables

guys... as Jeff has said before in other threads, audio is not the last great unknown field of science....

we're talking about electrical signals and the compression/rarification of air... it's not string theory...



Werewolf, all that aside, how does/can the components of cable affect phasing?
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Old 12-22-2006   #18
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by werewolf
Largely agree Chad ... except, of course, the first harmonic of 30K is ... 30K. The second harmonic of 30K is 60K

And yes ... bandwidth much beyond half the sampling rate of digital formats is useless. For CD's, that means 22.05kHz.

Damn cold medicine, I have the plauge now

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Old 12-22-2006   #19
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Default Re: the science of cables

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Originally Posted by AVI
Ok .... But I have NEVER heard and CD Player at ANY price point , sound nearly as good as a great turntable
Just had to say it , even if it's not relevant
How-bout a live recording on a 1/2" open reel machine traveling at 30IPS?

Chad

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Old 12-22-2006   #20
 
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Default Re: the science of cables

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Originally Posted by chad
How-bout a live recording on a 1/2" open reel machine traveling at 30IPS?

Chad
I was in a department store doing some Christmas shopping and saw a 'Spirit of St. Louis' cd player/radio that included a fake, working reel to reel

I wonder if it improved the sound.
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Old 12-22-2006   #21
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Default Re: the science of cables

I have a REAL one I'll give you if you pay shipping. It needs some TLC, It's a 1/4" 2 track and I believe it runs 15IPS at the fastest, I'll need to check.

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Old 12-22-2006   #22
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Default Re: the science of cables

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Originally Posted by fej
I would love to know why .. we are all enthusiasts here, but look at the RCA thread (which happens at EVERY audio board at some point, and then usually yearly). What you hear is just not the same as what I hear ... and no science can explain that, well at least at this point. I would love to know why DDD recorded material is usually crystal clear but just seems to lack true warmth (at least IMO) I think it may just be too clean heh. I would like to know why someone listening to their $1500 ipod cable through their $2000 mini amp feels it is better than their $12 cable and $65 amp. Same source material ... what science can you put behind it?

There are facts that werewolf is presenting, there are experiences that AVI and many others are presenting, but at the end of the day we only know for sure what WE like and hear. Nothing science can do about it

That's where I'd say your wrong. All your senses work due to your body physically interacting with something. Taste and smell use small particles of the object in question to create 2 different senses, depending on what nerves are touched (nose or tongue). Sight uses light. After all if I see a light with a wavelength of 700nm, according to your beliefs it'd be pretty hard to predict what color I'd see. After all, you see what you see, we can't argue that, what science can we put behind it? ( answer is red )

Sound is nothing more than pressure variations in the air, something that with todays technology is TRIVIAL to measure. Before the signal hits the speaker, it's electricity through a circuit, which honestly, couldn't be any more predicable if it tried. The equipment exists to measure all the parameters of sound, and if every parameter is the same between 2 sources, you body has NOTHING it can base the sounds on to make them sound any different, except personal bias and other distortions of the human mind. Then again, that's what marketing is for. If the 2 waves in question measure identical, or close enough to be within the known limits of human hearing (yes, believe it or not, human hearing doesn't have infinite resolution, it gives up LONG before equipment) they will sound the same to the ear.
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Default Re: the science of cables

there is something to be said for perception.
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Default Re: the science of cables

I don't know, the other night I was hanging out with my nephew and we found shape could have an impact on the sound. We had two mic's built of similar materials but in different shapes. With a GENUINE Dupont Micro-fiber interconnect we found a Campbell mic did provide descent results, but we preferred the more authoritative tone of the larger Progresso. How do you explain that with RLC?
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Default Re: the science of cables

Quote:
Originally Posted by Autiophile
I don't mean to jump into any argument that can't be resolved on the forum, however, my feeling is that higher end cables simply make me feel like I know where the weak link is in my system. Coming from home audio my goal has always been to know (think) that my components were performing in their intended fasion. I have rewired rooms, used PS audio or Hospital grade outlets, driven grounding poles out in the yard, and spent a decent amount of money on cables.

The net benefit in all of this was confidence. I am confident that my home system is appropriately wired and I feel like it sounds better (even though it may be a placebo effect). In the past year I have started making my own cables for my headphone setup as well as my car. Although they may not be as nice as my MIT or Tara Labs cables, I still have confidence because I know that I made them correctly and they are dependable.

My point is this: Even though the effects of all of this may be in my mind, I perceive a difference. It doesn't have to be expensive or from a well known brand. All the cables need to do is give me confidence that they are not my weak link.
Well said. Let's face it, a lot of us buy audio equipment for reasons other than pure sound output. Don't deny it folks, you've probably bought stuff based on looks before. If the cables make you feel better about your system for whatever reason (confidence, looks, organization, and so forth) then who's to say whether or not it's worth the extra money to you?

Having said that, it still seems as if a lot of people are insisting that RCA cables color the sound in the real sense. And I think that's what the thread is mostly focusing on.
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