As you probably know, there’s a “debate” going on around the world of audiophile cables, whether they do make a difference, whether they ought to make a difference, and most strongly, whether it is even possible that they make a difference. All three arguments are a little different, and addressing the epistemic (under what conditions we’d know if they’d make a difference), the moral (are these “magic” cables, at best, just bandaids on bad designs?), and the metaphysical (doesn’t physical theory rule out any possibility of any impact at all/aren’t people just “fooling themselves”?) strains individually (and adequately) will require a different, and potentially distinct, approach … even if it’s like using a shotgun to kill ants.
I’ve written about all of this before, so I’ll not re-torch old, burned, salted ground, but the Graham Argument is, perhaps, the most cogent I’ve ever seen underscoring the role of the witness. Said another way, when a non-zero number of trusted people (that are not cretins, shills, or fools) tell you that a beloved self-acknowledged bias (there’s no way Ethernet cables should matter) is unjustified, the wise course is to — at least — take a moment and take stock. And assuming that it’s not hazardous to do so, perhaps some personal exploration is warranted.
Which is why I recently asked Steve Silberman of Audioquest to send me some network cables. And while this may seem to be a great time dust off your flame-throwers, I respectfully suggest you hold your horses for a bit. Let me explain.
I’ve always had networking issues at home. The solution? Better, faster gear. But the problems, though ameliorated, never entirely dissipated.
Like many IT professionals, I invested significant time and attention in my home network out of interest, and not just because of surreptitious Gremlin activity. At the height of the frenzy, there were racks of Cisco enterprise-class switches, a router, a firewall, intrusion detection and prevention, monitoring and (much later) copious amounts of network-attached storage. Given my professional history, I got most of that stuff super cheap, so I figured, why not.
The “why not” happened sometime later, with family, and the forced-realization that it might not be okay to have Harrier jets on landing approach, continuously bound for the living room. Moving all of that to a closet helped the noise, until everything overheated. Moving it all to the basement was better — for those upstairs, anyway — but the noise level was catastrophic for my audio system. Oh well. I wish I’d thought to take pictures.
Over the years, I’ve upgraded bits and bobs. HDTV, video streaming, NAS-based storage/backups — all apparently put a strain on the network, and dropouts, stutters, and hangups weren’t all that uncommon. I suffered for a while, and after some troubleshooting, I upgraded my connectivity package. My service provider is now offering 100+Mbps downloads in my service area, which is totally sweet, but several upgrades prior to that had already outclassed my old firewall. At some point, WiFi couldn’t keep up either, so faster access points replaced the old-and-slow ones. Less and less actually required a wire, so the switches went offline one by one. A move to a flat network meant no need for a dedicated router. Commercial networking gear got better, faster, and upgradeable, and many iterations of upgrades later, Apple Airport Extremes running a 5GHz network have replaced much of what was no doubt causing some truly epic power bills. And now I enjoy line-rate WiFi from just about anywhere in the house and much of the yard. Sweet.
During that middle phase transition, I ran out of patch cables, so I went online, et voilà, I had some new cables. The new cables were Cat 5e. Their redeeming quality? They were cheap. I popped one in and off I went. No big deal.
Some years later, after “an accident” involving power tools, a dog, and a pair of curious toddlers, I needed some new network cables. Another trip to Amazon was rewarded with another bag of cables.
Replacing the damaged lengths (and going to some lengths to hiding the new cables from all-too-curious eyes), I (eventually) noticed something strange. Streaming video played more reliably. Netflix timed-out less. Comcast had fewer failures recording Housewives.
That was weird.
Investigating with some networking analytics tools I borrowed from work, and comparing the results to my recollections the last time I’d done this years before, my packet loss errors were lower. Maybe not a lot. But enough that I noticed. More cables went in, pronto, and that’s when I finally noticed that the new cables were all Cat6a.
Now, the old cables, at Cat 5e, were rated for GigE. These old cables should have been fine for my non-data center level of load. But they were, apparently, more than a little responsible for my (occasionally) spotty network.
Ruh roh! Danger Zone!
Being honest, I didn’t want to believe it was the cables. Bits are bits and all that. Given blah-blah-blah Ethernet spec blah-blah-blah impossible blah-blah-blah properly engineered blah. Like many forum-based Masters of All Things, I felt that I had a firm handle on the realms of possibility — and the idea that Ethernet cables might “make a difference” wasn’t within the Zone of Trust.
Really, I ought to know better.
The new cables, currently running at about $3/foot from Cable Matters, weren’t much to look at, but they supposedly did have better shielding with some better (shielded) connectors, and the performance on anything streaming across the network was undeniably better with them in place of the old crappy patch cables I had gotten some 10+ years earlier, where “undeniably better” = no noticeable issues with my network. Which is what it was supposed to be. Right.
So aside from the bare fact that cables matter (else, why bother with Cat5e, Cat6a or anything else — clearly someone thinks that cables can be different and should be for some very specific and well-thought out reasons), I was now primed and curious.
Exploring the question as to why those cables seemed to provide “better service” led me to this article on Blue Jeans Cable’s website: Is Your Cat 6 Cable a Dog? Turns out, most Ethernet cables sold anywhere are not to-spec, according to tests run on a rather run-of-the-mill analyzer … that just happens to cost $12k … which goes a long way to explaining why this doesn’t get talked about much. Anybody got a Fluke? Whatever — the upshot is that cables matter, but so does quality, and that varies widely.
Does that matter to most “properly engineered” datacenter applications? Surprisingly, apparently not. Most datacenter applications don’t rely on time-sensitive delivery. I mean, some do, sure. But they’re unusual. As long as the bits arrive and can be stored, it’s more about read-write times than about anything else. Unlike streaming audio (or video, for that matter), where timing matters.
In the USA, the 2016 Presidential race promises to be fascinating. And by ‘fascinating’, I mean: “a horrific train wreck of wasted money.” Among other things.
Some of the upcoming debates between the various candidates — on either side of the aisle — will, no doubt, center on the issue of Climate Change. It was in the context of this particular, and likely to be tendentious, topic, that I found the comments of one candidate in particular to be refreshingly direct. That candidate was Lindsey Graham and I was struck by his take on Climate Change:
“I may be the only person on the stage saying climate change is real because I believe it is,” he said. “When nine out of 10 doctors tell you that you are sick, why do you want to believe the one?”
I, being who I am, immediately thought of how this argument could be framed in an entirely different light: Audiophile Cables.
Not too long ago, Michael Lavorgna at Audiostream published his second of two Audioquest Ethernet cable reviews. John Darko of DigitalAudioReview published his own journey, followed by a review shortly thereafter. I know, like and respect these two gentlemen profoundly. Both are truly excellent writers, both are dedicated to the hobby, and both are known for their skeptical, but open-minded approach to the corner cases of weirdness the hobby presents to its fans. So perhaps it should be a surprise to find them here, playing with fire. Perhaps they were deranged, but clearly they were asking for the hate-fest troll-war that must follow; they are daring to publish anything (at all) about (hiss!) digital cables. Oh, the horror! Especially given that their take wasn’t wildly outraged and filled with fevered gibbering over the role of ABX testing! Oh, the humanity!
I had a quiet drink with the two of them at CES this past January, and I asked them both if they were mad, suicidal, or had some sort of weird sexual quirk that required being periodically lynched by Internet trolls. Asked them, point-blank, about their experience with “audiophile networking cables”. They said to me: “No, really, you need to try them out.” I scoffed. They persisted. I balked. They laughed. I told them I’d sat through Steve’s ABX presentation at last-year’s New York Audio Show, and had heard no differences. That generated some eye-rolling and a short discussion about ABX testing, but no change in their enthusiasm. I called BS, thinking they were punking me. Darko just raised his heavy, beetling eyebrows over his oversized glasses and double-dog dared me to try them. That dick.
After my Eureka moment with the Cat6a cables, this was my Lindsey Graham moment. I agreed.
Audioquest and Ethernet
The prices for Audioquest networking cables start at about $8/foot for their Pearl cables, but I think you can get the wire unterminated for even cheaper. I don’t recommend it, because part of what makes the AQ cable interesting is the full-shield connector.
That, and the fact that the entire line is Cat7, which includes spec-mandated two-layer shielding.
This last bit may be kind of important. There have been a lot of revisions to the Ethernet cable specification, but it’s only with Cat7 cables that shielding is actually required. That is, when shopping, you used to have to go out of your way to grab an Ethernet cable with a noise-defeating shield. Chances are, when grabbing that cheap-o stuff, that lack is one of the reasons why it’s so cheap.
With Cat7, your cable will be shielded. Even better, there’s a further spec that says that the individual pairs of wire twisted together (there are four such pairs in an Ethernet cable) in the jacket also need to be sheathed in a shield in order to minimize cross-talk. Two layers of shielding? How interesting.
Now, I need to confess something. I didn’t actually go out and buy any Cat7 cables to compare these to. There are a couple of reasons for that. Point One was that spending money to write about something else seems silly. What do I do with the extra stuff, after? Return it, like a “barely worn” prom dress? Point Two was that Blue Jeans article. Even if I ordered something, I was entirely unsure what I’d get — would those Amazon specials actually be Cat7 compliant, or just a relabelled Cat 5 cable? Or would they in some way be damaged or deficient or whatever; would using them as a comparison be meaningful? I made the decision, a relatively painless one, to simply compare my stock Cat6a cables to these Cat7 cables, and call it a day. The reader is invited to do his own tests to fill in any blanks he feels are required.
Please note also that I also did not choose to invest in a special-purpose cable tester, and with no obvious way to lay my hands on one, I’ll confess I did not bother bend heaven and earth to acquire one (and the necessary training to use and interpret the results of one) prior to engaging in this exercise. I hope this will be excused.
From Audioquest, I received some Cinnamon, Vodka and Diamond cables. Each of these is quantitatively different, so let me cover that quickly.
- All three are Cat7, with all that entails on shielding (see last section).
- All three use robust full-shield connectors, an improvement on Cat7.
- All three use the same polyethelene insulation.
- All three lines are extremely robust, look and feel extraordinarily well-built (especially given the comparisons from Cable Matters).
Where things diverge:
- The Cinnamon, at ~$25/foot, uses gold-plated full-shield connectors and a 98.75% OCC copper/1.25% silver blend for the conductors.
- The Vodka, at ~$83/foot, replaces the gold-plated connector with a much more robust silver connector and changes the conductors’ metallurgical balance to a 90/10 blend. The outer shield structure is also different/improved.
- The Diamond, at ~$235/foot, keeps the upgraded silver connector and changes the conductors to 100% silver. The outer shield is also upgraded/improved.
Note that I’m paraphrasing and simplifying the marketing-speak on the Audioquest materials. There’s some (distracting) information about exactly what the improvements are, or why they’re actually improvements, and more on why/how the cables ought to be oriented, but let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that we can ignore all of that.
Each of these three mark three discrete levels of performance.
Yes, really. And no, I’m not happy about it.
I found, in the course of mucking about with the cables, that the Cinnamon were consistently better networking cables in my system over and above the last set of cables from Cable Matters. Those latter cables, which are both shielded (on the jacket, but not at the wire-pair level) and include shielded connectors, were themselves a big jump from the cables they replaced, which were neither shielded nor carried shielded connectors. Those lattermost cables sucked at their intended use and have been repurposed as rabbit snares. In related news, I am now selling rabbits for meat. Or pets. Your choice.
The jump to the Audioquest Cinnamon was not invisible. What I noticed immediately was a drop in drop-outs (what Malachi Kenney calls “blips-n-farts”) during digital playback. Likewise, my ability to coax Comcast into queueing up streaming content for web-browser based playback also improved. That is, replacing the wire that ran from my iMac to the Airport Extreme appeared to decrease the load time.
Now, don’t go bananas. I’m summarizing here for a reason. I don’t have sheets and sheets of data, nor do I have a comprehensive ABX protocol that I deployed to objectively verify those impressions. Because that’s what they are. Impressions. But they were unexpected, and by ‘unexpected’ I mean, “makes no sense whatsoever”.
NAS-based playback, my least-favorite way to play music, became … tolerable. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but for what I’m sure are many reasons, I could never really make this approach work well enough to understand why the forum junkies over at ComputerAudiophile were so agog over it. Mac-based third-party playback software on the head-end (Like Amarra) with a remotely-mounted drive didn’t much help. Streaming it directly to an Aurender didn’t help much either, but did reduce the blips-n-farts, so I guess that’s something. But even on it’s best day (downhill, with a wind at its back), the NAS-streamed audio always sounded different than locally-fed playback, to wit, it sounded “thick” and slow, veiled and compressed. But with the Cat7 cables from AQ in place, I could not only make it work (with zero configuration changes anywhere else in the network), it worked well enough to warrant an A/B with local playback … which still crushed it. But the gap had closed. Not entirely. But some.
While we’re talking about the “average streaming service”, I should mention that on the Big Audio Rig, Tidal became a thing. I’ve been playing with Tidal since it launched, but I’ll confess that I’ve never been terribly turned on by the sound quality of it or any streamed service. MOG was bad. Spotify was worse. Sonos was made everything muzak, suitable for ambiance while drinking and hanging out with friends, friends that were also simultaneously arguing with each other and moving heavy furniture. Saying that Tidal was the best of the bunch was really not saying anything favorable. With the AQ cables in place, from Aurender music server to switch to cable-modem, Tidal was what everyone has been saying it was — pretty great, actually. Yes, local playback is better, but Tidal was and is way better than tolerable. With the new cables, clarity improved. Noise-floor dropped. Images became closer-to-3D. Literally everything was better about the already-pretty-good Tidal experience. This was eye-opening.
Right about this point, I could hear Darko and Lavorgna chuckling to each other: “We told you!” Snarky bastards.
The swap-up to Vodka continued an uncomfortable trend. Perhaps it was the better connectors, or maybe it was some other voodoo they do on that shield, but the sound “opened up”; the resulting sound was more dynamically alive, with seemingly better dimensionality. In my system, all of that usually correlates with a lower noise floor. Maybe there was due to less noise “riding the line”, not affecting the bits but instead mucking with the electronics on the receiving end — idealized architectures aside, actual hardware implementations tend to be a bit prosaic. That is, shit happens (in implementation). Maybe it wasn’t the receiver, but the sender and there was now less interference at or coming off the networking switch. Maybe it was something exotic. Maybe not. Maybe it was me. How interesting.
In my system, the difference between Cinnamon and Vodka was pronounced, if not quite the difference between Cinnamon and the Cable Matters cables. But the difference between the Vodka and the Diamond was less significant, in terms of overall performance improvements. Given the 3x jump in price, this was disappointing, but not altogether unexpected — insert some hand-waving here about how price/performance curves work. For whatever it’s worth, I believe that Vodka represents the inflection point in this product line, with the extra silver in the conductors or the active biasing of the cable parts being perhaps less important than the improved shielding and the upgraded connectors. Dunno. Just a guess. As I was told on Facebook, during a rolling debate arguing against the very possibility of the improvements I was hearing, “who has time to sort all of that out?” Short-term A/B swapping (and yes, some ABX, courtesy of some very helpful locals) between Vodka and Diamond was not conclusive to much of anything (unlike swapping between AQ and non-AQ), but long-term listening did lead me to believe that the noise floor in Diamond was in fact lower than in Vodka. Everything played along that Diamond-encrusted path was improved, if marginally: I heard better separation, when it was warranted; better dimensionality, in the recordings that contained it; better timbre, in the material that showed it.
If this seems like more hand-waving, it is, because the gaps closed just weren’t in the “night and day” category, but rather a set of small improvements. Add enough of those together and you’ve got “big things”, which is why we chase them, no?
So, let me back up and put these “little things” in context. With all of these improvements, across all of these cable changes, I want to emphasize that the improvements were never egregious. Yes, I believe that sound quality improved. Yes, I felt that the improvements were marked and in some ways obvious. But we’re not talking a “new amp” or “bigger speakers” kind of change. That’s in-your-face (great for ABX testing). This was way more subtle than that. This was more like a better fitting shirt. Or, if you’re a photography, the difference between an extra f-stop for capturing just a bit more of the background in your shot.
Anyway, in the spirit of “context”, I’ll add that streaming services, even a truly excellent lossless one like Tidal, still lag behind playback from the state-of-the-art in local playback (no network), which was always better and often, much better. Interestingly, a lot of the music I like to play (1970’s rock) doesn’t really lend itself to the ultimate in high-resolution playback, so the lack wasn’t really a detraction. And I have to confess, having an entire music store in my web browser is absolutely fantastic; that flexibility more than makes up for minor performance gaps. Yes, I loves me some Tidal.
With all that said, this experiment succeeded in identifying — and with the AQ cables, removing — a bottleneck. A pernicious one, if not a life-changing one, but it’s one that’s unknowingly haunted me for years. That is awesome. Maybe someday, streaming audio will make another, similar, leap forward and the “audio-source playing field” will be leveled a bit more. One can hope.
As for me, my next stop on that particular audio highway will be an exploration of different client/server architectures and a dedicated, audio-only, network. Can’t hurt.
But the network cables in that network? They’ll be Audioquest.
If we take on faith that the Blue Jeans article is accurate (and I see no reason to not do so), there’s good reason to believe that any given patch cable, from any particular vendor, will be rubbish (to some degree or other). There’s just absolutely no quality control — Ethernet cable fabrication is done under an “honor system”, and as any thinking person will tell you, free market capitalism doesn’t immediately sort out chicanery — not until damage has been done, either to the consumer or to the businesses engaged. In the meantime, the world of network cables is dark and full of terrors.
So, if network cables matter to you, here’s the recommendation: try a set of Cinnamon Ethernet cables. $25/foot isn’t cheap, but let’s get real for a moment. These patch cords appear very well-made. They’re to-spec and guaranteed (the benefits of a big corporation standing behind their products are huge and obvious). They’re also better-made than everything I’ve tried from Amazon — and with the connectors and additional shielding, you’re not getting a bad bang for your buck.
If you want to really tip things over into “value”, try some Pearls. At $8/foot ($25 for .75m patch), this is the entry-level cable from AQ. I have not had the opportunity to try any of them out so I cannot vouch for it, but like the rest of the line, the Pearl has all of the upgrades from a quality Cat7 perspective and adds those gold-plated upgraded/shielded connectors. Not sure if those features are really what’s contributing to the improvements, but given an arrangement like what’s hanging off the back of my Airport Extreme (which tips over with the addition of all those heavy cables), where all the jacks are vertically lined up one atop the other, I can’t help but think that additional shielding — right at the jack — is exactly where I needed it most.
Let me put some emphasis there — where I needed it most. Your network, your gear, your environment, all of that will be different. Not “may be different” but “will be different”. But in my arrangement, with its own unique and screwy issues, this extra fancy and expensive cable mattered. I kinda wish it didn’t. I’m cheap. Mais c’est la vie.
And let me put some more emphasis on cost — yes, these are more expensive than nothing. There are, I’m sure, many reasons for why cables cost as much as they do. But at the bottom-end of this line up, what we’re talking about is a $25 patch cord. This is, in all fairness, more than an $8 Cat7 random-quality-roulette patch cord that you can get from Amazon. But at the risk of being obvious, is saving yourself $17 worth getting yourself into a tizzy over? If you’re trying to save yourself some audio money, I have some guidelines for you. Feel free to ignore them, too.
Moving on to the Vodka, the cable is not cheap (and no one is saying that it is). $250 — for a patch cord — is a lot of money (well, relatively speaking). The upgraded shield, above and beyond spec, with the Telegärtner connectors, also above and beyond spec, are all very fancy-looking. In my setup, I found that the cable was audibly better for the applications where that mattered. Will you? Who knows. But for $250 dollars, again in audiophile-relative terms, I’m not sure outrage is warranted. Again, take a look at where your money is currently spent. If your system and budget warrants the addition of such niceties, explore away. If not, no harm and no foul — but do consider trying some Pearls, regardless. No, Cat7 isn’t a formal spec yet — but given that it is a proposed spec that supersedes the parameters defined by Cat6a, I wouldn’t get antsy about this, either.
Anyway, given my networking gear — which is easily and readily upgraded/changed, I’ll admit — the upgrades found in the Vodka seem to matter. But given that I wasn’t about to rip-and-replace my network gear for the sake of a free cable review (seems a tad unreasonable, to me), the perceived improvements may well be offset by future changes to my network topology. I honestly don’t know (and arguably, can’t know at this point).
So, I’ll reiterate once more for clarity: in my setup, these cables made a difference, and Vodka had more impact than the Cinnamon cables they replaced.
If you want to explore the $750 Diamond cables, you’re free to do so and I fully expect that some of you may well want or “need” the improvement that cable promises to bring. For me, the value wasn’t there. The performance was too close to the Vodka cable, and while there was some separation, it wasn’t profound. Given my preference for local-based playback, something that was exceedingly unlikely to change because of a cable swap, Diamond just doesn’t seem to make sense as an investment.
That said, I’m am now playing with Tidal a whole lot more than I ever was before.
That brings me to a recent Ars Technica article. The title, “To the audiophile, this $10,000 Ethernet cable apparently makes sense” is clearly clickbait trollishness. First, no one in their right mind will consider a $10k Ethernet cable to be a “good idea”, audiophile or not. Second, the typical length of a patch-cord, even at the Diamond level, is well below $1,000 — and for the record, yes, I think this is still crazy-expensive. Last point — to quote a price based on the maximum (standard) orderable length, and use that price to paint the entire line as extreme is jackassery of the first degree. Yes, the cables could cost that much, but that’s hardly common or average. It’s like saying “typical gas for a car ride cost $1000”, when you fail to mention that you’re talking about a cross-continent road trip, not a jaunt to the grocery store. It’s like saying “phone calls cost $1000”, when you fail to mention you’re talking about an all-night call to Singapore from a hotel room in Iceland. Who does this? Wait — jackasses do.
Given that the regular and most common prices of these cables aren’t outside the realm of expectation in the world of high-end audio (right or wrong, but that’s a separate issue), I suspect a not very careful network re-architecture can allow you to take advantage of the benefits without ever having to do something silly like wondering whether you “need” a $10,000 Ethernet cable.
Which brings me to the stunning level of disrespect that cable manufacturers receive from the marginal media (looking at you, Internet Bloggers and Forum Monkeys). The scorn is unparalleled — well … unless you happen to consider the media treatment of President Obama, but lets leave that aside for now.
Make an amplifier with a 20dB roll-off by 20Hz, or a loudspeaker that’s got a 1Ω presentation, and the forum dwellers will call them “clever” or maybe “eccentric”, but never “improperly designed.” The hope is that the new thing will be better than anything it’s attempting to replace, no? Better, as in, perform better?
Which brings me to Rolex, Panerai, Jaeger LaCoulture and the rest of high-end watch market. These brands routinely offer $10k+ “solutions”, yet they admittedly and bald-facedly admit that those solutions, best case, will under-perform solutions on offer at 1/1000th their price. Where’s the hate for these bandits?
But heaven forbid that you make a cable for use in audio playback, regardless of price, because you’re now a snake-oil swilling, child-stealing, democracy-killing, mental deficient that really is only useful for a cheerful public torching. (Say, who brought the marshmallows?)
I’m going to take it as read that most that will bother to read this article will take issues with it, and that most of those issues will have nothing to do with the conclusions I’ve reached, but rather with the vey attempt itself. The problem with this set of detractors, other than their general constipation and a disconcerting tendency toward poor public hygiene, is even opening the door to any discussion whatsoever appears to be a tacit agreement to play whack-a-mole with a never-ending rotation of logical fallacies, most of which seem to boil down (at least at some level) to “if I can’t afford it, it must not be worth it.”
The only valid response to the entire lot?
“Try it. If you don’t like it, or can’t hear a difference — or hear a difference that’s worth the money — send them back. No fuss, no muss, no greasy aftertaste.” Assuming you don’t have a local dealer that will let you borrow cables, The Cable Company will.
For me, I had one too many specialists telling me I was missing something, so I had to Lindsey Graham it. And in so doing, I found value in the endeavor. That’s not always the case. In fact, that’s pretty cool. But I did try it out, despite my misgivings and despite my biases. I went and did it.
Unlike Ars Technica, who in their latest fit of clickbait-inspired mania, decided that “trying it out” really meant “debunking in public”, with some generous help from the Amazing Randi. I’ve already, repeatedly, addressed how backwards their proposed ABX/DBT approach is, but whatever.
I’ll close with a thought about rare-metal conductors, fancy biasing in shields, cable directionality and the like — do yourself a favor and don’t get distracted. It’s far too easy to get swept up in hyperbole and nonsense, to be blinded by exotic marketing claims, and then miss the forest entirely only to get hung up on a tree. Resist the urge. Be strong!
You have to realize that capitalism requires sales, and sales require differentiation, value and marketing. Fact of life. Which means we, the consumer, will be forever subject to some bizarro-world pitches.
Yes, it’s true. Some of the claims made by marketing pros are not rational, reasonable, or even attached to the realm of reality. Remember the Maxell tape ads, with the dude’s hair blowing back? That ad is a non sequitur — the brand of tape in your deck has nothing to do with whether or not your hair is going to be moved, and moving hair is entirely unclear as to it’s relation to high-fidelity. Cool, though, no? More: pick any product promoted by an athlete — sorry, no sneaker is ever going to make you into Michael Jordan and no cereal is ever going to make you into a Olympian, much less a gold-medalist in the decathlon. Nope. You’re going to have to get off the couch for any of that to happen. And the ads that feature the preternaturally beautiful? Yeah, you’re not getting laid. Sorry.
On some level, we know this. On some other level, we don’t care. Unless we’re talking about audiophile cables. Then we care a lot.
You have to realize that the people who make high-end audio bits — even cable makers — are just like everyone else. They wonder. They explore. They push boundaries. And then they hire a marketing person to help them get out of debt.
Aside from that last bit, if that sounds like a description of an artist, there’s a reason. That’s not an excuse, mind. That’s just a little bit of explanation.
To the “artisanal cable maker” (as opposed to a bulk maker like Belden), there’s inherent value in nifty bits, be it the use of silver (or gold, or Adamantium, or whatever), or finely-woven sheathing, or delicately tooled connectors. That value has something to do the gestalt that product has, something to do with differentiation in a market, something to do with a curiosity about “better parts” impacting the overall/whole. If that leads to better performance, great. Hey, it might. But if not, well, that is why we have a high-end watch market … at all.
Switching metaphors, it’s like choosing Hawaiian sea salt, rare mold cultures, and grass-fed cow milk. Do these things effect the taste of the resulting cheese? Maybe. Probably.
“But even if they do,” you ask, “do they make the cheese better?”
This is an odd response. What does “better cheese” even mean? Tastier? Tastier to whom? Do we really need to ABX a cheese? Or are you saying that “artisanal cheese is stupid”? In either case, I think we’ve pretty much missed the point. There’s art here. Art has costs. If you’ve bought stinky cheese, or crusty bread, or fancy pasta, or fresh herbs, you’re aware of that extra cost. You’ve paid it. That cost is there not because the artisan thinks his prospective buyers are brain-damaged. Quite the contrary. They think that you might share a fascination that they themselves seem afflicted by. And, unfortunately, those fancy bits are expensive!
Fine, yes, there are plenty of examples of idiots and charlatans in audio’s high-end — roger-dodger, message received and acknowledged. But saying that all of the high-end (or all of some corner of it) is nothing but charlatans is the same as shouting “all you need is Whiz” at a cheesemonger. It’s silly. You don’t have to like stinky cheese. You don’t have to buy audiophile cables. If spray-can cheese-like substance is good enough, good for you. Forgive the exuberant and otherwise poor translations that routinely happen between engineering and marketing. Move along.
But if you’re even a little curious, and I think you ought to be at least curious (especially given the Blue Jeans article), then try it out and see for yourself. That’s really all that the marketing team was hoping for in the first place.