Is it worth paying for premium cables?
Posted on 17 Aug 2012 at 14:38
Is high-end cabling an effective way to enhance your media experience - or a cynical rip-off? Darien Graham-Smith examines the technology
Although more and more technologies are becoming wireless, cable-free audio and video systems are still the exception rather than the rule. Until they become ubiquitous, you can bet electronics retailers will be urging you to buy expensive "premium" cables for your home entertainment devices, rather than relying on the cheap and cheerful interconnects you can buy for a few quid - or which may even be included in the box.
There are good reasons to avoid cheap cables. If you regularly move your equipment around, tension and twisting can cause a poorly made cable to break or develop an annoying intermittent fault. A wobbly plug can cause problems, too. Expensive cables are more likely to fit securely into their sockets, and to survive being repeatedly plugged and unplugged, trodden on in the night and chewed by household pets.
This is only part of the equation, however. Manufacturers and retailers of premium audio-visual cables don't only claim their offerings are sturdier, they also promise better overall picture and sound quality - justifying prices that can be five or ten times as high as bog-standard cables. Indeed, the argument goes, it's a false economy to use a cheaper cable, as you'll be missing out on the full capabilities of your hardware. Is there any truth to such claims?
Resistance and interference
It's a fact that cables don't all perform identically. Whenever an electrical signal travels down a wire, it loses intensity - a phenomenon called attenuation. This is mainly due to electrical resistance, which is proportional to the length of the cable and inversely proportional to its thickness. In other words, if you connect your loudspeakers to your hi-fi using a long, thin cable, the signal will degrade significantly, possibly to an extent that's audible as distortion. Using a thick cable that's no longer than it needs to be minimises this effect. Gold-plated connectors can also help to a small extent; ordinary copper connectors corrode over time, increasing overall resistance.
A second consideration is shielding. Domestic audio and video cables often end up running alongside power cables, which can cause interference. This may manifest as unwanted noise in the audio stream, or a speckled or unstable video image. High-quality cables may incorporate better shielding than cheap ones, meaning you can run them wherever you like without interference becoming a problem.
Logically, you'd expect a high-end audio cable with low attenuation and good shielding to produce a better sound than a cheap one. Indeed, hi-fi enthusiasts often praise expensive connectors for maintaining the tonal balance and expressiveness of music, while criticising the "thin" sound of cheaper cables.
There's no doubt that very cheap cables can be so poorly made as to conspicuously degrade the sound quality. But it's fair to say that not everyone hears a difference between regular cables and premium ones - leading sceptics to suspect that in reality there's no audible difference, and that audiophiles who claim to hear one are deluding themselves.
Testing the benefits
Over the years, researchers and reviewers have carried out numerous experiments to test whether listeners really do consistently perceive some audio cables as better than others. Some results have suggested that cables can indeed improve sound quality: earlier this year, the Audio Society of Minnesota conducted a series of blind tests with more than 50 participants, and found a slight overall preference for the sound from more expensive hi-fi cables. Another interesting test was carried out by AVReview in 2008: here, most participants couldn't hear a difference between an £8 cable and a £500 one, but one panel member did consistently get it right.
It is well worth paying for a premium cable.
... and by that I don't mean a £5 gold plated cable - but you need to budget at least £100 for a decent cable for a mid-range home system.
the tonal difference is astonishing and the colours are more vivid (blacks are also blacker) - less noise.
By deaglecat on 17 Aug 2012
Deaglecat - the sarcasm is almost impossible to spot in your post, but it must be there. No-one can still be that naive.
By pickledliver on 17 Aug 2012
I have some magic beans here, would you be interested in buying som?
By daveandrews1 on 17 Aug 2012
It's all zeros and ones guys, at least if we're talking digital
It's a fact that cables don't all perform identically. Whenever an electrical signal travels down a wire, it loses intensity
You might want to differentiate between analogue and digital.
By daveandrews1 on 17 Aug 2012
There is one problem
With articles like these most of readers normally do some form of reseach before they will throw money away.
Unfortunately the people that need to know whats written here will never bother to do the reserch and go on the word of a sales rep on the shop floor who could possibly know nothing about the difference in the quality of the cables apart form whats on the box.
By firstsin on 17 Aug 2012
A couple of years back I got a new home cinema amp. I had a mixture of hdmi cables to choose from when setting up my system, from 'cheap' supplied ones to a couple of £40-50 cables.
I had no end of problems with the system. Turned out the £40-50 hdmi cables with 'premium' molded ends, were just too fat to plug into the amp far enough. Only by half a mil, but it made the whole system unstable.
I swapped all my av cables for the 'cheap' supplied ones (which fit all the way in)and the setup worked perfectly.
Bigger is not always better.
By Michael on 18 Aug 2012
The difference in quality in my opinion, only applies to analogue connectors.I have some high quality scart cables and they made a huge difference in Picture and sound quality from cheaper scarts.The quality of digital connects on the other hand,like HDMI etc in my opinion make little or no difference whatsoever from subjective tests i've carried out.
By Jaberwocky on 18 Aug 2012
yeah. to be honest I only ever use ebay or amazon specials.
I am intrigued by the arguments though - cos' everything is analogue at some level. and you cannot easily monitor the bit error rates and jitter experienced at the television so I guess we will never know.
By deaglecat on 18 Aug 2012
An excellent article on why HDMI cables are all the same
By GreatATuin on 18 Aug 2012
If its digital then why pay so much?
As someone else stated.
Its 0's and 1's, so the signal is on or off so nothing drops.
Theres even scientific tests that prove it.
By r1sh12 on 18 Aug 2012
I had heard that better quality cables show more benefit the greater the distance covered.
Can anyone confirm or deny?
By Utini on 18 Aug 2012
I am using 2core electrical cable from my amp to my Kef surround speakers as I didn't want breaks in the copper. Not a problem.
Using £4 HDMI cables for my Sky HD, Dune media player as I couldn't find any spare coathangers. The plastic ones just don't cut it.
By zx_81 on 19 Aug 2012
Hi Fi Fo Fum
If one buys the cheapest cables, the quality will probably be rubbish.
There is a consumer point at around £8 - £10 that will get HDMI with gold plated contacts that will be suitable for most people with ordinary hearing.
There is technical quality in propagation of digital volts along a cable. These should be nice and vertical (without overshoot) or retention (capacitive retention), nice and square. Yes the digital is on or off, but to get a square waveform,(similar to containing many harmonics) requires a large bandwidth. If the cables take these facts into their scope and is proved to be more accurate, then maybe Audio Studios and Radio Stations will find them more suitable.
Average "Joe" who enjoys MP3 (very lossy) files need not be concerned. Worryingly many radio stations are now using so much compression the audio content is flawed to anyone with average hearing. Does this not tend to render these expensive cables redundant?
By lenmontieth on 19 Aug 2012
Firstly, all HDMI connectors are gold-plated where it matters, the signal connections. Expensive ones also gold-plate the connector for the cable's protective ground - unlikely to affect performance. Secondly the HDMI spec fully understands phase jitter and manufacturers use sophisticated test equipment that measures this. Finally the HDMI transmission spec includes checksums and error correction and data is buffered before going to D-A convertors, so the cable either works reliably or it doesn't.
By milliganp on 19 Aug 2012
Looks like audiophile Snake Oil has reached PC PRO.
By rhobstein3 on 20 Aug 2012
Still don't think you understand. The point of a digital signal is that it can suffer attenuation and degradation, yet still be understood 100% at the end (so long at the attenuation isn't too severe). If a '1' is transmitted as a +3.3v pulse and arrives at the end as a +2.9v pulse, the receiving equipment is still capable of correctly identifying it as a '1'. Hence no information is actually lost. This is of course where analogue differs as this attenuation in the signal cannot be easily overcome.
Similarly, if the nice, rigid square wave arrives at its destination with slightly rounded edges, that's still not a problem so long as it isn't degraded enough for a '1' to be incorrectly identified as a '0'. So long as the receiving equipment can take the slightly degraded and attenuated square wave and correctly identify what the 1s and 0s are in it, then you have a 100% successful transmission of the data and no lost quality at all.
So long as this is the case, audio quality will be 100% identical to a more expensive cable and so will video quality. How good an ordinary person's hearing is doesn't come into it.
By Trippynet on 21 Aug 2012
Oh yes, it's well worth it
I've just fitted some £500 gold plated SATA cables for my PC's hard drive and since then the PC Pro website is definitely richer and more vibrant.
By poke36879 on 24 Aug 2012
You've got to be a troll ;-)
You need to think about your argument a little. If we're talking about digital and assuming all those 0's and 1's make it through in one piece, a more expensive, higher quality cable is not going to improve things any further with regards to the AV signal. What's more, it definately won't get you 'blacker blacks'or better tonal etc.
Doesn't matter if other parts of the system are analogue, if that digital signal is error free ... :)
Sticking with digital, to suggest things like warmer colours, deeper blacks etc is comical. That's like saying the cable is selective on what get's through. While that maybe true of analogue, digital is much simpler; it either works or it doesn't. That was the whole benefit of digital over analogue, small losses had no effect at all until you hit the threshold and then everything starts to break up big time and a slight further loss would end the show period.
You need to forget about the analogue world my friend when you refer to digital cabling. Quality is still important if you're talking about long cable runs but even then, you don't always have to spend hundreds.
Can't believe there are still folk who talk like this, so easily fooled (or maybe you're a troll?)
By Logical15 on 24 Aug 2012
Couldn't have said it better ;-)
... I've just fitted some £500 gold plated SATA cables for my PC's hard drive and since then the PC Pro website is definitely richer and more vibrant"
Yep, that's aimed squarely at you deaglecat ;-)
By Logical15 on 24 Aug 2012
Here we go again.. :-)
Google for Brilliant Pebbles. These work wonders with my $199.99 digital optical audio cable, but only when used with cable stands made from 100-years old Alaskan Spruce. Now Windows Startup sound is amazing, vibrant, rich, natural, sound stage became roomier and fresh, instruments are coming to life. And don't get me started on mouse click sound - you'll have to hear it to believe.
Worth every penny.
By radnor on 27 Aug 2012
Its all down to the velocity factor
The velocity factor is the main reason cables can vary in their performance. Using different quality usually effects the resistance and or impedence of the circuit. If there is a mismatch then a reduction in the optimum output is the result. Whether this can be actually heard by a aging 50+ is debatable.
The other factore is what type of speakers you are using. Thin wires to stand alone passive speakers will not be able to deliver the current for the base as the cable width needs to match the current required. Multistrand actually passes current better than solid cable.
Active speakers with their own inbuilt amps can be digital or analogue or even optical. The best is without doubt active optical speakers down a fibre optic. No losses at all. Good quality speakers of course are another factor including the crossover circuits.
By compaid on 27 Aug 2012
True, but this only applies to analogue transmissions. So from an amp to a speaker, maybe. However, it's meaningless for digital transmissions.
By Trippynet on 28 Aug 2012
There ARE some differences in HDMI cable
An interesting article, but I think it should have touched upon the fact that there are different categories of HDMI cable availiable - category 1 and category 2 (high speed) to support the newer HDMI specifications for super-high resolutions, 3D etc. Then there are some cables that also have extra wires to support Ethernet to enable a network connection to be easily shared between connected devices (introduced in HDMI 1.4).
That's not to say that you have to spend a lot of money - I got a 3m high speed with Ethernet HDMI 1:4 cable for £3!
By broccauley on 7 Sep 2012
People believe what they want to believe
If there was ever an example of how people can be convinced that they see differences when there is none ...
How I'd love to do this with some premium brand cables :)
By Logical15 on 18 Sep 2012
It has been shown *somewhere* that electrical digital signals are transferred with 100% accuracy through a straightened out wire coat hanger. So as long as your cable isn,t broken in some way - it is gonna work fine.
James Randi offers a cash reward to anyone hearing the difference in a double blind test of expensive versus cheap hi-fi cables. Sorry to jump in here so late :/
By Davideo on 24 Feb 2013
If a hi-fi interconnect has higher resistance it will not degrade the sound at all. Plain resistance is what passive volume controls use - and they are the best type.
The amount of resistance in a cable is tiny compared to what a volume control would use - it wouldn't even be 1 ohm. The highest value resistance in a passive attenuator I recently made was 500,000 ohms - the audio passes through it with its quality intact but reduced in amplitude.
if you have an extra ohm of resistance the amp would be turned up a smidgeon to compensate - but you wouldn't notice.
By Davideo on 24 Feb 2013
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