David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: Bret Holtz, cables, comparison, evaluation, physics, technology, @musings info

Anatomy of a listening test

I recently got together with a small group of friends for our semi-annual gear-geekery and jamming. One of our activities this year was a listening test for a batch of ten cables. This was by no means a controlled test. We used three players, three guitars and two amplifiers. One amp was set clean or just below breakup, depending upon the guitar (the amp settings were not changed. The other amp was purely clean. The ten cables were all ten feet long, differing in materials, construction and configuration.

I want to thank Bret Holz for collecting the group's comments during the test and summarizing them (below). Note that we didn't realize that it might be a good idea to take written notes until after two iterations through all ten cables.

Throughout the tests I identified the cables only by number. Cables were randomly selected during each iteration.

Iteration 3
Guitar: PRS Modern Eagle
Amp: THD Flexi 50
Cab: stock THD 2x12
Hot Plate attenuating 8db.

Cable 1:  Harsh in the high end
Cable 3:  Bridge pickup lost definition (Holtz), but high end more
"pronounced" (Cowley)
Cable 7:  Aggressive
Cable 2:  Less Agressive, clear and sweet sounding
Cable 4:  Expressive and dynamic, articulate
Cable 8:  Nasal
Cable 6:  Lost definition with bridge pickup.
Cable 5:  Retained articulation on bridge pickup.  Louder
Cable 10: Least "chimy" of the bunch
Cable 9:  Bridge pickup lost definition

Gets the star:  Cable 5
Runners up:  Cable 2 and Cable 4

Iteration 4
Guitar: Jim's Custom Shop Tele
Amp:  THD Flexi 50
Cab:  THD 2x12
Hot Plate attenuated 8db

Cable 5:  Even, balanced...louder
Cable 9:  Less bright, rounder tone
Cable 3:  Thin on bridge pickup
Cable 7:  Similar to 3, "polite"
Cable 2:  On the bright side
Cable 1:  Generic
Cable 6:  Chimy
Cable 10:  Less chimy - blander
Cable 4:  Expressive and Dynamic, as before

Stars to:  6 and 4

Iteration 5:  runoff of the best
Guitar:  Koll DL
Amp:  AER

Cable 10:  Even and smooth
Cable 4:   Clearer, less congested
Cable 2:   Sharp on the bridge pickp
Cable 5:   Significantly louder.  Rounder tone.
Cable 6:   Chimy and clear

Iteration 6:  Runoff part 2
Guitar:  Koll DL P90

Cable 4:  Clear
Cable 10: Less clear, more congested.
Cable 6:  Brooding
Cable 5:  Even and clear, smooth
Cable 2:  Good clarity.

There's the "brooding" comment that was joked about.  I'm not sure
what to compare it to in order to make the analogy understood.  It's
something akin to the sound of a small-block Ford V-8 with the
accelerator floored.  It's not a scream, it's not a roar...maybe the
sound of an aggravated grizzly bear.  A bellowing quality.  Upon
contemplation afterward, it seems to me that this is one of the
signature sounds of P90's, a "right" sound.  In other words, it's a
good timbre.

That's what I wrote down.

Here are the identifying characteristics of the tested cables:

IDCablepf/ft$/ftConfigurationO.D. (in.)Center ConductorDielectricSheildJacketWeight (lbs/1,000 ft)Note
1Gepco VE61859M170.49coax0.24221 AWG (19x34) BCFoam PE 0.146" wall95% BC braidMatte PVC60 
2Belden 1800F261.00twisted pair0.21124 AWG (42x40) BCFoam HDPE95% TC braidPVC24drain wire: 26 AWG stranded BC
3Gepco XB201M30.60.88twisted pair0.2422 AWG (41x38) OF BCFoam PP 0.015" wall95% TC braidMatte PVC38 
4Gepco XB401310.50twisted pair0.14524 AWG (40x40) OF BCFoam PP 0.012" wall95% TC braidMatte PVC15drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC
5Gepco GLC20320.84coax0.26520 AWG (41x36) BCPE 0.040" wall95% BC braidMatte PVC43semi-conductive PVC triboelectric sheild
6Gepco MP1022370.61twisted pair0.19424 AWG (41x40) TCPE 0.013" wall95% TC braidMatte PVC25drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC
7Gepco M1042370.77twisted pair0.25520 AWG (26x34) TCPE 0.020" wall95% TC braidTPE40drain wire: 22 AWG (19x34) TC
8Gepco MM1024540.85star-quad0.19326 AWG (30x40)PE 0.012" wall95% TC braidMatte PVC38unmarked; drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC
9Canare L-4E6S570.56star-quad0.23624 AWG (40x40) BCIPE 0.016" wall95% TC braidPVC35 
10Horizon Low-Noise Instrument??coax?????? 
* Key (conductor/sheild)
BC = bare copper
TC = tinned copper
OF = oxygen-free
* Key (dielectric/jacket)
PE = polyethylene
HDPE = high-density polyethylene
PP = polypropylene
PVC = polyvinyl chloride
TPE = thermoplastic elastomer
IPE = irradiated polyethylene

I wanted to add some of my own thoughts regarding this test.

The last time I gave this subject much thought I surmised that even small shifts in total cable capacitance (tens of picofarads, in some of these tests) can cause a detectable EQ shift in the RLC network formed by pickups, cable and amp. In that context it's not really surprising that we all heard differences. What was surprising to me was the manifestation of the differences. IOW, I was surprised at how the differences sounded.

I've always scoffed at the notion of a cable sounding "louder". I mean, c'mon, it's a piece of wire. It has no gain (or loss, in this application). But when you look at the overall circuit - pickups, cable and amp - there's a resonant peak that changes slightly in frequency, "height" and "shape" depending upon the interaction of all the components in the circuit. I find it interesting that certain small changes in EQ can produce significant perceptive changes. I guess that's why certain mastering houses get the big bucks.

One thing that bothered me a bit during all the tests was consistency of playing. We all played the same material for each guitar/amp combination across all ten cables. Despite trying to be consistent, there were variations in our playing. Did that affect the outcome? Perhaps the sound of a particular cable influenced each of us to adjust our playing slightly. We briefly discussed using a looper for consistency, but that would have changed the nature of the test by eliminating the very RLC circuit responsible for the differences in sound.

One thing that really jumps out at me from the result of this listening test is that there is no correlation between cable capacitance and preference, contradicting the popular notion that lower is better.

In the end I don't believe there's a best cable. No cable sounded so different that any of us would have been able to identify a particular cable in a blind test. There's no magic here - only small differences that may or may not mesh well with your gear, playing style and preferences. That said, our tests all used low-gain amps. These cables exhibit very profound differences in handling noise that will make or break use with a high-gain amp.

If you're invested in exploring nuances then having a variety of cables is a relatively simple and inexpensive experiment compared to some of the things we try. My cables cost an average of about $10 in materials plus ten or fifteen minutes of labor for each one. At some point I'll write a short article on DIY cables.

September 25 2008 05:52:42 GMT