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 Amp AER 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:
|ID||Cable||pf/ft||$/ft||Configuration||O.D. (in.)||Center Conductor||Dielectric||Sheild||Jacket||Weight (lbs/1,000 ft)||Note|
|1||Gepco VE61859M||17||0.49||coax||0.242||21 AWG (19x34) BC||Foam PE 0.146" wall||95% BC braid||Matte PVC||60|
|2||Belden 1800F||26||1.00||twisted pair||0.211||24 AWG (42x40) BC||Foam HDPE||95% TC braid||PVC||24||drain wire: 26 AWG stranded BC|
|3||Gepco XB201M||30.6||0.88||twisted pair||0.24||22 AWG (41x38) OF BC||Foam PP 0.015" wall||95% TC braid||Matte PVC||38|
|4||Gepco XB401||31||0.50||twisted pair||0.145||24 AWG (40x40) OF BC||Foam PP 0.012" wall||95% TC braid||Matte PVC||15||drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC|
|5||Gepco GLC20||32||0.84||coax||0.265||20 AWG (41x36) BC||PE 0.040" wall||95% BC braid||Matte PVC||43||semi-conductive PVC triboelectric sheild|
|6||Gepco MP1022||37||0.61||twisted pair||0.194||24 AWG (41x40) TC||PE 0.013" wall||95% TC braid||Matte PVC||25||drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC|
|7||Gepco M1042||37||0.77||twisted pair||0.255||20 AWG (26x34) TC||PE 0.020" wall||95% TC braid||TPE||40||drain wire: 22 AWG (19x34) TC|
|8||Gepco MM1024||54||0.85||star-quad||0.193||26 AWG (30x40)||PE 0.012" wall||95% TC braid||Matte PVC||38||unmarked; drain wire: 24 AWG (41x40) TC|
|9||Canare L-4E6S||57||0.56||star-quad||0.236||24 AWG (40x40) BC||IPE 0.016" wall||95% TC braid||PVC||35|
|10||Horizon 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.