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: cables, evaluation, physics, technology, @musings info

High-end Cables

Every part of the instrument -- where "instrument" includes guitar, amp, fx and interconnects, all considered together as a system -- makes a difference in the resulting sound and behavior. For almost every component of the system, you can start with a simplified analysis that explains the gross behavior and then drill down to a more detailed view that explains many of the subtler aspects of sound and behavior.

Consider the electric guitar and amplifier. At the simplest level you have ferrous strings under tension vibrating in a magnetic field. The changes in that field due to string motion induce a voltage in the pickup windings. That voltage is then amplified and fed to a speaker. Of course we know that's not even close to being a complete, let alone sufficient, explanation; if it was we'd have nothing to worry about except the shape and color we want for our guitar and the volume we want from our amplifier.

Start drilling down and you get into the vibratory properties of the guitar, which are in turn affected by the materials, construction and shape. You also need to consider the electromagnetic properties of the pickups and their relationship to the strings.

Amplifiers have their own important details, such as number and position of gain stages and fixed and variable frequency and gain shaping, types of tubes, presence of feedback loops, type of rectification and amount of power-supply filtering, the operating voltages of the tubes and the properties of the transformers.

The important thing to note is that all of these properties are observable (you can hear its effect on the sound and feel its effect on behavior), measurable (in that you could find or devise an instrument such that its reading would correlate in a meaningful way with the players' observations) and have predictive value (which guides both designers and players toward the choices which support their goals).

Cables, too, have certain properties which are observable, measurable and predictive. Ruggedness is a function of the construction of the cable and interconnects and the method of assembly. Capacitance depends upon the dimensions of the conductors and the type of dielectric material. Handling noise, generated primarily through a triboelectric effect, depends upon the dielectric material and the construction of the cable. Sheilding depends upon the construction of the cable. Flexibility depends upon the construction of the cable and the materials used.

The relative importance of each property depends upon how and where the cable will be used in your guitar rig. Ruggedness, flexibility and low handling noise are going to be far more important for a cable that's going to get dragged across a stage than a cable that's going to remain closed inside a rack cabinet. The amount of cable capacitance is much more significant in a high-impedance circuit, such as the run from a guitar having passive pickups, than it will be after a buffered effect or active guitar pickups. Effective sheilding is important on a stage crowded with many electrical lines, and less so in an electrically "benign" environment.

For the purposes of this discussion, it's important to note that a cable's capacitance and handling noise are clearly and unambiguously observable and measurable. A cable having higher capacitance will make a guitar's passive pickups sound darker and will pull the resonant peak to a lower frequency. A cable having more handling noise will inject more noise into your amp when you drag the cable across the stage.

Likewise, the important properties of guitars and amps are unambiguous; you'd be hard pressed to confuse a strat pickup with a humbucker when played through a clean amp, just as you'd never confuse the sound of a Twin Reverb with that of a Triple Rectifier. This is a good thing: the properties have predictive value that helps the purchaser to make an informed choice.

I've always tried to be an educated consumer. I'm not adverse to spending money to learn about a new product if I think it will meet my needs. Nor am I adverse to being both critical and analytical in determining how and why a product fails to completely satisfy me. I'm willing to make mistakes so long as I can learn something from the experience.

I have owned and played many types of cables. The only attributes that make any difference that I am able to discern are those I've already mentioned: ruggedness, flexibility, capacitance, sheilding and handling noise. Furthermore, capacitance is the only attribute that has made any difference in the tonality of my guitar rigs. As far as I can tell there is no observable difference in the tonality of a cheap molded-end cable versus a cable made from high-end copper using special techiques, so long as the capacitance of the two cables is within a few percent of each other. There are other attributes that might make a high-end cable more desirable, but tonality is identical.

My observation, of course, runs counter to the claims of all manufacturers and many consumers of high-end cables. There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy:

  1. There's something wrong with my ears.
  2. There's something wrong with the rest of my gear.
  3. I'm knocking down the high-end products because I can't afford them.
  4. I'm lying.
  5. I'm right.

So, let's take these scenarios one at a time...

Scenario 1: "There's something wrong with my ears." That's entirely possible. I'm a 52 year old male with a mild case of tinnitus. On the other hand, I'm probably typical of the target demographic for vendors of high-end cables (i.e. people having significant disposable income) and my ears are probably in better shape than most professional musicians'. If my ears aren't good enough to hear the benefits of a high-end cable, it kind of begs the question: "Why are these being marketed to electric guitarists in the first place?"

Scenario 2: "There's something wrong with the rest of my gear." This is the argument I'd be most likely to advance if I was coming here as a booster of high-end cables. Masking is a well-understood phenomenon. However, I've seen fantastic claims for the benefits of high-end cables from users of a wide variety of gear, both more and less articulate than my own. In short, the claims for benefits of high-end cables seem to be largely independent of the quality of the rest of the signal chain.

Scenario 3: "I'm knocking down the high-end products because I can't afford them." Nope. If a two- or three-hundred dollar cable knocked my socks off I'd buy it with neither a moment's hesistation nor financial hardship.

Scenario 4: "I'm lying." I have nothing to gain by lying about my own experiences. I'm a consumer, not a manufacturer. I'm interested in having a good guitar rig to play. I've learned from plenty of my own mistakes along the way; you can't do that if you have an axe to grind.

Scenario 5: "I'm right." I'm not going to claim that I'm right. I've told you about my experiences and about what I've learned along the way. I'm leaving open the possibility that I'm wrong because I'd love to learn something new about the technology of high-end cables.

The problem with learning something about high-end audio cables is that the claims don't seem to have any real-world basis.

Start with the fuzzy, non-quantifiable terminology: clarity, definition, openness, transparency, ... All of these seem to be conveniently "in the ear of the beholder". And if you can hear that, great. If what you hear corresponds to what someone else hears in the same cable, so much the better. If you can point me to a recording that illustrates the presence of any one of these attributes over another, I'll be surprised. If you can show me a correlation between the terminology and a measurement, I'll be impressed.

The counter-argument, of course, is that good ears are much more important than measurements. I agree with that statement. However, I'd like to have something of a predictive nature so I don't have to buy every cable under the sun to find the one that suits me best. Capacitance measurements give me that predictive ability; cork-sniffing adjectives don't.

And then there are the technological claims... oxygen-free copper, aligned crystals, skin effect, phase coherence, etc. The problem is that these all have meaning, but aren't really applicable in the context of guitar cables. I stand willing to be corrected by someone who really understands the physics behind all of these claims. I've done my research and have failed to turn up any evidence that supports the notion that guitar cables (or more precisely, any cable which carries audio frequencies at low voltage and high impedance) benefits from esoteric materials or design.

Honestly, I've spent hours searching for supporting evidence. As far as I've been able to tell: OFC benefits high-current applications; crystalline structure is significant for superconducting and thin-film applications; skin effect is irrelevant at the dimensions and frequencies we're concerned with; phase coherence is a non-issue unless you're dealing with fast rise-time pulses. If anyone would care to point me toward a good resource describing the science of precision audio cables using non-circular terminology, I'm willing to dig in and learn...

October 02 2006 02:15:47 GMT