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Smoke & Mirrors?

Leader
Published July 2014
By Paul White

If you're in the habit of reading hi-fi magazines, you may have noticed a number of products based on what one might call 'pseudo-science'. Cables with seemingly magical properties, strange speakers stands, insulating cones to suspend your cables above the floor — I'm sure you know the kind of thing. We've even had some of the more bizarre offerings sent to SOS for us to look at, but in the absence of any means of conducting a truly scientific comparative test, we have, for the most part, declined to review these offerings. When I am shown magical mains cables, I reason that when in normal use they are essentially going to be in series with several hundred metres of indifferent house wiring cable, so logic suggests that they aren't going to be able to somehow make things sound any better than making a mains cable from a length of ordinary domestic cable. They may work better than an inferior mains cable made from thin wire and with badly crimped joints at the connector end, but once they're as good as your house mains wiring, how can they do better?

When I'm shown high-end mic cables, I rationalise that the cable resistance and capacitance of a typical five-metre XLR lead will have a negligible effect, taking into account the impedance of a typical microphone preamplifier input stage, so there's no reason why an exotic cable should sound any different from an adequate cable. OK, guitar cables do sound different from each other as guitars are fairly high-impedance devices and the capacitance of the cable interacts with the inductance of the pickups to shift the resonant peak of the output, but again this is all based on provable science and is consistent with the laws of physics as we understand them.

And then there are those golden-eared types who tell us that cables sound better connected in one direction than the other, despite the fact that musical signals are a form of alternating current. Based on known science, there's no mechanism to explain how cables could sound different depending on which way round we connect them, so this again is clearly another case of smoke and mirrors. Or is it?

I'm not saying that I buy into any of these 'twilight zone' products or concepts, as I'm about as pragmatic as they come. However, I can also see that judging everything on the basis of existing knowledge is also bad science, as science itself is not a fixed point; it evolves to encompass new discoveries as they come along. Perhaps the right approach is to forget what science has to say, try the product and see if it actually makes a difference. If it does make a difference, and if this difference is verifiable in a blind test, then we should search for the mechanisms behind the effects rather than falling back on existing science to say that they just can't happen. You can try this for yourself by checking all your guitar cables in both directions to see if you can hear a difference. I'd be intrigued to hear from you if you can.

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published July 2014