From "The New York Times:
December 23, 1999
A Spat Among Audiophiles Over
High-End Speaker Wire
By ROY FURCHGOTT
In the last year, Lewis Lipnick has
tested high-end audio cables from 28 manufacturers. As a
professional musician with the National Symphony Orchestra
and as an audio consultant, he counts on his exacting ear to
tell him if changing cables affects the accuracy of the
sound from his $25,000 Krell amplifiers.
His personal choice is a pair of
speaker wires that cost $13,000. "Anyone would have to have
cloth ears not to tell the difference between cables," he
"In my professional opinion that's
baloney," said Alan P. Kefauver, a classically trained
musician and director of the Recording Arts and Sciences
program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins
University. "Has the wire been cryogenically frozen? Is it
flat or round? It makes no difference, unless it makes you
feel better." His choice for speaker wire? Good-quality
16-gauge zip wire.
The disagreement would be unnotable
except for one thing: experts are in agreement that most
cables that claim to improve the sound of audio equipment
don't. Even cables costing thousands of dollars per foot are
often little more than sonic snake oil, experts say.
Consumers trying to purchase audio
cables often find themselves buying high-end replacements
because the only cables in the store are expensive ones.
A purchaser of an entry-level $550
stereo system might be sent home with $55 worth of the least
expensive middle-quality audio cables. While experts agree
that most cables make exaggerated and unfounded claims about
improving sound, they cannot agree on which cables actually
do improve sound and which do not.
The scientific record is unclear. So
far no research paper contending to prove or disprove the
value of fancy wires has been accepted by the leading
industry publication, The Journal of the Audio Engineering
Society, said Patricia M. MacDonald, its executive editor.
She said there were dozens of reasons a research paper might
not meet her journal's standards.
"I don't think anyone should infer
anything from it," she said.
The manufacturers and sellers of audio
goods like to stay above the fray. Cables are a highly
lucrative item that may account for a modest percentage of
sales but a greater percentage of profit.
Even audio manufacturers not directly
involved in the cable business like to steer clear of the
Polk Audio, a well respected
manufacturer of loudspeakers in Baltimore, no longer makes
cables but declined an invitation to set up a listening test
in its laboratories. One reason it gave was that the test
could affect relationships with audio stores. "We would be
hearing from every retailer in the country," said Paul
Dicomo, communications director for Polk Audio.
Kerry Moyer, staff director for the
Consumer Electronics Association, which represents
manufacturers, said accessories were usually the highest
markup items, wires included. Sales of high-margin
accessories have become critical in the current market,
where prices of components like receivers, amplifiers and
DVD players, have had profit margins squeezed by
"It becomes a question of where are we
going to make a little money?" he said. Mr. Moyer, whose
$3,000 sound system uses about $300 worth of cables, said
the technological superiority of a cable is not the issue --
it is the perceived value to the hobbyist.
"If someone feels good about buying
it, whether it works or it doesn't, it makes them feel
good," he said. "I don't think we should question."
John Dunlavy, who manufactures
audiophile loudspeakers and wire to go with it, does think
questioning is valid. A musician and engineer, Mr. Dunlavy
said as an academic exercise he used principles of physics
relating to transmission line and network theory to produce
a high-end cable. "People ask if they will hear a
difference, and I tell them no," he said.
Mr. Dunlavy has often gathered audio
critics in his Colorado Springs lab for a demonstration.
"What we do is kind of dirty and
stinky," he said. "We say we are starting with a 12 WAG zip
cord, and we position a technician behind each speaker to
change the cables out."
The technicians hold up fancy-looking
cables before they disappear behind the speakers. The
critics debate the sound characteristics of each wire.
"They describe huge changes and they
say, 'Oh my God, John, tell me you can hear that
difference,'" Mr. Dunlavy said. The trick is the technicians
never actually change the cables, he said, adding, "It's the
This leads to disagreements based on
competing science. Bruce Brisson, who owns Music Interface
Technology, an ultrahigh-end wire manufacturer in Rockland,
Calif., also wants to see cable charlatans revealed and may
use his extensive laboratory to do it.
"I am getting ready to expose this in
the year 2000," he said. "People are paying a lot of money
and getting nothing for it." But he disagrees with Mr.
Dunlavy on the effectiveness of wires, saying that the
theory Mr. Dunlavy uses to design his cables is not the
right theory and that is why listeners cannot hear a
Some scientists say it would be
difficult to prove one way or another. Changing cables
leaves a time lapse that makes comparison difficult. Putting
several stereos side by side with the different wires would
mean that the speakers would be different distances from the
ear, which could have an effect. And while a switch could be
made that would send a signal through each of several cables
to a speaker from a single sound system, cable makers say
the switch itself might spoil the advantages of their wires.
Part of the difficulty is that there
are still unexplained acoustic phenomena. William Morris
Hartmann, a professor of physics at Michigan State
University in East Lansing, works on psycho-acoustic
projects, which investigate the way sound is perceived,
rather than the way it is produced.
There are examples, he said, of sounds
that measure beyond the range of human hearing, and yet some
people seem to perceive them. That means the market is left
open to wild claims and psuedoscience. "It's annoying, but
it's hard to disprove," Professor Hartmann said.
Perhaps the closest thing to middle
ground is the position taken by Russ Hamm, an electrical
engineer whose New York company G Prime Ltd. installs
digital processing equipment for studios.
Mr. Hamm said that indeed, wires do
make a perceivable difference, but very little, and then
only to professionals, like the engineers at BMG Music. He
lent them new high-grade cables for use on roughly $250,000
of equipment. On his system, Mr. Hamm uses a specialty cable
manufactured in Vienna that costs $2 a foot.
"We are talking subtle differences,
but that is what the high end is all about," he said.
It is a subtlety he describes as a 2
percent difference on a high-end system. "If you had a fine
Bordeaux wine, how much does it matter if it's in a nice
wineglass or a Riedel crystal glass?"
His advice to audiophiles: "I would
say that you want to put the first $10,000 into your
The personnel of Sound Center is
DEFINTELY of the opinion that normal 'lamp wire' is as good
as is needed for lengths going to many 10's of meters. It is
the TERMINALS and CONTACT areas that need to be tight and
clean. We were offered one of the best-selling 'cable
brands' and were not encouraged to do any 'testing' but
rather just 'make money'- we did the testing anyhow and
found no differences with sound reproduction - only
of Finland Loudspeakers
Sat / La