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From "The New York Times: Technology Section/Circuits"

December 23, 1999

A Spat Among Audiophiles Over High-End Speaker Wire


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 said.

"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 debate.

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 competition.

"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 placebo effect."

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 difference.

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 equipment."

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 price!

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