It’s that time of year!
I recently received the following question from a reader about an article of mine that was published some time ago. Here it is, verbatim:
After testing some cables, I was shocked by the effect they could have on sound passing through them. Initially as I went up in cost, there were clear and discernible benefits, and no compromises (other than increased cost). Then, I was very surprised to hit a fork in the road.
Specifically, Audioquest Gibraltar and Analysis Plus cables. Differences in resolution, tone, speed. Each had plusses and minuses, as I perceived it.
The question: How does one calibrate oneself to the ‘truth’ ?? i.e. be confident that one has achieved the goals you describe above – passing signal with no additions & no subtractions.
As I told the questioner, that’s a great question and a genuinely great concern that, when I still owned XLO, we, even as manufacturers, had to deal with every time we tried to set up a new dealer.
The fact of it is that, just as home audiophiles do, dealers always try to make their demonstration systems sound as good as they can, and that, just in itself, can make for the possibility of problems:
The first, of course, is that what the dealer thinks is “good” may simply not be the same as what we do. If the dealer has some one particular favorite musical characteristic – dynamics, for example – and sets up his demonstration system for maximum dynamics and its handmaiden, maximum transient speed, it may very well blow him away, but – if he demonstrates it too loudly (as dynamics fans often tend to do), it may also blow his customers right out the door, never to be back.
The second and probably more important potential problem is that he, like everybody else, will assemble his system to sound best using the products that he has on hand. For a dealer that means, of course, the products that he sells, and that makes for potential difficulties both for manufacturers of other products who want to sell to him, and for his own customers.
Perhaps the biggest of those difficulties arises from the simple truth that the only way we can ever listen to any audio product is as part of a complete system. You can’t audition an amplifier without a source component and something — speakers or headphones — to turn its output into sound. Similarly, you can’t, no matter how carefully you listen or how well developed your listening skills may be, just hold a pair of cables up to your ears and know what they sound like: They, and every other audio product have to be installed in a system for you to be able to hear them at all, and doing that will always mean that what you are hearing is not just the particular component you want to audition but the entire system and even the room that you’re hearing it in!
And that is where it starts to get interesting: Suppose you put together a system and it sounds distorted. What can you do to find the problem and fix it? That’s fairly easy: If it’s not that big glob of crud on your phono stylus, just check all of your connections for problems and, if you can’t find any, start substituting components until the distortion goes away. But what if the system sounds great? Should you just accept it and be glad? How can you be sure, as that reader asked, that it really IS great, and not just a lucky combination of complementary flaws that are there, but that are all canceling each other out, to make the system sound neutral when it really isn’t?
The fact of it is that “complementary flaws” do occur, and CAN – sometimes (if we know about them) even on purpose – correct system problems. A “too-bright” (excessive high frequencies) this component can compensate for a “too-dark” that component, with the result being (for just those components, configured in just that way, in only that room) a perfectly neutral-sounding tonal balance. Or an overly “etched”-sounding (“analytical”) component can offset one (often called “musical”) that “smooths-out” details. Or vice-versa. But the truth still remains that cancellation and exaggeration IS going on, and the system is not truly “neutral”, but only sounds like it is.
]]>And that’s the problem that manufacturers face when they send their salespeople out to a dealer’s store to demonstrate their wares and, hopefully make a sale. If the dealer – using the products that he carries – has put together a system that has these neutral-sounding cancellations, and the salesman walks in with something new that’s REALLY neutral-sounding, (XLO cables, for example) he runs the risk that what he’s selling will replace – as it should, for everybody’s benefit – one of the more sonically-colored components already there. If that’s the case, and it replaces something too-dark, then half of that beneficial cancellation will be gone and the risk is that the system (which until the replacement had been made, sounded just fine) will then sound too bright, and it’s HIS product that will be blamed. And if, on the other hand, it was a too-bright product that it replaced, weirdly enough, his same product may be blamed for being too dark! Whatever it is, unless the salesman can prove to the dealer that it’s not his company’s product that’s the problem, he’s NOT going to make the sale!
It’s even worse if you’re a customer at that dealer’s store and you want to buy a new toy for your system. No matter how good your ears and your listening skills are, there’s a real chance that what you hear there – simply because your own system probably won’t be making the same compensatory cancellations as the dealer’s is — won’t sound the same at your home as it did at the store.
And to add even more confusion, because you know that you really did give it a good audition at the store, you may think that what’s happening at home is that a better product is exposing flaws in your system that you just couldn’t hear before, and find yourself buying even more stuff to “correct” problems with your system that don’t really exist.
So here, finally, is my advice, stated in terms of cables, because that was how it was asked: If you really want to find the most (take your pick: neutral. transparent, passive, colorless, “un-sounding”) cable, just take a bunch of different cables and listen to them all on the same recording of the same music in a BUNCH of different systems., The cable that sounds the most different in the greatest number of ways, on the greatest number of systems will be the one you’re looking for. Contrary to what might at first seem to be the case, a cable is SUPPOSED TO be “system-dependent”! If it’s not — if it always sounds the same no matter what system you put it in — it’s VERY colored, and, like looking through colored glasses, is going to color everything that you hear played through it — just exactly what you DON’T want to happen! Another thing, when you buy something, either at a dealer’s store or over the internet, ALWAYS get a money-back or at least full-store-credit guarantee. Ultimately, whatever you buy must sound good on your own system, and if it doesn’t, you need to be able to give it back and get something else.