Do you believe that the COLOR of your cables can make a difference?
Many a long year ago, when I had begun my research into why cables do what they do, but not yet come to any conclusions, my friend Mike Detmer, then President of Stax-Kogyo USA (the US branch of the Japanese company now best-known for its electrostatic headphones) called to make me aware of a new line of hook-up wires available from Hitachi. These were of stranded very high purity copper, insulated with something that, frankly, I don’t remember. What I DO remember, though, was that Mike had said that they were available in a number of colors, and that almost all of them were an improvement over more conventional wires (ETP copper, PVC insulation), and good enough sounding to be worthy of consideration. The one exception, he said, was the red ones, which he told me were noticeably less good-sounding than any of the other colors.
How could that possibly be? How could the COLOR possibly affect the sound? But, on the other hand, how could my friend – a genuine audio expert – be wrong? To find out, I got on the horn at my first opportunity and ordered sample lengths of Hitachi’s finest, all in the same gauge and stranding, but insulated in several different colors (blue, gray, orange, black, white, and, of course, red).
When the wires came, I and a couple of Hi-Fi Crazy friends – people who, when I asked if they wanted to listen to some wire, wouldn’t laugh and throw rocks at me – got together for some SINGLE-BLIND listening tests, using (one at a time) the Hitachi wire both as speaker cable and for line-level interconnects. So that the testing would be as fair as possible, although the wiring configurations for speaker cables and interconnects obviously had to be different, all speaker cable hookups were made to be identical in length, number and arrangement of conductors, connectors, and everything else, and the same thing exactly was done with the interconnects, so that the ONLY difference within each of the two test applications was the color of the wires.
Guess what? Although all of the other colors sounded pretty much the same, there WAS a noticeable sonic degradation using the red Hitachi wires; they simply didn’t sound as good! When all of us agreed that – although it wasn’t large and its precise nature was a little difficult to pin down – there was definitely SOMETHING wrong about the red wires, I set out to find out what could possibly be causing it.
Obviously, it had to be something about the color of the wires. That was the only difference in any of the test setups, either as speaker cables or interconnects; but WHAT could it be? I already knew that fields, both electromagnetic and electrostatic, were important to any cable’s transmission of signal; were there field problems with only the red wires? Was there any way that the visible light wavelength of the red insulation was interacting with the wavelength of the electronic signal to create a problem? With the very lowest visible light wavelength being about 700 BILLIONTHS of a meter (which just so happens to be in the RED range), and the very HIGHEST audible sound frequency (Let’s pretend that we’re bats with particularly good hearing, and can easily hear it) being 100kHz, it seemed unlikely, but, just for fun, let’s calculate it out: Assuming that the signal will travel through the wire at 100% of the speed of sound (which it won’t, really, but what the heck) the speed of the signal will be 300 million meters per second. 300 million divided by 100,000 (for the audio frequency) gives a signal wavelength of 3,000 meters. Comparing that with a red light wavelength (in the range of) 700 nm (700 nanometers [= 0.000000700 meter]), we can see that (3,000 meters÷ 0.0000007 meters = 4,285,714,286) with the electronic wavelength being some four BILLION times the length of the light wavelength (and not even some nice reasonable-sounding easy multiple) even notwithstanding the fact that the insulation ISN’T translucent, and so no light could get in, the likelihood of the two wavelengths negatively interacting still remains in the range of slim-to-none.
So what IS it? Continuing my research, albeit in a new direction spurred-on by this new development, I started looking at WHY the insulation was red. What was it about the insulation that gave it that particular color? And why was that color different from any of the other colors that we had tried?
The answer that I ultimately found was cadmium oxide (CdO). My chemistry education was almost half a century ago, and never all that good, so I can’t personally verify this, but I was told by one of the leading manufacturers of plastic coloring concentrates that CdO is one of the more common materials used to produce a bright red color in plastic wire insulation.
]]>As to WHY it should have any effect on the sound quality of a cable, I have no idea, It IS, however, conductive: “CdO is used as a transparent conductive material, which was prepared as a transparent conducting film back in 1907.”, according to Wikipedia, and, according to the same source, it DOES react to light: “Cadmium oxide in the form of thin films has been used in applications such as photodiodes, phototransistors, photovoltaic cells, transparent electrodes, liquid crystal displays, IR detectors, and anti-reflection coatings. CdO microparticles undergo bandgap excitation when exposed to UV-A light and is also selective in phenol photodegradation.”. Could that mean that that wavelength interaction I mentioned earlier as being “unlikely” shouldn’t have been rejected out-of-hand?
Another possibility for the sonic difference between the red-jacketed wires and the others is that only the red used a metallic oxide (which, of course, is what CdO is) to produce its color, while all of the other colorants were non-metallic. Could that have some effect on the charge/discharge rates of the colored materials when used as cable dielectrics? Not only do I not know, but upon direct inquiry, neither did the chemists and engineers I asked about it at DuPont (developer of Teflon™) and Union Carbide (before its acquisition by Dow Chemical Company [and perhaps even now], the world’s leading producer of polyethylene plastic resins). What I DO know is that, because of that one simple tip from Mike Detmer and what I subsequently learned from it, no XLO cable ever used metal oxide colors, and, even though I have been away from that company since 2002, I believe that that’s still the case, even today.
Maybe that’s one small part of the reason why cables designed by me have been so well-regarded for so many years. What do you think?
This has been the first of what may become an occasional series on weird things about cables that have absolutely nothing to do with R,C, or L. Would you like to see more? Please let me know.