Do quality audio cables make a difference?

May 31, 2024
6 mins read
Start

The debate rages on. Many self-proclaimed experts reckon that any cheap cable will sound as good as an expensive one. GARY STEEL reveals the truth.

I’m a natural-born sceptic. Coming of age somewhere between the hippy revolution and the punk reaction, I’ve always been suspicious of authority, pro-science and anti-corporate, and when it comes to so-called high fidelity, more inclined to agree with a graph than a pair of ears.

For many years, I took the cheap road with cables. If I could hook up my speakers with $20 cables from one of those budget electronic shops, I’d do it. Being a fan of good sound and a hi-fi fan with aspirations to someday be totally satisfied with my audio system (but never quite getting there), I would occasionally ask a sparky what they thought about hi-fi cables. Every single time they claimed there was no difference between the cheapest cable and the most expensive; that “hi-fi” cable was a ruse, the inference being that outfits selling super-expensive cables were no better than snake-oil salesmen operating out the back of a gipsy wagon.

When I got to hear a really expensive hi-fi system with super-expensive everything, including cables, I had no way of telling whether they made a difference, so that was no help.

But over the past 10 years or so I’ve been dipping my toes into the more affordable end of quality hi-fi cables, more for the resilience of good well-manufactured parts than anything. I ended up with an odd assortment of cables/brands and never did any kind of comparative testing. I was focusing on what I felt were the more important parts of the system: firstly, the loudspeakers, and secondly, the source components. If the speakers were capable of delivering great sound I would be able to tell regardless of any deficiencies in the source components, and the speakers would let me hear those deficiencies and choose better source components. I thought I had my priorities right.

But last year I had a mate around a few times who, unlike me, loves fiddling around with gear. He got a niggle-some streamer going when I couldn’t figure it out. He helped me swap out various amps to check the differences in some very enjoyable listening sessions (great with wine and nibbles). And one day, after we had both noticed that things were a bit dead-sounding, he fiddled around at the back of my gear and put the same song on and: WOW! I had no idea what he’d done, but the difference in overall sound quality and sheer enjoyability was astounding.

It turned out that he’d simply changed some very average old interconnects with some quality ones. These better-quality ones weren’t super-expensive cables, and in fact, compared to some of the high-end cables on the market, could even be classed as “budget”, or at the very least “nicely-priced”. The brand was Supra, a Swedish company handled in New Zealand by the very enthusiastic, friendly and hugely knowledgeable Mark Polglase.

Supra has been making cables since 1976, with all products made in-house in Sweden. Their mantra seems to be to offer an unbeatable price-to-performance ratio, “using the highest material standards that will have a deep sonic impact and nothing more” – a line taken from their blurb.

“We are electro engineers and have a profound knowledge about physically designing a cable to avoid malignant sonic behaviour,” they say. “No mysterious boxes or batteries on any of our products as we don’t need to compensate, it is sonically benign from the start. We listen to music, not sound!”

I figured that with Mark launching a new Supra website in NZ and celebrating the launch with a 10 percent discount on purchases, it would be a good time to quiz him on the efficacy of audio cables. Obviously, Mark is a believer, but like most audiophiles, he’s not someone to be taken in by a ruse.

Gary Steel – Why do you have such faith in cables and consider them to be so crucial?

Mark Polglase – “It’s surprising that many manufacturers of all sorts of components as well as speakers miss the point as far as transmission of the signal. One of my key points is that it’s pointless having a 600 HP race car if you don’t get the power through the drive train and onto the road! Unfortunately, there are many systems out there that are lacking in their actual potential and so many people have upgraded components, speakers, sources and so forth on the basis of improving the performance that their ears actually hear without getting the true performance of what they already have by investing in connections that will carry what has already been produced.”

Gary – Can you give an example of how cables benefit a customer’s system over and above upgrading componentry? 

Mark – “I’m not saying there aren’t benefits from upgrading components, but what I am saying is that many customers I have dealt with had no idea of the potential contained within their own systems until they connected it all together with cables that were capable of carrying that signal through to the end where they would get the benefit at their ears.

“One customer was about to spend $7K on new speakers when another customer recommended he talk with me. After working through his system components and cables it was clear that the weak link was the USB cable connecting his streamer, which was his main source of listening. I sent him a $100 USB cable and he couldn’t believe the result, raved to me about how his system had never sounded so good and what was achieved was exactly what he was looking for…. and he saved himself $7000. I love those phone calls!”

Gary – What sort of percentage improvement do you think people can expect from quality cables?

Mark – “I truly believe that the majority are missing out on the capabilities of their existing systems because the enjoyment of listening comes from exactly that… We hear what reaches our ears. We can have a very nice source component, preamp, amplifier and speakers but if each of those units is hindered by the initial power supply (and the noise in the power supply which deadens the dynamics) and then we only use generic cables that come in the box to connect the components, and any old wire to connect to the speakers, then exactly how much of the original recording is actually making it through to our ears?

“My personal evaluation estimate of this is that it could be anywhere between only 60 to 80 percent if we haven’t paid attention to connecting the source to the amp and then carrying that all the way through to the speakers. There is a lot of room to improve from standard without spending silly money.

“A lot of people have been missing out on what they already have sitting in their lounge room and so many people upgrade their components, looking for further improvements when they still haven’t heard what their existing system was actually capable of.

“I know this based on the many, many responses that I have had from initially very sceptical customers who have dipped into the upgraded cable territory and heard the results for themselves. They then reply that they can’t believe just how much difference is made in both audio or video and then they continue to improve their system by carrying on the journey and getting further improvements each step of the way.”

Gary – How do you cope with the naysayers who claim there is no difference between cables?

Mark – “I think there is definitely a more accepted view about cables and power out there now which has come about from people with the actual experiences stating what they have found for themselves. I gave up reading forums about cables long ago as they were just frustrating. Lots of self-proclaimed experts making absolute statements that what everybody else was actually hearing and experiencing was completely wrong!

“Fortunately, the man with the experience is seldom at the mercy of the man with the argument!  Some of those “arguments” are actually correct in that some of what is claimed can’t be measured BUT we still don’t completely understand exactly how the human ear works and also can’t measure that aside from having a hearing test. The point being is that measurable or not, if you can hear it, then there is most probably something going on.

“The best part is that this isn’t dependent on spending huge amounts of cash. I frequently receive similar responses from people investing into the entry level market for their systems as I do from those in the high end market spending thousands.

“It’s absolutely fantastic and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it as I have experienced it for myself and I KNOW how good it feels. I find the whole hi-fi journey absolutely fantastic and it doesn’t matter whereabouts we are in that journey as individuals, any improvement to what we currently have provides further enjoyment and is therefore beneficial and worthwhile.”

https://supracables.co.nz

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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