September 27, 2016
They may not be sexy but cables can dramatically improve sound quality. As ever, there are different preferences for different listeners; follow this guide to find out which combination of interconnects, speaker cables and materials will work for you.
Words: Jason Kennedy
Cables are not very popular things in the wireless communication age but when it comes to turntables and decent sound systems for that matter they are a necessary evil. Cables are almost as important as the components that they connect, if some of the signal is lost as it travels from one device to another there’s nothing that can be done to bring it back. And like any piece of audio equipment a cable can only really make things worse. In other words cables can lose information and they can distort it, so the cable that makes the smallest changes to the signal is the best one.
Cable quality does make a difference to what you hear and if you have a nice turntable it is doing it a disservice to use cheapo cables. In many cases of course the cable from the turntable to the amplifier or phono stage is fixed and cannot be changed. But some models have RCA phono sockets on the back of the turntable, which means you can use different cables. And even with fixed arm cables as they’re known there are always more cables needed to get the signal to the speakers.
Interconnects take the signal from a source – be it a streamer, CD player, turntable, or any other device that produces the initial music signal – to the amplifier. They are also used between separate amplifiers to take the signal between preamp and power amp. In most instances they have RCA phono plugs and are not usually over a meter long.
Another type of interconnect is called balanced cable and is used with pro and high end gear. Balanced cables have large, three-pin connectors called XLR which lock in to the hardware and have the advantage that you can use long cables with minimal noise.
There are digital and analogue interconnects, often with the same RCA phono connector, but you only need one cable for a digital signal. Digital can be sent electrically via a coaxial cable or optically with a Toslink cable, neither of which are relevant to turntables of course. The other digital option is USB and there are some turntables that have a USB output so that you can record your vinyl with a computer. Many people find it hard to believe that digital cables can sound different, but as inconvenient as it is, they do; just have a listen to see if it’s a big enough difference for you.
These do what they say on the tin: connect the amplifier to the speakers. Speaker cables can have plugs or bare wires at either end, with plugs being the preferable option as it makes for much easier connections, though if you don’t have to do this very often then bare wire is fine.
Speaker cables come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes but always have connections for the red and black terminals on the amplifier and speaker. If you want to get bass out of a system it’s a good idea to follow this colour coding. The other factor is left/right cable connection, the right hand speaker is the one that’s on your right as you face the speakers. Seems simple but only when you know it.
If you want deep bass or high volumes avoid really skinny cables. Very few amplifiers are fussy about speaker cables but those that are should come with some warning to this effect.
Some speakers have two sets of terminals connected with bridging bars, this is so that you can use two runs of cable back to the amplifier. It’s called bi-wiring and in some cases brings clear benefits in the way that the amplifier controls the speaker. However, if you have a limited budget for cables (which should be 10% of the system cost or more) use it to buy one pair of the best speaker cables rather than two pairs of lesser cables. You can always bi-wire at a later date if it appeals.
The vast majority of cables use copper as a signal conductor because it is the best material for the job. Silver is used in some high end cables because it is a marginally better conductor, however it tarnishes when exposed to oxygen and that affects performance, so it’s debatable whether it warrants the extra cost. A good compromise is silver plated copper which is used in a lot of the better cables, usually insulated in PTFE or Teflon which keeps out the oxygen and ‘sounds’ better than rubber or plastic.
The point of expensive cables is the same as with hi-fi as a whole: a more realistic and engaging musical experience. The cable is in some respect the weakest link and anything that is done to improve it is usually fairly easy to hear. There is a school of thought that says cables are all the same but this is because it’s difficult to measure differences between them; hearing differences is much easier. Establishing which differences matter is the tricky bit.
I would argue that a cable that makes the music more immediate, lifelike and present in the room is better than one that gives you massive bass or crisp, bright treble.
A lot of hi-fi enthusiasts use cables as a sort of tone control, fine tuning a system to suit a particular taste. But this is plain wrong, leave the tonal balance to the sound engineers and try to hear as much of what the artist put down. This can only be done with cables that don’t seek to change the tonal balance but add and take away as little as possible.
Choosing cables is not easy because there are so many claims made about them and making meaningful comparisons is a challenge. As a rule it’s best to stick with one brand throughout the system, that way you get to hear the result that the designer intended rather than a mix of potentially differing philosophies.
Also go for an established brand; it’s very easy to start a cable company without knowing what you’re doing but once someone has been doing it for 10 years they should know how to do it properly. If you can audition cables, listen for the one that shows the biggest difference between recordings, take old and new music and listen for a cable that makes both sound good, but equally they should sound different because recording techniques have changed so much over time.
Illustration by Abigail Carlin