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The Truth About Exotic Cables

They've been around for decades, but are exotic cables really worth their weight in gold?

Ever since their debut in mid-1970s Japan, exotic cables have shaped their own marketplace and grown into a hot button topic, especially in the pro AV community. Many closet audiophiles spend their days working as certified AV professionals, only to return to their home theater systems replete with gold-tipped, oxygen-free copper, silver-plated hi-fi cables fortified with special UV tape to block harmful ozone damage, lovingly seated on pricey cable lifters to minimize any interference.

While many people have differing views of what an exotic cable really is — think of the old adage “one man's trash is another man's treasure” — the term “exotic” represents the materials from which the cable is manufactured.

“An exotic cable is an eye candy piece of cable jewelry that promises nirvana,” says Gene DellaSala, president of Audioholics.com in Tampa, FL, and former audio communications systems design engineer for government defense. “The truth is that you do have to get some engineering basics right in order to manufacture cable, but beyond that is mostly packaging and often snake oil.”

And while exotic cable manufacturers may make seemingly outrageous claims, the one thing in common is the price tag. As with the use of anything rare or exotic, a hefty price often accompanies exotic cables. The question is: Do they really make a difference in the quality of audio or video signals you see and hear?

“Manufacturers know that audio enthusiasts are obsessive people who will spend any amount of money to squeeze out more performance or to tweak their systems in the slightest,” DellaSala says.

As such, that understanding has led to a feature and benefits claims tug-of-war that leaves two main casualties: the real truth and your wallet.

A claim by any other name

Here are a few examples of some of the hotly contested claims from exotic cable manufacturers. Keep in mind: These claims aren't ranked by popularity, clarity, marketability, or believability.

  • Better pathways — No, this isn't an advertisement for yogic enlightenment. Depending upon the source, there are distinct advantages or disadvantages over multi-strand versus solid core cable as a “better” pathway for signal than the other. In reality, “strand jumping” is a real term that was borrowed from the electric power industry. At audio or video frequencies (and associated power levels) it's a negligible issue, but one that has been used by some exotic cable vendors to illustrate why a solid core cable is a better pathway. “Manufacturers may talk about ‘strand jumping' in multi-strand cables,” DellaSala says. “The reality is that manufacturers found it was cheaper to buy solid core cable, so they made up a story to support its use.”
  • Oxygen-free copper (OFC) — Opponents call it “copper-free oxygen,” but proponents swear by the sonic quality of OFC — even though its benefits aren't scientifically measurable. OFC is made when the copper is reheated in an oxygen-free environment, with the intent of reducing or eliminating copper crystal boundaries (and thus reducing resistance). Considered the highest among grades of copper, the metal's purity supposedly makes the cable even more stable. OFC is just now crossing over from audio into the video world.
  • Directional wire — Directional wire, not to be confused with directional cable, is “totally bogus,” DellaSala adds. “Directional cable is legitimate (when the shield is lifted on one end to eliminate ground loops), but not directional wire.” Manufacturers of directional wire claim that the copper is extruded in a way that “directs” the copper crystals in one direction, thus creating a directional signal path. “It's not possible. Copper crystals aren't directional,” says Phil Tennison, technical sales manager of Marshall Electronics, Mogami Cable division in El Segundo, CA.
  • Signal enhancement — In an effort to differentiate itself from regular cable vendors, exotic cables are often sold using the pitch that the cable will enhance, improve, augment, boost, or otherwise miraculously clean up your signal and make your life much better. The tacit implication is that a generic $0.50 per foot cable would necessarily distort your signal, which is untrue. “A cable can color sound by subtraction, but a cable can't improve a signal,” Tennison says. “If done correctly, it's garbage in/garbage out. A cable should be a neutral device.”
  • Skin effect — “This is a real problem for RF or video cables, but an audio cable would need to be 2 miles long to exhibit negative effects. Those who say differently claim that industry testing models aren't accurate,” DellaSala says.

    Skin effect occurs when the high frequency travels along the surface of the conductor. While it's a well known characteristic at radio frequencies (in the hundreds of megahertz), “skin effect isn't an issue at audio frequencies,” Tennison adds.

  • Special coatings — Gold-tipped cables are proof that people are attracted to shiny objects. While it's true that gold isn't a great conductor, it also won't corrode. But, there's a missing piece to the puzzle: “Unless gold plating is also placed on the input jack, then benefits are nullified. The other connector will still corrode,” says Mitchell Klein, owner of StayTuned, a Boston-based consulting firm for the residential integration industry as well as former president of CEDIA and former owner of a custom installation business. Also, the quality of gold plating isn't equal from one cable to the next. Manufacturers will give a duty cycle to their gold plating, a stat that's worth noting. A duty cycle (or duty factor) is the amount of time the cable is in operation. “And why put gold on a 1/4-inch plug? Because otherwise customers wouldn't buy it,” Tennison explains. “The marketplace does dictate some things. Frankly, surface oxidation on nickel isn't a problem in high-contact-pressure connections like 1/4-inch plugs. The difference in price to the consumer is pretty negligible in any case.”
  • “Breaking-in” period — Like a new pair of shoes, some exotic cable manufacturers claim that a new cable must be “broken-in” in order for customers to achieve true sonic enjoyment. The curing process can take days or weeks, usually beyond whatever the return period is allowed for the cable. To “break-in” a cable, one must run a signal (i.e. play music) in order to cure the cable and rearrange all those fancy electrons into a usable pattern. Again, there's no scientific data to support this claim.

    It's important to note that neither the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) nor the Audio Engineering Society (AES) has published any papers in support of the claims noted above.

A Monster market

“There are three ways of looking at cable — the physical, the physics, and the voodoo,” Klein says. “Voodoo, of course, equates with margin. Yes, there are base differences from the cable that comes in the box versus what you can buy in the marketplace. Quality is the primary driver on the service side. One bad connector can take three days to find, so there's a compelling argument for installing robust, well-built cable that pays back huge dividends in terms of failures.”

According to Klein, Monster Cable created the cable market for consumers. “Monster segments their customers instead of their product lines,” he says. “Consumers will self-segment based on how they view themselves — standard, premium, or ultra-premium — and will buy whatever product is in their category.”

DellaSala adds that most people who aren't happy with the quality of the cable need to look at other problems such as speaker setup or room acoustics. “Monster created the exotic cable market over 20 years ago as a way to appease customers,” he says. “They were unchallenged for so long that they've grown into a volume mover, and a high-end manufacturer can't compete with that.”

Founded in 1978 by Noel Lee, Monster Cable is, in fact, a monster in the marketplace. Sean Carlin, customer technical services supervisor for Monster says the company started the market for cables as an accessory. “Our founder is good at understanding the marketplace and catching consumers' eye,” he says. “He designs the specifications and price points, and the manufacturing is done domestically and overseas. He spends time with each product before it hits the market.”

Monster is tweaking the market once again with the continued expansion of its THX-approved audio cables and Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) partnership on the video side of the business. “We back up our marketing with quality,” Carlin says. “The THX brand provides an extra level of security to the customer, and justifies that it's not snake oil. Our products are an improvement on what comes in the box. We offer a higher quality of materials and overall construction.”

DellaSala contends there's no need for THX cables. “It's just a way for both parties to make money,” he says.

“Good” cable

This discussion begs the question: What exactly makes a good cable versus a bad one? “Only poorly designed cables are sonically distinguishable,” DellaSala says.

Integrators desire cable flexibility which equals cleaner runs, quality of construction, and a low failure rate, Klein adds.

It also helps when a manufacturer speaks in terms of physics and electrical engineering to describe why its product is superior, rather than food-related descriptives such as a “chocolaty” mid range to make the sale. “There are audible and visible differences in performance caused by cables, explainable by well established engineering,” Tennison says. “At Mogami, we avoid alternative physics explanations. Unfortunately there's lots of voodoo out there. The studies and research were done ages ago, and the laws of physics haven't changed since. The European lead-free initiative RoHS, which stands for Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances, has been the biggest catalyst for redesign for us recently.”

According to Klein, there's no industry-wide study on cables. “Nobody in the cable industry has done a double-blind study,” DellaSala maintains. “Auditory memory is so short that it's hard to subjectively compare cables in the same system, and unless you're comparing a good cable to a deliberately designed bad cable, they'll be sonically indistinguishable.”

Kip Coates, marketing manager for broadcast AV at Belden CDT in Richmond, IN, says, “When comparing cables, video trumps audio because the eyes don't lie.”

Purveyors of premium cable should be paying for tighter manufacturing tolerances and better quality control than outsourced manufacturing. “There's only one Mogami factory near Nagano that's run by the family,” Tennison explains. “They have phenomenal quality control. We have a 1 in 20,000 defect rate on our cable assemblies.”

Belden's Coates adds, “Our manufacturing processes are very tight and controlled. We do return loss testing on all of our precision video cables to ensure impedance stability over frequency.”

Incidentally, Belden, long known as one of the leading cables on the market, is a supplier to the exotic cable market, including companies like Audioquest.

Moving forward

According to Belden, several factors are driving change in the cable market, particularly the transition from analog to digital. “More and more equipment manufacturers are going to Ethernet-based and proprietary digital technologies that utilize UTP cables as the transmission medium,” Coates says. “In video, as a result of HD, frequencies are going higher and higher, so we're now sweep testing our video coaxes to 4.5 GHz to cover the third harmonic frequency of 1080p. Digital audio frequencies, on the other hand, are significantly lower and return loss isn't as big of an issue.”

DellaSala agrees. “HDMI 1080p will take over the market in a few years, and you need to be careful in terms of design,” he says. “Exotics will have some catching up to do, especially since many of them won't correctly pass a 1080p signal beyond a few feet.”

Perhaps the biggest driver in the market is the audiophile community. Tennison, a self-proclaimed audiophile, notes that audiophiles are too often marketing-driven versus performance-driven. “Audiophiles don't believe in tone controls, so how do you tune the sound?” he says. “You have to use cable to balance the sound, whereas pros want neutral transmission.”

And let's not forget the human subjective factor that can't be quantified. There's a pride of ownership when spending large amounts of money on a system; therefore, the cable will fit within the context of the purchase or the lifestyle. A person spending $20,000 on components may not be comfortable spending $0.50 per foot on cable, no matter how well-constructed or high quality it may be. “There's nothing wrong with exotics as long as they're honest about what they can do,” DellaSala says.

Klein concludes, “Cables still rule since wireless doesn't hold the promise yet.”

Linda Seid Frembes is a freelance writer and PR specialist for the pro AV industry. She can be reached at linda@frembes.com.



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