Snake Pit: The World of Audio Cable.
Max, I just finished auditioning a highly touted cable manufactured by a company that emphasizes cable geometry-they make theirs elliptical. At first listen I did notice a certain increase in what seemed to be treble information. However, with more listening certain annoyances became audible.
The crucial test was a Rickie Lee Jones CD. She sings with a breathy sibilance which annoys many people, but which I rather enjoy (once in a while.) In any case, close listening revealed that with the elliptical cables in the system, the sibilants became "spitty" and unpleasant.
Also I was annoyed to discover that the cable which they call "silver" is not solid silver at all but merely silver plated copper. Their literature calls it "pure silver over a stabilizing strand of oxygen-free copper." I consider this a weasely way to explain electroplating. The copper is a "stabilizing strand" only because you
can't electroplate a vacuum! I suspect that their cable is nothing more than braided shield squashed flat to produce an elliptical shape.
If there were more shrewd customers such as yourself out there, this industry would
not be doing nearly so well! I consider it poor taste to criticize other companies, but in this case I will confirm your suspicions: Yes, I am familiar with this company and you are 100% correct about the material for their cable: mesh-braided shielding material is all it is. I can only give them credit for finding a creative use
for a common and inexpensive industrial product.
The general perception of multi-stranded wire is exactly what you heard; an increased "spitty" texture in the upper ranges, though in a dull sounding system, that may seem like more detail. But I prefer to call it "artificial resolution". Generally speaking, wire mesh as a signal conductor can best be described as a very extensive
series of bad connections. The signal continually has to arc across little air gaps. This can create a mild diode-like effect which can demodulate radio frequencies that may be present in the signal, making them audible as an increase in certain high frequency distortions which can fool us into perceiving more resolution.
Their ads lead one to think that they are selling pure silver cable. Their literature also includes some "research": a comparison of two oscilloscope traces comparing "a leading round cable" with their own. However, close scrutiny of the charts (marked in microsecond increments for effect), reveals they are not genuine traces at
all but merely imaginative drawings of what an ideal trace might look like. The chart makes no reference to an actual test of any sort.
Although the company does not lie outright, I believe it intentionally misleads and I don't like to be misled.
I wish you were not the only other person besides myself who has questioned an alleged scope trace that shows some other "mystery brand" of cable rounding a square wave worse than a 70 year old tube amplifier running on 50 volts! Since they all purport to be engineers, I know they know better than that. As for the possibly
hand-drawn ideal scope trace you mention; a square wave is a very standard signal form produced by a signal generator and used for a variety of purposes. I'm not so sure anyone could tell if that part is real or made up as either would look the same; a square wave! It's the rounded square wave portrayed of "brand X" that you should
be questioning, especially since they fail to mention the conditions under which this alleged, and very severely rounded shape was produced. I can confidentially tell you a couple meters worth of the worst radio shack cable you can find could not possibly screw up rise time within audio that severely. If this was real, which I
highly doubt, no two cables tested under the SAME CONDITIONS could ever look that different on a scope.
I have to say that the world of audio cable is a snake pit! All sorts of contradictory claims are touted. I'm not used to this. In the world of cameras, which I understand rather well, no amateur can just decide to go and build a lens. They are far too complex. But in the world of audio, anybody can become a cable manufacturer
just by saying they are.
If someone jammed bottle glass into a PVC pipe and called it a lens, no photographer would take him seriously. But in the world of audio, it seems as if people just solder together stray wires from trash bins and market them as high-end audio cable.
I think you see that this industry unfortunately has a lot in common with the herbal healing racket and all others that do not operate under any burden of proof. It's really an amazing thing, the degree of passion that high-end cables provoke. The bottom line is they are not supposed to make ANY difference at all, yet they
definitely do make some differences and that gives them a nearly magical status amongst their consumers. And as in any connoisseur sport, the more subtle the charm, the more valuable it becomes. However, the bottom line is that compared with any other audio device, on the grand scale of things, you can basically get away with murder
when it comes to cable design at audio frequencies and especially with short lengths of cable. There is no shortage of people out there who either consciously, or unconsciously know this, so their imagination knows no bounds when it comes to inventing unique marketing hooks, or let's face it; gimmicks.
I think our hobbies are often attractive to us because they let us reach a degree of excellence unattainable in our daily lives. In the midst of uncertain income, car problems, home repairs, or moles attacking the yard, a hobby becomes a sheltered oasis of perfection. I know from personal experience that the desire for even the
tiniest improvement drives those of us who collect things like stamps or coins.
Audiophilia is pretty much like this. Knowing that the cable lying on the floor at home is about as good as it gets, generates a great deal of satisfaction.
So are there any cable manufacturers out there that you respect?
Sure. There are companies like Kimber, XLO and Cardas for instance, that do a creditable job in the design and manufacture of their cables. I respect any other company that truly does make unique, custom manufactured products, such as these companies, as opposed to simply dressing up mass-produced commercial cable with sleaving
and fancy shrink wrap. Other good cable designs may appear very different from ours and that I'm sure leaves you wondering (and for good reason) who is right. Well, as with speakers, there really is not one "right" way to do anything, it's more a matter of balancing trade-offs. I think most of us in the mainstream share more common
ground design-wise than is immediately apparent.
So what is a basic principle of design that good cables have in common?
I won't bother re-stating my white papers because that explains why we do what we do, but in general, fine gauge, solid core wire using the Litz principle is a necessary starting point for any superior design, in my opinion.
What about cable geometry? How important is the arrangement of wires? Does it really matter as much as some people claim it does?
Given the fact that you could probably make a pair of interconnects out of a coat hanger and it would still pass a signal, I guess by some peoples criteria, geometry doesn't matter! On the other hand, we are talking about eliminating extremely subtle sources of degradation and on many different levels. That's what high end audio is
all about. And when that's your goal, you do pay attention to geometry, along with many other factors.
Our interconnects feature steep angle crossing between polarities. The idea is that the ground line is typically carrying more than just the return signal, it's also carrying power supply noise which can couple inductively with the positive signal lead. The steep crossing angle makes that more difficult. So good geometry can give us
less noise for one thing.
If a cable had to carry very high frequency information in the radio frequency range, then impedance would become a necessary feature of the cable design, and when that's the case, you don't have the luxury of using geometry so creatively.
Geometry also has an effect on the cable's susceptibility to noise, particularly INDUCTIVE sources against which a shield has no effect. This is proven by the famous "star quad" cable design which uses four individually twisted wires rather than just two. I could show you plots that clearly demonstrate up to a 25 dB decrease in
noise over the double twist, (in a balanced line) even when both use the same shield, which proves that the shield has no effect on that type of noise.
The value of high end cable in an audio system
Max, your honesty is refreshing. And thanks for avoiding obscurity. I'm really enjoying this discussion. Given that so many of the effects of good cable design are subtle, why should anyone spend a serious amount of money on cable?
Thank you for the praise Laszlo, I'm very flattered. Well I can go on and on but here is the summary: High end audio cables are a luxury item and part of what folks pay for is peace of mind and pride of ownership. Knowing that the cables are at some level doing as much right as possible is what brings the peace of mind. At the
risk of immodesty, the worst that Silver Audio can be accused of is caring more than we need to. You will not find any engineer who will dispute the substance of any claim we make. But many would say that the effect can't possibly matter very much. And this is where the listener has to judge exactly how much it matters to him or her
personally. That is why we offer our cables on 30 day approval.
Deeper Into The Snake Pit
You may not believe this, but not long ago, I entered an internet bid on some silver speaker cable made by an unfamiliar company. (Yes, I really did bid sight unseen on peculiar stuff! Don't know what came over me.)
My bid on the cables was fairly low and did not meet the company's reserve. But the owner suggested we "meet half way" on price. That's when I got suspicious and sent him a few test questions:
Q. How much research has gone into your cable?
A. Based on 7 years experience in cable assembly manufacturing we made a lot of
Research [sic] to meet the best quality of our product desgn [sic] and a lot of physicals [sic] experiments to establish the philosophy direction.
Q. Why do you manufacture the cable from 99.9% pure silver instead of the 99.99%
which I see more commonly listed by manufacturers of silver cable? Was any
testing involved in this choice?
A. It does make sense to fabricate the interconnect type cables (thin round wire
center conductor) by using super high purity 99.99% silver material. Speaker
cables suppose [sic] to use [sic] 19 AWG fine silver ribbon wire 99.9%. By using 99.99% [sic] silver to build a speaker cable, we dramatically reduce the Quality-to-Price ratio. According to experts [sic] opinion, the use of speaker cables fabricated with 4N material leads to a slight (3-5%) improvement in the sound transmission
quality comparing [sic] to 3N cables, but at the price ( because of the cost of
materials) which is about 2 to 3 times higher. In attaining the super hi-quality
of a transmitted signal, the most critical aspect is the configuration of a
conductor cross section (proprietary information of "X" AUDIO Inc.)
I'll be the first to admit it's hard to read writing like this, especially as he got confused about the meaning of "Quality-to-Price" ratio which he claims to have reduced when I'm sure he meant to say he had increased it. Also, he reversed the purity claims of his wire. Suffice to say the answers made me so suspicious that I
abandoned any interest in dealing with him.
I began to suspect that the speaker cable he was selling was nothing more than jeweler's ribbon shoved into a Fluoropolymer tube. My guess is that his materials' cost for an 8 foot run of four cables (the two sides are separate) is about $100 and that he will be doing quite well for himself if he can actually sell them for $480-the price
he wanted to settle on with me. I suspect the so-called $1200 retail price he claimed is pure fiction.
I won't say too much about your dialogue with company "X". I had not heard of him but there are many such types popping up all the time (and disappearing just as quickly) and yes, most likely they are using jewelry strip silver and slipping it into a Fluoropolymer tube by hand.
If his material cost is about $100.00 as you estimate, and he was selling for around $500.00 AND they are a "real" company, that is, one that pays employees, rent, insurance, taxes, phone bills, advertising etc, then that would be a reasonable mark-up. If he is one of the many others doing this on his kitchen table for extra pizza
money, then $380.00 is a tidy profit. But $1200.00? If I made that much on every speaker cable we've sold, I could have retired two years ago!
Thanks Max. Here's another one I ran into: "Microporous" Fluoropolymer. What's that? And is it as good as this manufacturer claims?
Max:You ask about "microporous" Fluoropolymer. First of maybe I should give you some brief background: "Fluoropolymer" is a registered trade name of Dupont and really refers to a family of Dupont-licensed polymers, the most common being pTFE, FEP and PFA. Unless Dupont makes and sells the tubing, it can't be called "Fluoropolymer".
Historically, pTFE was the original one, developed in the late 50's. The various Fluoropolymer's differ mostly in non-electrical properties such as friction coefficient and degree of gas permeability. This guy might be referring to pTFE which is a paste extruded resin (different extrusion process than the others) and I THINK a bit more
permeable to gas than the others. Why that would be a bragging point is beyond me. If he's trying to insinuate that it has a lower dielectric constant than other types, he's wrong. ONLY "Fluoropolymer AF" is lower (like 1.8) but it's very rare, and outrageously expensive and not sold commercially in bulk tubing form anyway. No way he's
using that. "Micro-porous" is basically an empty marketing term. If it's being used to describe foamed or gas injected FEP for instance, well that stuff doesn't come in tubing form anyway. The term was probably coined by some other cable company in the past, then borrowed by this guy is my guess.
The Skin Effect
Thanks for the business insight. By the way, I also asked him why his spade lugs were made of Rhodium plated copper. He answered by referring to "the skin effect." I have seen references to the skin effect in other ads and web sites, too. As I understand it, high frequencies tend to travel along the surface of a wire rather than
inside. Is this true? Is the skin effect meaningful to audio cable?
His answer involving the skin effect and his plated spades would make sense for a signal way into the megahertz range, but not for audio. The depth of penetration of even a 20k wave is much deeper than any plating. I don't know why he and others like him think that audio frequencies travel only through the outside of a conductor;
but not too many cable guys seem to understand what the skin effect really means either. You may or may not be surprised to learn that the vast majority of our high-end audio "cable gurus" do not have even a rudimentary education in electronics, let along Physics.A fact that is laughably obvious from the confused gibberish that
usually decorates their websites. Most are just over-zealous hobbyists, and/or pure business guys who have a knack for pushing the right marketing buttons.
Thanks for the further illumination. I appreciate your confirming my suspicions about company "X". I had no idea there were so many "manufacturers" of this sort. I guess I'm just naive. But I'm glad I stumbled into your web site and I'm honored that you take so much time to explain things.
It seems to me that most people refer to the "skin effect" just to sound savvy about electronics. The photographic equivalent might be Ansel Adam's famous "Zone System" of which many photographers have only a hazy notion though they may admit that it's important.
Home Made Cable.
I just looked at the web site of a cable do-it-yourselfer who explains of how anyone with $80 can make a pair of silver interconnects "as good as anything available on the market." Would you mind taking a look at this? Is there any truth to what he claims? Again, I'm just trolling around in the snake pit.
I don't really have anything to say about the homemade cable link you sent, only that most of these hobbyists (there are many) do essentially the same thing; which is slip some jewelry silver into Fluoropolymer or aquarium tubing by hand, then make a three-stranded braid by hand, or just spin two together with a drill, and sell it for
some extra money. When you make something yourself that works, well, it's pretty easy to fall in love with the fruits of your efforts! One very important factor makes the difference between a good and superior high-end cable (and gets expensive quickly) is really going into a heavy Litz design like we do, where each wire is thin,
individually insulated, and many are used in parallel. We pay per foot on our co-extruded wire PLUS waste created in the process. Our JetstreamT interconnect for instance, uses almost 80 feet worth of fine gauge, insulated silver wire in parallel to make just a one-meter pair, so you can see how a more sophisticated design gets
expensive very quickly. There are of course a host of fabrication and labor costs as well.
Silver Audio Spade Lugs
Just one question, Max. Given your emphasis on pure silver, I really don't understand why you use copper spade lugs with silver plating. Wouldn't it be simpler to use silver all the way? Isn't there some sort of bimetallic reaction that might cause corrosion? Surely it can't be a price issue given that your cable is already
Basically, there are only two ways to make a solid silver spade; cast, meaning poured out of a mold, or milled, meaning machined from a solid, hard tempered bar stock. Milled is WAY too expensive to justify the extra pinch of "goodness" that might be gained, and cast is structurally lousy, both electrically and physically ...full of
air bubbles, fissures, and brittle. So instead, direct silver plated, milled copper that is further compressed during our HPF process (link) is I feel more than an acceptable compromise. You are asking about a galvanic effect between the two metals: copper and silver are similar enough electrically so that such a thing is basically
a moot point, and the thick silver-plating that we use encapsulates the copper well enough to prevent any significant oxidation reaction from starting. And keep in mind silver plating is far superior to plating with gold which is substantially less conductive AND requires a sub-plating of nickel under it which can produce some Hall
effect due to it's mildly magnetic nature.
Your explanation about copper spade lugs answers my question. I appreciate your thoroughness. That is what serious purchasers want. We want to be reassured that we are not buying a handful of magic beans or fairy dust but rather a product that has been designed according to sound engineering principles.
Power Cords: Audio Magic or Good Audio Hygiene?
If you're in the mood to deal with another audio topic I'd love to have your opinion on power cords. I have never understood why a power cord, no matter how heavy the gauge or how well built, should have any appreciable influence on the operation of a component given that the outlet into which the power cord is plugged is at the
end of 20 to 40 feet of 12 gauge Romex cable in the walls of a house. Moreover there's the issue of the electric service to the house itself and then the electric grid of the community. Why should the last 8 feet of this long chain be so significant? (I do understand that some power cords offer some forms of RFI filtration; however,
I'm referring to just the normal beefed up audiophile power cords that are sold everywhere for $90 to upwards of $400.)
You asked about power cables, here is the quick run down: Yes, power travels MANY miles to your house and you can only do so much with the last 8 feet. BUT, before the transformer just before your house, the power company takes advantage of Ohms law (V=IR) and transmits the power as very, very high voltage but low current since
power (watts) = Voltage times Current. If they used the opposite to deliver the same power (low voltage/high current) the power lines would have to be thick as trees! So, prior to getting to your house, power is a different animal but that's not my point, I just wanted to clarify that the nature of the power in your house is not
really the same as what's flowing through power lines outside.
Back to the story: At your house, the power goes to a transformer to drop down to low voltage, higher current and goes through your house on 12-14 awg wires, then goes through a dinky 18 awg stock power cord to your amp or whatever which in PRINCIPLE at least causes a bit of a drop. The idea is the power cord is in series with the
primary of the mains transformer, and thus a heavier gauge power cord SLIGHTLY lowers the impedance that the transformer sees making the power supply a bit more robust. This is aided by much better plugs that have less resistance by allowing better power transfer into the cable, along with stronger contact in the socket which
reduces mild arcing and so lowers noise.
We can also take advantage of a power cord being where it is to sneak some tricks into it that SHOULD be in the power supply of most equipment but usually isn't. In the case of our power cord, we also use a very unique form of shielding which I'm afraid I have to be purposefully vague about. This has the ability to do what NO other
shielding can do, which is to contain the inductive, B field inside the cable, thus protecting the local environment around the cable (i.e. signal cables) from the strongly inductive, low frequency EMI fields produced by an AC cord. This in conjunction with carefully chosen wide range noise suppression does a good job of suppressing
a fair amount of noise, especially, our target range of ~3-5 MHz which is where digital clock noise sits. So, we do attenuate this noise to a reasonable degree, and without using in line RLC networks which can limit rate change and cause artifacts on their own if used too aggressively. This is good news for really power hungry
amplifiers and sensitive digital hear alike. Most of the noise we limit is ultra-sonic, but it still has a way of sneaking into equipment and becoming audible through indirect means, i.e. demodulation etc. Naturally, there are plenty of companies that are just using "magic dust" instead of a design that really does anything and
charging "magic" prices. At the very least, our power cord is, I feel, what I call "good audio hygiene." This means, it's doing some good, if only at a small level, and doesn't cost too much so again you get the peace of mind if nothing else. I hope that makes some sense?
Thanks. Yours is the first sensible explanation I've ever heard about why an upgraded power cord might be helpful. It does make sense.
Jetstream vs. Appassionata Interconnects: How Do They Compare?
Max, what is the stuff you're using in the Jetstream interconnect? If it isn't "microporous Fluoropolymer," then it must be some advanced form of Fluoropolymer? Can you say something about it?
We use a special, custom-made, a low density variant of FEP for the core of the Jetstream. By virtue of its reduced density it becomes more compliant and thus a good vibration damper. Also the more open-cell consistency allows more air, which reduces this materials ability to store an electrostatic charge, which in turn reduces
"signal ghost" effects from the side products of capacitance.
Do I understand correctly that the "Jetstream" interconnect using this new material is now your de facto top of the line and the Appassionata is soon to be updated?
As for the Jetstream vs. the Appassionata, I have no plans to discontinue the Appassionata, but, yes, the Jetstream does have one design advantage that is not possible with the Appassionata. So that does put a wrinkle into the progression of the product line. The Appassionata is still very highly regarded and sells regularly, so I
plan to keep it the way it is and let the two cables stand on their own merits. Regardless of the notional superiority of one design over the other, they both sound a little different-not better, not worse-just different and the hope (on my part) is that if one is not right for a particular person, the other will be. I always
counsel my customers to try to ignore price tags and just select what sounds the best to them. It's kind of like the $15.00+ echelon of wine; one label may be more expensive, but some people may prefer the less expensive (but still expensive enough!) brand.
Why New Equipment Almost Always Sounds Better
My experience with the elliptical cable made me mull over why new equipment almost always tends to make an audio system sound better. First of all, given that you care about this stuff at all, you are likely to be purchasing expensive equipment which is put together pretty well. In other words, we can assume that an audiophile
is unlikely to be using a department store receiver in his high end system or lamp cord as an interconnect. Therefore, whatever differences there are between these pricey pieces of equipment (wire included) are likely to be subtle-on the order of 5% to 50% perceived differences rather than 100% to 500%. Whenever a difference is
subtle, psychological considerations loom large in one's evaluation.
The purchase of any new piece of gear will be accompanied by an intense degree of positive anticipation. "Oh boy. I can hardly wait to find out how good this sounds!" Who on earth would shell out $6000 for a pre amp or $2500 for speaker wire and think to himself, "Oh well, this probably won't really make much difference to my
system. I doubt that I'll even be able to hear it. I don't know why I'm bothering to spend this kind of money anyway, except that I'm very rich and very stupid."
I admit that this anticipation effect works just as well on me, who is conscious of it, as on anyone else. During a three hour drive from Seattle to Portland after the close of a busy day of photography, my thoughts frequently turned to the new elliptical cable that I was going to try. I imagined that it would provide a real
improvement that would make sitting in my listening room as I sorted through a couple thousand pictures far more pleasurable. In fact, I was so eager to try the cable that I drove directly to my audio dealer's house (an addition 45 minutes of rush hour traffic each way) just so I could have the cable in my hot little hands that very
Finally, I present as a hypothesis that the majority of people who have introduced something new into their sound systems are so enthusiastic, so positive about the anticipated improvement, and so eager to hear something that they- wonder of wonders- turn up the volume. And that is exactly what I did when I put the elliptical cable
in. I notched the volume up one full number on my Quicksilver preamps and sat back to bask in sonic glory. Guess what? I did hear more. I heard some of those stray clicking, clacking, shuffling background noises that audiophiles are so fond of pointing out as examples of improved resolution. To be precise, I heard the sounds of the
keys of a bassoon clacking away during a performance of the Beethoven Septet. (Likely this was further augmented by the "spittiness" introduced into my system.) I had not been aware of those sounds before and now there they were. Obviously my system had been improved. But in retrospect, I think the perceived resolution increase was
caused by nothing more than listening at a higher volume level.
So I proved once again the dictum of the great physicist, Richard Feynman, that "the easiest person to fool is yourself." Fortunately, I'm aware of the effect, so after the initial rush, I began to take stock of things and arrived at very different conclusions (see Snake Pit: The world of audio cable.). I suppose this is one good
justification for extended listening tests lasting over several days or even weeks rather than rushing to a quick conclusion based on switching components every five minutes.
The Great Silver Purity Hoax. (More than you ever wanted to know-honest!)
You are interested in the "ultra high-purity Silver" hoax, and a hoax is exactly what it is. With a brand new ICP Mass Spectrometer, absolutely perfect conditions, and a just a bit of "hand waving" it's possible to declare 99.997% purity which downstream vendors serving non-critical applications may round up to 99.999%. If there is
any other field more purity obsessed than analytical chemistry, I'd like to know about it. Want to guess what the highest certified purity HPLC grade reagents are? That's right: 99.99%. And the point is not that any element used in industry can't be 99.999999...etc. pure, only that there is no way to know that. Each "nine"
represents an order of magnitude so there is a BIG difference between 99.999 and 99.9999 for instance.
Your comments about silver purity (link to white paper) surprised me. I have so frequently read claims for "five nines" (.99999) or "six nines" (.999999) purity in audiophile advertisements that I assumed such materials were mere commodities. Yet you claim that anything beyond the four nines (.9999) grade is virtually
So I decided to check up on you and here is what I found:
Having done lots of photography for precious metals companies, I decided to begin my quest with the analytical labs that perform bullion assays. There are quite a few of these in the West. I called one in Vancouver BC and another in Reno NV. Both told me that they do no assays beyond the four nines level of purity. The Vancouver lab
specializes in testing ore samples and can provide readouts of parts per billion; but of course, proving that a sample has a small component of a certain element is quite different from proving that a batch of bullion is uniformly pure.
The Reno lab told me that they thought it was possible to do an assay to the five nines level by using the silver chloride method and standard "wet chemistry" but she had no idea who could do so. She guessed that such an assay would cost $150. She then passed on the name of a source who provides five nines samples of silver.
When I called this source in Las Vegas, I spoke to Abe, a highly suspicious man who wanted to know WHY I wanted to know. This kind of mistrust is pretty typical of people in the precious metals business and I don't pass on the names to spare them even more suspicious phone calls from curious audiophiles! Anyway Abe sells the five
nines silver at $1.75 a gram. That may not sound like much until you do the math and realize that works out to about $240 an ounce, approaching the price of gold! He sells this silver to other analytical labs as a reference standard and claims to be able to confirm its purity level with an ICP mass spectrometry assay which costs
$200 to $300.
Interestingly, Abe says he can guarantee that degree of purity only in the original bullion form. He says that when such silver is drawn into wire, the purity drops to 99.995%
due to the oils used in the drawing dies and the handling. When I asked about six nines silver, Abe said that such purity was "absolutely unavailable."
Of course, if what Abe says is true (and I see no reason to doubt him), even if someone could obtain a batch of ultra expensive six nines silver, its purity would be degraded in the wire drawing process by more than a whole order of magnitude . What would be the point?
As for silver purity testing, even ICP mass spectrometry still requires an internal standard to measure against, so it is really not a more rigorous method than any other standard destructive method, which requires dissolving the sample into its parts, assaying each individually and then trying to determine how much they subtract
from a whole. The last statement is the key to why purity just can't be determined very far: You have to know ALL the contaminating elements you are assaying for and be able to account for ALL of them, not just the ones you test for. So I'm sure you can see that these parts will never add back up to 100%. (I used to work in
biochemistry and molecular bio labs some years ago, so I'm familiar with these things.) So, furthermore, this should show you why trying to convert a measure of concentration in parts per billion or whatever into a percent is just completely slanderous, or for that matter, fraudulent, because again, all the parts can never be made
to add up to 100%, especially since they aren't testing ALL the contaminants. The whole thing is just stupid, and as was pointed out to you, since the wire is drawn through dies that are lubed with mineral oil that level of purity would completely go out the window anyway.
Besides, I've seen plenty of cable company's facilities, and believe me most look like the inside of a 300 year old Romanian smelter. If you don't mind me bragging a bit, our facility is strictly medical grade, all done in a giant clean room which is as clean as you can get and we're still not attempting to break any purity records!
Since I've gone on a minor tirade about this, a couple of the more honorable audio cable companies realized they had been duped and quietly withdrew such claims from their literature. This all started from an Asian wire supplier that saw the potential for big $$$ by simply claiming such a thing to be true, and charging accordingly.
And it's no coincidence that the only place in all the world you'll ever see silver wire with such claimed purity levels is in high-end audio. Amazingly, its seems no-one in the audio industry ever demanded proof (or really wanted to know the truth) until I came along! What I am stating here is a disclaimer for other folks in our
industry who may have sincerely believed that this was a real product because it was sold to them under that pretence and they simply didn't think to question it. I can tell you I used to correspond with a rep for a company claiming such ludicrous purity (and prices) who of course wanted to sell it to us. When I finally asked for a
copy of the certification analysis and testing method before I committed, he stopped answering my emails and I never heard from him again. So there!
Most people simply do not understand what high demands purity places on handling. I go to a lot of mining shows and at one I saw a booth for an analytical lab selling ultra pure water to other testing labs. The label indicated that impurities in the water were limited to a few parts per billion. The price was over $300 per
liter! When I asked them about the water (which was double packed) they said that it could only be opened in a clean room environment under a hood by technicians using rubber gauntlets because the smallest piece of dust settling into the bottle would immediately contaminate it's extreme purity. Nothing could touch the lip of the
bottle (except its cap). It could only be poured into an ultra clean container and its purity was guaranteed only so long as all work was performed under the hood. This was quite a revelation to me.
For reasons I can't even explain, the business of high purity silver has aroused my curiosity. I've been checking various places on the web and have not yet found any company which supplies five nines silver (other than good old Abe in Las Vegas) although some claim to do so. Odd. There is absolutely no reference to six nines silver
anywhere amongst silver suppliers.
However, I see frequent references to six nines silver on audio web sites. I even found a company in Australia that claims to sell "mono crystal ultra pure silver" (purity not specified) one meter interconnects for approx. $10,000 US ($1080 per extra half meter)!!!
The closest I have come to a genuine source of ultra pure silver is via an English Company called Romil which is a supplier of ultra pure solvents and chemicals to other laboratories. They refer to an "ultra pure silver" which they use to assure "process traceability." I have no idea what that means, but I'm sure it's legit and has
to do with using small amounts of silver to monitor certain purification processes. However, they don't even sell this silver. They just use it in their internal operations. (If you are interested, you can check their web site which will take you straight to the page on
the Ag OM and explain the use of Ultra Pure Silver as a Reference Material.)
In three years of arguing until I'm blue in the face, you are probably the only person that I've been able to convince about the impossibility of 6 nines and higher silver; so I just don't go out of my way to way to say much about it anymore. Topics like this are like trying to argue religion and no amount of logic can seem to
change anyone's mind. All-too-many of our audiophiles are fond of living under this smug delusion that they are exclusive members of some sort of technological elite blessed with engineering so exotic that even the aerospace and biomedical industries know nothing about it. Crazy business.
Looks like Romil Labs fully supports your contentions. Here is their response to my inquiry about the purity of the silver which they use in their internal assays:
Dear Mr. Bencze,
For our own high purity silver we place a value of 99.99% in terms of absolute silver content. I would imagine that the silver used in top end hi-fi cables is certainly no better than this, but probably more like 1-2 orders of magnitude inferior.
Claims of ".999999" purity and greater are ridiculous and stem from the engineers who design such cables, not understanding the chemistry. But then, do chemists understand engineering?
So-called '6 nines purity' refers to the absence of other metallic impurities and does not have anything to do with the silver content. Other impurities that will be missed include moisture, trapped gases, non-metal impurities, etc. The presence of such impurities will, naturally, degrade the silver content.
That's not to say that you can't get very pure silver. You can. But the purer you go, the more expensive it gets.
Hope this helps.
Dr Robert Lenk
So here's a company that bases its reputation on providing genuine high purity compounds and solvents to other analytical labs for use in their own testing. Obviously the purity of these substances is vitally important-they are no mere audio tweak. Yet, they are able to monitor their production process by using "ultra pure silver"
which turns out to be a "mere" 4 nines silver; the same as what you use in your cables! Most interesting.
Here's a page from a web site that directly addresses silver wire purity and agrees that the highest grade commercially available is 4 nines pure: www.sotainstruments.com/agpurity.html These are folks who manufacture colloidal silver
for health use. They give a good explanation of popular confusions about what all those nines mean.
Having gone through this exercise on silver purity, everything I run across fully supports your claims. I'm amazed that I have been so accepting of these high purity claims and actually thought they were meaningful. How come I've never read a decent article in any high end stereo magazine explaining these facts (which you post on
your site) and which are not so difficult to explain? It would seem that the issue of materials purity would make for an interesting article and would help debunk the many exaggerated claims that abound in audio advertising.
The high purity claims are repeated so often and in so many different places that we audiophiles accept them as factual. This repetition of an lie as a way to acceptance was a technique well understood by Goebbels. I'd rather propagate truth.
The Last Word On High Purity Silver (promise!)
For some reason beyond reason, I just can't let this topic go and did another internet search on "high purity" and came across the site of a lab in New Hampshire. Here's what they had to say in response to my inquiry about silver purity analysis:
Dear Mr. Bencze,
We can determine silver to >99.9999% via Glow Discharge Mass Spectrometry. The price is $350.00 per sample for a 75 element scan. Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. This includes all metallics, semi-metallics and halides. C, N, and O can by done by the LECO method if required.
William A. Guidoboni
This is interesting but again, having been around analytical chemistry a fair bit, I know what's going on here. It's a long story to explain but they are still measuring against an internal standard and the real question is can you DIFFERENTIATE between two different samples that far down into the noise floor reliably and repeatedly
and will you stake your life on it for the Space Shuttle or any other super critical application where than can be NO HAND WAVING...and the answer is no. Don't torture this guy about this, he can claim such a thing and I don't want to accuse him of actually lying per se, but I will accuse him of just letting math kick out more
significant figures than any respectable scientific journal would ever allow and he SHOULD know better than that. If you haven't dealt with standard curves, significant figures etc, this probably doesn't make much sense but we're still in the same boat about this which is "how far out on a limb are you willing to go extrapolating
from a standard curve?" If you remember graphing from school, they are not directly measuring to this purity level. Instead they are basically continuing a line on a graph from much more conservative actual measurements that establish a standard curve down past a point where they cannot actually measure anymore, and then letting
math yield a ridiculous number which is an excellent example of why the very important concept of significant figures is otherwise strictly observed and enforced in "mainstream" applied science.
I guess I really am naive when it comes to such things. I was willing to accept the claims of the lab at face value because:
1. It seemed like a lot of money for an analysis ($350), so it seemed like it must be what they say it is.
2. The list of the analytical equipment they own sounded impressive.
3. They're based in New Hampshire, a pretty State, especially in the Fall.
Of such frailty is built credulity.
The whole business reminds me of photographers who spend lots of effort balancing their lighting set-ups to within a 1/10 th of an f stop accuracy because their flash meters read out in 1/10th f stop increments. However, I seriously doubt that the meters are consistently that accurate and even if they were, the film itself is not
that accurate and, even if it were, the processing of the film is even less reliable. So making such fine adjustments is nothing but time-wasting silliness.
Clearly, the response of the English lab, Romil, which I had queried some time ago was far more realistic and in keeping with your own understanding. And remember that they were using 4 nines silver as their ultimate lab standard for ALL their analyses.
Thank you for your enthusiastic research into the silver purity story. I think it's safe to say that you and I have quite reliably put an end to this topic...the bottom line being that high end audio does not have access to any exotic technical capabilities that the aerospace, biomedical, communications etc industries don't.
László Decides to Buy!
Having gone through all this thought and research I find myself interested in auditioning your speaker wire. My system consists of Acoustat 2 +2 speakers (electrostatic) and Cary tube amps (SLM 70's). I suppose that the smaller speaker wire (Silver 32's) would be just fine for my system given that when they receive too much
power the panels short out. (It makes a crackling noise but is not harmful.)
I assume you understand I'm not engaged in a frivolous exercise. But I would want to purchase your cable only if it were understood that it came with a return privilege and if my audition did not reveal sufficient benefit, that I would return it for a refund. Is this OK with you?
Yes. All our cable and interconnect comes with 30 day return privileges. I will get an 8 foot pair out to you next week.
László's First Listening Test: the Silver 48's
Here are the conclusions I have come to regarding your Silver 48's cable:
First of all, I need to say that my present cable, the modestly priced Audioquest Midnight, is a very good cable. When I listen to my system with it in place, I am not aware of any lack of anything. It provides superb bass, excellent resolution, and clean treble. My desire to try your cable was not based on any unhappiness with what
I now possess.
However, we hobbyists are always interested to find out if something could be better regardless of how satisfied we may be. I think that quest is inherent in any hobby whether auto racing or stamp collecting. Sometimes the quest is silly and obsessive and sometimes it leads to interesting new knowledge and greater satisfaction. The
outcome is always in the eye (or ear) of the beholder: one man's satisfaction is another man's silliness.
Having said that, here is what I found. The Silver 48's did create a subtle but significant improvement which I characterize as a more "liquid" sound. I know such terms are psychological and ambiguous, but it's so hard to confine one's impressions to solidly scientific terminology. And if we did, who would understand us anyway? But
I believe that "more liquid sound" equates to a finer resolution of subtle harmonics. This is most noticeable in the human voice.
One of my favorite singers is Annie Lenox who, to the best of my knowledge, has only produced two albums, "Medusa" and "Diva." She is a great singer in terms of emotion and musicality but she does not have a great voice by classical standards. It is a deeper female alto with a raspy tinge. Moreover, her songs tend to be recorded
with her voice sounding somewhat recessed and distant. (I take this to be a deliberate engineering choice rather than a mistake because the effect does seem right for her songs.) With the Midnights in place, her voice sounds papery and thin, like leaves rustling. With the Silver Audio 48's, the voice is fuller bodied and richer.
Yes, she is still recessed and distant (as recorded); but what there is of her comes through sounding more like a human voice. The effect is perhaps more subtle than my words indicate; but nonetheless quite rewarding.
But then, the joys of listening lie in these subtleties. Why is a Stradivarius so greatly desired by violinists when there are so many fine contemporary instruments now being made to the highest of standards? Do we call concert violinists deluded victims of the placebo effect because they seek out instruments producing tonal
qualities that cannot be appreciated by mere fiddlers? No, we grant that they possess refined ears and that there are genuine beauties of tone available in a two million dollar Strad which cannot be found in a seventy-five thousand dollar contemporary violin.
I think the situation is rather similar in high end audio. The subtleties are a source of great delight. That they are not appreciated by those who are unenthusiastic is no surprise. How could we expect a casual listener-someone who uses music as background sound-to rave about a "more liquid" sound? But then how would I know what to
rave about if I went to a dog show and observed the winning Poodle? It takes time, interest, and effort to build discernment.
Another improvement occasioned by the Silver 48's was to the sounds that appear off-center. I mean those sounds which pop into focus at the extremes of the sound stage-percussive effects with bells and sticks, plucked strings, occasional voices-the seasonings of music. For reasons I can't explain, these seem to be more prominent,
more surprising when they occur. The effect is again pleasurable.
Finally, I sense that treble in general is toned down. I don't mean to imply that the cables somehow filter the sound. I don't believe that is the case at all. Rather I think that they reveal it more cleanly and more naturally. In other words, I believe that to some slight extent the Midnights augment the treble and that the lack of
this emphasis is more pleasing to the ear. Frankly, ALL sound reproduction equipment from the cheapest to the finest tends to tilt up the treble and this prominent treble is one of the distinguishing characteristics of reproduced sound. Therefore, to the degree that a piece of equipment neutralizes that imbalance, the music sounds
If a person's system is not very good, then high percentage improvements can be made for very little cost. (And it won't be done by buying speaker cable.) Based on hi-fi systems that I observe in my friends' homes, the biggest improvement they could make would cost nothing: MOVE THE SPEAKERS OUT FROM BEHIND THE SOFA! Or don't stack
them on top of each other! Or don't face them against the wall! (Yes, I REALLY have seen all these.) Changes like that would likely improve the sound by a factor of 1000%. Having done that, $1500 of equipment purchases might net them another 300% to 500% improvement. And so it goes with diminishing percentage improvements until one
reaches the tweaking stage.
What's curious about this process of successive improvement is that often the most satisfying up-grades are those which bring the least percentage improvement. I think this is so because often it is those last small refinements which transport a system from excellence to greatness. Let's face it, this principle is true in so many of
life's endeavors: athletics, art, technology etc. It certainly applies to audio equipment, too.
Thank you for the detailed synopsis of your listening experience, these things are always valuable to me. You also chose some specific terms that are quite commonly used to describe the qualities of our cables, "liquid" being a popular one. All these things have to do with preserving low level detail and not causing artificial
excitation of the uppermost regions of audio. Human voice is a great test, since after all we are more sensitive to the subtleties of the human voice than anything else.
Silver 32's vs Silver 48's
It does seem to me that the 12 gauge silver wire of the Silver 32's would be sufficient to carry all the current my speakers could possibly need. After all, house wire is twelve gauge and is plenty adequate to feed 2000 watt space heaters, freezers, window air conditioners and such like. This should be especially true since
silver wire can carry more current than copper.
You ask about gauge and current, and yes, 12 awg is rated for 20 amps, 2400 watts which is surely not limiting in any practical sense of the word. But for conventional speaker drivers, that's not really the point. Ordinarily, since the cable is in series with the voice coil, even though the resistance of the voice coil dominates the
total resistance, as the cable gets bigger and bigger (in series) it does drop overall resistance. On paper the values are small, but enough to crunch to up to say 0.5dB which a keen ear can pick up, but not enough for any pragmatic engineer to care about. But since you have electrostats the issue of resistance doesn't matter as
much as it does for conventional drivers, which are after all basically electric motors that move air very quickly.
Dissimilar Speaker Cable Lengths
For the last twenty years, I have always used my Accoustat speakers in a configuration with the electronics off to the side. I don't want to stare directly at a bunch of electronic components standing between my speakers. (Now of course, my TV sits in that position, but that's different.) So tell me Max, would it really be so
terrible to have cables of different lengths? Is there a technical reason why dissimilar lengths of speaker cable could be bad? Phasing problems? Bad stereo imaging? What?
As for your concerns about different lengths, well I guess the reality is this is something where the IDEA probably bothers people more than what might actually happen. The more practical factors to consider are re-sale value and future-proofing yourself. If you should (God forbid!) decide to sell them one day, you will find it VERY
difficult to sell such a dissimilar length pair, and you'll also find this really rubs most audiophiles the wrong way.
A pair of cables of unequal length would also severely restrict your freedom to re-arrange your equipment in the future. Also be careful that the IDEA of it would not start to eat at you and interfere with the purity of your listening experience. A REALLY picky audio nut would definitely have a cow over listening to two dissimilar
length speaker cables; but again technically speaking, whatever imbalance occurred would be infinitesimally mild and certainly no outright harm could be caused.
Lastly, sure I can measure inductance and capacitance of the pair we send to you, both are linear with distance so the twelve foot cable will have double the values of the six foot cable, but understand the ratio of these is what makes impedance so that will be the same for both. It's questionable how much impedance is an issue vs.
just simple parallel capacitance. Given that your speakers are electrostats, we're wiring both cables for low capacitance anyway and your tube amp should be very stable into a capacitive load regardless. So, nothing to worry about!
I'm willing to accept the impossibility of reselling dissimilar length speaker cables since I doubt I'll ever sell them. I'd rather think of them as a legacy to pass on to my son. So I would indeed like to order the Silver 32's from you in a six and twelve foot length.
László's Second Listening Test: The Silver 32's
Here's a quick response to the Silver 32's received Friday afternoon.
I thought I'd give it one last comparison test, so I played a wonderful recording of some concert tango music by Astor Piazzola, the great Argentinean composer. This is not the kind of tango music anyone dances to; but rather intended to be listened to only. It's really quite marvelous how he takes this popular form and turns it
into "serious" music that is every bit as exciting as the popular form, only more complex.
Anyway, the prime instrument is the bandoneón-a type of small accordion- played by Piazzola himself. As you might imagine (if you've never heard his music) the bandoneón sounds a bit crude in the way that bagpipes sound crude: a bit honky and squawky and raspy. (It's an accordion for crying out loud!) The music is brilliant, but the
instrument is not noted for subtleties of intonation. So with my old cables, the Audioquest Midnights, it all sounded just as I'd remembered from last playing. When I substituted the Symphony 32's, I noticed a wholly different sound which I was certainly not expecting, because I assumed that to reveal the differences in cable, I
would have to play a female vocalist. Such was not the case. The difference was obvious as a richer more harmonic sound to the bandoneón. Frankly, it sounded much less crude than I was used to. It seems that there are certain subtleties there. The sound was less grating and more harmonic. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised; but
I cannot tell the slightest difference between the Silver Symphony 32's and the 48's. Nor do I have any interest in going through another lengthy comparison process between the two. I'm satisfied and even if you could prove to me that the 48's are slightly better, I wouldn't care. Nor do I have any interest in listening to anyone
else's cable no matter how highly touted. This is it. I've lost interest in speaker cables. Again, how much better can it get? It's simply not worth the effort and pain (sweating as I unscrew one connection then tripping over the wire and pulling it loose and then reconnecting and then connecting incorrectly and getting out of phase
and so on) to compare something which can at best offer only a miniscule improvement and is more likely to result in some degradation.
As you know, Max, I entered into this testing in a skeptical frame of mind due to my experience with the elliptical cables (see above). As nice as you are Max, I was not going to pay $1300 for something that produced only a barely discernable threshold improvement or no improvement at all. That's not my idea of a satisfying or
sensible purchase. I determined that it had to produce a consistently significant improvement (5%) in order to buy. And it did.
(When I wrote the paragraphs above I was so concerned about not falling prey to the placebo effect, that I believe I overdid the skepticism. Now that I've had the Silver 32's in my system for about two months my opinion has changed. They make much more than the slight difference I first gave them credit for. They make about as much
difference as switching to a different pre-amp or other major component. I continue to be amazed at the increased resolution in my system, the improved soundstaging, and the reduction of treble glare. Given that they produce this much difference (10% to 15%), the price becomes far more acceptable.)
How The Dissimilar Speaker Cable Lengths Worked Out
I have to say that I have noticed no degradation of any sort due to the mismatched speaker cable lengths. Everything sounds perfectly centered as it's supposed to be. I had to make no adjustment to balance between channels. Nor do I notice any other deleterious effect: everything is as clear and as liquid as when I had the
matched 8 foot 48's in my system. I've come to the conclusion that the notion that speaker cables must be of the same length in order to function properly (which is what one dealer told me ten years ago when I bought the Midnights) is a myth. It seems to make sense, but practice proves it wrong (at least in this system). Besides, I
can't help but think that people who would never dream of having mismatched speaker cable lengths may very well have various types of connection problems due to loose tightening of nuts or poor solder connections in the cable that would cause much more gross problems than cable length and, most likely, even these "problems" pass
I know for a fact that the human ear is very forgiving of certain types of mistakes and it is the human mind which is more likely to be affected by the thought of them. So if anyone else asks about mismatched cable lengths, send them to me for feedback. (I can't be the only person in the world who would like to buy differing lengths
if he could be assured that no aural problems would result.)
The differing cable lengths do not make me feel insecure. Quite the opposite: I feel good knowing that everything I paid for at such great expense is being put to use rather than lying uselessly coiled on the floor behind one speaker. And to be honest, on the level of visual aesthetics, I prefer the thinner cable because it is more
subtle and doesn't have the look of a garden hose in my music room.
Why Audio Cable Is a Component and Not Just Wire
Now I have to ask you to explain a very pronounced trait of your speaker cable which I first noticed with the Silver 48's. It's that business of the off center sounds being so clear, even startling? I never noticed this with the Midnights. With the Silver 48's it's obvious even when I'm not in the sweet spot (as when I'm sorting
photos at my table). I love the effect. I'd just like to know what causes it.
The more you ponder it, the stranger it seems that a piece of wire could make a difference to the sound. On the face of it, it makes no sense. Wire is just a conduit for a signal. Yet I've proven to myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that the type of wire you're passing that signal through makes a significant difference to the
sound of the system.
An audio cable is really a pretty dynamic little creature and the forces at work are arguably
more complex and mysterious than at high (RF) frequencies. We're dealing with a huge span of frequencies all of which must stay EXACTLY in phase, thus travel as a bundle. You've got two different fields forming and collapsing many times per second resulting from the modulating signal; one is electrostatic from the voltage component,
the other is inductive from the current component. Each is trying to couple with the opposite conductor and resist change in amplitude of the voltage and current component of the opposite polarity conductor. These all have frequency effects though any engineer can punch a calculator and show you that it's pretty hard to understand
why we should be able hear these effects with relatively short runs of cable. There is also self-inductance at work within each polarity. Also though we can approach it, in audio we can't match impedance of the cable 100% such as with high RF frequencies so there are a lot of sum and difference products being produced from back
reflections from the load. There is plenty more to talk about, I'm just trying to impress on you that a cable is not to be thought of as just "wire," it's really an electric component on its own.
So maybe it's not so odd after all that cable design makes a difference.
Even though intellectually I know the analogy doesn't hold up, I always visualize electricity as water flowing through a pipe. (I think most people do.) But perhaps a better way to understand it would be to think of audio cable as a pipe which is not merely a water conduit but also must maintain certain swirls and eddies present at
the source. This is a far more difficult task.
Anyway the bottom line is that my speakers are benefiting from an improved signal. The cable has not changed the signal to make it "better." Rather it's simply not subtracting or adding as much to the original signal.
As for why you notice the increased detail with the Symphony, I wish I could give you an EXACT reason but the answer (in the global sense) has to do with preserving very, very low level amplitude signals. These are the most minute signals originating from the original recording that have survived the recording process which give us
cues that recreate the perception of, for instance, room ambience, and a more convincing portrayal of the true timbre of an instrument, etc. We do our best to make a cable design that discourages all inhibiting effects from occurring by making the cable a lousy inductor, a lousy capacitor and a very bad transformer!
Kudos to you, Max, for having done an excellent job in solving problems that most people don't even know exist!
Thanks! I appreciate all your thoughts and suggestions, and I think I will try to incorporate some of our dialogue into the website. [Here's the result, patient reader.] Every once in awhile, I get the privilege of corresponding with someone really articulate and inquisitive, which ultimately stimulates me to further distill and
clarify my own present knowledge of all these things. I've got plenty more to learn and understand myself.
Please contact Silver Audio directly for more information.
All Material Herein © 1996-2002 Silver Audio. All Rights Reserved.