The Great Cable Debate

By Mike Perez (Audio Arkitekts)

Cables are a subject that has caused many an argument throughout the audio community. What’s more interesting is both sides of objectivity and subjectivity always get involved. I’m not here to change your mind or lobby for or against interconnects as having this magical and life-altering effect on your system. My goal is to provide some facts and reasonable thought, so we can all come out of this experience much more informed and possibly construct a bridge to walk across and avoid any future conflict altogether.

Before we begin, I want to clarify my stance on the subject so that you have a bit of transparency about where my thought process lies whilst writing this article. I don’t fall into either extremist camps, where one side is filled with die-hard naysayers who believe that cables don’t affect the sound. At the same time, I will never claim that expensive cables, by definition, must sound better than cheaper cables because they are more expensive.

I am an audio realist.

Your sound system has a three-part electrical system that creates a signal chain from one component to another. There’s your pre-amplifier which accepts the signal from your source, your amplifier, which provides enough power to produce sound from your loudspeakers, and the cables that connect it all. All these components within your setup must work well together to give you the best overall results for your listening experience. The fact that speaker cables can be measured just as you can measure an amplifier or a pre-amplifier for properties that can and will affect the sonic outcome of these devices proves that your interconnects are, in fact, a component within your system.

Consequently, the electrical properties providing measurable differences in audio cables affect the music’s sound with a certain predictability. 

Many audio reviewers and enthusiasts have provided measurements that prove differences in cables that were manufactured to perform the same task as one another. These measurable differences found within their research ARE, in fact, the sonic contrasts we can audibly hear and hold claim to. The sound produced by the cables that have been measured differently can sound better, worse, or just different. This is, in a nutshell, my entire thesis on the subject. By bridging objective measurements and subjective listening, we can arrive at reasonable conclusions with just about any measurable component in the realm of high-fidelity audio.

Another bit of Hifi lore that needs to be addressed is the burn-in period for cables. This is something that is constantly suggested by manufacturers and audiophiles alike. I believe the break-in phase allows our auditory system time to adapt to a specific sound. One manufacturer stated that “The insulation (or dielectric) will absorb energy from the conductor when a current is flowing (i.e., when music is playing). This energy-absorption causes the dielectric molecules to re-arrange themselves from a random order into a uniform order. When the molecules have been rearranged, the dielectric will absorb less energy & consequently cause less distortion.”

There are many more theories about burn-in we are led to believe by manufacturers. Over time each of their claims becomes blurred marketing fluff that falls into the “maybe” category of truth and possibility. I’m not saying that the theory of a cable having a specific break-in period doesn’t exist, just that the probability of it being a life-altering experience is unlikely.

It’s a widely adopted mindset by audio enthusiasts that a cable is just an intermediary between two active components and isn’t supposed to change the sound in any way. Well, it’s a fact that cables have measurable electrical properties and are, therefore, ‘active’ in how they influence the final sound we listen to through our loudspeakers.

Why is a cable not ‘passive’ in a circuit as most reasonable people expect? Well, an audio cable is powered by the signal flowing through it, which interacts electrically with the cable carrying it. This electrical connection changes the properties of the actual signal flow, which impacts what we finally get to hear. You could say that the various electrical interactions between the audio cable and signal amount to the distinct sonic characteristic of the cable itself.

From the side of objectivity, these folks will focus primarily on performing specific measurements on audio components to prove or debunk the claims of another audio enthusiast or manufacturer. Frequently they do these measurements without any subjective listening. They remove the entire point of the component, which is the music, and focus their attention and efforts on a graph explaining how this component will sound. This is something I would call a well-informed prediction. In my experience, a piece of gear that measures somewhat poorly could sound quite nice subjectively.

Several factors within an audio cable are measurable, and we will be discussing them in lay because I, without an electrical engineering background, didn’t quite comprehend it until I researched each factor, allowing myself to understand what they are and their effect on the cable itself.

Enjoy the fruits of my labor:

Cable Impedance: 

Every signal input and output have an impedance–this “impedance” represents the correlation between voltage and current which a device can accept or deliver. Cable Impedance is measured in Ohms and represents the total resistance the cable presents to the electrical current passing through it. At lower frequencies, it’s primarily beholden to the resistive property of the actual cable, but at high frequencies, conductor size, insulation material, and insulation thickness all affect the cable’s impedance. Cables are available in several different characteristic impedances, each optimized for a specific application. To prevent signal reflection, using a matched impedance cable is essential. Equal load impedance between the cable and the load prevents signal reflection while providing maximum power to the load. So, in essence, the source impedance, the cables’ characteristic impedance, and the load impedance must all be equal for optimal performance.


The capacitance of a cable is measured in microfarads or picofarads and occurs between pairs of conductors and individual current-carrying conductors and their insulation. Sometimes the cable’s insulation can act as a capacitor. Every insulator can be electrically charged. Since it takes time for the cable insulation to reach its charged state and discharge, this time-lapse essentially alters the signal transmitted through the primary conductor. Since the section of the source signal from which the stored signal was removed passes through the wire, the stored portion of the signal is released back into a part of the signal where it doesn’t naturally belong, causing what you hear from your speakers to sound as muddy. So, the lower the cable’s capacitance, the better it performs at higher frequencies.

Skin Effect:

Higher frequencies will tend to flow near the outside surface of the conductor by being pushed away from the center. Unfortunately, this places higher frequencies closer to the insulation material, so the capacitive effect on higher frequencies differs from those of lower frequencies, causing the sound to translate as very bright in the higher frequencies.

So, the takeaway from all this science is that manufacturers’ different approaches to cable design will have different sets of electrical properties intermingling with the audio signal, and each one will impact the sound differently, at some level.

Another variable is the type of element used within the cable. Copper is the most common and inexpensive; I have also seen silver and gold used when manufacturing cables. Copper seems to be the clear choice for most manufacturers since the element comes at a reasonable cost, and copper offers good conductivity. Silver offers slightly lower resistance than copper, but it oxidizes. It is also considerably more expensive than copper. Gold has the lowest amount of resistance, and it does not oxidize. However, it is costly, and as a result, it is not used for the cable itself; it’s used for the connectors to ensure the cable makes good contact. The element’s level of purity will decide the cable’s price. The more purity within the cable, the more expensive it will be because of the cost of the material.

Price has always commanded the perceived value of a product.

The more expensive the product, the “better” it is perceived to be, even if it’s just something made for a fraction of a penny on the dollar that the manufacturer charges. Unfortunately, without knowing how a product is engineered and what parts are used in the process, there is no telling if the price is appropriate for the product. 

You will come across companies that make huge claims about their cables and that they do everything short of curing cancer. These are the ones I would be most nervous about engaging with. I prefer no-nonsense transparency from the companies I trust and invest in.  

The exorbitantly expensive cables priced themselves out on the market, some reaching upwards of six figures for a power cable or pair of interconnects will invite in the law of diminishing returns as well as the basic logic of how an interconnect is designed. At what point will you stop hearing an audible improvement or difference between a well-made inexpensive cable and a luxury, ultra-high-end cable?

That is left to the ear to decide.

I suppose the real question is, which cable will have all the electrical properties that will give the listener the result of a pleasant sound to their ears?

There are so many variables that it’s hard to tell which audio cable suits you and your system. It will all play a part in the grand finale, which is the sound that comes out of your loudspeakers. However, you can’t always rely on technical specifications, design methods, or what people say about a particular cable to judge how it will perform within your system. It’s a discovery you must make on your own to truly experience whether or not you hear an audible difference. Your mind’s capability to determine unconditionally and conclusively whether something “sounds good” is something you must listen to know within yourself that you made the proper choice for your sound system.