Audio myth 3

February 18, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Myth: Gold-plated connectors sound better than connectors made with tin or nickel.

Fact: Gold does not tarnish, and tarnished connectors can cause problems, but there is nothing inherent in gold that makes it sound better than a clean connection using standard materials. Further, it is possible for connections using dissimilar metals to oxidize and deteriorate more quickly than if the same metal were used. So, mating a gold plug with a non-gold jack could theoretically make things even worse! Moreover, connectors plated with gold often use a very thin coating because of gold’s high cost, and that plating can wear off with repeated plugging and unplugging. Therefore, while it would be unfair and untrue to say that gold connectors are a bad thing, unless both connectors are gold they are at best a waste of money and at worst a potential for eventual trouble.

This post from Ethan has a lot of merit, though as a blanket statement it cries out to be expanded upon further. Why? Because in practice it refers to an even broader myth, that cables, connectors and materials don’t matter. I don’t want to pick on Ethan’s specifics here because what he writes is quite accurate – it’s just limited in scope and doesn’t address the broader issue of cables, connectors, materials and how they sound.

“In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.” My friend David sent me that quote and I love it. It speaks volumes about theories and blanket statements.

In the broader question of whether or not the quality of connectors matters, or even more specifically, whether materials in connectors matter, theory would suggest not and practice would suggest the opposite. The reason for this discrepancy is to be found in the over-broad generality of the statement itself. The original explanation offered in Ethan’s fact is accurate. Gold plating, in and of itself and without benefit of proper cable and connector construction, does not necessarily sound better. We can purchase gold plated RCA cables from Amazon Basics for $6 that sound like dog-do compared to a well designed nickel plated higher end cable of proper design.

But once we sweep away the field of poorly designed throw-away cables, the question of materials becomes more relevant. I can tell you from personal experience that identically designed interconnects with connectors hewn from copper and plated in gold, nickel, or rhodium sound differently – even if everything else is identical.

Take away: When a statement is made that is overly encompassing, and without enough specifics, it is easy to come to the wrong conclusion.

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34 comments on “Audio myth 3”

  1. A theory normally is based on more or less heavy simplifications and negligences. Thus it is never able to describe the whole most complex reality and all effects taking place! I often talk with an engineer who has developed fm-tuners and tv-tuners for decades including tuner-modules for mobile phones for companies as Nokia and others. His findings: no circuit design ever was working as expected from theory. And things became even worse when switching from building prototypes to mass production. Many corrections of the original design had to be performed to get the mass production modules working as specified for the customers. Again: the proof is in the pudding!

  2. So apart from badly made cables, does from polishing with brasso to fancy contact cleaners help in reducing pollutants oxides, release agents, grease..ect. and reduce interconnect issues? Or a quick reinsert a couple of times will do.

      1. Cramolin and Deoxit are made by the same company, and after a long time using both, I have found that Cramolin works better in my contaminated enviroment. However, I don’t recommend its preservant.

        1. Some of the best solvents for cleaning electrical contacts are freon (no longer available), MEK, carbon tetrachloride, isopropyl alcohol. These are used in industrial ultrasonic cleaners often right after wave soldering circuit boards especially where flux has been used in the case of circuits intended to be used at high temperatures. I’d also tried Deoxit with mixed results. Warning, some of these solvents are highly flammable and can also be toxic. Some commercial cleaners intended for this purpose were entirely ineffective.

          There are small wire brush type tools designed specifically to clean RCA connectors. I really should get one or two of them since I have a lot of old equipment.

          1. Yes, Cramolin kit brings a wire brush to clean female RCA jacks, which are the worst connector in the audio history. The so called “Contact Cleaners” are very good for nothing.

  3. “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”

    Well if you do one thing ‘in practice’ and it works and can be repeated although the theory says the opposite, than it is a proof or at least an indication, that something with the theory is not correct.
    [paulsquirrel] I bet it would be impossible to build a tuner against the laws of the electrodynamic theory.

    BTW – the saying comes from Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut who came to a tragic end.

    Greetings
    BD

      1. [paulsquirrel] you might be right!
        It’s only because I take people at their word.
        Moreover – ‘theory’ – for me it is more a thing of induction and generalisation.
        I’m more on the Wittgestein and less on the Popper side.
        Greetings
        BD

          1. There I will not contradict!
            But that is, as you know, not all Wittgenstein has said. As a follower of Russell he’s done a lot of work in the field of logic. And indeed – logic is sometimes what I miss in the discussions about audio. There’s no accounting for taste, but a lot for technique
            and engineering. Greetings BD 🙂

            1. Recording and sound engineers are most emotional guys far from any logical approach. They just care for creating a “good sound” – from their own (active) speaker systems. Unfortunately they do not care for audiophile systems and their users but prefer car stereo and streaming lovers.

  4. The worst behaviour characteristic I’ve found is that the quality of the contact changes with time, with audible results – this used to drive me mad decades ago, reinserting and cleaning, conditioning was only a very, very short term solution … the best solution I’ve found, which I try to use every time, is to hardwire everything. Absolutely everything. It’s highly inconvenient, to state the obvious(!) – but usually it’s the only way for me to get the quality of sound I’m after.

    The old cliche about the weakest link in the chain is right on the money here – I find the edgy quality imparted by the inferior connections normally found in even the most ambitious systems too disturbing to put up with …

    1. This concept of hard wiring things flabbergasts me. I can’t imagine taking the time and effort to do this, and, I am always tinkering with wires and interconnects and moving things around. You must have the luxury of a permanent place to put everything. Have you also researched specific types of solder or hard-wire connectors??

      Honestly, when I turn on my system and decide I am going to crank something like Head East’s “There’s Never Been Any Reason” or Blackfoot’s “Highway Song” (both in heavy rotation on my system this week along with the new Chris Stapleton “Traveller” CD) I don’t really think it matters much the quality of the cable or the connection, grin, brute force volume overcomes any deficiencies in that area!!

      1. I went down the Cramolin, etc, road donkey’s years ago – and it didn’t work for me! That is, I could hear the impact of the stuff on the quality of the sound – and it was slightly negative, for me – plus, it still didn’t stop a progressive deterioration happening! Best quality was from a completely spruced up, thoroughly cleaned, pure metal to metal – but it didn’t last …

        From trial and error I started soldering – never used anything but the standard stuff – it’s all about making the joint truly gas tight, it’s as simple as that. If you research the books on it, metal to metal contacts are incredibly messy, nasty things when atmospheric gases get to play along – it’s a “issue” that one should just eliminate as much as possible.

        As regards cranking it, nearly all audiophiles don’t appreciate that super clean quality reproduction of high level, powerfully driving rock, etc, music is an amazing thing to experience – system added dirtiness is a huge negative here, the grubbiness drags the emotional impact way, way down – once one experiences what’s possible, you can never go back to the normal stuff …

        1. Thank you for the insight! Happy listening. Would be curious to see how this all looks at some point. Maybe the new magazine will have a photos section where people can post up pictures of their systems.

          Larry

          1. Wouldn’t impress anyone! Have you seen those pics of the workbenches of “doing a dozen things at a time” electrical engineers … my systems always look a mess, wouldn’t make sense to the fussy types. I work on getting the assembly of components to do the job properly – aesthetics run a poor last!

            I mainly keep experimenting with new combinations of audio gear, seeing what ‘works’, and what can’t be optimised to get convincing sound …

            Cheers …

  5. Expensive wire and interconnects do combine audio voodoo and throwing money on the stereo. I really can’t say I have A/B wires but I have come to the conclusion that sometimes making a different quality of sound does not mean it is a better or more desired quality of sound. And if it costs a lot to do is it worth it? I am already madly in love with my stereo.

  6. I think gold plated RCA connectors for consumer audio use was one of high end audio’s better ideas. A lot of old equipment includng some expensive old equipment used RCA jacks that tarnished badly and made unreliable connections over time. Do well made connectors that are not tarnished and are not gold plated sound different from gold plated connectors? I don’t know for sure but I can’t think of a single reason why they should.

    I’ve seen, used, am familiar with so many different kinds of connectors I can’t begin to count them all. From cam lock connectors and huge lug type connectors that carry thousands of amps to the most exotic connectors on earth at least at the time I saw them, the varieties must have been in the thousands. My first job in California was to expand Raychem’s connector manufacturing plant in Menlo Park from $8 million a year capacity to $20 million a year. They made three types of connectors, all exotic and only sold them to the US military and NASA. The plant needed extensive modifications including incorporation of an adjacent building having a common wall. These connectors were used in high performance aircraft, space vehicles, nuclear warheads, and other “can’t fail” applications. Each one cost many hundreds of dollars and they were gold plated. Years later I called some friends at the plant shopping for high reliability connectors for a project I was working on and the plant manager told me that for my purposes, a $9 Amphenol connector would work just as well.

    Do gold plated connectors fail in service? Yes they can. I’ve had two instances where a video card daughter board in a desktop computer failed do to a poor connection between the motherboard connector and the gold plated contacts on the daughter board. Just inserting them and removing them in and out a few times cleared up the problem which may have been caused by a thin film of oil or soot. Electronics connectors within the equipment are sometimes gold plated. Gold plating and recovery of gold usually involves cyanide, a deadly poison. Gold is much too soft to be used in its pure form. That is why it must be alloyed or plated on to something that will not deform.

    The electrical performance figure of merit for connectors besides ampacity is contact resistance. There is no rational reason why two connectors of the same design made with different conducting materials having the same contact resistance would sound any different from each other. The gold used in each connector is actually cheap for this application. In 1980 gold sold for $800 an ounce. Today 36 years later it sells for about $1000 to $1200 an ounce. Relative to inflation it’s a losing investment and likely to remain that way. One ounce of gold could be pounded into over 7000 sheets which when stacked would be thinner than a dime. it an also be pounded into a single sheet of about 100 square feet. The Tri-Sonic one dollar cables I buy at the Dollar Store are gold plated.

  7. Paul, what percentage of the electronic instruments you bought and used in manufacturing such as oscilloscopes, signal generators and the like have gold plated connectors for input and output jacks? How many patch cords with BNC or Amphenol connectors you use for these instruments are gold plated? Would it be……um…….none?

    1. Close. All or RCA to BNC adapters are gold, everything else nickel. Your point? You know my feelings – test equipment “sees” only limited things relative to what we hear. Test equipment in no way reflects it all.

      1. My points; first the people who manufacture test equipment costing many thousands of dollars and could easily provide gold plated connectors if they felt it would improve their performance don’t.

        My other point since you brought it up is that if what you hear doesn’t correlate with what you measure, you’re measuring the wrong thing. You’ve omitted something important. The theory behind your measurement is incomplete or just plain wrong. The alternative explanation is that there is some unfathomable magic that can’t be understood, quantified, examined that explains how and why things work the way they do. That is what this industry wants its market to believe. That is how they convince people to spend a lot of money on things they don’t need or are useless to them. Endless variants of the same products over and over again with each minor tweak being hailed as a breakthrough and being cheered on by shills like the hobbyist magazines is a lot easier than actual research, finding new knowledge, and applying it to better technology.

        Example; what is it about the electrical performance of the vacuum tubes in the BHK amplifier input stage that transistors can’t do? What’s the explanation? How much real investigation has been carried on to find out? Tweaking and trying everything you can think of to see what you like best is NOT research. It’s luck by blind trial and error. You find a wire you like better than another wire but you don’t know why? I’ve heard one preposterous theory after another, each new one stupider than the last. As technology goes, this industry is pathetic.

  8. You can see that even among experienced hobbyists, experience engineers… Opinions can vary.
    Quantum cryogenically continuous cast oxygen free rare earth plated discombobulation. This beginner doesn’t stand a chance. Bybee for now… 8^/..

  9. I don’t think I have ever seen a system that uses one metal, and the dissimilar metal interfaces create a lot of the characteristic sound. Gold plating over Copper is so easily scratched through that most Gold connectors and all Gold circuit boards have Nickel as an intermediate layer.

    Crystal boundaries and oxide intrusion also affect conductivity measurably and can contribute to noise – but noise does not bother my ears so much as, for example, non-linear dielectric absorption of epoxy circuit boards.

  10. This may be a better comment on the last post than this one but this post, and the comments for this post and the last one, got me thinking. For all the talk about components, connections, tube versus semiconductors, etc. Or the idea that a bad recording on a CD is inferior to a good recording on a LP, or vice versa. The real question is which is really better when both are optimized? Paul has said in a earlier post that while Michael Fremer believes analog is superior to digital, and proves this with is own system, that Paul’s experience is just the opposite. But I’m curious to know if Paul always felt this way? If he didn’t then at what point did he believe this. Was it only when the Directstream DAC became available, or was it earlier. Like when the Digital Lens was available, or was it earlier than that, or later? I know this kinda puts Paul on the spot but it would be extremely interesting, and illuminating, to hear Paul’s thoughts on the evolution of digital playback.

  11. To summarise, simplicity is your friend. An all-in-one cheap radio can sound remarkably musical … why? Because it’s all in one box, everything that counts is permanently hooked together, relative few weak links. A messy, fun to fiddle with audio rig has weaknesses all over the place, because the bits are not locked together!! Trouble is, everything in one box also adds the complication that there is greater chance of cross interference between the different functional areas – the engineering has to be revved up to a high level to keep it working cleanly at elevated SPLs … there is no free lunch, only commitment to getting overall competence really solves all the problems.

  12. Paul wrote: “I can tell you from personal experience that identically designed interconnects with connectors hewn from copper and plated in gold, nickel, or rhodium sound differently – even if everything else is identical.”

    All I can say here is that you REALLY need to watch my videos I linked earlier. You fall prey to very common misunderstandings about how we hear, and what affects fidelity. If you don’t want to get my Audio Expert book, at least spend the time to read the articles on my web site that address this stuff. I promise you will learn a lot! Start with these, though there are more there you’ll benefit from:

    http://ethanwiner.com/loop-back.htm
    http://ethanwiner.com/audibility.html
    http://ethanwiner.com/early_digital.htm
    http://ethanwiner.com/perception.htm%5D
    http://ethanwiner.com/levels.htm
    http://ethanwiner.com/dither.html
    http://ethanwiner.com/converters.html
    http://ethanwiner.com/believe.html
    http://ethanwiner.com/audiophoolery.html
    http://ethanwiner.com/hi-fi.htm

  13. I thought I’d add this incase future people googling read this. I bought some CAIG DeoxIT red and gold. I took every cable apart from wall to my headphones. Degreased every connection with 70% lint free IPA. Then applied RED Deoxit. I used the plugs to apply a little into the power sockets. Fine tweezers /pins to apply to usb and internal connections. Ran all connections back and forth.
    USB side 4-5% better.
    The RCA from my little FIIO X3II DAP wow. 10%+ improvement.
    My AMP DAC is 2 years old second hand. Cheap amazon RCA to 3.5mm. The dirtier it seems the more greater the change back to optimum.

    My limited experience great stuff. But read limitations above and online. Other CAIG types or other manufacturers productions maybe more suitable to your needs.
    I hope this helps.
    I even did my phone usb, battery and headphone jack… 8^/
    Good luck
    Dave AV HIFI beginner

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