Tying it together

April 11, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a few words on tying our system together with cables: power, interconnect, speaker.

I remember when cables were an afterthought. Zip cord and cheezy RCA drek did the trick until we realized they mattered.

My first encounter with cables came from one of the founders of Schiit Audio, Mike Moffat. Mike worked as a tech at a California stereo shop called Absolute Audio and Stan and I showed up to pitch our first product, the phono stage. I think this must have been around 1974. Mike gave it a listen and was impressed but before we left he turned our world upside down with an A/B comparison between zip cord and Polk Sound wire (then called Cobra Cable – Litz wire) on a pair of Quad electrostats.

Mike wouldn’t tell us what he was doing. “Listen to this—now listen to the same thing after I make a change. Hear any difference?” Yes, and it was life changing. Literally.

Cables matter and how much you spend on them really depends on your budget.

During this series, I have emphasized putting limited funds where they matter most. The fundamentals are critical: speakers, source, AC power, amplification.

Somewhere in the mix, you’re going to need to get good cables—and they don’t have to cost a fortune. But, they matter. A lot.

If I had to make a recommendation of the order of importance, it would look something like this:

  • Speaker cables
  • Audio interconnects (and always go balanced when the equipment permits it)
  • Digital
  • Power

Get those right and you’ll build a strong foundation supporting the time, effort, and expense you’ve gone through building your system.

It all matters.

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38 comments on “Tying it together”

  1. Fully agree, good cabling is essential and I’m sure many would be surprised, what was burried in their setup in terms of quality and information if they would try state of the art cabling.

    I personally started with DIY solid twisted lacquered copper strands as speaker cable and the solid core principle was what somehow unintentionally accompanied me as favorable through later changes with some other experiences inbetween.

  2. I started the cable puzzle changing audio interconnects, Paul. But I soon discovered that power cables were most important followed by speaker cables. It would be interesting to learn if the importance of power cables changes with the local/ national power grid system!? A colleague from Belgium once told me that the local power net is designed symmetrical thus producing less problems for audiophiles.

    1. Yes, I nearly wrote that too – changing up the order – because in my system power cables make more of a difference as well. I decided against it for two reasons: it’s a real toss up and more people might actually believe in the speaker cables than power cords and power cords are self-serving as we make those.

      Always a juggling act.

      1. Thanks, Paul, this helps to confirm my view of the (audio) world. I must confess that my power cables are in the price range of my stereo components. And all my audiophile buddies noticed the significant improvements in my system and ordered immediately!

      2. It’s indeed difficult. IMO if a certain basic level of interconnect/speaker wire is present, power cables make the next more important difference.
        Also as you said believe and willingness of people to engage with it is an aspect. Also interconnect/speaker wire differences are more obvious for many in terms of more or less highs, detail etc. while power cabling differences little more refer to a certain energy level, presence, control and dynamics of the music which is possibly less obvious to many at the beginning.

        1. I can see that a lot of disagreements could start here based on personal experiences. I usually agree with Paul’s comments 99% of the time…but on the ”order” of importance one places on cables I somewhat disagree. Again it’s my personal experience. I find that the most significant improvement can be made is with a really good power cable, especially for amp, preamp or integrated amp. Of course everything is important. I realize that ALL cables do make a difference. Also a good conditionner is also important. I use the P3 regenerator in my system to great effect, and it’s connected to the wall with the same type of power cable as my integrated amp. Another cable that really made a big difference is the digital cable. If I keep going I’ll have gone around all cables….which I did.

  3. I recommend using cables which meet the technical requirements.
    Everything else is simply eyewash.
    Unfortunately, there are too many vendors who sell their pseudo-science dreck for a lot of money.
    It is even sadder that there are apparently enough self-proclaimed golden ears, who still believe in the salesmen’s claptrap.

    1. Isn’t it strange, Bernd, that there are most specific technical requirement for digital (LAN, USB and HDMI 1.0/1.3/1.4/2.0/2.1) and antenna cables but rather weak requirements for headphone-cables, speaker-cables, tonearm cables and cinch-cables? It seems that the requirements for AES/EBU (XLR) cables are more specific.

          1. Paul,

            I met Mr. Strassner at the very beginning of his company at a shop in Solingen close to Leverkusen where his company resides. With the system we heard at that time everything played was some kind of smudged. This was really not my cup of tea.
            But isn’t it funny to read “… The manufacturer predicts that 80% of systems will use the bypass setting. It’s for the other 20% that the tuning adjustability is designed.” For me it is like having a fm-antenna on the roof and no fm-tuner. Yes – the audiophile world sometimes is very strange 🙂


    2. I am sick and tired of people with poor hearing telling me what I can and can not hear. If you can’t hear any differences in various cables then congratulations, you have just saved yourself a lot of money. Just say “I don’t hear any differences” and be done with it. From my viewpoint any one who can’t hear differences in wire is gravely disadvantaged.

      1. Although usually short after Bernd loggs in for posting, I have as many dislikes as he has likes, I’m confident the votes are from different people, so it seems more don’t hear than hear, that’s fair.

        I mentioned the flat earth comparison because people of that time can’t be blaimed (as well as those who don’t hear), because they simply have no reason to believe differently from their standopoint and experience.

        It’s probably how I don’t believe (without having tried it myself) that adding sheets of paper into books in the listening room so that the page count is uneven, alters sound (yes indeed, there are people claiming this). It’s just, I wouldn’t tell it’s generally eyewash … possibly unless more competent people don’t hear a difference under the same conditions as less yes sayers did hear.

        Ignorance based on an unability to think beyond one’s own nose is the thing, that’s hard to accept, but hey, it’s fun anyway to discuss here.
        Paul made similar comments in content occasionally but in much more polite words and didn’t get dislikes either, so there’s room for improvement for all of us 😉

        1. jazznut,

          try to get administrational right on the PS Audio server. As there are cookies set and a “PHP Session ID” you can see who likes your comments and who are those who put the thumbs down.

          If there is a timeline coincidence it might also be, that people from different countries log in at different time – ha – so far on the horizon on one’s own nose.

          Have a nice day!

          1. As you certainly will be aware, too, I also even know the way around this, so I’m aware of the precautions as well as the bypassing but as I said, I’m confident this isn’t happening and even if, it’s not important. There are simply different opinions. Cheers, let’s continue to have fun here.

    3. 1. The comment is a tautology, meaning “it’s good if it’s good.”
      2. Those who do not belief in the possible significant effect of cables are usually those have not made an honest attempt to try.

  4. We knew with the topic cabling always something like this is started, didn’t we? 🙂

    How couldn’t the earth be flat if no one prooved it to people personally? How should something be real one doesn’t believe in? It’s always the open mind vs. myth thing and if flat or spherical earth was the myth.

    Luckily we’re just discussing about such unimportant things like hifi cabling, otherwise evolution would be in serious jeopardy 😉

  5. My personal experience has been that the law of diminishing returns starts to apply pretty quickly with many of the interconnects and cables. I used to have speaker cables the size of garden hoses, quite unwieldy and unsightly! I traded those out for an AudioQuest product that I believe is actually designed for in-wall installation but is much more easily hidden and utilized and honestly I can’t hear any difference. I even used the same cable for custom length RCA cables for my dual subs at the back of the room and was able to easily pop this cable through the wall into the basement, under the floor and up at the rear of the room without being visible.

    USB, optical, coax cables are all a couple of notches up from the manufacturer’s entry level and again have been quite satisfying for me at a fraction of the cost of the top line products. Buying some of these used on eBay or Craigslist has been a homerun for me as well. The last two pieces of gear I bought have hardwired power cords for some reason not able to switch those out but I have everything plugged into the filtered power adapter and will live with that as well.

    Your experience may vary! Just wanted to point out these options as part of the series as this type of solution obviously leaves a lot more money for other components. As a side note, I find it amusing that I chose some of my cables based on the aesthetic look of them, yet they remain hidden behind kit at the back of a rack, not that it matters if they are out of sight LOL.

    1. If you can’t to it yourself, find a techie who can hardwire a decent shielded power cable into those last two pieces of gear you bought. You will be amazed, Larry. Been there, done that.

      1. Longplayer, thank you for the input on this. It is something I would not have thought of, will ask my techie dealer friend if he knows someone that might tackle such a thing. I have relied on cleaning up the power coming in, via a Dectet power strip device, and have not been dissatisfied with the results but have done no real A/B comparison using it vs. an upgraded power cable vs. using both.

        I am lost this morning wondering where the daily post is, it’s not up at it’s normal time, although I may have just gotten a notice that it is finally here to continue to the series. Take care.

        1. Using both the Dectet and an upgraded power cable will probably be best. You might consider finding a used power cable or contacting a manufacturer who sells on the internet to see if they will make up a cable without the IEC connector for you at a lower price.

          Sometimes the connections are real easy at the back of the component. Sometimes the power cord is run through a more difficult path to the power switch at the front of the component.
          Personally, I would shy away from doing this with a power cord that was too stiff or too thick or had some exotic construction. Good luck!

  6. Speaker wire of kept very short matters much less to me. I keep mine down to two feet max
    Power cords while I use Paul’s if it’s connected to a good power distribution for me matters less to nothing.
    For me a large gauge through out he system sounds best. But there are many claims that the last 1 foot or so matters plenty. But shunyata does have power products that do work very well and it’s easy to hear the changes.

    After this USB cables matter even on my Cust server but any spec grade USB sounds good and better ones don’t need to be crazy in price.

    Interconnects matter most to me again nothing EXP a mogami gold mic xlr is as good as anyone’s ultra expensive.

    Comments should be removed cleaned gently and reinstalled a few times during a year
    PAUL has claimed this and I though bull till I did it and have to say PAUL
    Is very right.

    Going back to speaker wire a reasonable gauge and kept short is fine but the weakest link is the connection.
    Very few amp terminals use a simple lug with a good size screw terminal
    This would greatly help next is the lugs
    I use pure copper and crimp and solder as well.

    1. I myself have been using MG Audio Design iterconnects. I first eard about them from Arnie Nudell. He uses them. I first tried their lowest priced interconnects which go for $700 for a one meter pair. I could tell that they were easily superior to the top of the line Audience Au24SE models atthe time, which themselves superior to the $1800 Audioquest Niagara models at the time. I next purchases a one meter pair of the intermediate MG Audio Ddsigns ballanced $1100 models. They themself were much better than their $700 model. Later I found that they would sell a half meter pair of their top of the line $1600 a meter interconnects for only $900. So now I alo have 4 half meter pairs of MG Audio Design’s top of the line interconnects. I do not know how they would compare to the interconnects that say Michael Fremmer or Johnathan Vallin use. Even they can not afford them but are able to get them for free. On the subject of power cords, I have found Audioquest to work very well for me. Over the last several years I have found them far superior to Shunyata’a offerings for the money. Easily. They supposedly are coming out with new power cords later this year. I have been able, on occasion to purchase demo’s of their power cords from a nearby audio dealer as he himself replaces his demo electronics with Audioquest’s latest power cords. I have also, not being able to afford even MG Audio Design’s top of the line speaker wires-starting at $4800 for a single, but have created, using a one foot pair of MG Audio Designs top speaker wires-which goes for $900, and join them with Some Jenna Lab’s 18 gage hook up wires. The overall cost-$1919 for an overall equilivant of a 14.5 foot pair of speaker wires-well, they are very, very good. And I am getting pretty close to if I had purchased a 14.5 pair of MG Audio Desig’s top of the line speaker wires. At $4800 for a 6 foot pair, how much would a 14.5 pir cost. You can believe me or not, but it works. Of course, if I was using a pair of mono amplifers, I could simply have used a simple one foot pair of them for $900 and be done. That is what some of their customers do-I learned that previously from the late Gregg Graff. Well, that’s how I did it. And I also know that to attempt to equal the performance of my 2 speaker wire combination would cost a small fortune easily.

  7. I recently reconfigured my power cords after carefully doing comparative tests. I found that my P-5 was insensitive to the power cord feeding it providing it had sufficient gauge and was of decent manufacture [no zip cord]. But the choice of power cords from the P-5 to the components did make a significant difference . I didn’t think it would considering the reconstructed current from the P-5.

    The digital front end of my system did best with silver extruded over copper power cords whereas the analog components sounded more solid with pure copper cords. The AC-12 was sensational on my amplifier.

    The final touch was the addition of a Nordost QV2 into the amplifier zone of the P-5 and a QK1 into the preamp zone.The latter had the most effect on sharpness and tonal quality-the two factors most important to me. I have no idea how these work or why but work they did.

  8. Paul, it was a good thing Moffat didn’t blow up those Quads (or the amp) with that Cobra Cable! I remember they had a reputation for sounding wonderful in the right system, but not being compatible with all components and thus damaging some.

    Here’s my story about power cables. I had a Sony ES CD player which came with a captured cable. When I experimented with some after market power cables elsewhere in my system I decided to try one with a female end with the Sony just for grins. To my surprise I could hear increased resolution with the Sony cable plugged into the trial cable and that into the wall. Knowing so little about electronics I just assumed there was some sort of filtering of the line.

    1. Apparently the Cobra cable has very low inductance. Some solid-state amplifier designs assume a significant amount of inductance in speaker cables to stabilize their output stage and in the absence some amplifiers oscillate at supersonic frequencies, 500 MHZ it was said. Polk came up with a simple cap/resistor network that you hung over the amp output or speaker input that fixed that.
      Tube amps, of course, which work wonderfully on Quads, never have such a problem.

  9. Your priority list is different than mine. I place power cables first. I wonder if it is because you are presuming good power or if you have cleaner power in Colorado. In the old building of New York City the power is a disaster and a PS Audio power plant is an essential component. Without it, nothing sounds right. I put power first, and interconnects second. Speaker cables are third with digital last.

    As to digital cables, there is a lot of controversy here. Unless you spend money on really good digital cables, the upgrade will not be noticeable. In your mid range system, I wouldn’t worry about upgrading digital interconnects.

  10. I dont believe claims about sound quality differences in machinery that are unsubstantiated by physics and/or blind A/B tests, and I dont trust those much either because the mind plays tricks with our senses, of hearing ,sight, and thought too !
    Most differences you hear by switching cables is due mostly by far to variations in capacitance , ie how much metal is between the connection points.
    The idea of the AC power cable making a diffence in sound makes me chuckle and sigh about the compulsive obsessive craziness of consumerism..

    1. I understand how this offends people’s belief systems, but sometimes it’s of benefit to step outside your comfort zone and take a peek at what others are hearing. Or maybe not.

      Let’s look at this issue without emotion for a moment, You suggest it is not within your scope to believe anything not explained by physics or blind A/B testing.

      Makes sense and I get it. But as an educated guy, you do understand that there’s much we observe in the universe unexplained by physics. Of course you do, which bring us to the observation half of your requirements. And here, we agree. If you can’t reliably hear the difference in a blind A/B then it likely doesn’t exist.

      Where we might disagree is the nature of the blind A/B. As long as you adhere to Paul’s rules on blind A/B – rules that forbid the use of switches, relays, and quick changes – and rules that make sure the subject is in a comfort zone so defenses are down and territory is familiar – then we are in complete agreement.

  11. Back around 1985 (I had previously been involved with selling audio in the 70’s) Dan Chattin of Otis Custom Audio Works in MA, had explained to me the virtues of Litz wire and cabling. I understood instantly that it was something valid. I purchased from him about 40 feet of raw Litz and ordered a solder pot which I learned how to use. My speaker cables may look like junk. But, they sound absolutely revealing. I was sold. I also got my hands on some Litz interconnects that I plan to leave in my will. 😉

  12. …and changes in cable length , all else remaining equall cause changes in capacitance which caused changes in high frequency content.
    Furthermore , most small differences one may hear for whatever reason in A/B comparisons dont matter since your perception of sound changes as you listen; making the sound “better” with time — just like your nose becomes happy and compatible with certain odors at first one judged to be unpleasant or repulsive , after 10-15 minutes ! So “different”
    or “slightly better” becomes irrelevant to the listening experience, and not worth spending thousands of $ to “correct.” (!)

  13. Pecking Order:
    A Nordost rep stated to me that the factory believed the opposite order given by Paul McGowan
    1. Power
    2. Interconnect
    3. Speaker cable

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