Authorized DH Labs Dealer
This month the Entry Level goes in search of an answer to the age old question, "how much do I need to spend on interconnect cables?". Along the way, you'll see cables like the AudioQuest Quartz 3 and DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 spotlighted as examples of what you can expect as you move toward the upscale part of the cable market.
As the most neurotic of my friends who actually care about audio equipment, I often find myself in the position where I'm defending the amount of time and money I spend on the hobby. Even those that appreciate good sound tell me that perhaps I'm taking the whole thing a bit too seriously. When it really gets fun is when actual dollar amounts come up. As far as audiophiles go, I'm certainly no big spender (Spendor?), but to the vast majority of folks I'm a nutcase. Over $1000 for a pair of speakers? OK, maybe that's a lot, but they are big. A $600 amplifier? All right, those watt meters are very cool, and they do read up to 800, so that's impressive enough. When you start mentioning $500 for a CD player, that's when the looks of doubt begin. "Why not just get a cheaper one and better speakers?". Right, that will work. I've been tempted to go buy a $99 player just to do this comparison for people and make them believers; anyone who can hear at all can hear this difference.
All of this is easy enough to deal with; the real fun starts when some individual, feeling themselves particularly enlightened, says something like "wow, this is good stuff, I'll bet you must be using Monster Cable to hook it all up", saying the name as if it were some sort of revered audio ambrosia that only the gods were deserving of. Now, I don't want to pick on Monster as being bad or cheap, as some of their cables are undoubtedly very good. But when regular people say Monster Cable, they're talking about the $30 speaker cable they could buy at Home Depot, but wouldn't because it just costs way too much (especially when that helpful salesman at the electronics store threw some in for free when they got their last stereo). When I start explaining that those products are at the very bottom end of the market I buy from, and that I actually spend way more than that on cables, you can tell from the looks that my insanity is confirmed in their minds.
This sort of value judgment isn't so easy to dispel. Cable differences are usually subtle, and are always difficult to confirm, so it's no wonder that their actual worth is questionable. It doesn't help that many reading high-end magazines see cables that cost more per foot than they have to spend on an entire system. As is the usual fashion here in The Entry Level, I'll give you some background on how I ended up with my current interconnect cable collection (I'm still working on speaker cable). Hopefully you'll find the methods I used to check things out useful and get a better feel for how much you should be spending. Along the way, I'll recommend some cables from companies like DH Labs and Audioquest. All prices are approximate, because I don't have any directories for this particular market segment to grab totally verified ones from (and all prices are for 1m pairs with regular old RCA jacks on the end).
Let's head back to 1991. I've got my first real stereo together. The CD player is a Magnavox, the receiver a Marantz that was older than myself at the time (still is, actually), and a pair of original Advent loudspeakers play away. Compared with that old boombox, this rocks. Problem is, I'd been reading this little magazine called Stereophile, and I was starting to think maybe I wasn't in audio nirvana after all (if I could I go back in time and take those issues away from that younger version of myself, I might have been satisfied with that system forever, and I'd have far more disposable income today). Now, all that gear I was reading about cost way too much for me to be buying; cables, though, those I could afford. So I head off to a dealer (living near NYC at the time meant I could visit a dozen during a ten minute walk), and buy myself a pair of these fancy AudioQuest Turquoise cables ($30). The subway ride back, I stare at their greenness with anticipation. I get back, yank out those cheap RCA plugs, replacing them with the shiny Turquoise. Pop a CD on. Wow, the sound is so much better! The elation drops a bit, and the doubts begin. Well, they are better, I'm still thinking. Listen some more, than swap back to the cheap stuff. It sounds the same. Visions of snake oil dance through my head like sugarplums. Swapping back and forth some more, I don't hear a bit of difference that I'm sure of.
Cable lesson #1: regardless of what the cable people/press/dealer tells you to expect, don't be surprised or upset if you don't hear a difference swapping cables in your system. You shouldn't feel bad about it. To this day, I still can't hear the difference between Turquoise and the cheapo cables without good speakers and electronics.
Fast forward a few years. Having determined that amplifier clipping was driving me crazy, I go for the high-efficiency route and switch to horn speakers from Klipsch. The old Marantz gets the boot after getting other new equipment, including Adcom electronics and a Sony CD player. I bought another set of Turquoise for the preamp/amp interface purely on faith--sure, I may not have heard a difference yet, but I had reason to believe one was there. After getting used to the system for a bit, I do the Turquoise/cheapo comparison again. This time, I hear something. Can't exactly put a finger on it, but it's just more right with the better cable. Seems less harsh and fatiguing. I grab someone else, ask them to comment without telling them what's going on; they agree that one combination is better than the other, and they pick the right one. I wipe the sweat from my brow, knowing that I'm getting there.
Cable lesson #2: It does get easier with better equipment. If you're not convinced cables are important, try using a much better system than you're used to for the comparison. Don't be surprised if it doesn't help, but it is something to try.
We're almost caught up with today. When I got my shiny new Rotel CD changer back in mid 95, it was after extensive auditioning at my local dealer. I was convinced that this was the player that would sound best in my system. After dragging it home, found a spare cable that had been connecting a Nintendo to my system earlier that month (after all, what good is that high-end stuff if you can't play MegaMan on it?). Since I wasn't ready to haul away the old CD player yet, I plugged the Rotel into that extra cable, slipped that first disc in, and pressed play. It sounded like dirt. Dirt that had been in the rain for a while so it was good and muddy. I got that cold shudder that comes from fearing you may have just wasted a big chunk of money.
All right, that Nintendo cable is certainly no winner. I unhook the old Sony and use the Turquiose to connect the Rotel. Suddenly, most of that great sound I heard at the dealer is back! Some major head scratching followed. With this player, there was a huge difference between cables. Next thing you know, I'm dancing down the cable highway singing "I'm a believer". I spend a month getting used to how the player sounds, then head back to my dealer to step up a bit. I return with pair of AudioQuest Ruby 2 ($90). After some comparison, I decide they are a little bit better. I think. No, I'm sure. Well, maybe. I leave 'em in, and stop worrying about cables for a bit.
Months go by. I find myself with two CD players to compare. Since I ended up buying quite a few pairs of Turquoise as a general purpose, inexpensive cable, I decide that the comparison would be most fair if I was using that cable to connect both players, so I switch the Ruby out of the system. That comparison moves along, and I unhook the second player when I'm done.
The next day, I put something I'm extremely familiar with on. It sounds just plain wrong. Lifeless, dead. What gives? Whenever I notice a problem with any system I've built that used to work right, the first thing I think of is what I did to screw it up. Wait, now I remember--I pulled the Ruby out! Swapping that cable back in, all the life returns and things sound great again.
Cable lesson #3: If you're not used to using a higher- quality cable, you may not be tuned-in enough to the improvement to notice the effect of a cable upgrade. Keep the better cable in for a while, and get used to it before doing a real comparison. It's easier to notice that something is missing when you swap cables than it is to figure out that there's an improvement.
I was happy for a bit, now that I was convinced to how big of an improvement good cables could make. As with typical audiophile nervosa, this quickly turned to discomfort. If the $90 Ruby was quite an upgrade on my system over the $30 Turquoise, why stop there? Why not get even more expensive cables?
With that in mind, I started talking with those cable believers now that I was a convert to their religion. I talked with the dealer I'd been buying the AudioQuest stuff from, who I knew was in-tune with my own audio tastes and budget (Richard Dorsey at Soundscape in Baltimore, just to give appropriate credit). He recommended stepping up to their Quartz interconnect ($165) as a significant upgrade from Ruby, even getting very close to the really outrageously priced stuff at the top of their line. And all those guys here on the Stage seem to love the cables from DH Labs, so I got some of their Silver Sonic BL-1 cables ($95) to try out as well.
$165 for a 1m RCA interconnect
First off, the numbering scheme. The guys at AudioQuest have been keeping the names of their cables fairly constant over the years. When they revise the cable, they increment a series number at the end. The Quartz 3, then, is the 3rd generation version of that design. The Ruby and Turquiose cables I've got are not current revisions; I point this out just so you know that the latest revision of those cables are probably better than I'm giving them credit for. Since I'm really only using them as examples of less expensive gear, this isn't too big of an issue; the Quartz 3 that I'm really focusing on is from recent production.
When I swapped the Quartz in for the less expensive Ruby, I was expecting the same sort of minor improvement I'd noticed from cable changes before. Wrong! Right out of the box, the Quartz was obviously superior. The big difference was in how the highs were extended. There was a clarity to top- end sounds that I'd never heard before out of my system. This wasn't a "turn the treble up" type of difference; the overall tonal balance actually seemed less bright, and far less fatiguing, even though there was actually more output there. The inexpensive cables gave a more tinny sound in comparison.
The other very notable (and probably related) improvement was in the size of the soundstage. When I'm listening to recordings, I get a mental image of how big the original room was. This may not have any real relation to the actual recording venue (things like reverb make the recording sound bigger, and crummy recording technique can make it smaller). How accurately this reproduction is to the original is a different discussion; here, we'll just take it for granted that there is some apparent soundstage size to the playback. Compared with the less expensive cables I tried, the Quartz gave a wider and deeper image. After getting used to the Quartz in the system, the cheap stuff sounded closed in, like the recording had been through a trash compactor so it could fit in a smaller box.
With the Quartz being a surprisingly big step up from even the slightly less expensive Ruby, it's not that hard to justify its price for anyone who has a system good enough that cable quality is a noticeable trait. Satisfied (and a bit shocked) that spending $165 for a cable could actually be a good value in my approximately $3000 system, I moved on to trying the other cable I had on hand.
$95 for 1m RCA interconnect
I've got a stack of reviews for the cables from DH Labs. What I always read about products like them is the old line about how their products are competitive with those that cost several times as much. That's all well and good, but usually even the "budget" equipment under discussion in that sort of review still costs more than I'm willing to drop without some justification. When I've got tons of cheap cables all over the place, I'm more concerned with why I should be dabbling with the cables products from the high- end at all.
I dropped the Silver Sonic cable into my system and fired everything up. At first, I was at pleased that this cable performed at least as well as the more expensive Quartz I'd been using for a while. The high frequencies were rendered at least as well, and the soundstage sounded similarly large and well defined.
Remember those cable lessons I learned before? In particular, the one about getting used to better equipment? This was another of those cases. After living with the Silver Sonic cable for a while, switching back to the ones from AudioQuest proved to be a slight drop in quality. Although very similar at first, the DH Labs cable one-upped the more expensive Quartz in several areas after more extensive listening got me used to hearing more from my system (break-in may have been a factor here as well).
I know this sounds a bit odd, but the first thing that jumped out at me when I was comparing these two was hiss. I was playing a recent recording that I had always thought was very quiet. With the Silver Sonic cable, I could hear the background noise clearly. Since hiss is mostly composed of high frequency noise, it's no surprise that better cables, with their superior "air" (whatever that means), would do a better job of reproducing that type of noise. Going back to a number of cheaper cables again, I found that my subjective ranking of them exactly corresponded with how much hiss I could hear out of them. Better treble extension seems to translate into not only a better soundstage but more noise.
And that soundstage deserves mention. I was getting a much bigger image out of my speakers with Silver Sonic as the interconnects than I'd ever heard before. Image width and depth is not a hot button for me, but I was very impressed nonetheless with how big everything sounded and how far away some things appeared to be coming from. The flip side to this improvement is that things that are artificially enhanced sound it. It's more obvious when things are processed instead of real; the echo and other such reverb I hear on many rock vocalists is clearly fake.
Tradeoffs like this haunt my experience with the DH Labs cable. While I love all the extra resolution and detail, there's no place for bad recordings to hide anymore. Somedays, when I'm listening to less than audiophile grade material, I'm tempted to put the cheap cable back in just so I can't hear how screwed up the recording really is. Make no mistake: if the rest of your system is up to it, the Silver Sonic cables will let you hear exactly what's going on with your music. You may find that some of those details were better left buried under the mask of low fidelity. This is one of the prices you'll pay as you enter into the high-end.
There are other things to like about the Silver Sonic cable that I didn't really pick up on until I started doing some direct comparisons. There's a sharpness to all the sound that just isn't there with cheaper wire in place. Sounds appear out of silence, you hear them, and there's a natural decay as they disappear. Cymbals sound very crisp (this goes back to the better top-end extension). Deep bass notes sound more tight even than on the Quartz; kick drum in particular had a much more clearly defined envelope of sound instead of degenerating into a big fat thump at the bottom of the frequency spectrum as it will with crummy gear.
Bass quality is worth touching on here. Most of the good cables I tried gave decent bottom-end. Even inexpensive cables like the Turquoise will get you most of the bass you paid for. It's only the dirt cheap (i.e. included in the box) cables that I found really unacceptable in that area. You may hear a bit more deep bass if your speakers are big enough that you have it available, but any of the audiophile grade cables I've heard, whether $30 or $165, do a good job in that department. That said, you can't get me to go back to any of the cheaper cables now that I'm hooked on the really clean bass extension I've gotten used to with the Silver Sonic interconnect.
Overall, then, I prefer the DH Labs BL-1 in just about every way to the AudioQuest Quartz 3. It's lower price really makes it look like a bargain, too; it is much, much better than any of the similarly priced competition I've tried, although I'll freely admit to only having sampled a small part of the huge cable market. I'm very happy with the fit and finish as well. Some cables I've gotten from smaller manufacturers (ones I've chose not to pick on here) have looked like they were manufactured in somebody's basement, with loose connectors and difficult wire to work with (DH Labs may very well make cables in somebody's basement for all I know, but you can't tell that from looking at them). The Silver Sonic cable is fairly thin, so it's easy to deal with, and the RCA jacks are very securely attached and fit well in all my equipment. The AudioQuest Quartz cable is considerably fatter and less pliant when I'm trying to snake it through smaller openings.
The one thing to watch out for is that the DH Labs cable is very nearly useless for system matching. If you've got a problem with too much treble or bass, that's just too bad-- it will be in your face, hope you like it. The Quartz tones down some of the more noxious aspects to bad recordings, and it may provide a better tonal balance for some systems because of it. Plus, I sometimes started to feel like the Quartz had better bass. It never really did, actually-- after controlling the comparison better, I found the upper bass sounded louder because the lower bass wasn't as present (this is one of those tricks our hearing likes to play on us). You may very well find this aspect of the cable provides a better sound for you as well. In a perfect world, we would all have totally neutral equipment and would aim for flatness in every component. In reality, sometimes slight deviations from brutal neutrality can end up being more pleasing to the ear in a system building context, ending up with an overall flatter response because of balancing flaws. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend the cables as tone controls philosophy as a good one, but I will recognize that if you're happy with everything else in your system, it may make sense in your situation.
Now that I've paid a visit to high-end cable land, what do I think of slumming with that cheap stuff? Some perspective seemed in order. I grabbed some cheap cable, a length of the Silver Sonic, and did some comparisons with my computer stereo (my spare Rotel CD player, aging NAD receiver, and $280 speakers from Design Acoustics--a ton of flaws, but good magnetic shielding and on close-out very cheap). I could pick up the difference between cables every now and then with some recordings. This cable contrast, the most dramatic I could find on the big system, just barely noticeable with the little setup.
Those other cable lessons are worth remembering. If you don't have the rest of your system working right, spending your time fooling with cable is the wrong move. Worry about getting source components and speakers, you can sort the cables out later. Buy appropriate cables now, wait until you can tell the difference between them and the cheaper ones before you drop big money on them (and if that time never comes, good for your wallet).
"Appropriate" is the tricky word here. If you're putting together a $1000 system, I'd consider getting something like the Turquoise cables to be a good investment, regardless of how much better expensive cable may be. Make sure you have a soundstage at all before you worry about how big it is. As you creep up toward systems over $2000, you should definitely consider the more expensive wire to connect things. My rule of thumb is that somewhere between 5% and 10% of the total system cost should go toward cabling (lumping speaker cable together with interconnects here) in a traditional source-preamp-amplifier-speaker combination where you need two interconnects and a set of speaker cable. No way would I tell somebody to buy from DH Labs to wire a $1000 system, and no way would I recommend Turquoise (or Ruby for that matter) for someone who has $3000 to spend.
There's a trap here; I'll call it the cable unbeliever Catch-22. The unbeliever buys some good cables, puts them in his system, and doesn't hear a difference immediately. Disgusted at being ripped off, the cables are returned and he goes back to generic RCA stuff that came with his VCR. Later, he buys an expensive CD player; he doesn't hear a difference there either, so that's obviously more robbery. The problem is that you may not be able to tell the difference between the good and bad players without the appropriate cable. Similarly, without having a good source, otherwise difference cables may be indistinguishable. I don't want to go into the whole argument over whether audio chains are ruled by their weakest link or not, but the fact is that you need comparable matching equipment to be able to tell exactly what's going on when you're trying to track down subtle details.
In the end, you need to have a bit of faith that more expensive cables are going to be better. It's easy to "prove" they all sound the same if you don't approach the exercise right and take proper care in putting everything together. In addition to the gear itself, you need to pick a good recording to properly compare things. Here's the criteria I use for something I can really tell cable differences with in a single listen:
That last point bears repeating. No way should you expect to hear subtle differences between equipment on recordings you're not intimate with. You can't expect that you'll be able to concentrate on the sound when your brain is busy trying to assimilate new music. This is why I'm not bothering to go into detail on what I use for such exercises (if you must know, it's the first two minutes of David Baerwald's Triage CD, which you probably haven't listened to even once). What's crucial is that it's music you like and know. Grabbing some random music because it's what some raving high-end person told you to listen to is the wrong approach. Sure, I've got a copy of Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat; it's good, I listen to it occasionally, but no way would I use it for my auditioning regardless of its quality simply because it's not something that I'll ever listen to enough to really get into it.
If you've been confused about where to go with interconnects for your system, hope this discussion has given you some ideas. I don't know if the really expensive cable that's out there can ever be cost justified in my mind, but I can certainly recommend spending at least $95 for some Silver Sonic cables from DH Labs if you're trying to assemble a system with high-end aspirations for a reasonable price.
PO Box 31598
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For more information about DH Labs cable, you can contact their US and Canadian distributor Terry Rossen at:
13604 Hartsbourne Drive
Germantown, MD 20874-2828