Can expensive audio cables improve the sound of a hi-fi?

Sure, the naysayers "know" cables don't make a difference, but what if you could prove them wrong?

Analysis Plus Black Oval 9 Speaker Cables The Cable Company

Some audiophiles swear that cables can make or break the sound of their hi-fis, while others poo-poo the idea and use the cheapest hardware store wires. The debates have raged for years, but the only way to really know for sure is to try a set of high-end cables in your system. When I sold hi-fis for a living, I convinced a lot of reluctant customers to buy a set of cables, with the promise I'd refund their money if they didn't hear a difference. The majority of them kept the cables; even some of the most skeptical were convinced. I think cables are important; I use Analysis Plus, AudioQuest, XLO, and Zu Audio cables in my home system.

Some brick-and-mortar high-end shops may still offer that sort of service, but what can you do if you don't have a shop nearby? The Cable Company Web site has a "lending library" of cables it sends out to customers so they can, for example, hear the difference between a $100 speaker cable and a $500 cable at home. After the customers are done listening they return all of the loaned cables. The loaners stay in rotation, and go from one customer to the next. Once you decide on a cable, you buy a fresh set; the Cable Company only sells new cables.

So if you think audiophiles who buy expensive interconnect, speaker, or digital cables are crazy, but you never actually listened to a carefully chosen set at home, and maybe you're a tiny bit curious, why not try listening to some cables and decide for yourself?

The Cable Company has been in business for 23 years, and if most people who listened to cables didn't hear a big enough difference to justify the expense, its business model wouldn't work. Remember, everybody returns the loaned cables anyway, so it's not like they just settle for the wires because they're in the system. You don't have to take anyone's word that such and such a cable is great. Either you hear a difference or you don't, and you get 7 to 10 days with the cables before you have to send them back.

The Audeze LCD 3 headphones, available from the Cable Company's lending library Steve Guttenberg/CNET

So what's the catch? There are a few things. First, you pay a 5 percent fee of the retail price of the cables, which is $50 if you went for $1,000 worth of cables. But you would receive a $50 credit toward any Cable Company purchase; you can buy a lot of other stuff besides cables. Another catch: you pay the shipping costs on the loaner products in both directions, but there are no shipping charges for purchased cables. The service offers home trials on more than 60 brands of cable in its $2.5 million library inventory, but not every brand of cable is available for loan. The Cable Company doesn't offer huge discounts, but it does have a sliding scale discount program for regular customers. The loans are only available to U.S. customers.

If you have a modest system, investing in expensive cables may not be the best way to spend your money. Cables make a difference, but it's a smaller difference than upgrading speakers, electronics, or turntable systems. If you already have a really good system, cables are the next logical upgrade step.

The Cable Company also has a headphone lending library, for headphones that sell for more than $600. It's nearly impossible to find a store where you could compare, say, a Sennheiser HD 700 with an Audeze LCD 2 headphone, but you can do that with the headphone lending library. The Cable Company has a large selection, and the best way to buy any headphone is to listen before you buy. You can keep going and listen to as many as you please. There are also a few high-end headphone amps in the lending library. The same restrictions and 5 percent fee/credit toward purchases apply.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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