How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 3

In two previous articles I showed how hi-fi magazines write about cables. They make things up, say things that make no sense, and sometimes copy and paste reviews for different products from the same company. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but I thought it would be interesting to look at how multiple cables can make your audio system sound like it’s powered by unicorns.

In a standard audio setup, there are four types of cables you can upgrade to audiophile versions and prices. There’s the AC cable, that goes from your wall socket to your amplifier, CD player, etc. Then there’s the interconnect, the RCA-plug cables that connect, say, your CD player to your amp. Finally, there are speaker cables; they run from your amplifier to the speakers. If you have a DVD/Blu-Ray player, there’s also the HDMI cable that connects that device to your amplifier, or to your TV.

Audiophiles think that changing any of these cables can make a huge difference in the quality of the music you hear on your stereo. So what happens if you change all three of these for pricey audiophile cables?

Start with the power cable, or mains cable, as they say in the UK. According to What Hi-Fi? magazine (all of the quotes below come from their reviews[1]), a £150 mains cable:

took everything we could throw at it without stumbling. Images were pin-sharp, and exquisitely revealing, colour was natural and rich, while motion was smooth.

It made our reference kit sing, too, with its ability to apply dynamics on tap, combining a taut sound with seamless integration.

I find it hard to imagine how a mains cable would “stumble” with different types of content; after all, it’s only supplying AC power, which the various hi-fi components convert to DC power using transformers. But I love how it can “apply dynamics on tap,” and provide a “taut sound.” Of course none of those statements mean anything at all.

The What Hi-Fi? reviewer does not, however, say which components used this cable. Was it the TV, or a DVD/Blu-ray player that got the cable, which give “pin-sharp” images? For the sound, did it go into the amp? Mysteries.

Let’s move on to an interconnect; I’ll just stay with an analogue interconnect, used to pass audio from a CD player to an amplifier. There’s one at £731, more than I paid for my player:

In every system we tried, their effect is the same. The leading edges of notes are as sharply defined as you like, and pack a mighty punch when the music demands.

More than that, the sound delivered is timed immaculately. This means not only that the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A are punched out in all their glory, but also that the interplay between instruments is preserved and easy to appreciate.

These cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer. It will help a system communicate the drive and enthusiasm in a piece — it’s all about communicating the drama and passion of music.

I think it’s important that the “leading edges of notes” be “as sharply defined is you like,” but I’m not sure what that means. It’s great that the “sound delivered is timed immaculately;” I wouldn’t want a cable to hold back and delay sound. And that third paragraph, aside from its grammatical incoherence (don’t they have copy editors at What Hi-Fi?) is confusing. It’s all about “control, insight and agility,” rather than “making things sound nicer?” Does that actually mean anything in English?

Whatevs. On to an HDMI cable; one that sends digital information, that in no way can change the sound of anything. Cables don’t influence the ones and zeroes of a digital stream, they just move them from one end of the cable to another. For £300, you can get a cable that:

really does impress with its clear, detailed, realistic picture. Even more apparent is the sonic ability of this cable. It sounds controlled and composed.

The level of refinement and finesse that it encourages is there for all to hear. It’s capable of delivering the explosive adventures of Rambo with gusto and is equally adept at creating a tense atmosphere during Batman Begins.

What’s confusing here is that I always thought it was the TV – and the source, the DVD or Blu-Ray player – that were responsible fro a “clear, detailed, realistic picture.” The cable is just something that passes the bits from one device to the other. As for the sound, it’s good to know that it is “controlled and composed.”

Let’s end this brief tour with speaker cables. This type of cable is the most varied and exaggerated. Here’s a £148 cable (the review does not specify how much you get for that price):

In every system we tried, the effect was the same. The leading edges of notes were as sharply defined as you like, and packed a mighty punch when the music demanded.

More than that, the sound delivered was timed immaculately. This means not only that the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A were punched out in all their glory, but also that the interplay between instruments was preserved and easy to appreciate.

This cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer. It’ll help a system communicate the drive and enthusiasm of a recording — it’s all about communicating the drama and passion of music.

Isn’t it interesting that the review of this cable, just like the interconnect I cited above, says that “the hard-charging rhythms of Radiohead’s Kid A are punched out in all their glory,” and that “This cable majors on control, insight and agility, not on making things sound nicer,” getting the grammar right this time? And not only do these vapid texts show that these reviewers just make things up, but that they have no shame in copying their texts for products from the same company.[2]

And that begs the question: if, for a given company’s cable, the results are exactly the same for an interconnect and a speaker cable, why buy both? What exactly are they reviewing? A set of cables – i.e., the interconnect and the speaker cable – or each one individually? If they both do the same thing, you’d be better off just getting the speaker cable, as it’s about one-fourth the price.

So add up all these extraordinary results, and what do you get? Exactly the same music you’d get with standard cables. But, in my example (and I did not choose the most expensive cables), this is more than £1,200 spent on cables.

Well, I think you get the picture here. Save your money; instead of spending money on expensive cables, buy music. After all, that’s what your audio system is for, right?


  1. I’m not picking on What Hi-Fi? magazine specifically, but they are an easy target.  ↩
  2. When I pointed out in an article yesterday that What Hi-Fi? had the exact same text for two different cable reviews, they replied on Twitter “That’s a tech error with our CMS, which pulled in the same copy as product names identical. We’ll correct. Thanks.” One day later, and they haven’t fixed it; because it’s not a tech error with their CMS, but rather their reviewers. The copy is not exactly the same: one has a header, and there are differences in capitalization. Just as, in this example, it’s obvious that the copy is not the same: one has a grammatical error, and the other has corrected it.  ↩

6 thoughts on “How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 3

  1. Kirk,
    Thank you so much for posting this series of exposés. It’s really infuriating that it has become a substantial industry.
    The profits for the manufacturers must be through the roof and the corporate kickbacks the magazines get must be substantial because as you show the snake oil salesmanship permeates the entire audio publication industry.
    700 quid is over $1,000, which is likely to be more than nearly 95% of audio systems or speakers that are sold. For a magazine to literally copy and paste one (grammatically incorrect) “review” for one cable to another — of a completely different type — erases all credibility for the magazine. How could any other review of theirs ever be taken as viable when their motives are clearly not objective ratings of products?

    I suspect readers of yours who themselves have been suckered into buying magical leads capable of keeping the “music being played in time” are now suffering from cognitive dissonance and the placebo effect.

    One thing is for sure. Their wallets are in the same state as these publications’ authenticity — gutted.

  2. Kirk,
    Thank you so much for posting this series of exposés. It’s really infuriating that it has become a substantial industry.
    The profits for the manufacturers must be through the roof and the corporate kickbacks the magazines get must be substantial because as you show the snake oil salesmanship permeates the entire audio publication industry.
    700 quid is over $1,000, which is likely to be more than nearly 95% of audio systems or speakers that are sold. For a magazine to literally copy and paste one (grammatically incorrect) “review” for one cable to another — of a completely different type — erases all credibility for the magazine. How could any other review of theirs ever be taken as viable when their motives are clearly not objective ratings of products?

    I suspect readers of yours who themselves have been suckered into buying magical leads capable of keeping the “music being played in time” are now suffering from cognitive dissonance and the placebo effect.

    One thing is for sure. Their wallets are in the same state as these publications’ authenticity — gutted.

  3. Hello, I am in no way defending What HIFI or any other HIFI reviewers here but I just want to point out a common misconception about digital cables (HMDI, coaxial) that they “simply pass 0’s and 1’s” and therefore can’t have any effect on the signal. If you do any sort of research into this (not in HIFI magazines) you will first of all realise that the 0’s and 1’s are passing down a piece of copper (or another conductive material if you paid big bucks for the cable!). Any conductive material will have dialectric losses, skin effect, capacitance and inductance all of which will change response over frequency. The issue is that the device streaming the data will always contain small errors (jitter) and since audio streams are not clocked or error checked (unlike data sent via ethernet in packets and is error-checked for example) and those errors are fixed at the other end as best as the DAC chip can (jitter correction). So the 0’s and 1’s are not absolute – there are always errors and this is why NO DAC has 0% jitter. Again, do some Googling on this. On top of this, a digital cable with its non-perfect conductive material also affects the square wave that forms the 0’s and 1’s. This is usually demonstrated using eye-pattern charts. The leading or following edge of the square wave can be mis-shaped. So the receiver chip again tries to interpret the waveform as best it can. Usually it does a good job but if the combined jitter from the sending device (an old CD player for example) has high jitter and the cable also degrades the wave form then the corrected and reconstructed analogue signal made by the DAC chip may contain artefacts of the excessive jitter. This is characterised as a smearing of the sound. It’s one thing to condemn HIFI journalists as brainless plagiarists (they can be) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t ANY merit in what they are saying. There are plenty of well educated engineers and audio enthusiasts who believe that audio cables can make a difference in their system whether they be digital or analogue. Myself included. I also believe that I have proof that that belief is based on fact rather than fantasy.
    Do some research on any of the points I’ve raised with an open mind (I don’t mean an empty mind!) and consider for a second that there may be more than just 0’s and 1’s to digital cables.

    • Um, square waves? There are no waves on a digital cable, there are electrical impulses that are read as 1s and 0s. The shape of the bits has no effect on anything; they’re read as 1s or 0s, nothing else.

  4. Hello, I am in no way defending What HIFI or any other HIFI reviewers here but I just want to point out a common misconception about digital cables (HMDI, coaxial) that they “simply pass 0’s and 1’s” and therefore can’t have any effect on the signal. If you do any sort of research into this (not in HIFI magazines) you will first of all realise that the 0’s and 1’s are passing down a piece of copper (or another conductive material if you paid big bucks for the cable!). Any conductive material will have dialectric losses, skin effect, capacitance and inductance all of which will change response over frequency. The issue is that the device streaming the data will always contain small errors (jitter) and since audio streams are not clocked or error checked (unlike data sent via ethernet in packets and is error-checked for example) and those errors are fixed at the other end as best as the DAC chip can (jitter correction). So the 0’s and 1’s are not absolute – there are always errors and this is why NO DAC has 0% jitter. Again, do some Googling on this. On top of this, a digital cable with its non-perfect conductive material also affects the square wave that forms the 0’s and 1’s. This is usually demonstrated using eye-pattern charts. The leading or following edge of the square wave can be mis-shaped. So the receiver chip again tries to interpret the waveform as best it can. Usually it does a good job but if the combined jitter from the sending device (an old CD player for example) has high jitter and the cable also degrades the wave form then the corrected and reconstructed analogue signal made by the DAC chip may contain artefacts of the excessive jitter. This is characterised as a smearing of the sound. It’s one thing to condemn HIFI journalists as brainless plagiarists (they can be) but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t ANY merit in what they are saying. There are plenty of well educated engineers and audio enthusiasts who believe that audio cables can make a difference in their system whether they be digital or analogue. Myself included. I also believe that I have proof that that belief is based on fact rather than fantasy.
    Do some research on any of the points I’ve raised with an open mind (I don’t mean an empty mind!) and consider for a second that there may be more than just 0’s and 1’s to digital cables.

    • Um, square waves? There are no waves on a digital cable, there are electrical impulses that are read as 1s and 0s. The shape of the bits has no effect on anything; they’re read as 1s or 0s, nothing else.

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