Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback?

I posted an article earlier today about a hi-fi journalist who believes in magic, thinking that there can be differences in digital cables between, say, computers and DACs.

Joe Cox, the editor of What Hi-Fi?, who follows [update: who used to follow me] me on Twitter, said this:

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This made me think about an experience I had last week. I went to Cambridge to attend a recording session of the King’s College Choir, in the astounding King’s College Chapel. I spent an afternoon watching the session, talking with the executive producer, and with the recording engineers (from Abbey Road Studios). One thing that I found interesting was the cabling they used. The session was being recorded at 24/96, for release in 5.1, and there were about 24 microphones altogether. I asked if there was any fancy cabling, but the executive producer said, no, “just miles of copper.”

In other words, when recording engineers set up to record very subtle music – this was a choir in a chapel, and the sound is very complex – they don’t use anything other than cables which, most likely, are thick and robust enough to withstand rolling, unrolling and people walking on them. If even recording engineers don’t use fancy cables, then why should anyone think that expensive cables are necessary to play back music; let alone expensive digital cables?

No, just as high-resolution music is just a marketing ploy, so are expensive cables. Yes, there is a minimum that needs to be used. For analog, a cable that is too thin may have problems sending electricity from an amplifier to speakers. And with digital cables, there are standards to respect: USB 2, for example, is slower than USB 3, and some cheap USB cables may not be able to handle the faster speeds. The same is the case with Ethernet cables: there are different categories of cables (this is an ANSI standard), which guarantee specific data throughput, and the maximum length of cables.

So not only do cables almost never make a difference, if they did, you’d imagine that recording engineers would be using the best they could get. They don’t.

Of course, you could also use coat hangers

“Audiophile” Hi-Fi Journalist Defends Expensive Cables, Admits He Believes in Magic

On the What Hi-Fi? site – a well known UK audio equipment review site – journalist Andy Madden wrote today an interesting defense of expensive audio cables. But he essentially states that he believes in magic, and doesn’t care about any kind of realist analysis of the issue:

You can put whatever research you want in front of me, all the measurements in the world aren’t going to stop me from having the opinion that all digital cables do not sound the same. There, I said it.

This is a serious problem in audiophile journalism. People get so convinced that their beliefs are true, that they refuse to accept any possibility that they are wrong. Frankly, this is irresponsible for a journalist to approach any type of item or content that is reviewed with this sort of pre-conception.

This journalist believes in magic. Note that he expressly talks about digital cables. While there is a possibility that there can be tiny differences in analog cables, this is simply not possible with digital cables, whether they are USB, HDMI or Ethernet.

What Hi-Fi? has lost all credibility. This said, at least they actually published this article; many other sites and magazines have journalists whose attitudes are similar, but who are ashamed to admit it.

Also, read Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback? where the editor of What Hi-Fi? responds to my comments, and I show that even the top recording engineers don’t use fancy cables. And Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music is a Marketing Ploy. And read about how What Hi-Fi? reviews cables; see how, in one case, they just posted the same review text for two different cables.

How to Listen to Music in Stereo

I’ve always been surprised that most reviews of standalone speakers or iPod dock speakers don’t mention stereo separation. Those sorts of speakers only provide stereo sound if they are right in front of your head; even then, the speakers might not be far enough apart. The same is true with sound bars. They’re not very wide, and they don’t provide true stereo imaging. Even if you have two speakers, if they’re not far enough apart, then you don’t really hear stereo.

In an interesting article on Cnet, Steve Guttenberg asks Do you ever get to really hear stereo sound? He has a point. Most people either listen to devices, such as those I mention above, that don’t have good stereo separation, or they don’t have their speakers set up correctly to really hear stereo. Do you?

I listen to music in stereo, in both my office and in the living room. Here’s a picture from my office from when I recently bought new desktop speakers. These speakers are set up for “near-field listening,” where the speakers and my head are roughly the points of an equilateral triangle.

Miles midnight

Guttenberg says the speakers “should be at least 24 inches apart when you’re sitting a few feet away.” I think there must be more separation than that, and, in my setup, the speakers are about four feet apart. I could move them a bit closer together — perhaps a foot — and still get good separation, but not much more than that. However, if the speakers are too far apart, then the separation becomes too noticeable. It’s a tough balance.

But you also need the speakers to be at almost exactly the same distance from each ear; if not, you’ll hear one louder than the other, and it won’t sound like true stereo. This is not a problem if you have a listening setup with a single seat for a listener, but once you get into a room where more than one person will listen, either none of them will be in the center and hear stereo, or one person – the one in the center – will hear stereo and the others won’t.

Guttenberg also discusses the height of speakers. He says they should be “near the seated height of the listeners’ ears to produce the most accurate stereo imaging.” Actually, what is important is that the tweeters be at the height of the listeners’ ears; this is because high-frequency waves are very small, and they don’t spread out very much from tweeters. Low-frequency waves, coming from larger speakers, spread out much more, so their height makes less of a difference. And with subwoofers, you can place them almost anywhere in your listening room, because the waves at those frequencies are so long.

I also agree with Guttenberg that headphones are not very realistic. I enjoy listening to music on headphones, but I do understand that it’s not the way the music should really sound. The music is in your head, and the right and left channels are all the way to the right and left of the soundstage. Often, if a specific instrument is mostly one one channel[1], it will be too far from center on headphones, even if it sounds acceptable on speakers. For music to sound “right” on headphones, it would have to be mixed for that type of listening.

What about live music? If you’re attending a concert with unamplified instruments – say, an orchestra or string quartet – then you’re hearing the sound as it should be (though it’s not “stereo;” it’s true surround sound). But if you attend a concert with amplification, you’re listening to speakers. Unless you’re centered close to the stage, you’re not hearing stereo at all. If you’re far back in an arena, you’re hearing a blend of all the speakers, and are unlikely to notice any instruments that are more weighted to one channel or the other, for the same reason you may not be hearing music in stereo at home.

I very much appreciate mono recordings. In fact, since I’ve discovered the great mono mixes of the pre-stereo days, I’ve realized just how artificial stereo sounds. Perhaps, some day, someone will invent a holographic speaker, where you only need one speaker to hear music that surrounds you. If so, you won’t need to worry so much about speaker placement. But until then, if your speakers aren’t set up correctly, you’re not hearing the music the way it was mixed.

Take some time to try out your speakers in different setups: in different positions, with more or less space between them, and with different amounts of space in front of walls. If you have speakers next to your TV, try distancing them from the screen. Start by moving them a foot or two, then try moving them as much as possible. Find the right balance; you may find that your music sounds very different indeed.

Neil Young’s High-Resolution Pono Player Announced

Neil Young has been talking about how bad music sounds for a while. He’s floated the idea of a high-resolution format and player, and his PonoMusic was announced today. Curiously, the press release is not available on the PonoMusic website yet, but only on the Computer Audiofile forum.

PonoMusic combines a store, syncing software, and a hardware player, the PonoPlayer, which will be launched on Kickstarter in a couple of days.


Pono players yellow blue

I think Neil Young has got it all wrong. There are already high-resolution formats out there, such as FLAC and Apple Lossless, than can handle much higher bit depth and sample rates than CD audio. There’s not only no need for yet another format, but it simply makes things too complicated. There is a small demographic who already buys high-resolution files, and they’re not going to be interested in using another format; they’ve generally got specific music player software, and even hardware, for this.

High-resolution music interests a very small minority of audiophiles. I won’t go into the discussions of whether or not it’s worth it – whether it’s simply a high-priced purveyor of a placebo effect or not. If people want to pay more for music, it’s up to them. But it’s not a new, proprietary format and player that will make a difference in the market.

Add to that the somewhat odd, un-pocketable shape of the PonoPlayer, which will not find many users, in part because of its high price ($399), and because of its odd shape. Also, it only contains 128 GB storage, which, at the size of files that Pono should use, would only allow for 100 to 500 albums.

Actually, I think there is a two-pronged strategy here. If Pono fails – which, I’m sorry to say for Neil Young, seems likely, there’s still the high-resolution audio store. There are a few players in the market, but if Pono can develop a good, easy to use store, and syncing software – their press release says the software will sync to the PonoPlayer and to other devices – they might get a foothold in the market.

This said, the fact that the PonoPlayer is being marketed through a Kickstarter campaign suggests that no one believes Neil Young enough to pony up initial funding, not even the musicians who are lending their names to the product: Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Pearl Jam, Beck, Dave Matthews, Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones and Arcade Fire. You’d think all those artists could come up with the $800,000 that is needed for the Kickstarter. And that even Neil Young won’t risk too much on this, though he has offered thirty dinners, at $5,000 a pop, for the biggest Kickstarter contributors. Time will tell.

Update: As for the storage, and Jon Seff’s comment below. I have 90 high-resolution albums in my iTunes library, ranging from 24/44 to 42/96; I have no 24/192 recordings. They take up a total of 92.6 GB.

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That’s 1,380 tracks, many of them classical (so longer than the average song). Most of these albums are 24/88 or 24/96, so 1,000 to 2,000 songs seems likely; 1,000 to 2,000 albums – or 10,000 to 20,000 songs – wouldn’t fit in 128 GB.

Update 2: The PonoMusic press release has been update to say this:

The PonoPlayer has 128GB of memory and can store from about 100 to 500 high-resolution digital-music albums, depending on the resolution and length of the original recording.

It’s hard to believe that they could get something that basic wrong. Makes me wonder about what kind of brains are behind this thing

See also: Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.

Is Blu-Ray Audio the Next Big Thing for Audiophiles?

230px-Blu-ray_Disc.svg.pngIf you hang around in audiophile circles, you may have seen that the latest way to deliver music is Blu-Ray audio, or BD-A (BD, or Blu-Ray disc, is the standard abbreviation for such a disc). These discs can only be read in Blu-Ray players, but can offer high-resolution audio, in both stereo and surround mixes, up to 24-bit 192 kHz. The BD-A is seen as a replacement for SACDs, which never really took off in the market, despite their having even higher resolution audio.

If you follow this blog, you’ve certain/y seen that I’m more interested in music than sound; I don’t have the audiophile itch to try and get better and better sound through expensive, incremental improvements to my listening equipment. I have a very good stereo, very good headphones, and, while I may splurge in the future for a pair of Grados, there’s no reason for me to spend more.

I’m not sold on high-resolution audio, but I can understand that some people may be. Whether it’s simply a placebo effect, or whether the music actually does sound better, I can’t say. Perhaps you need a stereo that’s much more expensive than mine to hear the difference.

But BD-A is simply the latest step in marketing audio to those who are willing to pay more. Writing at MusicWeb International, Dan Morgan asks whether it’s a gimmick or game changer. He outlines the history of BD-A, and points out that it’s another step in the format wars, with different record labels choosing different ways to present the audio.

The concept of BD-A is interesting. Many such discs not only let you listen to high-resolution files on your stereo system, but also let you copy them from the disc to your computer. However, this copy process is not simple. You need to find your Blu-Ray player’s IP address and connect to it over a network from a computer. While this is not problem for me, this isn’t a simple task for many users. Part of the reason for this process is the copy protection on Blu-Ray discs; you can’t simply pop a Blu-Ray in a computer’s drive and copy its contents (though there are apps you can buy that will crack the copy protection and let you copy movies).

Also, BD-As have different types of menus, and require that you have a TV set connected to your Blu-Ray drive. Many music listeners don’t have this; they may have a listening room with just a stereo, making it onerous to play BD-As (they need to buy a TV set just to be able to operate the BD-As). Compare this to CDs: you can play any CD on any CD (or DVD or Blu-Ray player), navigating only from the device’s display. This is essentially because the Red Book CD format was agreed on and universally accepted, ensuring that all CDs would be playable on all players. While there is a more-or-less accepted standard for movies on Blu-Ray discs, this is not the case for Blu-Ray audio.

And this, in my opinion, is why BD-A will fail. By making these discs complicated to operate, and by having vastly different systems on different labels, only the most dedicated users will bother buying more than a couple. It’s not enough to provide music in good quality; the listening process has to be user-friendly. BD-As often look like they’re designed for experienced computer users, and, given that the average age of the classical music market is that of people who didn’t grow up with computers, many users will be frustrated.

The music industry will continue trying to come up with new formats to get us to buy our favorite music again and again. There are only so many times that people will do this in a lifetime. When we moved to CD, we got an easier-to-use product, with arguably better quality sound. (Certainly, some early CDs sounded terrible, but not having pops and clicks from LPs makes a huge difference.) Self-professed audiophiles will buy BD-As, but I can’t see them catching on, unless an international standard is developed for them. And it’s unlikely that will happen any time soon.

How To: Listen to High-Resolution Audio Files on a Mac

High-resolution audio files have become popular recently. These are files that offer resolution (I’ll explain that in a minute) greater than what is available on CDs. A CD contains music in what is known as the “Red Book” format, 2 channels, 16-bit linear PCM (pulse-code modulation), sampled at 44.1 kHz.

High-resolution files are available at higher bit rates and sample rates than what you can get on a standard CD. These may be 16-bit at a higher sample rate, 24-bit at the same sample rate, or, most often, 24-bit at a higher sample rate. The most common high-resolution audio files are 24-bit, 96 kHz, but sample rates up to 192 kHz exist as well.

Bit and sample rates available depend on how the music is recorded. For example, you may see files at 24-bit, 88.2 kHz; this is because 88.2 kHz offers the most mathematically pure way of downsampling audio to the 44.1 kHz required by the CD format. Some recording systems use a sample rate of 176.4 kHz – four times the sample rate of CDs – and it makes more sense to simply divide that sample rate in half than to downsample it to 96 kHz, which would introduce more artifacts.

(Note that you can also get high-resolution files on optical discs, such as DVD-audio discs or SACDs (Super Audio CDs), but I’m only discussing digital files here.)

Many Mac users listen to high-resolution files using iTunes or other software, and it’s important to note that to get the most out of these files, you need to check some settings. First, iTunes supports high-resolution files, in its Apple Lossless format. (See Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files for a discussion of Apple Lossless and FLAC files.) While you can play them in iTunes, you may not be playing them at their full resolution, because the sound card in your Mac may not be working at the correct sample rate.

And there’s the rub. I’ve heard from many people who are delighted with their high-resolution audio files, who actually aren’t listening to them at their full bit and sample rates. And even some vendors of high-resolution files don’t even tell Mac users what they need to do. I looked at HDtracks’ Frequently Asked Questions, and they make no mention of changing the bit and sample rate on a Mac (or on a Windows PC for that matter).

So here’s what you need to do. Go to your Applications folder, then open the Utilities folder inside it. Open Audio MIDI Setup. Click on the output you’re using for your music – in most cases this will be Built-in Output, and may be Analog or Digital. [1] (You may have specific hardware connected to your Mac to play music; if so, choose that in the source list.)

Check the Format settings. If they’re set to 44100.0 HZ and 2ch16bit Integer, then you’re listening to high-resolution files at CD quality. Change these to 96000.0 Hz (regardless of whether your high-res files are 96 kHz or less) and 2ch-24bit Integer. Close the app. Your sound card will now play these files at their correct bit and sample rates. [2]

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(Some people will argue that oversampling will make lower-resolution audio files sound worse; I don’t think so, but if you do, you can make the above change only when you play high-resolution files.)

So, tell me the truth… If you listen to high-resolution files on your Mac, had you already changed those settings? If you’d read my Macworld article of 2011, you most certainly did. But otherwise, this information isn’t easy to find. If you do listen to high-resolution files, then you should make the change now.

(Of course, this is only useful if you don’t think, as I do, that high-resolution music files are just a marketing scam.)


  1. Current Macs have hybrid analog/digital outputs. The digital output is a Toslink connector that is limited to 24-bit, 96 kHz. ↩
  2. If you stream high-resolution files via to an Apple TV or AirPort Express, then you won’t get high-resolution audio; they’re limited to 16-bit, 41.1 kHz. I understand that HDMI may go up to 192 kHz, but I don’t see this on either of my Macs. You may also be able to get up to 32-bit, 384 kHz audio via USB, with certain adapters. iTunes won’t be able to play that sample rate, though; you’ll need other players for this. ↩

The Every-Disc Player: Cambridge Audio 651BD


Available from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR

As a music lover, and especially as a reviewer for MusicWeb International, I am confronted with a number of different types of optical discs. CDs and DVDs are, of course, the most common, and have been around for a long time. But in the past couple of years, Blu-Ray discs have come into the market, and they are especially desirable for recordings of classical music concerts or operas.

But even CDs offer a variety of formats. In addition to regular CDs – which follow the “Red Book” standard – there are SACDs, and these come in two types: either in stereo or with multi-channel sound, and they are at a much higher resolution than standard CDs. While most SACDs sold today are hybrid – featuring a CD layer and an SACD layer – there are still some that are not. In addition to offering more channels or higher resolution, SACDs also offer much greater capacity, potentially providing a playing time that exceeds CDs.

Another format is the HDCD standard, which is not widely used. However, I have dozens of HDCD discs, because one of my favorite rock bands, Grateful Dead, issues all their recordings in this format. HDCD claims to offer better resolution than standard CDs, yet these discs are compatible with standard CD players.

There is one last form of “hybrid” disc: the DVD-A, or DVD-audio disc. This is a DVD, just like one used for a movie, but where there is little or no video. (There are generally only menus and/or still images.) The advantage of using DVD-A is longer playing time – up to several hours – and higher resolution files in stereo or multi-track.

When it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, there are also audio formats that need to be decoded, such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

So, with all these formats of optical discs, it can be very useful to have a device that can play them all. This is the case with the Cambridge Audio 651BD, which handles all of the above formats, including 3D Blu-Ray discs.

Read more

Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100: Smaller Footprint, Higher Sample Rate


I’ve been following Cambridge Audio’s products since I reviewed the company’s original DacMagic for Macworld, back in 2010. The company has been kind enough to provide me samples of some of their devices, and I recently received a DacMagic 100, their newest DAC.

The DacMagic 100 is similar in concept to the original DacMagic, but is much smaller: it is 46 x 106 x 130mm (1.8 x 4.1 x 5.1″). To put that in perspective, it’s a bit smaller (length by width) than an Apple Magic Trackpad. It has four inputs: three digital inputs (two S/P DIF and one Toslink), and one USB input. So connecting this device to a Mac, you can either use a Toslink cable (this is a digital audio cable; all current Macs have headphone jacks which double as Toslink jacks) or a standard USB cable.

The front of the device has a power-on button, a source selector, and a display showing the incoming sample rate. One difference between the original DacMagic and the DacMagic 100 is that the new device goes up to 192 kHz; the original only supported up to 96 kHz. To be fair, most people won’t need this increased sample rate, as the majority of high-resolution music files sold are at 96 kHz, but some may want to use this, especially if they work with computers in a recording studio.

Output goes over standard RCA jacks. The original DacMagic (and the more recent DacMagic Plus) also have XLR outputs, which most people outside of recording studios won’t need.

So, the procedure is simple. In my case, using the Toslink connection, I run a Toslink cable from my Mac mini’s headphone jack to the DacMagic 100; it then connects to my amplifier. As with the DacMagic I had before, there is a noticeable improvement in detail, clarity and soundspace.

An external DAC replaces the internal chip in a computer or other device. While Macs have decent DACs, they are not designed for playing audio at high quality. Using an external device overrides the internal DAC in a computer, greatly improving the sound quality. You can also use a DAC such as this between a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player and your amplifier, to improve the sound of discs you play. There is a noticeable difference between the sound of an average DVD/Blu-Ray player and that of the same device with its audio running through a DAC>

The DacMagic 100 is not cheap. It is currently selling for $369 on Amazon.com. But it is an excellent device, offering great sound, and with four inputs, is flexible enough to serve either for a computer-based music system, or a more complete home entertainment system with multiple devices running through it. (For example, a DVD player, Apple TV and game console.)