Earlier this month, in my Synergistic [super-secret!] Research post, I told you that I think it’s beyond daft to spend thousands of dollars on each cable for one’s stereo. I absolutely believe that companies offering these cables for sale are taking advantage of their customers. I wouldn’t normally care as they’re not holding a gun to their customers’ heads, right? But I do care both because their claims about the cables are insultingly ridiculous, and because it gives a bad name to those who care about music reproduction and spend more to get better-sounding music.
Since I have spent more to get better sound, though I’m by no means able to spend a lot, I believe you’re entitled to know what I do believe. So what cables do I use?
Right off, I don’t use the cables that come included in the box with DVD players! Though I will not spend thousands for a single cable, I don’t take the opposite extreme position that any wire is good enough.
My current cable provider, Blue Jeans Cable, has some articles up on their site, and one titled Broadcast Quality — What Does it Mean, and Why is it Good? deals with exactly this issue.
In a nutshell, broadcasters and studios use neither consumer cables, nor esoteric thousand dollar cables. They use cables that easily exceed the required specifications, and are built to withstand far more abuse than your stereo cables will ever experience. So my thinking is that if I can get the same cabling and connectors the studios use to record the music, why wouldn’t I use it if the price were reasonable?
The article goes into detail about what a broadcaster looks for in a cable:
As with most things, moderation is best. There’s a middle-ground between 50¢ cables and $7500 cables. I bought Blue Jeans Cable’s LC-1 analogue audio cable. How much does it cost? For a three foot length, a stereo pair costs $31.25. It’s not cheap, nor is it ridiculous. Given that I have separates, and a four channel set-up, I bought about eight pairs, plus a subwoofer cable.
The broadcast world differs from this consumer market in a few critical respects.
First, the “consumer” in the broadcast world is typically an engineer; whether he has that test bench full of gear for testing cable or not, he knows what it is, what it would measure, and how to use it if he has to.
Second, the applications are critical; an engineer patching video from one end of a production or broadcast facility to another doesn’t want to plug it in, see whether it works or not, and then spend a few hours debugging it. He needs cable to be dependable; he needs every foot of it to be as good as every other foot of it, and if the manufacturer says it’ll carry 1080i HD-SDI signals three hundred feet, he needs to be able to rely on that claim when the rubber hits the road.
Third, this is very much a nonsense-free market; our engineer-buyer isn’t likely to be excited by specious performance claims that can’t be measured or documented. He’s likely to know which features of a cable are critical — like impedance tolerance, return loss, attenuation relative to the lengths of cable in use — and which aren’t.
Fourth, he buys a lot of cable to wire just one production or broadcast facility, and he will not return to a manufacturer who lets him down where quality is concerned.
Fifth — and significantly, for our discussion — broadcast applications demand more of cable than any consumer application. Analog 1080i component video, commonly in use on high-definition consumer devices, requires about 37 Megahertz of bandwidth — plus, to be safe, a few harmonics, which gets us up into the 150 MHz region or so. Serial Digital Video, SDI — commonly run in production and broadcast facilities — requires twenty times that bandwidth, and will break down catastrophically if the cable doesn’t conform to tight manufacturing tolerances. And the technical requirements of the cable aren’t all; cables are handled, plugged in, unplugged, flexed, coiled, uncoiled, and generally subjected to wear and tear to an extent seldom seen in home environments, and both the cables and the connectors used in professional applications need to have durability, flex-life, and resistance to damage from handling and pulling. As much as a broadcast engineer appreciates the technical capabilities of well-made cable, he also appreciates the difference between delicate cable that fails while in use and robust cable that lasts.
These exacting needs are filled by a handful of companies that produce the best wire, cable and connectors available for professional applications; these are companies whose names are virtually unknown in the consumer audio/video world, but who are on every engineer’s rolodex: Belden, ADC, Canare, et cetera. Conspicuously absent from that list are the companies that contract to Chinese manufacturers to make the cables one sees in big-box consumer audio/video retail stores, the companies that make the esoteric “high-end” cables for which a handful of people with more money than sense pay big bucks, and the multitude of Chinese wire and cable manufacturers and assembly houses that produce low-cost, but low-quality, cable for the consumer market.
You’ll also recall that I complained about Synergistic Research’s lack of measurements and details. Blue Jeans Cable is far more open about their wares. This is their brief overview of the LC-1:
The most important attributes of a line-level unbalanced audio cable are (1) shielding, and (2) capacitance. Heavy shielding protects audio signals from interference from outside sources. LC-1 Audio Cable uses a heavy double-braid shield, with one bare copper braid laid directly over another for extreme high coverage and high conductivity to ground; this is the identical shield configuration to Canare LV-77S, which tested best in our review of audio cable hum rejection characteristics (LC-1 hadn’t been designed yet so wasn’t tested at that time). By shrinking the center conductor to 25 AWG and foaming the polyethylene dielectric, we were able to get capacitance down to an extremely low 12.2 pF/ft, much better than LV-77S at 21 pF/ft. Capacitance can be important, particularly in long cable runs, because it contributes to rolloff of higher frequencies. The softer dielectric material and smaller center conductor, meanwhile, make the cable highly flexible and easy to route. LC-1 is built exclusively for Blue Jeans Cable by Belden, the leader in American communications cable, and is rated CM for in-wall installation in residential and commercial environments. For more information and specs on LC-1, read our “LC-1 Design Notes” article.
As the last sentence says, if you want more detail, follow the link and you get more than 1300 words about the components, construction, and specifications of the LC-1 cable.
I don’t mean to make this sound like a Blue Jeans Cable ad, but when I find what I believe is a good product, I’m not shy about saying so. They use industry-quality components to make their cables, and sell them at reasonable prices. They’re also very open about the specs of their cables and how they are manufactured. All of this is exactly the way I think audio components and accessories should be sold, so I’m a happy customer. In case you’re wondering, I have no other involvement or relation with Blue Jeans Cable beyond being a customer.
Make no mistake, none of the cables I’ve purchased from Blue Jeans Cable are what I would call sexy. The packaging was as spartan as it gets with my orders arriving in plain FedEx boxes. This is okay with me as the cables are behind my equipment, well out of sight, and the packaging is long gone. What I have are well made cables with high-quality components that are built to last and meet specifications far beyond what I need. As I mentioned earlier, if the cables are good enough for recording studios and broadcasters to create video and audio, the same cables are certainly good enough for me to watch and listen to their work.
Cable photo from the Blue Jean Cable web site.