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Do expensive headphone cables really matter?

Poll Results: Do expensive cables improve sound quality over stock cables?

 
  • 25% (16)
    Yes.
  • 44% (28)
    No.
  • 30% (19)
    Maybe/Sometimes.
63 Total Votes  
post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 

I'm sure to get in trouble for asking this question, but do expensive cables make the sound any better than what comes with the headphone? My reasoning involves the "bottleneck" concept, where somewhere in the chain of components and accessories is the item with the worst quality.

 

Maybe the bottleneck is the metal in the PCM board, the soldering spots, the wires in the computer or amplifier/DAC, the cheap components used in the headphone port, and possibly MOST important, the very thin wires that lead from the headphone cable to the actual drivers themselves. These driver cables, even on the most expensive headphones, are usually a hair thing. A hair!! Surely these little and probably cheaply manufactured barely macroscopic cables should be considered as the bottleneck. Whatever the bottleneck in a system is, it just doesn't make sense that the manufacture supplied headphone cable would be the bottleneck. 

 

If the bottleneck comes before the cables, then the original cables (or upgraded cables) really wouldn't even make a difference. If the bottleneck comes after the cables, such as the tiny driver cables, then the regular headphone cables aren't the bottleneck either. Either way, I just don't see how upgrading to a $200-$400 cable would make a difference, especially when all the information has to go through those tiny driver cables.

 

Okay, go ahead, haze me.

post #2 of 17
post #3 of 17
I don't know that it's so much the cables as the connectors and 24 gauge wire to the driver.
post #4 of 17

I'm not going to open the can of worms about expensive cables, but I will comment on the "bottleneck" aspect of systems.

 

It's often quoted that a system's sound is only as good as the the weakest link. I know what people are getting at with this, but it's not strictly true:

 

A cheapo set of headphones will sound better on a carefully chosen high end system than they will on a badly chosen entry level system. Better headphones will sound better still, but that doesn't stop the cheapo ones from being able to differentiate any component changes made upstream. 

 

So although the thin cables inside the headphones may well be some form of bottleneck, that won't stop them from being able differentiate improvements in any upstream component, be it amp,source, cable, or whatever. 

 

A better way of thinking about bottlenecks and weak links is to consider the weakest link as the most likely candidate for your next upgrade. However, some weak links are easier to change than others, which is why people may play with external cables, but they don't give the internal ones much thought. Only worry about things that you can actually do something about. Only manufacturers and hardcore DIYers can do much about the internal wiring of headphones.    

post #5 of 17

Nothing, other than the basic electrical concepts needed to make a system function correctly will "matter". Beyond that, everything is a personal preference.

 

Other than that, what you call the "driver cables" is the magnet wire of the drivers themselves FYI. :smile:

post #6 of 17

bottleneck is NOT the same as "chain strength determined by its weakest link"

therefore hige quality cables could matter

post #7 of 17

You all are correct that even with cheap headphones you can hear changes.  So having 1 bad component doesn't "ruin" the other ones.  I see sound quality as additive.  


Edited by scootermafia - 12/10/13 at 12:21am
post #8 of 17

I've made hundreds of cables, hosted double-blind tests with non-audiophiles, and simply have done a lot of cables (I know some of you have done a lot more).  For one of those parties I made various cables from the same spool of wire.....but in many different geometries (from litz to french to twist to cobra....etc).  As of right this second, I know that geometry changes the sound (a lot), but not technically for the better...just different.  I've noticed a lot of high-end cable manufacturers use some very cool fabrication methods, like litz braiding pure copper>cotton>heatshrunk>cushioned for anti-microphonics>heatshrunk again>techflexed.  IMO that is the ingredients for a fantastic cable, but as what that would be worth to you is your call.  I for one highly enjoy constructing my own cables from scratch, and wouldn't dare pay those outrageous prices, but that isn't to say that I don't think they can increase fidelity if that is your bottle-neck.

 

Another topic would be the whole silver vs copper, but that's a dead horse, and both are different.  If you haven't read those threads, I highly suggest checking them out, because there's some hilarious stuff in them... like "A silver cable is better for lossless and a copper for mp3s".  If I have a headphone that I know I'm going to keep around for a while, I'll max it out with silver.....because you never know when you're going to have to choke a werewolf.

 

After saying all of this, I think most "expensive" cables are terrible crap, and they're in the same tier as "carbon fiber outlet plate covers" and "gemstones that balance harmonic resonance".


Edited by eightbitpotion - 12/12/13 at 4:46am
post #9 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by eightbitpotion View Post
 

After saying all of this, I think most "expensive" cables are terrible crap, and they're in the same tier as "carbon fiber outlet plate covers" and "gemstones that balance harmonic resonance".

 

I tend to think that even the strangest audiophile tweaks must be affecting something for some sensitive listener. Even so, my favorite product to laugh at is P.W.B. Electronics Cream Electret, a cream (you read that right) you spread on your furniture in front of your audio gear that has an unexplained chemical effect on your mood.


Edited by Claritas - 12/12/13 at 2:53pm
post #10 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Currawong View Post

Nothing, other than the basic electrical concepts needed to make a system function correctly will "matter". Beyond that, everything is a personal preference.

Other than that, what you call the "driver cables" is the magnet wire of the drivers themselves FYI. smile.gif
The wire that comes from the cable connection to the driver is the wire of which I speak, not the magnet wire. Not all headphones are made the same but the HE-6 uses a threaded adapter connecting the signal from the headphone cable, through the headphone body and then a small gauge wire jumpers over to the driver. Yes it will pass a signal difference along but the question I have is, is it worth it to buy a 8 wire cable to pass the end result through a single small gauge wire to the driver?

It is the listener that determines the value of the change.
post #11 of 17

This whole cable upgrade thing has me a bit mystified.  First off...I am not an electrician, or an electrical engineer, just curious.  I would guess that the controlling electrical property of the cable is the overall resistance...connectors, solder, conductor all in the mix, and that lowest possible resistance is desired.  If this is true, consider the equation:

 

RESISTANCE = (RESISTIVITY x LENGTH) / AREA

 

Resistivity is a property of the metallic conductors in the system.

Length could be considered the length of the cable.

Area is the total cross sectional area of one conductor, which likely has multiple individual wires or strands.

 

Ignoring the influence of the connectors and the solder, and considering only the cable...

 

The difference in resistivity between copper and silver is very small...silver is a better conductor but not by much.  If the resistivity of copper is 1.0, then by comparison silver would be about 0.95.  So changing the conductors from solid copper to solid silver and leaving everything else the same would lower the resistance by about 5%.

 

Assuming the average cable is about 48" long, reducing the cable length to 36" (with no other changes) would reduce the resistance by 25%.  I have never seen a claim that a shorter cable length improves the SQ.

 

Similarly, an increase in the diameter of the wire would decrease the resistance.  Increasing the diameter of the wire by 10% would increase the area by 21% and reduce the resistance similarly.  Again, I have not seen any claims that using larger diameter wire or more wires in the cable strand will improve SQ.

 

So...if you spend $$$ on a cable are you hearing an improvement because "I just spent $$$, so the SQ has got to be better"?  I have a $30 Fiio cable for my SE535's.  I didn't hear any difference compared to the stock Shure cable.  Don't get me wrong, the Fiio is is a good quality cable, and I actually prefer it to the OTB Shure cable...it is a bit more comfortable around the ears, mabe a bit more flexible.  I have a spare cable and it didn't break the bank.

 

What am I missing here?  Is the resistance of the cable (ignoring the other components in the system...connectors, solder joints, etc.) the controlling property?


Edited by zombywoof - 12/14/13 at 7:18am
post #12 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Eddy View Post

haha exactly

post #13 of 17

I think TheAttorney put it eloquently in his post.

 

 

well, 5% points doesn't seem a lot in terms of price/difference ratio, but if you've already have what is considered a well chosen hi-end system, you're probably already 75% there. so an increase of 5% in SQ can be a huge difference. you're probably never gonna get 100% fidelity, but you can definitely get more than the 75%. whether is cables, or a dedicated power supplies... it all add up. however, the trick is to try to find out where the weakest link is, as more often than not people spend money on stuff they don't need.

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by zombywoof View Post
 

This whole cable upgrade thing has me a bit mystified.  First off...I am not an electrician, or an electrical engineer, just curious.  I would guess that the controlling electrical property of the cable is the overall resistance...connectors, solder, conductor all in the mix, and that lowest possible resistance is desired.  If this is true, consider the equation:

 

RESISTANCE = (RESISTIVITY x LENGTH) / AREA

 

Resistivity is a property of the metallic conductors in the system.

Length could be considered the length of the cable.

Area is the total cross sectional area of one conductor, which likely has multiple individual wires or strands.

 

Ignoring the influence of the connectors and the solder, and considering only the cable...

 

The difference in resistivity between copper and silver is very small...silver is a better conductor but not by much.  If the resistivity of copper is 1.0, then by comparison silver would be about 0.95.  So changing the conductors from solid copper to solid silver and leaving everything else the same would lower the resistance by about 5%.

 

Assuming the average cable is about 48" long, reducing the cable length to 36" (with no other changes) would reduce the resistance by 25%.  I have never seen a claim that a shorter cable length improves the SQ.

 

Similarly, an increase in the diameter of the wire would decrease the resistance.  Increasing the diameter of the wire by 10% would increase the area by 21% and reduce the resistance similarly.  Again, I have not seen any claims that using larger diameter wire or more wires in the cable strand will improve SQ.

 

So...if you spend $$$ on a cable are you hearing an improvement because "I just spent $$$, so the SQ has got to be better"?  I have a $30 Fiio cable for my SE535's.  I didn't hear any difference compared to the stock Shure cable.  Don't get me wrong, the Fiio is is a good quality cable, and I actually prefer it to the OTB Shure cable...it is a bit more comfortable around the ears, mabe a bit more flexible.  I have a spare cable and it didn't break the bank.

 

What am I missing here?  Is the resistance of the cable (ignoring the other components in the system...connectors, solder joints, etc.) the controlling property?

 

 

post #14 of 17

I do not disagree, Lenni.  If you are "almost there' in terms of maximizing SQ, maybe that last 5% improvement will do it.  But if the 5% is significant, and the resistance discussion is relevant, then the changes in SQ you could realize from a shorter cable would be several times more significant.  Have you ever seen anyone (user or custom cable manufacturer) testify as to the virtues of shortening the cable?  I have not, and this causes me to question the entire premise of detectable SQ improvement from custom cables.

post #15 of 17
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Claritas
Even so, my favorite product to laugh at is P.W.B. Electronics Cream Electret, a cream (you read that right) you spread on your furniture in front of your audio gear that has an unexplained chemical effect on your mood.

If they make a cream, they should also make a pill. An antipsychotic that increases hearing ability. 

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