Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Hans WetzelTwo kinds of people buy televisions: those who walk out of the store with just a TV, and those who walk out with a TV and a bunch of cables.

I have always not-so-secretly made fun of the folks who casually drop +$100 on HDMI cables and surge protectors to accompany their new $500 television, and have likened the salesperson hawking said cables to someone selling used cars. It’s not that the cables or surge protectors are bad; I’m just not sure they make much difference in terms of picture quality and surge protection. From my perspective, and I suspect for many others as well, it makes much more sense to invest that $100 in the television itself: a $600 TV might get you a more reputable brand name, a bigger screen, and/or additional connections than are available with a $500 set.

Such logic works as well in audio as in video. If you’re buying $500 speakers, why spend a dime on cables when you could get bigger, better speakers? This line of thinking accompanied me recently as I reviewed three different sets of cables. Does this stuff really make a difference? Yes. And no.

In the last few weeks I’ve advised multiple friends to purchase Audioengine A5 powered speakers because I think they offer wonderful performance and convenience for their price of $349 USD per pair. I would never suggest replacing the little speakers’ included power cord, speaker cable, and interconnects with aftermarket varieties, however. For the price my friends would have to pay to replace them, they’d be better served buying better speakers. Sure, they would hear music that sounded a bit better with, say, $249 worth of the aforementioned cables, but even inserting $25,000 flagship audio cables (oh yes, they exist) into the equation would not raise the sound quality of the little Audioengines to a point where they could better a $1000 pair of floorstanding speakers.

However, I would feel much more comfortable recommending the same $249 worth of cables had I suggested that my friends purchase a $1000 pair of Dynaudio monitors and a $1200 Peachtree Audio integrated amplifier. The performance ceiling of the Dynaudios is high enough that the cables are worth the extra expense over cheap, bulk speaker wire and RCA cables, which would only throttle the sound of the little Scandinavian boxes. Even so, I still wouldn’t claim that the cables were vital.

If, however, my now very wealthy friends were to hook up the same $249 worth of cables to a pair of $25,000 Magico Q1 monitors and a $12,000 Simaudio Moon Evolution 700i integrated, they would be roundly disappointed with the sound. Actually, they’d be pissed off.

In each of these three examples, the total price of the hypothetical cables is $249, which is close to the price of one set of actual cables currently residing in my living room. Multiply this amount by ten and you get $2499 -- about the price of two other sets of cables I’m reviewing. My friends would hope that these cables, at ten times the price, would make their $349 Audioengines world-beaters. In reality, the A5s would sound slightly better than with the $249 cables. With the $2200 Peachtree-Dynaudio system, the two more expensive sets of cable would offer more dramatic improvements in sound quality, with improved transparency, resolution, and soundstaging. Still, my friends would be much better off investing their $2499 in better speakers, a better integrated amp, or both.

It’s only when the $2499 cables are used in a system priced like a German sports sedan that the shift in quality even approaches the territory of "Oh shit" -- the very response I had 15 years ago, when I was introduced to reference-quality Wilson Audio, Mark Levinson, and Transparent Audio gear.

Cables are like speakers, amplifiers, preamplifiers, and source components in one respect and one respect only: The more you spend on them, the less improvement in the sound you get per dollar spent. This is more a result of economic theory than the audio industry; to have the best of anything requires the dedication of enormous amounts of money to research, materials, and industry-leading minds. Compounding the case against cables is that, as implied above, cables are the least weighted components in the equation for achieving sonic truth: $25,000 speakers in a system with $249 worth of cables will sound galaxies better than the same system with $249 speakers and $25,000 worth of cables.

This is no knock against the companies that make these super-expensive cables or the folks who buy them; the former cater to the latter, and the latter can go to bed secure in the knowledge they have the best cables money can buy. A $12,000 integrated amplifier, $25,000 speakers, a $7000 DAC, and $25,000 worth of cables to hook it all up and plug it into a power source . . . for those few, the state of the art is only as far away as their listening rooms, and of them I am truly envious.

But I, too, can sleep comfortably. My 26-year-old, recession-size savings account has condemned my listening -- nay, my living room -- to functioning as a repository for exclusively second-hand audio gear, allowing me to hear the beginnings of greatness without having to pay full price for it. And I may very well try to make some of the cables waiting to be reviewed my own, even if I have to perform some fiscal calisthenics along the way in order to do so.

Audioengine A5What I am sure of is that, even if I could comfortably afford tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of audio cables and still having enough left over to fill the empty bedrooms of my mansion with gold bullion, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to sleep, knowing that while my $25,000 audio cables indeed sound the best, they don’t sound that much better than cables costing only $5000.

The moral? The Audioengine A5 is a great loudspeaker.

. . . Hans Wetzel