The question is as old as the audio-video industry itself: Do high-quality cables really matter? In fact, it may not surprise you to note that it’s even one of the most common questions that custom installers are asked by clients building high-performance systems. But finally, we here at DT can provide an answer: Predictably, it’s an emphatic “yes!”
While high-end A/V cables can be more expensive, if you consider that all of the sound and video you hear and see passes through these wires, it seems silly not to invest a few extra dollars to make sure your wires are passing the best possible signal. Or, to make an analogy, skimping here is like gassing up a Ferrari with low-grade diesel instead of premium octane: You won’t get optimal results.
Will I Hear and See the Difference?
If you use cheap or poor-quality audio cables, especially during longer cable runs, the cable will lose information. According to Adam Sankin, system specialist at DSI Entertainment Systems in West Hollywood, California, “it’s like killing the highs, smearing and unifying the bass, removing detail and softening the overall sound.”
Good speaker wire, however, can make all the difference in the world. In fact, the right cable can reveal details in music you’ve been listening to for years, something you think you know inside and out. “Lo and behold, you’ll discover things you’ve never heard before—and I’m talking about an instrument or a voice, not something subtle.” Sankins’ favorite audio cables are those from Anti-Cables and Harmonic Technology.
The difference between high-quality and midrange video cables can be a bit harder to discern. Using lower-quality cables can result in more video noise and edge damage, detail and color loss, and a general lack of definition.
More important in the video realm though, is the type of cable you are using, not the price. For example, S-video and composite video cables will not pass a high-def signal, while component and HDMI will. You will immediately be able to see the difference of a high-def image through an HDMI cable on an HD set versus the same signal on the same set through a S-video or lesser cable.
“The role of an interconnect cable is to get a signal from one device to another. The most desirable effect would be to have no change made to the signal as it travels along the cable. Due to the effects of impedance, however, whenever a signal travels through a wire, whether it is made of copper, silver, aluminum, steel, or a combination, it will be changed. Higher-quality cables will make the least amount of change to the carried signal, resulting in the highest quality picture and sound,” says Joe Perfito, cable expert and president of Tributaries Cable.
When shopping for a high-quality HDMI cable, Perfito recommends purchasing product stamped with the HDMI logo, which means that it has been certified and passed HDMI testing. He also suggests you consider die-cast metal connectors, triple layers of cable shielding, copper-foil connector shielding and silver-plated conductors. We won’t get into the technical details here, but rest assured the result is a better image.
Whether you are buying audio cables or speaker wire, always try to demo the cable before purchasing to see if you can hear and see the difference. “Many people don’t want there to be a difference in cables, so to them, there is none,” says Sarkin. “I don’t like to spend money I don’t need to, but I have spent plenty to eke that extra performance out of my system. In fact, I have rediscovered my record collection using high-quality cable.”
If you are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a home theater system, spending a thousand dollars or so on cable and wire makes sense. That is, if the performance benefit can be demonstrated. Likewise, spending a few thousand dollars for cable on a system worth only a few thousand is overkill. Sarkin recommends you spend a minimum of 20 percent of the entire worth of your system on cable and wire. For older gear, “high-quality cables can really surprise you with the transformation they offer.”
At the same time, as a digital shopper, it’s important not to be sold by manufacturer’s marketing claims. “Any company who claims to be a panacea or best in the world is more than likely not, and I would steer away from that kind of pitch,” says Sarkin.
Dress Your System
Organizing cables is somewhat of a science—it’s called “dressing” your system. Disorganized cable can actually sound and look bad as cables can “interfere” with one another.
“The difference in performance from dressing the cable can be mind-blowing,” says Sarkin. “I once dressed the cable of a high-end system and when the client heard the transformation, he could not believe all that I had done was rearrange his cables.”
Follow these tips to improve the sound and video in your own system:
• Keep all signal cables at least four inches off the floor. Do not let them cross each other. If they must cross, keep them at 90-degree angles and keep them four inches or more apart if possible.
• Try not to run AC power cables alongside signal cables. If this is unavoidable, again, try to keep them at least four inches apart and at 90-degree angles to each other.
• Purchase a “cable lifter,” which will help keep cables off the floor.
• The art of setting up a system properly can be complicated—especially if you don’t know what you are doing. If it’s too much, hire a custom installer or someone from your local audio-video store to come out and help you make sense of the tangle of wires behind your A/V rack.