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Cable myths: reviving the coathanger test
We often harp on the fact that nobody needs audiophile-grade… anything around these parts, but where we make our name is proving it. Today, we’re going to try to prove one way or another whether or not high-end cables make a difference for your equipment.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 13, 2019 to add survey results on a blind test of audio samples using both a high-end cable and a coathanger.
The myth: cables matter
If you’ve ever shopped at a commission-based big box retailer, you’ve probably had someone try to upsell you on expensive cables, gold-plated interconnects, or even specialty power cables. The notion they’re trying to sell is that spending more on a premium component will somehow improve the performance on your stereo setup by adding a more “valuable” part.
In several review sites, you'll see many people swearing up and down that different cables will improve or alter your listening experience somehow, but this isn't strictly true.
In several review sites, you’ll see many people swearing up and down that different cables will improve or alter your listening experience somehow, but this isn’t strictly true. While it’s possible that some cables will alter the sound in minor ways (usually due to cable length), that’s not a good thing: it means that the cable is falling short somewhere. By the design of all modern audio equipment, your cables should not affect your signal… assuming you have the proper connectors, gauge, etc.
Cables of even low quality should sound little different than expensive ones, so long as the cable can satisfy the requirements of the system using it. If this hypothesis is true, then even a wire coat hanger—made of some of the crappiest-quality metals for carrying a signal (steel, zinc)—should be able to carry a reasonably clean signal. This should be true for two reasons:
- Wire that’s thick enough can satisfy the power requirements of the components (impedance issues)
- Passive speakers need a lot of juice to drive properly, and therefore any small attenuations from using imperfect conductors wouldn’t make much of a difference
However, I’ll take it a step further: I’m going to hypothesize that very few people if any can tell the difference between high-quality cables and cables consisting of nothing but interconnects and coat hangers. This should be true on low-power line outputs, high-power speaker outputs, and even two-channel cables. I hypothesize that the power levels needed to transmit a signal to modern audio equipment far exceed the level where the difference in cables would matter, provided the gauge of the wire is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the given system.
If this idea is wrong and I somehow definitively prove the inverse, the worst thing that could happen is I win a million dollars, so this whole experiment is a big win/win for me. If you look at my findings and disagree with my conclusions, please notify the publication in the link so I can collect.
In order to test this, I’ll need:
- A collection of high-quality cables with TS terminations (line-level control)
- A cable made of coat hangers with TS terminations
- A collection of oxygen-free copper (OFC) speaker cables
- Coathangers stripped and prepped for use as a regular speaker wire
Seems straightforward enough: the TS cable can be used on a line-output and a powered output, and the stereo cable would work on a set of speakers I have lying around. The left channel has a TS input, and the right channel has a speaker wire input, so I can compare each speaker from the same setup against each other.
While I’m confident enough in my soldering skills, I headed out to a friend’s recording studio to keep my usual complement of soldering irons, acetylene torches, sharp tools, and exposed live wires away from my young family. For control wires, we selected the Mogami TS patch cable, and a mystery 14-gauge oxygen-free copper braided cable—although in the course of our recordings we tested other cables, including offerings from Kemper, LyxPro, and others to check to make sure our results were repeatable.
First we took several steel coat hangers we got from the dry cleaner’s, cut off the hooks, and bent them straight. After putting cheap heat shrink and electrical tape around each coat hanger, we connected the ends of the wires to the appropriate terminals on some loose 1/4″ TS interconnects (the cheapest available on Mouser, of course) with some solder. Again: the goal is to get the absolute crappiest working model possible, without high-quality shielding or protection from interference, so quality is something to be avoided here.
For the speaker cables, we took two more coathangers and bent them straight just like the last ones. Just like the TS cable, we heatshrinked each wire, and bound them together with electrical tape. After sanding the zinc off of the termination points and prepping the reference cable to be the exact same length as the coathanger cable, we were ready to go.
First we’ll start by testing the output of a test speaker in as controlled an environment as possible, including pink noise, log sweeps, and square waves. That way, we can achieve results that will be representative of what you’d encounter in real life as well as in a perfect anechoic chamber. With this speaker we’ll keep the positioning of the speaker and test mic identical, and use a gated (i.e., so close to the source that there’s no time for echoes to reach the mic) recording. Here, we’re only testing the speaker cable and the coathanger version of said speaker cable. Should we find a difference there, we’ll then use the single-channel guitar cable and coathanger version to measure the line-level output to see if it’s really the cable, or something else that’s causing the deviations (Ed. note: 99 times out of 100, it’s the room and the air around the speakers).
We’ll then test the TS-terminated coathanger cable along with the other TS-terminated cables for comparison’s sake with nothing but a computer and the proper interface. By recording complex signals like music and other noise samples, we can record deviation by subtracting our control response from the coathanger’s response, and what’s left should be everything that’s different. If you don’t know how to read a frequency response chart, here’s a primer.
First, let’s look at the frequency responses measured from the speaker over each cable because this is going to have the noisiest data. We don’t have access to an anechoic chamber, so we went to a recording studio to collect our samples. The samples were recorded at a distance of 6″ away, on-axis, and repeated five times per cable.
Sample noise appeared to be under 0.35dB. That’s a bit higher than I want, but considering an imperfect environment and that it’s still under 1dB, it’ll work for our purposes. Here’s how consistent both the control cable and the coathanger cable were over our sampling period. To account for possible room interference, we’ve applied 1/24th octave smoothing. That’s not enough smoothing to truly account for room-related issues, but it’s enough to demonstrate our point.
Below is a plot with our coathanger pitted against a high-end OFC (14-gauge) cable. We took the average of each cable’s performance and subtracted them from each other to get the total deviation. Right away, there are a few issues we can see, but they’re mostly under 1dB—and not exactly the way we’d expect. For those who don’t mainline charts like we do, we’re looking for a difference over the solid red line before a note is audible without any other noise near it. I’ve plotted the data to show only the differences between each test run.
Editor’s note: 1dB is significant here as it is considered the “just noticeable difference” threshold for the same frequency sounds (in normal listening volumes) when other sound isn’t present. If one sound is <1dB higher or lower than another sound of the same frequency, you shouldn’t be able to hear the difference. Some contend the number is 3dB for music, but as it is with everything regarding human perception: that number is a moving target.
Yikes. That’s pretty damning. Only at 10kHz does the deviation cross the threshold of audibility, and even then: that’s a very narrow range of sound that will absolutely get lost in music. You will not be able to tell unless you’re a child prodigy and have been trained to know what to look for. This chart is so zoomed-in that it’s almost meaningless outside of “you won’t hear the difference.” From this we learn that only at 10kHz, where no fundamentals of our music live: using a coathanger as a cable will result in a slightly increased range of emphasis, only when no other sounds of similar frequency are present, and only when no other harmonics that occupy the same range. As you can imagine, those conditions will almost certainly never exist when listening to music.
if this is the high-water mark for cable-to-cable deviation: our myth is more dead than disco.
Additionally, because the sample noise was greater than 50% of the average deviation, it’s not wise to draw the conclusion that these swings aren’t the result of a low sample size, or even a change in air pressure due to the temperature rising as I was locked in a small room with no airflow. Yeah, that’s a thing that happens; these results are not friendly to our myth at all. Keep in mind, this is an absolute worst-case scenario for cabling: unshielded steel and zinc aren’t even as good as low-end cables. In fact, I’m not aware of any cables made of steel (probably due to the fact that it’s incredibly rigid), so if this is the high-water mark for cable-to-cable deviation: our myth is more dead than disco.
Mono TS cable
In order to see if those deviations came from the room or the cable, let’s look at measurements from a mono-channel TS cable versus our coathanger cable. We used a loopback on an audio interface in order to measure the response, so there’s no measurement data that could have been altered or affected by the room.
Turns out, the cables just do not make an audible difference. Where we found some issues that were potentially audible with the measured response of the speaker, there are none with the cable itself. With noise, impulse response, and practical listening the data all said the same thing: the speaker cable, TS cable, and coathanger cables performed so well as to not make an audible difference from the consumer models, good or bad. We used FLAC music files (24-bit, 96kHz) to put these cables to the test, and still: no change.
But maybe there’s something I missed, and maybe that something could be heard by people.
In order to determine if people could hear the difference between a coathanger and a cable, we posted a poll in an earlier version of this article. We asked readers to listen to ten audio samples—two head-to-head at a time—and rate which ones sounded better than others, or if they were the same. In every single one of the five comparisons, one sample was recorded over a coathanger cable, and the other was recorded with a high-end cable.
On SoundGuys, the “both sound the same” option won every single poll question handily. While we didn’t have a large sample size, it’s more than the 2008 study’s sample set, so I’m happy with this.
- 122 listeners chose “both sound equally as good” (41.7%)
- 96 listeners preferred the cable (32.4%)
- 86 listeners preferred the coathanger (29.5%)
Because no cable beat the null hypothesis that both cables sounded equally as good, we’re confident in asserting that there’s something to that idea.
Unfortunately for those looking for a definitive answer, on our sister site Android Authority: the experiment didn’t quite go as expected. The same exact poll was posted with the same exact samples, and things got a little wonky with a different audience. In the first question, the coathanger crushed both other options with 57.1% of the vote—throwing off our results big time. On the second comparison, the high-end cable very narrowly edged out the coathanger 39.8% to 36.8%. On the third, the coathanger won again, but by a margin of 35.4% to 35%; hardly convincing, and very close to a normal distribution (aka, how a random number generator might vote).
Across all comparisons and samples, the vote broke down like this:
- 1,456 preferred the coathanger (45.5% with first comparison, 36.2% without)
- 1,049 preferred the cable (32.8% with first comparison, 37.7% without)
- 694 chose “both are the same” (21.7% with first comparison, 26.1% without)
What this experiment doesn’t prove
I’m not entirely sure how or why that first coathanger sample was so convincing for Android Authority readers, but I suspect that there might be something that compelled many people to simply choose the first option on the list—perhaps to see the results faster? We’ve seen that before. In any case, all of the other questions fall roughly into line with what we expected to see. We then tested three hypotheses against all the results, and came up with the following:
- Few people could reliably tell the difference between a coathanger and a high-end cable: inconclusive
- Fewer people prefer the coathanger over the high-end cable: rejected
- Fewer people prefer the high-end cable over the coathanger: confirmed
The only hypothesis we were able to confirm was that fewer people would choose the high end cable over the coathanger—and we were unable to confirm the original hypothesis that few people would be reliably able to tell the difference between the two (we should have logged how many people were correct all three times). However, this result is encouraging, because we could change the test design a little bit to add success rates and potentially prove the original hypothesis. Our idea wasn’t disproven, and the only thing we definitively proved is consistent with the idea that high-end cables generally aren’t worth the staggering increase in cost by performance alone.
Of course, I’m not going to sit here and run comparisons like this for every set of cables on the market, because that’s stupid and a waste of time. We’re also not going to entertain endless questions about what equipment we used, or opposing experiences. I don’t doubt many of you have had a wonderful time with certain products, but it wasn’t due to objective performance in all likelihood; it was something else.
We also didn’t prove that you can stick just any old piece of metal into your speakers or audio equipment and it’ll work perfectly. What needs to be stated plainly here is that the only thing this experiment demonstrated was that the use of cables of the correct specifications should not be audibly any different than each other. If you use an appropriate gauge wire, and the proper connectors: you should be golden regardless of how much—or little—you spend on cables. Consequently, you should probably just stick with Monoprice, Mogami, or AmazonBasics for your audio cable needs if you don’t care about how they look.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting cables to match your décor or shelling out for additional features, but be honest with yourself: don’t claim they sound better. If you want braided cables, those are great! If you want something with interconnects and shielding that a tank couldn’t bust: that’s also great! What’s worth your money doesn’t always have to perform better—if you enjoy something the placebo effect is strong enough that you will prefer it.
Why you shouldn’t use coathangers for cables
Of course, none of this deals with the fact that cables—like any other consumer product—will often have side benefits for consumers who want to other assurances. For example, buying a more expensive cable will sometimes net you a lifetime warranty, reinforced terminations, or even being able to be bent (unlike rigid coathangers). There’s absolutely no reason to sit at home and solder up your own network of coathanger cables, because they’re just too unwieldy to use. It’s a lot less effort to just buy a product that’s going to be a lot more easy to use and durable from the get go.
Additionally, you don’t want to be responsible for screwing up your equipment or house if you mess up somewhere and short something. While I trust my skills with a soldering iron, I feel much better knowing that if I do wreck something, it isn’t my fault. In that light, I’m going to be chucking the coathanger cables (rather than continue to use them) once this article is finished.
Do speaker cables make a difference and what cables should you buy?
Check your speaker’s and headphones’ specs and buy whatever you want. Chances are near 100% if they meet your system’s requirements, they’ll be functionally perfect, so don’t overthink it.
Frequently asked questions
Yes, and someone who is very tired of reading certain types of hogwash online.
I’m not familiar with this model, but I’m relatively confident that £15,000.00 is a bit much to be spending on anything audio-related unless you’re setting up a concert in a stadium!
The reason I used a wire coathanger here is to illustrate that the improvements in performance are minimal at best, imperceptibly small at worst. Oxygen-free copper (OFC) is a very high-quality material, but you’ll probably not hear much of a difference all else being equal. But OFC is supposedly more resistant to corrosion, which can impact sound quality. However, that’s really only an issue if corrosives like water are making their way into contact with the cabling—something that shouldn’t be possible with a proper shielding.