When I was at university in the early/mid 90’s I came across a particular brand of Hi-Fi snob that I thought was peculiar to the times. These people would go to extraordinary lengths with their set ups- plugs were wired into the mains to reduce interference, speaker cables were discussed in some considerable details. It all seemed over the top to me, especially as the vast majority of these people were listening to Alice Cooper CDs recorded in analogue, mastered in analogue and then digitally converted at the last step. This was all before the the great “remastering” programme was undertaken and you could buy a CD copy of Led Zep IV that sounded like John Bonham was hitting empty paint tins down the bottom of a well when they recorded When the Levee Breaks.
Fast forward twenty years to today (God I feel old) and the Hi-Fi extremists have upped their game. Tape has pretty much gone from most of our music collections, so the focus is on digital- CDs and streaming- despite the second coming of vinyl, it seems.
I was pointed at a blog post on What HiFi, that you can read here, discussing what the author refers to as “the great cable debate”. Basically the switch from analogue has rendered most HiFi accessories redundant, in so much as as long as a cable like a HDMI or USB cable adheres to its relevant standard, it will happily transfer all the 1s and 0s without any issue. However this has hurt HiFi “enthusiasts” badly, as they like to spend a lot of money on things. How can it be, they reason, that a £5 HDMI can transfer all those 1s and 0s as well as a £100 HDMI cable? How can the USB hard drive connected to the high end music streamer get by on an 99p USB cable?
The answer that the HiFi community has come up with is “they can’t compete”. That’s right, the cheap cables obviously aren’t as good as the high end cables. It’s an interesting solution to the descent into irrelevance but it’s also unintentionally hilarious. I’m not about to get drawn into the debate but there are good articles available on why your choice of compliant HDMI cable is irrelevant, this one at Expert Reviews is particularly clear, but I will say the noted paranormal investigator James Randi extended his $1m prize for the proof of paranormal activities to include HDMI cables back in 2008.
It gets worse though because reviewing mains cables is also a very big thing in HiFi circles. As are fuses- why put up with a 5p 13 amp fuse introducing interference to your set up when you can spend £35 on a high performance fuse.
Still, the HiFi review community continue to review HDMI cables, USB cables and mains cables with unparalleled zeal. Here are some choice review quotes taken from Wat HiFi tumblr, that in turn are all harvested from genuine reviews:
- Stereo hi-fi equipment sounds cleaner, crisper and more articulate. The dynamics are more forceful but there’s not a hint of exaggeration or excess. [£100 mains cable review]
- It has impressive detail and secure timing. Its presentation is relaxed, and listening is an easy-going experience. [USB cable review]
- the Monster Ultra 1000 cable initially impresses with the airy openness of its soundstage and the energy of its presentation. Listen a little longer, though, and a slightly vague focus and discomfort with big dynamic shifts becomes the overriding signature [HDMI cable review]
- It took everything we could throw at it without stumbling. Images were pin-sharp, and exquisitely revealing, colour was natural and rich, while motion was smooth. [£150 mains cable review]
- This [$600] USB cable is simply revelatory in its combination of ease and refinement on one hand, and resolution and transparency on the other. Although capable of resolving the finest detail, Diamond USB has a relaxed quality that fosters deep musical involvement.
- Levels of detail, dynamics and clarity of sound are improved upon tenfold. Gains in picture quality aren’t quite as substantial, but the cable still gives images a serious boost in resolution and cleanliness. [£232 mains cable review]
- The sound we hear once connected lacks a little solidity and punch, sounding too laid-back compared to its rivals. There are more competent digital options here. [optical cable review]
There is even a review out there dedicated to the sound improvement obtained by making sure none of your cables rest directly on the carpet AND there’s a product for that too.
The real irony here is the issue with a lot of modern music- Loudness. The dynamic range of a lot of modern recordings has been completely removed by an incessant drive towards excessive loudness. The image below shows the dynamic range of ZZ Tops Sharp Dressed Man in 3 different versions:
You don’t need to be a audiophile to notice that the range- that is the difference between the peaks and troughs- gets progressively worse. It’s reached such a point now that games like Guitar Hero have been found to include versions of songs with better dynamic range than the actual album version of the same song. It’s madness.
I can’t help but think the HiFi community would be better off looking at the quality of what they’re able to play instead of the accessories they’re using to assit playing it on. Wait, that’s exactly the same complaint I had twenty years ago at university. Funny that, some things never change do they?
I’m going to give the final word to Andy, the senior reviewer at What HiFi that sparked all of this off:
Now I’m not going to waste your time talking technical. You can put whatever research you want in front of me, all the measurements in the world aren’t going to stop me from having the opinion that all digital cables do not sound the same. There, I said it.