NY Times Rekindles Cable Debate with "Circuits" Story

Do high-end cables make an audible difference? Or are they cosmetic enhancements, like fancy wheels on high-performance cars? The New York Times, the nation's foremost newspaper, took up the issue in a December 23 piece in "Circuits," its weekly technology section.

Titled "A Spat Among Audiophiles Over High-End Speaker Wire," the story, by Times reporter Roy Furchgott, quotes National Symphony Orchestra musician and former Stereophile reviewer and musician-in-residence Lewis Lipnick as saying that anyone who can't hear the difference between cables must have "cloth ears." Lipnick prefers a pair of unnamed $13,000 cables to deliver current to his speakers from his Krell amplifiers.

Leading with such an example induces sticker shock among readers and helps reinforce the lunatic-fringe stereotype of audiophiles. Furchgott goes the predictable route by getting quotes from engineers and academics who dismiss the whole notion of the audibility of cables. Alan P. Kefauver, director of the Recording Arts and Sciences program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, is one of them. "Baloney," he calls the whole idea, stating that 16-gauge zip cord is good enough for him.

Furchgott's story has rekindled one of the longest-running and most contentious debates in the audio world. A flurry of comments by audio-industry professionals immediately appeared on the Internet—most of them extremely well-reasoned and politely expressed. The consensus seems to be: Yes, of course, cables make a difference; and yes, for the most part they are overpriced. But pricing exotic items beyond the reach of the masses is basic psychology in the marketing of high-end anything—cars or caviar, art or audio.

The issue has never been resolved to anyone's satisfaction, especially that of measurement-conscious engineers—and Furchgott rightly notes that no one has ever devised a test that establishes beyond doubt the audible difference between cables. Some manufacturers, like AudioQuest's Bill Low and Kimber Kable's Ray Kimber, conduct quite convincing demonstrations using inexpensive electronics. Kimber presents a fairly coherent theory as to why cables sound different, and even goes so far as to suggest that they might make a bigger difference with inexpensive electronics than they do with ultra-high-end gear. Others offer (as Goertz did at a recent CES) visual and audible A/B comparisons using headphones and oscilloscopes.

Almost all journalists in high-end audio agree that any well-designed comparison will reveal differences. Are those differences improvements? If so, are their costs justifiable? Will there ever be an end to this debate? Not as long as writers find the subject intriguing enough to stir the embers into flames.