Speaker Wire
A History

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Introduction
Wire Table
Nominal Speaker Impedance
Cable Resistance Too High?
Cable Resistance Too Low?
What About Oxygen Free Wire?
What About Silver Wire?
What About Wires Longer Than 50 Feet?
Gordon Gow's Speaker Wire Listening Test
The Truth About Speaker Wire
Cardas Wire and the IDS-25

Stereo Review Dares To Tell the Truth
Stereo Review Gets More Conservative
An Honest Answer from Sound & Vision
All Low Cost Wires Are Not the Same
Misleading Wire Demonstration
Expensive Wire and Insulators
Wire Conditioner
House Wiring and Listening
The Big Picture
Wire Cartoons

WIREBUSTERS

Introduction

For many years, wires that were used to connect speaker systems were often zip or line cord. The longer the run was, the heavier the wire that was used. There were no special speaker wires--just plain old copper wire--solid or stranded. The emergence of high tech speaker wire has raised some fundamental questions about the benefits of these new and sometimes extremely expensive wires.

Resistance in the speaker circuit is the key factor that determines loudspeaker performance. The loudspeaker circuit includes the connecting wire between the amplifier terminals and the speaker terminals, the amplifier internal impedance and the impedance of the speaker system. There's also contact resistance at the connecting terminals of the amplifier and speaker system. (See my page about connecting terminals.)

The contact resistance of clean connectors and the internal impedance of good quality amplifiers is normally small. The controlling factors that remain are the speaker system impedance and the speaker wire resistance.

The DC resistance of a typical 8-ohm speaker system is about 7 ohms. This resistance is due to the wire in the woofer voice coil. It may be a total shock to some people to know that a typical 8-ohm four layer woofer voice coil contains about 120 feet of number 28 solid copper wire. This wire is all in the circuit with the speaker system hookup wire. It's also much longer than a normal run of hookup wire from the amplifier to the speaker. Even a mid range speaker can have about 30 feet of number 33 solid copper wire and a tweeter can have 20 feet of number 35 solid copper wire.

Wire Table

In the early speaker manuals, starting with the XR5, I included a chart for estimating the maximum wire lengths for various sizes of copper wire needed for 4 and 8 ohm loads. I have expanded it on this page to include 2 and 6 ohm loads as well. It was based on the resistance of the speaker wire not exceeding 5% of the rated impedance of the system. The wire length is for TWO-CONDUCTOR wire. This includes one wire out to the speaker and one wire back again.

Wire is specified by gauge numbers. A smaller number indicates a larger diameter of wire and consequently a lower the resistance. Stranded wire is composed of several smaller conductors. The total cross sectional area of all of the smaller conductors determines the effective wire size of the stranded wire and it will have lower resistance than only one of the strands. This is analogous to resistors in parallel.

Maximum Wire Lengths For TWO CONDUCTOR Copper Wire

Wire Size

2 ohm load

4 ohm load

6 ohm load

8 ohm load

22 AWG

3 feet max

6 feet max

9 feet max

12 feet max

20 AWG

5 feet max

10 feet max

15 feet max

20 feet max

18 AWG

8 feet max

16 feet max

24 feet max

32 feet max

16 AWG

12 feet max

24 feet max

36 feet max

48 feet max

14 AWG

20 feet max

40 feet max

60 feet**

80 feet**

12 AWG

30 feet max

60 feet**

90 feet**

120  feet**

10 AWG

50 feet max

100 feet**

150 feet**

200 feet**

 

For example: you can use#18 wire for a 25 foot run to a nominal 8 ohm speaker, but if the run is increased to 35 feet, #16 wire must be used. (**) 50 feet is the maximum recommended length for normal line cord or Romex solid copper wire. This length is more than adequate for most installations. An explanation is further down on this page titled "What about Wires Longer Than 50 Feet?".

A wire resistance of less than 5% of the nominal speaker impedance is chosen to work well with almost all speaker systems and can be considered conservative. Even a resistance of less than 10% of the nominal value could be used with some speakers and would not be audible. A further explanation can be found in a later section.

Nominal Speaker Impedance

A nominal impedance value is not always accurate because most systems vary with frequency. A speaker that is rated by the manufacturer as 4 ohms may not be 4 ohms at all frequencies. It can wander above or below this value and is unique for different systems.

The above impedance curve is for a small 2-way speaker system that is rated at 4 ohms. The lowest impedance for this system is 4.7 ohms in the area of 20Hz, 4.0 ohms at 300Hz and 5.9 ohms at 11kHz. The maximum impedance is 20 ohms at 125Hz and 28 ohms at 2500Hz. The rated impedance is normally the lowest value in the curve and in this example; the system is rated correctly at 4 ohms. When the impedance rises higher than the nominal value, this is not a problem for a power amplifier. However, some systems may deviate significantly below the rated impedance and this could be a problem for a power amplifier, particularly where matching output transformers are concerned.

Some amplifiers with multiple output impedance taps can safely drive 8 ohm nominal systems having impedance as low as 6.4 ohms without requiring connection to the 4-ohm tap. Direct-coupled amplifiers, of course, do not have this limitation as long as the higher power delivered as a result of the lower impedance does not cause the amplifier to be overdriven. If you have doubts about your system impedance, it's best to contact the manufacturer concerning the lowest impedance of the system that you plan to use and select a connecting wire based on the lowest impedance value.

Cable Resistance Too High?

What happens when the resistance gets too high? First, there is power lost in the wire and the speaker will not play as loud. More important, as the resistance in series with the speaker increases, it makes the amplifier look more like a current source. This means the speaker frequency response will tend to follow the rise and fall of its impedance curve. The greater the impedance variation, the more noticeable the response changes will be. If the speaker has constant impedance versus frequency, the only change will be reduced output.

Response in the above set of curves is for the same small 2-way speaker. The microphone position is only a few inches from the system but that is not important for this example. Here, we are interested in response differences for different series resistance for the same microphone position and not for speaker response at different microphone positions.

The red (upper) curve is without any added series resistance. The green (middle) curve is with one ohm added in series with the speaker and the black (lower) curve is with 2 ohms in series. You can see there is an overall loss in output but it is not the same at all frequencies. For the green (middle) curve in the area of 125 and 2500Hz, where the impedance is high, there is only about 1/2dB of loss in output whereas at the area of lowest impedance, at 300 and 10 kHz, the loss is about 2dB. The larger 2 ohm resistance shows even greater changes.

The resistances used in this example are much larger than the recommended wire resistance but they do show how impedance variations can influence response. Response changes this large can be easily heard in an A-B listening test.

Cable Resistance Too Low?

What if you use wire heavier than the minimum size recommended in the table? There is no audible improvement but there can be a considerable increase in cost. On the other hand, it would be a conservative choice, particularly for in-the-wall installation where you might someday be using lower impedance speakers and would need to replace the existing wire with heavier wire. Solid copper house wiring is sometimes less expensive than multi-stranded wire. Heavier solid wire is harder to work with, though, and that may require special connectors to fit the amplifier and speaker terminals.

What about oxygen free wire?

Oddly enough, it isn't the freedom of oxygen in copper wire that makes any difference. The process of removing oxygen also removes the impurity of iron and it's this impurity that can cause the resistance to be slightly higher. The difference in resistance between copper wire and oxygen free copper wire is too small to be significant for speaker wiring. It can be considered to be ordinary copper wire as far as the recommended lengths of copper wire in the table. Oxygen free copper wire can be more expensive than ordinary copper wire.

What about silver wire?

Silver wire has lower resistance compared to the same gauge of copper wire. Smaller silver wire can be used for the same resistance. It may cost more, though.

What About Wires Longer Than 50 Feet?

Besides losses due to cable resistance, longer cables begin to exhibit a significant reactive component of capacitance and inductance regardless of the wire size. Measurements I have made show that response in the 10 kHz to 20 kHz region is affected by a small amount. Then why are differences in extended wire lengths not heard? There are at least two reasons. Both are related to our hearing ability.

An article was published in Audio, July 1994 titled "Speaker cables: Measurements Vs Psycho-acoustic data" by Edgar Villchur. The psycho-acoustic data shows that for pure tones at 16kHz the smallest average detectable difference in level is 3.05 dB. He also indicates: "It can be predicted that at a given level the just noticeable difference will be increased by a significantly greater amount by the masking effect of musical sound below 10 kHz." (See note 1). The findings were based on individuals 20 to 24 years old that had normal hearing to 20 kHz (See note 2). This is what might be called the best of conditions for hearing differences.

However, as we age, our sensitivity to high frequencies decreases dramatically. The chart is from Modern Sound Reproduction by Harry F. Olson. It shows the average hearing loss Vs age for men and women at frequencies from 250 Hz to 8000 Hz. This means that for a man at age 35, sensitivity is down about 11 dB at 8000 Hz. For a woman at that age, sensitivity is down only about 5 dB. We can infer that sensitivity is down a whole lot more at 20kHz.

So for these two reasons this measurable high frequency wire loss in the 10 to 20kHz region is not audible for a moderately long wires like 50 feet. Longer runs may still not be audible for some people, provided the wire resistance is kept low enough.

(Note 1) An article was published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society by Lipshitz and Vanderkooy titled "The Great Debate: Subjective Evaluation" Volume 29, No. 7/8 July/August. They estimated that when level differences occurred over a wide band, they were detectable down to 0.2 dB. However, in a phone conversation with Villchur, Lipshitz agreed this figure is not applicable to speaker cables where the level differences are all in the highest audio octave.

(Note 2) Villchur gives a reference of Florentine, Buns and Mason "Level Discrimination As a Function of Level for Tones from 0.25 to 16kHz" Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 81, No. 5 (May 1987)

Gordon Gow's Speaker Wire Listening Test

I have read several magazine articles and papers expressing the findings and opinions about the various kinds of speaker wire. Some engineers have applied their expertise to make measurements to prove conclusively that there ARE differences between wires. A few authors have devoted their entire paper to the measurements and never mention whether they have actually made any listening tests or if they could hear any difference. Despite all the measurements and opinions, the final test is whether you can hear any difference or not. Obviously, this must be done under controlled conditions where you don't know which wire is connected and there is no delay in switching.

In the early 1980's, special speaker wires were beginning to appear on the market. Some of the claims were totally unbelievable and had prices to match. Realizing that wire resistance was the critical factor in speaker wire, Gordon Gow, President of McIntosh Laboratory, used a speaker cable demonstration to show there was no listening difference between these wires and plain line cord. He delivered his presentation about the truth in speaker wire using a reel of Monster cable to stand on. Fifty-foot lengths of wire were used in the comparison. The setup consisted of a master control relay box and two slave relay boxes. A three-position switch was used to select one of three different speaker wires of equal length. One was line cord. The other two wires were from popular manufacturers. 8-ohm speakers were selected to be used in the test. The two other brand name wires were heavier than the line cord.

The boxes now show some signs of wear. This is from being handled and traveling around in a large fiberglass case along with all of the speaker wires and connecting cables.

A slave box was positioned at each speaker. Power to drive the relays in each slave box was provided with separate cables. The speaker wires were switched at both the power amplifier and the speaker so that only one kind of wire was connected at a time. Short pieces of heavy wire were run from the speakers and amplifier to the relay boxes. No other devices were used in the speaker line. The relay contact resistance was measured to be less than 0.1 ohms. No consistent listening differences were heard by customers or dealers.

The test proved his point. When I took the test, I was unable to hear any differences using several different 8-ohm speaker systems. BUT, when I deliberately played one particular 4-ohm speaker and I switched to the line cord position, I could hear differences. I knew this system dipped down to 2.6 ohms in one frequency range, and 3 ohms in another. It verified that differences can be heard if the wire is too light for a lower impedance system. A system this low in impedance requires heavier wire. After replacing the line cord with a heavier line cord of equal length, differences could no longer be heard.

 

 

 

THE KIND OF WIRE MADE NO DIFFERENCE

It can be solid, stranded, copper, oxygen free copper, silver, etc.--or even "magic" wire--as long as the resistance is kept to be less than 5% of the speaker impedance. There is no listening difference as long as the wire is of adequate size.

Of course, we are not personally able to establish the truth of everything for ourselves and it's not easy to set up a similar wire listening test. Very few people are able to make speaker impedance measurements or wire resistance measurements down to 0.1 ohms. Like many other things in life, we rely on indirect sources of information, such as sales literature, reviews and opinions. This is called Authority Belief, which is part of our belief system. An interesting article about the belief system is described in ETC: A Review Of General Semantics Sept. 1964 titled Images Of the Consumer's Mind by Milton Rokeach.

Gordon Gow's cable demonstration provided a personal experience for customers that could replace the Authority Beliefs they had relied on earlier. The demonstration was controlled. It was an instant comparison and the listeners did not know the wire identification. Gordon held many such demonstrations in dealer showrooms and at shows.

The Truth about Speaker Wire

Despite the effectiveness of Gordon's cable demonstration and the truth about speaker wire, people visiting the McIntosh room at the shows, who had not experienced the cable demonstration, were disturbed that we were using ordinary heavy zip cord instead of one of the popular brands of speaker wire. Instead of listening to the McIntosh speakers and electronics, they recalled "bad" things they had been told about "common" speaker wire and this promoted questions about the "inferior" wire being used. When we changed the wire to a popular brand of wire, customers were happy with the setup, and directed their attention to the McIntosh equipment.

The demand for high quality speaker wire was increasing and appeared to be a new marketing area for several companies. McIntosh did not make or sell speaker wire. The solution seemed very obvious--rather than spend time and effort to create negative sales for McIntosh dealers who were beginning to sell speaker wire, it seemed best to encourage the speaker owner/customer to consult with the dealer about what speaker wire to use. Consequently, I no longer recommended the kind of wire or wire sizes in the speaker manuals.

By 1988, McIntosh no longer supplied audio interconnects with the electronics. Again, many kinds of special audio cables were available to the customer/owner. The dealer could also be consulted about what cables to use.

I credit the success of the speaker wire industry to their expert sales and marketing ability. However, it is my experience that ordinary copper wire, as long as it's heavy enough, is just as good as name brands.

Looking at this from a different perspective, there will always be those who will want expensive wire, not because there is an audible difference, but because they may value pride of ownership and prestige in a similar way to that of owning a Tiffany lamp or a Rolex watch.

Cardas Wire and the IDS-25

If I don’t believe that expensive speaker wire makes an audible difference, why is it used inside the IDS-25 speaker system? The answer is very simple. IDS is out to sell speakers and not everyone believes in ordinary wire. The explanation is the same as what McIntosh found at shows and is described in the section above. Cardas wire does not sound any better but it may help to sell speakers to those who are concerned about wire and are not convinced that ordinary wire is just as good. The increase in cost is negligible compared to the drivers, enclosures and equalizer.

Stereo Review Dares to Tell the Truth (1983)

A 6-page article by Laurence Greenhill titled "Speaker Cables: Can You Hear the Difference?" was published in Stereo Review magazine on August 1983. It compared Monster cable, 16-gauge wire and 24-gauge wire. The price at that time for a pair of 30-foot lengths of monster cables was $55.00. The cost for 16 gauge heavy lamp cord was $.30/foot or $18.00 and the 24 gauge "speaker wire" was $.03/foot or $1.80

"...So what do our fifty hours of testing, scoring and listening to speaker cables amount to? Only that 16-gauge lamp cord and Monster cable are indistinguishable from each other with music and seem to be superior to the 24 gauge wire commonly sold or given away as 'speaker cable.' Remember, however, that it was a measurable characteristic--higher resistance per foot--that made 24 gauge sound different from the other cables. If the cable runs were only 6 instead of 30 feet, the overall cable resistances would have been lower and our tests would probably have found no audible differences between the three cables. This project was unable to validate the sonic benefits claimed for exotic speaker cables over common 16-gauge zip cord. We can only conclude, therefore, that there is little advantage besides pride of ownership in using these thick, expensive wires"

Needless to say there was a strong letter to the editor in the October Stereo Review from Noel Lee, President of Monster Cable. "...was not the conclusion of nearly three thousand Monster Cable purchasers who participated in a warranty/response card survey in 1981-1982. Among those responding, 56 per cent indicated 'an overall significant improvement, '42 per cent attested to a 'noticeable improvement,' and only 2 per cent wrote back that they heard no difference in system performance."...

Yes, some of this claim is believable but for the wrong reasons. If the wire used previously had resistance that was too high, there would be an audible difference. If the wire connections at the amplifier or speaker were loose or corroded, installing the new cable tightly would make an audible difference.

Then we get into the more subjective evaluation. Suppose you're already using adequate size wire and have good connections at the speaker and amplifier. If you're then told the new wire will make an improvement, you will be looking for it and truly believe that you hear an improvement. Some people might go as far as saying "If I spent all that money for these cables, you can be sure I'm going to hear a difference." (rather than admit I wasted my money or have bad hearing).

There are other factors as well. If you listen to the system with the old wires and then replace them with the new ones, it could take 5 or 10 minutes to do this. By then you will have forgotten what the old sound was like. How many of the customers made an instant and more reliable comparison like what was done in Gordon Gow's demonstration or in the Stereo Review test? I wonder how these customers would fare in a test where they didn't know which wire was being used.

Stereo Review Gets More Conservative (1990)

A 5 page article by Rich Warren titled "Getting Wired" was published in Stereo Review in June 1990. It devotes 4 and a half pages to the creative claims and descriptions by the various wire manufacturers. Near the end of the article reference is made to an Audio Engineering Society paper by R. A. Greiner published in the JAES in May 1980 and titled "Amplifier-Loudspeaker Interfacing." The conclusion is that speaker cables do not behave as transmission lines despite the theory subscribed to by many, if not most, esoteric cable designers.

This time the conclusion in Stereo Review was extremely conservative. Perhaps this was due to the influence of speaker wire advertisers who pay for their magazine ads. As in Gordon Gow's wire demonstration, wire sales, advertising and dealer profits were hurt by the truth about speaker wire.

"Are there real sonic differences between audio cables? We leave that up to each individual to decide. What we can say is that there are some valid reasons, described in the box on the facing page (cable pictures and manufacturer descriptions), to use good cables in your hi-fi system. Which theory you choose to subscribe to and how high a price you're willing to pay for cable comfort is up to you."

An Honest Answer from Sound & Vision (2001)

Here's an answer by Ian Masters in the May 2001 issue of Sound & Vision, page 36 Q&A.
Note: I saw no speaker wire advertisements in this issue!

"Cheap Wire
Q. Would it be okay for me to use single conductor wire as speaker cables running through the attic or under the house? Does stranded wire provide some sonic benefit? It would be far cheaper and easier for me to run 12-gauge wire to a plate with banana receptacles and then use specialty cable at each end to patch to the amplifier and speakers. Jon Schwendig, Santa Clara, CA

A. There are a lot of myths about speaker wires, but in the end it's thickness that counts, and 12 gauge should be heavy enough for any reasonable domestic application. I've taken several comparative listening sessions over the years, and the sort of wire you want to use involves no sonic degradation that I (or anybody else in the tests) could hear. You could even wire the whole distance from amp to speakers using 12-gauge, but it would probably be more convenient to use something more flexible for the actual connection to components. Specialty audiophile cables would serve that purpose nicely, although more modest cables would work just as well."

All Low Cost Wires Are Not the Same

Here's some typical low cost wire that's available today. The wire at the left with the heavy insulation is 12-gauge low voltage cable that's used for garden lighting accessories. It's 1/2" wide and cost 28 cents/foot. The white lamp or extension cord is 16-gauge and is about 1/4" wide. It cost 25 cents/foot. The black wire at the right is 24-gauge" speaker wire" that came with a receiver. It's only 1/8" wide. Although the 24-gauge wire is very small, it is only 8 feet long. That works out to just 5% of the impedance for an 8-ohm speaker or 0.4 ohms.

All of this wire is stranded and is easy to work with. All the wires are coded so that you can maintain proper phasing of the speakers. The smaller wire has a white stripe on the insulation of one of the conductors. The other two have ridges molded in the insulation covering one of the conductors.

All inexpensive wires are not the same, However. This wire at the right was sold as speaker wire several years ago by such places as Home Depot and Lowes. It sold for 33 cents/foot. It had transparent insulation and was 12-gauge. It was much less expensive than the brand names. It did not have any coding to identify one of the wires for proper phasing. I had some of this wire for about 6 months and noticed it was turning color. Now it has turned a very pronounced green on the surface of the copper wire, indicating a chemical interaction with the insulation and the copper. A new piece of wire is at the right for comparison. Although the wire may not corrode any further, it doesn't inspire confidence, particularly if the insulation comes close to the connecting terminals.

Perhaps the transparent insulation was an attempt to mimic the more expensive speaker wires. Without researching the chemical properties of the insulation or the need to code one of the wires, it was not well thought out for use as speaker wire. I have heard complaints by others about the same problems. The normal lighting wires and wire supplied with the receiver shown above do not have these problems.

Misleading Wire Demonstration

Thanks to Brian Goss, further information has been found about how a deceptive wire demonstration can inadvertently prove my point about how adequate wire size is the major factor in selecting a speaker wire. He found this demonstration at a Circuit City store in Houston. I found a similar demonstration in a local Circuit City store in Central Florida and took the above picture. Two speakers used for the demonstration are shown at the right side in the picture. The 50-foot reel of small wire is on the left and the 50-foot reel of large Monster wire is next to it. The idea it to connect 50 feet of each wire in series with each speaker and then switch from one to the other to hear differences.

Brian commented that “The speaker wire display has a switch to select between 'Monster' cable and 'Generic' cable. When you switch it to Monster cable it sounds about twice as loud. The sign reads, see how monster wire makes a difference, but they are not even comparing the same gauge of cable. I asked the salesperson about this and he claimed it wouldn’t matter.

When checking a roll of XP wire on the shelf, I found there was no indication of the wire size. Further checking on the Monster web site also showed no wire size or even resistance values. At another store that sold this wire, the sales person was more helpful. They also checked the roll of wire and the Monster web site to no avail. However, they called the sales representative, who said it was #16. Still unconvinced, the sales person compared the size of the copper in the XP and the copper size of a known wire. The Monster still looked larger until the ends of the wires were put right next to each other and then the copper size looked equal. It was an optical illusion. The insulation size was much bigger in the Monster, making the copper size look bigger as well.

The smaller reel of ordinary wire of in the demonstration appeared to be #24 but could have been even smaller. The resistance of 50 feet of 24 AWG wire calculates to be 1.28 ohms. The impedance of the speaker used in the demonstration is 8-ohms nominal impedance. The acceptable upper limit of wire resistance when used with an 8-ohm speaker is 5% or 0.4 ohms. Clearly, the #24 wire resistance is 3.2 times higher than it should be.

In comparison, 50 feet of the #16 wire is only 0.2 ohms and is better than the acceptable limit. The resistance of the ordinary wire is 6.4 times the resistance of the Monster wire. The demonstration clearly proves that adequate wire size is essential to proper operation of a speaker. It does not in any way prove that the Monster brand is superior to ordinary copper wire of the same size. Even ordinary #16 zip cord will work just as well and is also 0.2 ohms for 50 feet.

A further problem with using too small a wire is not only that the speaker output decreases but also that the speaker response changes at various frequencies depending on how the speaker impedance varies with frequency. The response tends to follow the variations in the speaker impedance.

When making the listening test at my local store, I heard not only a lower level but also the change in response. To further confuse things, the monster wire could be heard only on the right speaker and the small wire only on the left speaker. The claims written on the display say “Turn knob to the setting labeled ‘Monster cable’ to sample music on the right speaker using Monster speaker cable. Note the increased clarity, wider soundstage, and improved imaging delivered.” I can’t say that I heard an increase in clarity and I definitely did not hear a wider soundstage and improved imaging. It may come as a surprise to the creators of the display but two speakers playing both stereo channels at the same time are needed to evaluate soundstage and imaging. Not only that, but even if both speakers were playing in stereo in this setup, having them right next to each other offers minimal stereo effect. Thanks to Brian for the above picture from the Houston store.

Other sorts of trickery are used in the wire game. At the top in the above picture is ordinary #18 lamp cord with the normal amount of insulation. Below it is some speaker wire made in China by a place called Caries. The outside dimension of the insulation is much larger, yet the actual wire size is far smaller. First impression is that this is much heavier wire but after the insulation is removed, it is a different story. In fact, the wire diameter measures .014 inches, the same as the single piece of .#28 wire at the bottom of the picture.

Expensive Wire and Insulators

If you are looking for expensive speaker wire, this may be just what you are looking for. It was advertised in a 2005 catalog. I have not personally tested this wire and will leave it up to you to decide how much improvement it might make over ordinary wire in your system. For my 25 foot runs from the power amplifier to each speaker, I would need to spend $58,000 plus tax. After taking out a second mortgage on my house, you can bet I would want to hear an improvement, real or not.

To supposedly enhance the sound of this wire, you can purchase these common power line insulators. The ad doesn’t say anything about the recommended spacing, but I gather that if the wire sags easily, many insulators would be needed. Being a collector of old glass and ceramic insulators that were used on telephone lines and power lines, I recognized these right away. The U-shaped top is referred to as a “cable” type. The small “foot” under the base is where the insulator screws on to a threaded wooden or metal peg on the power line cross-arm.

In the above picture, this old porcelain cable insulator is shown with the original copper wire used on a power line. The insulator is 3-1/4” in diameter and 3-1/4” high. The surface of the copper wire has turned green after many years of exposure to the elements. The U-shaped top was often used in windy areas and mountain terrain where a firm hold was needed. The U is where the cable was placed and a wire was wrapped around both insulator neck and cable to further hold it in place. The wide skirt was to allow water to drip off and reduce the conductive path to a power pole. This was important as the lines could be carrying 3,000 volts or more.

Many different companies such as Brookfield, Hemingray. Whitall Tatum and Corning made the cable type of insulators, along with many other shapes and sizes. They were made of glass in various colors, porcelain, plastic and even rubber. In this Corning Pyrex carnival glass version, you can see the threaded area inside. The insulator is 3-3/4” in diameter and 3” high. Pyrex and ceramic were needed for high voltages and could often be seen along railroads lines. When it rained or there was high humidity, leakage to the pole caused enough heat to be generated that could crack an ordinary glass insulator.

Perhaps you could find some authentic wooden cross-arms to mount the insulators on and then mount these assemblies along the walls—a real conversation piece.

Wire advertising began many years ago. This ad appeared in the October 1953 issue of Audio Engineering magazine. In those days it meant that Belden made many different kinds of wires for different applications; some that were shielded, some for high voltage, some made into cables with multiple conductors insulated from each other, etc. There was no speaker wire back then.

Wire Conditioner

Along with green magic markers on CDs and audio bricks is another item called the wire conditioner. The claim is that unused wires do not sound the same as wires that have been used for a period of time. The device supposedly simulates what program material will do for the wire. This is called a break-in period. The thinking is that, like a new pair of shoes that are stiff when first put on, repeated use will make them more pliable and therefore more comfortable.

It would therefore seem that used speaker wire and used audio and video interconnects would be worth more than the new wire and interconnects simply because they have been used already. There could be a big savings in time and expense by doing conditioning on your own or purchasing the device. Unfortunately, this is just another way of making money. It can be considered as another “quack” remedy machine.

Of course, after spending this much money on the device, believing-is-hearing may be the prime factor. So what is needed is another controlled, instant-comparison listening test where one wire is conditioned and another wire from the same roll of wire is not conditioned.

This contrived need for conditioning would seem to offer a new sales feature for wire by selling pre-conditioned wire that has already been accomplished by the factory. However, this could be countered by another statement saying that the wire must be conditioned or “tuned” using your own unique system and that conditioning with other systems or devices will not produce satisfactory results.

My favorite question still is—how short can the conditioned wire be before any difference is no longer heard?

House Wiring and listening

To add to the questionable claims about speaker wire, even the AC wiring in your house has been accused of influencing the sound we hear.

Ken Kessler has written an article titled "The Ultimate Cable Upgrade" published in Audio, December 1999. He claims that differences in sound can be heard with different kinds of house wiring. He also claims house wiring requires a "burning-in" period.

 

To quote from page 34:

 

"In thirteen out of fourteen sessions, the standard house wiring was judged to be the least satisfactory: less detailed, less open, less dynamic. So convincing are these results that I have no qualms about recommending top grade AC wiring in place of the standard stuff, provided that the wiring is professionally installed."

 

Three "audiophile" cables and one conventional AC cable were installed in his house by an electrician.

He goes on to say:

 

"What also emerged, though, was that there was no clear winner among the audiophile cables. Rather, I learned that one worked better with solid state equipment, another with tubes. One was outstanding with digital sources but not with turntables."

The author has made the faulty assumption that all wire can have an influence on the sound, no matter where it is used in the system and including the house wiring. It is difficult to understand why the relatively short lengths of internal house wiring can make a difference, when the "ordinary" wire in the power lines, right through the distribution transformer in the back yard and stretching for miles and miles to the generating station, does not influence the sound. Perhaps the power line insulators should be considered as well. This reminds me of the comparison with speaker wire where the voice coil wire is ordinary copper wire that is far longer than the wires from the amplifier to the speakers.

The author has cleverly used words such as "detailed", "open" and "dynamic" to describe the sound. These are not measurable quantities. However, dynamic could be interpreted as a higher peak power. But in the article, all the components remained on the same line except the CD player. This eliminates the possibility of any listening differences for the power amplifier and other components in the system.

A favorite question of mine for those who claim they can hear differences is "how short does the wire have to be made before differences can no longer be heard?"

In any A-B comparison test, instant comparison is of paramount importance. The delay in switching the CD player from one power outlet to the other was said to be 30 seconds. This is more than sufficient time for the subjects in any listening test to have forgotten what they had heard, particularly if the differences are very small.

Of course, claims for the listening differences are in the same category as the claims for exotic speaker wire. It is money oriented and in this case it is to sell magazines.

Perhaps, someday, Ken Kessler and several other audio perverts will condescend to take a controlled listening test. Several offers have been made for anyone who can correctly identify a particular kind of wire under controlled conditions. Challenges offering $15,000 or more have not even been tried by these “experts,” Ken could be a rich man if he could consistently identify differences in house wiring with controlled tests. I would encourage him to prove his abilities for the readers of Audio magazine who deserve the truth! (Webster’s defines perversion as: “to cause to turn aside or away from what is good or true or morally right: CORRUPT)

 

Don’t forget all the wires used inside your preamplifier, power amplifier, etc and even inside your speaker system. Are they audible as well?

 

 

The Big Picture

The industry has now reached the point where resistance and listening quality are not the issues any more, although listening claims may still be made. There is big money to be made in wire, not only speaker wire but all kinds of exotic wire—hookup wire, audio cables, power cables and a wide variety of speaker wire including the new term of “speaker cables.” The term cable implies more robust and heavy duty qualities than wire.

I have learned from one wire company that much of this exotic wire is not manufactured in the USA at all. It comes from places like Taiwan and China. It can be bought in industrial quantities at surprisingly little cost and sold for tremendous profits. Custom runs in large quantities, can be purchased having any number of different features and are not a problem for versatile wire manufacturers. It can even be made with various terminals already installed.

The strategy in selling these products is, in part, to appeal to those who are looking to impress others with something unique and expensive. There is also pride of ownership and the belief that if it costs that much it must be good. It reminds me of the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem Ozymandias but for speaker wire it translates to “Look upon my expensive wires ye mighty and despair.” It will always sell to those who want the latest thing and would spend as much for a Rolex watch as they would for wire. Of course, there are ordinary watches that will tell time accurately they but don’t have that name or that price.

Another part of the strategy is to capitalize on the lack of truth in advertising, particularly the whole truth. Perhaps the two words “truth” and “advertising” are on opposite extremes but half of the truth can be worse than a lie. I don’t think the average consumer is any match to cope with the persuasive sales “hype” of professional salesmen praising a questionable wire science and doubtful benefits.

When confronted with the truth, believers do not want to hear about it. They want to remain in the magical world of fantasy where they think they can hear improvements in their wire, often arrived at by making listening tests without adequate controls or understanding of the problems involved. One of the prime tools in creating such a faith for the average consumer is by capitalizing on fear and ignorance as in many other things that aren’t readily apparent. There is fear that the wire currently in use is not good enough. There is ignorance because most people do not have scientific knowledge in this area and lack adequate measuring equipment to prove otherwise.

Logical Conclusions?

We have been told by advertising that the exotic speaker wires offer fabulous advantages over ordinary lamp cord. It would seem reasonable that using this same wire for lamps would also enhance their performance. In the same vein as wire literature, you can have your light bulb reproduce light faithfully, finally allowing you see light the way it should be seen and bring out the natural performance of your table lamp. It may offer greater warmth, detail, brilliance, definition and speed by providing wider bandwidth and reduced skin effect. Just imagine what it might do for your electric razor and microwave!

Courtesy of Rodrigues

 

 

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