Headphone Cable Measurements Wrap-Up

A Tangled Mess
I've spent the last couple of weeks listening to various cables on my Sennheiser HD 600, and while I think I've noticed some differences between the cables, I'm certain I wouldn't be able to tell them apart in blind tests. Well...I might be able to pick out the stock HD 600 cable from the others---it sounded just a bit confused---but otherwise, the differences I think I might have heard are too small to reliably identify.

To put a finer point on the sonic characteristics I heard, it sometimes seemed that certain instruments or sounds in the mix were slightly more obvious on some cables than others. Sometimes I'd hear the high-hat more clearly with one particular cable, sometimes I'd hear the vocals a bit more forward or back, but the cables wouldn't act the same way with different music, and it seemed the harder I listened for the effect, the more it would disappear. (Sort of like when you stare at an image without moving your eyes for long enough and the image starts to disappear.)

I've also spent quite a bit of time reading about people's experiences with cables. Not just anybody though, people for whom I've got a great deal of respect. I found a good deal of commonality in their opinion: Cables may make a small difference in some cases, but for the most part it's the last thing you should worry about.

It seems the most common reason cables made marked differences when installed was when there was something wrong with the stock cable. Maybe it had become intermittent over time, or oxidation had corroded the connectors, but replacing the cable made the headphones usable again.

Of course, there were also many comments ranging away from this middle ground, but it always seemed to me that confirmation bias was playing a big role in the opinion. Either the listener was wowed by the huge changes made, or was ever more convinced that cables made no difference at all. No doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy in most cases.

Untangling the Issue
Still, I remain convinced that there are good reasons to purchase aftermarket cables. For starters, I'm certain I've heard differences, and after reading and talking to some trusted sources, it appears they too have all experienced small differences in the sound of cables. There's just too much anecdotal evidence to believe anything other than sometimes something is happening with cable swaps that is apparent to the listener. Additionally, most have a hard time expressing exactly what they're perceiving. It doesn't seem like it's as simple as tonal changes that might be seen in frequency response measurements.

I'd like to caution objectivists to understand that there are a lot of things that could account for a small audible difference that doesn't show up as a change in frequency response. For example, back in the early days of the CD, "perfect sound forever" was the rallying cry. Objectivists claimed CD players should be indistinguishable, but subjectivists heard differences. Later, the discovery of jitter timing errors would clarify the source of the differences heard. Objectivists should always bear in mind that you don't know what you don't know, and skepticism should target both subjective experience and objective evaluation.

I'd like to point out this recently published scientific paper, "Human Time-Frequency Acuity Beats the Fourier Uncertainty Principle." The paper's abstract states:

The time-frequency uncertainty principle states that the product of the temporal and frequency extents of a signal cannot be smaller than 1=(4pi). We study human ability to simultaneously judge the frequency and the timing of a sound. Our subjects often exceeded the uncertainty limit, sometimes by more than tenfold, mostly through remarkable timing acuity. Our results establish a lower bound for the nonlinearity and complexity of the algorithms employed by our brains in parsing transient sounds, rule out simple "linear filter" models of early auditory processing, and highlight timing acuity as a central feature in auditory object processing.

While I'm not capable of delving into the fine details of this paper, the gist of it is readily apparent: Our listening system is far more complex than we're currently able to understand, and is much more focused on the time-domain than previously thought. Here's an excerpt:

Early last century a number of auditory phenomena, such as residue pitch and missing fundamentals, started to indicate that the traditional view of the hearing process as a form of spectral analysis had to be revised. In 1951, Licklider [25] set the foundation for the temporal theories of pitch perception, in which the detailed pattern of action potentials in the auditory nerve is used [26, 28], as opposed to spectral or place theories, in which the overall amplitude of the activity pattern is evaluated without detailed access to phase information. The groundbreaking work of Ronken [22] and Moore [23] found violations of uncertainty-like products and argued for them to be evidence in favor of temporal models. However this line of work was hampered fourfold, by lack of the formal foundation in time-frequency distributions we have today, by concentrating on frequency discrimination alone, by technical difficulties in the generation of the stimuli, and not the least by lack of understanding of cochlear dynamics, since the active cochlear processes had not yet been discovered. Perhaps because of these reasons this groundbreaking work did not percolate into the community at large, and as a result most sound analysis and processing tools today continue to use models based on spectral theories. We believe it is time to revisit this issue.

Additionally, training and expertise in the art of listening has an effect on our hearing acuity. From the paper:

We further found that composers and conductors achieved the best results in task 5, consistently beating the uncertainty principle by factors of 2 or more, whereas performers were more likely to beat it only by a few percentage points. After debriefing subjects, it appears that the necessity of hearing multi-voiced music (both in frequency and in time) in one's head and coaching others to perform it led to the improved performance of conductors and composers.

The take-away points here are: The human hearing system is exquisite and evidently capable of beating what we think of as objective theoretical limits---we need to learn much more about the human hearing system in order to identify things to measure for evaluative purposes. There are aspects of hearing that require training and long experience---just because we don't perceive something doesn't mean there isn't something there to be perceived. Some people will be far more sensitive than others. And lastly, though not addressed in the paper, it seems to me that these subtle effects and our experience of them will not yield easily to definition, and each individuals experience of them will vary somewhat. When it comes to cables, YMMV (your milage may vary).

An Avenue for Exploration
I did manage to stumble into what seems to me as a particularly interesting avenue for further exploration and development. I had a discussion with Dr. Kevin Gilmore (who many of you know from his terrific work designing commercial and DIY electrostatic headphone amplifiers) in which he stated that the effectes of impedance matching with headphone cables could be of an order strong enough to influence the listening experience.

All cables have a characteristic impedance. For example, I use Canare 4E5C cable for my cable building needs. This cable has a 40 Ohm characteristic impedance. If I were to build a headphone cable for a Sennheiser HD 600, which has a 300 Ohm impedance, there would be a point at the headphones where the signal went from the 40 Ohm impedance in the cable to the 300 Ohm impedance of the driver. This impedance mismatch would cause a point of reflection for the signal. There is an instrument call a Time Domain Reflectometer that is able to send a signal down a cable and see the various points of reflection caused by impedance mismatches (and other things). The reflected signal from the impedance mismatch can, depending on the topology of the amplifier in use, have an effect on the signal from the amp. To properly impedance match the cable to the headphones in this example case, you would have to put a 40 Ohm resistor between the signal and ground at the headphone end of the cable. This would dramatically reduce the reflected signal.

A further twist on cable impedance matching is to impedance match the output of the amp to the cable. This works better for interconnects where the damping factor between the source and load isn't as important. For further information on this topic see this Headcase thread.

It seems to me this is a readily available avenue for further development by custom headphone cable makers.

Other Good Reasons for Aftermarket Headphone Cables
While the sonic improvements of headphone cables may be a contentious subject, there are a number of other good reasons to consider an aftermarket headphone cable.

  • Balanced Drive - There are many balanced drive headphone amplifiers available today. Using one of these amps requires headphones to be re-cabled.
  • Ergonomics - Your particular habits of use may be aided by a cable that is longer (for home and office) or shorter (for use with mobile devices) than the one supplied with your headphones.
  • Cable Born Noise - Often improperly called "microphonic" noise, a stiff cable will transmit mechanical vibration up the cable to the ear pieces, which can often be heard. (The term "microphonic noise" is aplicable to active components, like tubes, which will create electrical noise through mechanical vibration of the tube.) Replacing stiff cables with softer more pliable cable will reduce cable-born mechanical noise.
  • Esthetics - Styling has become more important to headphone users these days, and replacing stock cables with cooler looking aftermarket cables having nicer connectors can bolster pride of ownership. Sorry, I dont see anything wrong with this.
  • Ridding Headphones of Extraneous internal Connections - Many headphones have multiple solder joints within the headphone that can be bypassed when rewired. This is especially true of single-sided entry designs where the incoming cable is often soldered to a small circuit board to split the left and right channel. An additional cable will go to the driver on that side, and another cable will go up through the headband to the driver on the opposite side. Custom headphone re-cablers will often re-cable this type of headphone with a "Y" cable to go directly into each earpiece, and internally connect the new conductors directly to the driver wire terminals thereby bypassing a number of previously existing solder joints.
  • DIY Opportunity - Recabling headphones is a great way to express your DIY skills. I would strongly recommend spending quite a bit of time building interconnects and headphone extension cables before attempting to re-cable a pair of headphones, but re-wiring your cans is a really fun mid-level DIY project for those interested and properly skilled.

Summary
To say that headphone cables make a significant difference, or no difference at all, is, to my mind, an overly-simplistic view. Objectivists will claim no one has ever identified differences in cable in double-blind tests, ignoring the possibility of subtle effects that don't lend themselves to that type of observation. And enthusiastic subjectivists often want to contribute to the evolution of their rig by swapping cable around, naively ignoring the fact that there are hundreds of solder joints and conductors inside their gear that will have a combined effect much stronger than that of any particular interconnect between the various pieces of gear. The truth, as always, lies in some middle ground where the gear you choose is of primary importance, and once you find a system to your taste, some slight tweaks may be achieved with careful cable selection.

Further development is possible both in our understanding of the human hearing system and how it perceives sound, and in understanding what factors may come into play with cable construction that might yield a better listening experience. Easier to achieve improvements may also be available though fairly simple impedance matching techniques in the design of aftermarket headphone cables.

Aftermarket cables can also provide improvements in ergonomics, styling, cable-born noise control, and connector changes for your particular use.

My suggestion? The diminishing returns curve is steep with cables, don't over buy. I like the Cardas Headphone Cable and the Moon Audio Blue Dragon. There are numerous cable makers out there, many are good, but many more are just hobbyists with a soldering iron and a yen to be in business. With cables, the devil is in the details, I strongly suggest using cable makers with long years of experience and a good reputation. If you have headphones with a hard wired stock cable and would like to have them replaced, again, it is very important to find a reputable supplier who is very familiar and competent with this type of work. I'll happily recommend Moon Audio as one such supplier.

Disclaimer - Many of you may have noticed Moon Audio as a recent advertiser at InnerFidelity. I've been planning to do this article for a long time and had requested cables from Moon (and Cardas) long before they began advertising here. My desire to do this article and my conclusions have nothing to do with who advertises here.

Resources
If you have any cable questions I suggest searching for answers in the Head-Fi.org Cable and Accessories forum area.
I couldn't find a particular thread for full-size headphone recabling vendors (please feel free to provide a link in the comments if you know of one) but I did find a thread for IEM recabling suggestions here and here.

COMMENTS
NA BLur's picture

I have seen quite a few professional posts about cable differences and the only ones that seem credible are the ones regarding possible slew rate differences in the current draw.  To this end the differences appear to be only tens of microseconds and I have not way of telling if it would be audible.  That I leave for the blind tests.

As Tyll's initial tests show there is a high probability that there are no audible differences showing up in the measurements.  This is not to say there are not audible differences, but the equipment which we place a lot of faith into has not shown any audible difference.

Anyone who thinks there are audible difference better be ready to defend that statement with a little more than just "I hear it."  That is possibly the most subjective statement to make in the audible world.  Companies claiming that their cables improve the sound should provide great detail about what exactly is being "improved" and show some definitive graphs or A/B/X tests that support such claims.

Tyll,

I would be more than glad to take some time to do some A/B/X testing.  We can both do the cable swapping / switching and both do the listening.  We should choose the cables at random right before the test as not to bias the results prior to even starting the test.

Thoughts?

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I see no reason to subject myself to blind tests until I think I can readily identify something during subjective listening...which, at the moment, seems not to be the case. But I'm going to continue to do listening with some other headphones to see if I can find something readily identifiable.

tdockweiler's picture

Tyll you could easily pass a double blind test and here's how you do it without fail.

Make an HD-650 cable with a high capacitance wire such as Canare. Highest you can find. Then make one with silver or the lowest capacitance wire you can find. Maybe ALO SXC or Belden 1192A.

I guarantee you will pass the double blind test without many errors. If not I'll send you a check for $50,000 and retire from all this nonsense.

In my experience, the higher capacitance the "warmer" and fuller sounding it will be. This is why I like the stock HD-650 cable. Low capacitance wire sucks out all the warmth. Obviously it will still be there somewhat if it's in the recording. Higher capacitance wire seems to add a little warmth.

The most dramatic difference between cables is when you switch from an ultra high to low capacitance wire. I've used dozens of different DIY wire brands and this has always been the case for me.

Oh and as much as I love the HD-650, it's not the best for testing out cables. Try the Q701 since it's cheaper for DIY cable versions and fairly revealing.

 

Also..strangely enough I could not hear an ounce of difference between cables until I  got a nice DAC. It seems I notice the difference less with my ODAC than my old HRT MSII. Not sure why!

Limp's picture

The 24AWG Canare star quad has lower nominal capacitance than the 24AWG Belden star quad. I'm sorry, but your reasoning falls flat. 

tdockweiler's picture

Sorry, I didn't look up capacitance ratings of wires just to troll someone like you have. Canare is the highest capacitance wire i've heard of. It's pretty close to a stock HD-650 cable. Feel free to look that up too. My reasoning doesn't fall flat. The whole point was that the greatest difference in sound between cables (IMO) is when they have a very low capacitance and high. When it's nearly the same they generally sound quite similar in tone. I'm not here to prove anything.

Limp's picture

Just pointing out a logic fault.

29.6, 46 and 57.4pF/ft is the numbers given by Mogami, Canare and Belden, respectively, for their 24AWG star quads wired in quad configuration.

It is true that shunt capacitance works as a simple low pass filter, the problem is that you'd need a cable run of houndreds of feet for this to be audible, and even then the Canare would be 'brighter' than Belden. 

donunus's picture

I passed a blind test using an hd650 cable/hd600 stock cable and an equinox cable on my hd600s.I found the stock hd600 cable less V-shaped in its delivery vs the hd650 cable and the equinox sounded more bold with bigger mids vs the stock hd600 cable sounding less airy and more distinct/bold. I could between them tell 9/10 times. I only got slightly confused when 3 cables were mixed together since I would get confused with the musical passages sometimes but I think I still got a 7/10. I made sure the person holding the cans would lift the cable up a little so that I couldn't tell the weight of the cables too because that would be a giveaway. I also made sure that they didn't rub the cables together too because the equinox in particularly microphonic.

Jazz Casual's picture

It seems to me that blind testing is the most effective way to overcome the confirmation bias variable that dogs subjective impressions in this hobby and audio generally. As far as cables are concerned, any future purchasing decisions will be subject to my stock cables going kaput and how cool the replacements are going to look.      

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Just like frequency response measurements don't reveal the effects of jitter, blind testing may not be the way to reveal some listening experiences.

However, I do think blind testing is a powerful and important tool in audio.

Please don't use blind testing to pick which cable is the coolest looking though. :)

Jazz Casual's picture

There are several aspects of the listening experience that frequency response measurements do not show. However, I do think that blind testing is a very effective BS detector. And thanks for the tip. :) 

KikassAssassin's picture

Unfortunately the paper is behind a paywall, but in NwAvGuy's Subjective vs Objective article, he mentions a study that seems to indicate that blind testing is much more sensitive at revealing small differences in sound than sighted testing is.

http://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/05/subjective-vs-objective-debate.html

Scroll down to "LONG TERM LISTENING".

I'm pretty skeptical that any differences you may hear in sighted testing that you don't hear in blind testing are anything but confirmation bias. If you do think you can come up with a situation where you can hear a difference between cables and you can still pick out those differences in blind testing, though, that would be pretty interesting!

 

I will grant you your last point, though. Blind testing isn't necessarily useful for everything. ;)

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Really!? Bummer, I didn't encounter a paywall getting to the paper. Try going to this page first and hit the download pdf link, that's how I got there.

KikassAssassin's picture

Sorry, I meant the paper NwAvGuy linked to, not the one you linked to. :)

FHC's picture

The picture was worth it.  

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Couldn't remember my safe-word. Had a bit of panic there for a while.

MacedonianHero's picture

Great write up Tyll and definitely one of the most fair I've seen on the subject that can be so very controversial.  I find small differences in cables and make cable changes the "final" tweak when my headphones permit it (I won't spend $ for recabling). Headphones like the HD800s or LCD-3s make this easy.

BTW, I love the photo! Classic and appropriate.

Thanks for this!

br777's picture

this was the best article on cables i've ever read.   Most of them just make me want to shake my head and face palm.   

Great job as always Tyll

Seth195208's picture

All else being equal, I'll take a great headphone with a crappy cable over an OK headphone with a glitzy cable every time. High end aftermarket cables are a horrible value, even if by chance they do make a slight difference. Monoprice? Now were talkin'..

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Givent the cost of good connectors, cable, and most especially the cost of the labor and running a company, I don't think a $200-$400 headphone cable is out of line.  Whether it's a good value or not is dependent on the values of the customer. On sonic benefits alone, I might tend to agree personally (remember, if it were me I'd build my own), but given all the other potential benefits I enumerated I don't think it's disproportionate.

Seth195208's picture

I guess DIY guys see things from a different perspective. Typically, audio jewelry is the last thing on our minds. Rolex watches are a good analogy. They don't tell time any better than a Casio..

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I've got a $250 Weller and a $300 Fluke so I can solder and Ohm out my nice cheap cables. surprise

Our DIY values are just different than most. yes

Willakan's picture

A number of questions arise.

Why is blind testing described as less sensitive for detecting differences? I see this claim everywhere, but as I've mentioned before, blind testing is just like sighted testing - but blind! If it's suddenly harder to hear the difference under blind conditions, that suggests that the difference has "extra-auditory" components, not that blind testing is somehow hiding the differences!

Indeed, the short switching times often adopted (but by no means obligatory to adopt) with a blind protocol makes it exquisitely sensitive to differences, by virtue of accounting for the extreme fragility of auditory memory.

As for measureable differences between cables, null testing removes any doubt here. What could escape such a test? If you listen to the difference signal between two cables (you can even do this all in the analog domain if A/D conversion is somehow going to mask the differences) and there's nothing there, where exactly are these differences hiding? Do audiophile electrons bugger off when a skeptic is looking :D?

As for jitter, just no! Jitter was not why people heard differences between early CD players - they heard differences between early CD players because a lot of them were a bit crap! I mean, the Phillips equipment could only muster 14 bits of resolution initially, and it took a little while for people to cotton on to oversampling for decent digital filtering. It sure as hell wasn't jitter: that bandwagon, as I understand it, was largely started by a certain Robert Harley, who couldn't even measure it properly, and has yet to present any evidence whatsoever for its increasingly ridiculous claims. The idea that jitter has now been proved to be far more important than initially thought *thanks to what the audiophiles heard* appears to be largely mythological.

Finally, presenting that article about the uncertainty principle/Gabor limit as some sort of general proof that "Hearing is complicated mkay? (implied: therefore anything goes!)" is a little disingenous. As various articles on this have noted, we've known that the human ear could go beyond the time/frequency resolution trade-off necessitated by the Fourier transform since the 1970s. It's not really relevant to audiophile claims  - it certainly hasn't shaken the foundations of psychacoustics or anything like that. It also doesn't invalidate the huge quantities of experimental data we have on the human auditory system.

It's a subtle discovery, that deserves an equally subtle interpretation. It shows that the crudest models of the human ears are, well, crude. However, the more sophisticated ones have been sidestepping the whole Gabor limit issue for some time.

Jazz Casual's picture

What he said! Excellent post.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I appreciate a good counter point. 

" Do audiophile electrons bugger off when a skeptic is looking Laughing out loud?"

Possibly yes, if the skepticism is deeply held enough it can creat just another type of confirmation bias.

Willakan's picture

True, but that doesn't apply to null testing, and ideally you have the skeptics simply administering the experimental conditions rather than doing the listening.

And as others have said, great picture :D

Limp's picture

Aha! but anyone conducting a blind test is by definition a sceptic, and thereby makes the whole methodology moot.

Perfectly logical!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...there's healthy scepticism, and then there's "deeply held" scepticism. Two different things.

I strongly believe blind testing is an important part of doing audio science. Folks like Floyd Toole and Sean Olive do outstanding research with it. 

 

ednaz's picture

This has been proven in much more difficult and what you'd think would be highly objective situations.

The placebo effect was shown to be heightened in double blind clinical trials of drugs if those getting the placebo picked up hints (that were planted for the purposes of the experiment) that they were getting the real drug. Similarly, those getting the real drug seemed to not show as much improvement compared to other double blind trials if they believed they were getting the placebo. Confirmation bias can go both ways. 

We are fascinating creatures.

dan.gheorghe's picture

Hey Tyll,

Thank you for the article. I've been eagerly waiting for this. Very nice article and well said!

I have some questions here.

     Let's say you have the measurements of HD800 and LCD2 in front of you. Where can you see that HD800 has better instrument separation, better soundstage, or has more details? In my opinion if a cable changes the freq response of a headphone, it ruins the way the producers meant you to hear it.

Thank you,

Dan

P.S. Love your work and what you made of this hobby :D

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I think I see the ability for a headphone to image in a clear initial leading edge of the 300Hz square wave response without a second significant rising edge...which the LCD2/3 has. 

ednaz's picture

As someone who spends much of his life chasing and fixing performance problems in huge complex computer systems, there's a phenomena we call "next best fix". Most systems with performance issues don't have one problem, they have many of various sizes, and those have relationships among them. Each time you fix one of the individual problems (make and improvement in performance) you need to look at the overall performance and bucket of issues fresh, because the next best fix is likely to have changed. Also, because of the interrelationshps between problems, if there are 10 performance-robbing issues, I may be able to achieve a given level of improved performance either by fixing three issues, or by fixing five. If I fix the right three, the remaining seven will be virtually irrelevant or vice versa.

I think the same thing is true in audio, particularly in perception-based performance evaluation. Given any stack of components and connects, there may be 10 ways to improve how that stack sounds. Upgrading the DAC may have a huge effect, for example. Whether that makes a cable upgrade worthwhile or not is not predictable in advance. Each change is an independent variable in terms of being able to change it and evaluate the change itself, all things being equal, but is a dependent variable on every other change. Once you make a change, the overall system performance envelope changes and you really need to think about the next best upgrade afresh.

I have three sound systems in my house/workplace and got to experience this first hand. I upgraded speaker cables on two systems - the difference was noticeable (my wife came home to music playing and said - what happened, that sounds different... so I'm pretty confident of a significant change) on one system. On the other zero difference. I moved a set of high end connects system to system, and found the same thing. Noticeable improvement on one system, and in fact noticeably worse listening experience on another.

I have several headphone and earphones, and three types of portable music player. Some headphone/player combos are less than satisfying. Others are engaging to the point of total distraction. Not to mention some sounding so much better with lossless files, others sounding gorgeous with lossless or high quality compressed.

Beyond a certain point, I think component and connect evaluations are so idiosyncratic that in any single element comparative write up the number of qualfier words will exceed the number of evaluative words.

This is why the decline in the prevalence of well-stocked physical audio stores is so sad. The only way to test is to buy.

n_maher's picture

Thanks for putting in the time and effort Tyll. 

xnor's picture

and after reading and talking to some trusted sources, it appears they too have all experienced small differences in the sound of cables.

Argumentum ad populum - you can also talk to a lot of people that got abducted by aliens. They will all tell you the same or very similar story.. Has this got anything to do with truth? Nope.

Why do these trusted sources remain unnamed?

 

There's just too much anecdotal evidence to believe anything other than sometimes something is happening with cable swaps that is apparent to the listener.

Let me quote from Wikipedia: "Anecdotal evidence is often unscientific or pseudoscientific because various forms of cognitive bias may affect the collection or presentation of evidence. For instance, someone who claims to have had an encounter with a supernatural being or alien may present a very vivid story, but this is not falsifiable. This phenomenon can also happen to large groups of people through subjective validation."

 

 

It doesn't seem like it's as simple as tonal changes that might be seen in frequency response measurements.

Couldn't it be that they're just imagining things? Expensive cable = must be better = bias = hearing imagined improvements. If the differences were real we could easily pinpoint and test them..

 

On CD players and jitter: Willakan already commented on that, but let me add this:

The world's first CD player CDP-101 by Sony released in 1982 measures better in pretty much any respect than some expensive, audiophile, "high-end" tube CD players released recently. The 101 has less than 0.3 ns jitter, which is excellent considering it's the first CD player.

So imho, the non-objective/scientific but subjective approach pursued by audiophile companies leads down the high fidelity hill into low-fi land. Marketing but also pricing such products as high-end is not only disgusting but fraudulent. It's not much different with expensive cables..

 

On the scientific paper: You shouldn't draw conclusions without fully understanding the admittedly complex content.

Even old MP3 encoders can encode the test signals properly.. although they are based on simple models.

I can also easily beat the human hearing with a short test signal (5 ms). To the human ear it sounds like a *click* but I can analyze the short signal with the fourier transform and tell you that it was a short sine wave with frequency X. And advanced psychoacoustic models don't even use the FFT but more "elaborate" filterbanks.

Also see: this forum post.

 

Characteristic impedance: completely unimportant for audio frequencies... Also see: this.

It seems to me this is a readily available avenue for further development by custom headphone cable makers.

You mean there's more nonsense to spread in audiophile circles and money to make? Yeah, I agree.

 

Other Good Reasons for Aftermarket Headphone Cables

All of these points dont' matter much if the cables costs more than a few cents or even dollars per meter. And many people I've seen on H-F upgrade the cable to get better sound pretty much regardless of cost. That's just delusional.

$215 or even $275 for a 5 ft cable? This is madness regardless of the price of the headphones you are using them with!

 

Objectivists will claim no one has ever identified differences in cable in double-blind tests, ignoring the possibility of subtle effects that don't lend themselves to that type of observation.

Please expand on those effects.

Is IF becoming Stereophile? sad

 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

"Is IF becoming Stereophile? sad"

But no need to be snarky. I'm me and that's the end of it.

I'll just let your post stand without comment.

xnor's picture

I apologize Tyll.

I'm just getting sick and tired of this paper being used to justify pretty much anything including a lot of (audiophile) stuff that makes no sense.

For example the paper says the first stage in MP3 compression is not faithful to our auditory apperatus. I'm not disputing this, but have you recently done an ABX test with high bitrate mp3s (preferrably encoded with lame)? For many samples you will have a hard time hearing any difference to the uncompressed sample at all.

The findings (or rather the confirmation of what has been known as anecdotes) may be used to further improve, for example, lossy codecs. It also confirms that trained listeners can perform a lot better in listening tests (see how to listen).

It doesn't say anything about sighted or blind tests. Or cables. Or break-in. Or vinyl. Or analog audio in general. Or ... (I hope you understand why I'm upset now.)

I've even posted a counter-example to claims such as "human hearing beats FFT": FFT beats human hearing.

 

I'll just let your post stand without comment.

I hope you take at least some of the stuff I wrote to heart. Thank you.

donunus's picture

I have done a blind test comparing mp3, flac, wav, and ogg files and I could hardly tell the wav and flac with my equipment without the blind test so surely I failed when doing the blind test. However ogg at 192 vbr I find to be more transparent than even 320 lame mp3. The soft attack of the mp3 is a dead giveaway on certain tracks and although it is not easily apparent on all music, i wouldn't use it due to the bad size/performance factor when compared to ogg for my ears.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

And I definitely take your comments to heart.

I have objective bones.

But a subjective heart. 

I think we have to be very careful about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

For example, the ability to hear very minute differences that the conductors and composers could readily demonstrate, came from their desire to deliver a piece of musical art. Their motive was to create something divine that they thought could be appreciated by an audience of common people.  It's not hard to hear the difference between the New York and Boise symphony orchestras.

I think taking too strong an objective stance can cause us to miss subtle but sublime things....possibly. 

xnor's picture

Nothing wrong with subjectivity. I think everyone has a subjective heart. But:

Music is art, electronics is science.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...But this is a great book.

 

xnor's picture

There's also The Art of War with Wesley Snipes.

No but seriously, on one of the first pages of the book it answers the question if electronics is an art with no.

Limp's picture

If you read our criticism more closely I think you will see that none of us suggest you to throw out any of the bath water, but rather to take a closer look to see if there really is a baby in there.

I will certainly not claim that there is no chance that a change of headphone cables can result in a real change in sound. The problem I, and I suspect other of your critics here have, is that absolutely nothing of what you have presented so far bring anything new to the table. You seem to take a giant leap from: no discernible difference, to: $400 headphone cables seem reasonable, only supported by a fraying string of anecdotes, red herrings and appeals to majority and authority. 

You claim too much objectivity can be counter productive, which in isolation seems reasonable enough; but done on the back of an article as the one above I can't help but wonder how one can have any less!

I'm sure it was an exciting personal jurney, but you could have had your discussions with God as well as Gilmore for all I care, your argument would be just as thin. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

My job is to offer my opinion. People want my opinion. They ask for it all the time. What I've writen here is an OpEd piece putting forth my opinion. 

You are free to add yours, as you have done. 

Okie dokie, job done. I'm not going to argue. Readers can make up their own minds.

Limp's picture

With you being the editor of this site, the text would be a Leader, not an OpEd, but that's not the point. Neither is you having an opinion or arguing a side, as you say, we expect you to. The central problem which I've been trying to make you aware of is conjecture masquerading as facts. Put quite bluntly, it's poor press ethics.

Your attitude toward sources and documentation can seem almost cavalier at times. The specific instances have already been identified.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

... I'll lead by saying that cables make a small difference and neither the objectivists that cry bullshit as loudly as possible nor the subjectivists that espouce rainbows from silver cables are correct. Cables can, sometimes, make a small difference. That's what I hear; that's what many level headed other claim.

There, happy?

I'm done responding to your rants, and acid insistance that you're right. It's a hobby for goodness sake, this is an enthusiasts site. If you want science go do it yourself and publish a paper.

Limp's picture

If you're looking for a paper, have a go at Lord Levesons 2000 page report. There's a particularly juicy bit on page 80.

I still think you're by far the most level headed person publishing within this media segment, I just wish you once in a while gave some more thought to the fact that you are an editor and jurnalist, and not some random hobo posting rants on various forums, like me.

Terribly sorry about the acrimony. Frustration had the best of me.

Limp's picture

Good question. What is certain however is that this 'middle ground' looks a lot like the 'balanced reporting' one might get by having a homeopath and scientist together in a newsroom.

I don't think he's quite down on Stereophile level yet, but he's sure haveing a good stab at the vague technobabble, weaselwords, questionable leaps of faith and fallacies that is the hallmark of that section of 'journalism'.

Willakan's picture

Some of the posts above this one have been a tad rude, but any such rudeness likely stems from frustration that so much equivocation (whether a product of scrupulous 'open-mindedness', an attempt to widen the article's audience or difficulty in articulating the reasoning behind difficult but personally held beliefs - I'm inclined to believe the latter) accompanies articles on stuff like this, often surrounding things which on closer inspection appear to be well-trodden dead ends(eg: possible measurable explanations for "cable sound").

The rhetoric is hostile, but the points stand.

FHC's picture

Hi Tyll,

I was trying to garner the girth of cables tested.  For instance, did you try the Sefan AudioArts, Entreq, Crystal, or ALO cables?

Thanks,

Fred

Tyll Hertsens's picture

..Just the stock 600 cable, Cardas Headphone and Clear, and the Moon Blue, Black, and Silver Dragon. I don't think I'll attempt to do a wider variety as I can't readily hear significant differences in this limited selection. 

br777's picture

it certainly is worth noting that there are very few people, if any, in the audio world who claim that they can actually hear jitter.  I've never seen anyone make such a claim. 

in my personal experience, If i have to strain to the point of questioning, and or find people bickering endlessly whether x makes a differenc over y, this simply tells me that even if there is a difference, its clearly questionable, and at that point, I usually just ignore it, especially if the possible difference between the two means spending lots of money.

This is why, over years of owning high end gear trying out new trends like the CLAS system, and so on, i still choose my good ol rockboxed clip zip straight into my customs every time.  I've a/b'd with a switchbox, volume matched, and experimented with every system I own comparing it to my clip zip and i've yet to hear a definitively discernable difference.  (havent had the oppertunity to try double blind unfortunately).

I'll take a well defined neutral eq setting, like what is found in Golden Ear's accudio app any day over 99% of so called upgrades. Now THAT is a discernable improvement!

 

ultrabike's picture

I spend some time reading the audio perception paper ("Human Time-Frquency Acuity Beats the Fourier Uncertainty Principle".) Like xnor and others, I've seen this paper pop up quite a bit.

It is an interesting read and I do not dispute it's value. In a nutshell I think the paper attempts to show that in controlled tests, individuals were able to discriminate which tone happened first betwen a reference tone and second tone, and at the same time discriminate the frequency difference between the reference tone and a third tone. The time and frequency deltas relative to the reference tone are then used to prove that humans can beat the Gabor limit. It would probably be better if only two tones where involved instead of three, but I'm still getting my head around the paper.

If the results are valid, the conclusion would be that human perception of sound is non-linear because it violates the Gabor limit. However, the non-linear nature of audio perception may already be known and exploited (pehaps in lossy compression schemes.)

The only way I can see this applicable to cables is if the right and left headphone cables have a sufficiently large group delay difference for x or y reason, but I think that is in the order of ns (http://www.audioholics.com/education/cables/speaker-cable-length-differences-do-they-matter). Differences might be in the ps range. The Human Gabor limit deal paper numbers show discrimination in the orders of ms. There might be something else to it, but I'm not seeing it yet. May need to re-read that Gabor paper a few more times...

As far as TDR is concerned, if a transmitter and receiver are connected through a cable whose length is many times larger than the frequency wavelengths in the signal, then it is best to model stuff using transmission line theory. However, if things are close enough relative to the wavelengths, I believe it's best to apply network theory. The headphone, cable, amp and all, become part of the network. My understanding is that usually headphones have a higher impedance than the amp to mitigate interactions with the amp (i.e. the network). Due to the difference in impedance, I don't see how one can impedance match the headphone and the amp at the same time. I may just be missing something. Maybe this matching deal could work with some orthos and 50 ohm impedance amps...

I also don't think that impedance matching will make cables perform the same. AFAIK, if you change the gauge and the length of the cable you move its 3dB point, impedance matching or not.

Now, all that techno talk stuff aside, I would like to thank you, as it shows that you are giving this controversial subject your best effort.

timmyw's picture

"There's just too much anecdotal evidence to believe anything other than sometimes something is happening with cable swaps that is apparent to the listener."

Please don't take offence at this Tyll (or anyone else) but coming from a science background, this sentence here is why you should retain a very healthy dose of skepticism. There are just too many variables when you take a headphone off your head. Hell, even the air pressure on your ears changes every time, minutely.

I still think that if these headphone cables (or any cables really) are only making very minute differences, then it is your brain playing tricks on you. I have an awful lot of evidence backing up my view.

If it's not your brain playing tricks on you it is the 3 mm of different positioning on your head, you can never get it exact two times in a row. Different ear pressure when you place the phones on your head even. The way you feel about the cable (this is very important).  I am willing to concede that these things will change the sound for some people.

I do appreciate all the work you have put into this, and it's been a very interesting read but I get very angry when I see some cables going for hundreds or thousands(!) of dollars and makers stating wild claims to how much better the sound will be.

It's just not true.

You know, saying that if I really liked the look of a cable and thought it wasn't too expensive I would think seriously about purchasing one for looks. I like it when things look better.

I also get a lot of satisfaction out of DIY projects and plan on making myself some balanced cables and a balanced headphone cable for my portable rig.

navii's picture

Have you tried using a really crappy cable to see if you can "force" a reading that is substantially away from the proper cables?

Magick Man's picture

Tyll doesn't need any abuse guys, he's doing his best and trying to improve the hobby. I don't always agree with him, but I'm not going to throw stones. If any of you have all the answers, start your own site, advertise, build your own readership, and evangelize to your heart's content, until then you can take your criticisms and stick them up your bung. Be reasonable or don't say anything at all.

Currawong's picture

I once was convinced that headphone cables couldn't possibly have any effect at all, so I swiched my HD-800s back to the stock cable....and the result, to me, sounded worse. Those, and the Audeze cans I felt benefitted the most from an upgrade. On the other hand though, I with one recent exception, I didn't feel that either the Grados or ATs I owned were improved by cable upgrades at all. 

Thanks for taking the time to take a stab at the cable quagmire and put forward the various interesting points about the matter.

Not_A_Fool's picture

It's painfully obvoius that you are suffing from the placebo affect. Furthermore, many things you said or implied simply aren't true. People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Gelocks's picture

But I don't mind.

It's always interesting reading the opinion of "audiophiles". Personally I'm not on either camp because I know for a fact that everyone is different. Maybe "burn-in" actually occurs (I believe it's just my brain getting used to sound), maybe different cables actually provides a different output (again, I don't have the ability to discern changes between cables unless one is completely messed up), everything to me are "maybe's"... but it's interesting the conclusion that Tyll reaches though, even if YOU don't hear any sound changes, a cable upgrade not only entails sound enhancements but:

 

•Balanced Drive
•Ergonomics
•Cable Born Noise
•Esthetics
•Ridding Headphones of Extraneous internal Connections
•DIY Opportunity

 

It's up to us to deem whether we see value of cables (ranging from $100 to $1000+) worthy based on the points above and NOT only sound enhancement.

 

I think it's a good post, one where we don't need to "debate" whether changes are there or not because if YOU don't hear changes (like me), well, DON'T buy a cable (at least not just for that), and if you DO hear changes then... more power to you buddy! ;-)

 

Saludos.

CarlSeibert's picture

The rudeness and the often meandering pseudo scientific babble is uncalled for. Tyll is paid to be painfully nice, even to rude people.   I'm not. Don't come to somebody else's house and shout down the host. At this point a polite person is supposed to say that spirited discussion is good. But discussions don't start with "you can't tell ME"  Take it back to the chapel at Hydrogen Audio.

I'm going to assume that you guys are smart enough that that you are being willfully obtuse. If I'm over estimating - well, I'm sorry. 

The electronic devices and all the science, engineering and craft behind them are the tools, not the job. All this gear exists to communicate an artistic, subjective impression. That's all. It does that to the extent and in the manner that the user decides that it does. full stop. If somebody says that super gluing thousand dollar bills to their gear makes it sound better, it does. If it makes sense to you - or to me - great. If not, that's just tough.  

Is anybody else here old enough to remember when "all competently designed amplifiers sounded the same"? Maybe something to bear in mind. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...you cranky old bastard.

xnor's picture

Pseude scientific babble? Being willfully obtuse? Please elaborate.

Do you remember the saying opinions are like ... everyone has one?

the_schu's picture

My young daughter saw Tyll's picture with the cables wrapped around his head and exclaimed - "Oh my gosh! . . . is that Albert Einstein?"

johnjen's picture

My experience has taught me several things about audio and the enjoyment thereof.

1. It is ALL subjective. When 'measuring', every response is still based upon a subjective evaluation.

2. An audio system is the SUM of its parts.  Some parts essentially 'block' or limit the flow of resolution/articulate information more than others.

3. Some parts will work well in some systems while not in others.  This I believe is due to the interaction between said parts with a resultant net effect.

And since we base our choices on what parts to use to put a system together upon our subjective choices, we are also constrained by our opinions and beliefs of what is or is not a 'real' or important factor in making our choices.

So since the sum of our choices (and our inherent beliefs which influence our choices) ARE subjective, we will tend to self limit our perceptions to reinforce our choices.

That said, when looking for verification that certain parts do or do not contibute or can even have an effect upon the whole, we will tend to fall into the self fullfilling prophecy mode of exploration and validation.  And during our own experiences and because this entire arena is based upon our subjective experience, no one but ourselves can say they have no validity.

In short, if wires (or any other component) don't or can't make any difference then they don't for you, and those who believe as you do. 

Conversely if every wire (or any other component) always makes a difference, then again they do for you and those who believe as you do.

But to state that your experience MUST apply to everyone else, speaks to issues that are unrelated to the individuals subjective experience.

JJ

ps great article Tyll.  Food for thought on many fronts.

Has anyone found the article about the human ear and its 'newly' discovered capabilities as mentioned by the ESS engineer in his talk at the rocky mountain audio fest?

HolyCheese's picture

I am very interesed in one thing and it might be worth checking out.

I own the Fidelio x1 headphones, they have an measured resistance of 30 ohms, the cable used for this headphones are around 2 ohms. I have a tried different cables with the x1. One 0.6 ohm cable and one 0.2 ohm cable. That's 4x and 10x less and there were actual differences in sound. I'm not able to accurately test or discover the differences but you might.

My guess is that with an 300 Ohm sennheiser the differences are less apparent but with the 30 Ohm fidelio x1 there might be.

I'm not talking about impedance here since I can't really measure that, I have only measured the impedance of these cables. 

drez's picture

No test data, scientific approximations, measurements or blind testing should be used as an endorsement for complacency and mediocrity.  Audiophillia is after all the heroic/tragic investment/wastage of time and resources to chase ever more insignificant gains in performance.

emreyazgin's picture

I still don't see a point in getting 400-500 dollars worth of cables for things "I could or I could not hear and explain what they are"...sorry...good cable for me is an above average / durable cable.

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