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Tips on improving existing speaker systems

Should you change your speaker cables?

Unless your existing cables are faulty in some way, investing in exotic speaker cables is one area that probably won't yield you the improvements you are looking for... read why, in my opinion, this is the case...

Loudspeaker cables

There are two camps:

Camp-A is populated by marketing people who spread fear, uncertainty & doubt – and by some audiophiles who claim to have golden ears and can hear electrons moving in wires.

Camp-B is populated by engineers and those who believe in scientific measurements and logic – as a long term electronics engineer I am firmly in Camp-B.

If you take a big-picture view of the long chain between the original musical performance (studio or live venue) and your listening room – the original performance is recorded by microphones with cables, then to recording desks with 1000s of electronic components and more cables, then to the mixing desk full of 1000s more electronic components and cables where some engineer decides how much equalisation, compression, expansion, etc. to apply to the mixing process (more components and cables) then its converted so can be stored in a distributable form (such as a CD) .... you come along and buy the CD, feed it into your CD player (passing through many more components) which  reads and extracts as much of the digital signal as its capable of then converts this to analogue form (within the limits of the equipment) the passes it through cables to the preamp and amplifier (passing through many more components - all missing parts of, or adding to the original signal) which eventually ends up at the output of your amplifier... then via speaker cables this electrical signal is transferred to the speakers.

Speakers

Speakers are electro-mechanical devices that convert the electrical signal into mechanical movement of the air, producing sound which bounces around the listening room where you, the listener, hear the combined effect of the this incredible chain... the speaker cables are part of this chain but by far are not the weakest link... their role is a simple one – to transfer the electrical current from the amplifier terminals to the speaker terminals. All they need to be is a pair of simple, quite thick copper conductors insulated from each other, nothing more nothing less. One analogy that I offer is to think of the distribution of fresh water to homes – there is a complicated chain of water collection, treatment, distribution of the water that eventually ends up in your home. The gravity tank or pump is equivalent to your amplifier, the pipes from the tank to the tap are equivalent to the speaker cables.... they are probably copper or plastic pipes... as long as they don’t leak and provide sufficient flow then they are fine – would you consider replacing them with silver or gold or other exotic material /construction costing ten or a hundred times as much because some marketing guys told you that the water coming out of the tap would be better in some way?

In my opinion if two sets of speaker cables sound different from one another, then one set is ‘faulty’ or has been manipulated to alter the sound - in other words made to make them sound different by marketing people who will ask you to pay a lot of money for the privilege.

By the way, all those cables in the original musicians’ equipment, recording equipment, recording and mixing studios will be standard, good quality copper cable – that’s what professional sound installation engineers use - not those with fancy names and made with exotic materials...

The chain between an amplifier and loudspeaker is interesting to consider; there are several links in the chain; each consuming power...

  1. The resistive part of the output impedance of the amplifier
  2. The wiring to, and the connector on the amplifier back panel
  3. The connector on the speaker cable
  4. The speaker cable
  5. The connector on the speaker end of the cable
  6. The connector on the loudspeaker
  7. The wiring to the driver (in the case of an active crossover ) or
  8. The wiring to the crossover (in the case of a passive crossover)
  9. For a passive crossover, the resistive part of the crossover impedance – in particular the DRC of the series inductor in the bass circuit
  10. The wiring from the crossover to the driver
  11. The DCR of the voice coil (normally stated as ‘Re’)
  12. The return journey of wiring, connectors and cable

 

By far the largest power loss is in the driver voice-coil – typically its resistance will be around 20 times or greater than the average speaker cable

The next highest loss will be from the series inductor in the passive crossover – typically this will be about 5 times or greater than the average speaker cable

So as far as resistance is concerned as long you use fairly thick copper conductors and the connections at each end are well made and clean of corrosion they will have an insignificant effect on the sound.

Capacitance and inductance

Next, we can consider the reactive components of the impedance (capacitance and inductance) – some marketing copy will state that these components can combine in such a way as to create a resonance – and indeed they can. Any combination of inductor and capacitor will have a resonance at some frequency... so where is the resonance likely to occur in a typical speaker cable? A typical pair of thick, parallel insulated, copper conductors of say 5m long may have an inductance of around 5 micro-Henry and a capacitance of around  400 Pico-Farad... the resonant frequency of these two components will be about 3.5MHz - way above the audio range. Depending upon the termination impedance at each end, this is likely to be so well damped that the amplitude of the resonance will be virtually negligible anyway.

Receiving aerials picking up RF

Finally, we can consider the possibility that the cables will act as receiving aerials picking up RF. These days there is a lot of RF around in most homes, either from outside due to mobile phone cabinets etc. and more likely, Wi-Fi inside the home. This can be picked up by the speaker cables and fed back into your amplifier... it could be a problem in some extreme cases where the amplifier itself does not provide circuits to suppress RF noise – most well designed amplifiers will. However if you want to be doubly sure, screened speaker cables may add a degree of additional suppression, as long as the screens are well connected to a ground plane that will effectively provide a path for the RF away from sensitive amplifier circuits.

When you consider the huge differences in loudspeaker performance and the way they behave in different listening rooms - and the wide variations in the tonal balance & levels of compression in recordings – money spent on special speaker cables is money spent on the wrong things! You may notice differences but won’t actually deliver better sound. Unless of course your existing cables are faulty – so before going out to buy new speaker cables, re-make the connections on your existing ones – they may well have tarnished or the connectors have become loose over time...

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