Here I shall put my beliefs and thoughts on various “controversial” topics so people stop asking me the same questions every single day.
This is me stating my beliefs, and then explaining why I hold these beliefs. While I do not have the intention of proving or debunking anything, it may enter that territory when I pry further into my own personal rationalisations.
Here’s what I’ll be covering:
- Burn in
- Cables and wiring (this article)
- Significance of “driving ability” in IEMs
- Significance of DAC performance in general
Today’s article shall be on the topic of cables and wiring, an aspect that is deeply rooted in IEM culture and seen as a viable path to improve the quality of the overall sound. Though, unlike my beliefs in burn-in, my beliefs on the cable side of things are a little bit different.
2. Cables and Wiring
2.1 A Viable Upgrade Path
The big question is, do cables really make that big a difference in the sound quality of the audio chain? Are the improvements enough to justify the current, ever-increasing prices of boutique cables built from exotic materials and bulky sheathing?
It is a near undeniable fact that cables are intrinsically linked to the output of the transducer, being the very component that directs analog signals straight to the driver itself. The construction of the cable itself can affect the signal in many ways, and in some cases can even boost the signal. But it is also because of this variance that utmost care is required when selecting a particular cable to match with a specific IEM, much like how the right wine must be selected to pair with a particular dish.
Though in this case, I’d daresay that the cable can bear more importance than the transducer itself. Not because the transducer in question is bad per se, but rather the fact that the potential of many IEMs are bottlenecked by the cable itself. A cheap KZ ZS3 for instance, while heavily held back by its shoddily built stock Chinese cable, truly shows the full extent of the performance of its (very capable) dynamic driver when paired with a reasonably priced 4-wire PW Audio 1960 cable. At that point it is basically two different IEMs, with the latter easily trumping any TOTL flagship IEM on a cheap Plasticsone cable. That just shows how much the cable can limit the driver.
Of course, this varies on a case-by-case basis. The performance improvements you get with a cable upgrade is not constant by any means, though it is common that more expensive IEMs tend to have a higher “performance ceiling” as compared to cheaper products which is usually referred to in the community as “scaling”. For instance, there actually isn’t a lot of scaling to be had in something like a Tin Audio T2, sounding not too different between its stock cable and a slew of other upgrade cables (though obviously still better with better cables, it’s just logic).
But there are some IEM models, for instance the Warbler Prelude and the Empire Ears Phantom, that completely change with certain cable swaps. They still perform great on their respective stock cables, but are essentially different IEMs when you swap them out. They scale to almost limitless heights, held back only by the current advancements in cable technology. As manufacturers build better and better cables that exceed what we have today, you can be assured that such IEMs would only see the same level of improvement. It is a beautiful symbiotic relationship between IEM manufacturers and cable builders, only to serve our ultimate goal of true fidelity in a portable setting.
2.2 The Construction
Now I’m sure you’re wondering, what exactly makes a cable “good”? It’s a bit of a self-contradictory topic at times as manufacturers are still trying to figure this out themselves, but I’ll see how far I can go.
The most tangible distinction between cables is most probably the material used in the wire. Silver and copper are the two most common materials used for cables for the simple fact that they are the two most conductive metals.
(This is the part where I remind my readers that gold is, in fact, less conductive than silver or copper.)
In general, there seems to be a “faction war” between what is the “silver camp” and the “copper camp” due to the different effects each of these materials generally produce in IEMs. The general consensus seems to be that silver cables usually reduce bass response and/or increase treble response, tightening up transients and results in a more definition (though also more sterile) improvement to the sound. On the other hand, copper seems to increase bass response and/or decrease treble as well as extending transients, resulting in a smoother response, possibly darker signature to the paired IEM.
Of course, these are more generalisations than a constant in the world of cables. You have manufacturers who are able to create “copper-sounding silver cables” and vice versa through other variables other than material. The whole “copper = warm, silver = cold” is more an outdated train of thought in today’s market where you can get a wide spectrum of sound that doesn’t conform to the usual expectations. In other words, cable core material these days matter a lot less than it did, say, 5 years ago.
Then you have plating that introduces a whole different mix into the material equation. The most common of course being silver-plated copper (commonly abbreviated as SPC) though exotics such as palladium are slowly gaining traction as well. The effects of plating is still widely unknown or at least not well researched at this point, but in terms of subjective performance they do kind of provide a “middle-ground signature” depending on implementation.
2.2.2 Wire gauge
Gauge size (measured in AWG) is a metric that is somewhat overlooked when talking about cables, but is undoubtedly an important factor in the final “signature” that is produced. Depending on who you ask in the DIY scene, gauge size may have a correlation with audio quality due to how different sizes are more susceptible to different levels of interference.
The science of all this is still unclear, but I’ve personally noted that larger gauges seems to sound bassier or tend to lose higher frequencies as “distortion”, depending on your perspective.
2.2.3 Wire count
Cables are built in a multitude of ways, but the most obvious would be the number of wires used in a braid. There seems to be a correlation where more wires result in better performance, though it is also subject to the implement of the wires themselves much like the BA drivers used in multi-driver setups.
In general, assuming that the same wires are used in the same implementation, more of such wires results in increased performance due to a combination of higher bandwidth as well as the mitigation of electromagnetic interference (EMI) over more cores.
On the topic of EMI, the game of cables also resolves around trying to reduce the loss of signal integrity over the significantly long length of an IEM cable, which can reach almost 1.5 metres for certain models. Shielding is commonly used in the professional industry so it only stands to reason that cables in IEMs would benefit as well. With increased shielding, the masking of detail is reduced and so overall resolution is improved, allowing for the IEM drivers to pick up more of the minutiae that would’ve otherwise been overwhelmed by environmental distortion, particularly in the wireless world that we live today.
2.3 The Subjective Changes
The changes that cables bring, as laid out above, ranges from barely audible increases in resolution to a complete 180 change in the paired IEM’s overall signature, highly dependent on the IEM used. It is usually but also not limited to:
- Increased blackness of background
- Imaging gets more holographic in nature
- PRaT improvements
- Increased definition and detail retrieval
Then you have the less clear-cut tangible changes around the frequency response of the IEM in question, for instance the increases in bass, treble and/or mids. You might not like it when you pair an already V-shaped IEM with a V-shaped cable, unless you wanted to go further with that signature of course. Though interestingly enough, there are cases where cables boost bass, treble and mids all at the same time, resulting in a more “forward” signature overall.
I know I’ve been a little harsh on burn-in based on my musing in my last article, but hear me out. Where I don’t believe that driver burn-in is a thing, cable burn-in is much more scientifically sound theory and has actual practical applications in real life. As signals flow through the cable, there is a flow of electrons and so the cable is slowly but surely made to flow in one direction much more easily. This increases the “efficiency” of the cable and reduces the distortions that occur at a quantum scale when electrons are hindered by non-aligned metallic atoms.
You can try it yourself if you have the tools to do so; reverse the terminations of a fully burnt-in cable and take a listen. It’ll sound completely off as the electrons have been aligned in one set direction and going against it results in even greater distortion than if it wasn’t burnt in at all.
The usual disclaimers apply, the more wires you have the longer the burn-in time. A 2-wire cable takes about a quarter of the time to be fully burnt-in as compared to a 4-wire cable, and a 4-wire cable takes about 1/8th of the time to be fully burnt-in as compared to a 8-wire cable. The increase in burn-in time is unfortunately not-linear and it’s not uncommon for top-of-the-line, 16-core exotic cables to require 4-digits’ worth of burn-in time in order to bring them to their full potential.
There does seem to be some radical new ways to speed up the burn-in process though. Higher temperatures increase the molecular excitations within metals and so restrict the flow of electrons. Thus, sending a signal through the cable while in this state actually speeds up the process in which the metallic molecules align themselves in a more efficient structure, cutting the burn-in time significantly. It’s kind of like resistance training in a way, but at an atomic scale. I recommend users to place their signal generator (usually a DAP) and their cable in an oven of a temperature of no less than 100C; at that temperature you effectively halve the burn-in time and you get even more reductions with increased oven temperatures.
My lawyers tell me to tell you to don’t actually do that.
Cables are an essential component of the audio chain, often neglected and so bottlenecks the entire system. As audiophiles, we have to put as much attention into the cables we use as our IEMs, perhaps even more. A subpar IEM with a good cable is infinitely better than a good IEM with a subpar cable.
Also, happy April 1st everyone.
02/04/19 edit: The actual article on my opinions on cables are still in the works. This is just something I whipped up for the occasion using the material I’ve already written. So yeah, do look forward to that, whenever I get off my lazy butt to finish that off.
Per usual, my thanks to all who have subscribed to my Patreon. Special shoutout to my boy Denis as well a fresh new high-tier subscriber, Phil!