By Todd Whitesel
One of the great things about audio equipment is the nearly endless upgrade path to discovering one’s desired sound.
When I first got into high-end audio, I was mesmerized by the images and descriptions of turntables, CD players and speakers that often cost more than a new car. I was also skeptical of some equipment I saw, such as speaker cables, power cords and interconnects costing thousands of dollars.
I grew up when wire was wire, and the thought of spending more than a few bucks to connect speakers to a receiver or amp was lunacy. That money was better spent on records!
Compared to other audio components, cables and interconnects are still in their infancy. It wasn’t until the late 1970s when it was first suggested that how a stereo was wired could affect its performance. In another 10 years, the market was flooded with new cables, and consumers were left to wade through a murky maze of wires, most offering claims to sonic nirvana.
Outside the audiophile world, bare speaker wire continued to be the low-cost and most popular way to connect speakers to amps or receivers. And for the majority of consumers, the interconnects that came bundled with a stereo component seemed just fine. But what about all those other after-market cables and interconnects?
Music at the Speed of Light
The lone job of a stereo cable is to transmit signal information without adding coloration or other sonic character to the signal. Cable designers all have their theories about the best way to accomplish this through different conducting and insulating materials, wire configurations and terminations.
It’s easy to take speaker cables and interconnects for granted, but the job they do is complex. Music signals move through wire at the speed of light — approximately 186,000 miles per second. That signal contains electric and magnetic fields, both of which react with the wire (conductor) as they pass. The signal must also contend with resistance from the conductor’s atoms, which hinder the flow, and some electrical power is wasted as heat.
The longer a cable, the greater the resistance, so choices must be made to keep lengths short or to make the diameter of a cable bigger to compensate for resistance. The best conducting materials are high-purity silver and oxygen-free copper, and they are used in virtually every high-end cable.
Just because a cable or interconnect is expensive doesn’t mean it will sound good in your system. Some cables have a notable sonic signature, such as “bright” or “lean.” To pair a bright-sounding cable with a bright-sounding amp or very efficient speakers would make music that’s tinny and fatiguing to hear. Conversely, a darker-sounding cable paired with a tube amplifier could limit the upper frequencies and muddy the mid-range. The best sounding cable is one you don’t hear at all, one that doesn’t leave a sonic footprint. It’s great to let more sound through, but not great to change its character. Good cables can reveal a system’s weaknesses and strengths.
Better Cables is a Virginia-based cable manufacturer selling direct to consumers from its Web site, www.bettercables.com.
For review, Better Cables’ Brad Marcus sent me a pair of Silver Serpent Anniversary Audio Interconnects (1 meter pair/$89.95) and a set of Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables (3-meter pair/$169.95).
The first thing I noticed was the overall build quality of the Silver Serpents and Premium Anniversary Edition cables. Because Better Cables sells direct, you get a lot of technology for the money. They’re wrapped in a rugged yet flexible mesh-covering finished in red-and-black weave patterns. It may not matter, but they look good. Terminals are solid and tight-fitting. If you’ve experienced loose contact from interconnects or fraying from bare-wire connections, you’ll appreciate the rock-solid grip of Better Cables. Better connections make for better playback.
The Premium is touted as a reference-grade speaker cable and is assembled with dual 12-gauge, twisted-pair, high-purity stranded copper conductors.
The speaker cables can be fitted with gold-plated spade lugs or banana plugs (such as in my review pair).
The Silver Serpent is a hybrid design, employing stranded silver and copper conductors and 99.999 percent pure silver-coat covering. Silver is the ultimate audio conductor but can be a bit thin-sounding by itself. Copper is an excellent conductor, too, with a warmer sonic character. The Silver Serpent was engineered to bring the best of the two conductors into one cable, ensuring broad and dynamic playback.
Listening and Final Thoughts
Reviewers are always at the mercy of the clock, so it was great to have several months with the Better Cables to hear them in several settings and connected to multiple components.
Whether playing back vinyl, CDs, DVDs or tuned into FM radio, the results were always the same. The cables present music with detail, transparency and are as neutral as any wires I’ve heard. It’s a lovely combination of smoothness without hazy warmth or any such sonic veiling. I was particularly impressed with the cables’ handling of mid-range and upper bass, delivered with clarity and punch.
Perhaps most impressive is the price. At just $260 for both sets of Anniversary Cables, you get performance and build that can stand with cables costing two or three times as much. Each of the Anniversary Cables is an excellent value and comes fully recommended. Free shipping in the U.S. and a 30-day money-back guarantee make them risk-free to audition. What are you waiting for?
Silver Serpent Anniversary Audio Interconnects, 1 meter pair, $89.99
Premium Anniversary Edition Speaker Cables, 3-meter pair, $169.95
Value: You get performance and build that can stand with cables costs two or three times as much.
Final Grade: *****