Wednesday 10 July 2013

Value-for-Money and Cables

Just about any topic is capable of arousing inflamed passions if you care to express an opinion on it - any opinion - in an audio forum.   But the biggest enchilada of them all is surely cables.  Try saying nice things about a set of $20,000 cables and you will be flamed until Christmas.

Here at BitPerfect we have been making our own balanced interconnect cables and power cords for a year or two.  It is hardly a business - we make them only to special order.  They are quite good, but there are better ones out there, albeit at a higher price point.  I have recently replaced my own BitPerfect cables with a collection of Transparent Audio Reference MM2 cables, comprising loudspeaker cable, balanced interconnects, power cords, and USB cable. Available via your nice local Transparent Audio dealer for about $20,000 the set.  But this post is not concerned with saying nice things about $20,000 cables - I know I will get flamed for that.  Even though I have plenty of very, very nice things to say about them.

It is pretty clear that the reason cables - in particular high-end cables - incite such strong reactions, is that they tend to offend most people's assumed, unspoken, sense of value-for-money.  Since the dawn of the electronic age, anything electronic you bought which needed a cable to function would include a free cable in the box.  Shipping a product without a power cord - like shipping a printer without a USB cable - really irks customers who expect these things to be included in the package.  Consumers therefore have grown to to ascribe negligible value to them.  What value do you attach to the power cord that came with your $5,000 amplifier?  Not much, I imagine.  After all, a power cord doesn't actually DO anything, does it?  So how can an after-market power cord be worth $300?  Or $1,000?  Or even $10,000 (yes, there ARE such things).  It is so easy just to dismiss it all as snake oil.  And indeed, sad to say, there is some snake oil to be found in among the many fine products.

Lets look at a nice, new, shiny, $20,000 power amplifier.  Say something nice about it in a high-end audio forum, and very few people will be offended by the very existence of such a product at such a price point.  So I guess we have come to accept that the notion of value-for-money does indeed extend to the $20,000 amplifier.  OK, so you go to your nice local dealer and cough up $20,000 for a nice shiny new amplifier.   The dealer in turn buys the amplifier from the local distributor for about $12,000.  The distributor in turn buys the amplifier from the manufacturer for about $7,000.  The manufacturer buys all the parts he needs to make that amplifier for less than $2,000, and spends the same again in labor to assemble and test it.  Of that $2,000 in parts, perhaps less than $500 is accounted for by resistors, capacitors, transistors, ICs, circuit boards, and the like.  The rest goes into the (surprisingly expensive) chassis, the power supply, and a box to ship it in.  Yes, indeed, if you knew what you were doing, you could build your own $20,000 amplifier in an ugly box for less than $1,000.

Lets look at cables.  A cable comprises some wire with a connector at each end.  Doesn't sound like much, does it?  If I want to make a better-sounding cable, I start off by designing a better-sounding wire.  Lets assume that is an easy thing to do (but it most assuredly is not).  I need to get someone to manufacture my nice new wire, because, like designing my own transistor, that's not something I can easily knock together in my basement.  I need to go to a specialist cable-manufacturing company, and there are a few out there.  These companies do not exist to serve the audio industry.  Indeed, most of them will have no clue that there is an audio industry out there that wants fancy cables, because the truth is the specialty audio market is just too small to pique their interest. Suppose that, instead of designing my own special wire, I just grab one of their catalogs and select an existing wire design whose specs are close to my own. For BitPerfect's Balanced Interconnect design, such stock wire is priced at about $10 a foot, and I need four runs of wire per set of interconnects.  A one-meter pair of interconnects will therefore consume about $150 worth of wire.  Four modestly high quality Neutrik XLR connectors are another $10 each.  When you add up everything else that goes into them, one set of one-meter cables costs me well over $200 just in parts.  These must sell direct for at least $500 if I am going to make any profit on them.  That price will double if I am to sell them in a High Street store.  Yet I get accused of selling snake oil by individuals who have never even been in the same building as the product.  This why we dropped our line of cable products.

So if I have a point to make at all here, it is this.  The people who make after-market cable accessories are not all snake-oil salesmen.  They are for the most part highly dedicated individuals and organizations.  They make these products because, goddammit, they DO sound better.  So much so that a $5,000 Amplifier with a $1,000 power cord will almost always sound notably better than a $6,000 Amplifier with a stock power cord (all else being equal).  A power cord, interconnect cable, loudspeaker cable, or USB cable which is offered for sale at a four-figure - or even a five-figure - price point, may well represent just as good of a deal in value-for-money terms as an equivalent-priced amplifier or loudspeaker.