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Aug 25, 2009

During the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I stayed on campus to work at the MIT Acoustics and Vibration Laboratory. One of my friends had a fairly decent audio system which included a Sony ES-series CD changer. For various reasons he didn’t have time to pack up his stuff before leaving campus for the summer, so I held on to his stuff for a few weeks until he could come back to pick it up. He had a better CD player than I had (at the time I was using a Pioneer CLD-S201 combo player as CD player) so I installed his Sony unit into my stereo as the CD player and continued to use my Pioneer as a laserdisc player.

At the time I believed that, once you got above ~$100 price point, most CD players essentially sounded the same and while you probably could measure differences in performance from unit to unit, the differences were not likely to be audible. My experience that summer disabused me of that notion. One afternoon, I came into my dorm room and popped in the Lion King soundtrack (which I was very familiar with at that point) and laid town on my bed to relax a little. When the music came on, I literally jumped out of bed - I was hearing things on the CD that I hadn’t heard before. I did some further A/B testing (evening cajoling some friends into performing some double-blind tests) to demonstrated to myself that I was hearing differences. That was a real eye-opener for me. I had a similar experience recently when I upgraded from a first-gen iPod Nano to a 4th-gen iPod Classic and also realized they sound different.

This past Sunday, the Boston Audio Society hosted a presentation by Roy Gregory of Nordost, a manufacturer of high-end (meaning “very expensive”) power and interconnect cables. I, like many people in the field who come from technical backgrounds, dismissed claims from high-end cable manufacturers as complete lies designed only to separate fools from their money. I came to the meeting expecting to have a good laugh at Nordost’s expense.

Mr. Gregory put on a demonstration in the Goodwin’s High End large listening room where he played demo tracks through a high-end audio system (SACD transport and Verity Parisfal loudspeakers). The system at the start used the factory power cables and interconnects by MIT. He then substituted various cables, first playing a demo after replacing the power cables (same audio material), and then playing another demo after replacing the interconnects and speaker cables.

Demo room at Goodwin's High End

To my complete shock, I heard a difference! The biggest difference I heard was when Mr. Gregory replaced the power cables, but I also heard (or at least I think I heard, see below) minor differences when the interconnects and speaker cables where changed.

This was, to say the least, quite disturbing.

Now this wasn’t exactly a scientific experiment. First of all, the test was not blind, we could see the cables being changed. Furthermore, it took several minutes for the cables to be switched out, so aural memory plays a role here. Add in the fact that I wasn’t familiar with the source material and Mr. Gregory did his best to point out what we should be listening for (which I did my best to ignore) and what we have is a test that is anything but conclusive. Still, I expected to hear no differences during the demonstration which I figured would bias me to not hearing differences and yet I heard differences.

So what does that mean? Am I ready to go out and spend four-figures on audio cabling? Uh, no. But until I can subject myself to more proper testing, I’m probably not going to dismiss cable differences as casually as I have in the past. Now the actual explanations behind those differences is another matter….

I should mention that Nordost is sponsoring some research into the why’s and how’s of these audio differences with respect to their products. They passed out some material that showed some of the measurable differences between cables (which I won’t try to summarize here) and Mr. Gregory claimed that more rigorous research is ongoing with results that might be presented in an AES meeting. I can’t wait to read the paper.

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