Guide to Gotham Cables
The short answer is: Absolutely, and sometimes even profound. Below I shall detail some of my beliefs, and in so doing you will know well what I personally use:
InterConnects This is the most important Category. Almost all I write here are applicable to cables elsewhere in the playback chain.
- Cables as Tone Controls Nothing illustrates the conundrum of audio "titration" more than cable swapping - we all do it, though there are people who believe cables make no difference (false, and forget them). The problem with the Cable Freak (many out there) is that he overdoes it, and swings too often between a craving for more "transparency/neutrality" and more warmth, not realizing the real problem lies elsewhere in his system. The solid state user and modern loudspeaker users (I include most audio reviewers in this group) are more susceptible, because their gears are more often than not on the sterile and "white" side, even unlistenable. Tube Users and Vintage Aficionados' fare better, and generally tend not to use very expensive cables (well, let us not forget they also tend to roll tubes like using tone controls). Advice: never spend too much on cables, but do have a few spares for swapping. Think of Cables as no more than Finishing Touches on a System (but they do make a difference).
- Red and White By this I mean the generic cables that come free with most electronics. These vary greatly in quality, but they all have one thing in common - reasonable, even good delivery of midrange - but on the down side they are invariably deficient in treble and bass extension, and certainly not very dynamic at all. A huge army of cable "objectivists" believe that is all you need since they are indistinguishable from more expensive cables. Not so, but one should not laugh too hard. Why? Because many expensive cables that manipulate the sound sound worse. At least these cables are forgiving, whereas many "boutique" and "artisan" (an overused word, usually employed to justify high price, that I detest) cables are highly unmusical.
- Audiophile Cable Companies Basically, like most companies that offer accessories and tweaking devices (most are lousy), the audiophile cable companies capitalize on system anomalies (the more expensive, the more so)! The jargons used and the false promises are almost criminal. I also really do not believe audio magazines (trade or net) should review a lot of cables, as it is so system dependent. It is also worth noting that there is little objective measurements on cables (even Stereophile does not offer any measurements, not even a mention of capacitance and resistance etc). As in much of hifi, the few measurement parameters are hardly adequate. Two cables of close resistance or capacitance are likely to sound very different. In HK I have heard many expensive cables (top of the line Siltech and Oracle, for example) in many expensive systems (especially at dealers), but I cannot say that they offer anything special. In fact, they more often than not make the systems too colored. Just to name a few, Siltech, Nordost, Cardas, VdH, Audioquest etc, I have heard a lot of them and generally I do not like them. Ditto MIT, Oracle etc, but their resistor networks (which I'd rather not have) fare a little better. Haven't you noticed one thing? The cable marketing is detestably basically "the bigger the better", so as they get more expensive, the fatter and heavier they get. That means all kinds of extraneous and unwanted materials get into the cable, just to impress you. What has that got to do with "straight wire with gain"? Weird Geometries Many high end cables employ conductors of different AWG and unusual geometry. Were you to terminate yourself, you'd be lost as to what strand to use for what. I definitely frown upon this, as this goes against the simple is best (not science perhaps, but a good philosophy for so many things) rule and, not surprisingly, this kind of manipulation is almost the exclusive provenance of the hifi world. If you look at respectable professional cables (below), they don't do this at all.
- Professional Cables Although the different Professional Cables sound different (think Gotham vs Mogami vs Belden), the companies honestly strive for truthful reproduction, including neutrality and transparency (unlike hifi cable companies), or a balance thereof, and so are within a safety envelope, and one can use the differences between professional cables to adjust one's system. This also illustrates that, best intention notwithstanding, there is no one definition of neutrality or transparency (same with recording engineers). The professional cable companies also give clear specifications for their products, something the audiophile cable sector just largely ignores. For myself, I'd be happy to use mostly Gotham Cables, because within this family different models sound somewhat different, and the differences can be exploited (the "Size" Bullet below lists the models I use). I have three large systems and multiple sources, and they are all wired almost exclusively with Gotham. Even so, occasionally I do have to use something else, like Mogami or DIY "47 Labs".
- "Western Electric"/Vintage These are cloth types and there are many variations. Most of them are not optimal, but really old high AWG tin-plated solid cores that have an insulating layer that has to be scraped off are very good. These can be very detailed, and too much cannot be used at once.
- Constructing Cables Given the success I have had with Professional Cables, I find it largely unnecessary to construct cables, by which I mean making whole cables, not just soldering the connectors (except for a few pairs using antique WE material, which have their own sound). This is actually a whole other world, and many, including a few friends, spend a huge amount of time trying different conductors and other materials, time better spent listening to music. Take the most popular, CAT 5, yes, I have listened to many, some with heavy braiding, but while they sound reasonable the professional cables are better.
- Copper Cables Copper is basically the standard, and cannot be easily surpassed, not by silver, and you can forget about gold. Copper is good as is. Silver plating makes it worse - avoid. The "surprise" is, older tin-plated copper usually sound pretty good. I am sure that is heresy to many, so take it with a grain of salt.
- Silver Cables More often than not, silver sounds paler and inferior to copper cables. I actually have quite a few old ones lying around. The only one I still employ from time to time, and can recommend, is Kimber KCAG, which has a very simple geometry and very neutral sound (the connector is also excellent). I have two old Audio Note silver cables (made in Japan, before the schism) that sound quite good (AN-S and AN-V), but both can be a little pale and indeed not quite neutral. These are likely more like the Kondo cables now. I have also heard some current AN UK silver cables; at my friend WSS' place, I prefer my Gotham cables.
- Size In general, the softer the cable, the better the sound (think of the softness of Gotham, even Mogami, less so Belden). Don't you think the better the copper, the softer it is? I believe the thicker the diameter, the more colored the sound (think NBS, Cardas etc). Size can be due to many things. Number of Conductors I don't like a large number of conductors. Two conductors (e.g. Gotham GAC-2, GAC-1 Ultra Pro), Four Conductors (e.g. Gotham GAC-2111, "EMT replica", GAC-4, both used 2+2), and often just One Conductor (e.g., my beloved coaxial Gotham DGS-1; using the shield as the other conductor) work well for me in all three of my systems. AWG the size of each conductor matters a lot. I prefer smaller conductors (higher AWG numbers), 22-24 usually working the best in my book. Shielding I don't like heavily shielded cables, as even non-shielded cables work well in my systems. Most Gotham's, being professional, have non-intrusive (soft) shielding (and good shielding at that). Insulation and Dielectric Material The more of these used, the worse the sound.
- Stranded vs Solid Core For my taste, stranded is almost always better. Stranded has better and more even frequency response (why professional cables use them), important for classical music replay, while solid core projects the midrange more, which is why certain audiophiles prefer them. It should be noted CAT 5 is solid core. The larger the core diameter, the more imprecise the sound (which is why 47 Labs solid core is of very high AWG), though some may like it because because of a perceived gain in impact.
- Length Shorter lengths sound less relaxed. 1.5 - 2 meters is the usual recommendation. Longer interconnects are usually frowned upon, but many of us use them. For me, I like to have my preamp in front of or next to me, which means a longer interconnect to the amp. The deficiencies of longer lengths are mildly subtractive in nature, sometimes perhaps even beneficial and, most importantly, can be easily made up elsewhere. I don't understand audiophiles who use short cables, and struggle to connect every time they swap components. If cables make you use swear words, that is not a life. Unfortunately, that is true of too many audiophiles.
- Connectors RCA Let's face it, there is NO perfect RCA plug for all seasons, especially for vintage users who are often faced with tightly spaced connectors. For me, the plug should be small and utilize a minimal amount of metal, like Switchcraft and similar Neutrik/Rean look-alikes (Amphenol is OK too). Bullet Plug is great but not for me as it will ruin vintage connectors. Chunky connectors I do not like (I for one dispute WBT sounds good, and I own several sets)! They are made to accommodate all the extraneous layers of unwelcome elements of thick cables. Why have a cable with internally small gauged conductors end up in a massive block of metal? It is idiotic. XLR In many ways I can relate to XLR connectors, which are by nature chunky (yet their elements that actually make contact are not chunky), more than chunky and shiny RCA connectors. A simple and good quality Neutrix (or Switchcraft or whatever) is better quality than many over-priced chunky RCA connectors. You figure.
- Bare Wire Given the proper binding post, I believe bare wire sounds better. The more efficient the loudspeaker, the more bare wires of high AWG (thin) sound good. And bare wire connection is easier for users of vintage gear. My favorite is Belden 9497 and I connect it bare on both sides. "Western Electric" These cloth type cables are popular with horn and vintage enthusiasts, but most of them are not good. Tinning with Solder Some people like tinning the end with a little solder, but I don't like this - while it keeps the strands together, the contact is actually less good than just wire alone (though fraying is an issue).
- Thin vs Thicker Cables It is my opinion thicker cables with larger or more conductors usually do not sound as good. This is evidenced by my use of Gotham: over the years, in most applications and with most smaller loudspeakers the Gotham 50010 and 50025 sounded better than the thickest 50040 (10/25/40 are diameters), with better agility, resolution and clarity. Another memory lingers in the mind: with the LS3/5A, the Kimber 4TC sounds a lot better than the 8TC. Current Demands This is the exception. If I run less efficient loudspeakers like ATC or Magnepan, the 50040 would fare better, more composure and dynamics due to better current delivery. Here a Belden 9497 still sounds very good tonally, but you can tell it is reined in (however, better that than runaway, which is how a lot of audiophile cables sound).
- Bi-Wire? This is controversial - many are adamant that a "better" Single Wire Cable + Jumpers are better than a bi-wire cable. I don't hear it that way. Grant you, I agree, in many instances, especially smaller loudspeakers, bi-wire is a gimmick, but I have quite extensive experience with larger or more inefficient loudspeakers, where bi-wire is simply more dynamic. This is true of the B&W Matrix 801 Mk II, Spendor SP-100 (it is actually tri-wire, so use jumpers between the tweeter and midrange inputs), Harbeth LS5/12 (magnificent!) and Magnepan. My favorite bi-wire cable is the Belden 1810A. Jumpers Should you have to use jumpers, you must replace the lousy ones that come stock - they are woefully bad. I myself use a short run of loudspeaker cable, particularly the Belden 9497.
- Spade vs Banana I abhor spades and use basically bare wires or Bananas. I shake my head when I see audiophiles fasten a thick spade with a wrench. Banana Connector The best is the BFA type (see pic). BFA stand for British Federation of Audio, and Linn uses this for their amplifiers. To me, the merit of this is the thin and curled copper sleeve, ensuring maximal contact. I use the so-called Nakamichi (Chinese), which are convenient screw-on types, but it would be perhaps even better to use just the copper sleeve without a connecting block (available cheaply on Ebay) and wrap a heat-shrink around it. Vintage Connection Short of bare wire, banana is still better than spades for vintage amps with their screw-on terminals. I use the small 5 mm fork adaptor pictured.
- RCA/Coaxial/S/PDIF This is the most common Input. I use solely professional cables, usually the incomparable Belden 1694A and sometimes the Gotham GAC-1 (10070; not to be confused with the GAC-1 interconnect, 10001). Coaxial vs USB Incidentally, whenever I compare, the Coaxial sounds better to me.
- BNC This is always a problem. Some manufacturers (like ARC) regard it as superior to RCA and do not provide for the latter. I use an adaptor, as it is difficult to get proper BNC connectors that allow you to solder (I do not have crimping tools).
- AES/EBU Some regard this balanced connection as superior to RCA, but I am not so sure. I do use it. My favorite is Gotham GAC-2 (10601; not to be confused with Interconnect GAC-2, 10401). It is a very soft and thin cable. On the Sonic Frontier SFD-II Mk II, it sounds better than the GAC-1/10070.
- AT&T This is basically defunct now, but on older transports and DAC's (like the Sonic Frontier SFD-II, Theta Data etc) I find it superior. A common complaint is brightness, but not to this tube user!
- Optical This is definitely the least ideal of the digital cable formats. Generic ones really suck. The only one that I have found that sounds surprisingly good is the Van den Hull Optocoupler, an anomaly since I usually find anything from that company uninspiring/colored.
- USB Please refer to my Article on USB Cables.
- I2F Firewire There are several formats regarded by some as superior. I don't use them, but I have heard quite a few expensive setups employing these connections, none remotely musical.