How to select and manage your HiFi cables
There are many elements of a hi-fi system and its set up that can add or detract from its performance. Cables can often be the overlooked as something that is just decided on after the rest of the system has been chosen but really it should be considered as part of that decision.
Every cable used will have an effect on the overall performance from mains leads and what they plug into to interconnects to speaker cable. Most cables change the sound in some way, this does not necessarily always mean an improvement. Do not assume that more expensive necessarily means better, what matters the most is that it works well with partnering equipment.
Best practice is to start with what you know, try something new and become familiar with it and then revert back to the original. Sometimes changes in one area can be at the expense of another and whether its better or not depends on how much you value these attributes. Reviews are useful here but your own ears and taste are what really matters the most.
To try and help with this, here’s a how-to guide to best practice cable management from DNA Audio. We readily admit that there’s a lot of conjecture about this element of hi-fi, so these are simply the hints and tips that we believe in!
These are the cables attaching your equipment to the power supply. It may not seem like it, but this is an important part of your set-up, which can affect the performance of your system. Here is our best practice guide:
- If you can, use unswitched sockets. Why? Simply put, the less a socket has to do, the better.
- Leave your system switched on, particularly your source components and pre-amplifier as these consume very little power and as a result are the components that take the longest to warm up. Since most systems need an hour or more to warm through, best practice is to simply keep them on. The low wattage required means that this will not overly affect your electricity bill…but should seriously improve your listening.
- If possible, avoid gang plugs and use one socket per plug. If this isn’t feasible, then try and source a good quality gang plug solution from a known brand.
- If you can’t avoid a gang plug, then try to avoid those with individual switching on each plug. When it comes to these solutions, the simplest is often the best. Try to avoid plugs with mains filters and protection devices (this obviously has an inherent risk which you must decide for yourselves on but these devices are often quite detrimental to your system performance). If you are really worried about mains surges or lightning strikes etc then simply unplug your system when not in use.
- Consider using decoupled mains plugs. These types of plug, favoured by Naim Audio, provide better power transfer and minimal vibration. DNA Audio are big fans of PowerLite by Naim… have a look here for further information:
A decoupled mains cable by Naim Audio
- If you can’t justify this outlay, then do go for a solution that is shielded and over-moulded; such solutions will reduce mechanically induced noise.
- Keep your power cables as separate as you can from your loudspeaker cables and interconnects.
- It might seem obvious but it bears repeating…if you are swapping any cables or interconnects in your system, make sure that your amplifiers are turned ‘off’, not just muted.
The job of the interconnect is to transfer the signal that passes through your system from one element to the next – turntable to amplifier, pre-amplifier to power amplifier etc. Here are our opinions on what makes the best interconnect solution.
- Interconnects are split into two types: Analogue and Digital
- The main types of analogue interconnect are as follows:
- 2RCA – 2RCA. The most common solution
- 2XLR – 2XLR
- 2RCA – DIN
- 5 Pin DIN – DIN
- 4 Pin DIN – DIN (SNAIC)
- 5 Pin DIN – DIN (SNAIC)
- 4 Pin DIN – XLR
Chord Company Shawline RCA interconnect
The main types of digital interconnects are as follows:
- Digital RCA
- Digital BNC
- Ethernet (sometimes referred to as ‘streaming’ cable)
- Regarding digital connections, prevailing opinion is that optical (or ‘TOSLINK’ from ‘Toshiba link’) is the worst digital option to use. A decent RCA or better still BNC 75 Ohm digital cable will sound the best.
- Keep interconnects as far away as possible from, in particular, mains cables. Also, keep your interconnnects untangled from each other. Don’t cable tie things together, try and allow everything to hang freely and separated from other cables.
- Ensure that all cables are connected the correct way round, they often have a source end – take a look at this illustrative picture and note the manufacturer’s label
- Different equipment may perform better with some connectors (eg DIN/ RCA etc) than others. Try different solutions to see what is best…or owner forums for a spread of opinion.
- DIN plugs. DIN plugs are one option for connecting between your system components; they often come with locking rings. Our advice at DNA Audio is not to lock them as they sound better this way.
- The back of amplifiers can be a confusing place! It’s worth knowing then that amplifier manufacturers would normally have right channel as the bottom row on their analogue inputs
The penultimate part of the musically journey is the speaker cable. Apart from the speakers themselves (and your own ears of course), cable is the last thing that is responsible for conveying the signal from the source. As such, it’s really important not only to choose the best cable you can afford, but to treat it right.
Shawline speaker cable from Chord Company
- Speaker cables can be bought ready-terminated however some high-end cable tends to be bought in by the reel. These will require connectors to be fitted. There are a few options for this which your dealer will help you with, either by doing it themselves, or liaising with the cable manufacturer on your behalf. We recommend that solder connections to a high quality 4mm plug to be the best option.
- Make sure you get the right connectors for your system (Yes…different amplifiers require different connectors).
Speaker cables terminated with 4mm banana plugs
- Ensure that the red and black plugs go to the corresponding connections at the amp and speaker ends. If one is fitted incorrectly they’re connected ‘out of phase’ this will affect sound quality and sound staging.
- As we’ve already seen, it’s really important that speaker cable is suitably separated from mains cabling.
- The length of speaker cable required will have an effect on the sound, from a practical point of view it’s dependent on system and speaker positioning so a certain length may be required. A very short length can often sound a bit brighter than a much longer length.
- Regardless of how long they are, you should always ensure your left and right cables are the same length.
- When connecting your cable to your speakers, ensure that the writing on the cable reads towards the speakers, and away from the amplifier, as per the image below:
- Bi-wiring. We are not convinced by the need to bi-wire here at DNA Audio, but don’t let that put you off. In our opinion buying the best quality single wire cable will provide the best sound.
- If you are single-wiring into speakers that have a bi-wire or tri-wire option, then our advice is to try the different options to see which you prefer as it will make a difference). The bass driver will require more current, the mid driver covers your ears most sensitive region and the tweeter covers the greatest frequency range which gives arguments for any individual being the most important but listening is the only real way to make this decision.
- Sticking with bi-wiring, another trick is to replace the cheap brass ‘bridge’ connectors that are supplied with speakers with a short length of speaker cable. Some manufacturers such as chord company make bi-wire links in some of their cable ranges.
- If you can, route your cables round the back of speakers in a way that takes up the slack and reduces any ‘pull’ on the back of the speaker.
If it’s not needed, disconnect and remove.
Keep it tidy!
We often get asked ‘how much should I spend on cable?’ in the context of overall spend on a system. There’s no simple answer to this; as with anything at DNA Audio we would urge you to audition your cables if possible and decide what you like best. Remember, if looked after, there’s no reason why your cables and interconnects shouldn’t last as long as your system.