Are Headphone Cables and Speaker Cables Overrated?
Conventional wisdom amongst audiophile beginners is that the biggest improvement you could make to the sound of your home stereo is with good speakers connected to an amplifier by even better connecting cables that could equal the price of the speakers.
Testing this wisdom on my headphone micro system demonstrated that the headphones/speakers made a big improvement as expected. However, the cable connecting the HiFiMan HE500 to the HiFiMan EF5 headphone amplifier did not make as much of a difference as other less expensive upgrades.
The two upgrade headphone cables that I compared were the Cardas Clear and the CablePro Reverie. Todd from TTVJ Audio was kind enough to send me both cables so I can test them on my system.
I received the Reverie cable first. When I replaced the cable that came with the HE500 with it, I was surprised that there was not a more significant improvement in sound quality. The improvement was marginal, at best and certainly not worth the price of the cable.
For the next week I used the cable continuously to burn it in. After about 50 hours of use I switched back to the original cable to see if there was a more noticeable difference than when I used the Reverie initially. Sure enough, the sound was more noticeably improved on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” and on Amber Rubarth’s , “Sessions From the 17th Ward” The Kinks, “Village Green Preservation Society” actually sounded worse with the Revere cable. The cymbals and drums were more tin sounding than they were with the original cables.
When the Cardas CablePro cables arrived, I attached them to my HE500’s to compare them to the Reverie cables I had been using. The leaflet that came with the Cardas cable warned, “When new, these cables tend to glare and lack focus for the first few hours of play.” Cardas suggests that “Your tuner or CD player running continuously for a few days should break the cable in properly.” However, the Cardas cables out of the package sounded just about the same as the Reverie cables.
I used the Cardas cables through my amplifier for about 75 hours of burn in before I replaced them with the Reverie for a second comparison having now burned in both cables. This time I noticed differences between the two cables. The differences were more subtle than obvious. The Cardas more accurately reproduced the lows, and the base in “Dark Side,” and it revealed more of Amber’s breath and subtle voice variations in “Sessions.” The most noticeable difference between the two speaker cables was on “Preservation Society.” The cable pro has more tolerance with this 1960’s recording. The drums and cymbals did not have as much of that ugly tin sound.
The Reverie reproduced everything honestly and the CablePro discriminated between well mastered sound and older recordings that remain rough around the edges. The CablePro revealed more detail than the Reverie without being too rough on the harsher sounds.
Throughout these reviews I have made a distinction between objectively obvious sound differences and subjectively subtle sound differences. Upgrading the cable that came with the HE500 does make an objectively obvious sound difference but it is a minor one. The difference between the Cardas Clear headphone cable and the CablePro Reverie headphone cable is a subjectively subtle sound difference and it is minor indeed.
My conclusion is that spending approximately $600 to upgrade the HE500 cable would not be the place to put your money if you have a limited budget. As I have indicated in previous week’s reviews, upgrading the headphone cable is less of an improvement to the sound than adding a DAC, downloading high resolution 24 bit music, Playing apple lossless compressed sound on J.River, or upgrading the connecting cable from the DAC to the amplifier. Spend your money and time upgrading these first.