So then, the basic minimum criteria for a mains cable’s performance is that it must get the old juice from the wall socket to the input of my hi-fi component without spilling any of it on the carpet.

Hifi Pig does not advocate anyone making ANY unauthorized or unsafe changes to their mains supply or equipment in ANY way! Always consult a professional and qualified electrician. 

As this is quite a complex subject to tackle I will conduct it in two parts.  The first part will deal with the basics whilst the second installment will deal with how and why I believe an aftermarket cable can change the sound you hear through your hi-fi system.

During one of my reviews about cables a while back, I recall saying that one day I should write a blog about mains cables explaining my interpretation of how and why they work the way they do with regards to sound quality.  Hifi Pig has given me the opportunity to do just that and I hope it entertains you and perhaps stimulates your own thought processes about the subject, rather than attempting to explain it in purely objective terms… or rather, how the world of science sees it.  Better still than either of those is a light hearted mick-take of the whole thing.  I write this piece with no intention to argue or debate with anyone, you can either see some sort of worth in what I write, or you can dismiss it if you wish and I have no qualms if you do.

Objectively Speaking

Looking at it from the purely objective viewpoint then, any cable can only demonstrate three scientific  characteristics – resistance, capacitance and inductance, which singly or in concert with the other parameters, can change slightly the tonality of a cable – if at all.  You can either agree or disagree with that statement and either way it will not affect my views, which are based purely on what I have heard and observed over many years.  Empirical evidence it may be, but these observations have been both consistent and, more importantly, reliable to me personally.

Bad Goldfish…BAD!

So then, the basic minimum criteria for a mains cable’s performance is that it must get the old juice from the wall socket to the input of my hi-fi component without spilling any of it on the carpet.  I had a cable once that had this nasty trait and it took hours of scrubbing with a stiff brush and plenty of bleach and still the stain wouldn’t come out.  People still say to me even today when they see the stain that I should have house trained my pets better and my riposte to that is the Goldfish was severely reprimanded and put on the naughty step for such a filthy act in my home.

Moving on to the mains input plug – By taking off the cover if I find a short cylindrical thing in there that says “fuse” or some such on it, it must be wrapped in the silver foil and paper from a cigarette packet, otherwise it won’t work (Don’t try this at home folks – Ed’). So many times have I seen this in the past that I thought it was quite normal for all fuses to be similarly attired, until one day I saw fuses in a shop being sold in a clear blister pack and I complained to the shop assistant they were defective without the silver foil covering.  I was soon put right on that score.  Anything other than Benson & Hedges foil had no audiophile credentials whatsoever, or so I am told (No really, only use fuses that are suitable for the job and rated for the appliance they are used in. Anything else is dangerous/life threatening and will void insurance  – Ed).

Size Matters

Size matters… or not.  I have seen and owned huge diameter mains cables, one of which was two parallel cable runs of around 16mm each and how on earth they were wired them  into a standard 3 pin UK mains plug is anyone’s guess, and I wasn’t brave/foolish enough to peek inside either.  They were thick enough to keep an ocean liner firmly secured to the dock believe me.  Conversely, I have owned mains cables less than 5mm in diameter which could have been used as shoe laces.  Which had the better sound?  They were pretty much on a par with each other, so the outward size itself appears to have little or no relevance.

Beauty is only skin deep and that really does apply to mains cables.  Ignore the fancy outer jacket, it is merely camouflage that hides what’s inside and if you follow that to its logical conclusion then plain black should suffice, but one of my latest gripes is too many of them are cloaked in plain black shrouding which makes identification and differentiation rather difficult.  Contrary old so and so, aren’t I?

The Tension Mounts

At the other end of the “volts pipe” we usually find an IEC connector of some description, ranging from poor to less poor and I will qualify that statement.  The conductor design of the IEC connector isn’t ideal in my view, but it is a generally accepted standard, so we can pick up any IEC plug and connect it to any IEC socket of the same family and type.  I put that last part in because some wag will probably say “Hardeyhar Dominic, you cannot plug a 2 pin IEC plug into a 3 pin IEC socket, nor a 10 amp into a 20 amp one” … Yes I know, I am trying to be as concise as I can without misleading or boring the pants off my readers.  The issue that I have is that there is a relatively small contact area of the connector pins inside the female IEC socket once mated with the male connector (not talking about sex here by the way) and the propensity of the terminals to lose their springiness and grip after repeated insertions (you lot must have some filthy minds).  I have had several IEC connectors that crackled and popped with only the slightest touch on the body and it meant I had to take the socket apart and add some tension to the connector pins to make them grip better and provide a reliable connection.  That aside, it is good that we do have a standard in a world where “compatibility” is fast becoming a four letter word.

Complications

Next we move on to what the blessed things are made from and this is where it gets both interesting and complicated at the same time folks.   I will start with copper conductors and kick off with saying that not all copper cable is created equal.  A large percentage of it these days is actually recycled copper formed into ingots and sold on the world market…and the copper in these could be blended with anything;  aluminium, zinc, steel, welly scrapings, you name it, it might be found in there.  Of course some of it is virgin sourced from mined ore and that has a price premium applied to it, especially so the high purity copper that has been additionally refined a stage or two further than the standard material.   Annealing and tempering adds an additional cost to the wire once it has been drawn through the die and some cable manufacturers even polish the surface would you believe?  The jury is still out on that one as far as I am concerned as I have not evaluated similar cables where one has polished conductors and another one remains unpolished.  And before you even think it, I am not going to be sat here for hours on end with a tin of Brasso and a rag either shining one up to please you lot.  No sir.

All That Glitters

Silver too has similar origins to copper, with more and more originating from recycled materials.  Again, it may contain all sorts of impurities and even the Sterling Silver standard guarantees the amount of silver content within the metal , not what the rest of it is comprised of.   Apart from Sterling silver, it is generally classified as a purity rating in percentage terms, so a “Four Nines” rating is assayed at 99.99% purity and when we are talking about “Five Nines” purity that means it is 99.999% purity which has a frightening price tag even for a mere ounce of it, so if you see a cable with a claimed “Five Nines” purity  advertised for sale at £8.99 including delivery dear readers, you certainly aint getting no five nines silver content that’s for sure, not even four nines, not even two nines I would say.  Quite a few vendors will include the word “silver” in their marketing, but read the small print and they have hidden the word “plated” in there somewhere, so don’t be fooled.

Next we move onto Gold, Platinum and I will lump the rest in as “exotic” for the purposes of this article, with no disrespect for the vendors that use different precious metals in their construction.  Gold is generally described as a poor conductor and is less efficient at conducting electricity than copper or silver so I wouldn’t class it as “poor”.  A pure gold conductor is not only expensive, but it has certain traits that in isolation do not make a good hi-fi cable on it’s own, but alloyed with other metals bestows some unique properties which I will detail in Part Two of this article.

Until Next Time…

So then, to conclude the first part of this epic tome I will leave you with two thoughts to mull over until the next thrilling episode: The first is to get your head round the notion that there is no such thing as the perfect cable.  This is important to grasp because that is your starting point for understanding the whole aftermarket cables scenario and that includes all interconnects and speaker cables too for that matter.

The second thought is to ask why would anyone splosh out on an (expensive) aftermarket mains cable (or interconnects and speaker cables) when a cheap one is more than adequate for the job and proves it by not spilling any electricity  onto your carpet?  The clue there is the word “adequate” and although it is a word open to interpretation by some people, it has a deep meaning for me and it has a baseline of INadequacy that an aftermarket mains cable will address, because you are not actually introducing a BETTER mains cable into the system, you are in fact TAKING OUT the inadequacies that a cheap mains cable fundamentally carries with it and that subject is what I shall be writing about in Part Two next month.

Hifi Pig does not advocate anyone making ANY unauthorized or unsafe changes to their mains supply or equipment in ANY way! Always consult a professional and qualified electrician. 

Dominic Marsh

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