Electronic Design

What's All This Splicing Stuff, Anyhow?

Several months ago, a reader wrote in to one of the local newspapers: "If I want to move my speakers a few feet further from my amplifiers, can I splice in a few more feet of speaker cable, or should I buy all new cable? My brother-in-law claims that splicing would hamper the sound." The resident expert at the paper stated that the brother-in-law was wise, as the spliced wire would give inferior audio results.

I promptly wrote in to the resident expert, asking him on what basis he could say this. Was he claiming that he could hear the difference? I demanded that he show us readers how the spliced wire could possibly make any difference. I challenged him to listen to any music, under any audio conditions, and I would swap in various pieces of speaker wire (enclosed in boxes, on a double-blind basis) that had 0 or 1 or 2 or 6 or 12 splices. How, short of clairvoyance, could he tell which wire had the splices, using ordinary audio-frequency signals? Of course, if you used an impedance analyzer with a bandwidth of several gigahertz, you could "see" some of the splices. But, for good high-fidelity audio, there's no way you could discern this, especially as a splice may make the wire's impedance lower or higher or unchanged.

The expert, with his "golden ears" and all, never wrote back. So, I sent my criticism to one of the local skeptics' groups called "BASIS," the Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet.

They edited it lightly, and in their newsletter, they printed my complaint, which amounted to this: If a person claims to talk to the dead, or summon spirits, or show extrasensory perception, then we must apply some skepticism so as not to encourage gullible persons to invest their money in these hoaxes.

But if a person who is endorsed as the "high-fidelity expert" says that you can hear the difference between spliced and unspliced wires, then we, as technical people, have an obligation to express our doubts and our skepticism. Why should a hi-fi salesman be able to sell a bright-eyed yuppie a $50 hank of speaker wire, (or $100 or $200 or $400 or more, which is where the really high-end speaker wire is priced these days - believe it or not) just because an "expert" says it's better to buy new wires rather than splice on a few extra feet? Obviously, ethics in technical electronics and science is involved here.

Many hi-fi experts, with their "golden ears," claim that they can hear differences in sophisticated speakers, expensive amplifiers, or just fancy wires, that I can't possibly discern or detect. It might take many thousands of dollars to just buy the equipment and duplicate the experiment. And, their ears might be correct - much more discerning than mine, more than I could imagine. But, when the "expert" talks about wire and splices, then I find myself compelled to comment and raise doubts. There are some experiments that even I can propose and that I could conduct, that would be decisive, if the "expert" did not duck the challenge.

Now, there are many persons who have golden ears and will claim that they can easily distinguish between good, better, and best-quality speaker cables. However, when these persons are invited to a double-blind test, they usually have a strong tendency to demur. Some people like to call this the shyness factor. Other people liken this to the tendency of cockroaches to scuttle into a dark corner when the lights are turned on.

I was only slightly concerned about how to conduct the test, because to do a fair test, you might have to change back and forth from, say, speaker wire #1 to speaker wire #2 or #6. If you do that with screwdrivers and pliers, it might take a long time to make the changes; a critical listener's judgment might be affected by long delays, and it would be unfair to ask for good judgment under those conditions. But if I proposed to use a number of selector switches, the man with the "golden ears" might argue that the switch's impedance would be worse than the splices, so a switch would be suspect! No, you can't use switches when you want to do an A-B comparison!

But in the last few weeks, the hi-fi review column of this "expert" was discussing how he compares different speakers: He said to change from one set of speakers to another, he uses switches! I just hope the switches don't cloud his judgment, as if they were (God forbid) splices.

Comments invited! / RAP
Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Originally published in Electronic Design, December 27, 1990.

RAP Update: This was my ninth column, and I got a LOT of fan mail on this, dozens and dozens of letters. People sent me all sorts of advertising pages for outrageous claims on speaker cables. Some of this material went into my 1994 column on Hoaxes, and some of the ideas were brought into the recent one on Speaker Cables. Now that Tom Nousaine has established that nobody can tell any difference between speaker cables, the conceit of this fellow, Harry Somerfield, that he could hear the difference between spliced and un-spliced cables, is seen to be just hilarious - as it was at the time. I sent Harry Somerfield a challenge, to tell how many splices were in the wires in each of 10 sealed boxes. Are you surprised that he didn't ever reply?

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