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The coat hanger cable experiment: Are premium audio cables worth it?
No one needs audiophile, premium cables for their headphones or home theater setup. While this is often an agreed-upon sentiment, there are corners of the internet which think otherwise. Today, we’re here to prove whether or not high-end audio cables make an audible difference.
Myth: Cables matter
Walk into any brick-and-mortar electronics store and a walking polo is bound to sing the praises of “high-quality” cables over a cheap alternative. Store clerks and commission-based employees posit: expensive cables will markedly improve your audio setup because of their premium components.
Heck, it’s not just retailers espousing nonsense. Various review sites do it too. That said, cables can alter how your music sounds. However, when sound quality changes because of a cable, it’s typically not for the better. Any modern cable shouldn’t affect signal transmission if you have the appropriate connectors, gauge, etc.
Even bottom-shelf cables shouldn’t sound noticeably different than lavishly priced ones. All that’s required is for the cable to meet the requirements of its system. If this is true, then SoundGuys believes even a wire coat hanger should transmit a relatively clean signal. For those without a surplus of trivial knowledge at your disposal, coat hangers are made from poor quality metals when it comes to carrying a signal (steel, zinc). This hypothesis should prove true for two reasons:
- So long as a wire is thick enough, it may meet its connecting component’s power requirements.
- Passive speakers require a lot of power to function properly; thus, minor attenuations from conductors won’t make a significant difference.
To up the ante: SoundGuys hypothesized that few people can perceive the difference between a premium cable’s output and a coat hanger cable.
Time to test
To get into the nitty-gritty details of the experiment, like how the coat hanger cables were made, read the full report at SoundGuys; otherwise, here’s the CliffsNotes version.
- An array of premium cables with TS terminations
- A cable made from coat hangers with TS terminations
- An array of oxygen-free copper (OFC) speaker cables
- Coat hangers stripped and prepared for use as regular speaker wire
The TS cable may be used on a line-output and powered output, while the stereo cable works with a pair of speakers. The left channel speaker has a TS input and the right has a speaker wire input. Therefore, the consumer cables and coat hanger cables may be compared with the same setup.
Initially, we tested the output of a test speaker in a controlled environment (recording studio). We tested with pink noise, log sweeps, and square waves. By performing a battery of tests, our results accurately represent what you’d encounter in the real world and in an anechoic chamber. We kept the speaker and test microphone’s positioning static. In order to negate potential echoes, our output was placed very close to the microphone.
After gathering control data, we tested the TS-terminated coat hanger cable with the other cables to easily compare. Our setup? A computer and the proper interface. After recording signals from noise and music samples, we found the frequency response deviation: simply subtract the control response from the coat hanger response.
Let’s peruse the frequency responses taken from the speaker over each audio cable. This will have the noisiest data since were didn’t have access to an anechoic chamber. Our samples were recorded from 6” away from the mic, on-axis, and repeated five times per cable.
Both the control and coat hanger cables yielded consistent results. Most of the fluctuations in response weren’t significant enough to be perceptible. There is a minor perceived deviation between the control and coat hanger at 10Hz, which will get lost during music playback anyway. There aren’t any fundamental music notes that fall as high as 10Hz, so while the coat hanger does slightly emphasis this frequency it’s only noticeable under very unrealistic, essentially clinical testing, contexts.
SoundGuys furthered their investigation to see if the deviation was caused by the cable material or the room. They used a mono-channel TS cable and compared it to the coat hanger. The abridged version: cables don’t make an audible difference.
Subjective results are where things get interesting
While there isn’t an apparent objective difference between cable types, we thought it worth gathering subjective data. We posted a poll asking readers to listen to 10 audio samples, two head-to-head simultaneously. Following each pair of samples, readers were asked to rate which sounded better or if they sounded the same. In each of the five comparisons, one sample was recorded over a coat hanger cable, while the other was recorded with a premium audio cable.
The results varied depending on which site respondents hailed from. The SoundGuys’ audience showed that listeners were unable to tell a difference in all comparisons. Since neither cable outscored the null hypothesis, we believe the results to be significant.
- 122 listeners chose “both sound equally as good” (41.7%)
- 96 listeners preferred the cable (32.4%)
- 86 listeners preferred the coat hanger (29.5%)
Our very own Android Authority readers, on the other hand, the results from the same poll told a different tale. The first comparison yielded 57.1% of respondents favored the coat hanger. However, the second comparison had the high-end cable narrowly beating out the coat hanger, 39.8% to 36.8%. The coat hanger made a comeback with the third comparison, but barely: 35.4% to 35%.
Fewer people prefer the premium audio cable over the coat hanger one.
Across all of the comparisons and samples recorded, this is the breakdown:
- 1,456 preferred the coat hanger (45.5% with first comparison, 36.2% without)
- 1,049 preferred the cable (32.8% with first comparison, 37.7% without)
- 694 chose “both are the same” (21.7% with first comparison, 26.1% without)
What wasn’t proved by the coat hanger experiment
SoundGuys remains flummoxed by our readers’ responses. They have a hunch that readers are drawn to selecting the first option. Regardless, here’s what was found:
- Few people can reliable differentiate between a coat hanger and high-end cable: inconclusive
- Fewer people prefer the coat hanger over the high-end cable: rejected
- Fewer people prefer the high-end cable over the coat hanger: confirmed
Well, this is fun: the only thing we know for sure from the data is that fewer people selected the premium cable over the makeshift one. While it’s unclear whether people can actively discern between the cable types, this result is promising. The initial hypothesis wasn’t disproven. We do, however, know that when looking at raw perceived performance, high-end cables aren’t justified by their exorbitant costs.
Having said that, you also can’t run around sticking random metal wires into your speakers and expect a perfect result. To reiterate clearly: the only thing this experiment demonstrated was that the use of cables of the correct specifications should not be audibly any different than each other. It’s more important to ensure the proper gauge wire and connections than it is to invest in a crazy-expensive cable. In short, stick to Monoprice, Mogami, or Amazon Basics.
It’s more important to ensure the proper gauge wire and connections than it is to invest in a crazy-expensive cable.
To be fair, if you want to get a premium audio cable because it matches your aesthetic or you want whatever extra features are afforded, that’s great. We just want you to know there won’t be a magical difference in sound quality. Getting what you’ll appreciate is a worthwhile investment. The placebo effect is real, and if that gets you to enjoy something more, great.
Why you should avoid using coat hangers as audio cables
Sure, a coat hanger works, but buying more expensive cables often affords lifetime warranties, greater durability, and a more pliable build. There’s no reason to spend your weekend collecting and soldering coat hanger cables: it’s not worth it. Instead, run out to your nearest store and buy one, it’ll be less effort. What’s more, soldering can be dangerous. No need to risk a fire.
When shopping around for cables to match your surround sound setup, get whatever’s the most economical for you. All you have to do is ensure the cables meet your system’s requirements (e.g. thick enough gauge) and you’re good to go. No need to give yourself a headache or experience self-induced buyer’s remorse.
Learn more from SoundGuys’ comprehensive experiment