Cheap Vs Expensive Cables Question

Last week I purchased a $200 Audioquest Mackenzie XLR cable and a $290 10 foot Type 4 speaker cable. I am comparing them to a $5 Amazon RCA cable and a $20 50 foot spool of Best Buy Insignia speaker wire. I bought these because Paul Macgown says you can hear a difference in his You Tube videos.

They are connected to a Mcintosh MA5300 amplifier, PS Audio Directstream DAC, Andrew Jones Elac Uni Fi UF5 floorstanding speaker using a Macbook Pro streaming Tidal Hi Fi as a source. I have excellent hearing and I’m listening critically in a silent room using a variety of music from different genres including classical, jazz, moden rock, classic rock, pop and country.

After 3 days of comparing the expensive cables to the cheap I honestly can’t hear any difference between them. Some people believe that cables are snake oil. Paul believes differences are there. So what’s the truth?

My questions are, why can’t I hear a difference? Am I listening wrong? Do I need to focus on something in particular? For people who do hear a difference, what are you hearing? How did you hear it? Was the difference obvious or was is more subconscious? Are you positive you are hearing a difference and not imagining it?

I’m conflicted with returning the cables or keeping them. I want to believe Paul and hear improvement but I’m trying so card and I can’t so far. Maybe I just need some coaching? Tell me what you think.


What I typically do is listen to the one song on the one recording I am the most familiar with and see if I can’t pick out something that is different. A little more detail on some tinkly percussion instrument (triangle, i.e.)? A change in soundstage depth or height or just instrument placement in general? Or maybe the one that just elicits the more toe-tapping experience? In over 40 yrs in the hobby and countless different components and systems I’m not sure that I can honestly say that I haven’t heard at least some difference in every single change I’ve made whether it be speaker wire, interconnects or power cable. Maybe you are expecting an in-your-face difference rather some something more subtle.

or perhaps the cables you bought really aren’t much more/different than what you had. Return them and try something else. You shouldn’t have to strain to hear a difference or have it sound better.

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I think you are very lucky! Be happy.
You cannot hear a difference, great, keep the less expensive cables.
Don’t believe that there has to be a difference, everyone hears slightly differently.

How resolving is your system in its entirety? If the cables aren’t the weakest link, it will be of no surprise that you cannot hear a difference. You listed major equipment pieces, but what interconnects are you using? …etc.

Or as @brett66 has suggested, maybe it is just you have not auditioned a cable worthy of transplanting the incumbent.

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I’m not sure the AQ cables you listed are in fact that different. AQ is notorious for charging more for increasing copper quality before giving you an upgrade in geometry which matters more.

How many hours do you have on the new cables? New cables need time to burn-in before sounding their best. Even if you’ve been burning them in continuously for the last week, they’re still not fully broken-in yet.

Quick A/B’ing gets tiring fast and you aren’t really experiencing the cables the way they will be used.
Put one cable in for at least a few days of listening or perhaps a week.
Then put the other one in for few days or a week.
Then when you go back to the first you gut will probably quickly say “Yuck!” or “Ah, we’re back home.”

If over a week or so you find that you just don’t listen to your system anymore, that cable (or component, etc.) is a bust.


Good advice Ted. Quick A /B’ing is tough, as short term memory is fleeting. Better to listen for longer periods of time, and trust your gut. If after that you still can’t tell any difference, then don’t part with your hard earned money, and stick with what you have.

Can you be a bit more explicit in your setup? From what you write it sounds like you’re comparing an RCA cable with an XLR as well as different speaker cables?

Where are these interconnects? Between the DS and your McIntosh? I would be surprised if you can’t hear the differences simply between RCA and XLR regardless of the type and quality.

There’s a lot going on here and if you’re as interested in discovering the differences as you suggest you might want to spend a little time getting things dialed in.

I can probably help you narrow this down if you’re interested.

Tidal hi fi is not a great source, it isn’t bit perfect so you are bottleneckimg the system. For Mac and Tidal try Audirvana.

My advice is forgot what others say and trust your hearing. If you can’t hear a difference save your money and get the cheaper cables.

I googled your speaker…is it true that it’s in the 400$ range?

I agree, just trust your own ears.

And based on one of his posts, he did hear a difference.

“Tonight I started to notice that songs I don’t care for sound good suddenly. So the cables seem to make bad music sound better.”

Whether or not the difference is worth the additional expense is another issue.

Looks to be about $800 for a pair of speakers. Interesting to see he’s spent almost as much on new cables for his system. I wouldn’t be surprised if the speakers are his bottleneck on why he isn’t hearing a difference. There’s only so much a $400 speaker can do, especially when it’s a 3 way floorstander on that budget.

To be honest I think the rest of your setup is on a low fraction of the Directstream‘s performance potential, which seems the main reason you don’t hear those differences.

In case you’re currently not willing to invest noticeably more and exchange other components I’d also recommend to stay below of what doesn’t make a difference anymore rg. cabling.

Also keep in mind that n case you’re listening to mostly Pop/Rock of normal mass releases (nothing bad with this) you often can’t expect differences as heard with a highly resolving audiophile Jazz or Classical recording.

The goal is not to hear those differences but to have fun listening to music within your budget.

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Hi Roy,

I, too, often question my own ability to discern differences when I make a change to my modest system and my financial position these days limits my ability to experiment. While I long for the audio nirvana espoused here, I continuously agonize over how much of nirvana I can achieve or get close to with what I already own and an extremely limited budget for making changes/improvements. To that end, I’d like to relay my own recent experience with changing my speaker cables.

I’ve been closely following the ICONOCLAST discussion, but even with the BJC relationship making them more affordable, they’re well beyond my means. But, the sub-conversation about Belden 5T00UP cable intrigued me and piqued my interest, so I purchased a 100ft spool for just over $1/foot, which is well within my experimental cost comfort zone.

Cutting to the chase, after installing the 5T00UP I heard an immediate and profound difference in the sound of my system, for the better. It’s been a few weeks now and I am still aware of and notice the improved sound. The change in my sound was like washing a dirty window or cleaning my glasses. The sound became clearer and details became more defined. I seem to now notice far more low level detail and sound in music, movies and even run-of-the-mill TV shows.

I attribute this change solely to the 5T00UP, but I made a couple of other minor changes which may also have had some effect, which I will describe in more detail.

I started with my B&W Matrix 804’s connected to my Meridian 558 amp with Transparent Audio HP 14-4 cable and inexpensive banana plugs on either end. This cable contains four 14AWG wires, which were wired together into a pair of banana plugs. This effectively created a single ~11AWG cable connecting speakers to amp. The B&Ws had the factory straps installed, connecting the high and low frequency binding posts together.

When I installed the 5T00UP, I decided to use two runs of cable between the amp and each speaker, removing the B&W factory straps and using separate binding posts for each cable on the amp end. This results in ~7AWG between speaker and amp, but in a traditional bi-wire configuration. I also opted to not use banana plugs and instead use bare-wire termination to the binding posts at both speaker and amp ends.

I also, for the first time ever, tipped my speakers backwards slightly, which changed the vertical axis alignment of the tweeter/midrange to my seated ear level. Admittedly, this may also be playing a huge difference in the low level detail I’m now hearing.

I’ve been so pleased with the end result that I have not had the inclination to go back to my original configuration to determine which of the changes made the most impact.

I ended up only using about 30ft of the 5T00UP cable, so for less than $50 and some time spent, I have realized a significant improvement to the sound of my system and my enjoyment level.

Best Regards,

Dan W.

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Blue Jeans Cable uses this exact Belden cable for some of the speaker cables they sell. They ultrasonically weld the termination you need (banana plugs in my case). It’s a very good sound reasonably priced cable. It sounds great in my system. I’m using the 10 gauge variant BJC sells.

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Agree with many of the responses, Roy. For good or ill, you have Asked the Dreaded Cable Question ; )

Have only had experience with the sub-$1k Audioquests, and have never found that tier to be a “value” sonically, though they look nice, are available at Best Buy, and have lots of cute names. I love coffee, so my AQ Coffee HDMI is a fave ; ) (joking). They make so many, it’s hard to keep track. Really hard to imagine there is a significant sonic difference between any of the many models you can buy at Best Buy/Magnolia. Sorta doubt Paul uses those.

Reminds me of many moons ago when I got into Transparent Cables (who also have a lot of tiers and models within tiers), and my dealer said, “Given your front end, don’t bother with anything below Super”.

Clearly could have been a naked sales ploy, but subsequently I’ve come to feel that there’s usually somewhere in a cable line where Whatever they Do Well starts to “happen” in a clearly audible way - Depending on the System. I think it may be the level below Super in their case (at least a decade or so ago). Don’t know what it is for AQ. Trickle-down design doesn’t always trickle that far down, nor does the sonic benefit reveal itself in a given system. Paying as much for cables as your speakers is not great math. The usual deal is 10% of your system cost for cable, though that certainly varies, and given the current evolution of systems to streaming, etc., it gets harder to have some sort of hard and fast Rule.

Good quality, straight up copper wire works really well. Of course, the definition of “good quality” varies. Home Depot Lamp Cord? No less than Five Nines Copper? Lotta space in between.

As a then-installer dude, I bought a spool of Transparent’s in-wall cable, “The Wall” 12ga. (intended to be terminated with their “Brick” ends, which I don’t care for, so I just terminate the bare wire to the posts) and have been happily using it off and on for longer runs ever since (along with other speaker wires). One of the things I’ve noticed about “good” copper wire is the ends tend not to tarnish much over time.

As awesome of a bang for the buck as ELAC the speakers are (I’ve had the top foot of those towers in their two-way form), they are not ones that are likely to be super picky or “revealing” of cables. Save your money, and eventually buy better speakers. Maybe try used ones that are considered classics. It’s the Journey, not the Destination ; )