They absolutely do, but not always in the way people imagine.
Let’s just get this out of the way: good cables always improve system performance vs crappy ones. That being said, there is more snake oil and pseudoscience in cables than just about anything else and hi-fi is already filled with BS.
For example, thicker is not always better. There are some stupid thick cables out there, interconnects for example. Interconnects or mains cables 5cm thick aren’t better, they are literally just stupid. They damage or break connectors and can cause serious harm to really expensive gear and I’ve repaired the damage. People think thicker is better, because pseudoscience, so these silly cables sell. It’s a shame.
Construction really matters. Poorly made or incorrectly terminated cables can act as antennas and fry amplifiers and speakers. Be especially wary of gurus selling cables, just choose carefully, based on good science, not what looks the craziest.
On that point, for some reason, in hi-fi circles, the kookier cables look and feel, the more they tend to sell. Add in a few buzz words and phrases that mean nothing like ‘super transconductance shield’ and ‘ultra conductive polymer’ and you have a guaranteed seller. Maybe I should sell cables…
So what’s better then? BETTER is better. Technically better, higher-quality cables, with higher-purity copper and silver, better solder, better insulation, better shielding, better connectors and better construction. Put all that together and you have better cables.
Have a look at what’s used in Abbey Road or Air Studios for example. The engineers who create the recordings you enjoy know a thing or two about cables. You find a ton of Canare and Mogami cable in mission-critical applications and these manufacturers make cable stock for the boutique brands people spend big bucks on. I use Mogami cable in my system, for example, custom-made and terminated to suit.
Are cables directional? No, there is no directionality in properly designed cables. If there was they’d act more like diodes and that would be harmful to sound quality, so you’d better hope your cables aren’t directional. Don’t know what I mean? Get someone to help you install an actual diode into the signal path and see how you like the sound…
Nordost, one of the great cable manufacturers, states that cables do not have directionality. That’s not just about their cables, they’ve stuck their collective necks out to state the truth about all cables. Nordost states that subtle diode effects can appear over time and this is true, but quite a different thing from cables being directional when manufactured.
But Mike, my cables are directional, it says so on the jacket and the salesperson told me they were.
But they aren’t. It just says they are. ‘Directional’ cables sell better, so most are labelled as directional.
Symmetry in cables is important. Balanced signal transmission is naturally symmetrical and two-conductor balanced cable can be put to use in single-ended cables too, by using the twin internal conductors for signal and return and using the shield as an electrostatic shield, rather than signal return.
Let’s sum up what makes a good cable:
- Premium conductor materials, either high-purity copper or silver
- Premium insulator materials like Teflon and cotton
- Premium connectors, where necessary, WBT or CMC for example
- Great shielding
- Cable symmetry
- Silver and copper-based solders
- Minimising cable length
- Low resistance and capacitance
- Technically informed, properly engineering design