Audiophiles Perspective on Cable Break-In

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Lee Scoggins, Feb 26, 2002.

  1. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Friends,
    Since we lost the great interconnect post in the server debacle [​IMG], I wanted to try to restart the topic in a thought provoking way.
    George Cardas has written an excellent piece on why cables break in over time as follows. I believe this also gives insights into why cables do sound different and why it is hard to measure all the differences scientifically due to the complexity.
    Have any other HTFers noticed the break in period?
    Can you see how this also creates the potential for electronic components to break in?
    I do. Now on to George, one of the friendliest audiophiles I know...
    -------------------------------
    Cable Break-In
    by George Cardas
    There are many factors that make cable break-in necessary and many reasons why the results vary. If you measure a new cable with a voltmeter you will see a standing voltage because good dielectrics make poor conductors. They hold a charge much like a rubbed cat’s fur on a dry day. It takes a while for this charge to equalize in the cable. Better cables often take longer to break-in. The best "air dielectric" techniques, such as Teflon tube construction, have large non-conductive surfaces to hold charge, much like the cat on a dry day.
    Cables that do not have time to settle, such as musical instrument and microphone cables, often use conductive dielectrics like rubber or carbonized cotton to get around the problem. This dramatically reduces microphonics and settling time, but the other dielectric characteristics of these insulators are poor and they do not qualify sonically for high-end cables. Developing non-destructive techniques for reducing and equalizing the charge in excellent dielectric is a challenge in high end cables.
    The high input impedance necessary in audio equipment makes uneven dielectric charge a factor. One reason settling time takes so long is we are linking the charge with mechanical stress/strain relationships. The physical make up of a cable is changed slightly by the charge and visa versa. It is like electrically charging the cat. The physical make up of the cat is changed by the charge. It is "frizzed" and the charge makes it's hair stand on end. "Teflon Cats", cables and their dielectric, take longer to loose this charge and reach physical homeostasis.
    The better the dielectric's insulation, the longer it takes to settle. A charge can come from simply moving the cable (Piezoelectric effect and simple friction), high voltage testing during manufacture, etc. Cable that has a standing charge is measurably more microphonic and an uneven distribution of the charge causes something akin to structural return loss in a rising impedance system. When I took steps to eliminate these problems, break-in time was reduced and the cable sounded generally better. I know Bill Low at Audioquest has also taken steps to minimize this problem.
    Mechanical stress is the root of a lot of the break-in phenomenon and it is not just a factor with cables. As a rule, companies set up audition rooms at high end audio shows a couple of days ahead of time to let them break in. The first day the sound is usually bad and it is very stressful. The last day sounds great. Mechanical stress in speaker cables, speaker cabinets, even the walls of the room, must be relaxed in order for the system to sound its best. This is the same phenomenon we experience in musical instruments. They sound much better after they have been played. Many musicians leave their instruments in front of a stereo that is playing to get them to warm up. This is very effective with a new guitar. Pianos are a stress and strain nightmare. Any change, even in temperature or humidity, will degrade their sound. A precisely tuned stereo system is similar.
    You never really get all the way there, you sort of keep halving the distance to zero. Some charge is always retained. It is generally in the MV range in a well settled cable. Triboelectric noise in a cable is a function of stress and retained charge, which a good cable will release with both time and use. How much time and use is dependent on the design of the cable, materials used, treatment of the conductors during manufacture, etc.
    There are many small tricks and ways of dealing with the problem. Years ago, I began using Teflon tube "air dielectric" construction and the charge on the surface of the tubes became a real issue. I developed a fluid that adds a very slight conductivity to the surface of the dielectric. Treated cables actually have a better measured dissipation factor and the sound of the cables improved substantially. It had been observed in mid eighties that many cables could be improved by wiping them with a anti-static cloth. Getting something to stick to Teflon was the real challenge. We now use an anti-static fluid in all our cables and anti-static additives in the final jacketing material. This attention to charge has reduced break-in time and in general made the cable sound substantially better. This is due to the reduction of overall charge in the cable and the equalization of the distributed charge on the surface of conductor jacket.
    It seems there are many infinitesimal factors that add up. Overtime you find one leads down a path to another. In short, if a dielectric surface in a cable has a high or uneven charge which dissipates with time or use, triboelectric and other noise in the cable will also reduce with time and use. This is the essence of break-in
    A note of caution. Moving a cable will, to some degree, traumatize it. The amount of disturbance is relative to the materials used, the cable's design and the amount of disturbance. Keeping a very low level signal in the cable at all times helps. At a show, where time is short, you never turn the system off. I also believe the use of degaussing sweeps, such as on the Cardas Frequency Sweep and Burn-In Record (side 1, cut 2a) helps.
    A small amount of energy is retained in the stored mechanical stress of the cable. As the cable relaxes, a certain amount of the charge is released, like in an electroscope. This is the electromechanical connection.
    Many factors relating to a cable's break-in are found in the sonic character or signature of a cable. If we look closely at dielectrics we find a similar situation. The dielectric actually changes slightly as it charges and its dissipation factor is linked to its hardness. In part these changes are evidenced in the standing charge of the cable. A new cable, out of the bag, will have a standing charge when uncoiled. It can have as much as several hundred millivolts. If the cable is left at rest it will soon drop to under one hundred, but it will takes days of use in the system to fall to the teens and it never quite reaches zero. These standing charges appear particularly significant in low level interconnects to preamps with high impedance inputs.
    The interaction of mechanical and electrical stress/strain variables in a cable are integral with the break-in, as well as the resonance of the cable. Many of the variables are lumped into a general category called triboelectric noise. Noise is generated in a cable as a function of the variations between the components of the cable. If a cable is flexed, moved, charged, or changed in any way, it will be a while before it is relaxed again. The symmetry of the cable's construction is a big factor here. Very careful design and execution by the manufacturer helps a lot. Very straight forward designs can be greatly improved with the careful choice of materials and symmetrical construction. Audioquest has built a large and successful high-end cable company around these principals.
    The basic rules for the interaction of mechanical and electrical stress/strain variables holds true, regardless of scale or medium. Cables, cats, pianos and rooms all need to relax in order to be at their best. Constant attention to physical and environmental conditions, frequent use and the degaussing of a system help it achieve and maintain a relaxed state.
    A note on breaking in box speakers, a process which seems to take forever. When I want to speed up the break-in process, I place the speakers face to face, with one speaker wired out of phase and play a surf CD through them. After about a week, I place them in their normal listening position and continue the process for three more days. After that, I play a degaussing sweep a few times. Then it is just a matter of playing music and giving them time.
     
  2. Kiet_H

    Kiet_H Stunt Coordinator

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    Lee,

    When it comes to cables, there are two main camps. Those who believe that cables do make a difference, those who do not believe cables make a difference, In truth, I believe that those whom belong in the two camps are very strong minded and no amount of persuasion can change their beliefs. With that said, let me try to address the question without trying to persuade or de-bunk either group's beliefs. Personally, I have not experience any change in sonic reproduction associated with cable break-in (Nor in different cables for that matter). Simply put, my cables sound the same to me today as they did the first day I used them. In regards to George's quote, I do not know who George Cardas is, or if there is any merit or test results to back his data (No offense to George). Even if there was merit to his data (the properties of the cables changing), I seriously doubt that any of the items in his quote would result in a difference significant enough that would be audible to the human ear (at least not to my ears). Again, these are just my opinions from my own listening experience, and there may be individuals in the first camp who can detect the difference in cables and they too are entitled to their own personal opinions which would obviously contradict my opinions.
     
  3. Chu Gai

    Chu Gai Lead Actor

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    Mr. Cardas has proposed an interesting theory and makes certain claims. Since you've posted this Lee, perhaps you also have access to the data that Mr. Cardas has managed to garner to at least support his contention of charges building up along with decay rates. I gather you've heard the other theories on cable break-in that involve crystalline rearrangements. To my knowledge no relevant data was brought forth to even remotely indicate that this was occurring in speaker cables.
     
  4. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Chu,

    Just because something is difficult to measure by scientific method doesn't mean it does not occur.

    It may mean that science simply has not progressed enough to measure the difference.

    I can hear a difference in many different situations from my work as a recording engineer to an at-home listener of high resolution sound systems.

    Having said all that, there is some proof on cable signal differences that has been compiled by Goertz. I will try to find that data and conclusions for you.

    Lee
     
  5. Bill Cowmeadow

    Bill Cowmeadow Second Unit

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    Do audiophiles ever actually sit down and listen to the music, or are they constantly searching for some form of audio nirvana?
     
  6. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Bill,

    It's a fair point. Many I know want to talk audio but tend to listen only to certain audiophile CDs. Personally, I have used my system to draw me into more types of music like classical and bluegrass. I do get extra excited when I have a better than average recording though. It makes the music come alive and I focus more on the performance.

    I think the ultimate goal has to be listening to music or what's the point? I tend to listen to music 10-20 hours a week on average. I spend about four probably talking about audio equipment or hitting the HTF threads.

    Lee
     
  7. Phil A

    Phil A Producer

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    Yes a very good point - Bill. I think there is a constant search for something better, although deep down we know that having the musicians in front of us in real space is the ideal. That is what is so great about HT. In general, it is possible today to get something that is better than the theater. Even a modest system can certainly come close.
     
  8. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Phil,
    Excellent post. For audio, one can now get very close to "studio reality" with the best equipment and darn close for a budget audiophile system. It is a constant quest, a relentless pursuit of perfection.
    As far as Home Theater goes, my local AMC theater has such poor projection quality, I am often amazed when I watch a DVD (especially a strong transfer) at home these days.
    And there is no cell phone or talking! [​IMG]
    Lee
     
  9. Chu Gai

    Chu Gai Lead Actor

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    in the case of Cardas' statement, charges, even minutes ones are trivial to measure and the technology is established and quite mature. in the case of crystalline simplification (less crystals per volume) the technology is also available and has been for some time. one could perform electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, perhaps other means to establish this. Cardas is doing nothing more than seeking to differentiate his product from the marketplace and trying to wrap some pseudo-science around it to give the aura of legitimacy. wetting teflon is a trivial matter as there are both lipophylic and hydrophylic surfactants that easily accomplish that...ask Dupont. there are other companies also.

    what is breaking in is your ears but its not the cables.
     
  10. Craig_Kg

    Craig_Kg Supporting Actor

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    Mr Cardas's theories would be just plausible (but only just) for DC. Sound is effectively AC with random distortion so all of his settling in theories for dielectrics and crystalline structures is invalid.
     
  11. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Craig and Chu,

    If Cardas theories are invalid, why do so many recording engineers like myself regularly observe cable break in periods that are so dramatically sonically?

    Why do respected audio journals like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound regularly make "break-in" part of their evaluation processes?

    Why do many leading musicians like Wynton Marsalis also observe the phenomena?

    By the way, George Cardas is an engineer and mathematician by background.

    Lee
     
  12. Chu Gai

    Chu Gai Lead Actor

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    Lee: in response...
    1) aside from Cardas' belief or alleged belief in cable break in, he makes certain statements about electrical charges and states how he has a special compound to take care of that problem. now you'd think that at least from an electrical empirical view he'd have some data to back up what he says. but data notwithstanding, Cardas has yet to demonstrate (I believe you have an idea of my approach to demonstration) an audible difference. To get around that he seeks to wrap a cloak of deep understanding and mythology around his products to 'show' audiophiles, that he's up on the latest fad or perhaps that he's created the latest fad. As to why you and others observe this phenomena, I can offer many ideas. Expectation, belief, peers say it, the magazines you're fond of espouse it, the musicians you enjoy have commented on it. Unsighted testing is the only way. Perhaps if you have the opportunity to record Marsalis, play a little trick on him. As he warms up switch your 'broken' in cable with a fresh one (or don't switch at all) and tell him you did. Ask him if this is better now.
    2) well as to how respected they are is a point of debate. Some have called Stereophile 'Stereophool'. Inside joke son, laugh [​IMG] In part perhaps because they believe it, in part perhaps because it generally doesn't hurt and is an accepted protocol in other sciences, in part to make their work seem more scientific than it is, in part to cater to an audience that expects it.
    3) Lots of people in the music business on either side of the fence. There are conductors who state there is no difference. If I go to heaven, I may ask this question.
    4) Noel Lee of Monster fame was employed as a laser-fusion design engineer at Lawrence-Livermore Laboratory. He also considered himself an audiophile and was a drummer. He found that wires of different constructions produced varying degrees of audio performance when hooked up to loudspeakers. Keep in mind this was in the day of 28 gauge wires. What can I say...a drummer!
     
  13. Julian Reville

    Julian Reville Screenwriter

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  14. Frank_S

    Frank_S Supporting Actor

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    Chu said, QUOTE: what is breaking in is your ears but it's not the cables."

    I'm confused by this statement, why would your ears need to adjust if the cable did'nt alter the sound? I believe you are in the "all cables sound the same camp", correct?

    So by making that statement, are you implying that all cables do not sound the same since your ears are adjusting to a different sound?
     
  15. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Julian,
    [​IMG] very, very funny!
    Chu,
    Ironically, I think Noel's cables by and large are some of the worst sounding cables out there! I love their power line conditioners, but the rest of the line is so much hype...
    Admittedly, musicians are some of the worst audiophiles I know, with some notable exceptions. Wynton and his brother Delfeayo are fairly strong however. McCoy Tyner once prefererd a certain type of microphone on his piano. AKG414 over Josephson (soft sounding) for you techies.
    Unfortunately, Wynton is locked up fairly solid in his contract and we likely won't be able to record him again soon.
    There are some scientific papers looking into this and I will track them down, but again measurements are incomplete.
    As for my friend George Cardas, he actually does have data but I'm not sure what form it is in. I will email him and try to find some results for you. Give me a day or so to get in touch with him.
    In the interim, go to your local high end stereo specialist (I like Sound By Singer and Lyric in NYC) and try some cables. Andy Singer is a nice guy and may let you listen to his JM Lab Utopias with different cables. Nordost is very good, but I don't recall what brands he carries lately.
    Lee
     
  16. John Morris

    John Morris Guest

    I believe that certain cables can sound better than other certain cables. Yet, I think burning/breaking in cables is nonsense.
     
  17. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    John,

    A reasonable point of view. There exists, however, some data on cable break in from a scientific standpoint. I will track it down for you.

    Lee
     
  18. Chu Gai

    Chu Gai Lead Actor

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    may we agreee though that beer should never be broken in or aged?

    scotch is another matter.
     

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