Premium audio cable manufacturers and those that use their products are frequently the object of much hatred, ill will, hostility and insults based on the unsubstantiated notion that all such products are a scam.
For some individuals, premium cables are a problem. Some of these individuals bounce from one Internet forum to another on a crusade to save supposedly gullible individuals from being parted from their hard earned by the evil premium cable purveyors. As an engineer, I have been trained to seek the root causes of a problem in order to solve it. I asked myself the question: "Are premium cables really a problem?" If so, where did this "problem" originate?
This report looks at the origins of the premium speaker cable, interconnect and power cable markets. Since power cables are currently the most maligned segment of the premium cable market, we will begin our analysis there.
Premium Power Cables
Aftermarket power cables are thought by some to be the epitome of audio snake oil because, unlike speaker and interconnect cables, they are not in the signal chain and thus couldn't possibly have any effect on signal quality. Even people who have heard the benefits of better speaker and interconnect cables are reluctant to try a better power cord because they just don't see how it could have any possible benefit other than placebo. I have expounded at length on the fallacious nature of such sophistries in previous reports and I will not rehash them here.
Prior to the year 2000, premium power cables were not generally commercially available. The first aftermarket power cables were made by DIY (do it yourself) audio enthusiasts in order to replace the chintzy 18 gauge "zip" power cords that were permanently attached to their audio equipment. Zip cord is so named because the dual conductors are easily "zipped" apart. It was theorized, and subsequently confirmed, by some in the DIY community that the "zip" power cords that were designed for toasters, fans, lamps and other household appliances might be inadequate for audio components. People began to report good results with heavier gauge, better shielded home-made power cords. Some DIY'ers sold their power cable configurations in extremely limited quantities, typically to other audiophiles in their local communities. A large part of this was driven by the positive audible results with heavier gauge, better shielded speaker and interconnect cables that were first brought to market by the Monster Cable corporation beginning in 1979. Once the Internet began to facilitate the easier transfer of audio information among the DIY'ers in the mid 1990's, quite a bit of information on various configurations of DIY power cables became widely available.
As far as I have been able to determine, the first commercially available premium power cable was brought to market by PS Audio in 2000. Their "Lab Power Cable" was a 6 gauge triple shielded power cord terminated with IEC C13 and C14 connectors. It retailed for $400 for a three foot length. The Lab Power Cable was initially designed for one of PS Audio's "Power Plant" AC regenerators. DIY Audiophiles began to adapt this cable to other audio gear, particularly power amplifiers, with excellent results. The rest...is history. The phenomenal commercial success of the Lab cables launched an entire new product line at PS Audio and, as is usual, a variety of imitators and innovators in the premium power cable market.
The premium power cable market actually came about as a response to customer demand from the DIY community rather than slick marketing schemes by a nefarious manufacturer. The question now begs: Why would a DIY'er fork over $400 for a power cable rather than make their own? Simple: The PS Audio Lab cord outperformed anything they could economically make themselves. It is doubtful that PS Audio would have had the balls to be the first company to go to market with an aftermarket power cord, especially a $400 power cord, in 2000 if they weren't reasonably certain that they could achieve a reasonable return on their investment. After the Lab power cable, PS Audio went on to contribute a number of innovative audio grade power products (power cords, AC receptacles, power strips, power conditioners and AC regenerators).
Figures 1-3 show the original Lab Power Cable from 2000. Notice how much it looks like a DIY project. Compare the appearance of the Lab cable to the slick aesthetics and proprietary connectors and jacketing of the more recent Statement SC and Premier SC power cables shown in figure 4.
Figure 1. PS Audio Lab cable brochure photo.
Figure 2. PS Audio Lab cable connectors.
Figure 3. PS Audio Lab cable and packaging.
Figure 4. PS Audio Statement SC on left and Premier SC power cords.
Those who have been audio enthusiasts, or audiophiles, for fifteen years or more can remember when IEC connectors on audio equipment was practically non-existent. It is only within the last ten years that IEC sockets have become commonplace on audio equipment. The reason is obvious. Prior to ten years ago, there was no reason for audio gear to have detachable power cords because there were no commercially available audio grade aftermarket cords. Indeed, the International Electrotechnical Commission's (IEC's) 60320 specification for 13 types of IEC connectors was written to facilitate the interchange of power cords for appliances that were intended for international markets rather than the easy replacement of audio gear power cords.
Once audio gear manufacturers became aware that the consumers of upper mid grade and high end gear were interested in higher performance power cords, IEC sockets became commonplace on better audio components.
I used to be a collector of Sony ES components from the mid-1980-s to mid 1990's. I gleefully replaced the captive power cords on my XA7ES CD player, TA-F707ES and TA-F808ES integrated amps, TA-E90ES and TA-E9000ES preamplifiers, ST-S730ES tuner and TA-N90ES power amplifier. I heard better overall clarity and improved bass performance with every replacement. Furthermore, noise spectrum measurements of the stock and aftermarket cords confirmed that the aftermarket cords filtered more noise from the environment and power line.
Premium Speaker And Interconnect Cables
[***Disclaimer: I know that many on this forum viscerally despise Noel Lee and the Monster Cable corporation for their real, imagined and alleged business practices. I ask that you take any Monster bashing comments to another thread. This is meant to be a discussion on premium cable history, not Monster's business practices. Thank you for your understanding.***]
The first premium cable product was brought to market in 1979 by Noel Lee's Monster Cable corporation. The Original Monster Cable was a 12 gauge wire with associated claims that its better stranding geometry and higher purity copper resulted in more faithful transmission of the audio signal. The Original Monster Cable is one of the most successful products in the audio industy and is still being sold today, 30 years after its introduction. Mr. Lee, a mechanical engineering graduate of the California Polytechnic State University and a former research engineer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and a former professional musician (drummer in a rock band), demonstrated his new cable at the 1979 Consumer Electronics Show with resultant rave reviews.
Members of the audio DIY community had been experimenting with heavier gauge speaker cables and DIY interconnects for some time. From awareness of those efforts, and the warm reception at the 1979 CES, Mr. Lee perceived that there was an untapped market for high performance audio cables. This encouraged him to offer his cables commercially. The rest, as they say, is history.
Figure 5. Prior to Monster Cable, there were
no cable debates. Can you imagine that?
Prior to Monster Cable, speakers were connected to amplifiers with the same 18 gauge zip cord that ran to most common household appliances. This cable was so cheap that it was usually supplied free of charge with the purchase of a set of speakers. Monster Cable, on the other hand, cost 50 cents a foot. A person needing a 15 foot pair would have to pay an additional $15 over the cost of the speakers. The 2009 equivalent of $15 in 1979 dollars is $50. Asking someone to pay the equivalent of an additional $50 for something they were used to getting for free was a ball$y move on Monster Cable's part...but lots of customers said they were able to hear a significant improvement and they eagerly forked over the ca$h.