Ask an expert: Audio Power Cables & Cords – Do they really make a difference?

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I believe that power cable can change the sound, but how is possible to spent more than you amplifier itself in a power cable....?

Hello and thank you for your most interesting question. It’s not an easy one to answer because there are so many variables. First, I am of the total belief that every change made to a system – and this includes even the fuse in the plug – makes a difference. How could it not?

These are the issues:

  1. Can YOU hear that difference?
  2. Is that difference an improvement?
  3. If so can that improvement be repeatedly demonstrated to your complete satisfaction?
  4. Finally (well, not quite but it’ll do for now) is that difference, assuming it’s an improvement, actually worth the asking price in YOUR opinion?

This uncomplicated 4-stage process has served I and my 1000’s of customers well since 1976. Well actually 1979 when I first heard the difference between the direction of speaker cables, courtesy of the senior design engineer of Trio (Kenwood in the USA). That’s a story for another time though.

Engineers can’t measure what hasn’t occurred to them, can they?

Now then, as far as I’m aware there are no measurement techniques that definitively demonstrate the differences between the extent of the effect (as distinct from the effect itself) that a power cord makes. My guess is that this is merely a matter of time, patience, intelligence and ingenuity – but not necessarily in that order!

One day there will be intelligent measurements, but my guess is not before the death of the high-end audio industry around the world.

Anyway, some people argue that if an effect cannot be measured then it cannot exist. This isn’t a view I hold simply because (as one example from millions I suspect) X-Rays could not be measured for thousands of years – but this didn’t mean that naturally occurring X-Rays didn’t exist! The existent of X-Rays did not occur concurrently with their discovery. Clearly to think this would be foolish. Correct?

Thousand of years:

And apart from anything else, it took thousands of years before anyone figured out that, theoretically, X-rays might exist. Then and only then did they start to look.

So if you will, this is a useful analogy for the situation re power cords. As far as I’m aware no one really know what to look for and until the do then clearly they won’t devise a system to measure it – whatever ‘it’ might be.

Anyway, within the industry on our side of the fence it’s fairly common knowledge that power cord success in terms of making a difference (and please bear in mind what I said earlier here about the differences between differences and improvements) has come about through experimentation, trial and error and an absence of bad luck and as far as I’m aware, very little else!

I might be doing a disservice here but intuitively I feel that any designer who categorically denies this view of this part of audiophile reality is probably, at the very least, deluding themselves – and others – and that includes reviewers. Okay so far?

So over the years, or through the years if you prefer, I've listened to many power cords in many systems in many different rooms and differing sound pressure levels and in different states of relaxation – or not as the case may be.

And my conclusions are as follows:

  1. I've heard nothing in the way of power cords beyond a retail price of £300 inc UK vat @ 20% that I’d be comfortable representing.
  2. Yes, there are one-off examples I've experienced where a seriously expensive power cord did – from time to time – elevate the sound of a system. This was very rare and the cost was prohibitive within the budget and aspirations of the potential buyer. Especially given that the experiences were not easily and consistently reproduced.

So does this mean that all power cords over £300 are a rip-off? No, not necessarily. But in all many years of experience I've rarely (as a buyer) considered spending beyond that ‘bar’

But circumstances change

Technology improves, materials become more refined – and so on, ad-infenitum I suspect. I'm open to new ideas and products and maybe, just maybe a £600 power cord will, in the context of a system, really justify its cost. Time will tell. Finally though I’d like to leave you with this though if I may.

This is plain nuts – or is it?

For anyone outside our industry and its customers, and for many insiders too, the idea of what is seemingly a ‘kettle lead’ at £300 is plain nuts. But and it’s a big, big but I have on numerous occasions experienced power cords between £50 and £300 being the least expensive tangible upgrade within the system.  Yes, really.

The power cord provided a degree of satisfaction that was as great if not greater than a change of speaker or preamp at many times that power cord price. Rare, but true.

The lesson therefore in my view is simply this. Don’t get too distracted by the apparent absurdity of the expensive ‘kettle plug’ – in isolation – because if you perceive it within the context of the entire system it just might make sense.

Howard Popeck hp@no-alibi.demon.co.uk

 

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