Digital Audio

Can Digital Cables Affect Sound Quality?

For whatever reason, a review of an “audiophile” ethernet cable has been popping up in my news feed over and over recently. It’s sort of driving me batty. I won’t link the article up here, but the conclusions were as forceful as they were ludicrous. The reviewer suggested you’d have to be deaf not to hear the difference between the audiophile ethernet cable and a regular one. After a few comments of support, a slew of electrical engineers descended on the comments suggesting that the reviewer was either on the take or a fool. At the heart, however, is the question: Can digital cables affect sound quality?

How Digital Cables Work

To start off with the obligatory disclaimer: I’m not an electrical engineer. I don’t pretend to be one. But I can Google stuff and get the opinions of people smarter and more educated than myself. One of my favorite resources when researching cables is Blue Jeans Cables. They not only sell quality cables, but they also have a wealth of informative articles about cables.

In a perfect world, the analogue cable conveys the signal in a sine wave that looks, well, like a wave. The digital cable conveys nothing but zeros and ones. This signal would look like a square wave with sharp transitions from positive to negative.

In actuality, the waveform of the digital signal can end up looking a lot like the analogue one because of many factors. But since the data is really only zeroes and ones, the signal is fairly robust. Until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, the signal completely fails. This is why people don’t often complain about HDMI cables affecting the image. They complain about them not working at all. From Blue Jeans Cables:

“But the difference between perfect rendering of a digital signal and total loss of signal can be surprisingly small; one can reach a threshold where the digital signal begins to fall apart, and not long after that threshold, find that there is no signal at all.”

Blue Jeans Cables

I’ve personally seen that small zone where an HDMI signal starts to “fall apart.” The image is obviously compromised with many sparkles and visual distortions. It wasn’t a subtle effect. It was clear that something was wrong. Swapping out cables fixed the problem.

So, Can Digital Cables Affect Sound Quality?

While visual artifacts are fairly easy for even untrained people to detect, the audiophile cloaks himself in statements that suggest that the uneducated masses couldn’t hear these differences because…reasons. They’ll say that other people’s gear isn’t good enough to reveal the differences. They’ll say their content isn’t vinyl enough. That their ears are full of cotton.

I don’t know, they say a lot of junk.

In the end, we turn back to Blue Jeans Cables:

“…if the data all get through the cable in good order, without dropped packets, “better” cable quality will make no difference to the performance of a network.”

Blue Jeans Cables

The assertion here is clear. While cables can make things sound worse, they can’t make them sound better. All a cable can do, at best, is pass the signal correctly. Anything else would indicate a failure of the cable. Most likely, a digital cable that was doing anything other than passing the signal correctly would not pass anything at all. Or, at least, not anything the equipment on the receiving end could understand. If there were alterations to the signal, they would be very manifest. They wouldn’t be hard to hear.

The suggestion that the digital cable is somehow making anything sound better is demonstrably impossible. There is no basis that I can find for it in science. A cursory knowledge of electricity, audio equipment, and 5th-grade science tells you that. Any assertion to the contrary is simply magical thinking.

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