The "Snake Oil" Trope

Yeah I know, a controversial topic, but after 30+ years of hearing both sides and seeing how the argument has evolved over the years, I want to say my piece.

First, I want to debunk the idea of ever using the term, "Snake Oil" because it has been incorrectly appropriated and is not being applied genuinely. For a product to be "Snake Oil" it isn't a simple matter of, "it doesn't do what it claims to do." It has to contain a few more qualities. Chief among them, the materials or ingredients have to be fake, falsified, or non-existent. I have yet to encounter a single premium cable manufacturer who has claimed to use copper or silver and it was fake.

This would be an example of cable "Snake Oil" if it existed:

Company claim: "A 10 gauge speaker wire made of ten 9's pure silver, extracted from conflict-free mines, using NASA quality FEP dielectrics, braided in 24 strands of 17 gauge wire, all concealed in the newly developed element, Star-Spangled-Bannerite, that enhances and boosts all frequencies, repairing broken audio as it travels down the conductor."

Reality: Cutting open the wire you find 3 strands of 14 gauge aluminum wire, wrapped in Glad's saran-wrap, threaded through a 10 gauge rubber garden hose, covered in a fancy colored net.

My biggest problem with the nay-sayer community is the hypocrisy of their accusation that premium quality cables are "Snake Oil" when their charts, measurements and tests have the same level of skepticism they purport to debunk. Using "Snake Oil" to prove "Snake Oil?" Ask yourself the following questions when you next see some online or vlog rant about how cables don't make a difference and they have the measurements to prove it:

1) Did they actually connect the cables to speakers and listen?
2) If they made measurements, did they show you how those cables were connected when they conducted the tests?
3) If it is a vlog, did they show in the video live footage of them conducting the test or is everything after-the-fact?
4) How does the test prove quality and how does the author quantify "quality?"

99% of the time the answer is "no." You just see people posting pictures of charts that could have been made using any form of software.  Heck, I could make one in Photoshop that dictates any conclusion I want. The truth is, there isn't a single form of equipment or measurement software that tests the actual perceived quality or clarity of a signal.

For example, "that guy" from Audioholics posted a video bashing a $4000 Audioquest speaker cable.  He claims to have run it through tests and he posted pictures of graphs that he gave conclusions for.  Not once did he show how it was connected to the machines or equipment. More over, he claimed to have broken the cable, by easily snapping off the banana plug (made of pure copper coated in silver). Well, if that were true, then how could he have possibly connected the cable correctly to test it?  He also claimed the cable was on loan from Audioquest.  Red flag. Audioquest does not send out one speaker cable to test; they'd have sent out a pair.  He also wasn't at all concerned that he had broken a $4000 loaner cable.  Therefore, I suspect someone else broke their own cable and let "this guy" borrow it for a video. Lastly, he claims to test the effectiveness of the "DBS" system by showing you a digital read out on some other machine.  He claims to unplug the DBS system screen, and the digital read out changes. That makes absolutely no sense, since the DBS system isn't tied to the actual conductors or connectors. It's a charged loop from end to end and only keeps the insulation's dielectric field charged. So unplugging it while a signal is being passed through the cable wouldn't change anything. Therefore,  the nay-sayer argument, in this instance, was nothing more than "Snake Oil" trying to prove "Snake Oil."

Another time, someone was given a premium XLR cable, but had no idea what an XLR cable was.  They didn't recognize the connector format; a red flag straight away!  Then goes on to claim all the different measurements they took from it and how it was no better than the free cables you get from manufacturers.  Well, if that is true, how was this cable connected to the equipment? If he didn't know what the XLR format was, then it stands to reason they didn't have an XLR input on the equipment they used to test. Therefore, how in the world was this an equitable or viable test of the quality if the cable's conductors weren't all being used correctly during the test? Not once did this person connect it to an audio system to say how it sounded. How do electrical measurements translate into sound quality if one refuses to listen to it?

My final argument against the nay-sayers is one they all have the most trouble with. They don't use the Scientific Method.  For example, where's the control in these tests? What system or cable do they universally *ALL* agree is perfect and that they test against? The systems and cables always change and are never consistent. Why is it that they argue for an A / B test, but aren't willing to set one up for themselves? As if it's someone else's responsibility because they refuse to be responsible for their conclusions. Why is it that they only test low end or middle grade cables, but never seem to run these tests on the highest levels? Why is it that the majority of nay-sayers never purchase any of this equipment to find out for themselves?

What I have discovered after 30+ years of arguing this topic, is that the nay-sayers just don't want to have to buy expensive cables.  Instead they seek out any form of cognitive bias they can find to use as justification to not buy it.  Then suddenly concern themselves with other people's purchase power and tell them not to purchase such cables, as if these people are spending their money. Or they claim that they should have spent all that money on better equipment. Touche', but if they bought better equipment, they'd still buy premium cables to push that better equipment. That's like saving your money to buy a Lamborghini, then deciding on buying 15 inch steel rims with narrow tires for it because wheels are wheels...they bought a better vehicle, so won't need premium tires...or premium gas because the engine is superior. *eye roll.* What it seems to boil down to is that they don't like the idea that just buying premium cables alone can surpass a high grade, well-engineered system. To borrow from my car analogy, buying premium tires for a 4-cylynder hatch back won't make it go any faster, but it will effect some performance, likely gas mileage and road grip. Using the same analogy, buying better cables is akin to buying a turbo kit, back-exhaust system, better suspension, better intake valves, better cold air filters, etc to make that 4-cylinder hatch back perform nearly as well as a stock   Lamborghini.

Final thoughts, "Snake Oil" salesmen back in the day weren't just interested in defrauding their customers, they wanted to do it with the least amount of effort. They didn't try to get authentic, high quality ingredients to make the oil look or taste better.  They used whatever was on-hand and as free as possible. Cable companies sure seem to go out of their way to acquire the best possible conductors and materials, and have R&D teams engineer complicated wire geometries and spend years finding ways to treat the cables, or develop active tech to impact the signal, just so they can make a few bucks. If the product had absolutely no impact on sound quality, at all,  it wouldn't take long for well-engineered systems to reveal their faults and the industry would tank, almost over night. Clearly, they haven't and it's because it isn't "Snake Oil" no matter how many times that old trope is trotted out.

One of the serious problems in this entire discussion is that the perception of "quality" is 100% subjective to the listener, the state of the equipment, the room it is being conducted in, and health of the listener. After years of auditioning my system to people, I realized it isn't a simple matter of asking, "How did that sound to you." You have to be very specific.  Ask, "Did you hear that specific sound?"  9 times out of 10, they'll say they didn't hear it.  So you play it again and point it out.  Then they light up and realize that no matter how many times they heard that song, they had never heard that particular sound.  Then they go and compare it to the car radio or through their device's ear buds and realize they cannot hear it or couldn't hear it as clear.  Then they come to respect what you're trying to achieve.

What intrigues me is that a person can claim to hear the difference between speakers and amps, but magically can't hear the difference between cables? It's just tribal nonsense.

I definitely can hear differences between speakers and amps, and only sometimes hear differences in cables.  And when I do hear differences in cables there's a much lower impact to overall sound than amp/speaker pairing.  Because this is what I hear doesn't make my view "correct" - it's just how I perceive things and it certainly isn't "magic".  The fact that you and others do hear much more substantial differences in cables and their impact to overall sound is great...and I don't dismiss it as tribal nonsense.  Hopefully the fact that I'm perceiving the impact of gear on sound differently certainly doesn't warrant the categorization of "tribal nonsense". Let's just all put our priorities towards where they make us happy.

Hopefully we agree on that - everyone's views based on their own experiences is valid - none of it is nonsense.

" And when I do hear differences in cables there’s a much lower impact to overall sound than amp/speaker pairing. "

But that’s your system, yes? Those are your speakers, and your amp(s). It’s your experience. I don’t have your system. I don’t have your speakers. Likewise, you most likely haven’t purchased the cables I have purchased, or the power systems I have used. There is absolutely no way to equate our experiences; correct? However, you also aren’t denying that cables make a difference. Ergo, you don’t belong in the tribe I am speaking to. ;)

With that said, I agree that back in the day, when I only ever changed the speaker cables, and nothing else, there were not drastic improvements in sound quality. The same was true with interconnects. The advances were minimal, but they were present; enough for me to believe that cables do matter. Additionally, that was also back when I spent no more than $100 for cables. Not because I was skeptical. It was because I couldn’t afford more than that 25+ years ago. As time progressed, my pocketbook and budget progressed. I was able to go up the cable ladder to $300 and $500 cables and eventually $1000+ cables. As you go up the chain the changes start to get more drastic. As if the manufacturers are holding WAY back on their lower end. It’s not too dissimilar to other marketing campaigns in other industries, where you create an impossibly expensive product in order to sell more of the product that sits just below it because the profit margin is higher.

Then I got into power sources and power cables. Then everything changed. I realized that power was far more important than the speaker cables or the interconnects, regardless of price point. They make the most drastic changes over all.

So I would say that if you invested in only speaker cables and interconnects, take a chance on power sockets, power distributors and power cables.
@guakus  It's nice to see we are finding common ground to agree on.  You are exactly correct in that what I have heard only applies to gear in my well as through my ears.  How your system and gear swaps within would sound to me (let alone you) are things I couldn't possibly comment on. 

And I certainly do not deny that cables can make a difference...I have heard differences for sure.  But I also believe some people don't hear differences and I don't think they belong to a "tribe" simply because they haven't heard the differences.  Where I do think they belong to a "tribe" is if they deny that it's possible for audible differences to exist between cables.

I've had interesting experiences in power distribution equipment - mainly conditioners.  I've discovered (to my ears and within my systems) that while linear conditioners and power regenerators may substantially reduce noise and lower the noise floor, they tend to degrade the dynamics.  The only products that I've used that both reduce noise (RFI/EMI/DC on the line) while not killing dynamics have been the isolation transformers.  I have not had much success in gaining SQ from power cords except in one notable instance with my Sugden A21SE.  For whatever reason just upgrading to a $200 cord makes a substantial improvement.  So once again - I agree that these things make a difference and perhaps our experiential differences are a matter of degree.

Yeah, I skipped the "re-generator" products.  I had heard that it kills dynamics and for the cost, that wasn't worth the risk.  Instead, I went with a power distributor that uses heavy gauge copper and uses internal power conditioning. The Shunyata Venom V16 along with their Reference Delta v2 XC. Since I previously used Audioquest's Powerquest 3 distributor and linear filter, I can tell you that the Shunyata setup surpasses Audioquest's by leaps and bounds.

I became disillusioned with Audioquest's NRG power cables.  For the price, their impact on audio applications awere severely limited.  For TVs and monitors on the other hand, they have much better impact. I had the NRG Z2, their highest model with an IEC C7 connection, attached to my Audioengine A2+.  It was "ok." It really didn't have much of a noticeable impact over the NRG Y3 running through Shunyata's C13 to C7 converter that preceded it.  The NRG Z2 is a $200 cable. Then I got the Kimber Kable Ascent P14 using Wattgate's Audiophile-grade IEC C7 connector; a $450 cable. That was a drastic change in sound quality.  The speakers sort of "awoke" with a much broader (wider) sound stage. By the time I upgraded to the Kimber Kable Palladian P14, a $1400 cable, it improved the entire over all dynamics. The beginnings of a holographic sound stage, with extended depth to sustain, decay and more punch to note attacks. More realistic vocals.  When I finally acquired the Venom V16 with the Delta cable, it was transcendent for me. Songs that sounded completely flat across the board, suddenly became more engaging. For example, Herb Albert's Tijuana Brass, "Whipped Cream and Other Delights."  It's a very old recording and I used to blame that on how flat sounding the recording is. Apparently, you have to have a very high resolving system to play those recordings back.  They finally sounded musical with fantastic imaging and high definition resolving sound, like the reverberation in the trumpets and the sustain of the cymbals, and overall clarity.  The layering and timing just seemed perfect and I have been listening to that album since it was only available on vinyl (showing my age now.)  It was as if you were live in the studio hearing the track being recorded from the mixing table. 

At present, I removed all the Audioquest cables out and replaced them with Synergistic's Foundation line.  Currently, the sound quality for me is phenomenal and likely far beyond what Audioengine's engineers ever expected an end user to push them to. :) It was worth it.
I've always heard differences between cables, even when I had relatively lower resolution systems. I auditioned tons of cables through lending library at Cable Company over a period of years. Minimum price was around $1k for any cable up to max price around $5k for any cable (this mid 2000's, these mid 2000 prices, adjust today's price for inflation). My take away was not always direct correlation between price/performance. And then, of course, some cables more sympathetic with one's system than another, this may also impact price/performance ratio. I most clearly heard differences based on metallurgy of cable, I can't imagine anyone not hearing difference between copper and silver cables! I also tried mixtures of metallurgy such as gold/silver and silver plated copper, slightly less difference here. I also tried variety of cable geometries and dielectrics, heard differences here as well, although not to same degree as metallurgy. In degree of difference, in general I heard greatest from power cords, then speaker cables, last IC and digital.
And so, now to today. One would think I'd be using extremely high priced cables after having heard and/or owned so many at all price points. On the contrary, I now exlusively use relatively low priced diy  power cords, a Helix design made with Vh Audio Airlock hot cable, various others for neutral and ground. These around $350 to $500 each to make. I use Cardas Golden Reference or DIY Helix with Vh Audio or Duelund IC and speaker cables. Not top of line or highest cost cables by any means.
So, what does this all mean in the end for me? While I hear differences between cables, I'm agnostic as to price. I've previously owned much higher priced cables such as Kimber Cable Trifocal XL, Purist Audio Dominus, close to top of line Synergistics, Shunyata Anaconda, Nordost Valhala, Siltech forget the model, Revelation Audio Labs silver, and some others I"m forgetting. All were nice, have no complaints, but they're all gone, what does that say? I'm not going to say the Helix is the greatest, I'd likely be happy with any of above. I will say the fact I've owned higher priced cables points to my having heard improvements vs lower priced cables. In general, the best highest price cables had greater resolution, transparency, frequency extension than best medium price. Keep in mind I heard a lot of high priced cables that didn't outperform lower priced. I culled my purchases from many more high priced cables auditioned I didn't find impressive, at least in my system.

I don't recommend any particular cable, or any price level of cable, none is the best for all situations. In the end, all I can say is cables sound different. Don't take my word for it, nothing can take the place of personal experience. You don't need to enrich cable manufacturers, diy on the cheap, bypass what you consider snake oil salesmen.  And if you still refuse to hear, I don't care, its fine to not believe they don't sound different, its not my place or need to inform you otherwise. Just as I don't speak for you, you shouldn't speak for me.