Curtain Call: Cable News
In 1943, when Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower received the plans for Operation Overlord from Lieutenant-General Frederick E. Morgan, one thing about this massive, audacious, and immensely complicated scheme must have needled him more than any other. “Damn it, Fred, this thing’s not cordless?!” Alas, no. The invading army of D-Day depended upon tremendous quantities of fuel, and with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, they couldn’t risk shipping it over. Knowing this, the Allies concocted a brilliant solution: an 81-mile cord, or rather a pipeline under the ocean (it was code-named Pluto).
It worked, and eventually there were more than 1,000 miles of these pipelines supplying the military as they made their way into Germany.
Nearly 70 years and the invention of countless new technologies later, we still haven’t cut the cord.
Our relationship with cables, cords, and interconnects is a complicated one. Most of us probably feel about them the way we do about, say, rain ponchos. We recognize their usefulness, appreciate them when we need them, but otherwise don’t particularly feel much affection toward them. Rare is the person who sees a forecast of thunderstorms and thinks, “Terrific, can’t wait to wear that new green rain poncho of mine!” So it is with cables. Unlike a new A/V receiver that may add functionality and look kind of sleek and important doing it, cords just lie there year after year projecting the same bland, slightly untidy appearance and doing the exact same boring job.
Our ambivalence toward them is reflected in our desire to do everything in our power to hide them. It says something that the widely agreed-upon best-case scenario for speaker cables is that they be hidden in the walls, like a rat or a particularly thin prison escapee. Renters and apartment dwellers can’t as a rule choose this option, leading to those typically delicate negotiations with one’s spouse: “I don’t want the wires running along the baseboard. It looks tacky.” “Fine. So how about I run them up the chimney, through the gutters, into the eaves on the other side of the house, through the attic, back, and around into the air-intake grate? I’ll drill out the handrail on the stairs, pull it through that, wend t under the doggy bed, and then to the surround speaker behind the couch? Would you like that?!” “Oh, sweetie, that would be great, thanks.”
Yes, I realize there exists that rare breed of audiophile who believes with all his being in the superiority of audio cables as thick as undersea fuel pipes, made of exotic metals like molybdenum or adamantium and hoisted off the floor courtesy of one of the most bizarre accoutrements in a hobby full of them: the cable riser. This is a kind of miniature beach chair designed to isolate the cable from harmful vibrations by lifting it several inches off the floor (go ahead, search it—I’m not making this up). More than that, it highlights your cables’ magnificence to visitors. People who use cable risers are to be avoided. For even if they’re right—and they’re not—that there’s some gain to be had by placing your speaker cables on little toy bridges, the whole endeavor is unseemly. It’s similar to the thousands of male bike riders who shave their legs in a desperate effort to trim several millionths of a second off their weekly ride time. The sensible response is of course, “Great, you’re faster, I guess. But your legs are shaved. If I said you could trim another few millionths of a second off by dressing as little Annie Oakley, would you do that? You would?! OK, I can’t help you.”
Most of us have neither the inclination nor the cash to buy cables braided from unicorn hair, so we’re stuck with the ubiquitous copper variety. But the difference in quality is most apparent not in the sound but in the labeling of the positive and negative wires. Cheaper cable makers take great pleasure in attempting to one-up their rivals in the unreadability of the print on their cables’ jackets. You know the kind I’m talking about: You’re on your hands and knees in a dark attic preparing to hook up your surround speakers when you look down to discover that one of the two speaker wires is labeled positive in bright-red letters, the other labeled positive in very slightly less bright-red letters. Or one will have a series of “+” signs running down it, the other a series of “+” signs, the only difference being that their horizontal cross is 1/1,000th of a centimeter longer. Right at this moment, a cable maker is smoking a huge cigar and laughing at your frustration.
So eager are we to get rid of cords that we’re willing to let manufacturers lie to us, as in the “wireless subwoofer” ruse. Sure, it has one fewer cable, but if you’re able, even in theory, to take your wireless subwoofer out of its wireless subwoofer box, hook up its wireless connection, and on your way back to the couch, trip over that wire plugged into the wall outlet, then you don’t have a wireless subwoofer!
It’s the biggest scam since low-sodium soy sauce. (Semanticists will argue that you have tripped over a cord, not a wire. That’s why I take care to avoid semanticists.)
Perhaps no cable-related activity is as unpleasant as actually purchasing them, for if you aren’t prepared for the heavy-handed sales techniques meant to shame you into buying the more expensive product, you will succumb. “Ah, I see you’ve selected our budget line. Sir, you’re aware that those will shrink your genitals and burn your house down, right?” “I’m good with that.” “OK, but we’ll need you to wear this shirt that says ‘I’m a Penny-Pinching Moron’ in order to take them out of the store.” “I’ll go slip it on.”
Yes, cables, we need you. For now. But that doesn’t mean we have to like you.