Blue Jeans Cable, in a marketing arrangement with Belden, has introduced a new line of interconnects and speaker cable, under the brand name Iconoclast. As many of you will know, Blue Jeans Cable's very creation was sort of a counter-reaction to the high-end consumer cable market, and we're famous for our run-in with Monster, the most conspicuous (though not the best-regarded) name in consumer cable. But here we are with an entry in the high-end audio market, and how we got here is a bit of a strange tale. Whether the thought of Blue Jeans Cable being involved in that market makes you cheer or makes you groan, or something else entirely, we hope you'll read along.
Analog audio cables used in commercial audio have changed relatively little over the last half century. Twisted pairs or quads for balanced audio, coaxial or shielded-conductor types for unbalanced audio, and simple twinned, stranded wire for speaker -- all of these are long-standing conventional designs, and all of them work well. They work so well, in fact, that few engineers in the wire and cable business have questioned that they are the best that can be done. They certainly ARE the best that can be done, if you're trying to keep the cost and complexity of cable manufacture under control. But if one is reaching for the skies, quality-wise, and willing to incur some more difficulty of manufacture and design, can one do it better?
Unconventional answers to that question have come, for a long time, from people who are essentially audio hobbyists with a passion. There's nothing the matter with that, but the difficulty tends to be that without appropriate design objectives in mind and without an understanding of the engineering and manufacturing trade-offs inherent in cable design, one can produce some very strange designs which may indeed sound different but which really may be poorly optimized. One sees, for example, speaker cables with immense capacitance that can interact badly with amplifiers -- they may work well on one system and burn up the final amp stage on another.
The person best situated to answer this whole question of audio cable quality in a better and more systematic way would, of course, be someone who has extensive experience in wire and cable engineering. But the wire and cable industry's attentions and research budgets are usually focused upon the novel engineering problems of such things as high-speed data cabling, where there are many millions of feet of cable to sell every year -- not upon the relatively small and foreign world of high-end audio.
Enter Galen Gareis. While the cable may be called Iconoclast, Galen is the real iconoclast here. As a (now retired) product development engineer at Belden, Galen has dealt with every sort of wire and cable phenomenon and every aspect of wire and cable theory, in connection with just about any sort of application you can think of, for decades. Confronted with his own experience of listening to different cables and finding audible differences, he had to ask: why? The "why" is at the heart of any engineering problem, because you can't optimize what you can't define. To know his thinking on this, you need to read his papers, which we have put on the iconoclastcable.com website -- but it's fair to say that Galen approaches the problem primarily from a time-domain perspective, in which aligning the timing of the different frequencies in an audio signal is a central goal. There are surprising factors involved here -- the propagation speed of signals in the audio band is highly variable, for example. While in many applications we are accustomed to higher frequencies requiring more specialized and precise designs, this is just the other way around -- propagation speeds flatten out at high frequencies making it a non-issue. Thus, while some things are vastly more difficult at extremely high frequencies, the low frequencies of analog audio turn out to present their own set of challenges.
Iconoclast cables are designed with these challenges in mind, and Galen details the reasons for his design choices. Those reasons begin, but do not end, with the basic R, L and C characteristics which are important to cable performance. The speaker cable involves a braid of bonded pairs -- converting a technique developed for data cable to an entirely new purpose -- on each polarity. The XLR cable is a star-quad design, but with conductors situated in air tubes and, in an improved "Gen 2" design, composed of four uninsulated wires in each tube separated oh-so-slightly by a tiny spline. The RCA cable is essentially a quarter-piece of the XLR, with an enhanced double shield braid, so that the cable characteristics for unbalanced audio and for balanced audio are as near to identical as can be given the difference in geometry. These cables are difficult to manufacture in bulk, and difficult to terminate properly, and these factors alone mean they are unlikely to find a permanent place in commercial installations, for reasons having nothing to do with audio quality as such.
Now, one of the things that always troubled us about the high-end cable market was the tendency for people to wax poetic about cables, in what often seems like an attempt to make florid description take the place of objective measurement. "Hail to thee, blithe spirit! Cable thou never wert!" Another thing that always troubled us was the usual lack of technical documentation -- either no justification given at all for design choices, or a justification framed in pseudo-technical language to make it sound fancy and authoritative. If Iconoclast involved those things, we'd have nothing to do with it; there is enough of what Richard Feynman called "Cargo-Cult Science" in the world already. But Galen's work is the real thing, and there's no need to wax poetic; if it helps your system sound its best, and if it's worth the money to you, that's marvelous. If it doesn't, well, de gustibus non est disputandum, and we'll take 'em back. Whether you tell us you hear a profound difference, or no difference at all, or anywhere in between, we will never tell you what you do or do not hear; and when you want to return something to us, there's no questioning and no attempt to make you change your mind -- you don't even need to call for an RMA. Just ship it back. But don't be surprised if you find yourself choosing not to do that.
Are they expensive? Yes, certainly, in relation to our usual offerings; in relation to the "high end" audio cable market, not so much; in relation to the high cost of developing and producing these designs, not at all. Are they worth it? Obviously those of us with more modest systems can find other cost-effective ways to improve audio quality, and as we've said above, there's no denying that conventional designs work very well indeed. But if you are one of those who is reaching for the utmost in audio quality, and you're interested in whether wire and cable can play a role in that, please give them a try.
We've had many opportunities over our years in business to associate ourselves with one line or another of "high-end" audio products; we have bins full of samples sent to us by factories and sales representatives. But we never took any of these proposals very seriously, until one day Steve Lampen, then a sort of technical-rep/evangelist for Belden, whispered to us that there was a real cable engineer at Belden who not only thought that different audio cable formulas sounded different, but thought he knew why and was going to do something about it. A year later we met Galen Gareis, and here we are with the most well-engineered product we can imagine.