Smackdown: The Amazing Randi & Ars Technica Take On An Ethernet Cable!

All the the world's a staging and there's no bigger stage than Las Vegas and no bigger lover of that stage than James Randi. Ars Technica along with the James Randi Educational Foundation are going to put an AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet cable to the test! Well actually they are going to put whoever takes part in the test to the test the results of which will tell us everything we wanted to know about these listeners listening to the test gear and music in the test environment. But hey, I love the scientific method as much as the next guy especially when it's tarted up and paraded on stage in Vegas in front of paying skeptical spectators. That sounds like the perfect impartial crowd in a perfectly natural and acoustically sound environment for a listening test, no? I'll be hanging on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how they didn't hear a difference.

From Ars Technica's Lee Hutchinson (who seems like a nice guy):

"We’ll be testing a pair of Audioquest Vodka Ethernet a controlled blind listening test with a wide variety of audio samples and a wide variety of listeners. The goal will be to see if a statistically significant number of test subjects can differentiate between a Vodka cable and a cheap Amazon Basics Cat5 Ethernet cable of the same length."
While I think a more productive way to spend our time and money would be to drink vodka and listen to music, The Amazing Ethernet Challenge will take place this Sunday, July 19th at the Tropicana, the last day of the JREF "Million Dollar Challenge" event. I don't believe the million dollar part applies to this Ethernet test although I think it only fair if the test shows a statistically significant result they send me the million bucks since they refer to me numerous times as a "proponent".

One other Amazing! prediction: No matter the outcome of this test, the enjoyment I've experienced using the AudioQuest Ethernet cables in my system to listen to music these past few years will not suddenly vanish in a poof of smoke. Now that would be a great trick!

You can read Lee's entire article on Ars Technica and treat yourself to the 200+ comments (and counting).

CG's picture

I don't mean to offend IT folks and other members of the software profession, but this is exactly why various networks and connections don't perform to their capabilities.

Actual electronic transmission, whether "digital" in encoded format or pure analog, really are due to charge movement, electromagnetic fields, and all those things taught in physics classes. Digitally encoded and processed transmission does allow for various forms of processing to take place that can often mitigate transmission imperfections or even eliminate them. Yea!

Unfortunately, this often comes at a penalty.

In most cases, it effects through-put and data rates. In others, the noise may not effect the bit recovery, but it does find its way into the needed analog circuitry and degrades performance there.

That's just the way it is.

Thinking of it as just objects that are manipulated through abstract forms of computation doesn't really solve the problem. It just ignores the details. (This is true not only with audio - far from it)

But, I guess every form of religion has its own core immutable tenets.

drblank's picture

I just downloaded the Audioquest price book and just did some quick reading. The bulk cables that Audioquest sells are Cat 6 and Cat 7 and from the looks, the Vodka might be at least Cat 7, so why would they want to compare a Cat 5 cable to a Cat 7? I don't know, the whole thing sounds kind of silly. I doubt they are going to have a good enough listening room with a low enough noise floor, proper room treatment, good source material and play music at appropriate levels and give people a long enough period of time to compare. In all listening tests there are too many variables they can control to control the outcome of the evaluation. Since Randi is controlling the tests, I'm sure he'll tout it as being scientific, but I'm sure there will be flaws he won't admit to.

I've personally have had zero experience using ethernet cables in a audio system, so I have no idea how the best testing environment should be, but I'm sure they'll orchestrate it so that Randi wins so he doesn't lose his credibility amongst the masses that believe what he says. After all, he's an admitted con artist.

Clever Dean's picture

Could you expound on this as it pertains to the typical home environment?

My setup is Cable modem in router mod to a Netgear ProSafe 16 port GB Switch. Off the switch I have a NetGear ReadyNAS 314 with two GB NICs in a fault tolerant and load balanced team.

I typically am getting around 85 MB a second (depending on the protocol) FTP is the quickest...

My client machine is a QuadCore Intel based mainboard. Powered by a 12 volt linear regulated power supply feeding the barrel connector (vs using a switch mode power supply going to the 24 pin ATX connector).

Windows 7 with JRiver and feeding a Cambridge DAC Magic Plus.

I'm using Tera Cables for all my networking cables. The are all CAT 7.

So I guess my question is what can I to improve my through put. I've ran Microsoft network monitoring tool and am seeing zero errors.

The network uses jumbo frames and doing offloading a the NIC on the client computer.

voster's picture

I know this is an old comment, but it has to be said: if you're worried about noise that cause "transmission imperfections" leaking into actual audio analogue circuitry, then you should also be worried the transmission itself!

The fact that there is a transmission down an ethernet cable or whatever is itself noise to audio circuitry, however close to "perfect" its transmission.

Ideally, a good hardware designer would already have thought of as many of these issues as possible and designed it appropriately to isolate these effects as much as possible.

But certainly, noise on an ethernet cable's not gonna be the main issue, one would surmise.

CG's picture

One might surmise that.

However, the devil is always in the details and it's not always so easy to undo what has already been done.

For example, I am told by technical folks who ought to know that one of the challenges of Gigabit Ethernet connections is crosstalk between the pairs within the cable. Once the crosstalk occurs, it's very hard to deal with.

In addition, Ethernet is very noisy. The encoding scheme and various protections in the Ethernet protocol recognize this and do what they can to mitigate the effects. The originators of the protocol recognized that and built those functions right in. That doesn't mean that the electrical noise magically disappears, only that the data processing engines can extract the desired data stream from the noise and reassemble what was sent.

That's where the IT guys tend to get it wrong. One processing block doesn't completely turn gray mushy bits into crispy black and white. It just brings more focus and more, but not completely, transparent gray. No fancy block system diagram will change that. There still is a bunch of noise leaked from block to block.

Besides, the analog parts of the system can't do that anyway.

Nor can your ears.

You can certainly train yourself to hear what you want to and ignore the rest. That's the basis of various compression schemes. But, almost always, something is lost. Whether that is important or significant to you is up to your aural processing system and what your own preferences might be.

Bill Leebens's picture

Or is it the ghost of that self-promoting old coot?

Hmm..seems to me that the ever-so-ethical Randi bailed on his million dollar challenge when it became clear that Mikey Fremer could, indeed, distinguish between cables something like 90% of the term.

So sad to see a once-entertaining performer like Randi--think of his Alice Cooper days-- turn into yet another clickbait whore.

drblank's picture

admitted con artist?

drblank's picture

covering this challenge with Mr. Fremer?

Bill Leebens's picture

Scroll down a bit. Randi's version is whiny and disdainful. I believe Michael.

PDQ.Bach's picture

" …in a controlled blind listening test with a wide variety of audio samples and a wide variety of listeners. The goal will be to see if a statistically significant number of test subjects can differentiate between a Vodka cable and a cheap Amazon Basics Cat5 Ethernet cable of the same length. "

I admire Randi, and he has often rendered sterling service to rationality in debunking frauds.

But if the above is what passes for experiment design in this particular case, they’re heading for a glorious wreck, already leaking from a multitude of holes.

Multiple, uncontrolled, possible nested, probably interdependent, partly hidden variables: a statistical nightmare. No specified model testing that I can see.

Chronicle of a statistical disaster foretold: the tests may turn out formally significant, but actually meaningless.

Don’t they ever learn?

Clever Dean's picture

Hasn't been revealed as of yet. Depending on the what the theory being tested is a broad cross section of participants may be in order.

I know it was said the differences for the higher end cables were very apparent. If that is the working theory then I could see a large cross section.

I would like to know the actual testing protocol and the equipment chain soup to nuts.

drblank's picture

been invited to validate their implementation and testing criteria? I would be interested to see what Audioquest's response is.

I've never used Ethernet cables in an audio system, so I can't really say much about it, other than I do know that in a recording studio environment, they are very critical and concerned about latency issues when they are overdubbing and dealing with AD converters. No one seems to even discuss this in the audiophile community because latency is not an issue in a home stereo environment like it is in a recording studio environment. I have read on Audioquest's site that their higher end cables have low latency, so maybe that's the real issue why one might want to buy a more expensive ethernet cable.

I just went to Audioquest's site and they mention things that aren't necessarily associated with better sound quality. Here's what Audioquest's site mentions on their Diamond and Vodka Ethernet cables.

" For audio applications and protocols, audio over Ethernet offers the virtues of high-speed, low time delay (latency), significant distance capability (328 feet without an active booster or repeater), and extremely low-jitter, bit-perfect communication."

Some of this has nothing to do with audio quality as it does not requiring an active booster or repeater for long cable runs, or low time delay (latency) which is important in an recording studio environment.

So I don't know if Audioquest is saying that their cables sound better, but Randi's test seem to be revolved around sound quality. Audio quest does mention lower jitter and if there is a test that can measure jitter, then they need to break out a high quality jitter measurement tool that Audioquest approves.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
"RJ/E Pearl combines Solid Long-Grain Copper conductors with our geometry-stabilizing Solid High-Density Polyethylene insulation in a simple, but handsome PVC jacket. The durable gold-plated connectors provide 100% shield coverage and feature an extra- strong tab for flawless performance. RJ/E Forest upgrades Pearl’s copper conductors with our Solid 0.5% Silver conductors, while the still-affordable RJ/E Cinnamon adds an attractive black-and-red braid and takes another step up to higher-purity Solid 1.25% Silver conductors. Vodka’s Solid 10% Silver conductors offer improved clarity and detail, while its Carbon-Based 3-Layer Noise-Dissipation System (NDS) shields the shields, absorbing and reflecting most of the sonically detrimental noise/RF energy before it reaches the layer attached to ground. Finally, our top-of-the-line RJ/E Diamond makes the big jump up to our highest quality metal—Solid 100% Perfect-Surface Silver (PSS) conductors—and adds our patented Dielectric-Bias System (DBS) for unrivaled performance, with clearer overall sound, extraordinary detail, and stunning dynamic contrasts."

AudioQuest US Retail Price Book

drblank's picture

have too many flaws and they probably can't be done in a fashion where it's completely fair. When I listen to cables, I don't have any preconceived notion as to what they are going to sound like. I just plug them in, if I can hear a noticeable difference within a short period of time, then I can, if I can't, then I have to give myself an extended period of time so that I can become more familiar with the cable listening to a wide variety of recordings at various volume levels enough so I can give it a fair evaluation. Do I need to be blind folded? NO. I don't normally listen to my stereo blindfolded, so blind folding me is just going to disorient me and I probably would just end up guessing because of that disorientating condition.

For me with regards to digital cables, I have only heard a difference between coax cables and the difference was essentially graininess, but it was between two specific cables that I tested, one I was very familiar with and then a new one that I was actually skeptical about it actually sounding any different. I try to be as skeptical as I can before hand since I have to prove to myself that it's worth spending more money. I hate spending money on cables, but I know that in certain circumstances they can make a difference, it's just a matter of whether the difference is worth the extra $$ spent.

voster's picture

"When I listen to cables, I don't have any preconceived notion as to what they are going to sound like."

You probably have different biases at work at different times. It's incredibly difficult to be aware of our biases (read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, of course). But I would say that we will always have some cognitive bias at all times. To say that we don't would always be inaccurate.

drblank's picture

where I didn't think cables would make a difference, so I was going into the listening session with a bias that cables make a difference and then I listened to cables that I haven't tried before and I heard a difference. So, was my bias influencing my listening?

I go into any listening test with a lot of skepticism.

But I at least go in with an open mind to actually see if I hear a difference or not, sometimes I don't hear a difference and sometimes I do.

I will say that I spent many hours over the course of many months of trying various brands and models of cables to figure out what to actually listen for. After 20+ years of diligently changing equipment, Cables, speakers, electronics, there are certain things thaI I listen for first as I am sensitive to distortions in the mid range frequencies and what happens is that these distortions cause a pain that I have a low tolerance. If I encounter that pain, I have to shut off the system because it hurts too much. I found out about this when I attended a concert and they were using two different types of speakers (different technologies) where the seats past a certain row they were using old Voice of the Theater type speakers with multi cell horns and then when you pass a certain row, they used a newer speaker type that used different types of horns and they had DSP processing (Meyer Sound Labs). I didn't even know anything because I simply wasn't looking at the speakers they used, I just noticed that when I walked to my seat, there was a row that I passed and it sounded completely difference and it just sounded pleasant and it didn't hurt my ears at all. But the older VoT speakers did, it was VERY noticeable to me. Since then, I talked with various sound engineers and they explained how distortions can cause hearing problems, pain, etc.

So, I leveraged that experience to listen to stereo equipment. When I listen to certain recordings that I know really well, I know that there shouldn't be any ear fatigue with good equipment. I had a new system that I put together and I couldn't set the volume very loud as it would cause ear fatigue. I'm listening to it at much lower than 85dB ave SPL, which shouldn't cause any hearing problems. I was using lower end interconnects (it was a powered speaker so I didn't need speaker cables). I tried a brand of cables I never used before so I didn't know what to expect. I plugged them and the difference was just completely different. At the same SPL, listening to the same recording, with one brand of cable I had a pain in my ears and with another brand, i didn't. This is a method that I employ because I simply can't tolerate lots of distortion. I found myself being able to listen to my entire catalog of recordings at 85dB all day long and no pain in my ears, no ear fatigue. But with other cables, i couldn't listen to even one recording for longer than a couple of minutes at the same SPL.

Some people simply don't know what to listen for, have trashed hearing from listening to music at loud SPL, etc.

Even after taking the Harmon How to Listen app, that further helped me in terms of what to listen for. I would say that most people don't know how to listen to cables. Much like the average person can't tell within a 5 cent difference in pitch. There have been university tests where the average person compared to a trained musician in terms of just pitch. A trained musician could tell the difference in 2 cent difference, and an untrained listener needed at least a 5 cent difference in pitch. But cables is not about pitch, it's about timbre, which is a much more difficult topic and far more difficult for the average listener.

yes, for subjective tests there is a likelihood of bias if you aren't aware of it, but I think it's possible to remove bias. But I will say that a lot of the anti cable people have just as much bias as those that are pro cables, if not more and some of it might be tied to the fact that either they don't have the money to buy expensive cables and they are jealous of those that do, or they simply don't know how to listen to subtle differences, or they have damaged hearing and aren't aware of it, etc.

I will always refer back to who I think is qualified to judge equipment and that is a top, well respected mastering engineer. They, as far as I'm concerned, are the most qualified due to several reasons.

1. They have soundproof rooms where there is little influence by outside noises, so their noise floor for the room is much lower.
2. They have well treated rooms so they avoid room acoustics causing problems.
3. They are listening to master recordings, something that most of us don't have. We have dumbed down versions of what they are listening to.
4. They listen to recordings and understand timbre because that's what they do for a living so their ears are better trained than the average listener.

I have learned to remove my biases as much as I can and I usually take a "prove it" attitude before I decide if I can hear a difference. I didn't say I always hear a difference, because sometimes I don't. But many times I do and I simply can't deny the difference, especially when the difference is that noticeable. It's too bad you weren't in the room when I switched cables so you could hear what I was hearing. You might have heard the same thing and been as excited about the difference. Just because a book says that we always have biases doesn't mean it's the truth. I certainly don't believe everything I read, regardless of what someone else says about the book, article. I like to see for myself.

Clever Dean's picture

I've been on their site but for the life of me can not find a CAT7 cable from them.

Am I missing something here?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
The bulk cable comes in CAT6 and CAT7 while the RJ/E Ethernet line is, I believe, all CAT 7. I know that all of the AQ Ethernet cables I've had here including the Forest, Cinnamon, Vodka, and Diamond are Cat 7.
Clever Dean's picture

The Vodka and Diamond use something like either a Siemens or Telegaertner. I know that the Telegaertner is only a 6a plug.

So no matter what cable AQ is using it can not be better than it's weakest link.

I looked at their lower end cables and they all look to be old school 8P8C terminations.

We use Tera cabling for patch and they are all GG45 connectors. This is the CAT7 specified connector that is backward compatible with 8P8C. That is key here.

If any company is going to know cabling and the spec I would think AQ would. It's a bit disconcerting and makes me wonder about their other offerings if they didn't get this correct.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I should have been clearer - the terminated cables that AQ sells use CAT7 cable with 8P8C connectors (yes, Telegärtner are used on the Vodka and Diamond).
ednaz's picture

As a long time student of cognitive biases and cognitive failures in humans, I can tell you that without really careful design, you'll get bad results. If someone in the room slightly nods their head during one sample, and looks down during another, the person being tested will be significantly more likely to agree with the first sample and disagree with the second. So, if the person running the test knows which is which, they'll color the results towards their bias. If the person running the test doesn't know, those small cues will inject randomness into a process that may in fact not be random.

For the curious, read "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnemann, where he explains dozens of experiments conducted over the years that reliably show how cognitive bias works. We are so vulnerable... if you put a pencil in your mouth sideways, so that it pulls your lips back, your muscle memory reads "smile" and you'll respond more favorably than without the pencil in your mouth. Sounds crazy, but there are dozens of experiments that have produced the same results. When I coach someone on presentations, I teach them to every so slightly nod their head, and look to see if the room is nodding with them. If they are, they're being well received and believed. If not, they're not connecting. But 90% of the time, the whole room will be nodding along with the speaker.

The best shot at an unbiased test would have only the test subject in the room, controlling the source switching and recording the results. A lot of control over perfect loudness matching and room dynamics. And, a top end system. I have several systems in my home and studio, and I can hear the difference between 44/16 and 48/24 on some, but not on others.

Clever Dean's picture

When someone says you can't tell the difference between Vanilla and Chocolate ice cream blind when you have clearly stated there is a not so subtle difference. That it is plainly apparent?

How does such a strong and black and white statement get muddled in testing?

I understand your point where someone says 'I think' I heard, or saw, or tasted a difference. But what about when it is said the difference is easy?

ednaz's picture

The proper analogy wouldn't be vanilla versus chocolate, but cabernet from Napa versus cabernet from Paso Robles. We're not talking about gramophone versus $10,000 audiophile system. The differences are small enough that a poorly designed experiment can induce observational doubt or bias. I think it's altogether possible that if you're not a skilled listener - the audio equivalent of having a good palate for wine - you'll not hear the difference. For me, cabernet is pretty much cabernet, but there are thousands of people who can tell you which vineyard a cabernet came from.

However, I do suggest you read the book because there are some really good examples of how to make people believe that something is true, when it is without doubt objectively not true. And how to get people to agree to things are inconsistent with their beliefs.

Clever Dean's picture

My question wasn't an analogy. What happens when there is an over broad statement.

So what about someone that says X or Y cable is a night and day difference in say the bass slam of a system?

I'm going to see if the book is available on Kindle Unlimited. Thanks for the tip.

otaku's picture

The event was supposed to be July 17-19. Today is the 21st. Do we have the results?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...on the Ars Technica website. I'll comment here when they are published.
Clever Dean's picture

Today is the 20th. Not the 21st. I'm assuming it's going to take a few days.

I know they used headphones.... That's about it.

cundare's picture

I assume that these guys will allow Mike Fremer and John Atkinson, working together, to set up the test gear and methodology, right? Otherwise, this whole exercise is just masturbation. Feels good while you're doing it, but ultimately gets you nowhere.

Vigna ILaria's picture

You quote Lee Hutchinson as stating that the test will determine whether "... a statistically significant number of test subjects can differentiate ..." between different ethernet cables in an audio system.

I don't see where the statistical significance of the number of "successful" test subjects comes into it. It should be treated instead as an existence theorem. If just one person can be found who can consistently identify which cable is which according to its sonic signature, then surely that would be enough to prove that audible differences do exist. The fact that the other participants can't tell would surely be irrelevant.

What the implications would be of a finding that the number of individuals who can detect the differences is exceedingly small is a separate question entirely.


otaku's picture

I agree completely. If one person can consistently hear the difference, that is the end of the discussion.

Michael: Still no results?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And I also agree - if one person can consistently hear a difference, game over.