Case Study: The importance of good cables

It would seem that cables and connectors is a taken for granted topic and I may seem to be guilty of it as well.

Cables are the lifeline of your audio rig. While troubleshooting, I have lost count how many times I have focused on the audio devices, when the real problem lied with one bad cable or loose connection. Cable and connector problems are frustrating in the sense that they are at time, difficult to solve, but can almost always be easily avoided.

One way of avoiding it is to invest in high quality parts.

I know that it’s always tempting to buy the cheap stuff at your nearest hardware and electronics store. In fact, there will be times when you will actually have no choice. I myself have bought those more often than I care to remember. But the thing is, they never really accumulate in my house, because they eventually find themselves in the trashcan.

Cheap cables and connectors are flimsy. Perhaps the copper strand count is low and are poorly shielded, or there isn’t ample strain relief on the plugs. Maybe the joints are poorly soldered. Whatever the exact reasons are for a particular cheap cable, one thing is for sure — you can’t trust it. It will wear out quickly, sometimes at a most inconvenient time. You’re going to hear  all sorts of noises, or perhaps lose your signal altogether. You do not want that to happen while you’re working. It does not make sense to spend countless hours of work on expensive equipment held together by cables that can fail on you without warning.

While not much of a serious problem with balanced cables (XLR and TRS), the unbalanced cables used for music instrument amplifiers and some microphones are prone to the effect of what is called cable capacitance, which acts like a low pass filter. The longer the unbalanced cable, the higher the capacitance, and the greater the loss of higher frequencies. For electric guitar players, it is almost like turning down the tone knob of their guitar, which makes it a fairly serious issue in that community.

On the other hand, there are just some claims regarding high quality cables that are, at best, difficult to believe. There are expensive cables out there that have things like gold-plated connectors backed by claims of higher sound quality. There is also a thing about oxygen-free copper. The lastest I heard was directional cables — which means that a cable can be designed to conduct a signal better in a specific direction. These things surprisingly have a lucrative market out there. Now, personally, I am not into that level of esotericism. I regard them as little more than marketing hype. But I am not knowledgeable enough to refute these claims. I will leave it up to you in time to decide to believe.

At the very least, when getting a cable, do look for the following:

  • even if it’s flexible, the insulation must be sturdy and can resist cuts, bends and folds.
  • ample strain relief at the base of plugs in order to protect solder joints from coming loose when the cable is bent or moved.
  • sturdy plugs that snugly fit into jacks.