It is a question as old as stereos: how much do the cables in your system affect the sound? Are the cheap ones you have limiting the overall quality? Were the expensive ones you shelled out for really worth it?
The main problems with assessing cables are psychological. Specifically, placebo effect and comparative listening play havoc with our judgments. Sometimes you just hear what you want to hear, especially if you’re trying to justify a pricey purchase.
Blind A/B tests, where the listeners don’t know what they’re hearing, are the more or less the gold standard of the hi-fi scene, and yet they’re rife with problems. Comparative listening is not how we actually listen to music, and the effort of comparing, which relies on short term memory, engages areas of the brain that aren’t engaged when just chilling out and listening. Though the brain scanning technology exists, just about no one has studied the impact of making blind comparisons on how we perceive sound (because medical research is rightfully prioritized). And with all that in mind, some audiophiles have reported not being able to discern between high-end cables and a coat hanger in blind tests, like a sommelier picking the $8 table red over the $125 Barolo.
So how does one reliably assess a cable? The answer lies in measurable physical specifications of cables, but even here there are traps to avoid.
Let’s get physical
When it comes to conducting electricity–which is what cables do when they form a path for fast-moving electrons–there are some basic physical phenomena to consider. And based on the nature of physics alone, we can rule out some variables that almost certainly don’t have a perceptible effect on sound.
Cheat Sheet: Speaker Cables
For a budget pick, these AmazonBasics cables will do you just fine, starting at just $11. The shielding is unspecified and oxygen-free copper wire is nothing special, but that’s standard fare for affordable cables. If you really want to splurge, you can spend $90 and upgrade to some ELACs.
Capacitance is the ability of a conductor to store an electrical charge.
While a cable may do this, it is highly unlikely for even a low-quality cable to store a charge that will impact a stereo system. It would be hard to find a cable with an inappropriate capacitance rating.
Affect on sound: Little if any.
Inductance is the tendency of an electrical conductor to oppose a change in the electrical current going through it, thus creating electromagnetic fields. Though inductance provides a number of essential forces within stereo components, even basic cables in a relatively normal stereo system do not generate inductance worth considering because, unless you are making cables very very wrong, the materials used are appropriate for the application.
Affect on sound: Little if any.
Resistance (also called impedance) is the tendency of a component in an electrical system to resist the flow of electrical current.
Affect on sound: Some! Cables can produce enough resistance to hinder the performance of a stereo system.
Why resistance matters
Length and gauge (thickness) of a wire will determine a speaker cable’s resistance to some degree. Therefore when buying speaker cables, it’s important to know the resistance of the speaker the cable will feed, as well as how far away that speaker is from the amplifier. When choosing speakers cables, be sure to use equal lengths for both the left and right channels so that resistance is matched.
For cables carrying your audio signals prior to amplification (i.e. “interconnects” and not speaker cables), resistance is standardized and typically not going to be a factor you’ll have to think about. In some special instances (such as very long runs), you may need to reach for alternative solutions (such as 3-conductor balanced cables, which are relatively uncommon in stereo systems), but typically these are not important considerations.
Digital cables have very specific resistance ratings and should be marked as such. Interconnects between digital components shouldn’t be too much trouble to pick out, as resistances are largely standardized and run lengths tend to be short (and thus not significant). 75ohms is a typical rating for many digital interconnects.
Raise your shield
These $10 Seismic Audio Patch Cables with gold-plated RCA connectors and unspecified shielding are likely to be sufficient for even the above-average ear. If you fancy yourself preternaturally discerning, a premium pick are Better Cables Silver Serpent with 95 percent braided shielding, silver-coated copper wire for better conductivity and a price that is an order of magnitude higher at $120.
Electricity is noisy, especially in cities where thousands of newfangled electronic devices are drawing on old public power systems. Radio frequencies can add noise to an electrical system. Also, electrical components themselves produce electromagnetic fields, especially power amps, computer monitors, and televisions.
Speaker cables are not shielded. The current from an amplifier to a speaker is strong enough that outside interference isn’t an issue. Interconnects between components, however, should be shielded.
Shields are either made from a copper mesh, a solid metal wrap (copper or aluminum), or a conductive polymer. These shields are wrapped around the conductors and then wrapped in the outer material of the cable (rubber or another polymer, sometimes braided nylon fabric). Shields are typically grounded at both ends (though sometimes just one end is grounded in the case of ground loops – usually not a problem is modern homes with 3-prong outlets).
Metal mesh and conductive polymers are preferred in recording studios because they can be physically handled for years without breaking. Full metal shields are excellent, but best for permanent installations in which the cable will stay put and the shield will not get physically worked.
Find out what kind of shielding is used in the cable you’re buying, and make sure it’s appropriate for your use. Don’t pay extra for conductive polymers unless you’re planning to handle the cables regularly. For home stereo use, a solid metal shield is a solid choice.
What to look for in cable construction
Make sure the cable is well built.
The critical points for any cable are the solder joints between the wires and the connectors at the ends. The type of solder used is hard to determine, but silver solder is preferred as it is very conductive. Ask to see images of the solder joints, and, even better, open the connector to investigate the connections (but be careful if you’ve not done this before). A good solder joint is clean, shiny, and has ample solder. A bad solder joint is dull, gloopy, and/or physically not making solid contact between wire and terminal.
Get good connectors.
Similarly, good connectors are a must, but they don’t have to cost a fortune. Very few cable companies make their own connectors, so you’re likely to see the same ones used across many brands and price points. Proprietary connectors drive up prices, but their benefits are negligible compared to standard 3rd-party options.
Consider gold for exposed parts
Gold is not a bad idea for exposed parts of connectors because, unlike copper, gold does not corrode and it is a good conductor. Gold isn’t necessary, but over time it will resist corrosion. Especially important for those living in high-humidity areas.
What the experts say
So now you know the basics, but what do the actual experts, with years of practical experience say? Mainly that you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about it all too much.
“If you’re setting up a system from scratch, you’ll probably not going to hear a big difference between cables, and it’s not the cable that’s going to make it sound good.
My threshold is to ask whether the interconnect is built well enough, rather than obsessing over the metals and so on. But shielding does matter.”
-Piper Payne, Neato Mastering (Third Eye Blind, Madame Gandhi, Geographer)
“I do hear differences between cables, but I think that’s subjective.
You have to be in an incredibly high-performance situation to warrant spending much on cables. You’re talking about roughly a one percent improvement.
Yeah, cables matter. But it’s all application-specific, and it’s all about impedance.”
-Matthew Agoglia, Ranch Mastering (Emmy Lou Harris, James Taylor, Old 97s)