The cable industry is a small but competitive place, with some companies making big claims about why their audio cables are better than others. We’ll take you through the cable components, claims, and myths to “cut through the noise” and explain when cables affect your sound.
A cable’s conductor is the wire that conducts the electricity needed to pass signal and power. Conductors of appropriate size and material preserve the integrity of electrical transfer through the cable from the original source. Should the conductor be too small or made of inferior conductive metals, the audio signal will encounter more resistance and the sound will change.
Silver is the most conductive metal, which the human ear perceives as a brighter and more present sound. You don’t often see silver used in cables due mainly to its price.
Copper is the second most conductive metal and most commonly used in cables When compared to silver, the human ear perceives copper as a more balanced and “warm” sound. To learn more and hear how silver and copper compare, check out our previous story, The Advantage of Silver Cable.
Other common conductive metals for cables are gold and aluminum. Gold isn’t as conductive as silver or copper, and due to its cost, it’s never used as a primary conductor. Instead, gold is often used as a coating on cable connector ends, which we will cover below. Aluminum has much lower conductivity and is typically found in the most inexpensive audio cables, which lack the same clarity and brightness of sound.
Part of audio quality is in cancelling or limiting noise that the conductor picks up between sources. In the case of balanced cables, shielding is less important because they typically transmit line-level audio signals that don’t need to be boosted, and part of their design is to carry two identical signals in opposite polarity before reversing one in the end, which cancels the noise.
Unbalanced cables are more prone to pick up unwanted noise in longer runs since the ground wire inside acts as an antenna, making it more susceptible to interference. Check out this video by CS Guitars for a visual breakdown of the difference in sound.
Instrument & Mic Cables
Shielding in these cables becomes much more important because their levels are comparatively low. The more noise they pick up, the more it gets amplified when boosted by a preamp, which is why you see manufacturers promote braided shielding in these cables. The braid provides more complete coverage of the conductor, minimizing noise that would degrade the sound.
These are the aspects of every cable that you actually get to see, and influence. Most often connectors are made with a combination of nickel, rhodium, or gold-plating. The primary reason these metals are used isn’t because of their conductivity, but because they resist corrosion more effectively.
If there is any part of the connector that can most influence the sound, it’s likely to come from the solder point. Should the solder point break or degrade, you’re sure to experience less than desirable influences to your sound.
Conventional Wisdom or Audio Myth?
There are a lot of claims manufacturers and audiophiles make when it comes to cables. We couldn’t possibly answer them all, but here are a couple common ones that relate to the information above:
Gold-Plated Connectors Improve Your Tone
Although gold is the third most conductive metal behind copper, it would be rather dubious to claim any significant audible benefits of gold-plated connectors to the human ear. Aside from the gold plate being very thin, it’s really meant to protect the connector tip from oxidation. Ever notice sometimes old cables get discoloration and corrosion from the atmosphere and use? Gold withstands harsh conditions far more effectively.
OFC Sounds Better
OFC stands for Oxygen Free Copper, which is a grade given to copper with less than 0.001% oxygen. This is done to remove impurities in the copper and allow electrons to travel with less resistance, meaning more conductivity.
It’s worth noting that many have voiced skepticism that such conductive improvements are significant in an audio application. There’s little doubt some marketing-speak has exaggerated the difference OFC makes in cables, especially since few claims have been properly tested, or objectively observed.
But while there may be some mistruths or exaggerations when it comes to OFC affecting your sound, there are still reasons it’s beneficial. As pointed out in this Westlake Pro article, cables are many parts with a cumulative effect and OFC allows for less resistance on a subatomic level since electrons don’t travel in a straight line. OFC also runs cooler, is more durable, resists shorts and corrosion, and performs better in longer cable runs. It’s for these reasons that Hosa uses OFC in all of our cables without any misleading claims or price-gouging.
So, Do Audio Cables Make a Difference?
They certainly can, but it’s important to note that cables don’t “improve” your sound. Their purpose is to translate sound from the source as transparently as possible. Along the way, cables can pick up extra noise or experience degradation if the required specifications for their use are not met, which differs based on the context.
Want to learn more about why cables are important? Check out our video which goes in more depth about what the specs mean and why they matter: