Breaking down what a cable’s made of and why it makes a difference
It’s often the things we don’t think about that can have a huge influence on our results. In the world of cooking, it may be the type of knife or cutting board we use; in automobiles, the grade of oil put in our engines; in audio & video, the quality and type of cables can make for dramatic differences that often get underappreciated.
There will be some people out there who say that a cable is just a cable, that varying prices and shiny features don’t really matter or make a difference. Today we’ll be focusing on the construction of audio cables like instrument, microphone, speaker, and interconnects, and explaining the many differences you see in the marketplace and why they do, in fact, matter.
What is a conductor?
The conductor is the copper wire that transmits the signal from one end of the cable to another. How we measure the size of the conductor is in AWG, which is an initialism for American Wire Gauge. It’s important to know when measuring gauge, the higher the gauge is, the thinner the wire will be and the more resistance there is to the flow of current. The thicker a conductor is, and thus the less resistance there is to the flow of current, the lower its gauge number will be.
For example, our standard series speaker cables use a 16 AWG OFC (oxygen-free-copper) conductor, and our Edge series speaker cables use a 12 AWG OFC conductor. You can see the difference in the thickness of each cable alone, but you can’t just rely on thickness since there are instances where companies use a thin conductor with a thicker jacket surrounding it.
Why are there such stark differences in the size of conductors from cable to cable? Simply put, some require a larger conductor depending on how much voltage they’re trying to transmit. The amount a speaker cable needs to transmit signal & power requires much more than an interconnect that you would use to connect your audio interface to your studio monitors.
Along with copper, you may see other metals used in conductors and shields such as aluminum, silver, and gold. Our Zaolla Silverline cables, for example, use a solid silver conductor, which is much more conductive than copper. Our Edge guitar cables also use Neutrik connectors with gold plated ends, which is more conductive and less prone to corrosion than nickel. Of course, adding these components is significantly more expensive, hence you see them far less. On the opposite end, aluminum is a less conductive metal than copper but some inexpensive cables will use an aluminum conductor with a thin layer of copper over the top to reduce cost.
What are the types of shielding and what are the differences?
There are two main types of shielding used in audio cables: braided, and spiral or serve shielding.
Braided shielding is a woven mesh of bare or tinned copper wires which provides a low-resistance path to ground but does not provide 100% coverage. Depending on the tightness of the weave, braids typically provide between 70% and 95% coverage. Since copper has higher conductivity than aluminum and the braid has more bulk for conducting noise, the braid is most effective as a shield. However, it adds size and cost to the cable along with reduced flexibility depending on the tightness of the mesh.
Our own guitar cables use braided shielding and vary in this same regard, as well. For example, our standard series guitar cables provide 90% braid coverage, while our Edge series guitar cables provide 95%.
Spiral or serve shielding is similar to a braided shield, but instead of being woven together, the copper strands spiral around the conductor. It’s more flexible, cheaper, and quicker to manufacture than a braid, but as it’s bent or twisted, you get more opportunities for gaps in the shield to open and absorb interference as the strands unspiral.
Our interconnects rely on spiral shielding, which is more than enough due to the fact that they stay mostly stationary and their signal is boosted to line level that’s less prone to pick up interference. Mic and instrument level is significantly lower, so any interference it picks up will amplify dramatically when the signal is boosted, hence the need for more robust braided shielding.
Although not common in the types of cables we’re covering, another shielding type you may encounter, such as in our network or Cat 6 cables is foil shielding, which is a thin layer of aluminum that provides complete coverage of the conductors it surrounds. It is thin, which makes it harder to work with, especially when applying a connector. It also tends to be an added layer to an existing shield.
Why so many types of connectors?
If you’re like most people and have owned multitudes of cables from different brands, you’ll no doubt have noticed that connector types vary widely in aesthetic and in build quality. While it would take a whole post itself to explain nuances for all the different connector types, we’ll use the XLR cables from our Standard, Pro, and Edge series cables to illustrate:
The standard uses a common connector with nickel-plated pins, metallic housing, rubber strain relief, and the conductors use lead-free solder connected directly to the pins.
The Pro series connector is made by REAN. It uses silver-plated contacts, which is a more conductive metal than nickel or copper, zinc diecast housing, chuck-type strain relief, and a rubber boot kink protection.
The Edge series connector is made by Neutrik AG which uses nickel housing with a zinc diecast shell, gold-plated contacts which are more conductive and less prone to corrosion than nickel, chuck-type strain relief, and a boot with polyurethane gland.
Are more expensive cables better?
In some instances, but not necessarily. Component quality can absolutely influence whether a cable is more expensive or not, but often times other factors like labor play a bigger part in how much the item costs. Take the example of Neutrik; While the components are top quality, much of the resulting cost is for the time, quality control, and lower tolerances used in their construction. You could build a connector using those same components overseas and the result would be less expensive to the consumer, but Neutrik’s manufacturing also comes with a well-deserved reputation of quality craftsmanship. There are other in-between scenarios where raw parts are manufactured overseas but then assembled in the United States to save on labor and material costs while still providing some quality assurance. So, having a cable manufactured overseas doesn’t inherently make it inferior, but it depends on the level of quality in craftsmanship that the manufacturer uses before putting products on the shelf.
We hope that was informative so next time you see a cable that lists its specifications, you have a better understanding of the quality to cost ratio in order to make an informed purchase based on which option best suits your needs. Any other questions, you can leave them in the comments of the YouTube video, or contact us directly with this contact form and we’ll be happy to answer them.- Dylan