Audio cables come in many varieties, including interconnect cables, as well as cables for microphones, speakers, and instruments (the “big three”). The quality and type of cable you use for various instruments and connective purposes can make an enormous difference in your sound quality and the basic function of your audio gear. While cables are a seemingly low-order issue, using the correct cable for your intended purposes can help you avoid poor sound quality and potentially costly mistakes. If you’ve ever been left wondering what the technical differences are between a guitar cable and a speaker cable, today is your lucky day!
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Audio Cables: Three Main Types
If you’ve set up for band practice or built a home audio studio, you’re familiar with the process of hooking up your audio equipment. Cables that connect to your microphone, guitar, and speakers all have slightly different properties due to the type of signal they are expected to carry and shielding required to reduce interference. Knowing the difference and using your cables appropriately will prevent sound issues and possible damage to your equipment. For this reason, it’s crucial to keep your cables clearly labeled and use them only for their intended connective purposes.
Sound from your microphone gets amplified by your preamp, which means that any little sound interference or poor sound integrity also gets amplified. For this reason, microphone cables are made with large copper conductors in their core and increased cable shielding (typically braided shielding) around that core to block noise interference and maintain a clear signal. In this way, your microphone cable plays a fundamental role in maintaining sound integrity.
Instrument Cables and Guitar Cables
Like your microphone cables, instrument and guitar cables require adequate shielding and conductivity quality to preserve sound. They are also unbalanced, which means there are two conductors at the core of the cable rather than three and contain a signal wire and a ground wire. This means that you’ll want to keep your instrument cables under 25 feet in length, as they may be susceptible to low level interference. However, for the purposes of connecting your guitar to your amp, for example, these cables are just what you want.
Speakers operate at the highest signal level, and since the signal is already amplified, speaker cables do not need much shielding. However, speaker cables need a much larger conductor because it must be able to handle transferring audio as well as power. If a speaker is self-powered like nearly all studio monitors, then you don’t need a dedicated speaker cable and an interconnect works perfectly. However, if the speaker needs to be driven by a power amp, then you need a designated speaker cable.
What Do Interconnect Cables Do?
An interconnect cable is used to connect devices that use line-level signal, such as connecting an audio interface to studio monitors. Most digital and analog equipment will transmit line-level signal between one another. Interconnect cablesmay come in different connector types, including RCA and XLR varieties.
Interconnect cables are not a good option for instruments, microphones, and speakers, as they are not adequately shielded and do not have large enough conductors. This means you would introduce a lot of noise interference and could potentially damage your equipment (especially speakers). While your instrument and speaker cables could be used as interconnect cables, this is typically not advisable for cost effectiveness. Interconnects are the most affordable way to connect your source components.
What Differentiates Audio Cables?
Each type of audio cable is made with different components beneath the rubberized outer coating that is visible. There are various conductive materials and layers used in a variety of thicknesses inside your cables and each is customized to the intended use and signal capacity you’ll need. Typically, every cable includes a core conductor, often made with an oxygen-free copper (OFC) or its more conductive alternative, solid silver. Cables will also include additional layers and outer shielding to protect the signal transmitted along the conductor. Materials may also include aluminum, silver, and gold, depending on the quality of the cable you’re considering.
Signal Difference (AWG)
American Wire Gauge (AWG) is a categorization system for wires based on thickness. The higher the AWG number, the thinner the wire, and the more resistance there is to the flow of current. Lower gauge numbers (for example, a 12 AWG speaker cable) are thicker cables, which have larger conductors and allow for more current to be transmitted.
Different gear requires different capacities for voltage conduction, which is why there is such a big difference in thickness between cable types. For example, speaker cables (12 AWG) require a larger conductor to transmit signal power than thinner interconnect cables (24 AWG). This is mostly due to the nature of the voltage requirements for speakers.
Braided Shielding vs. Spiral (Serve) Shielding
Braided shielding refers to an outer layer of woven metallic fibers just beneath the rubberized cable coating that protects the internal cable signal against outside interference. Depending on the tightness of the mesh, braided shielding may reduce the flexibility of cables, though it does offer an advantage in shielding capacity. Instrument cables and microphone cables typically include braided shielding because quality braided shielding can provide 90-95% signal protection coverage.
Spiral shielding features metallic fibers that are twisted around the cable core rather than woven into a braided mesh. This type of shielding is more common in interconnect cables and also more cost effective to produce, as these types of cable uses tend to be stationary and have a line level less prone to interference.
Spiral shielding does offer lower signal protection benefits because as it is bent or twisted, the spiral shielding can easily open up to reveal vulnerabilities in the signal shield. For this reason, you shouldn’t use an interconnect cable in place of a mic or instrument cable because it isn’t properly shielded and will introduce sound interference. To learn more about Braided vs. Spiral Shielding, check out this Hosa News blog.
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