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Do Audio Cables Affect Sound Quality?

Do Audio Cables Affect Sound Quality?

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.

Conductor

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.

Conductive Materials

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.

Shielding

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.

Connectors

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:

- Hosa

The Advantage of Silver Cable

“What is it that makes Zaolla different from other cables?” That’s a question we get when people discover Zaolla Silverline. Why make cables with a solid-silver conductor when most cables on the market use copper?

While there is nothing wrong with copper conductor cables, silver has much more conductive properties and interacts with impedance* differently. Most times when people compare a copper to silver conductor cable, their ears immediately pick up that the silver seems audibly brighter. It’s also why Zaolla uses a thin layer of copper around the silver conductor, to add back a bit of the “warmth” most people expect and so the brighter peaks are better controlled.

You may then be asking yourself, if we know that silver is 7% more conductive than copper, why don’t all cables use silver conductors? The first reason is that silver is a much rarer material than copper, hence the components make for a much more expensive cable. The second reason is silver’s more sensitive to oxidation. While you can go a long way with copper cables being exposed to many environmental changes, silver cables require more mindful consideration.

So, why choose silver cables in the first place if they are more prone to oxidize and more expensive? The answer is where it matters most: in the audio quality. You can listen to the sound sample below to hear that difference for yourself.

High end recording studios that invest thousands of dollars on rare and boutique audio equipment, such as Neve preamps, naturally want to get the most out of their audio gear. The conductive advantage of silver becomes much more important when you consider that any studio with outboard gear is likely using hundreds of feet of cable when you add them all together. The more they can preserve the integrity of their signal, the more they can get out of their equipment, and the more meaningful that silver-to-copper difference becomes.

Electronic DJ and music producer Bad Boy Bill said it best: “I started using Zaolla Silverline cables a few years ago when I really wanted to upgrade the sound quality in my studio. I use Zaolla Silverline for every single connection in my studio… In terms of sound quality, what I put in is exactly what I get out – the music sounds rich and full.”

So, while a lone Zaolla guitar cable will make a noticeable difference, chances are other cables with copper or aluminum conductors are also part of the chain. Using solid silver in shorter runs across lots of outboard equipment has a cumulative effect that makes the result worthwhile.

To learn more about what our Zaolla Silverline cables are made from, visit the downloads page or FAQ section on the Zaolla website. You can purchase these unique and world-class cables through zaolla.com or on our Reverb shop.

*Impedance is the effective resistance of an electric circuit or component to alternating current, arising from the combined effects of ohmic resistance and reactance. For a more detailed synopsis, Sound on Sound did an excellent writeup that can be found here.

- Hosa

Why Cables Matter – Your Questions Answered

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

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 Shielding

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.

Foil 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