Whether you’re a musician, a DJ, or just want the best quality sound streaming through your headphones, you may have wondered how much of a difference the cables can make. Especially with some speaker cables ranging from $10 to well over $1000, it can be difficult to differentiate between high-quality and effective marketing. Are audiophile cables worth the money?
Audiophile cables are typically not worth the money because the effect isn’t significant over such a short distance, although certain premium wire components make a noticeable difference in sound quality. Therefore, splurging for top-of-the-line audio cables might not be the best use of your budget.
However, there are exceptions to that rule, and it’s important to know what to look for when buying new audio cables. Read on to learn more about an audio cable’s different components and how to decide on the best one for you at the right price.
How Do Audio Cables Work?
Audio cables create a connection that transmits a signal between the source and your device. Therefore, to preserve the audio quality that you’re transmitting, it’s essential to use a well-constructed product with the right materials. On a basic level, a cable has:
- Inner conductor
Now, let’s go into more detail about each component, how it works, and whether or not it affects your audio cable’s sound quality.
The Center Conductor
Also known as the wire, the center conductor is essentially a bunch of braided strands of metal that conducts an electrical signal. It performs the most core function of the cable and is, therefore, one of the most essential elements of the product. The rule of thumb for conductors is typically the larger the gauge, the better the cable’s efficiency.
Most inner conductors are made from copper since it’s a strong conductor while also being relatively affordable. On the other hand, silver is an even better conductor, but it can also get pretty pricey. For that reason, some copper wires will be coated in silver to enhance their quality without breaking the bank. Similarly, some varieties of copper are purer than others, and higher purity typically translates to higher quality.
The insulation in audio cables is typically made of a non-conducting material like wood, rubber, or foam polyethylene. Along with factors like the cable’s metal and length, the insulation’s thickness determines the resistance.
If there’s not enough cable resistance, it could potentially blow up the device that it’s connected to. However, too much resistance can interfere with the signal that the cable is transporting, causing it to sound different by the time it comes out of the device. Therefore, it’s essential to match the cable’s resistance or impedance to that of the source.
If you’re using at least middle-tier cables, they’ll probably have a layer or two of shielding on top of the insulation. Many audiophiles say that this is essential for keeping the electricity in and blocking out radio waves or electromagnetic sources that may interfere with the signal.
However, others claim that this is more of an issue for large-scale operations with cords that stretch across the room, whereas it doesn’t really matter for the average enthusiast.
The connector is the metal piece on the cable’s ends that allows you to plug it into your device. While many manufacturers will boast about the connectors on their premium cables being plated with gold or zinc, most experts say that the material doesn’t typically affect sound quality. However, it can affect longevity, as high-quality plating can prevent the underlying piece from tarnishing.
How To Find the Right Audio Cable for You
While it’s rarely a good idea to go for the cheapest option, most audio cables fall into the category of “expensive is not always better.” Many audio enthusiasts are skeptical of extremely premium cables that promise to deliver a superior sound for a higher price tag. Even those who do believe in the value of a good cable say that if you can’t tell the difference, it’s not worth it to shell out an extra few hundred dollars to buy a luxury product.
Simultaneously, many users report that they can tell the difference between the cheapest wire and a slightly higher quality audio cable. For that reason, if you’re just a casual music enthusiast, it’s probably a safe bet to go with a solid middle-tier option.
If you’re looking for a good quality audio cable that won’t cost a fortune, you’ll want to focus on three main categories: conductivity, shielding, and resistance.
You can ensure that your wire has strong conductivity by opting for an oxygen-free, multi-stranded copper cable. Additionally, you’re going to want to make sure that it has two layers of shielding– one made from foil and one braided shield. Lastly, check that the resistance won’t interfere with your signal by ensuring that the wire is thick enough to make up for the cord’s length.
Does Cable Type Really Matter?
As I mentioned earlier, most of these factors won’t have a strong effect on your sound experience. Many audio enthusiasts with high-end sound set-ups still opt to use cheap or even free wires, and they can’t tell the difference. Typically, many of your audio cable’s minute details–like resistance or shielding–are more significant and noticeable when transporting high frequencies over greater distances.
There’s an ongoing debate in the industry about whether or not cheap cables can degrade a high-end sound system’s quality. Some audiophiles suggest that you spend 10-15% of your system’s price on cables to match the accessories to the equipment, touting that the whole is only as strong as its weakest part.
Either way, most agree that if you’re considering buying expensive cables for a low-end system, you’re better off investing that money in other equipment, like speakers, an amplifier, or a turntable.
What About the Power Cables Debate?
Another common debate in the industry is whether or not power cables affect the sound quality that your device emits. Fortunately, this one is a little bit more clear-cut than the audio cable conversation, with many experts saying that they don’t make a difference.
The only function of power cords is transferring energy from your wall outlet to your component without allowing any major losses. Unlike audio cables, they don’t transmit audio signals. Many experts advise that you only replace your power cord if the original broke or wasn’t long enough.
In fact, many audiophile power cords may make you worse off since a lot of them haven’t been UL certified and therefore haven’t undergone rigorous safety testing.
Power cords typically aren’t able to lower the noise floor or make your speakers sound richer, as many may claim. If you do hear extraneous sounds that interfere with your listening experience, such as humming or buzzing, they’re typically coming from the power supply and therefore need to be fixed by an electrician.
Although audiophile cables can be a useful upgrade for a high-end sound system and may make a difference for some enthusiasts, they are by no means a necessity for everyone. Many users are completely fine with middle-tier audio cables or even just the ones that came with their equipment.
However, if you do want to spring for a pricier set of cables because you think it’s worth it, you might want to look into buying them used or directly from the manufacturer to save money. Otherwise, it may not be worth the lofty financial investment.