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Best audiophile cables: Fact and fiction explained

Would expensive cables improve your swanky new headphones or speakers?

Published onMay 16, 2023

A line of 3.5mm headphone cables against a purple background with the text "Audiophile cables: fact and fiction" overlaid.

You’ve just bought a swanky new pair of expensive headphones or speakers, but how to make the most of them? Various guides and conventional audiophile “wisdom” might point you down the road of improving the rest of your setup, right down to the cables and wires that connect things together. You might also find quite a few audiophiles who advocate for splashing hundreds of dollars on cables to get the most out of your fancy new setup.

But before you even begin down this path, you need to look at the specifics of your setup. Most importantly, is your cable carrying a signal to an active or passive component? Speaker wires that need to carry power from an amplifier need to be selected a little more carefully than a short “aux” cable for your car.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on May 16, 2023, to ipdate interlinking and formatting.

What doesn’t matter for cable quality?

A photo of a hand plugging in two speaker cables into the Kanto TUK speakers.
Are your cables able to carry enough current? Yes, probably.

Let’s begin with what to avoid—gold is always a good myth to start with. All expensive audio cables on the market and even the cheaper ones will often make a big deal out of “gold plated interconnects” this and that. The reason for this has nothing to do with signal quality, as any metallurgists will tell you that copper and silver are far better conductors. Furthermore, the inner part of the cable will almost always be copper for that exact reason.

Copper oxidizes in the air, which would require constant cleaning or cables wouldn’t last very long. Gold or zinc plating doesn’t tarnish and ensures a longer life. However, you’ll find that even cheap cables have some form of coating that will last the cable’s lifetime. Gold-plating is definitely not worth the extra cost.

A photo of a TRS 3.5mm plug.
The venerable 3.5mm TRS plug, carrier of current.

Another common sales pitch is the need for special shielding or insulation to prevent electromagnetic interference, crosstalk, or noise from other sources. Electromagnetic radiation can actually be a problem in some situations: for very low signal levels, or when dealing with very high-speed digital data. It won’t be an issue over the short distance from your pocket to your headphones, or from an amplifier to the speaker.

The “skin effect” is another common cable myth and you should steer clear of any cable companies that claim their bits of wire fix this apparent problem. The skin effect has practical consequences in the analysis and design of radio-frequency and microwave circuits, and antennas, but does not occur to any meaningful extent at audio signal frequencies so is of no real concern in our application.

Cables, also, cannot affect things like bit depth, sample rate, and the like. So if someone tries to upsell you on fancy cables that promise better audio quality from a digital source: don’t buy from them. Additionally, brand names do not have any influence on the laws of physics. Do not pay more for brand names.

What to look for in the best audiophile cables?

A photo of the 3.5mm plug and 2.5mm cup connectors.
The 3.5mm plug is the standard for portable audio

Low impedance is the key factor of a good quality audio cable, particularly when it comes to speakers and low impedance headphones. Signal loss and filtering can occur if your cable offers a lot of electronic resistance, and particularly when that resistance changes with frequency (impedance). This is usually the case with speakers and headphone drivers.

I won’t bore you with the physics, but essentially a higher source impedance (driver output + wire) reduces the amount of power that reaches the headphones or speakers. Furthermore, speakers and headphone drivers are reactive loads, which means their resistances vary with frequency. As an example, a pair of headphones might have a higher impedance at high frequencies, which would produce an additional loss if you added a high impedance cable in series.

Should you buy expensive audiophile cables?

Two speaker wire terminations, and two TS plug terminations.
Even modest materials (like a coathanger) can transmit an audio signal.

Ultimately, all you need from a good quality speaker cable is low resistance, capacitance, and inductance. That’s quite simple for manufacturers to produce without any unnecessary alchemy. If you know where to look, you can find inexpensive cables with the desired basic specifications listed.

If not, you can follow the general rule of thumb that 12 or 14 gauge speaker wire is needed for long wire runs with low-impedance speakers (4 or 6Ω). Meanwhile, 16 gauge wire is fine for runs under 50 feet to 8Ω speakers. For headphones and short connections to active speakers, essentially any cable will do as the power transfer is much lower.

Great-sounding audio cables don’t have to be expensive. If you’re after decent audio cables or wire that won’t break the bank, here are a few suggestions:

Frequently asked questions about audiophile cables

Then there is something wrong with some of your cables—or the interconnects. Make sure the connections are secure and unbroken.

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