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 devices together. You might find quite a few audiophiles willing to endorse splashing cash on $100 or even $1,000 cables to get the most out of your new expensive setup.
But before you even begin down this path, you need to look at the type of setup you need a cable for. 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 June 14, 2019 to add information about more cable-related content on SoundGuys.
What doesn’t determine cable quality?
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 go on about “gold plating” 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. Platings, like gold or zinc, don’t tarnish and ensure a longer life. However, you’ll find that even cheap cables offer some form of coating that will last the cable’s lifetime. Branded, gold-plating is definitely not worth paying an extra $100 or more for.
Another common sales pitch is the need for special shielding or insulation to protect from electromagnetic radiation, crosstalk, or noise from other sources. While this can be a problem in some situations, such as very long cables or when dealing with very high-speed digital data, it’s not an issue over the short distance from your pocket to ear or amplifier to the speaker.
There are a few reasons for this, first that most common sources of electromagnetic radiation are very weak and well out of the audible spectrum. Even if it’s within a few millimeters of a cable, the signals will be too small to pick up. Secondly, if there is a strong source of interference around, a speaker or headphone driver will be just as susceptible as any cable. Third, the very low impedances of speakers and some headphones makes them essentially immune from EMI and RFI.
The “skin effect” is another common cable myth and you should steer clear of any cable companies selling bits of wire that claims to fix this made-up problem. While technically based on the scientific principle of self-inductance, the phenomenon does not occur to any meaningful extent at audio signal frequencies over the range of feet or meters. The skin effect can be an issue for radio and higher frequencies traveling over kilometers and miles, but we don’t need to worry about such things.
What to look for in the best audiophile cables?
Capacitance, inductance, and impedance are other metrics that you might find on speaker wire, but really only one of them is useful. Capacitance is not an issue over several meters as the resulting filter never reaches down into the audible spectrum. Likewise, inductance is insignificant enough over medium distances to not affect the audible frequency. Although extra low capacitance and inductance might be a requirement with interconnects and very long cable layouts.
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 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 could have a higher impedance at high frequencies, which would produce an additional bass loss if you added in a high impedance cable.
The reality is though that it’s actually quite difficult to find a cable with very poor impedance. Virtually all cables you can find which offer an impedance measurement will be below 0.01Ω, making it more than suitable to drive even low impedance sources such as speakers.
The bottom line…
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 expensive wizardry. If you know where to look, you can find inexpensive cables with the desired 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: