Taking the plunge into home or personal audio is daunting, and there’s a lot of confusing marketing material out there. What’s real? What’s hogwash? How much is enough to spend on cables? Well, I have to tell you that price… really doesn’t matter all that much, and spending a lot of money on cables is almost always a waste of money.
If price doesn’t matter, why is there so much expensive stuff out there? The cynical answer is also the real one: marketers have had great success in parting people from their money by over-hyping basic components. No accessory outside of the Blackbody (or its successor, the Firewall) has seen as much of this naked swindling than audiophile cables.
Editor’s note: this article was updated March 24, 2021 to clarify some technical details
Analog cable myths
Now, it is true that back in the day, cheaper cables were made with less-than-ideal components and had fairly poor quality control. When Monster cables hit the scene, people loved to bash how much they cost, but you did get a somewhat decent build quality to them for the investment, along with a lifetime warranty. But that was a long time ago, and nowadays you can get cables for dirt cheap that not only perform their function almost perfectly, but will also stand up to the test of time.
The argument for audiophile cables basically follows this logic:
- The cable’s task is to carry an analog electrical signal from the source (or amp) to your speakers.
- The cable is made of materials that present impedance (resistance and capacitance).
- In doing so, the cable affects the signal that reaches the speakers.
Now, this is true (to some degree). However, for headphones, that degree is small enough that you can safely ignore it—despite colorful online arguments about it. If you’ve read our article on amplifiers, you’ll know that the easiest way to properly power something is either to lower the resistance or increase the power. Narrow wires will have more resistance, so if you need a lot of juice or you want a 20+ foot cable, it’s possible you could do with thicker cables. But since headphones require a comparatively tiny amount of current compared to bookshelf speakers, the same logic follows for how thick their wires need to be. Manufacturers aren’t bad at their jobs, and they definitely won’t skimp on any component that determines how good their product sounds, so the included cables are generally pretty good for your equipment—it’d be bad for business if they weren’t.
Higher quality materials will also rarely make a big difference—you could even use a coathanger as a speaker wire in a pinch. Using gold and palladium for their high conductivity ratings sounds nice, but you’re not getting double the cable quality for double the price: you’re just paying extra money for a luxury of debatable merit. So when someone tries to sell you ridiculously priced cables, be sure to laugh in their face. Your money would be much better spent on more useful things.
Really, the biggest thing you should worry about is whether or not your cables are properly shielded. However, that’s another problem that’s extremely rare nowadays, and unless you’re buying some no-name penny-cable from a bin somewhere, you won’t need to worry about it. If you are having interference issues, you can try moving your cables away from common sources of electromagnetic (EM) interference, such as your computer, router, etc. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to consider better cables.
Digital cable myths
So that covers analog cables, but what about digital? The previous logic doesn’t hold up at all. These damn things carry ones and zeros: while you might need a powered USB hub to get a signal over long distances, these cables either work or they don’t. Errors are massive and readily noticeable—and when those happen just get another cheap cable. Whether you’re transmitting video or audio, the same is true. For example, systems that use HDMI will cut out your video if it detects problems, as that’s how the encoding works.
Not convinced? Digital signals—electric or optical—are quite different than analog signals, because we’re only dealing with ones and zeros to communicate information. While the methods to do this are more advanced than the example I’m about to give, the lesson here is that digital cables will work or not—nothing in between.
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Let’s use an oversimplified example to demonstrate (the actual method is more complex, but the end result is the same). Say we use voltage to determine whether or not a bit is a 1 or a 0. Suppose the receiver will have an assigned voltage threshold value to make this call: should the signal fall below this threshold, the value is assigned “0,” and anything above is “1.” Straightforward, right? So what happens if EM interference impacts the signal or the power isn’t sufficient to reach the receiver? Well, the most common result is a lot of only-1 values or only-0 values. In either case, the receiver tosses the signal—you’ll hear nothing but silence.
No matter how “degraded” the signal is, no matter how noisy it gets, a USB, HDMI, or optical cable (that uses light to transmit data instead of electricity) will always deliver its payload unless there’s something severely wrong. If the cable doesn’t work, spending more money on a higher quality one won’t necessarily solve your problem. The cable is either broken, or there’s something preventing the transmission of a readable signal—likely a compatibility issue.
Another common myth surrounding digital audio is that buying the right cables can reduce what’s called “jitter.” That claim is again based in a small dram of reality, but wildly overblown.
“Jitter” is a type of distortion that doesn’t express as noise, but as an imperfection in bit timing—making your waveform ever-so-slightly changed in pitch. You can sometimes hear it as a warble in cymbals or sufficiently high piano notes, but for the most part, you won’t know it’s there until it’s pointed out to you. Essentially this is caused by extremely tiny imperfections in sample rate—if a sample period varies too much from its target, data can be changed—albeit only a little tiny bit (rimshot).
While it is true that extremely long cables can potentially introduce jitter, it’s not true that it’s a big deal. In fact, the largest source of this is actually the recordings themselves—and it’s impossible to correct for that. Truth be told, jitter in digital sources typically peaks in signals so inaudibly that you’d need dedicated measuring equipment to detect it. Famed audio blogger NwAvGuy did a deep dive on this subject a while back, and even his worst recorded sample from a crappy PC motherboard resulted in a level of -88dB… something near-inaudible to the vast majority of people at a safe volume. And that was ten years ago—a lifetime in motherboard technology.
I’m not saying this doesn’t exist, but if you never knew of jitter as a problem before, don’t worry about it. Your vinyl and cassette collections have astronomically worse problems in this department (speed variations causing distorted audio).
What is likely to happen in long cables is a certain level of high-frequency attenuation, which would get worse the longer the cable is. That’s why we always recommend going with the least amount of cable you can get away with in your setup, as it will offer the best performance.
Now, there’s plenty of first-hand user testimony about audiophile cables—analog and digital—improving experiences. However, that’s another grumpy article for another time: psychoacoustics is a whole different ball o’ wax, and tackling confirmation bias and other common problems is going to result in hurt feelings.
What I want you to take away from this article is that you shouldn’t feel pressured to spend a ton of money on cables if you aren’t sure you need them. Ask for a layman’s explanation at your local shop if you’re on the fence, and if your salesperson can’t give you one without any flowery unquantifiable adjectives: Walk away.
While I get flak for this every time I say it, take it from me: the best cable is whatever works.
Frequently Asked Questions
(Chris here) Having done my time listening to the same handful of tracks about a few hundred times over systems that I very well could blow a mortgage on, I can tell you that yes, I've listened to really good cables. I've been covering the consumer audio industry since 2011, and in that time I've gone to so many trade shows, private demos, and some very bizarre MLM-style parties meant to sell things like cables. While it's true that in some situations, a very targeted style of cable is the correct choice: if you're looking to improve what little can be improved upon for cables, you need to either shorten the length of the cable, or get a thicker gauge. More measurable improvements can be had by other means like treating your room, using a DSP box for your speakers, or selling off any snake oil you've purchased.