Are More Expensive Cables Worth It? — SonicScoop
Are more expensive cables worth it? The “good”, “better” and “best” cables from Hosa all look similar. But do they perform differently?
Audio cables can range in price from just a few dollars for flimsy audio dental floss, to literally hundreds of dollars for bespoke silver core cables.
Even within the more “normal” range for cables, there can be significant gaps in price between the entry level and the higher end.
Why is that? Are the more expensive cables going to improve your sound, or are they nothing but snake oil? Will the cheap ones corrupt your tones, or crumble like dust if you look at them the wrong way?
I’ve bought or built hundreds of cables over the years, and have even put together listening tests to help myself and others evaluate what effect, if any, cables can have on sound.
Recently, our friends at Hosa were kind enough to sponsor a video where I shot out their entry level Essentials line against higher quality cables, all the way up to their high-end Pro and Edge series.
The Edge series for instance, spec out as well as some of the fanciest cables on the market, and can cost up to 3x more than basic cables like the Essentials line.
So, how do they fare against one another?
Here’s the spoiler:
Whether or not your cables will have any appreciable impact on your sound quality depends a lot on what kind of cables we’re talking about.
In general, upgrading the quality of the balanced cables we use for microphones and line-level signals will tend to offer the most negligible differences in sound quality of any type of analog cable.
(…But there may be very good reasons to buy higher-quality balanced cables anyway. More on that in a minute.)
On the other hand, upgrading instrument cables can sometimes yield subtle differences that some discerning listeners might be able to appreciate.
And, spending a little bit more on speaker cables can sometimes offer a significant sonic benefit—up to a certain point.
But the most important reason to spend more on cables, in my opinion, has less to do with sound quality, and a lot more to do with build quality.
Let’s take a closer look at each cable type.
Balanced Mic and Line Cables
When it comes to the balanced XLR and TRS cables we so often use in pro audio applications, it is simply unlikely that you will hear any truly significant difference in sound between a $10 cable and a $100 cable.
One of the brilliant things about a balanced cable design is that you can run them for literally hundreds of feet before there is any appreciable change in tone. Although balanced cable will pick up noise and interference along its path, all this noise is flipped out of phase when it reaches its destination, thereby eliminating it.
Once cable runs get excessively long, there can be some high frequency droppoff—and a slightly greater susceptibility to noise. But analog cables have to get pretty absurdly long for this to make much of a difference in practice.
I’ve hosted listening tests between inexpensive 50′ XLR cable and high-end 6′ XLR cable, and golden-eared trained listeners have by and large not been able to reliably tell the difference. Due to the low impedance and anti-noise properties of balanced signals, it just takes a lot going wrong before we run into a significant decrease in their performance.
This is a good thing too, because so many of our favorite records in history were recorded through upwards of hundreds of feet of studio wiring, often with lower quality shielding than is available today, and it never held them back!
The one time you might notice a substantial difference in sound between the cheapest and most expensive balanced mic or line cables is if you’re recording close to a high powered radio tower. In these cases, improved shielding can potentially help reduce noise. But for most of us, this won’t be the most noticeable benefit of buying higher quality cables.
For some broadcast studios and venues where interference noise is more of a concern, it can be sensible to opt for 4-conductor “quad” balanced cables, which can reduce interference noise further still. (But at a cost of slightly higher capacitance, which means slightly more high frequency rolloff). But for most studios and venues, standard 2-conductor balanced cables are the most relevant choice.
While differing price points rarely seem to make for a notable difference in blind tests of balanced cables, the story is just slightly different with unbalanced instrument cables.
Due to their high impedance, low signal level, and lack of a balanced cable’s anti-noise properties, the kinds of unbalanced instrument cables we use to plug in low-level instruments like guitars and basses can potentially sound a little bit different from one another.
Unless one of the cables is broken, even these differences are rarely ever night-and-day. But some gear connoisseurs will happily geek out over these differences—and some well-trained listeners may be able to pick out these differences in blind tests.
With unbalanced cable, the quality of shielding can have a bigger impact on noise reduction, because cable shielding is the only part of the design that can do anything about noise.
(That said, the instruments and amplifiers we use unbalanced cables with tend to be much noisier as well, potentially masking any of the noise reduction benefits that might come from using a better-shielded cable.)
With unbalanced cables, the length makes a bigger difference, sooner. It is much more likely that you’ll be able to hear a difference between a 6′ and a 50′ unbalanced instrument cable than you would with a balanced line level cable. For this reason, it’s difficult to find manufacturers who will even sell you an instrument cable 50′ long!
The longest instrument cable I could get from Hosa for my tests for instance, was 21′ long. And understandably so, as noise build up and high frequency roll off can start to become substantial beyond that length.
In general, cheaper and longer instrument cables will exhibit greater resistance and capacitance. This reduces the strength and bandwidth of the signal, particularly in the higher frequencies, thereby altering the tone slightly, and leading to a slightly weaker signal to noise ratio.
However, to some players, this subtly “degrading” effect of a cheaper instrument cable can be a feature, rather than a bug!
There are guitarists out there who swear by cheap, old thin 1960s style instrument cable, specifically because it “sounds bad” in a way that “feels good”. Extra thin or extra curly telephone style guitar cables often yield a slightly more midrangey and retro sound character that some guitarists love.
Meanwhile, the fanciest instrument cables around may offer slightly hotter signal and slightly greater bandwidth for an ever-so-slightly more rich and powerful sound.
While upgrading instrument cables probably won’t ever make or break your tone, if you’re a guitar or bass player who is obsessed with sound, doing some blind comparisons of your own at some point can be a fun exercise. If you can afford to get at least one very nice guitar cable, why not?
Differences in tone are also possible with speaker cables, which have to move relatively hotter electrical loads.
Using too thin a gauge of speaker wire for the length of your cable run and the power of your amplifier can cause modest decreases in performance. This can result in a loss of maximum power output, and potentially, slight differences in tone, as the resistance of the system increases.
Even here however, there is a point of diminishing returns. Too thin of a cable can have negative consequences, but once the cable gets thick enough, there’s also no notable improvement from going even thicker than you need. So, once you get to sufficient thickness for the length and power of your amp-to-speaker cable run, there’s no real benefit to spending even more.
The Wrong Cables
One place you are more likely to hear substantial differences in sound is if you are using the wrong cable for the job. These kinds of tonal changes will often be more significant than any difference you may hear from a change in cable quality.
For example, if you use a speaker cable as an instrument cable, the lack of shielding in the speaker cable could cause you to have some pretty noisy performance out of your instrument.
Similarly, if you use an instrument cable where you should use a speaker cable, the thinner-than-ideal wire and extra resistance could cause loss of power output, possibly some loss of tone, and in some cases, even overheating of the amplifier.
Meanwhile, if you use an unbalanced instrument cable where you should use a balanced mic or line cable, you might get extra noise or reduced signal strength, depending on how the circuit is designed.
If you use an analog mic cable where you are supposed to use a nearly identical looking digital AES cable, you could have occasional errors.
And if you use an unbalanced “interconnect” cable where you should use a nearly identical looking unbalanced mic cable, you could end up with some additional handling noise. (More on that in a moment.)
The Real Advantage of More Expensive Cables
By now, I’ve made a pretty solid case of the fact that upgrading your cables (especially mic and line cables) probably won’t make too much of a difference in how good your final recordings and mixes will sound.
To determine how much of a difference you can hear, consider doing some blind listening tests for yourself! Only then can you determine what you can and can’t hear to make the decision that makes sense for you.
For one set of examples, check out this recent video I did with an array of cables that Hosa sent me, where I compare basic cables to high end ones that cost up to 3x more.
After thousands of views on this video, the consensus is pretty robust: Despite some significant differences in the materials used, the differences that people can actually hear tend to be pretty minimal.
Remember that even in those cases where we might be able to measure differences, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can hear them. Just like your eye will never be as powerful as an electron microscope, when it comes to sound, we can measure to a much finer degree our ears will ever be able to hear.
So if the sound differences from upgrading cables aren’t always that noticeable, why bother with high end cables at all? Are they just snake oil?
Although I’ve spent about a thousand words admitting that cables probably aren’t gong to make or break your sound, I plan to spend the next few hundred words justifying why you might want to buy nicer cables anyway.
I know I prefer nicer cables, and plan to keep using them indefinitely. Here’s why.
Why I Buy Higher Quality Cables Anyway
The three biggest reasons I believe nicer cables are often worth the money are Durability, Repairability and Handling. Let’s explore each.
Let’s be honest: You probably don’t want to have buy the same cables over and over again.
I have found that when you buy better quality cables, something at least comparable to the Pro or Edge series from Hosa, you generally won’t have to replace them. Cables of his quality often come with a pretty robust warranty that you’ll likely never have to make use of.
I have cables of this quality level that I have owned through more than 2 decades of use and abuse, and they show no signs ever wanting to give up on me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that cheap cables exist. Sometimes you need a specialty cable that you will use 3 or 4 times in your life, that you don’t need to stand up to decades of abuse. Or sometimes you need something cheap and now, not expensive and later.
But you plan to be in audio for more than a few years, you’ll probably tire quickly of cables that don’t last a lifetime. For those of us who work with sound every day, they often just aren’t worth the savings. That’s where spending more on cables makes sense.
Fortunately, getting this kind of “buy it once” reliability doesn’t cost a lot more. It costs a little more. The increased robustness of connectors, and to a lesser degree, improved jackets, shielding and wire, is very much worth it in my book.
A cross section of the high end Hosa Edge series of cables.
Although Hosa is probably best known as a company for their incredibly affordable entry level cables that can be found in all the big box stores, when they reached out to me to do some content on cables, I was pleasantly surprised to find that their Pro and Edge series are easily on par with the best cables out there in their categories. It’s in this price range that you’ll find some of the best long term value in cables, in my experience.
Do the math for a minute, and you’ll quickly recognize that spending a little more for this level of cable can save you a ton of time, money, uncertainty and headaches over the years by not having to constantly replace cables that won’t stand up to the rigors of the studio or stage.
I did a lot of live sound and studio recording in my twenties, and those scenarios quickly separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to cables. Use and abuse cables as much as I did for many years and you will develop a healthy respect for a well built cable….and a healthy disdain for any cables that might not hold up in a critical moment.
A look at the differences in connector quality for the Hosa Essentials, Pro, and Edge series (left to right)
Despite my love of a well-built cable, I have to admit that even great cables sometimes break. The tougher the cable, the more absurd the situation that will finally do it in.
I’ve seen metal connectors smashed by 150lb bass stacks being plopped on top of them. I’ve seen wires practically cut in half by heavy soundproofed steel doors. I’ve seen 1/4″ plugs bent at right angles when they’re not supposed to. I have even seen wires melt. (Thank goodness the whole venue didn’t burn down.)
Sometimes crazy things happen. But when a good cable breaks, I don’t want to have to spend $30, $50 or more to replace it with another high quality cable.
Fortunately, you usually don’t have to. With some very basic soldering skills you can repair cables, and they will work as good as new. (Sometimes you don’t even need to replace the connector. And sometimes you’ll need to spend a few dollars for a new one.)
I’ve built and rebuilt a lot of cables over the year, and anyone who has done the same can tell you: Higher quality cables and connectors are a LOT easier to repair.
A big part of what makes a high quality connector is how easy they are to work with.
The kinds of silver plated REAN connectors on the Hosa Pro series, for instance, are easy to work with. The kind of Neutrik connectors on their Edge series are a dream. If you’ve ever worked with them, you know they practically fix themselves.
But it’s not just high quality connectors that are easier to fix. Higher quality wire and jackets are often much easier to work with as well.
I wish for you to have cables that are good enough to last you decades. But if they do break, I wish you cables that are good enough to fix in mere moments.
As an added benefit if you don’t have the time, expertise, or interest in repairing your cables, Hosa offers a lifetime warranty to replace broken cables.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated benefit of nicer cables is how they handle. Yes, as high-falutin’ as it sounds, cable feel is important. And not only for aesthetic reasons—for practical reasons too.
If you have to wrap 30 cables a night at the end of a studio session or live sound gig, how well the cables wrap and hold their shape is a surprisingly major concern.
There are unworkably stiff cables out there that are a pain to wrap, and have a weird “memory” for storing kinks and jigs and jags that never seem to smooth out.
Some cables get “gummy” or “tacky” over the years, and feel gross to handle picking up a whole venue’s worth of grit and grime and bottom-of-the-shoe-gunk, never seeming to come clean. Some cables are needlessly heavy while offering no benefits of durability.
When you’ve wrapped a bunch of terrible, stiff, kinky, gummy cables in a row, encountering a good one is like finding an oasis in the desert.
A great cable falls into place quickly, is easy to wrap, feels surprisingly clean and smooth after years of abuse, and “remembers” the way it should wrap while “forgetting” all the weird kinks it went through in the course of a day.Nice cables really do save time and trouble.
In addition to handling well from a cable feel perspective, cables can also be built to reduce handling noise, meaning they are less likely to cause subtle rumble from being handled or trampled upon on stage, letting less vibration and kinetic energy find its way into the mics.
I could wax poetic about “cable feel” for paragraphs more. But those of you who haven’t experienced it will think I’m crazy, and those of you who have experienced it already know!
(There are some exceptions to this rule. There are some absurdly high-end solid core instrument cables out there that are high quality and hard to wrap, but you will rarely run into these on the field.)
For me, something like the Hosa Pro series is the minimum standard for what a good cable should feel like, and something like the Edge series is what cables were meant to be.
For those of you who—like me—only knew the brand from their least expensive lines until now, I have to admit that I was surprised to find that they are easily on par with any of the best cables in the world in terms of build, durability and feel for the price.
Big thanks to them for helping make this article and my recent videos about cables possible. It’s such a niche subject that I’d otherwise have been unlikely to go into such depth on. But to my fellow nerds who made it this far and care about cables this much: It’s nice having you in the club.
This article is sponsored by Hosa. Check them out at HosaTech.com.
Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer who writes and talks about the art, science, and business of music and sound. He edits SonicScoop.
Please note: When you buy products through links on this page, we may earn an affiliate commission.balanced cables instrument cablesspeaker cablesRepairabilityJustin Colletti is a mastering engineer who writes and talks about the art, science, and business of music and sound. He edits SonicScoop.