Do Cables Really Make a Difference?


Does The Quality Of Cables Actually Effect Your Sound?

The short answer is absolutely yes - don’t let anyone on a message board tell you otherwise.

Do More Expensive Cables Actually Sound Better?

Well…. what exactly is “better”? Sorry for answering a question with another question but the quality of sound is so subjective and it always requires context. Does a SM57 sound better than an U87? On some sources yes, but on others no. It’s all about the context of a sound and making a subjective comparison between the two. There’s no such thing as a wrong or right “sound”.

Context and subjectively are not the point of this post; I’m simply here to provide my answer to the often debated question of “is there a difference between qualities of cables?” Too many people spend too much time debating/defending/rationalizing different brands of not only cables but gear in general. This post is titled “Do Cables Really Make a Difference?” not “Do More Expensive Cables Actually Sound Better?” for a reason.

I’m not trying to sell you cables here. I’m trying to correct the myth of “all cables are just a piece metal that conduct electricity and if functioning correctly should not have any sonic impact.” Unfortunately I’m not enough of a scientist/cable guru to give you a technical dissertation as to why cables don’t all sound the same but I know that I can easily hear the differences. I want to share some examples with you so that you can judge for yourself what effect changing cables can have on the tone of sounds.

Which Cables Did I Use For The Tests?

There are hundreds of cable makers out there, you can find cables that cost $5 and some that cost over $10,000!! In the past I’ve never been too picky about cables, I used to just grab whatever is close by and long enough to do the job. The good folks over at Vovox and Audio Plus Services were kind enough to send me some of Vovox’s Sonorus and Link series cables to test out and write about. Instead of simply writing a review of their cables, I wanted to take this opportunity to educate others about the effects that cable choice makes.

In studio situations we are always looking to gain that last 5-10% of tone quality. Sometimes it requires changing picks, swapping cymbals, or switching microphones, etc. (check out my Signal Chains post for more ideas). Since I started using my Vovox cables, I’ve found an easy way to tweak tones in a place that I’ve never paid much attention to before. (That’s my first of two marketing quotes in this article, I promise ;)

That being said, please remember that the point of this article is to highlight that:

  1. Not every cable sounds the same.
  2. Consider the cables you use to be an important factor in establishing your tones.

I love the tones I can get from my Vovox cables, they do a great job of adding just a touch of clarity, which is almost always a good thing, but every once in a while it might actually do too much. Once again it’s all about how different sounds fit together in context of the song. As a producer/engineer it’s my job to do whatever it takes to get the sound where it needs to be.

How To Use My A/B Player

  1. Let the page load completely before pressing anything
  2. Click anywhere in the grey box to load the files
  3. Press Play, it will begin playing A
  4. To switch files, press the arrow in the middle or the B button
  5. Continue switching between the two to your heart’s content
  6. When finished press Stop, this resets both files to the beginning as well
  7. To start playback again go to step 3
  8. To see which is which, click on the block below each player to reveal the answer.

The player has been tested and confirmed working on the latest versions of all browsers. Unfortunately it is not compatible with mobile devices.

This player is very much in beta still, if you’re having troubles tell me about it here please.

All of these examples are also available on Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/benlindell/sets/vovox-article

Can You Hear Subtlety? (Calibrating Your Ears)

Before we start comparing cables we need a little warm up to establish that you can hear the subtle differences on your selected listening device. If you have difficulty distinguishing between these examples you probably won’t be able to hear the difference between cables either. Both of these examples were done using my custom switched low/high shelf EQ.

Which Is Which?
A was flat and B was +3db at 300Hz. This should be very easy to hear, that’s a big bottom.

Feeling warmed up yet? Try this one:

Which Is Which?
A was flat, B was 1.5db at 3kHz. This should be a little more challenging. There isn’t a lot of high-end information in this clip but when you focus your ears to the high-hats and snare you should be able to find the difference.

Were you able to hear the differences in both examples? If so, great, let’s see what  swapping out cables sounds like. If you can’t hear the differences in these examples, I would suggest try listening to them again on a different monitoring system and/or check out a tutorial such as “How to Listen” over at Puremix.

A Small Change Goes A Long Way

This first example is a simple mono recording of the Steinway grand piano at Flux Studios, NYC. I used the Lauten Audio Atlantis microphone and the Neve 55 series console preamp. What I liked about this clip is that the only change was the 20ft XLR cable from the live-room panel to the microphone. The signal still passed through another 50-100ft of multipair cabling, then into a TT patchbay and cable, more multipair cable, more TTs before finally arriving at the convertors. The Vovox cable represents less than approximately 10% of the total cabling and the results are very impressive.

Which Is Which?
A was a regular old cable and B was my Vovox cable. This is a pretty remarkable difference, the highs are lifted and the definition of the hammers is more apparent. There’s also a much more pleasant and less bunched up midrange to my ear.

But….

Before you think to yourself “yea I hear a difference but couldn’t that just be a difference in performance?” Sure there is a slight variation in performance but it certainly is not enough to account for the large differences in the midrange and highs between the two clips. Listen again, this time listen to the whole clip before switching, notice how the playing intensity is practically the same.

Being able to discern the differences between performances and sonics is one of the important skills to develop as a producer/engineer/musician. In a real life session when you are comparing microphone selection, placement, cable and preamp choices you won’t often be able to isolate the sonics from the performance. Many message board junkies love doing “null” tests and other crazy wastes of time to prove their biases, I would love it if people would just learn to listen and allow their organic measuring equipment (ears and brain) be the judge, it’s not all that difficult to figure out what differences are player induced and which are a result of the gear.

How About A Reamp?

That being said, I realize that not everyone can easily discern the slight differences in performance and the slight differences made by the cables. To compensate for that I prepared an example with a reamped guitar signal. I did this in my home studio using my Epiphone Nighthawk Reissue, Mesa Boogie Nomad 55, custom reamp box and U87 clone and a DBX 386 preamp. The cables changed out were the XLR to the reamp box, the instrument cable to the amp, and the XLR from the microphone to the preamp. Don’t worry, my assistant engineer Juno was a very good dog and didn’t interfere with any of the tests.

Which Is Which?
A was Vovox cables and B was some regular cables. While distorted electric guitar does not represent as wide of frequency range as a grand piano, this example demonstrates the other effect I’ve discovered that cables (especially instrument cables in my experience) can have. The Vovox cables seem to give a little more bottom-end extension along with a little less harshness. This example is more subtle but there have been times in sessions when switching instrument cables sounded like we in fact switched guitars. This is also great for bass guitars.

With a controlled environment set up I spent some extra time to also test an assortment of configurations with different cables to see which made the largest impact, check all of them out in this Soundcloud set

So…. Do Cables Make A Difference?

I know from months of swapping out cables in sessions that they absolutely make a difference. I used to think that cables didn’t really matter that much but nowadays I’m considering them a crucial component in defining my tones. I’m not alone on this, every single musician I’ve shown them to has heard the difference too.

I hope you heard a difference as well, I also hope that you notice that I managed to write an entire article about high-end cables without using any marketing hype that we are used to seeing in our industry. The point of this article was to simply demonstrate the impact that cables can make on sounds, it’s a consideration that not many think of but need to start considering while setting up their signal paths.

Did you hear a difference? Have you had similar experiences with cables? Do you think arguing about cables (or gear in general) is silly? Let’s talk it out in the comments.