What’s the Big Deal About High-End Cables?

March 4, 2013

GOLD-PLATED PLUGS, SILVER SOLDER, OXYGEN-FREE copper wire—the list of must-haves for audiophile interconnects can read like a jeweler’s grocery list, and in recent years high-end cables have insinuated themselves into the guitar world, too. All promise unparalleled tone over “standard” cables, but are they worth the price?

The principle behind high-end audio cables is simple: the better the wire, the 1/4" plugs, and everything that holds them together, the better the quality of the signal that passes through them. You will find comparison tests giving varying results, but many well-conducted shootouts do conclude that high-end cables yield improved fidelity and signal clarity over cables of a more-affordable grade. Does that mean better tone? That’s a tougher call, because tone isn’t a measurable quality.

One of the main differences heard in audiophile-grade cables—usually obvious when compared to cheapo cables, but often still apparent when compared to lesser cables— is in the high-frequency content of the signal, as well as the overall signal clarity. In short, the cheaper you go, the less of these you retain. But many players enjoy the slight high-end roll off that long cables, old cables, or cables of generally middling quality impart to their tone. The treble attenuation of the vintage coiled cords of the 1960s and early ’70s was often crucial in removing the potential high-frequency spike to the ear from the Stratocaster-to-Marshall rig, and cables of relatively mediocre quality—not bad for their day, but far from audiophile grade—were among the ingredients contributing to the classic live and recorded tones of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Paul Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, and countless others.

For players used to this slight high-frequency attenuation, and/or the furring or warming of tone that also comes with a degradation of fidelity in general, the increased clarity and high-end content yielded by high-end cables can sometimes be a shocker. Some perceive the results as cold or harsh, adding a brittle edge to their sound and playing feel. On the other hand, many players definitely find improvements in their tone when their signal retains better fidelity— think of it as greater electronic integrity—from guitar to amp, and prefer the sound that these cables produce. The analogy often used by those who prefer high-end cables is that the upgrade was “like taking a blanket off the amp,” and for those who find it a good thing, it’s often hard to go back. All in all, there’s something to be said for retaining maximum signal clarity and fidelity from guitar to amp, and tweaking EQ and other sonic characteristics once it’s there.

Of course, the high cost of audiophile-grade cables has to figure into your decision, too. Entry into the field—which includes names like Klotz, Evidence, Solid, Mogami, Jena Labs, Lava, Vovox and others—runs from around $60 up toward the $200 mark for a mere 12' cable. Other makers offer very good cables at about half that starting price (some of them have their own budget lines, too), some of which the cork-sniffers might find only a few percentage points inferior to top-dollar wire. Whether or not it makes sense to go whole-hog on high-end cables depends on your own preferences and priorities. As always, you have to use your ears and hands and try it for yourself before you really know what it’s worth to you.

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