Truth is, it’s easy to take cables for granted. They typically have no moving parts, they require nearly zero maintenance, and, like a light bulb or microwave oven, you basically use them until they go dead. So why should you care if your cables are made with oxygen-free copper or an exotic fusion of metals, or if the packaging lists the conductors as being a solid, multi-strand twisted pair, or a three-way differential? Does the feel of a cable make any difference to you, or could you care less if the outer jacket is dull black rubber, or a natty looking weave?
If all you worry about is whether your cable passes a signal, then you might as well skip this article altogether. But if you’re curious about what new advances in cable technology can do to improve your sound—welcome to the club. A lot has happened since GP last tested a bunch of guitar cords in 1997, so we felt it was high time to roll up our sleeves and get down to some serious cable testing again.
We decided to focus on cables between 15 and 21 feet in length—the typical gig and stage-worthy length—and manufacturers were encouraged to send us everything they had at all price ranges (and with any combination of straight and right-angle connectors). The only cables we excluded from this Fight Club were those specifically designed for acoustic guitars and electric basses.
Before we got started on the listening tests, we logged the specs of each cable, and measured their capacitance to see if the ratings squared with advertised claims (for more info on capacitance, see “The Capacitance Factor” on p. 145). Each cable was tested using a ’50s Reissue Fender Strat (with Seymour Duncan Five-Two single-coils and fresh Dunlop .009-.046 strings) plugged into a Hughes & Kettner zenTera amplifier with its 4x10 Bassman preset set right on the verge of breaking up. We determined that this particular tone made it easy to hear which cables had more output and more low end.
We also recorded each cord (using the same Strat) plugged directly into a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 i/o preamp into Cakewalk Sonar 6 Producer. To keep the audio comparisons as scientific as possible, we played the same lick—a strummed open-position E chord followed by a seventh-fret E chord, and an E chord at the 12th fret—for every cable. Having each cable on separate tracks also facilitated rapid A/B comparisons, making subtle sonic differences much easier to discern than playing through an amp, unplugging the guitar, plugging back in with a new cable, and then trying to remember what we had heard 20 seconds before. During this part of the test, we took notes on the sound of each cable, which would later be used to create ratings of 1 to 5 (1=poor, 2=fair, 3=average, 4=excellent, 5=superior) that we assigned to each cable in the catgories of Shimmer, Girth, Punch, and Vibe.
Following this, we dialed up a high-gain/high volume setting on a new EVH amplifier, and went though the process of connecting each cable to it (with the other end jacked into a Les Paul), and then slapping the cord around on the floor to see how much microphonic rattling could be heard. This is quite literally where the rubber meets the road in cable construction, and, once again, a 1 to 5 rating for Noise was issued to each cable based on how well it performed (1=unacceptable noise, 2=passable noise, 3=fairly quiet, 4=very quiet, 5=virtually noiseless).
Lastly, our tests involved playing all the cables again though a variety of amps (including a Bad Cat ’Lil 15 head, a Budda 10th Anniversary Twinmaster combo, a Savage Rohr 15, and Mesa/Boogie Blue Angel and 5:25 Express combos) to help us further flesh out the “Vibe” rating—a slightly nebulous category that has everything to do with how enjoyable and/or inspiring each cable is to play. Obviously, this was the most subjective part of our testing process.
Ruggedness is also a very important aspect to consider when buying a cable. We’ve seen plenty of new cables fail very quickly, and in our previous cable shootout, we destroyed quite a few by severing them with a dropped ride cymbal, or by working their solder joints to death by using them as jump ropes. Torture always makes for great theater, but, this time, we chose not to inflict excess abuse on any of these cables—opting instead to simply focus on their sonic qualities, and, of course, report on any that failed during our tests (none did).
Still, it’s incumbent upon the end user to select a cable that will hold up to the kind of use he or she will be subjecting it to. If you gig regularly, and/or jump around a lot onstage, you might want to consider one of the heavy PVC or braided jacket models that offer more protection for the conductors, and steer clear of cables with sticky vinyl jackets that dirt and grime can cling to. Also, cables with solid-wire conductors typically cost more, and may not take being repeatedly coiled and uncoiled as well as a cable with stranded conductors. Most instrument cables are protected from radio-frequency interference (RF) by either a braided copper or spiral-wrapped shielding. Braided shielding is highly effective—upwards of 95% in some cables—while spiral or “served” shielding, which comprises a layer of copper strands wound in one direction around an insulated conductor, is less costly and better able to tolerate flexing (and in some cases, capable of 100% coverage). None of the cables we tested exhibited any problems with RF interference.
Regarding the connectors themselves, manufacturers have gone to great lengths to utilize plug designs that keep the connections from being stressed as the cable is yanked around. But the Achilles heel of any cable is where the wires attach to the plug, and no matter how much you pay for a cable, you might as well face the fact that it’s a matter of when—not if—a failure will take place. That said, taking reasonable care of a quality cord (using Velcro cable ties, avoiding knots, not rolling speaker cabs over it, etc.) can easily prolong its life to 15 years and beyond.
The Capacitance Factor
Basically speaking, cable capacitance is a measure of the ability of a cable to store an electrical charge, which, in turn, affects how efficiently the cable transmits high frequencies. The net result of this phenomenon is that any cable essentially works like a secondary tone control across your pickups. All cables—including shielded guitar cables—generate some degree of capacitance. Capacitance in cables is typically measured in picofarads per foot (pf/ft), and the lower the capacitance of the cable, the better it will be at passing the highs coming from your guitar.
So does this mean you should simply seek out the lowest capacitance cable and buy it? Not necessarily. Cable capacitance is only part of the equation, and its effect is influenced by the input impedance of the amp or effect your guitar is driving (the higher the input impedance, the more you may notice the effect), as well as the output impedance of your guitar (the lower the output impedance, the less you may notice the effect). Generally speaking, if your guitar has active pickups, you can probably be less concerned with capacitance than a player who uses a guitar with passive pickups. Capacitance is best thought of as an ingredient in the “voodoo” of guitar tone, so if you’re a jazz guitarist who prefers a darker sound—or a rock player who just wants a more buttery distortion tone—then you may actually want to use cable that has a higher capacitance rating. —AT
StringDog Armor Gold
The StringDog Armor Gold has a mellow top end, sweet upper mids, and nice overall balance. This cord dishes out a slightly smoky flavor, which is great for rockers seeking more buttery tones.
George L’s .225
The .225 is a skinny cable with plain ’ol shrink-wrapped connectors, but, man, does it sound great! Rife with low-end detail and upper-midrange clarity—and able to put just the right top-end sheen on your tones—it’s no wonder it’s a perennial favorite of pro players.
DiMarzio Steve Vai Signature
Featuring mystical Vai-roglyphics cast into the chrome/gold guitar-end connector, the Steve Vai Signature is a jewel of a cable that offers an outstandingly full, clear, and balanced response along with an uncanny ability to keep the highs from sounding harsh or splattery. If sound and style are important to you, this elegant cord with its black woven jacket rules. We liked it so much that we used it as a reference again and again during these tests.
Lava Vovox Protect A
The Vovox’s twisted cloth jacket looks a little strange, but whatever is going on inside makes for instantly pleasing tones. It’s not the punchiest cable of the group, but we love its crisp, even sound, and blooming upper-mid and treble response.
Evidence Audio Melody
Packing a strong output, shimmering highs, and piano-like lows, the Melody puts your guitar sound front and center with its hi-fi sonic presentation. Dressed to the nines in a classy black/blue woven jacket, the Melody looks as good as it sounds.
With its midrange zing and abundant low-end, the LaGrange is a muscular-sounding cable that melds clarity and string-to-string detail with an impressive punch.
Possibly the loudest and punchiest cable in the Roundup, the Platinum combines an amazingly big sound with great top-end shimmer and outstanding midrange focus. This is another cord that defies the notion that the best a cable can do is translate what is already coming from your guitar.
Monster Studio Pro 1000
This cable offers crystalline highs and big, full-bodied response that makes it a great choice for any application where you want to be able to hear everything your guitar has to offer. Weighing in at nearly two pounds, it’s a pretty chunky cable for stage use, but if hi-fi sounds are what you’re after, the Studio Pro 1000 delivers the goods.
Spectraflex Fatso Flex
The Fatso Flex delivers a big, corpulent sound with beefy output. While the highs seem a tad subdued at first, they’re really not—it’s just that the lows and mids are so huge. The Fatso feels great, too, with its beautiful braided jacket.
Pete Cornish Silver Signature
You just get lots of everything with this English-made cable—warm lows, amazing upper-mid punch, nice treble sheen, and plenty of output. It also looks indestructible—almost as if you could wrap it around yourself and stop a bullet (although, admittedly, we didn’t try that).
Vox CLASS A
This is a very musical cable—very clear and detailed with gorgeous balance between highs and lows, as well as a punchy quality that speaks with authority.
Zaolla Silverline Artist
It’s a very unscientific assessment, but some cables are just more fun to play than others, and the Zaolla is one of them. The sumptuous blend of shimmer and warmth provides instant gratification, and it makes dense chords sound open and glorious.