Cabling between your audio gear can be something you literally never think about OR it can be the complete bane of your existence. From getting static and crackles to getting no sound at all, using bad cables can make your life as a musician a living hell. You don’t want to overspend, either. We all remember the horror stories of certain retailers charging a hundred bucks for an HDMI cable back in the day, and you certainly don’t want to fall prey to that either. So what makes a good cable? When should you spend and when should you save a bit? Let’s dive in and see.
The ability for a cable to last a bunch of plugging and unplugging can be crucial if it’s a cable you’re going to be constantly connecting and reconnecting. My 1/4” guitar cables see WAY more action than the digital coaxial one connecting my preamp to my audio interface. With this in mind, you’ll want to first consider what this cable is for, and how much will you be yanking on it.
Digital cables don’t typically suffer from much interference or signal loss like analog ones do, so when I’m looking to save a bit, it’s usually in that realm. I don’t drop double digits on interconnecting cables that carry a digital signal and are going to remain behind my rack all day. On the flip side, when I’m considering mic cables and instrument cables that will be inserted and removed often, I will always be more apt to invest in something that I know will withstand years of frequent use.
When you pick up a cable, feel the connector end. How much flex is there? Does the metal sheathe easily unscrew or rattle? Or is the metal sheath entirely wrapped and secured against the cable? I prefer cables that have systems to cover those vulnerable points and almost make the connector end feel like it is ‘part of the cable’.
Cables that are a little thicker will often come with more effective shielding. This is crucial because the shield will prevent crosstalk when your cable is near another cable or a power source. A cable with good shielding will reduce electrical noise. This will not only help your cable, but any other cables around it. Flimsy cables with thin or ineffective shielding will introduce hum, static, and more into your system.
The Actual Connector
You’ll see gold plating touted as a plus for audio cables and in most cases, it makes a lot of sense. Gold plating will rust and/or tarnish quite a bit less than other metals. If you’ve ever picked up an old guitar cable that has seen better days, you’ll know what I mean. You can feel it - you’ll feel the bumps and imperfections from corrosion over the years.
I have gold plated Mogami cables that have been brought to gig after gig and connected thousands upon thousands of times with sweaty hands and they look as fresh as the day I bought them. Does gold make a difference for something like HDMI or a digital cable? Probably not. For a cable that relies on a corrosion-free connection between devices to prevent that dreaded ‘BBZZZZZZZT’ if you rotate it a fraction of an inch? Most definitely.
If you’re going to drop more money on decent cables, sticking with a trusted brand that has a good warranty is key. I use Mogami because I know that if the cable ever failed, I’d mail it back and have a new one, no questions asked. I’ve never had to, myself, perhaps that’s a good sign as well! Monster sticks to that philosophy, as well. Check the brand you’re interested in before spending the extra bucks!