The gap between the most basic and the most specific cable seems to be ever widening by the day, and it can be easy to get confused as to what differences you are actually paying for.
When it comes to high end cables, what exactly are the differences between these and their cheaper, more common counterparts? With the advent of more and more high quality - and thus higher priced - options to add to your setup, how much of your budget should be dedicated to this, and are the differences really worth it?
As is always the case when getting into the finer points of gear and hardware, it is first important to break down what the physical components are, as these are what will make the most tangible sound differences.
While there’s always going to be a degree of variation across manufacturers, most headphone cables essentially consist of your inner conductors, or wires, some insulation material, a bit of filling, some shielding and the outer layer that we see.
As far as the hard science (of which I am no expert nor do I claim to be) there are definitely different ways that these factors can impact the function of your cable. After all, the job of your cable is an important one - to get the signal of your audio from your source to whatever your output is, be it headphone or speakers.
As far as conductors, copper is easily the most commonly used wire in headphone cables because it is among the best natural conductors and is also cheaply priced, allowing for most cost effectiveness. However there are alternatives. Silver is the best possible conductor one could use, but is much more expensive - and some say it will produce a sharper sound when compared to the general warmth of copper. Therefore, some headphones are made with a hybrid of both.
This is one of the most common areas where headphone manufacturers will tout the benefits of buying a more high end premium cable. And the logic follows - if you can have the best conductor or the purest copper, wouldn’t that mean the signal will indeed be delivered with more integrity, and thus sound better?
Unsurprisingly, conclusions on this are not quite a ringing endorsement, with people holding a wide array of opinions. While it’s absolutely true that Silver can conduct better than copper, there is no measurable way to say with certainty how this affects the quality of your sound as it travels from point A to point B outside of about 1 percent. As far as how perceivable this is by most people in a real life context - it’s obviously hard to say. Some will claim its day and night. Others will say those who claim this are disingenuous at best.
A lot of this has to do with distance - headphone cables are relatively short, so variables introduced in the signal chain are often too small to be observed in any significant way.
Another area of premium components that will be advertised with high end cables is the connector - gold plated, zinc plated, etcetera. While these may look nice and give an air of luxury to your product, the difference they make is primarily in longevity, not sound quality. These good quality connectors will protect your more sensitive and crucial inner components, but they will not make a positive or negative effect on the quality, because again it is not doing anything to the signal itself. Unless, of course, it doesn’t fit properly!
There is another popular talking point surrounding this topic that you may have come across if you’ve done some research. This is the skin effect. While this is once again based on provable science having to do with signal loss as a result of self inductance when cable gauge is too thick, this is again something that is really only an issue that’s big enough to perceive when it occurs over longer distances and with higher radio frequencies. If a cable manufacturer is charging a much higher price for a cable that claims to eliminate this problem, the truth is it isn’t much of a factor to begin with.
Essentially put, anything that has to do with replacing the basic components of solid audio cable with materials that are more exotic or will solve mostly minor problems such as noise and interference that most headphones just don’t really have, should be taken with a grain of salt.
The essentials for a good quality audio cable are low capacitance, inductance and resistance - and these are things that can be easily accomplished in any cable without the pomp and circumstance of the most premium options.
There’s also a lot of proponents of cable burn in out there - my short response to this is that again that this is really only verifiable by people who claim to experience the difference personally, and there aren’t many hard numbers to back it up. For my thoughts on burning in general, you can read my previous article on this blog. That article is about burning in headphones, but for me the same general principles apply.
All that being said however, this doesn’t mean cables don’t matter. On the contrary, they are a key part of your hifi setup. As with everything, you still get what you pay for. If you’re getting the cheapest cable you can find, it will still work, but it’s probable using thin wires, flimsy shielding, weak insolation, and probably won’t last you as long as something higher quality. There’s also the consideration of balanced versus unbalanced cables depending on what kind of amps or other gear you may be using. These are all good elements to weight when looking to purchase.
A final point here is that aesthetics do matter - headphones are unique pieces of gear because you wear them, and they’re an expression of you. Your cables are absolutely an extension of this and should be treated as such.
So if you are going to shell out more of your hard earned cash for some cables, make sure it’s because they’ll last you, they’re made really well and you like them - whether that means it's because of a difference you personally hear, or you just love how it looks and feels.
You may also want to check out the video that we did on that topic. See it below.