Although there are some skeptics out there, most audiophiles can undoubtedly discern the difference in sound between various headphone cables. And though we encourage you to research this topic online, we can also confidently say that once you've tried a couple of different cables with your own headphones or IEMs, you won't need convincing. Yes, cables can make a big difference.
How Do Different Cables Affect Sound?
Much like musical instruments, different cable materials can have varying effects on the sound of your headphones. Most headphone and IEM cables come in either copper, silver, gold or a some kind of hybrid of these three metals. Off course, there are variations that involve the type of braid employed, but here is a brief rundown to get you started.
Copper Headphone and IEM Cables
The most common and most affordable wire is copper. Copper tends to have a warm, rich and textured sound profile. However, in terms of speed and tightness of sound, it is often inferior to silver.
Silver Headphone and IEM Cables
The second most common material is silver. It’s also more expensive. Silver is more brilliant and lively in its presentation than copper. Often, it feels a little thinner than the heavier sound of copper. It also tends to be faster and can deliver a more spacious soundstage. Although it may also be cleaner in its presentation, we’ve found that silver wires often have a more fluid feel compared to the relatively textured quality of copper.
Gold Headphone and IEM Cables
Like copper, gold also presents a relatively warm and weighty sound. It has tons of richness and dimension. How much better in sound quality is gold than copper? This question has been up for debate for as long as online forums have existed. But at the end of the day, gold is very pricey, and perhaps for this reason, it’s less popular than silver and copper.
Hybrid Headphone and IEM Cables
You will also be able to find hybrid cables on the market, such as silver-plated copper wires. In theory, combining these different materials will create effective synergies with respect to the characteristics that these metals produce. But in practice, the result can vary depending on the particular model of the hybrid cable.
Cable Thickness and Braid
Many people wonder if cable thickness and the type of braid has an effect on sound quality. Again, this is a rather contentious topic. What we can say for certain is that if it has any effect at all, cable thickness is less consequential than the type of metal used in the wire. You can read countless forums on this topic online. But we warn that you also may lose your sanity in the process. Some say that thicker wire strands are used for smoother bass and mids, while thinner strands mean better transmission speed. The list goes on. So at the end of the day, you might want to experiment with a few different types on your own headphones or IEMs.
How to Choose a Headphone Cable
So, here’s the most important takeaway: When choosing the right cable for your headphone or IEM, you not only have to consider which of the above sound qualities you gravitate to, but also how well it will synergistically work with your headphone or IEM. In the past, we’ve coupled super pricey IEMs with very fancy cables, and the result in sound was disappointing. For example, if you pair a highly dynamic earphone with a very lively silver cable, the sound signature may become too active and subsequently unforgiving on the ears. Pair a warm headphone with a very warm sounding copper wire, and you can lose definition. So, higher priced cables don’t necessarily mean an improvement in sound. You have to find the right match.
Finally, you might want t be wary of off-brand cables. We’ve tested pricey thick and aesthetically attractive copper cables that significantly degraded sound quality. At the end of the day, anyone who has the appropriate materials can pull off a good-looking cable. That doesn’t mean it performs well. So, in general, you want to make sure you purchase a reputable brand, regardless of whether you’re spending $50 or $500.