Audio Cables: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
Are all audio cables created equal? We would argue that they are not. This guide covers everything you'll need to know about audio cables and to determine if high-end audio cables are ultimately worth it. From materials to sound signatures, we'll also give you insight to how we make our award-winning Dragon Audio Cables and see first hand what they can do for you. Here at Moon Audio, we're only concerned with making your music sound its very best, and audio cables that use premium materials is one of the easiest ways to achieve that. Welcome to our Guide on Audio Cables.
About Audio Cables
Do the quality of audio cables really make a difference in your music? People hear differently, and we'll explore the various ways in which sound is perceived, things we can and cannot measure in regard to sound, and other interesting tidbits that make the case for quality audio cables over stock audio cables.
Sound Signatures and Materials
Materials matter. Learn how the materials in your cable can influence the sound signature of your music. Copper and Silver can bring out various properties in your audio that can offset desired or undesired characteristics. Learn how to pair them up to headphones and pick the very best combination for you.
The Dragon Cable Experience
Design, geometry, ergonomics, sound signatures of certain cables, and pairings: be assured there is a cable designed specifically for your need - and if there isn't - we can make it. Dragon Cables are designed with one thing in mind: that nothing comes between you and your music.
Conclusions and FAQ
Read our final thoughts about whether audio cables make a difference in your music. The answer might surprise you. Also, read some of the frequently asked questions that audiophiles and music lovers are asking. Feel free to ask us any questions you have!
You’ve heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? Well the same applies to your brand-new audiophile-grade headphone or other audio components. The weakest link in this case is your stock cable or the stock interconnects the manufacturer threw in the box just to connect your audio components. Why is it the weakest link? There are many reasons, but foremost is that your stock cable isn’t manufactured in the same way your high-end product is that it accompanies. Your audiophile-grade gear has been tested, manufactured, milled to precision, and finely tuned, all while using the best materials and consideration. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for your stock cables.They are often mass produced, spec'd specifically for the product, and not quality controlled in the slightest. I might be a little harsh here, but the fact remains that the same care and consideration for your product is not mirrored in the accessories, especially the stock cable.
Most of the time, companies skimp on the audio cables included with their headphones or audio components because they're an afterthought or simply a means to an end. They put their R&D into the driver for the headphones and rightly so, as it makes the most difference in the sound quality of the headphones. However, they use poor materials in the cable that connects the headphones to your music source which creates a bottleneck in the sound or a curtain or veil in front of your music. Audio cables are more reliable than wireless connections, capable of transmitting the highest audio resolutions, and they are the easiest way of setting up your audio system. They are critical, and yet they are often an afterthought. Why do companies skimp on cheap materials and connectors? Because customers are buying the product, not the cable. We’ll learn more about this later in the article.
The other thing to consider when questioning if cables make a difference in audio quality is that everyone hears differently.
Why We Hear Differently
We all have a friend who hates the music we love. Rap versus country, rock versus metal, polka versus a cappella indie experimental death folk – there’s always a yin to the yang. But why the difference?
Without getting too philosophical and talking about how your musical preferences come down to your cultural upbringing and life experiences, we can at least discuss one thing that truly sets us apart. The “experience” of listening to music in actuality has much do with how we physically “hear” sounds. Particularly, when the inner ear receives sound, it triggers a reaction from the different brain cells that are responsible for transmitting the information to your brain. That triggering forms different patterns that, in turn, touch different parts of the brain, explaining why we associate certain sounds with certain memories and feelings.
However, that might not be the case with everyone, as we are all wired differently too. The science is still new, but everyone agrees that we experience and perceive sound differently on a physiological level. Many things can be attributed to this, especially age, gender and other various personal demographics.
The Perception of Sound
Have you ever heard your voice on a recording and thought, “That doesn’t sound like me!” You spend your entire life hearing the sound produced by your vocal cords being inducted through your bones to your eardrums, rather than as a sound wave being transmitted through the air in the way we hear other voices. Thus, you have developed a perception of what you think your voice sounds like to others when in fact, it sounds quite different. That is why most people have an aversion to hearing themselves recorded, not because they dislike the quality of their voice, but because we perceive our voice to be different from what it actually sounds like.
I’m sure most of us remember the Yanny/Laurel phenomena that hit the internet a few years ago, but this just further drives the point home. It’s a single sound clip, but two people can be hearing completely differently things based on which frequency response they are focusing on (or hear since higher frequencies are often the first to go with hearing loss). The auditory version of the “White Dress” viral image, Yanny/Laurel helps us to easily perceive how we can hear completely different things from one another.
The same can be said for our senses. No one smells, sees, tastes and feels the same way either (e.g. the White Dress viral image). Yet, there are common properties that make things appealing to the masses, like pizza, roses, and puppies. If you don’t like puppies then you’re not human. It’s simple science (joking). The same goes for sound. It’s not something that is easily explained outside of physiological differences, but it exists.
Measuring the Immeasurable
How do you quantify or qualify something that cannot be measured? No one argues that music makes us feel good. It can affect our mood for better or worse and heightens our senses. The argument that “it exists” is not entirely convincing or satisfactory.
The fact remains, however, from the very physiological responses our body makes while listening to music. The reaction is itself proof that something is happening. The excitement and adrenaline rush when you hear the finale of your favorite symphony, the longing and emotion that is fueled from a sad song, or the thrill of yelling your favorite song with your friends as you drive down the road; music is the catalyst for these emotions.
The only thing we really know is that music affects our brain in such a way to cause these reactions and emotions. We can only measure them by observing a response when “interacting or listening to music” and that they stimulate our brain in such a way to create a physiological reaction.
How music makes you feel can be as varied a response as the number of music genres in the world. It can also depend on several variables, the least of these being your current mood. Music not only speaks to people differently, but also at different times. I can’t tell you the number of times I get goosebumps listening to a song, want to listen to it again, and it’s great – but it just doesn’t have the same impact as it did the first time listening to it. Months later I'll listen to it with some rested ears and there it is again – the goosebumps.
It's difficult to measure emotions apart from observing neuron activity and other physiological reactions, unfortunately the fact that we all hear and experience music differently only exacerbates finding a solution to the question if audio cables make a difference. If there is such a strong subjective component to this debacle, is there anything objective we can study?
Blinding Me with Science: What We Can Measure
So, if everyone hears differently, how do you establish a control when trying to compare audio quality A versus audio quality B?
In the case of audio cables, one thing that we can qualitatively measure regarding audio quality are the materials that the cables are made from. Materials matter, and just like cables, and not all materials are made with the same quality, care, and consideration.
You get what you pay for (although there are always exceptions to the rule).
Audio cables are composed of various materials, but the ones we’ll be concerned with primarily are copper and silver. The copper and silver strands are the core of the cable, transmitting the audio signal from one end to the other. Why copper and silver?
Copper is an incredibly conductive material, used in both audio transmission and heat dissipation/thermal applications. The reason that copper is the most widely used material for speaker and headphone cables is due to its low cost and low resistance. Audio-grade copper will be much different than commercial-grade, as Cardas points out, “What we had discovered in commercial copper was a severe shredding of the crystalline structure. Basically, charges and heat flow are scattered by impurities, imperfections and inhomogeneous metal structure.”
In other words, quality control. Most copper is formed from crystals; each of these crystals are contained in many small regions called grains and in between the grains are boundaries. * The electricity must pass through these boundaries, but depending on how the copper is manufactured, these grains and boundaries can worsen and become more numerous. Copper tends to sound warmer and gives more “body” to music, but it is slower and less harmonically rich than silver. Silver sounds lively, while offering more clarity and harmonic richness to your music. The downside to silver is that depending on the genre, it can create a cold characteristic to the audio, making it sound thinner and harsher in higher frequencies in worst case scenarios.
Audio cables should be made from pure materials; impure materials can introduce “nonlinearities” (the oxidized copper can behave as a semiconductor) that can develop as increased distortion at low signal levels. Distortion ultimately takes away from the clarity of the signal, depending on the level of the signal. The purer the material, the less artifacts will be introduced into the audio signal. Now some people might argue that cable impurities will not cause any audible difference to the human ear; you’ll hear stories online of people using an actual coat hanger as an audio cable without any noticeable difference. I hate to say it, if you can’t hear the difference between a coat hanger and a high-end cable, then your entire sound system isn’t serving your music justice.
The general rule of thumb is the better quality the cable = the less impurities in the materials.
The same can be said about silver. Silver is more conductive and more expensive to produce than copper. The conductive properties of both materials are easy to measure. However, what does conductivity have to do with audio signals? The better the conductive properties of a metal equates to the less of of current or signal. So, the more conductive the metal is, the more suitable it is for audio applications.
Of course, there are so many other factors that affect the sound signatures of both copper and silver that include:
- Age of material
- Conductor geometry
We’ll get into a few of these below.
The process of oxidation diminishes conductivity, which is why “purer” materials are not oxidized. Copper oxidizes rapidly, which is why they are often coated to prevent or slow down the process to main its conductivity over time.
Gold is less conductive than copper, by an estimated 40%. However, cables with end terminals that are coated in gold will retain their conductivity over time since gold does not oxidize. Rhodium plated ends are only half as conductive as gold and even a third of silver’s conductivity but is immune to corrosion and oxidation. Nickel, bronze, brass and other materials also have varying conductivity compared to copper, but can oxidize at different rates, resulting in varying performance to that of copper at varying oxidation levels. For instance, a gold end terminal might be less conductive, but it will be superior to a highly oxidized copper terminal. Purity is key.
Oxidization affects sound. Also note that oxidization is not to be confused with the process of manufacturing for the strands themselves. We'll discuss the differences between UFC and OCC processes later.
Conductors – Are More Conductors Better?
A conductor is just the material used that transport the electrical current or audio from the source to its load. For the sake of cables, we’ll be discussing silver and copper since they are the most used and common conductors within audio cables.
To make it simple, more is not necessarily better. It really depends on the application. The most common wire used in construction use 3 conductors: hot, neutral and ground. However, cables today can be manufactured to range from 1 to hundreds of conductors. We use four conductors in our Silver and Black Dragon Headphone Cables and eight in our Bronze Dragon IEM and portable headphone cables for reference.
As we will see later, it’s not so much the quantity as it is the quality of the conductors that really make the most difference in the fidelity of your music.
Balanced Versus Unbalanced Audio
Is there any difference in the sound between balanced and unbalanced or single-ended audio?
To learn more about Balanced vs. Unbalanced or Single-Ended Audio, head over to our guide linked below.