The quality of the sound signal coming from a device can vary depending on many factors such as the audio processor, speaker quality, connection types, and audio source. Adding cable quality to the mix can get complicated.

Many audiophiles claim that the quality of an audio cable can affect the quality of the sound coming from the audio source.

They believe that the better the quality of the audio cable that you connect to your headphones or speakers, the better the sound quality.

On the other side of the divide, many people believe that these claims are all false and are a result of over-marketing. They believe that the type or quality of the audio cables has no measurable influence on sound quality.

It can be difficult to come to a conclusion based solely on people’s opinions, and if you don’t know what to look for, testing yourself can be unreliable.

So let’s look at what science has to say on this topic below. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll only talk about analog headphone cables in this section. Later we will take a look at digital connections like Lightning or USB. Let’s dive in.

The anatomy of a headphone cable and how it affects sound quality

To find out whether headphone cables can affect sound quality, you need to learn what headphone cables are made of in general and whether these materials and components play a role in distorting or preserving the sound signal from the source.

Headphone cables can be offered in various designs and materials, and their cost can vary widely due to the type of materials from which they are made or the way they are made.

An audio cable normally consists of inner conductors, insulating material, filler material, shielding material, and an outer jacket.

The various components of a headphone cable and their effects on the sound are described in detail below:

Wire conductor

Simply put, conductors are materials that conduct electricity and heat better than any other material. The wires in your headphone cables that carry the audio signal are conductors.

A good conductor will keep most of the electricity from source to destination, while a bad conductor will offer more resistance and lose information. Therefore, a better conductor will reproduce the source audio signal more accurately than a bad conductor.

It is important that you understand that the role of a conductor in headphone cables is to transmit the sound signal and reproduce it as well as possible. It cannot improve the original sound signal or quality.

Silver is the best conductor, but because of its cost, most headphone manufacturers build the cables of their headphones using copper, which is the second-best conductor and much less expensive.

In addition, some people claim that copper produces a warmer sound than silver, which produces a harder or brighter sound. Some headphone cables are made from a combination of copper and silver, so you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Insulation, filling, shielding and outer jacket

These materials prevent the inner conductor of a headphone cable from picking up unwanted sound signals through touch or movement (microphony) and interference such as electromagnetic radiation and radio frequency interference. They also protect the ladder from physical damage and increase its lifespan.

Many exotic cable manufacturers claim that without proper insulation (sheathing) and shielding, the wires are more susceptible to more interference and unwanted audio signals that can degrade the audio signal from the audio source.

It is therefore important to insulate the conductor wires with the right insulation material and better shielding. Whether this is the case will be discussed in detail in the next section.

Higher quality cables will have better insulation and shielding properties. Teflon alias polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is considered the best insulation material for headphone cables.

In terms of shielding, the more the shielding layer of a cable, the less interference it will be exposed to. However, these solutions can increase the cost of the product.

Also, note that exotic braided cables do not affect sound quality in any way, and there is no evidence to support the idea of ​​twisted conductors to reduce crosstalk and noise.

Connections

These are the parts at the end of the cables that connect to the devices that output the sound. There are many different types of connectors, but what matters is the material from which they are made. Similarly, as the wires inside the cable these are also with conductors made, but instead of copper are often silver, gold plating or zinc used.

In most cases, the reason for using zinc, gold or silver plating instead of copper is to increase the durability of the connectors.

The connectors remain exposed to the air, and if enough time passes, the oxygen in the air can degrade the material. If this happens, the sound quality may be poor.

Because gold, silver or zinc is more inert than copper, manufacturers tend to use them to prevent or at least delay chemical reactions on the surface of the connector.

Some manufacturers have started using rhodium as an alternative to gold for connector manufacturing, but gold is still the best choice because it is far more conductive than rhodium.

Therefore, gold-plated, silver-plated or rhodium-plated connectors do not really improve the sound quality. They only delay the corrosion of the outer layer of the connector.

Cable science and myths

The length, thickness, and material of the wire can affect the flow of electrical current through the wire. As a result, this can affect sound quality. Now let’s take a look at cable science, or more specifically, the properties of the wire that affect the sound quality:

  1. Capacity: It is the ability of a material or object to store or hold an electrical charge. For example, a wire with a higher capacity at a given voltage stores more charge than a wire with a lower capacity. It is preferable to buy smaller capacity wires because a higher capacity can cause a signal loss in the high-frequency range of the sound spectrum and can cause hum.
  2. Resistance: It is the ability of a material or object to resist the flow of electrical current through it and cause energy loss. So if a speaker is connected to a wire with less resistance, you will need to use less energy to operate it. In addition, a wire with a higher resistance loses more frequencies than a wire with a lower resistance for the same power.
  3. Inductance: If the current applied by a conductor changes, this also changes the voltage. This property is called inductance. Just like the capacitance, the inductance also acts as a “low-pass filter” and lets all sound signals pass below a certain cut-off frequency.

The lower the inductance, the higher the cutoff frequency range. However, if you increase the inductance, the threshold of the limit filter drops and begins to affect the higher frequencies of the sound audible to the human ear.

The thickness (gaugezie) and the length of the wires affect the resistance. Thicker (shorter thickness) wires with shorter lengths have less resistance than longer and thinner wires.

How does all this affect the headphone cables? Well, it doesn’t affect the sound quality of headphone cables in any noticeable way.

The impact on sound quality caused by the differences in these properties of the cables is only visible when using super-long cables that are hundreds of meters long and when using ultra-premium hardware.

Now let’s examine some cable myths that are common to exotic cable manufacturers:

The purity of copper drastically affects sound quality

As we mentioned earlier, copper is the most conductive material and the most commonly used conductor in headphone cables. However, there are different classification systems for the purity of copper. Most copper cables are, for example, up to 99.99% pure, which is called 4-Neuner copper.

It is controversial among many audiophiles and sound experts whether copper cables with a purity of 6-nine or higher can produce a better sound than copper wires with a purity of 4-nine.

Many premium audio cable manufacturers advertise their cables with oxygen-free copper (OFC), which reduces the oxygen content in copper to 0.001% or less.

Cable interference

A usual sales pitches you will hear from marketers of premium headphones, the inclusion of a special shielding or isolation in their headphone or earphone cord, the interference due to crosstalk, electromagnetic radiation, or noise is reduced from other sources. However, you will rarely face interference problems unless you are using a very cheap quality cable.

This is because the most common sources of electromagnetic radiation are outside the audible spectrum and are very weak.

The signal will be too small to be picked up even if it is only a few millimeters from the cable. In addition, the headphone drivers are equally susceptible to this problem if there is a strong source of interference in your area.

So even if you buy a properly shielded cable, it will cause problems if the sound drivers are subject to strong interference.

Another reason why you shouldn’t worry about interference is the fact that most headphones that have low impedance are almost immune to EMI and RFI.

However, it is still advisable to buy a pair of cables with proper sheathing or insulation, as this can drastically reduce the unwanted sound caused by unwanted mechanical vibrations, also called microphony.

The best way to make sure you don’t suffer from this problem is to buy a pair of headphones or earphones with a thick, insulated rubber cord. Avoid those who have nylon cables.

Cable break-in or burn-in

This is undoubtedly the most popular cable myth. Many audiophiles swear by this procedure and believe that a properly burned-in cable can sound very different from a cable of the same type that has not yet been burned in.

The headphone manufacturers also claim that in order to develop the full potential of their product, a burn-in phase of the product must be allowed.

This means that you have to get used to listening to the magic or miracle of the high-end device you just bought for several or even a few hundred hours to witness the magic or miracle.

This issue is very controversial, as there is no clear evidence that branding cables can improve sound quality. Therefore, this claim is initially subsumed under the Myth section.

Balanced headphone cables improve sound quality

While it is true that balanced cables have several advantages over unbalanced cables, it makes very little sense to use balanced cables for headphones.

An unbalanced cable has two types of wires inside: A signal wire that carries the signal, and a ground wire that serves as a reference point for the signal. An unbalanced cable is susceptible to picking up noise, hum, and interference over long distances because the ground wire acts as an antenna.

A symmetrical cable has a ground wire inside, but 2 signal wires. The two signal wires carry two copies of the same signal with opposite polarities (known as the hot and cold signals).

Well, here’s the interesting part. The two signals cancel each other out because they have opposite polarities.

Shortly before reaching the input device, however, the polarity of one signal is reversed in order to adjust the polarity of the other signal.

This essentially eliminates any noise or interference added to the signals, since one of the copies of the noise is now reversed in polarity. Ultimately, you get a clean and clear tone. To get a better understanding of the process, you can watch this short video.

Why do people have different opinions on the subject?

There can be several reasons why different people may have different opinions on the subject. First of all, you have to understand that there will always be two groups of people: the skeptic and the believer.

A skeptic will not believe a marketer’s or an audiophile’s claims without actual scientific evidence or evidence. In most cases, even if the evidence is presented to a skeptic, it may not matter to them if they don’t make a difference in the real world.

Skeptics of this topic generally tend to be the people who are not audiophiles, hi-fi experts or experts, have no career in the music industry, or have only recently entered the music industry.

A follower of this topic, on the other hand, are the people who are very passionate about music and have been working in the music industry for some years, or audiophiles. These people tend to support almost all of the marketer’s claims.

Believers claim to have more sensitive ears than skeptics who cannot hear sounds outside the normal hearing range. People with sensitive ears often state that they can recognize the small nuances and characteristics of sounds that are not recognized by the untrained ears.

For example, the sound coming from an earphone can be described as light and shiny, light or dark, clear or muddy, etc. The problem arises because these properties cannot be measured reliably using scientific methods.

The perception of the sound can also influence your decision. Two different people can hear the same tone or sound differently or perceive their properties differently. It is impossible to measure how different the tone or tones are perceived by the other person.

Another thing that affects people is expectations. Someone who has invested a large sum of money in first-class audio equipment will expect to hear better sound quality from it.

Likewise, someone who does not want to or cannot invest in premium equipment will usually believe that premium audio equipment is marketing hype. So you will expect that premium audio devices will not offer any outstanding improvements.


Verdict: Should you buy expensive headphone cables?

According to science, high-end cables can improve sound quality, but the degree of improvement is so small that it is imperceptible to the human ear, or at least the untrained ear.

So, if you have the option to buy a combination of a normal pair of headphones and super-premium cables or high-quality headphones with normal cables, it is much better to opt for the latter.

Again, if you want to improve the sound quality of your existing headphones, you should invest money in buying a high-quality amplifier or DAC rather than buying a high-quality cable.

However, it is a good idea to buy cables that are not terrible. The cables should be durable and properly insulated to reduce microphone noise as these are the main problems associated with poor cables.

But one should not overlook the value of pleasure. For audiophiles, high-quality cables are like jewelry. So you increase the mental satisfaction of the user and thus his listening experience.

In fact, believers who have sold their premium headphone cables after failing a blind test or an ABX test have reported that they regret their decision at a later point in their lives.

Therefore, it ultimately comes down to your preferences. If you have the money to invest and you want your audio equipment to give you the best possible listening experience, you can buy a pair of premium headphone cables.

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