Audio Cable Buying Guide

Audio Cable Buyer’s Guide

We pay a lot of attention to the various components of our vintage audio setups such as the turntables, amplifiers, and speakers, but often forget about the important components that connect them all together – cables.

It doesn’t matter how good each component in the chain is, if you are passing the signal over a cable that is badly-made you can’t expect good quality audio to come out the other end.

However, there are also cable solutions out there that cost an arm and a leg. The companies that make this cabling usually claim that they improve the quality of the sound and are usually made from some relatively exotic material. Can these expensive cables really make a difference? Should you spend the extra money to buy them?

Be sure to check out my article on the different connector types you can get, if you aren’t already familiar with them.

Digital Devil

There’s a pretty good argument today that cable quality makes no difference to audio or picture quality, but with one major caveat – this only applies to digital cables.

If you are using a digital standard such as HDMI to carry your signal, cable quality really has no effect on it. With built-in error correction the cable either works or it doesn’t . I’ve seen demos where a digital signal gets transmitted over a coat hanger without affecting what comes out at the other end.

Of course, your vinyl record player is not a digital source, although if you have one with a analog-to-digital converter that outputs via USB, this rule would apply to that USB cable.

Analog Angel

The situation is a bit different when it comes to analog audio signals. Your preamp, amp, and speakers accept whatever information is represented by the analog signal. If the signal is weakened or changed by interference or problems with the materials, you’ll hear that come out of the speakers.

Hissing, popping, pitch shifts, and all sorts of other unwanted distortions can happen because of problems with cables. On top of this, the problems can be cumulative – at each step of the chain more noise or problems can get added that all come out as one big mess on the speaker end of the process.

Shields Up!

A cable is actually a pretty complex thing. Depending on the type of cable, it may have a metal core that carries the main signal and a layer of shielding that isolates that signal so that it neither receives nor causes interference.

Speaker wires, for example, can be bought in shielded and unshielded versions. It may seem logical to shield these wires, but the low frequency and power that run through speaker wires makes noise from interference a non-issue in general. There are, however, some situations, such as when bundles of wire run through a wall cavity or when coupled with some other electronics, that interference may crop up. However, speaker wire is cheap, so you might as well start with the unshielded stuff and see if there are issues. In the vast majority of cases, more expensive shielded cabling is not needed.

RCA Speedwagon

Apart from normal twisted pair speaker wire, the other cable you’ll likely encounter is the humble RCA cable. This is a standard that has been around since the 1940s and was also known as “phono” connectors, so these actually share history with vinyl record players.

When you buy stereo RCA cables to connect the preamp to the amp, or sometimes even the turntable to the preamp, you need to make sure you get cables that are going to give you a good experience.

While most RCA cables use copper throughout, you may also find some that have gold or silver-plated connectors. Silver is the best conductor, followed by copper and then gold. The main reason to use gold is that it doesn’t oxidize, the process we most commonly refer to as “rusting”. When a metal rusts, it loses its conductivity, which will severely affect the sound quality.

Copper tends to rust at the connector end, so plating the connector in gold or silver helps. Gold lowers the conductivity, though, so it represents a compromise between a lower maximum conductivity level in exchange for a guarantee against rust. Unless you live in sea air, silver is probably the best compromise, since it increases oxidation resistance while leaving conductivity no worse than that of copper.

Also pay attention to the plating on the connector on the device. You might as well match gold with gold or silver with silver, since the lowest common denominator will affect the whole chain.

However, if you aren’t living in a place where oxidation is a huge issue, just go with plain copper. You can also get relatively reasonably-priced zinc, tin, and nickel-plated RCA connectors that do better than copper when it comes to oxidation. Silver and gold are therefore not really worth the extra money unless you have a very specific reason to have them – like living on a houseboat, I guess.

RCAs can also be bought with shielding, as I mentioned above. The same rule applies – go with the cheapest option and then only upgrade if you actually have interference problems.

Phono Connectors

Gold Plated Copper Core

Lengthy Dialog

The other thing you should take into account is length. Cables should be no longer than absolutely necessary. This is not only neater, but means there is less signal strength drop. If you need cables to be very long you may even need some sort of repeater device, although for most home users this will never be an issue. So before you spend money on cabling, measure the distance between your components in their permanent positions and buy RCA cables as close to that length as possible.

When it comes to speaker wire, you can have them made in any length, so try to get them at a length that does not result in unused cable coiling somewhere. It also makes financial sense, since you pay for every inch of cable you get.

Wired for Sound

In the end, it is just not worth spending money on fancy cables but, at the same time, you should not buy the very cheapest cables you can find. Many off-brand or generic cables from far-flung parts of the world can be of such poor quality that the insulation disintegrates or the thin wire inside breaks within the cable. When we buy cables we should care more about features that affect the build-quality rather than the sound quality. A cheap cable can sound about the same as an expensive one, but break and rust in very short order.

So aim for the middle and try to buy cables that are from a reputable brand. Use your ears to listen for any noise issues and only buy fancier cables if you know it will make a difference. The money you save is better spent on higher-quality components.

Vinyl Vintage Audio System Reviews

If you’re completely new to the world of vinyl and vintage audio, I’d recommend to start with the reviews on Turntables, Phone Preamps, Record Cleaners and Speakers. Once you’ve got this covered, make sure to check the menu for more of my reviews.

Turntables Record Cleaners Phono Pre-Amps Bookshelf Speakers