Studio cables come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and prices. You’ve likely noticed two XLR cables that perform the same function, but somehow, one costs significantly more than the other. So what separates high-end audio cables from ordinary-priced cables?
Some audio cables are expensive because of packaging and the quality of materials used. In other cases, vast price differences could be a marketing strategy to convince unsuspecting customers that the price relates to quality and performance. This isn’t always the case, however.
This article discusses the differences between cheaper and slightly more expensive audio cables. I’ll also explain how manufacturers justify the high price tags on certain cables. Read on to understand more about low-end, mid-range, and high-end audio cables.
Why are Audio Cables so Expensive
As with any other commercial industry in the world, the cable industry targets a specific niche and audience.
Comparing Audio Cable Quality
As with any other commercial industry in the world, the cable industry targets a specific niche and audience. Some cable brands specifically cater to amateur musicians and low-budget performers, whereas others create cables for professionals, audiophiles, and those serious about sound.
Let’s start by examining low-budget audio cables. From a manufacturing standpoint, cheap audio cables are simple and inexpensive to make. As such, the makers of these cables can justify the low price — they don’t need a hefty mark-up to recover how much they spent to make them.
For example, for the conductor component, the cheapest audio cables typically utilize aluminum. Commercially, aluminum is significantly cheaper than silver often seen in high-priced cables. The plastic insulation is usually thinner, making the wires more susceptible to fraying.
By doing the bare minimum of what’s required to produce a working audio cable, certain manufacturers can sell reasonably functional cables that get the job done — but not much more. Cheaper cables don’t always perform well, and the difference between an inexpensive and high-end cable is typically quite noticeable.
A low-priced cable might be cheap, but it will definitely have some performance-related issues, including:
- Poor sound
- Damage to equipment
- Susceptibility to breaking and fraying
In fact, low-grade cables have high capacitance, an object’s ability to hold a charge. Simply put, a suitable audio cable should have low capacitance so that the signal can quickly build and transfer to its destination.
High capacitance is undesirable in an audio cable because it causes loss of signal and heat build-up. And yet, building a low capacitance cable is significantly expensive.
Capacitance is just one of the many problems that cable makers must solve to create a decent audio cable. As a result, these companies have to strike a balance between performance and price.
If you’re searching for a quick audio cable just to ensure your audio equipment works, then you might be able to get away with using a cheap cable. However, for actual performances and quality listening, you’ll want to invest in at least a mid-range cable.
Mid-Range Audio Cables
Mid-range cables are slightly more expensive than low-end cables. In my opinion, this an ideal choice. These brands offer a significant upgrade in the quality of materials used to build the cable without burning a hole in your pocket.
While they may not give you gold-plated tips and top-of-the-range insulation, you will still get value for your money.
Many of these cables have sufficient shielding, decent conducting materials, and durable insulation.
The most expensive cables you see on the market are made by high-end cable makers claiming to offer the highest quality cables. I mentioned that good-quality cables take more resources to make.
To make a high-performing cable, these manufacturers need to use:
- High-quality conducting materials such as silver, nickel, or the “gold” standard.
- Thick insulation
- High-quality insulating material
- Gold plated connectors
Some of these cables do not really have to be that expensive, yet they are. Some might argue that high-end cables exist because of customers who are unaware. Others say the rise in their popularity is inflated by audiophiles who exaggerate the importance of having an over-priced cable.
In any case, here are the common features that are typical of expensive audio cables.
Expensive Speaker Cables
If you’ve ever shopped for speaker cable, you may have been surprised at how expensive it can be. After all, it’s just a piece of metal, right? So why do speaker cables cost so much?
There are a few reasons. First, the quality of the wire is important.
A good speaker cable will be made of high-quality copper or silver, which conducts electricity well.
Second, the wire needs to be thick enough to carry the current without resistance. This means that speaker cables are typically much thicker than other types of electrical wires.
Finally, speaker cables need to be insulated to prevent interference from other electrical signals. This insulation can be made from a variety of materials, but it adds to the cost of the wire.
So there you have it: three reasons why speaker wires are so expensive. But even though they cost more than other types of electrical wire, they’re worth the investment if you want to get the best sound quality from your speakers.
Digital Cables (HDMI cable, ethernet cables, optical cables)
There are a few reasons digital cables are often more expensive than their analog counterparts.
First, digital cables carry higher bandwidth than analog cables, making them capable of transmitting more data. They also tend to be less susceptible to interference, meaning that the signal is more likely to remain clear and consistent.
Finally, digital cables typically use higher-quality materials, which can add to the cost. While there are a number of factors that contribute to the cost of digital cables, they tend to provide a superior level of performance, making them well worth the investment for many audio and video enthusiasts.
Justifications for High-End Audio Cables
There are many reasons why high-end expensive cables cost significantly more, as discussed earlier. Materials play the most significant role in the price. Let’s dive deeper into each of these materials to explain how these high-end expensive cables provide better performance and quality.
A conductor is a wire inside the cable through which the audio signal passes. The diameter of the wire affects the quality of signal movement, with larger wires preserving the integrity of the signal better.
One of the reasons why some cables are expensive is because the manufacturers use more conductive material, which raises the cost of production. In addition, the material of the conductor matters too.
Materials such as silver indeed have the best conducting properties. Silver is known to give the brightest, cleanest sound when used in a cable. However, this perception is almost negligible when compared to some mid-range materials like copper.
Connectors are the bits of metal you can actually see when you hold the cable in your hands. The choice of metal used doesn’t rely on the metal’s conductivity. The function of the connector is to minimize corrosion of the cable so that it can last longer.
Gold is not as conductive as silver or copper, so its purpose on the connector has nothing to do with sound quality. Yet, many expensive cables use gold-plated connectors, also known as the gold standard. Gold-plated connectors are used because gold is perceived as a superior and affluent metal.
Oxygen-Free Copper is commonly used in some expensive audio-quality cables. The term means copper with an oxygen percentage below 0.001%. The rationale for using oxygen-free copper is to reduce the amount of collision that a signal goes through as it travels across the wire.
Again, while the science behind this process is true, the real-world benefits are barely noticeable.
Final Thoughts on Expensive Audio Cables
Audio-quality cables come in a variety of grades. While some are clearly more expensive than others, it doesn’t always mean that they are always better.
Mid-range cables will consistently outperform low-end cables. High-end cables are more expensive because they are designed with extra features, but these may not be the practical things you need in an audio cable.
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