Are your cables changing the sound of your music? We ask Rashad Becker, Ena, Stereociti and Toshihiko Miyoshi to give their thoughts on this controversial issue.
But what effect do cables have on your sound? It's a point of contention among engineers, producers and hi-fi enthusiasts, and a question mired in subjective judgements and savvy marketing. But while opinions vary, it's safe to say changing cables changes sounds. Still, many people who make music might not have given cables much thought, let alone consider what role they may be playing in their music. So we asked four engineers and producers to share their knowledge of an underappreciated but potentially pivotal link in your signal chain.
Even though they've all spent countless hours listening to and testing cables, it's important to realise that these artists have contrasting, even contradictory perspectives on the subject. Some say you can choose cables that are appropriate to the style of music you're making. Others say that musicians shouldn't bother thinking about cables at all.
Rashad Becker is among electronic music's most respected mastering engineers. He's also capable of creating startling synthesised sounds, which are most evident in a pair of vivid LPs for PAN. Even though he spends 40 hours a week working with the minutiae of sound as an engineer, he still has the exploratory nature of a musician.
Ena is a standout producer who, across a series of EPs and albums for Samurai, evolved from drum & bass into his own distinctive sound world. Although he's steeped in the advanced technical execution of drum & bass, his explorations of texture and space in recent years are anything but formulaic.
Stereociti is best known for his nuanced and spacious deep house. He was into engineering before moving to music, and the Japanese artist has since found a home on Don Williams' Mojuba imprint. He now resides in Berlin and, appropriately enough, runs his own cable importing business, Sumitani Densen.
Toshihiko Miyoshi presides over HAL Studio, and has engineered artists from DJ Krush to Takaaki Ito. He has a particular expertise in cables, having reviewed hundreds of different brands and styles in Introduction To Power & Cables For Musicians/Creators and Sound & Recordings Magazine. But despite all the kinds of cables he's tested and written about, Miyoshi says the humble power cable has the biggest impact on sound quality.
"It used to be that the speaker cable was the most replaced cable for musicians and DJs. But with studios moving toward recording systems based on digital audio workstations (DAW), the power cable started becoming the main point of attention. If you wanted to change the cables in the signal path of a studio recording system, it was necessary to replace dozens of cables connecting each of the devices—with a power supply, you could change the sound of the entire system just by replacing one aspect."
Miyoshi says that changing the power cables for your computer and audio interface is the simplest way for producers to quickly perceive how power changes the sound. Hearing the differences between cables requires listening to the same track through various brands in a controlled listening environment. An awareness of your biases as a listener is an equally important factor.
"If we listen to the first minute of a reference track, change the cable and re-listen to the same portion of the track and so on," Miyoshi says. "We have a tendency to naturally feel that something has changed just by virtue of the act of physically changing the cable. You shouldn't listen to too much of the track, perhaps just the intro, and judge how the feeling changes between cables. If you listen all the way through to the chorus, there could be large variations in the mood and volume of the track, making it difficult to judge neutrally."
Another important factor in testing different cables for yourself is a clearly defined stereo field. Using headphones or perfectly placed speakers is vital for discerning how cables affect the stereo image of your track. "Focus on consciously listening to the feeling of the left/right stereo image, as well as the centre image," Miyoshi says. "I often listen for elements that tend to sound stronger in the low-, mid- and high frequency ranges within the centre image, as well as the L/R image. If we were to consider that low, mid, and high frequencies within the L/R and centre images total 100%, then the ratio by which these six factors are distributed is the characteristic of that cable."
For example, if the high and mid frequency ranges of the centre and L/R images are 40% each, then the remaining 20% must be filled by the low frequency. In this case, we'd have a cable with pronounced high and mid frequencies and a transparent low-end.
Cables are built from materials like copper, silver and gold, which each have subtly different tonal characteristics. However, discerning these differences is often a subjective exercise that many people still can't agree on. Some people say copper is thick and dense, leading to a narrow image. Gold allegedly adds a sheen to the sound, while silver's characteristic is smooth and low on resonance.
Despite all the variables in a cable's design and character, Miyoshi maintains they have little bearing on the listener's experience. "Even if we were to measure the traits of a cable using waveforms and the like, we probably would not find much difference." Yet we seem to notice audible differences when swapping cables. The reason, he points out, is due to a difference in transmission speeds. "A cable that sounds strong in the low frequencies is simply slowing the high range a little bit so that it can transmit low frequencies quickly. This is the same as when you have a kick, bass and snare playing at exactly the same time in a DAW but nudging one of them ahead by just one millisecond can vastly change how it sounds overall. This analogy might be the best way to grasp the differences between cables."
So even though cables can get extremely expensive, there's a finite limit to what they can do. Although Miyoshi says that a cable's price and sound quality are often proportional, emphasising one frequency range often comes at the expense of another. "A more expensive cable might have a fuller low-end and more extended highs. But if we use our 100% logic from earlier, it follows that when one element is enhanced, another must be reduced, so in this case there would be a dip in the mid-range. We're not interested in whether a cable is objectively good or bad but whether it suits our own preference."
Miyoshi goes so far as to suggest that you should choose cables based on the style of music you're making. "If you're using a cable with a wide stereo spread in the mid-range, pads may sound clear and lush. This could work well for beatless, ambient music. But the centre will be less prominent, making the cable less desirable for beat-heavy genres."
As a producer, finding a cable that suits your own taste is the most important thing. And to understand the unique characteristics of a cable, some trial and error is necessary. But another school of thought says that cables are such a minor part of the creative process that you shouldn't care either way.
I was first interested in cables as a guitarist. It was around the time that Monster Cable came out with cables that had strong, exciter-like characteristics, and I experimented connecting many different varieties to my amplifier. My music-making friends would come over with all their speaker and recording cables to test them out together. It was easier to do the A/B testing with more people. We tested classic brands like Canare, Belden, Mogami, Oyaide and so on.
Swapping cables can be a good exercise for developing your ability to listen. Although it is not necessary to do it daily, occasionally switching out your cables to hear the differences can train your ear, making it possible to notice even more detailed nuances. In that sense, I think there is a certain benefit to trying out a variety of cables.
My standard go-to options are the Belden 8412 and the Mogami 2534. I've been using the 8412 since I was a guitarist, so I naturally tended to compare it with any new cables I bought. I started using the 8412 in the first place because it was considered to be a standard of sorts rather than because I thought it sounded perfect. My preference in cables was more about fitting my own taste rather than faithfully reproducing the sound.
Once I was very selective about power cables. I used to use an analogue mixing desk for music production, and I could change its tonal character just be swapping out the power cable. But in the end, I ended up going back to using the original cables that came with the equipment. I don't care so much about power these days, but in hindsight, my impression was that older power cables sounded harsh or sharp, more coloured and less honest. I didn't care so much for that, so I stopped using them.
Today my music production is based around a DAW, so I'm most particular about my speakers and the audio interface. I use the Mogami 2534 to connect to the interface and speakers. Some people say they sound flat and uninspired, but I think speaker cables shouldn't add any colouration. Its response to harmonic overtones is, dare I say, very normal.
I think that cables definitely affect the sound. The more expensive cables tend to make this more obvious, and they can sound flashy. This can lead to a sense that you're hearing something that could not be heard before or that the cable has improved the sound resolution. But whether you think this is good or bad is another story. A flashy, expensive cable isn't necessarily faithful to the sound or capable of representing its depth. The fact that I don't use any of the expensive cables I tried in the past tells me that none of the resulting sounds were a good fit for me.
I'm not denying the value of high-end cables. What's more important is to know and use the characteristics of each cable. For example, when connecting analogue outboard gear to a DAW, I think using specific cables to add certain textures to the sound can be an interesting method of working. But without knowledge of these characteristics, blindly buying high-grade cables across the board will not produce better results.
I was interested in engineering before I started making music, so I was always concerned with cables. Since I couldn't afford the brands found in high-end recording and mastering studios, I selected decent options in a price range that was within reach. An important consideration when choosing was how much noise each model added. I bought classic cables like Mogami and Belden and soldered various kinds of plugs on them before studying the differences in sound. There was also a period when I got into vintage cables, experimenting with wires usually used in the internal wiring of an electric guitar, for example, and even trying out different types of solder. However, as a result of trying all these things, I've come to believe that, in the end, it really doesn't matter.
The reason is that thinking about a cable's fidelity is an engineering consideration. An environment where truly accurate mixing and mastering becomes possible obviously requires funds for high-end audio interfaces, monitors and cables—something that you can't get without spending lots of money. Some high-end cables are definitely faithful to the original sounds, and there are certainly cables characterised by the use of extremely high quality materials. However, these cables can cost upwards of ¥200,000 [approximately $1,8000] for just two meters. Unless one is aiming to work at that level, my idea is that most cables are fine, as long as they meet your own standards with regards to noise. Of course, with affordably priced cables, there can be a tendency for things to sound harsh or soft depending on the model, so each person's preference must be taken into account.
The cables I usually use are Gotham, Mogami 2534 and Belden 8412. Gotham is the most straightforward for me, with the least amount of noise. The Mogami sounds clear but a bit harsh and sharp, while Belden seems to add some power. But I don't use one type of cable to make gear sound a certain way. The thing I am most concerned about is low frequency noise. In the case of electronic music, noise may in fact be part of your style, but in my experience, it is rare that noise generated by a cable's poor signal-to-noise ratio leads to positive results. In the studio, we protect the signal by wrapping the cable shield with aluminium tape, so that it picks up the least amount of noise.
Lately I've been getting through the entire mixing process within the DAW, so my emphasis during production is on the cables that connect the audio interface to the speakers. Then there's the cable I use for ripping vinyl, the Phonon Great Wave. Since this cable doesn't use rubber as an insulator, the sound feels more open.
However, instead of just blindly using good cables everywhere, I think it's a good idea to prioritise reliability at key points in the signal chain. If you're doing your own mixdowns, I think the cable connecting the audio interface to the speakers is probably most important. I am also particular about digital cables, which I believe have a bigger impact than analogue varieties. I've found that more reliable USB cables result in a better sound.
You should certainly use whatever cable you like, but I can never recommend cheap or poor quality brands. They're often built carelessly, and they also tend to sound loose or break immediately. I think you should definitely select a cable with at least a bare minimum level of quality right from the beginning. That way you can avoid experiencing really bad sound, and it is a waste to not have an awareness of how good your sound can be. This was why I started my cable company, Sumitani Densen. In Berlin, engineers and people involved in operating music studios can be particular about the quality of cables, but due to their high cost, average music producers rarely consider it. So I decided to import high-quality options made in Japan, solder them together myself, and make them available at a lower price point. In doing so, I hope I can help raise the overall level of music production in this environment in some small way.
Cables have a weird mystery to them. This is because most people have no idea how to judge them, yet they also want to trust someone or something, some brand, so they can never make competent decisions. In that regard, cables are representative of a more general consumerist dilemma within society.
My experience with cables is pretty long and widespread. I cannot conceive how many metres of cable I have bought in my life. I followed cable tests but I believe the method is very unscientific and borderline obscene. Sound is such an aesthetically, psychologically and empirically biased sense that it's incredibly susceptible to placebo. As a mastering engineer, I've spent 40 hours a week for 20 years A/Bing audio signals. I know how easily you're tricked, and a lot of these supposedly scientific tests are anything but.
I did my own test where I took a one-, six- and 15-metre cable from the same high-end brand. Here I am talking about balanced signals—if you're working at instrument level with unbalanced cables, then length is quite important. So I plugged them into the input and output of an AD/DA convertor and ran the same signal through the one-metre cable five times, then again with the six-metre cable and so on. Then I played the various recordings together and inverted the phase. They cancelled each other out, creating silence, which means from a scientific point of view, the signals are identical.
For me, the result of this is not, "It doesn't matter," but rather, "I shouldn't care." If there's something behind cables, it's not going to make or break the music. I can respect people who are trying to figure out the benchmark, but given the way music is used in people's lives, it's not going to matter.
The quality of sound is not always a question of its integrity or fidelity. It's a question of its decisiveness. It's dangerous that so many musicians nowadays have this idea of professionalism that they bring to every aspect of their work. Then they partially lose their reason for being a musician. So, when it comes to integrity, I would say start bothering about your cables when you have your method and strategy absolutely under control and you're bored one day. People think they need to be super professional before they can start making music. And that's a ridiculous proposition.
I know cables give a lot of people anxiety because they're not competent enough to deal with them. And they shouldn't be, because they are musicians. They should be competent with making music. You could learn about the physics and the wave impedance behind it, but it's not something a musician should be dealing with. Ultimately the anxiety is unrewarded or ungratified.
Having said that, if you're a musician working with unbalanced cables, you should keep your power supplies far away from the signal. And keep all your power on the same circuit—this makes a big difference. Use gold plated jacks for permanent connections, and be sure to unplug your cables from time to time to clean the contacts. Also, don't roll anything, like a flight case for instance, over your cables.
Digital cables are much more unforgiving when it comes to length. They should be short as possible and it's more rewarding to use the high-end options. Analogue is much more forgiving, whereas sometimes you might have a 1.5-metre USB cable that works fine on a specific data bus, then a 1.7-metre one suddenly won't work in the same connection. Power cables are something that I just can't be bothered with. I just want to call an expert and have them sort it out for me. Speaker cables are a totally different beast. But these are studio questions, not music questions. Mastering is a different situation. I have to take responsibility for the trust someone has placed in me, and I want to live up to that trust. So that's why I use relatively high-end cables in the studio.