BUYING CABLES ONLINE: 6 BASICS YOU NEED TO KNOW
In a post COVID-19 era, most of us have moved to online shopping.
Maybe because retail stores are still closed, or you simply prefer the comfort and safety of your home.
So here's the question: How do I make an informed purchase without trying out the product?
This guide will teach you key points you need to know about cables. We will cover cable specifications, misconceptions, and some important tips on cable care.
Let’s get started!
Before we dive into cable specifications, let us share a few tips on cable maintenance.
Taking good care of your cable can prevent your cable sleeve from hardening over time.
Skin oil and sweat can be absorbed into the uneven surface of cables. This is likely to cause oxidation if your cable is not Litz. Preventing this is easy though - simply wipe your cable with an alcohol swab before storage. We recommend using alcohol swabs instead of water as it is more effective at removing oil and dirt.
Plug oxidation is natural and is usually not an issue. We do however provide a polishing cloth if you like to keep your plug tips in pristine condition. Do refrain from over-polishing the plugs as it removes plating layers, which can lead to an increased oxidation rate and cause rust.
Let’s use this snip from our website’s cable specifications as an example.
AWG stands for American Wire Gauge. It is a stepped wire gauge system used to determine the diameters for round, solid and electrically conducting wires.
Basically, it tells you how thick the cable is.
The larger the number, the smaller the cable diameter. For example, 30AWG is much thinner than 22AWG. Standard cables range from 22AWG to 28AWG.
For audio cables, we usually take the diameter of the outer sleeve as the designated AWG, instead of actual wire's diameter. This way of measuring gives customers a better understanding of how thick the final wire is.
Thicker cables do not necessarily mean they sound better.
In fact - this is important - cables that are too thick will result in too little resistance, sending too much current to the driver and cause over-flexing of the diaphragm. This will spoil the IEM in the long run.
Personally, we feel that the optimum gauge for IEM cables is 26-27AWG, and 24AWG for headphone cables. If you like thick cables, do be aware of the issue with resistance before making your purchase!
We will use the same snip to explain what ‘6n’ means.
You often see cable specifications in 5n, 6n, or 7n. These refer to the purity (refinement) of the wire.
Wires are made from processing of metal ore, via metal refinement. Raw copper ore contains many non-conductive impurities that reduce the flow of electrons, i.e. reduce conductivity and current though the cable. The purpose of refinement is to remove these impurities.
The degree filtration of the metal from its impurities gives it its purity, which ranges from 98% - 99.9999% pure copper. N refers to the number for 9s in the purity percentage. For example, 99.99% copper is 4n copper.
The highest achievable refinement purity with copper and silver at the moment is 7n and 5n respectively. Anything higher will result in the metal being too malleable, leading to a very fragile cable. Some ways to counteract the cable's lack of structural integrity include binding it around a nylon core for stability and using durable sleeves such as TPU and PVC.
Higher purity does not mean higher quality sound. This is just a specification and does not in any way define the sound of the cable.
There has been a stereotyped sound signature of cable materials for a long time.
These stereotypes may have been true years ago, but not anymore. Metal refinement has improved exponentially in the last decade due to the rising need for stronger, tougher steels. These refinement technologies have trickled down into other forms of metal refinement, audio cables included.
Copper has a reputation of sounding warm, full and thick, but may sometimes come off as bloated. It is also said to lack vocal clarity and have a clustered soundstage/imaging. The sound signature of copper has since changed to become smooth and airy, with tight bass impact. However, low quality copper will still sound muddy and boomy.
Since silver cables are often white, people tend to associate the color with the sound and thus develop a false perception that it is ‘bright’. Silver is thought to be detailed and accurate but may sound thin at times. While it is true that silver provides more clarity and accuracy, good quality silver will in fact sound warm; it will also not be piercing or sibilant.
It is important to note that silver is not always better than copper. High quality copper will almost always sound more tonally accurate and natural than silver.
There is no ‘best’ material. Copper, SPC, Silver, hybrids. Nothing is better than the other. It all depends on what your sound preference is. Of course, all these sound signatures are generalized and should not be used to describe every cable - you can just use these as a simple guideline.
The Truth about Expensive Cables
Well, that depends.
Why is it so expensive? Is it really that good?
Sometimes, companies like to experiment with new materials and sell it at an inflated price - you know, because if it’s new, it’s good. Right?
Take for example gold cables. It sounds like a good idea since it does not corrode. Now start thinking about the cons. Gold is not stable, tears easily, and it has no structural integrity. Furthermore, it is not as good a conductor as silver and copper; though some people think gold cables sound warm because they does not conduct as well.
Let’s not even mention palladium.
To us, the cons outweigh the pros too much to consider gold (or palladium) cables worthy of their price.
Cables are expensive because of one reason: better refined cable materials. This includes the qualities of the plug, solder wire, and the actual cable itself. As mentioned previously, sound wise, material is subjective. Purity should also not be your key deciding factor when picking a cable.
In short, higher price does not mean higher quality sound. This goes without saying, but we’ll just say it again. Do not judge a product by its price.
Of course, this is not to say all expensive cables are bad and overpriced. There are just too many over-hyped cables out there giving pricier cables a bad name. There are undoubtedly some great cables out there that are worth their price. Do your research and read many different reviews beforehand so you can make an informed decision.
Now, you think you’ve found the one.
It’s got the right sound, the right thickness, the right price.
And here comes your last question: Is it comfortable?
Without trying the cable, there are a few ways to tell if a cable is soft. Simply look at the curl of the cable. Is the curl big, or can it be curled tightly?
Soft cables can be curled small without the use of a cable tie. If photos show the cable with a big curl, it may mean that it is springy/stiff and thus hard to curl tightly. Take one of our discontinued cables for example. It sounded great, but it was stiff, and it shows. Notice how the curl is much bigger than our newer cable, Sakeishi.
Look out for comments about microphonics as well. Since there is no way to tell just by looking at a picture, you could simply check out some reviews. Microphonics can heavily affect your listening experience, so do make sure that your cable has little to no microphonics!
You’re all set.
You now understand cable specifications and how to look out for soft cables.
We also highly recommend reading reviews, making sure you know the pros and cons.
Read up on pairing as well to see what would fit you best. Pairing is just as important as your sound preference. Sometimes, a good cable may not pair well with a good IEM, and that’s just the way it is. Some reviews may give insight on good cable pairings, so do look out for those!