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Can You Hear a Difference Between These Guitar Cables?

There has been an argument that musicians and engineers have debated for years. Do cables sound different? Many say no, some say yes.

Some believe it’s the power of suggestion that makes you believe there is a difference. Some believe only those with a heightened sense of hearing notice any difference.

It Makes No Difference

Personally, I hear a difference. Not between every cable, but between certain brands of cable.

There are a lot of people that throw around science to back either claim. My point in this article is not to talk science, but to listen.

Round Table Discussion

I want us to compare and debate whether we hear a change or not.

I never wanted to believe there was a difference. I’d buy various cables I liked the look of, but I noticed that I really didn’t like the way some of them sounded.

In my earlier days, I couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like them. I never really considered that a cable could affect my tone.

I did have a favorite cable from day one though. A cheap guitar cable made from a company named Gorilla. Anyone remember those? They were a cheap student amplifier company from the early 90’s.

There was nothing really special about those amps. But, the white cable I inherited from a friend just had a sound.

It’s hard to say if it’s the best sound or just one that I grew to know and rely on.

Alonely

I’m not the only one who is particular about cables.

A well known guitarist sat in with my band once at a low key NYC gig. He accidentally left his cable onstage.

Turns out that was his favorite cable. He was relieved to have it returned.

Money, Money, Money

The irony about my gorilla cable is it wasn’t an expensive cable at all. It wasn’t made by Monster or Mogami.

I have yet to find cable price a determining factor in the quality of sound. Most of the “high end” cables I’ve tried, I didn’t like.

I wont go anywhere near Monster cable. They seem to have distorted some of the truths on audio cable sound. They use clever marketing to blur the subject.

Subjective

As we all know (and some don’t respect), sound is subjective. One person’s love is another person’s discontent. To say a cable sounds bad is strictly opinion. It’s not about what sounds better, but that they sound different.

Even with all this nit-picking , it’s worth mentioning that many have recorded some of the most iconic recordings without the same type of options we have today.

The Beatles did ok, right? For most of us though, that’s not comforting. In many cases it’s not always about the sound, but the feeling you get while you do it.

This is largely true for musicians and why they choose certain amps, pedals, etc. You start to strip these things away and the playing changes because the feeling changes.

The Stage Is Set

I’m going to use a few instrument cables for this example. The same could be said for microphone and patch cables though.

Let’s take a look at the contenders:

IMG_4123

This is the 25 year old Gorilla cable I mentioned earlier. Funny that a cheap cable is still in great working condition, while other more expensive cables have bit the dust.

 

FullSizeRender_2

A new Lava Retro Cable. This cable is designed similar to the cables Hendrix and Clapton used in the 60’s. This is becoming my new favorite cable.

 

IMG_4124

Just an old fashioned Conquest cable. Nothing special except that it’s a workhorse.


Example 1:

Fender American Strat + Boss RC30 Looper + Softube Vintage Amp Room.

I wanted to hear the difference when the same exact performance passed through different cables.

1. Coil

 

2. Conquest

 

3. White

 

I hear no difference. Starting to feel like I’ve been imagining things. Do my friends really exist? Is this why I get strange looks on the F Train?


Example 2:

Softube Vintage Amp Room amp simulator + Fender American Strat

1. Coil

 

2. Conquest

 

3. White

 

Wait a minute! I hear some differences. Hmm …


Example 3:

American Stratocaster + Victoria 35115 + Cascade Fat Head II + Logic Pro X

FullSizeRender_1

1. Coil

 

2. Conquest

 

3. White

 

I hear a difference in these examples as well. It seems that when the digital pedal was in the chain, it corrupted the core tone.

When we used guitar into cable into amp or amp sim, the subtle variances were audible.

Signal Loss

This begs the question, if you wire your studio up with cable, will the type of cable matter after it passes through enough gear?

Is the difference only audible when the connections are between two or more sources?

Summing It Up

What does all this mean? It means that everything is a sum of your tone or recording chain. You can make music with anything. However, since we have such access today, we may as well find all the individual parts that compliment our preference.

Engineers and musicians, chime in on your experiences.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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  • I definitely hear a difference even in the first example with the same sample through the three cables. I dig the coil cable for that one. Sounded a little clearer. And I’m listening on my iPhone 6 plus with the built in speaker.

    • quadstrings

      Wait: there is more: the cable capacitance is very important to the analogue signal and seen from a physical point of view each cable (also within the same brand / manufacturer will carry a different characteristic. The save and grace is that cable will typically have these certain characteristics in on or more specific frequency areas and may or may not impact your playback sound at all as a result.

      When / if it does, don’t think your crazy and try different cables.

      The math / physics involved is pretty complicated and you are facing multiple variables in the entire chain that affects the output: consider this the pick up and distance to strings, how hard they are played initially are several variable that your cable becomes a dependent factor for (or of). We haven’t even turned a knob on a guitar or bass yet…

      Change volume or tone or select pickup and this has already changed radically.

      I would so so much love to see someone with an oscilloscope and a predictable sine wave generator test a cable when the signal is entered into the pickup circuit of a guitar and then look at the output from the guitar cable based on types, length, gauge , material in the cable, plugs etc. We would all learn that it makes a difference, but most importantly: there would be such a vast number of variable it makes no sense to predict what we hear (read – like)

      So in the meantime, find what you like and don’t go crazy over it…

  • Great post!

  • Chris

    What a bs article ! A cable cannot in fact have a certain “sound” or “tone”, that’s pure science. What really matters, especially when dealing with guitars, is the length of the cable. This is why the coil has a different sound – it’s considerably longer and (I don’t know if this is a factor) it’s basically a coil …

    • Mark Marshall

      actually the coil is the same length as the white cable. they are both 20ft. yet they sound different.

    • Chris

      So even when fully extended the coil has the same length as the white cable ?

    • Mark Marshall

      yes, they are both 20ft when extended.

    • Chris

      Oh damn I apologize ! Also I’m sorry of being rude, it’s just because so many people claim that cables make a difference when connecting a CD player to an av receiver for example and that’s simply not true .. but I have to admit that the difference in your sound files is pretty obvious, BUT I am quite sure that this has nothing to do with the brand – it’s the thickness that matters. The thinner the cable is, the more high frequencies get lost due to the impedancy of the cable – 20ft is a length were this plays a role I think. And from what I see in your picture is that the coil is the thinnest – resulting in a darker sound.

    • Damien Beale

      Of course it can. Capacitance is the biggest factor here, not
      resistance. Capacitance will affect how much high frequency audio is
      attenuated by the cable. Yes the length will make a difference, but it
      is still the capacitance that is the restriction here, and not all
      cables are the same capitance. They might be rated the same, but that is
      not always quite how it ends up. Ever noticed how different types of
      capacitor (of the same rating) also affect audio in different ways?
      The coiled cables have a markedly different capacitive effect than
      straight cables, and generally (but not in all case) attenuate more
      highs. However, most of these highs are outside of the range we are
      working with in guitar signals, at least with regards to the guitar
      speaker response…

  • Андрей Вахненко

    coil is dark. conquest is my favourite. what is it?

    • Mark Marshall

      it’s just a standard conquest cable. nothing fancy.

    • Андрей Вахненко

      Thank you , Mark!
      I have checked on eve audio sc 407’s.

  • Johnny Ragin

    The only thing I’d question is the idea that the pedal “corrupted” the tone. I don’t think there’s any way a pedal could “corrupt” the tone so evenly and accurately as to remove the variations in the sound. What I think is far more likely is that the pedal had a buffer (as most Boss pedals do) that compensated for some of the tone loss induced by the cable. Great article though!

    • Mark Marshall

      that’s a really good point. I’m sure it is the buffer. Now that I think about it, I don’t like buffers for that reason. I don’t like the way they sound.

  • Justin Fowler

    To me the conquest sounds brighter.

  • Larry Travis

    Conquest for me. Clearer, brighter.

  • Dave

    I’m not exactly clear as to how you reproduced the exact same signal each time? Is that what the looper pedal was being used for? What did you to do to be sure that the performance variables are controlled?

    • Mark Marshall

      I’ve been doing session work for a long time. I’m confident there is not enough difference between takes that would be audible. I used to get grilled by producer for punch ins back in the day.

    • Dave

      Sorry, but when we’re talking a game of inches, rather than yards, I think a bit more rigor in controlling the variables is in order. The experiment is a good exercise to generate a dialog (just look at all the responses), but it’s flawed when you’re asking us to “just trust you on this.”

      Especially when a looper pedal is in play, it’s pretty easy to put together something that is exactly repeatable without having to worry about “oh, did you strum the exact same way at the exact same spot with the exact same timing” on our end. It’s a cool idea for an article/discussion, but I’d rather see something slightly more controlled.

      No disrespect intended, by the way, just pointing out a sticky wicket in the discussion. It’s still a cool idea that is worth pursuing.

    • Mark Marshall

      The concept of the article is to get people to do their own tests. To plant the seed of thought about the differences. I’m confident in my results and my consistency, I have found in all my years of playing that

    • Mark Marshall

      in other words, I have had the same results with cables if I was fingerpicking, flat-picking, playing slide, etc. And the results matched. I didn’t prefer one cable for flat picking and another for fingerpicking. I either liked a cable or not.

  • Il-Ġolf Mersinu

    I haven’t brushed up my basic science skills in years, but I do notice that some guitar cables sound different.

    I’ve recently been messing about with my dynamic mics and trying to even out the response on my SM57s – the mics were designed to see a 500ohm load. So I made a couple of short XLR to XLR cables with various resistors soldered between pin 2 and 3 to change the load of the mic on different preamps. It makes a BIG difference. Made an SM57 sound more like a Beyerdynamic M201 – just a resistor in the path changed the way the diaphragm handled certain frequencies.

    I might be mistaken, but I can kind of see a parallel between this and different Jack cables. After all, it all has to do with the copper inside the cable. I guess each cable has a different kind of copper, maybe thicker or thinner, maybe more or less ductile, pure and less pure, etc. All these factors change the resistance of the material, which means your pickups are seeing a slightly different load with each guitar cable, and thus the frequency response changes a bit.

    A friend of mine once needed a couple of cables, and I lent him about 20 or so. He noticed that each cable sounded a little different and he took the time to actually sort through the lot and find the ones that he liked best – to both his and my ears, the cheapish sort (like Cordial, which Thomann.de sells) were the fuller sounding ones. Out of all the cables I’ve ever owned though, the Fender Vintage coily is the best sounding cable I’ve ever had for guitar – not bass though. I’m still trying to find a cable and preamp match 🙂

    • Damien Beale

      Much less to do with the copper, or resistance. Much more to do with the variances in capacitance, which greatly affect the frequency response.

  • Michael Dolan

    I’d be curious to see which cables you liked and didn’t like, then check each one with a multitester to see if there were actual measurable differences between them.

  • Up to a length of about 110 meters it just doesn’t make a difference.
    The cutoff frequency (becuase of the capacitance) depends on the cable
    lenght and the capacitance of a cable (usually about 100pF/m)…
    Further reading: http://www.sengpielaudio.com/calculator-cable.htm

    One can definitely hear a difference, which suprised me (coming from a scientific view, see above). I will check it for myself. But you can’t use a loop pedal. You’d need to split the signal right from the beginning and record them which creates other problems like using the exact same pre-amp circuit.

    Again, it’s interesting to know. But one would never need to really care about what cable to use for this or that recording seesion.

  • Chris Chaires

    I was watching watching my favorite band on stage last week; i noticed the frontman’s cable was the thinnest, flimsiest piece of a rig I’d ever, ever seen. But, the guy was so fluid on stage; worming about, dancing, wriggling, completely molesting the entire fretboard whilst singing his ass off — it occurred to me that the fantastic tone did not the cable make: the guitarist himself was in complete control of that magic. but never once did this humble snake-like tool get in the way of the performance — and here I am constantly untangling, unwrithing, un-knotting ‘quality’ cables that I tote to gigs… this guy clearly just wanted the loosiest, goosiest apparatus to feed his amp, and worry about nothing more. in the words of F. Gump… “good…one less thing” WOOOO SPRING BREAK

  • ShootoutGuitarCables

    There is no audible difference in the first examples with the looper as the looper has a low output impedance. The looper is working as a buffer and overriding the cable capacitance differences. Total cable capacitance is what makes a guitar cable sound different (other than noise due to poor shielding) with passive guitar pickups before buffering due to the interactive circuit with the high output impedance inductive pickups feeding through the distributed capacitance into whatever input impedance is presented (usually 1Mohm on most amps).

    Guitar cable capacitance and resonant frequency with low pass filtering explained here: http://www.shootoutguitarcables.com/guitar-cables-explained/capacitance-resonant-frequency.html

  • Deneteus

    This article should be called. ‘Is my pedal buffered? No. Oh thats why my 100ft cord sounds like crap.’ http://screaminfx.com/tech/why-and-when-to-use-a-guitar-buffer-pedal.htm

  • Justin Colletti

    Changing cables can definitely make for an audible difference if they’re unbalanced and passing low levels and high impedances—which is the case in a guitar cable. (Provided the cable run is long enough.)

    If there is a difference, it’s bound to be subtle, but it could something you’d hear in a double-blind test when the effect is significant enough.

    With the kinds of signals running through a mic cable, it’s much less likely to be the case, and probably won’t be audible.

    There’s no conflict with “science” here either way! All science is anyway, is the process of making a guess, testing it, and trying to control for random factors that would confuse your result. You’re part way to doing that right here—Stay curious, keep asking questions, and keep testing things!

  • rockridge98

    Everyone is leaving out an important factor: noise rejection.
    I had been using Mogami guitar cables, and happened to try out an Evidence Audio Lyric cable.
    I was stunned. The hum and buzz I had been getting on single coil pickups with high gain amps was cut at least in half. I could actually stand a Strat or coil split guitar with a high gain amp without a noise gate.
    There was still some hum and buzz, but the reduction was not subtle, a non-musician or non-engineer could have heard it immediately. As a result I junked my other cables and only use Evidence. I haven’t tried other brands yet; I’d love to hear about any cheaper low noise brands, as the Evidence are really pricey.

  • Sasz

    I defy any audiophile to hear a consistent difference between cables in a blind test. Much like 44.1, 48. 96Khz. Although as the writer inferred, if an old trusty piece of equipment makes you feel more relaxed and care-free then stick with it. Who cares if it actually sounds any better or not?

  • Cimmay Rivard

    There’s some difference, but nothing to sweat over. I like the cheap but decent quality Hosa, they are noise free.

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