|The Round Up continues! This time we take a look at 11 high-end guitar cables from nine companies, demonstrating designs that move beyond the conventional in the relentless pursuit of tone.
Part One did two things for you. First, it presented the basics of cable design, explaining what goes under a cable’s jacket and how design choices can affect sound, handling and durability. Second, rather than covering the vast quantity of basic quality cables that are out there, we connected the theory of cables to practice through our experienced ears and eyes as a long-time guitar player and bass player.
For more, listen to our podcast discussing the process of checking out the cables.
Some Words on Subjectivity
For both this article and our previous one, we had to make some choices that would provide you with practical information for future cable decisions. We thought about developing a para-scientific test of some sort – recording each cable and analyzing sound maps, applying extensive rating scales, listening to a comparison of single-coils to humbuckers – all of that.
Click here for an update to Part One -- we've added a cable company who wants you to know that not everyone is buying into the idea that high-priced cables are worth it.
In the end, though, we felt that experiences with cables are inherently subjective – they’re not something that can be measured in a meaningful scientific way. And given the many gnarly playing environments we end up gigging in, all of that science crumbles as we do battle with poor acoustics and sound guys who might have differing views of what constitutes good sound.
Finally, we feel it’s important to remind you that we’re not out to pick a winner – at this level, they’re all winners. What’s important is how the sound of a cable fits your needs for a particular situation. The guitar, pickups, and amp you’re using; the sonic mix your playing fits into; and even the acoustics of your musical setting all can favor one cable over another. Change one of those elements and a different cable might make a better choice.
For example, a deeper sounding cable with a warmer top end might be just the thing for one setting, but a cable with a stronger top end, more attack, and less bottom will be what’s called for when you need to change things up. As well, some designers argue that a cable with a wide frequency response lets you have the full sonic palette to work with, shaping the final sound with your guitar and your amp.
How We Compared Cables
We began by taking cables to a band practice in a good-sounding rehearsal studio where we could actually hear sonic distinctions in a musical mix. During rehearsal, we talked about what made the cables differ. In part, we discussed sound, but we quickly realized that the way a cable feels – limp, kinky, light or heavy – had as much to do with our preferences as the way that it performed sonically. And of course, we were concerned with how long a cable is likely to last.
The categories of sound, handling, and durability emerged from our first encounters.
Then we took the cables home to listen carefully through gear that would reveal sonic differences among the cables. We kept things constant for each cable – one axe, one amp, one amp setting, one room.
For guitar, Bob used a Tom Anderson Cobra Special-S with Anderson mini-humbuckers plugged into a David Allen "Old Flame" with a Weber 15" Californian speaker. For bass, Dan’s used a passive ’74 Fender Jazz Bass run through an SWR Workingman’s 12" bass combo amp. We tried to set up our gear the way we would for a gig – relatively flat.
Rather than rehashing cable theory at this point, we refer you back to Guitar Cable Roundup, Part One. For now, just keep in mind that different combinations of conductors, shielding and insulators can produce cables of differing volume and frequency response. Likewise, the materials that are chosen can make a cable feel stiffer or more limber. And the way that plugs are attached and protected can affect a cable’s durability.
What we offer here – in addition to an overview of the cable’s construction and our impressions of sound, handling and durability – are comments by cable designers from these companies. We focus on how their design philosophy has translated into an actual cable.
|Solid Cables Dynamic Arc Ultra
|About the cable: Braided shielding, aerospace-quality single copper conductor, triple carbon/braid shield, satin nickel diecast Amphenol plugs, tear-resistant protective outer armor. MSRP $135.95 for 12’ cable.
The Solid Cables Dynamic Arc Ultra, dressed in a red, 3D-like jacket has the feel of a reptile – not annoyingly so, but you can tell this is a cable that will last. You might see something similar under the hood of a high-end European car.
"I come from a hot-rodding background," explains Solid Cables president Nial McGaughey. So when he went in search of a super-durable jacket for his new cable design, that’s where he went – the world of race cars and aircraft, where everything has to go faster and longer without breakdown. "I kept seeing this protective armor jacket on their wiring and thought it was a perfect match for audio use," said McGaughey.
The result? A cable that’s tough, eliminating twist breakage as well as directional coiling.
Not only is McGaughey into hot-rods, but he also loves ideas from the 1950s. And that’s where he began his design of the Dynamic Arc Ultra, drawing on the classic design of a single conductor, an insulator, and a shield. From there, he added triple carbon/braid shielding. For his conductor, he sought out the purest copper he could find – aerospace quality. And to keep the cable working, the plugs are chemically welded using the same material as on dragsters and fighter jets. No nonsense, certainly!
In all, this cable was four or five years in the works. "I tried to strike a balance in playability. Extremely low capacitance cable sounds too clinical. I wanted a cable that transfers sound beautifully without coloring it." McGaughey feels he has created a cable that sounds great in multiple settings, from the music store to the stage to the recording studio.
Bob says: The low mids on this cable are very warm sounding. There is also a sweet, non-hyped top end and solid bottom. Transients were good but not particularly punchy. It seems to sound a bit more solid with the logo end plugged into the amp. The handling characteristics are good, with the unusual jacket material seemingly unkinkable. Visually, the cable gave off a very cool high-tech vibe.
Dan says: This cable has a full bottom, clear and detailed. A nice transient response, yet not brittle sounding. The jacket is a bit smaller than some, but it’s the sexiest material ever. A tiny bit stiff, but easy to manage on stage. As far as durability, the jacket is probably alligator proof. Between the potted plugs and the strain relief, this is one cable you can count on.
|Jena Labs GT Electric Guitar Cable
|About the cable: Two high-purity, cryogenically treated copper conductors in separate cables twisted together, lifted shields on one end, fully potted thermoplastic terminations, MSRP $159 for 12’ cable.
Jena Labs has a long-time reputation in the hi-fi audio world for superb cables that sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars. A trademark of Jena Labs cables is cryogenic treatment that takes cables down to -320 degrees Fahrenheit in liquid nitrogen tanks. This treatment causes metal to shrink, making the conductors to become more conductive, quieter and stronger. In essence, a cryogenically-treated cable is more nuanced, because more sound and less noise get through.
"It’s not like something new," says Jennifer White Wolf Crock of Jena Labs, where this cable has been made by special order over the last 15 years. Recently, though, Jena Labs began selling the GT Electric Guitar Cable through Rockett Pedals (rockettpedals.com).
One of the central goals of this cable is very high bandwidth, meaning that it has the potential of reproducing a wide frequency response from its signal source, such as your prize guitar. The cable is also designed for greater dynamics and better phase alignment across the audio spectrum. "The cable uses high purity copper, the best grade on the planet," Crock adds.
The late legendary jazz bassist Leroy Vinegar was one of the early users of this cable. While he valued its audio purity, he also took advantage of the sonic difference resulting from connecting the shield end to either an amplifier or an instrument. "The tone is shaped by the lowest net ground impedance. Just flip the cable end for end and you have a choice of sounds," Crock explains. And as you look at the cable, you can see that one end has a blue plug, the other a black one, just to help keep things straight. A well-known jazz guitarist also favors the GT Cable, but Crock declined to offer a name because of endorsement complications.
Along with the cryogenic conductors and the lifted shield, the thermoplastic potting in the plugs creates a very reliable connection. Sonically, this potting has a benefit, too, damping any chance of metallic resonance.
In all, this cable is one of the most unusual designs we worked with. A friend saw it and dubbed it "the umbilical cord" because of its pair of cables twisted together. But this innovation produces positive sonic results, and surprisingly, isn’t as awkward to use as it might appear.
Bob says: For guitar I much preferred to plug the blue end into the amp; giving excellent detail. The black end into the amp was a bit muddy. Transients were good and a sweet top end made for a cable that was easy to listen too. Its appearance brought to mind the DNA double helix. It was the heaviest cable per foot tested and felt unwieldy while coiling. Both ends are potted in resin, giving good support to the weight and providing strain relief.
Dan says: Great presence, yet an even, rounded top and a great bottom with the blue end on the amp. With the black end on the amp, there is greater clarity and more emphasis on the mids, yet it still sounds full. As far as handling, what can I say? It’s two cables in one, yet it’s still manageable. And I think you’d probably break your guitar before you could break the cable while playing.
|DiMarzio Steve Vai Signature Cable
|About the cable: Copper braid and conductive PVC shield, single stranded center conductor, PVC jacket with black nylon overbraid, silver solder connections, Switchcraft gold-plated plugs with integrated PVC strain relief. MSRP $150.
The first thing you’ll notice about this cable is its bright chrome and gold plugs with the Steve Vai logo ring on one end, set against a sleek, black cloth cable. What’s important about this cable is not its look, though, but its sonic design.
"I don’t believe a cable should attenuate any frequency, but a louder overall cable is better," says DiMarzio’s Steve Blucher, who has worked in R&D for the company since its early days. "Steve Vai is very precise about what he wants in frequency response. He’s a very careful listener."
Blucher explains that true frequency response was therefore important in the design of the cable. He says that Vai is one of the world’s best players at double tracking, disciplined and focused in his musical judgments. That drive for high fidelity was a key ingredient in designing this cable for Vai’s needs.
"This cable is, to my ears, pretty uncolored and efficient," Blucher asserts. He feels that any changes to a guitar’s signal should be made by a guitarist who has the whole tonal palette available to work with. Some cable designs, he acknowledges, are intentionally designed to shape the sound for a specific instrument or sound, but he has chosen to avoid that route.
"You have to know frequency response of the instruments, but guitar and bass pickups have the same frequency response so something has to be left out. And a vibrating bass string produces a hellava lot of harmonic content."
Summing up the outcome of the Steve Vai cable design, Blucher adds, "Mr. Vai seems very happy with the cable!"
Bob says: One of the least sonically hyped cables tested, its strength is in its midrange detail. I suspect this cable would be excellent in a high overdrive situation. The neutral sound made it easy to listen to. The custom plugs, complete with mystic amulet are cool, and the braided jacket has a retro vibe but seemed to contribute to increased handling noise and some difficulty with coiling. I would have liked to see more strain relief.
Dan says: This cable is sonically in the middle ground, not overly bright or deep. Slightly less punch than some others we’ve tested, but sounds nice in the mids. It’s a slightly thinner cable, a bit stiff and coily. There’s a nice feel to the black braided cloth jacket. The strain relief is something different, using a plastic fitting right at the plug without any heat shrink. I always like some heat shrink with traditional plugs like the Switchcraft plugs this cable uses.
|About the cable: Alloy center conductor, 95% coverage braided shield, patent-pending insulation, proprietary plug design with gold-plated sleeve and tip. MSRP $69.95 for 20’ cable.
W. L. Gore, Elixir’s parent company, has about 50 years of experience in designing cables for critical telecommunication purposes. So when Elixir decided to create a guitar cable, they asked the Gore folks to bring out their test equipment.
A starting premise for this cable’s design was that the inductance of a pickup combines with the capacitance of a cable to create a guitar signal’s frequency response and decay. "We asked them to sample and model a pickup and cable so we could see what was happening," says Craig Theorin, product manager at Elixir.
What they discovered was that a typical Strat pickup has a peak response at 4 khz and rolls off 3db by 6.5 khz. And that’s with a 3’ cable of typical capacitance. Their testing further discovered that a typical 20’ cable peaks at 2 khz and goes down 3 db by 3.5 khz.
Elixir’s goal, then, was to create a 20’ cable that would produce a frequency response similar to that of the 3’ cable.
"I can’t share a lot of the design details, because we’ve applied for a patent, but I can say that we use a high strength alloy conductor rather than plain copper," Theorin explained. "And to get the capacitance down, you need to build a lot of air into the dielectric." This design consideration adds more separation between the shield and the cable’s center, making for a thicker cable.
In all, Theorin believes his sonic design goal was achieved while also making the cable’s price reasonable. "We don’t want to be a premium cable that you can’t find in stores," he adds.
Bob says: A bright cable with good sustain and detail which gives it an aura of transparency. Attack transients and dynamics were good. Not as punchy as some but well balanced and easy to listen to. The cable handled a bit stiffly but coiled okay. I didn’t care for the non serviceable proprietary plugs, but of course this helps protect the secret of the structure. Maybe once the patents are received we will see more easily serviced plugs with better strain relief.
Dan says: This cable has nice detail, clear and even sounding response across the spectrum, with a full bottom. It’s a thicker cable, but flexible and relaxed – maybe a little toward the heavy side. The proprietary plugs seem sturdy and the heat-shrink strain relief is okay, but could be a bit longer. I think this cable will be a survivor.