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At Last - Digging Into the Pile of Cables
The reviews are only half of the story. Click here for some cable education.
For this two-part article, we will review more than a dozen cables from 11 manufacturers. Some could be considered exotics, while others are basic but sturdy. The least expensive cable we looked at was in the $30 range, but several had an MSRP of $50 to $100 – with several exotics listing for $150 or more.
In the end, we received so many cables that we had to break up this article into two parts. This part discusses a range of premium cables that generally lists for less than $75. The next installment will take on cables that tilt toward the exotic – and the expensive. In that part, we’ll also bring you comments from cable designers themselves that dig into the theory behind their super-high-end cables.
To learn about these cables, we took them into our rehearsal studio– where you can really hear sonic detail – and gave them a close listen through our rigs at home as well. As nerdy as it might sound, we really spent some quality time with these pieces of wire.
For bass, Dan tested cables with a passive ’74 Fender Jazz Bass and a recent active G&L L-2500 five-string into a hi-fi SWR Workingman’s 12 bass amp. On guitar, Bob played a Tom Anderson Cobra Special-S with Anderson mini humbuckers plugged into a David Allen “Old Flame” with a Weber 15” Californian speaker.
In this first article, we will review seven cable designs from four manufacturers, organized by brand, and then from highest to lowest price. For each cable, we’ll begin with the manufacturer’s description of the cable’s makeup and the list price. Then we’ll share our impressions of their design, sound, handling and durability. Remember, Bob will present the guitar player’s perspective, while Dan will speak for the low-enders among us.
Lifelines Line Cable (MSRP $51.49)
|Bob’s overview: First I have to make full disclosure. I am a Pro Co fan. I have gigged with the same set of Pro Co cables for the past 15 years or so and have never had a problem with either sound or durability. I used one of these old cables as my go-to reference in listening tests.
15’ cable with transmission line design with 4-conductor microphone cable connected in pairs, spiral shield attached at one end only, double plastic strain relief, G&H plugs.
Bob says: I found this cable to have a sweet full sound across the entire guitar tonal spectrum with a goodly amount of punch, presence and detail. It is a bit thicker and heavier than the cables I am used to but lays down nicely on stage and coils well at the end of the gig when the last thing you want to do is wrestle with an uppity cable. It is built like the proverbial brick house with double strain relief and Kevlar fiber running down the middle to prevent the cable from stretching. It also incorporates some high tech cable design by utilizing double twisted pairs to handle the signal and a unipoint ground on the shield.
Dan says: This is a great full frequency cable for bass - excellent transient response, clear and detailed sound. It has a particularly thick jacket, but thankfully, it’s rubbery and flexible, if a bit heavy. I really appreciate the double heat-shrink strain relief; that makes for a cable that should last a long time. Using black heat-shrink for the amp end of the cable is a nice touch.
Lifelines Guitar Cable (MSRP $42.49)
15’ oversized jacket with Kevlar core to prevent accidental stretching, G&H Showsaver plugs topped with white plastic strain relief.
Bob says: I heard a bit more bottom from this cable, but still a nice spectrum, with good detail. Not quite as punchy as the previous cable. Its handling was more what I am used to with good flexibility and weight making it easy to coil. The construction features the same double strain relief and Kevlar core with a single stranded conductor and in this case a spiral shield; hence the flexibility.
Dan says: Like the other Pro Co Lifeline cable I tried, this model has a full-frequency sound, with a great bottom and plenty of detail. Excellent transient response, too. The jacket is thick yet flexible, if a bit heavy. Great double strain relief system. This cable is an excellent value for both sound and durability.
|Bob’s overview: A member of the D’Addario family of products, these cables uphold a quality tradition while targeting buyers who are looking for innovative designs. Some of Planet Waves’ innovations include a built in cable wrap, and a unique grounding system using both foil and copper braid or spiral. Their warranty is lifetime for manufacturing defects.
The Circuit Breaker (MSRP $50.00)
20’ cable with ultra-fine stranded copper conductor with foil shield and braided outer conductor insulation made from conductive PVC. Gold-plated plugs with a switched shorting plug on one end. There's also an incredibly handy elastic cord tie.
Bob says: The Circuit Breaker cable is a very nice bright sounding cable with very good detail. Its main innovation is an on/off switch at the guitar end to allow buzz free instrument changes. It also has double shielding and thus handles a bit stiffly. I was unable to open the proprietary plug and cannot really comment on the strain relief.
Dan says: What a handy cable for doubling without an A/B box! Just push in the switch and swap axes. This cable had a tight, clear sound on my Jazz Bass, but was less full in the lows than I’d like. Well-focused sound. The cable is of medium thickness, yet a bit stiff. The plugs on the Circuit Breaker look really sturdy, but I’d prefer to see some strain relief heat-shrink coming out to beef up the connection.
Planet Waves Custom Series Cable (MSRP $39.99)
20’ cable with twisted pair copper conductors, foil shield topped by braided shield and polymer jacket. Gold-plated plug with encapsulated soldering points, copper shielding tube and molded strain relief.
Bob says: The Custom series cable is bright and punchy with a slightly hyped midrange. It uses a twisted pair of center conductors and double shielding with molded heavy duty plugs and strain relief at both ends to make it an on-stage workhorse. It is also just a tad on the stiff side.
Dan says: My Jazz Bass found this to be a full frequency cable with a warmer top than some. It has more mids than highs, but is very even sounding across the sound spectrum. The cable has nice flexibility and reasonable weight. Its big molded plugs seem sturdy and provide great strain relief. Another cable that should last for a long time.
Planet Waves Classic Series Instrument Cable (MSRP $25.00)
20’ single conductor cable with 90% spiral shield with molded connectors and nickel plated ends.
Bob says: The Classic series is a somewhat bright and airy sounding cable with more traditional coaxial cable configuration. It is slightly thinner and is more flexible than its more expensive brethren.
Dan says: This one surprised me. It’s such an unassuming, basic cable but sounded great with my Jazz Bass. I heard a full-frequency tone, with good bottom – more so than the other Planet Waves cables – and a warm top end. This was another one of the lighter cables, thinner than many and the most flexible of all. The plugs are like a mini version of Planet Waves molded strain relief plugs. They should do the job, but I’d prefer the flexible part to be a bit longer to create a sturdier transition between cable and plug. Another excellent value that should last a long time.
|Bob’s overview: The highly respected guitar and pedal steel innovator George L. Lewis has designed a “family” of cables based on high quality sound and easily replaceable connectors, thus allowing the user to customize his or her guitar rig to specific needs. The plug attachment system uses a sharp center spike which impales the center conductor while the set screw in the solid plug body engages the braided shield and compresses the cable in its socket to secure in place.
George L’s Prepackaged Cable (MSRP $42.50 with nickel or unplated plugs, $45.50 with gold plated plugs)
20’ cable with seven-strand copper core and tinned braided shield in black, red or blue, regular or stretch (extra long) solderless plugs and plastic slide-on strain relief.
Bob says: These cables have a full midrange with just a bit of extra top and good detail. The brass plug added a bit more top to the sound. The boot is easily slid back to expose the set screw thus not providing much support for straight pull cable strain. Handling characteristic are pretty good with the thin cable diameter compensating for the heavy duty braid. There is some feeling of inherent stiffness.
Dan says: This skinny cable has a tight sound with good detail. It’s another one with less on the bottom end…I prefer a fatter sounding cable, but the venerable George L’s would help out in boomy venues. By far, this is the lightest cable I’ve ever seen, yet it’s fairly stiff and tends to stay coiled on the floor. The gold plugs were just a bit warmer than the others. George L’s solderless cables are like a lizard that loses its tail when caught and can live to see another day. It took less than a minute to cut the cable and reinstall the end. I wish that the slide-on plastic strain relief jackets would stay put once installed – I kept sliding them up the cord when unplugging.
|Bob’s overview: The Mogami Gold series cable is a very, very good sounding cable which uses quality of cable design, materials, and manufacture to achieve its strong presence in the cable market. Mogami pro audio cable is found in many of the best recording studios in the world.
Mogami Gold Cable (MSRP $49.95)
18’ cable with stranded copper core, carbon conductive polymer subshield, ultra-high density spiral copper shield, G&H plugs with heat-shrink strain relief.
Bob says: The sound is evenly balanced across the spectrum with excellent detail and a sweet top end. A very fine tight spiral wrap shield and a special high strand count 20 gauge center conductor “under the hood” give this cable its powerful sound. G&H connectors and moderate strain relief round out the build of this fine product. The handling characteristics are very good.
Dan says: This cable has great transient response and excellent detail with clear highs. This cable’s sound is lighter on the low end than many, which slappers will appreciate. For my fingerstyle blues gigs, I’d prefer a fuller bottom end. This cable has one of the thinner jackets which makes for a bit lighter weight. I was surprised to find this cable to be just a bit stiff, but it’s certainly not a problem. Because I play two basses at most gigs, I’m swapping back and forth via an A/B pedal and prefer a cable with a bit more strain relief than this one.
Wrapping ‘em Up, Looking Ahead
So there you have it, the foundation for cable design and a look at seven cables that put design factors into action. This batch has done a good job of showing you the basics of what you can expect, adding a few nice touches along the way.
Recall what we said at the start – once you get past the parameters of quality cable design, there is no best cable. Sure, we had a few favorites, but your favorites might be different. What somebody calls a clear-sounding cable might be overly-bright to another player. In all, how a cable interacts with your guitar and your amp creates distinct sonic differences. And for some of you, a cable must look marvelous and sound marvelous, too.
Keep in mind what you’ve learned here about cables and their design, because the second part of this article will take you on an adventure to see how designers stretch the boundaries of convention. You’ll read about some different choices of conductor materials and more elaborate types of shielding. We’ll keep our focus on those same factors – design, sound, durability, handling – plus some prices that might surprise you. In all, you’ll learn about nine more cables from eight manufacturers, with prices starting over $75 and ranging up to $180.
Until then, go back to your gig bag. See what guitar cables are lurking within. Give those cables a listen. Think about what you’ve been getting by with all these years while serving up your hard-earned scratch for guitars and amps in the relentless pursuit of tone. Read part two here!
|5/14 Addendum: High End, Schmigh End
Editor's Note: As you can see in the comments section at the bottom of this page, high end cables, let alone how one goes about reviewing them, constitute an area of our industry in which there are as many different opinions as there are design options. With so many different styles of music, guitars and rigs as well as varying degrees of player experience, taste and ability to physically hear the same frequencies, it’s no wonder that the topic can quickly stir up a flame war.
From square one, our goal has been to submit to you what we’ve learned about cable technology, as well as some of our own opinions of how certain cables sound. When people start agreeing on classic debates such as Strat vs. Paul, we’ll start believing there’s a “best” cable or a “best way” to review them. Our hope is that you’ll jump into the fray and post your own $.02.
Keep an eye out for more pieces about cables and cable manufacturers in the future. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from your feedback, it’s that cables really matter to a lot of you and in very different ways. Please check Part Two of this series for a look at a number of higher-end cables that many people prefer.
And for those of you who swear that high dollar cables are basically hogwash for the gigging musician who competes with bar chatter and poor room acoustics, we defend your right to hold that position. In fact, there’s a very familiar cable company, Whirlwind Music Distributors, that suggests as much. As a final addendum to Part One of our Cable Roundup, we’d like to share their approach with you as well as Dan and Bob’s thoughts on their cables.
|About the Cables: Classic Series, Leader Elite, and Leader Standard in 15’ length, MRSP $19.49 to $25.94
Top to bottom: Whirlwind Classic Series, Leader Standard and Leader Elite
Whirlwind can be considered one of the first commercially available high-quality guitar cords, with its initial product launched in 1975. Molded-end plugs were common when founder Michael Laiacona displayed cables with Belden cable and military grade plugs at that year’s NAMM show.
“When the NAMM folks saw these cables, they were an instant hit and Michael left the show with orders for thousands of cables,” says Al Keltz, Whirlwind’s general manager.
Over the years, Whirlwind has followed a basic philosophy in designing its cables. “It’s pretty simple,” Keltz explains. “Build pro-quality cables that perform day in and day out, charge what you must to make a profit but keep it honest and reasonable.”
Keltz asserts that there are “quite a few cable companies out there that make outrageous, misinformed and sometimes intentionally misleading claims regarding mysterious properties of electronics and physics in an attempt to justify turning what should be a $35 cable into a $135 profit generator.”
He believes that the construction of Whirlwind’s Accusonic +1 cable and Leader Elite gold-plated plugs accomplish just what a player needs. “What more could anyone possibly do to a cable and connector to justify such an outrageous leap in price?” Keltz asks. “I suppose we could do the same but we choose to fool none of the people none of the time.”
Keltz acknowledges that he offers a different perspective to cable design. “I absolutely agree that cables can and do have some effect on frequency response, but unless the cable capacitance or inductance is extremely high, the effect will be subtle. These subtle differences also become much less noticeable when you fire up the whole band and all sorts of sounds start interacting with each other on stage due to room resonances and comb filtering.”
If subtle sonic differences can’t be noticed in many gigging situations, what would then guide the choice of guitar cable? “That’s when durability becomes much more important than a frequency nuance that can no longer be perceived,” Keltz explains.
Dan says: The Classic Cord, Leader, and Leader Elite cables are three variations on a theme. They all share the same basic cable, so they all sound the same: a mid-centered voice, nicely defined, but a bit shy on the bottom end. These cables are a bit thinner and lighter than many we've tested.
The Elite, with braided black/silver cloth on the outside, is the stiffest and tends to coil up on the floor. It’s a bit flashy. The Leader is more flexible, as is the Classic, since their cable is the same.
The Elite and Leader both share rubber strain relief jackets that slide over the plug. They're not heat-shrink material, so they protect against serious bending, but don't help much if the cable is tugged. That part of strain relief is accomplished by a plastic chuck that slides over the connections and tightens onto the cable when the outside sleeve is screwed on. This combination of strain relief strategies should do a good job of providing a long life for the Leader and Elite. The Classic, in contrast, relies completely on the plug's crimp-on tabs for strain relief, along with a healthy dose of solder flowed nicely over the plug's connections - strictly old school there.
Bob says: I agree with Dan, but would like to add a bit of support to the Whirlwind position that in most gigging situations, ie. a loud band in an acoustically-challenged venue with a noisy crowd, the subtle sonic advantages of "high end" cables will not be heard.
A former non-believer myself, I must admit that in certain situations; such as hearing the stage mix through a high quality in-ear monitor system, or in the studio or a quiet venue with the audience hanging on each note, I would not be without a premium cable.