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I love cheap cables as long as they work right. Unfortunately too many imported cables are substandard and bad for your fragile audio signals. Lets take a quick look at what makes a cable good, how much you should expect to spend on it and where you can buy it?
WHAT IS A MICROPHONE CABLE?
In this review we're specifically looking at 3-pin XLR microphone cables. These are a common item in recording studio environments. A man named James Cannon invented the XLR connector. Early in its evolution the XLR was referred to as a "cannon" connector, it had several other model names before settling on XLR as an industry reference. Switchcraft called their version of the XLR the "QG Series" which stood for Quick Ground, this referred to a unique design feature that allowed the electrical ground connection on Switchcraft brand XLR plugs to be completed before the two pins carrying the audio were connected. None of these special features matter in typical recording and sound reinforcement applications.
A truly great cable is the sum of excellent wire, connectors which adhere tightly to industry standard mechanical specifications and the labor needed to skillfully assemble the components.
The cable used in an XLR mic cable effectively contains three-electrical conductors arranged in a special configuration called shielded-twisted-pair. The connectors contain three electrical contacts and come in male and female versions. A balanced low-impedance mic cable has a male XLR on one end and a female on the other.
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PARTS OF A CABLE
You can spend a lot of money on wire for constructing cables. Generally the electrical conductors in mic cables are made out of copper. Some premium cable brands utilize more expensive metals like silver and custom alloys to improve conductivity. Copper has become quite expensive so cable manufacturers have used less and less of it in their products, replacing the expensive metal with a lot of marketing hype designed to cloud your thinking and conceal the omission.
Three-pin mic cables can also be constructed with five-conductor cable; one conductor is used for the shield and the other conductors are arranged in two-pairs which effectively deliver the three required connections between the ends. It is claimed that the five-conductor “Star Quad” configuration prevents noise interference more effectively than using three-conductors alone. Other marketing features can include multiple layers of shielding and impurity free copper.
In actual situations where I've encountered problems from radio interference and induced noise I have never eliminated the problem by implementing quad conductor cables.
The audio-connectors used can make a huge contribution to the overall performance of a microphone cable. The electrical contacts or pins in an XLR connector can be plated with unknown metal for the ultimate in cheap price. Higher quality connectors can feature gold-plated electrical connections to increase reliability and improve electrical conductivity. Silver is an alternative lower cost precious metal that is used for microphone connector contacts.
An often overlooked connector specification is the physical shape and how tightly a manufacturer adheres to dimensions to assure reliable interconnection between brands. I’ve found that budget connectors on bargain cables often don’t mate with input jacks on mixers and audio-interfaces. It is easy for one brand to make male and female connectors that mate with each other, it is much more difficult and expensive to manufacture connectors that are 100% compatible with other brands.
The final component of any cable assembly is the labor used to affix the electrical conductors to the pins in the connector. This is usually accomplished with a high temperature soldering process and the steps are typically completed by hand. There are cheaper crimp-on designs which reduce labor and cost further but these usually compromise reliability for lower cost.
There are many important electrical characteristics in audio cable. Capacitive coupling between the conductors is capable of dimishing high-frequency response in higher impedance applications. Generally speaking microphones which utilize 3-pin XLR cables are low enough in impedance that capacitance is not a concern.
In ANY microphone cable the electrical resistance from end to end IS an important specification and it is easy to measure with a digital volt-ohm meter. This characteristic is measured in ohms and it should be as low a number as possible. Short cables might measure one or two ohms, 25 foot cables might measure five to seven ohms from end to end on a single conductor. These are just approximate numbers for example.
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WHAT REALLY MATTERS?
How does a cable perform? In use a cable should be absolutely transparent providing zero coloration and distortion. The sole function of a microphone cable is to connect one device to another as reliably and transparently as possible.
There is A LOT of marketing hype out there competing for your purchase dollars. As you read through it all think about this; If exotic wire alloys and proprietary manufacturing makes a difference in how a cable sounds, wouldn’t there be high resolution, A-B, audio demos online that clearly demonstrated these superior sonic characteristics? Wouldn’t this be something producers could point to in their sonic creations and we’d be able to hear the difference in their music? In the rarified space where cost does not matter I’d say get whatever you want. In my experience you can't go wrong with large amounts of copper between your connecting points.
In my studio I choose microphone cables that deliver transparent performance and easy physical connections between plugs and connectors from competing brands. My favorite cables are constructed with Mogami or Canare cable and Neutrik connectors with gold plated contacts. Not all my connections demand that level of electro-mechanical performance and honestly, if you can’t hear a difference, is there a difference? I've spent hours in my studio evaluating cables, doing double blind A-B listening tests and recording the results.
BEST CHEAP XLR-CABLE AWARD GOES TO……..
I stumbled on to Amazon Basics XLR microphone cables by accident. I needed some 10-foot XLR mic cables to connect stereo direct boxes to a Soundcraft mixing console. Custom made Mogami/Neutrik ten-foot XLR mic cables are around $33 each, the Amazon Basics version is less than $8 each.
Amazon offers XLR microphone cables in two-packs for the best prices, stock sizes include three, six and ten foot lengths. Two 10-foot XLR are $15.99. In my studio installation I replaced expensive Mogami/Neutrik cables with Amazon Basics versions and could not detect any sonic degradation from using the significantly lower cost cables.
I’ve since purchased more of the Amazon Basics XLR microphone cables and identified some other desireable characteristics from using them. The cable they use to manufacture these mic cords has a nice soft and supple feel. I’m not sure how it would stand up to abuse but if you take care of it then I think it will last.
Amazon clearly spent some time and asked the right questions as they designed this product. The connectors mate beautifully with panel mount and cable mounted models by Switchcraft and Neutrik. After dealing with the poor mechanical performance of some cheap cables it is a joy to find these Amazon Basics models and discover how well they function.
Ultimately it is up to you to sift through all the hype and decide what you need. If it makes you feel better spending more then by all means, go for it.
I will continue to utilize my premium Mogami and Canare cables for random utilitarian connections around the studio. But I will also continue to explore uses for these Amazon Basics bargain models. At 1/4th to 1/16th the price of expensive boutique models the Amazon Basics XLR microphone cables deliver all the performance and no negatives.
High on Technology is not affiilated with Amazon, we don’t receive any compensation for our opinion and review.
Good Music To You!
©2022 by Mark King, It’s not ok to copy or quote without written permission.
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|Two Amazon Basics 3-pin XLR microphone cables|