Today’s super-awesome home-recording topic: Microphone Cables.
Here’s a few of the insanely useful secrets we’re about to reveal:
- FACT or FICTION: Are high-end cables really worth the money? Or is it all hype? (And you stand to gain from a few extra hard-earned dollars)
- The fascinating science of microphone cable manufacturing. “strand-counts”, “shielding”, “triboelectric effect”, and more.
- Gold vs Silver Connectors: The little-known pros and cons of each option. (No…gold is NOT necessarily better)
- PLUS… Our top 12 picks of the best microphone cable options currently on the market (Includes picks for live vs studio, on a variety of budgets)
Best Part: Just a few minutes from now, you’ll know this topic inside-n-out – and find exactly what you need for your setup… Guaranteed.
Ready? Here we go…
Table of Contents:
- Cheap vs Expensive Microphone Cables: Any Differences?
- Microphone Cable Anatomy: The 5 Components
- Why High-End Mic Cables Use Higher Strand Counts
- Why Expensive Cables Use Tighter Twisting
- Braided vs Serve vs Foil Shielding: Which is Best?
- The Triboelectric Effect: The Source of Handling Noise
- Silver vs Gold XLR Connectors: What’s the Difference?
- Star-Quad Cabling: The Latest Advancement in Cabling
- The 3 Best Budget Microphone Cables for Beginners
- The Best Mid-Range Mic Cables for Serious Musicians
- The Best Premium Mic Cables for Professionals
- The Benefits of Using Angled XLR Cables
- How to Customize Your Cables…And Why You Should
Cheap vs Expensive Microphone Cables: Any Differences?
So…are all microphone cables basically the same? Or do some really sound better than others?
Ask any audio pro engineer and you probably WON’T get a straight answer.
On one hand they might say: A cable is a cable. It doesn’t really matter.
But add up the price of their cables, and they’ll most likely cost more than your entire studio.
Ask them why they bought those cables instead of cheaper ones, and many can’t tell you because they don’t really know.
Because truth is…microphone cables (aka XLR cables) are a topic that musicians at all levels know surprisingly little about.
So up next, I’m going to show you the real differences.
Microphone Cable Anatomy: The 5 Components
The typical design of an XLR cable has 5 important parts.
- At the core, are two copper wire conductors (+/-), each one wrapped in its own insulation.
- The two wires are twisted together, then covered with filler to smooth-out warping, and preserve the cable’s roundness.
- Next comes the shielding (usually copper), which protects the conductors from various sources of interference.
- And finally, the cable is covered with a rubber outer jacket, to protect it from handling damage.
And that’s pretty much it. Now the difference between cheap and expensive microphone cables is determined by the quality of these components.
Here’s the first example:
Why High-End Mic Cables Use Higher Strand Counts
The two copper conductors at the core of the cable are actually made of many fine strands, rather than just a single wire.
This is done because multiple strands increase both flexibility and durability of the wire. The higher the strand count, the better the performance.
As you might expect, this makes the manufacturing process more expensive as well, which you ultimately pay for.
Why Expensive Cables Use Tighter Twisting
When you look at the twisting of the copper wires, you’ll notice that expensive cables have tighter twists than cheap ones.
Known simply as the the lay, cable manufacturers determine this stat by measuring the distance between each twist.
- The more twists…the shorter the lay.
Shortening the lay on high-end cables improves:
- noise cancellation
But the downside is:
- more wire
- more manufacturing time
- and higher costs
Braided vs Serve vs Foil Shielding: Which is Best?
The 3 common types of microphone cable shielding are:
- Foil Shielding (basic) – which uses a combination of a foil wrapping and a copper drain wire. It’s less-effective as a shield, and far less-durable, but it’s the standard option for budget cables, permanent installations and snakes.
- Serve Shielding (better) – which uses flat copper strands wrapped in a single direction. It’s somewhat less-effective at shielding than braided, but offers greater flexibility.
- Braided Shielding (best) – which uses strands of braided copper for superior strength and durability. Due to its high conductivity, it also has excellent hi-frequency and RFI shielding.
As you might expect, the most expensive microphone cables will almost always use some version of braided shielding.
The Triboelectric Effect: The Source of Handling Noise
When a cable hits the stage or gets stepped on, it momentarily compresses, causing a distinct slapping sound, known as the triboelectric effect.
With cables that see lots of handling, such as those used on-stage, this noise can pontentially be a huge issue.
To solve this problem, high-end stage cables use various specialty materials for the insulation, filler, and outer jacket to improve impact absorption.
Studio cables on the other hand, which see far less abuse, can work just fine with less-expensive casing.
Silver vs Gold XLR Connectors: What’s the Difference?
Typically XLR connectors may be coated with any number of different metals, the two most popular being either silver, or gold.
Some people say silver is better, because it has a higher conductivity than gold (when clean). However, silver also tarnishes faster than gold, and must be cleaned often to maintain performance.
So ulitimately, most people prefer gold, despite the fact that it’s more expensive.
Star-Quad Cabling: The Latest Advancement in Cabling
A relatively-new technology is getting more attention these days, as engineers begin to see its advantages.
Known in product descriptions either as star-quad or quad cabling, this design uses 4 smaller conductors (2+/2-) compared to the standard 2-conductor design of traditional cables.
By minimizing the loop area, it cuts electromagnetic interference by an impressive 20db. Which makes them especially useful in environments with heavy interference from surrounding equipment (such as in clubs).
Quad-cabling offers better overall sound quality as well, due to technical factors we won’t go into, such as:
- lower phase shift
- reduced intermodulation distortion
While average musicians may not hear the difference, many top audio professionals can confirm that is in fact real.
The 3 Best Budget Microphone Cables for Beginners
When shopping for microphone cables at the lowest price ranges, you can find cables sometimes as cheap as $5-10 from China.
I would suggest avoiding these, since they’ll typicall break within weeks, if they work at all. And they’re a huge hassle to return.
So here are 3 almost-as-cheap models I recommend instead:
- Hosa Pro REAN – (Amazon)
- Cable Matters 2-Pack – (Amazon)
- Planet Waves Classic Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
The Best Mid-Range Mic Cables for Serious Musicians
For most musicians reading this post, I’d ideally recommend using mid-range cables between $25-$50.
Because in this range, you get an excellent combination of quality and affordability.
Here are several of the top options I’d recommend:
- Pro Co AQN – (Amazon)
- Mogami Silver – (Amazon)
- Rapco Horizon N1M1 – (6ft/10ft/15ft/20ft/25ft/30ft/50ft)
- World Best Cable Mogami/Neutrik – (Amazon)
- Iconic Cables Vacuum Tubes (for tube mics) – (Amazon)
The Best Premium Mic Cables for Professionals
At a certain price point, you start seeing large increases in cost, for only minimal increases in noticeable quality.
For many professionals with large budgets, any minimal increase is well-worth whatever it costs. So if that’s you…go for it. For everyone else though, I’ll refer you to the previous section of this post.
Now…far and away, Mogami is the cable brand best known for making high-end pro cables. So if you’re interested here are the ones I recommend:
- Mogami Gold Stage – (Amazon)
- Mogami Gold Studio – (Amazon)
- Monster Prolink Studio Pro 2000 – (Amazon)
The Benefits of Using Angled XLR Cables
Many musicians will go their entire lives without ever using or even seeing an angled XLR cable.
And not everyone really even needs them.
However…there are certain situations where that right angle in the connector makes an otherwise impossible fit…suddenly become simple.
With these cables you can have either the male or female side angled, or both.
If you need one, here’s a good mix of options to choose from:
- LyxPro (Female angled) – (Amazon)
- Hosa XFF 103 (Female angled) – (Amazon)
- ProCo Sound MasterMike (Female angled) – (Amazon)
- Smays Cable (Male angled) – (Amazon)
- ProCo Sound MasterMike (Male angled) – (Amazon)
- Seismic Audio SARAX6 (Both angled) – (Amazon)
How to Customize Your Cables…And Why You Should
At some point, when your pile of unused cables grows large enough…it feels like a waste of money to buy more. And it is.
Because simply by taking the time to learn how to cut and solder your old cables, they can be re-purposed over-and-over-again to meet your ever-changing needs.
Once you’ve learned this skill, you can:
- cut each cable to the perfect length
- switch out XLR, TRS and other connectors as needed
- see first-hand what premium cables have that cheap ones don’t
With as little as a few hours practice, you can save yourself hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars over the next few years.
If you’re interested, here’s a good video explaining how it’s done: