Q: Are expensive boutique cables really worth the expense?
A: There are two ways we can look at this question. One is tech, the other is a combination of perception and experience.
The technical explanation involves more of a scientific look at how cables work: signal purity, conductivity and so on. I’m not a technical guy, so I’ll share with you my 16+ years of post-college gigging experience.
Lets start by talking about price. I have purchased $100 cables that sounded like junk and I’ve bought $10 cables that sounded great. The opposite has been true too.
I’ve had $80 cables break within the first year. I still have the cable I bought when I first got to Berklee College of Music in 93′ and it still works beautifully. It cost me about $15. (Again, the reverse has been true too.)
So price is definitely not a reliable measure when making a choice, at least in my experience.
While I’m sure most every cable I have sounds a bit different, I honestly can’t tell with regard to 9 out of 10 of them when I’m at home, playing at a low volume. There is one cable I bought (very expensive) that has ceramic coatings on every wire strand, gold connectors… the works. I found that this cable actually reduced my transients and made my sound far too boomy. I let a guitarist friend try it and he loved it. It changed the sound dramatically, and what worked ruined my bass tone worked great for his guitar tone. I now use it exclusively when working on the computer, because it helps to smooth out a direct bass sound through 4″ speakers (at low volume). In other words, it’s the world’s most expensive practice (through bad sounding rigs) cable.
That cable I bought in 1993 is very cheap, but it is a braided cable. That makes it much, much more durable. This made me a big fan of the braided cables. They are also easier to wrap and unwrap because of the rigidity. So it is less likely to become a tangled mess and if it does get tangled, it is less likely to get crimped and knotty, which damages the fine wires inside.
Any bad experience I’ve had with a high-end cable when it comes to longevity is usually attributed to a connector design that just wasn’t ready for prime time. Some companies have tried to get pretty fancy with connector tech (switches, disconnects, etc.). As with anything, the more stuff in there means there’s more stuff that can go wrong.
All cables fail eventually. One very important consideration then is the lifetime warranty and return policy of the company. Mogami and Monster both have lifetime warranties and are carried at Guitar Center. So it is no surprise a lot of players use those brands. If it fails, you can simply take to any Guitar Center and exchange it for a new one on the spot. (My preference between the two is Mogami because I’ve yet to return one while I’ve had quite a few Monster Cables fail).
My stash of cables right now includes the ones I have that haven’t broken yet, and the ones I discover and decide might be worth trying out. I’ve ask engineers and front of house guys their take when I’m thinking about trying something out, and if they say good things, I’m anxious to give something a try. I’m about to try out Tsunami Cables, and they come highly recommended from some friends in the industry. But I haven’t actually gotten mine yet, so I can’t accurately say. The thing I do like about them is that the connectors look solidly made, keep pressure off of the solder points if yanked from the cable (and not the connector itself) and they are braided, so no pinching or knotting.
It is important to remember that while some cables are lemons, the best thing for your cables and their longevity is to handle them with care. Don’t ball them up and stuff them in your bag. Don’t stomp all over them on stage or roll your cart over them (or allow someone else to do it either!) Be careful not to drop them on the floor – especially the connectors.
Learn how to properly wrap cables (every engineer or sound person knows how to do this). This will protect the fine wires inside the cable.
A decent cable should last for years if you take care of it.
As far as the sound of your cables? Your best bet is to go to a music store with a wide variety of cables and ask to play through a few different kinds. Sit down with an amp and just plug back and forth. Be sure to play the same bass and same amp with the same settings so you know you’re only comparing the cables. If you can hear a difference, let that guide you. If you can’t, look at build quality. Obviously, you’ll want both.
There’s no substitution for the live setting when evaluating something like this, because you won’t really hear enough difference until you are at a decent volume, in a room with a band. Often what you experience at lower volumes won’t translate. So keep that in mind. When you’re on stage, be sure to do the same A/B test between the cables you’ve selected, and let that be your guide.
Cost is a consideration, of course. But if we’re doing this for a living, then this matters even more. Try not to let price influence your decision more than it needs to. Personally, I’m happy to put every extra penny towards my music because… well, that’s what I’m here for.
Think about what you want your tone to sound like. Pure signal isn’t always a good thing. I’ve spent years chasing after high end components with gold connectors and low noise ratios – blah blah blah – only to discover that my sound was far too clean. I didn’t like the sound and couldn’t get my sound to save my life with these things. I finally realized that what I was missing was noise and grit. I like a touch of grime on my tone, so I wound up selling a handful of boutique amps and accessories because I realized that it just wasn’t what I was going for. I’ve finally started to discover what sound I like and am tailoring my gear to that sound. And that doesn’t always mean boutique or more expensive.
My recommendation is the that you evaluate in the following order:
- Build quality
If it doesn’t sound good, there’s no need to go to step 2. If it doesn’t last, don’t buy it again.
If you find a $10 cable that sounds good and looks like it’s built like a tank? Don’t let the cheap price scare you away. Your audiophile friends might scoff at your generic brand stuff, but you can feel good knowing that you bought a cable, bought a back-up as well and still had money left over for that clip-on tuner.
And that reminds me, always carry a spare! You never know when something will die but it’s almost never at the convenient time. I’d rather have two generic cables that sound decent than one $150 boutique cable that might decide to not work right before the gig.
Boutique doesn’t automatically mean incredible sounding and/or lasts a lifetime. For some brands, it does. Let your ears and gut be the judge.
How about you? What sort of cables have you found to work best? Share with us in the comments.
Photo by Francisco Rivera