The 10 Best XLR Cables
The Love Of High Fidelity
After all, how can any stereo system accurately reproduce anything if it's beset by shorts and cable failures?
Nearly everyone enjoys listening to music. Its incredible popularity among almost all cultures worldwide causes some to call it the universal language. As the late Leonard Meyer explains, music is a powerful emotional stimulus because it helps us to control, share, and in a way quantify our emotions. So it stands to reason that a clean, professionally produced album can likely evoke stronger feelings than a lo-fi, basement tape. And even if the unmistakable hiss of a cassette, or the irreplicable pop of a vinyl satisfies the most discerning or nostalgic of listeners, reliable signal transmission is still of the utmost importance. After all, how can any stereo system accurately reproduce anything if it's beset by shorts and cable failures?
Luckily for listeners, there's a huge host of people dedicated to recording and reproducing fine music. As any of these audiophiles will tell you, there's an incredible variety of potential influences on the listening experience. At the end of the day, however, every recording is only as good as its source, and the best cables are exactingly engineered to have as little an influence on the signal as possible. That way, as long as you start with a pristine signal, your recording will sound the same.
Interference Bad, Balance Good
Sound is the brain's interpretation of the vibrating particles in the atmosphere around us. You may have heard that there is no sound in space, and although that isn't 100 percent accurate, it's true that sound does require a medium through which to travel. Normally, the various molecules that make up the air around us collide with one another, delivering noises to the inner ear. Very often, however, the source of a vibration isn't strong enough to reach every person who wants in on the noise. If there's a stadium full of people who are dying to hear their favorite riff, the band will definitely have to employ electrically amplified sound, and that is where XLR cables come in.
Unbalanced cables are constructed of a single transmission wire and a ground.
Contrary to a belief popular among non-professionals, audio cabling does not operate like a garden hose moving large amounts of water — in fact, the reality is just about the opposite. Rather than flowing through the inside of a tube, audio signal is a variable electrical current traveling down the exterior of the wire, which can allow for interference without proper insulation. Interference occurs when nearby network communications or high-powered machinery produce extraneous noise that the wire picks up, adding distortion and artifacts to the end product.
If you're wondering what's so special about these XLR cables, you're not alone. They certainly appear to be nothing but strands of wire wrapped in rubber and plastic, but they have one important feature: they're balanced. Unbalanced cables are constructed of a single transmission wire and a ground. Most of the 1/4" guitar cables on the market, also known as tip-sleeve cables, operate this way. Their main wire is often in the center, surrounded by a thin layer of metal that serves as the ground. They work in some short-range applications, however around 15-20 feet and longer, they tend to pick up significant noise. But after the sound is amplified, or when traveling over long distances, it's necessary to use a shielded, balanced cable. These consist of two main transmission wires, each independently insulated, and a third one serving as ground. An electronic image of the audio is transmitted down the hot signal wire, and its perfectly reflected negative is sent down the cold one. When the transmission reaches its target, the negative polarity is switched so the two signals once again match. Along the way, the two wires picked up identical interference, so when the polarity reverses, that extraneous noise cancels itself out, resulting in a nearly exact copy of the original signal.
Features To Consider
There are a few steps to designing an interference-free cable. Quality construction almost always means a layer of metal foil on top of braided or twisted line. Also, there are a number of characteristics to consider, such as resistance and impedance. Digital audio requires a certain class of high-impedance wire, which generally works better for analog than a traditional low-impedance type, so it can't hurt to step up to the most advanced grade.
While the connectors themselves share a basic design, there's a difference in long-term reliability between brands.
While the connectors themselves share a basic design, there's a difference in long-term reliability between brands. In particular, you'll find a very large number of well-respected options that utilize Neutrik-branded connectors, because they promise consistent contact with every plug, as well as years of reliability. When it comes down to it, reliability is really one of the most important factors. Almost every cable will sound great out of the box; what matters is the sound quality after it's been stepped on, rewound, and tossed in a van for a tour or two.
On that note, the more industrious engineers often prefer to make their own cable. After all, it's just a length of specialized wire with a connector soldered to either end, and making your own ensures confidence in the product, in addition to the perfect length for your needs and a significantly lower cost per foot. Of course, this does require a steady hand, a bit of skill, and a touch of electronics know-how, but it's not entirely too difficult.
Finally, it's important to consider a cable's pliability. Recording artists swear up and down by thickly shielded, heavy, stiffer materials, and for the most extreme applications, that's a very good idea. On-stage musicians, such as any band that serves as their own roadies (which is most of them), will seriously appreciate a product that is as reliable and low-resistance as it is flexible and portable for on-stage use. Whether your mixer is nestled in a top-dollar recording studio, or on top of a speaker case in the middle of the field, there are innumerable options on the market to help you feed it sound.