David Lamkins picked up his first guitar a long time ago. As best he can recall the year was 1967: the year of the Summer of Love. Four decades later David has conjured up an amalgam of folk, rock and jazz solo guitar music for the occasional intimate Portland audience.
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location: Portland, OR USA

Facets: cables, comparison, evaluation, physics, @musings info

Cable comparison, part 1

I have what one might generously describe as a surfeit of instrument cables. Some people collect guitars or amps or pedals. I collect cables. At least my quirk is relatively inexpensive.

A week ago I was sorting through my cables, probably in an unconscious attempt to make room for more. I got to listening to the differences among the cables.

You may recall from other articles that I'm firmly in the camp that believes that there are several important attributes of a cable: (1) capacitance, (2) shielding, (3) handling noise, (4) ruggedness and (5) cost. Only the first three have any effect at all upon tone. Capacitance is a function of the cable materials and geometry and the length of the cable. Shielding is critical for high-gain applications; there are very few shields, IME, which are inadequate for "classic" (50's and 60's era) gain. Handling noise is a function of materials and construction and is of concern primarily to high-gain applications.

So given that I'm a low-gain kinda guy, the only thing that's really important to my sound is the capacitance of a cable. More capacitance moves the resonant peak of the pickups to a lower frequency and has a tendency to create a sound that's dull or nasal (depending upon the pickups). Less capacitance moves the resonant peak to a higher frequency, creating a sound that's brighter and more open. Neither high nor low capacitance is inherently good or bad. It all depends upon what's in the rest of your amplification chain and - most important of all - what you'd like to hear. Modern-day marketing hype notwithstanding, there are good reasons for someone to choose a high-capacitance cable.

I have a multimeter that measures capacitance. I have used it to measure my cables and label them for quick reference. If I want, I can grab a cable with a specific capacitance to fine-tune the upper-midrange response of my guitar. (As obsessions go, this is relatively harmless. That's what I keep telling myself...)

A week ago as I was auditioning cables I ran across one that I don't use much because it's relatively inflexible compared to my other cables. I plugged it in, noticed that it sounded really good, and moved on. Other cables didn't sound quite as nice. I kept coming back to this one cable because there was a certain clarity in the high harmonics that I wasn't getting from any of the other cables.

I even compared the "really good" cable to a different kind of cable having very nearly the same capacitance (within five or ten percent, IIRC) and noticed a difference between the two. That really annoyed me. Equivalent capacitance should cause the rig to have equivalent sound.

I can think of a few possible explanations to explain the perceived differences:

  1. That last five or ten percent really is significant. It wouldn't shift the frequency that much (IIRC, the frequency changes as the square root of the capacitance), but perhaps the slight shift is emphasizing or deemphasizing some small range that's of particular importance given my rig, ears and playing.
  2. Connector differences matter. The "really good" cable has gold-plated ends while the other cable has nickel-plated ends. Given that there's no gold in the mating connectors, I'd be surprised if this mattered. (Maybe the nickel-plated connectors have some oxidation that affects the sound. Seems unlikely to me, but who knows?) The other difference is that the gold-plated ends seem to fit the jacks just a bit more snugly.
  3. I'm kidding myself.

Now I'm going to have to set up a blind test. I swore I wouldn't get into this kind of tweaking, but it really bugs me that the most obvious theory doesn't seem to hold sway.

December 17 2007 04:52:36 GMT