Guide to XLR Mic Cables for Stage and Studio

07/02/2020
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I’m sure we can all agree, that mic cables aren’t nearly as important as, say…

The microphones themselves, or studio monitors, right?

Of course not.

But are they still important?

Ask any audio professional that question, and you probably WON’T get a straight answer.

Because on one hand they 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.

The truth is…microphone cables are a topic that most musicians, both beginnerand advanced, know surprisingly little about.

And newbies get frustrated when they discover how hard it is to simply:

  1. sort the good ones from the bad, and…
  2. find the right cable to fit their budget.  

So in today’s post, that’s exactly what we’ll cover.

Let’s begin.  First up… 

The Basics

Before learning the finer details of mic cables, it helps a lot to start with a basic knowledge of studio cables in general.

So if you aren’t familiar with common terms like:

  • low impedance/high impedance
  • balanced/unbalanced
  • XLR/TRS

Budget vs. Premium Cables

Do a quick online search for mic cables, and you find a ton of options ranging from $5 to $100 or more.

So newbies naturally wonder:

How much does a decent cable REALLY cost?

While everyone has a slightly different answer to this question, standard advicestates:

  1. Avoid the cheapest ones (like the Chinese ones on Ebay).  They break within weeks, if they work at all, and they’re a huge hassle to return.    
  2. Unless you have boat-loads of cash, avoid the most-expensive ones as well. They’re great, but for most people…the minor jumps in performance aren’t worth the major jumps in cost.  

For most studios, I recommend cables between $25-$50, because at that price, you get an excellent combination of quality, and affordability.  Chances are though, you’ve heard that advice before…

But what you probably haven’t heard is:

  • the specific reasons WHY some cables outperform others
  • how those factors contribute to their cost

So let’s cover that now, starting with a review of their basic structure…

The Anatomy of a Microphone Cable

microphone cable anatomyWhile all cables have their own unique design…

The standard design consists of 5 main parts:

  1. Two Conductors (+/-)
  2. Insulation
  3. Fillers
  4. Shielding
  5. Outer Jacket

Here’s how they fit together:

  1. At the core of the cable are two copper wire conductors (+/-), each one wrapped in its own insulation.
  2. The two wires are twisted together, then covered with filler to smooth-out warping, and preserve the cable’s roundness.
  3. Next comes the shielding (usually copper), which protects the conductors from various sources of interference.
  4. And finally, the cable is covered with a rubber outer jacket, to protect it from damage.

Now that you know the parts, let’s see how they vary in quality…

The 6 Qualities of Premium Cables

Read the product description of any high-end mic cable, you’ll probably notice that there’s very little information about WHY that cable is better than others.

And that’s mostly because the full explanation is long, boring…and hard-to-understand.  So instead, here’s the simple version:

The 6 KEY factors that contribute to the cost and performance of high-end mic cables are:

  1. Strand Count
  2. The Lay
  3. Shielding
  4. Impact Absorption
  5. Connector Conductivity
  6. Star Quad Cabling

Now let’s learn more about each one…

1. Strand Count

When you take apart a mic cable, you’ll see that each copper conductor is actually made of many fine strands, rather than just a single wire.

By adding higher strand counts, manufacturers can increase both the flexibilityand durability of their cables.  Which is especially useful with cables that see heavy abuse, such as those for hand-held mics.

Of course…the cost of these cables is higher as well.

2. The Lay

When you look at the twisting of the two copper conductors, you’ll notice that expensive cables often have more twists than cheaper ones.

Cable manufacturers refer to this as the lay, which is simply a measurement of the distance between each twist.  The more twists…the shorter the lay.

By shortening the lay on high-end cables, it improves BOTH noise cancellationand flexibility.  But it also means using more wire, with more manufacturing time, ultimately leading to higher costs.

3. Shielding

Another thing you’ll notice when dissecting mic cables is that the shielding will vary, depending on the cost of the cable.  The 3 most common types of shielding are:

  1. braided shielding – 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.
  2. serve shielding – which uses flat copper strands wrapped in a single direction.  While it’s somewhat less-effective at shielding, it offers even greater flexibility than braided shields.
  3. foil shielding – 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 permanent installations and snakes.

With high-end cables, braided shields are typically used, and are the most expensive.  Serve shields are the standard with mid-range cables.  And foil shieldsare most common with budget cables.

4. Impact Absorption

When a cable hits the stage or gets stepped on, it momentarily compresses, causing a distinct slapping sound, known as the triboelectric effect…which is big concern with cables that see lots of handling.

To solve this problem, high-end stage cables use special material 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.

5. Connector Conductivity

To maximize electrical conductivity, manufacturers may coat their connectors with a number of different metals…silver and gold being the most preferred.

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…

Which is why most people prefer gold, despite the fact that it’s more expensive.

6. Star-Quad Cabling

The relatively-new technology known as “star-quad” or “quad” cabling is getting more and more attention these days, as engineers begin to see its advantages.

Using 4 smaller conductors (2+/2-) compared to the standard 2-conductor design…

Quad cabling minimizes the “loop area”, and cuts electromagnetic interference by an impressive 20db as a result.  This makes quad cables especially useful in environments with heavy interference from surrounding equipment.

Also, due to technical factors such as lower “phase shift” and reduced “intermodulation distortion“, quad-cabling also offers a better overall sound quality as well.

And while average musicians may not hear the difference, many top audio professionals can confirm that the difference is there.

Up next…

The Best Budget Mic Cables

Now that you know the difference between cheap and expensive cables…let’s take a look at the best options in each price range.

If the ultimate goal is to get the maximum number of cables for the minimumprice…

Then these are the top budget cables I recommend (length options displayed in links):

  1. Hosa Pro REAN – (Amazon/B&H)
  2. Planet Waves Classic Series – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusiciansF)

However, while these cables will get the job done…I highly suggest choosing from this next group if possible:

The Best Mid-Range Mic Cables

As I said earlier, most home studios are best-off using mid-range cables between $25-$50.

At this price, here are some top options:

  1. Pro Co AQN – (5ft/15ft/20ft/50ft/100ft)
  2. Mogami Silver – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
  3. Rapco Horizon N1M1 – (3ft/6ft/10ft/15ft/20ft/25ft/30ft/50ft)

And finally, if you really want the best of the best, check these out…

The Best Premium Mic Cables

Even though they’re completely unnecessary for the average home studio…

There’s no doubt that premium cables have real benefits that some people will gladly pay for.

So for those people, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Mogami Gold Stage – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC)
  2. Mogami Gold Studio – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF)
  3. Monster Performer 600 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
  4. Monster Studio Pro – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)

Up next…

Customizing Your Cables

When first starting-out, almost everyone buys pre-cut mic cables.

But 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 the ever-changing needs of your studio.

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

While it might seem difficult at first…

With as little as a few hours practice, you can save yourself hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars over the next few years.