Thursday, July 29, 2010

High-End Guitar Cables - Scoffer or Believer?

I've always looked at High-end guitar cables and wondered if they were really better, whether the difference was a matter of personal taste, or if it was all just 'snake oil'. They seemed too expensive for the difference in tone they might or might not deliver, and the confusion of there being so many different brands of cable all claiming to be the best wasn't helping.All of that changed when I won a free '20 Elixir guitar cable and did some tone testing of my own. Here's what I posted on Elixir's Facebook discussions page:

Up to now, I’ve never been the hundredth-caller/sweepstakes winner type of guy. So, I was very excited to receive the "Experience the Difference" Elixir Cable sample. As a longtime user of several types of cables, I was interested how the Elixir cable would stack up.

First impressions: Very heavy duty construction, almost indestructible connectors, but the packaging needs improvement. The way it was packaged caused some annoying kinks in both ends of the cables, and I really object to this type of plastic packaging that is almost impossible to open without damaging the product. I would have preferred that the cable be packaged in a way that it would have been coiled naturally. It also would have been a nice touch to include some sort of cable tie, as well.

My tests were conducted in my home studio with the following signal path: Guitar to PODxt to Rane SM82 line mixer to Samson C-Control to Yamaha MSP3 powered monitors. The guitars used were a Fender ’60 Strat Relic, a Fender Custom Shop 3-pickup Telecaster Custom, a Gibson ’54 reissue Les Paul with humbuckers (and some fairly old strings), and a Godin LGXT. The PODxt was set to a Vibroverb model that’s my Fender go-to sound. It’s a clean, but on the verge of breakup sound with a touch of reverb and some barely discernible delay.

The comparison cables were all 20 feet in length. The contenders were as follows:

- Whirlwind Leader – a longtime companion, I’ve owned a number of these in various lengths, and I’ve never had one fail. I’ve played a lot of gigs with these and got used to their ‘sound’.

- Monster Standard 100 – I switched over to these a couple of years ago, not so much for the quality of sound, but for the non-kinking, tangle-free quality of the jacket. I also like the color coding feature that I use to identify different lengths, so that I can grab the right one in a hurry.

- Homemade Belden 8412 cable with Switchcraft connectors – My first really pro cables, I made several of these ages ago and never had any problems.

None of these are really high-end contenders, just working-man’s tools. I was hoping to hear a real difference in the sound quality with the Elixir, especially after viewing various videos on the internet in which the Elixir cables were demonstrated.

The Belden/Switchcraft cable faired the worst - by comparison with the Elixir, it was flat and muddy with pronounced lower mids and poor note definition on chords. The Whirlwind leader and Monster Std 100 performed better, although both seemed to emphasize the higher mids by comparison with the Elixir. The Monster was a bit more open than the Whirlwind, but the Elixir still surpassed it in clarity and presence. However, it’s hard to say if the Monster and Whirlwind emphasize the upper mids, or if the Elixer notches them out slightly.

My final test was to compare the 20-foot Elixir with a 10-foot Monster Standard 100, and the Elixir cable won again, hands down.

The Elixir cable was by far more open sounding than any of my other cables. It really shone on the Les Paul’s neck pickup, where the note definition was better. The Elixir made the lower strings sound less flabby than the other cables. Overall, my guitars had way more presence, but not in a shrill way. Even the guitars that had older strings sounded better, as if the strings had suddenly become newer.

Bottom line, this cable is now my number one cable for recording and important gigs. I can definitely foresee buying a 10-foot version of this cable soon. I don’t know if I’ll take my Elixir out for open mics or jam sessions, though - it might be too nice for that.

This is a great-sounding cable, period. Thanks, Elixir!

That's how I caught the high-end cable bug. I was hooked, and I couldn't go back to my old cables. Luckily for my bank account, there's Ebay, and over the next few months I was able to find a couple of Elixir 10-footers (which are more practical for a lot of situations) plus several George L's cables for what I thought were reasonable prices. George L's are considered by some to be the holy grail of guitar cables. I've been using them on my pedal board for years now, but hadn't considered buying the longer cables until now. I A/B'd them with the Elixir cables and they compared very favorably. I could detect a tiny bit more 'openess' in the top end with the Elixirs, and while I realize that's a pretty vague sonic attribute, the bottom line is about how you feel when you play your instrument.

Here was my follow-up post on the Elixir page:

Damn you, Elixir! You sent me the one cable for free, and I liked it so much I had to go out and get two more! That's sneaky!

On a more serious note (pun intended), I've now had an opportunity to A/B the Elixir cable with a George L's cable. Really, really close, but I liked the Elixir better. The Elixir had slightly more openess in the highs. Hard to define, but it just felt better.

Still don't like the packaging, but it's my #1 cable now.