When you’re faced with all the cables in a store or online, it can be a bit daunting. I mean there are different lengths so that’s easy enough. What else could there be? Well, not all cables are made equal.
I came across this revelation at college in the live sound and electronics classes. Before that, I knew which cable to use for a microphone (usually an XLR) and which to use for a guitar, because we used them at church.
I not only learned about the various cables and their names at college but how they’re constructed and what they’re constructed from and why those materials matter. Cable length is also important for reasons I’ll get into later.
So, let’s take away some of the confusion and help you choose a cable to suit your budget and your needs.
First, What Are Your Needs?
This question can help you determine what type of quality you need to go for. I wouldn’t ever recommend something that’s going to break within a few weeks, so I’m not talking about rubbish quality.
Cables used for stage performances see a lot more wear and tear than studio cables. If you perform, especially if you like to move around a lot and might step on your cable or drop it, you want one that is built for durability and with dedicated material for impact absorption. Plus, who hasn’t kicked a cable out of their way at least once. I do it pretty much every time… well, I gently move it out of the way with my foot.
You want a flexible cable too because you’ll constantly be rolling it up to store it and then unrolling it and possibly winding it around things like people and mic stands to try to keep it out of the way.
Length is also important here. If you perform on bigger stages and like to move around from one side to the other and you don’t have a lapel mic or a wireless mic, you need a long cable. Even if you don’t move around too much, you want to make sure your cable can always reach the stage box or DI box.
Studio cables aren’t as likely to be stepped on or dropped nearly as often. Flexibility is definitely important as you may choose to leave your cables permanently set up and wind them around a table or amp, etc, or run it along the wall including the corners. Some singers like to hold the cable which, if they’re particularly passionate, bends it.
You can generally use mid-range cables and even better quality cheaper cables in your studio for these reasons. As long as it transfers the audio without dropping any of the quality, you’re good to go.
Having said that, everyone appreciates a long-lasting cable that they can replace every few years as needed instead of within a few months or just a year. So you definitely want to get some decent cables.
If you have a professional studio, you may want to consider high-end cables. This is because the highest quality cables have some slight differences in audio quality, that to seasoned ears, will actually be worth the money.
What Makes A Good Cable?
I’ve mentioned flexibility, impact absorption, durability, and audio quality. Here’s how you know when you have these things:
Copper is usually what the conductors are made of since it’s a good conductor. This means that they carry the signal between the microphone and the audio equipment. To protect this inner core, these wires need to be shielded. There are three ways in which way this is done:
This is the preferred method since it’s the most durable. It’s called braiding because braided copper is wound around the inner core. This provides a strong shield of protection and prevents RFI (radio frequency interference) and EMI (electromagnetic interference). This means there will be less humming or crackling if any at all.
This type of shielding provides a lot of flexibility and many professionals prefer to use these kinds of cables.
This type of shielding is more common in mid-range cables. It consists of flat copper strands that are wound around the conductors. As you can imagine, this takes up a little less space and so these cables are even more flexible.
The flat copper is also slightly less effective at protecting the conductors and preventing noise. But these cables, particularly the better quality offerings in this category, will still do nicely for performance and studio setups.
This is the type of shielding found in the budget range of cables. You can still get some cables that will do the job in this price range, but be aware that the really cheap ones are likely to break quickly and the audio quality may suffer. Usually, this type of shielding is used in permanent installations and snakes rather than as cables for performances.
It consists of a combination of foil and copper drain wire that’s wrapped around the conductors. The level of noise reduction and protection is a lot lower. Constant use because of all the rolling and unrolling, moving around, and possibly being stepped on will result in the cable breaking quicker than when just set up and left alone for the most part in a studio. So look for braided or serve shielding if you’re going to be on stage a lot.
If you’ve stepped on a cable or dropped it and heard a slapping noise, you probably realized, that can’t be good. And no one likes hearing that sound in the middle of a gig or a recording session that’s going well. This noise is called triboelectric noise. What’s more, is this noise occurs more in balanced cables, which XLRs are.
It’s not always avoidable, but higher-end cables are made with better impact absorption to help prevent sounds like that during mishaps. These cables are known as low-noise cables. They have additional insulation to absorb shock and prevent RFI noise too.
As we’ve discussed, copper is an excellent choice for conducting signals. But the tips of the conducting wires are usually plated with another metal for extra conductivity and protection. Professionals often choose cables with gold connectors as they conduct well and take many years to tarnish or wear away.
Typically, gold connectors will have a layer of nickel between them and the copper to prevent tarnishing as these two metals don’t play well together. But obviously, these cables tend to be more pricey.
Silver is another common choice and conducts even better than gold does, but it tends to tarnish quicker. Giving your cable connectors a clean as needed will keep them working in tip-top shape, so take care of your cables to have them last longer and give you quality sound.
You may also find cables that have copper or aluminum connectors. These are good options too in terms of conductivity, but copper tarnishes very quickly too. Aluminum keeps pretty well though.
You’ll have less but still adequate conductivity to get the job done if you have nickel, zinc, or brass connectors. It just depends on the quality.
I would recommend silver connectors if gold is too expensive for the best quality. But copper and aluminum do the job well enough too. Just be sure to clean the connectors if they start to tarnish to retain good connectivity.
Quad cables a.k.a. star-quad cables have four smaller conductors instead of two larger conductors. While this might seem like a superfluous difference, there are actually some great benefits to this, mainly in the form of noise reduction of up to 20dB.
This happens because the tight twisting and the shorter lay (I’ll explain lay soon) of the four conductors creates a coaxial structure (coaxial cables are used for guitars, basses, and keyboards) which is far less prone to RFI.
This means that even if you aren’t able to get a cable with a high strand count, see below, or braided shielding, you can still have a great cable as long as it has quad cabling. You can definitely find affordable cables with this feature.
If you’re very active on stage and/or perform often I would recommend going for cables with a higher strand count. These tend to be more expensive, but if you intend to use them for a long time, this is a good investment. More strands will also result in better quality recordings in a studio since this helps to eliminate noise.
By strand count, I mean how many copper strands form the conductors. More strands create physically stronger conductors. You’ll find that they’re more flexible and durable.
You’ll really only find strand counts mentioned on premium cables, and these are usually plus-minus 100 strands. Mid-range cables, even on the more affordable side will still do a pretty good job if they’re made well though.
As with strand count, you’re far more likely to see this mentioned with premium cables. The lay refers to the number of twists in the conductors. Premium cables have a lot more twists than cheaper cables resulting in a shorter lay. You get less noise and more flexibility with these cables which is why professionals prefer them.
Now that you know what makes a good XLR cable, you can go ahead and buy one with confidence. For a look at the insides, you can check out this video on DIY XLR cables (and even attempt one if you’re good with this kind of thing):
Top XLR Cable Recommendations
Now that you know a bit more about what’s what, here are some cable recommendations so you can find something that suits your budget and needs.
Budget XLR Cables
If you’re looking for a starter cable that works well and is affordable, here you go:
Amazon Basics XLR Cable
With the Amazon Basics XLR cable, you get zinc alloy connectors with nickel and the copper conductors are cased in a 6mm PVC jacket. There is strain relief at each end of the cable which will protect the conductors inside and give you a longer-lasting cable. There are also Velcro ties so that you can roll it up for storage and keep it neat.
Most people are very happy with this cable, especially for the price. In fact, they’re very popular. There were some complaints about the female connection not fully clipping into microphones and other audio equipment properly. Despite that, the cables still work pretty well and the male connector is secure.
I wouldn’t recommend you get the cable if you would subject it to some heavy abuse, but for studios and calmer performance setups, this cable will work well.
These cables are available in 3ft, 6ft, 10ft, 15ft, 20ft, 25ft, and 50ft lengths and in one or two packs.
- Zinc is a suitable conductor
- Strain relief on the ends of the cable provide additional protection
- The male connector head fits securely
- Comes in varying lengths from 3ft to 50ft
- Velcro ties keep the cable neatly rolled when not in use
- Some of these cables have a female connector head that doesn’t clip in securely
D’Addario Planet Waves Classic Series XLR Cable
I know D’Addario more for their strings since I have a set of their Pro Arte strings on my violin. They also make strings for other instruments too. But here is their Planet Wave XLR cable. The conductors are made from oxygen-free copper and the connectors are brass which withstands corrosion very well. Strain relief provides extra protection and these should stand up to more active on-stage performances.
Most people find that they have a clear tone with little to no noise. There are a few cases where the cable didn’t fit properly when plugged into a microphone, it was a little large because of the coating, particularly the female connector head.
They come in 10ft, 25ft, and 50ft
- Brass connectors aren’t prone to corrosion
- Strain relief provides additional protection and longevity
- The conductors are made from oxygen-free copper for better signal transfer
- The tone is clear
- Most people experience little to no noise
- In some cases, the female connector head is too big (likely a defect)
Cable Matter XLR Cable 2-Pack
Cable Matters XLR cables have braided shielding, plated gold connectors, and oxygen-free copper conductors. The jacket is made from PVC the conductors and shielding are insulated with polyethylene. There is also dedicated strain relief for extra protection. They are available in 3ft, 6ft, 10ft, 15ft, 20ft, 25ft, and 35ft.
Most people are happy with these cables saying that the sound is clear and that the cables are very flexible. There were some complaints about the cables not fitting microphones and preamps and some people said their Cable Matters cables only lasted a few months before they started breaking. These may have been defective cables.
- Braided shielding for better flexibility and sound transmission
- Plated gold connectors are less prone to tarnishing
- Oxygen-free copper conductors provide better signal transmission
- Most people find the sound is very clear
- Strain relief provides extra protection
- Lengths range from 3ft to 35ft
- Affordable 2-pack
- Some people found the cables didn’t fit into their equipment
- A few people said these cables start breaking as early as 6 months
Neewer 6-Pack XLR Cables
If you need quite a few cables at once for an affordable price, here you go. Neewer 6-pack XLR cables come in different colors for easy identification. The oxygen-free copper conductors are shielded with woven copper, aluminum foil, and tensile cotton. Spring-type strain relief keeps the cable intact at each end. The connectors are silver in color, though there is no mention of what type of metal they are. These cables are 25 feet long.
Most people are happy with these. The audio quality is pretty good and the shielding does its job fairly well. The cables are flexible too. There were a few complaints about defective sets where some of the cables in the pack didn’t work as well as complaints about the cables being noisy.
- They are shielded with foil, copper, and tensile cotton
- Oxygen-free conductors are good for signal transfer
- Spring-type strain relief provides protection
- Distinguish the cables easily thanks to the colors
- The length of 25 feet will suit many applications
- Some people received defective sets
- Some people received noisy cables
- It would have been nice to choose from various lengths
Mid-Range XLR Cables
Mid-range cables generally start around the $18 mark and can go to around $50. They are usually constructed from better quality materials than budget cables. Most people are happy with cables in this range and find them to be very effective even for professional use.
Vitrius XLR Cable
Vitrius XLR cables have dual shielded oxygen-free copper conductors for better signal transfer and good noise reduction. There is added durability thanks to the chuck-type strain relief. The connectors are made from die-cast steel, durable plastic, and rubber. The connector head tightens onto the cable during assembly so as not to be pulled off. Said connectors are a silver color, but there is no mention of which metal they are.
If you own different lengths (they seem to have decreased their range to 3ft, 6ft, and 15ft) you will have different color rings to distinguish your cables from each other. Vitrius Cables offers an unconditional 5-year replacement warranty. That tells me they’re confident in their product. Most people are very happy with the audio quality even for professional use. These cables are durable and rugged enough for heavy abuse.
There have been defective cables where it caused distortion instead of noise reduction, but this is pretty rare.
- The oxygen-free copper conductors are dual shielded for better noise reduction
- Chuck-type strain relief provides secure connector heads that stay connected to the cable
- The various cable lengths have different color rings for easy identification
- The unconditional 5-year replacement warranty speaks for itself
- Their range seems to have decreased to three lengths between 3ft and 15ft
- Very rare defective cables resulted in distortion
Hosa HMIC-010 Pro Microphone Cable
Hosa HMIC Pro microphone cables have silver-plated REAN connectors which are pretty good. The conductors are constructed from 20 AWG oxygen-free copper, meaning they are a little thicker for better durability and signal transfer. The shielding is 90% oxygen-free braided shielding.
People who have purchased these in the past say their Hosa Pro cables have lasted for years and that the cables stand up to heavy abuse pretty well. However, a few people found that these cables still let through noise and that the cable lacks good flexibility.
- Plated-silver REAN connectors are very good conductors
- The oxygen-free copper conductors are a thicker 20 AWG
- Oxygen-free braided shielding helps to protect against noise
- Rugged design
- Some people experienced noise with these cables
- Due to the thickness, the cables aren’t as flexible
Pig Hog XLR Cable
Pig Hog XLR cables are advertised as rugged cables you can take on tour with you night after night. The shielding and conductor of these cables are proprietary, although some of their other offerings have oxygen-free copper conductors.
The PVC jacket is 8mm thick and overall the cables are thicker but still flexible. The jacket is also resistant to tangling and kinking. The connectors are heat shrink resistant, although I can’t reliably tell you what they’re made of. They give you quality assurance with a limited lifetime guarantee. Choose from 3ft, 6ft, 15ft, 20ft, 30ft, and 50ft cable lengths.
Most people are happy with them and say they’re pretty quiet and the sound is clear. But there have been some defective cables where the connector heads stayed in the equipment when the cable was pulled out. Some people have had the black coating on the connector heads come off with regular use.
- The proprietary shielding and conductors work well according to most people
- The cables are resistant to kinks and tangles
- The connectors are heat shrink resistant
- Lengths range from 3ft to 50ft
- Comes with a limited lifetime guarantee
- Defective cables have had the connector heads come off in equipment
- The black coating on the connector heads may get scratched off
RapcoHorizon NM1-10 Microphone Cable
RapcoHorizon NM1 microphone cables have Neutrik conductors (one of the best brands of conductors in the industry) in nickel. The conductors are pure copper as is the serve shielding for good conduction and flexibility. The jacket is made out of PVC that has a low memory meaning it won’t stay bent or kinked for long after use. The lengths range from 1ft to 100ft. You can also find these cables with other brands of connectors.
Most people are happy with these cables and say they have a clear tone and that the cables are durable. There aren’t too many complaints, but those that exist are that they received a defective cable that didn’t fit their equipment and a complaint about the cable only lasting a year and a half before it started giving problems.
- Nickel Neutrik connectors are well-built to last
- Pure copper conductors provide good signal transfer
- The cable won’t stay kinked or bent
- Good durability
- Cable lengths vary from 1ft to 100ft
- Lifetime warranty
- Some complaints of a poor fitting cable (defective)
- Some of these cables only last about a year and a half before they start becoming noisy
- Black cable Neutrik nickel -1 Series XLRF-XLRM
- Matte jacket PVC material is very flexible yet durable with very low memory
- Pure copper conductor and shield
- Utilizing a serve shield process for quiet operation yielding maximum flexibility
- Connector brand options available to meet various preferences and price points:...
World’s Best Cables Mogami XLR Cable
Mogami cables are some of the best. World’s Best Cables Mongami XLR cables use black Mogami 2549 wire conductors (Neglex oxygen-free copper). The connectors are gold-plated Neutrik connectors. There is 100% coverage serve shielding and the wiring is 22AWG which provides good protection against noise. The cables are soldered using WBC’s unique nitrogen soldering process with a 4% silver solder blend.
The quality is good enough that you get a 10-year replacement warranty. Most, and that is over 90% of people are happy with the sound quality, frequency response, secure fit, and flexibility of these cables. I couldn’t find anyone complaining about anything.
- These cables are made with Mogami 2549 black wire (Neglex oxygen-free copper) for good signal transfer
- The gold-plated Neutrik connectors are less prone to corrosion
- These cables have 100% serve shielding to prevent RFI
- Flexible and durable
- You can find them in different lengths (I came across 1ft, 6ft, 10ft, and 15ft in the 2549 range)
- Comes with a 10-year replacement warranty
- None that I could find
Mogami Silver XLR Cables
Here’s the real deal. The Mogami Silver Series XLR cables are Mogami’s budget cables, but they are more in the mid-range category in terms of price. According to their specs, their silver series cables have a flex life of 11 000 cycles. This essentially means that the cable can withstand being bent or twisted that many times. At my calculation, if you did that to the cable twice every day of the year, you’d get around 15 years out of it.
Mogami uses Neglex oxygen-free copper conductors and Neutrik silver connectors for their Silver series. The cables are flexible and the layer of PVC under the conductive shield provides good noise prevention. They are available in 3ft, 6ft, 15ft, 25ft, and 50ft.
Professionals and amateurs alike are happy with these cables. They describe them as long-lasting and very low noise. The only complaints are that the cables are so skinny and a rare defective cable. Many people find no difference between the Silver series and the premium Gold series.
- Neglex oxygen-free copper conductors provide good signal transfer
- Long-lasting Neutrik silver connectors
- Additional PVC shielding for good noise reduction
- Available from 3ft to 50ft
- Defective cable (very rare)
If you do work where it’s noticeable when you’re using poorer quality cables or if you just want the best possible noise reduction and longevity from your cables, this is the range that you’ll want to consider. It’s not to say that these cables are necessarily going to be noticeably better than the mid-range cables in terms of sound quality, so if you are on a budget, rather try there first.
Mogami Gold Series XLR Cable
As already mentioned, a lot of people in the industry consider this brand to be one of the best. The Mogami Gold Series in particular is very popular in professional studios, top performance venues, and for bands and artists to use on tour. You can get the Mogami Gold XLR Stage cables or Mogami Gold XLR Studio cables.
The connectors are gold and the conductors are Neglex quad high definition oxygen-free copper. The noise reduction is around 95% thanks to the cross-link polyethylene insulation. The serve shielding provides 10-20dB noise reduction. As with the silver series, these cables are quite thin but have the same flex life as the silver series. The lengths come in 2ft, 3ft, 6ft, 10ft, 15ft, 50ft, 75ft, and 100ft.
Most people are happy with the sound quality, describing it as crisp and clear. The few complaints that I found were about the cables breaking soon after purchase and the cables not doing anything against RFI. These are likely defects.
- Neglex quad high definition oxygen-free copper has good signal transfer
- Gold connectors are less prone to tarnishing
- The copper serve shielding reduces noise up to 20dB
- Cross-link polyethylene insulation results in up to 95% noise reduction
- Available from 2ft to 100ft depending on whether you get stage or studio cables
- Defective cables let RFI noise in
- Defective cables only lasted a few months
Take Care of Your Cables
Even if you have cheaper cables, you can keep them in good shape. We’ve already spoken about cleaning the connectors if you see tarnishing.
But you also need to roll them correctly. The example in the main image of this article is terrible. Your cables should never look like that. Here’s a video on how to do it:
Choosing a decent quality cable will serve you well. XLR cables are used for microphones, lighting, cameras, and recording equipment. Great to know if you’re doing gigs. The better the quality, the cleaner your sound and the longer your cables will last.
It doesn’t necessarily need to break the bank though. You can always buy cheaper cables that have good reviews and upgrade once you need to use them for more professional applications or you get more gigs. That is if you find your cables aren’t quite up to snuff.
Cheanné Lombard lives in the home of one of the new Seven World Wonders, Cape Town, South Africa. She can’t go a day without listening to or making music.
Her love of music started when her grandparents gave her a guitar. It was a smaller version of the full-sized guitars fit for her little hands. Later came a keyboard and a few years after that, a beautiful dreadnought guitar and a violin too. While she is self-taught when it comes to the guitar, she had piano lessons as a child and is now taking violin lessons as an adult.
She has been playing guitar for over 15 years and enjoys a good jam session with her husband, also an avid guitarist. In fact, the way he played those jazzy, bluesy numbers that kindled the fire in her punk rock heart. Now she explores a variety of genres and plays in the church worship group too and with whoever else is up for a jam session.