Ignoring all of the outboard gear and effects pedals, the bare bones essential equipment needed to record vocals consists of the following: a microphone, a mixer or audio interface, and a cable. Though the latter of these often receives the least attention, it’s still an important piece to the process, and any engineer worth his salt will spend some time assessing their needs and choosing their mic cable accordingly.
As with any piece of gear, each XLR cables lends itself better to certain styles of music or different points in the signal chain. For example, cheap off-brand cables often darken sound by rolling off the high frequencies. While this makes these cables inappropriate for attaching to monitors, it could be used artistically via a DI box to warm up a mic’d instrument’s tone. Clearly, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to what cables get used where, which is why we’ve compiled the following buyer’s guide.
First, it should be noted that the terms “XLR cable” and “microphone cable” are used interchangeably throughout this article, as they’re basically synonymous in today’s market. While it’s true that an XLR cable has other uses, connecting microphones to other audio gear is one of their predominant uses. For the curious, the first edition of the cable was put out by Cannon and called the ‘Cannon X.’ Later, a ‘Latch’ and ‘Rubber’ ring where added, and the name of the cable was changed to Cannon XLR. Though many other companies make these cables without always using the latch and rubber ring, the nickname XLR stuck.
XLR Cable Comparison
Before we get into the meat of the article, if you are already pretty savvy when it comes to microphone cables and are just looking or a quick recommendation, we have compiled a quick reference guide for you below with our top recommendations. This table contains pictures, brands, models, relative prices, and average user ratings on Amazon.com.
Asterope Pro Stage
Planet Waves Custom Series
CBI Ultimate Series
Audio Technica Premium
What’s in a Microphone Cable?
Though most every gigging musician has utilized a microphone cable at one time or another, few have spent time dissecting this piece of equipment. Like most cable, microphone cables consist of two main components: the connectors (tip when using a slang term) and the cable. Unlike most cables, nearly all microphone cables are sexed, meaning each tip is designated as either an input or output. While this means that one needs to pay attention which end they’ve grabbed when plugging an XLR in, it also means that one mic cable can be plugged directly into another cable to extend the length.
One of the best features of the XLR cable is the latch mechanism attached to the tip. Consumers will need to push the tabs on the side of the cable’s tip together to attach an XLR cable to another piece of gear. This offers an extra layer of security and ensures that the cable stays connected, no matter what. This can be particularly important as the microphone tends to travel quite a bit on stage, particularly when used by rowdier bands, so the cable tends to get dragged around and tugged on pretty often.
All microphone cables carry a minimum of three channels of electricity: positive, negative, and ground. When a microphone transforms sound into electricity, it does so by measuring the dips and peaks in air pressure created by the vibration of a sound source. When the air pressure is higher than the room’s standard pressure, a thin strip of metal (called the element) bends away from the sound source. The distance between the resting point of the element and the distance it moved in response to higher pressure is translated into the positive voltage. When the element moves backwards past its resting position in response to the low air pressure, this distance becomes the negative voltage.
While the above description is an extremely simplified version of what actually happens inside a microphone, it’s enough to understand the functions of the three strands of wire inside an XLR cable. The ground wire passes an stationary voltage (typically 0 volts) analogous to the resting point of the element, while the positive and negative channels fluctuate in response to changes the movement of the element due to changes in air pressure. This brings us to an important point about microphones and cables: because a microphone’s element can only move away from its resting position in one direction at a time, the positive and negative channels should never output simultaneously. This can easily be checked by zooming in on a recorded waveform in one’s DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) (a computer program used to record and manipulate audio files). If both the positive and negative channels occur at the same time, either the microphone, piece of recording gear, or the cable itself is faulty.
What Makes a Good Cable?
Two main points must be considered when purchasing an XLR cable: price and accuracy. The first of these, price, relies heavily on personal preference. Much like HDMI and 1/4” cables, some microphone cable manufacturers have realized that simply by increasing the price of their cables, consumers will automatically think the cable is nicer, even if it doesn’t actually perform any better. Because of this, a handful of ‘luxury’ cables can be purchased at most music retailers for more than twice the price of other cables, despite doing nothing different. Basic knowledge of how XLR cables operate and research can help consumers avoid being ripped off by false luxury cables. Of course, some expensive cables, such as the Mogami’s, really do use higher quality parts for a better sound, so again, always research a product before committing to a purchase.
The other aspect of a decent cable, accuracy, is perhaps more important. Unfortunately, no perfect cables exist yet, so all cables on the market will color the sound in some way, even if just a small amount. For amateur musicians and hobbyists, this change will be subtle enough that they need not worry, but professionals and audiophiles ought to consider how a cable will change their sound. While cables pass the vast majority of signal that passes through them, a small amount becomes stored in the wire. The minute amount of stored electricity typically reduces the amplitude of high frequency signals, resulting in a darkened, warmer sound. The maximum amount of stored electricity is measured in capacitance (whose unit is the farad) per foot. Because the amount stored is so small, this measurement is typically expressed as picofarad per foot, or pF/ft. Cables with low capacitance ratings store less electricity, and thus pass sound more accurately. Ever since the XLR cable was first invented, cable companies have spent a great deal of time and money trying to lower capacitance ratings as far as possible, and it’s this measure that most distinguishes high quality cables from lower quality products.
Modern cables also almost always feature some kind of ground shielding, often braided. The ground shielding absorbs electromagnetic activity in the cable’s environment, preventing external noise(which can sound like hum, pops, or clicks) from entering the signal. Though this is an important function, ground shielding doesn’t differ much between cables, despite the sensationalist approach cable companies adopt when talking about it.
Considering Cable Length
XLR cables come in a variety of lengths, from just a few inches to over 100 feet. Cable length is important to consider for two reasons. First and most obviously, the cable needs to reach where you need it to reach. While a six inch cable might be great from going from a DI box directly into a mixer, it definitely won’t fit the needs of a singer, especially as part of a live rig. However, eagle-eyed readers likely realize that our discussion of the capacitance ratings of cables was measured in units of picofarad per foot. That means that longer cable are most susceptible to dull tones, as well as noise damage. Therefore, it’s recommended consumers spend time thinking about what they need their cable to do, and then purchasing a cable just slightly longer than what’s needed. You should also be aware that connector interfaces tend to introduce more noise than cable, so daisy chaining multiple shorter cables is going to have more coloration than using one cable that matches the length of your entire daisy chain.
Other Uses for Microphone Cables
Though we’ve been using the terms XLR cable and microphone cable interchangeably, not all XLR’s are destined to connect to home recording microphones. Because of their sturdiness and accuracy, several other common pieces of music gear utilize XLR cables. We’ve already hinted at direct input boxes (or DI boxes for short). These devices take the sound from a lower quality cable such as a 1/4” instrument cable, clean up the sound quality, and output it as an XLR. By including a DI box in a signal chain, older pieces of gear can be brought up to level and cleansed of noise. Furthermore, many studio monitors and PA systems connect their speakers to the main system via XLR cables, again due to their accuracy and hardiness.
Top 3 XLR Cable Reviews
After all this discussion of what goes into making a great mic cable, it should be obvious that an XLR cable should be chosen to fill one’s specific needs. However, we’ve got three of our favorite cables listed below, to help get your research started on the right note.
Considered the founder of the braided tweed cable jacket, American company Spectraflex sells a variety of lengths of XLR cable. By utilizing high quality ground shielding and ultra pure copper wire, Spectraflex has created a product with an extremely accurate response. The quality of the ground shielding in particular has helped Spectraflex differentiate their product. Furthermore, the low capacitance and resistance ratings of the Lo-Z give it an extended frequency range, making the cable suitable for professional work.
Spectraflex’s Lo-Z XLR cable feels very durable to the touch, aided by both its tweed jacket and PVC shielding. While the tweed jacket restricts the cable’s ability to bend (compared to rubber jackets), the cable is still flexible enough for use in almost all situations. The Lo-Z easily stands up to hundreds of hours of kicks, slips, scruffs, and other symptoms of cable use.
Like all of Spectraflex’s products, the Lo-Z comes in ten different colors to suit player’s tastes and style. Additionally, the Spectraflex Lo-Z comes in a thirteen different stitching patterns, meaning that this cable can be styled in 130 different ways. Add into the mix the cable’s length, which can vary from 3’ to 50’, and you’ve got 1040 different possible options to differentiate your Lo-Z cable. The emphasis Spectraflex places on customization is quite evident, and they mean for their product to feel upscale to the customer. Fortunately, the Lo-Z’s performance lives up to its showy exterior.
Purchasing a new, custom Lo-Z cable directly from Spectraflex costs between $40 and $100 dollars, depending primarily on cable length. However, the used market is quite saturated with Spectraflex Lo-Z’s, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find one online or offline at a cheaper price. However, remember that customization options will always be limited in the used market and you miss out on the warranty. Consumers looking for a specific length or style of Lo-Z are better off purchasing directly from the company or from a place like Amazon.
Planet Waves Custom
Though most people know the company D’Addario for their high quality acoustic instrument strings, the company actually owns the cable company Planet Waves. Unlike some of the other competition, Planet Waves is quite open about the technology they use in their XLR cables. It’s obvious why they take this attitude: their product smokes the competition.
As an example, the Planet Waves Custom Series XLR cables feature a technology called In=Out, meant to lower the capacitance rating of the cable. The company then details how everything from the solder points to the pair of twisted wires themselves contributes to lowering the cable’s capacitance. Not only is it admirable that Planet Waves is so open about their product, but it also actually works as advertised. The Planet Waves Custom Series cables sound great and allow for an extended range of accurate frequency response.
In addition to preserving the signal that enters the cables, the Planet Waves Custom Series cables also feature two layers of shielding, which prevents external electromagnetic activity from causing clicks and noise to infiltrate the signal. This feature makes the cable suitable for studio use or other situations demanding accurate sound reproduction.
As a final bonus, the Planet Waves Custom Series XLR comes in a variety of options and lengths. The original XLR cable comes in three lengths ranging from 5’ to 25’. However, the consumer may also choose to swap one of the XLR tips out with a 1/4” tip. Either the male or female tip of the XLR may be substituted. This option allows the consumer to use the cable to bridge directly between nearly any two pieces of gear without the use of a DI box.
Additionally, Planet Waves offers a version of the Custom Series cable with a patented swivel technology. This joint also the cable to turn 180º, making tight squeezes easy. Planet Waves Custom Series Cables usually retail between $20-30, which is a fantastic bargain considering the quality.
CBI Ultimate Series
Esteemed cable manufacturer CBI Cables top offering in the XLR market is their Ultimate Series Cable. This high quality cable bills itself as a “tour grade” cable, which speaks aptly to the cable’s durability and accuracy. The latter of these qualities is achieved through the use of a branded central signal wire surrounding by braided ground shielding. The combination of these two components ensures a crisp, accurate sound completely devoid of any external noise.
As far as durability goes, the CBI Ultimate Series utilizes the infamous Neutrik X Connectors, which are specifically designed to reduce the load on the cable. When used with the standard latches found on any XLR cable, the Neutrik tips really do help extend the life of the product. Additionally, the CBI Ultimate Series XLR cables is surrounded by a rugged rubber coating to protect the cable from the usual wear and tear.
The CBI Ultimate Series Cable offers the option to replace either of the XLR cables with a 1/4” cable, which allows two pieces of gear to interface without the use of a DI box or mixer. Furthermore, the CBI Ultimate Series XLR cables come in a few different lengths, ranging from just 6 feet up to 20 feet. Unfortunately, the CBI Ultimate Series cables do not come in shorter lengths, making it really only appropriate for connecting to a microphone or instrument.
Typically, one can find the CBI Ultimate Series Cable retailing between $15 and $25 dollars, depending on the length. Despite its low price, the cable sounds comparable to more upscale competitors. For this reason, the CBI Ultimate Series is often considered one of the best valued cables on the market.
Clearly, there’s lots to consider when purchasing a cable. However, proper research ought to lead any consumer to an appropriate choice. Ideally, this buyer’s guides points readers in a helpful direction. Of course, while we have chosen some of our favorites, there are many great cables out there. If none of these suit your fancy, you can check out more cable options by clicking here.