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Music Cables: Sound Quality vs. Durability

Why One Cable Style May Not Be Enough


There has been, and most likely will always be, a spirited debate of which type of In-Ear Monitor (IEM) cable is the best. Should you buy copper or silver? Maybe silver plated copper? Maybe tinsel wire verses stranded? There are more options available in the world than the average consumer cares to comprehend. Factor in the difference between casual music listening, stage performance and true audiophile sound quality. The listening environment changes from one to another.

iem cable

The casual listener wants to hear his or her tunes at work, at the gym or maybe while taking a run. The stage performer needs rugged construction to last show after show. The audiophile requires smooth, accurate sound reproduction and usually enjoys listening in comfortable surroundings. The requirements designate that the final cable design is very different in each example. Designing a cable that meets all of these requirements is more than just a challenge from a functionality perspective, it is also a challenge from a cost perspective. The purpose of this article is to show that like shoes, people can benefit from more than one type of audio cable.

The Active Lifestyle:

How often do IEM cables end up in a tangled mass of wire? The design of the cable is truly put to the test when that occurs. There is a solution to make cables last longer when they are repeatedly tangled together. A type of wire used at Plastics One called “tinsel” is designed to flex multiple times, form sharp bends and resist breaking better than the more traditional stranded wire. Tinsel wire is made by flattening round copper conductors into strips. These strips are then silver plated to aid in corrosion prevention. The flat plated copper strips are then wound around a fiber strength member to give the bunch better break strength. Next, the wound bundle has an outer jacket applied over it to insulate the wires. Finally, a number of these jacketed bundles are twisted together to make twisted pairs, triads, quads and even eight conductor wires. One major benefit of Plastics One’s tinsel wire is the small wire sizes that can be achieved, making the cables even more flexible.

active lifestyle

Tinsel wire is an excellent choice for an active lifestyle, giving the user long life and worry free use of their IEM cables. Tinsel wire also works best for most casual listeners or the stage performer using IEMs.

Cables like the Motion Series from Plastics One use tinsel wire construction, to create highly flexible cables that resists real life usage very well. These cables are available in several colors and lengths. There are two IEM connector options, traditional 2-pin and MMCX, making them a versatile product line compatible with a wide range if IEM brands.

The Audiophile:

The world of the audiophile contrasts greatly from the world of the casual listener. Sitting comfortably at home, discerning every subtle nuance of every note does not require a rugged, highly flexible IEM cable. This listener is more concerned about accurate sound reproduction. Here, stranded wire construction makes the most sense for several reasons. Stranded wire is made from multiple strands of small gauge copper wire which is silver plated then, jacketed for insulation. Although less flexible than tinsel, stranded wire allows larger gauge wire construction which reduces the overall wire resistance. This improves the conductance of the wire and translates into improvement in sound quality from the standpoint of better electrical conduction.

Listening:

The sound produced though stranded wire verses tinsel wire is quite subjective. Every ear is different and as is personal taste. Determining which cable sounds better than another is truly personal preference. This article is not meant to validate one style over another but it is merely meant to discuss the differences between IEM cable styles and the advantages of both.

That being said, while writing this article I am conducting my own listening test. Using a pair of Westone W-60 Universal IEMs, I have been swapping back and forth between two cables trying to discern a difference, or at least establish that one cable has a certain “sound” that may be different from the other.

My source is an iPod Classic with the music being ripped directly from CDs using Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC). Attached to the iPod is a Sony PHA-1 headphone amp.

I am listening using two cables, a Graphite Motion MMCX 50 IEM cable, and the new Silver Motion IEM cable that is currently being developed by PlasticsOne.

The Graphite Motion cable is a twisted cable made from silver plated tinsel wire. The new Silver Motion cable is made from stranded copper with a high silver plating thickness.

My initial impression of the two cables was that there was very little difference. The tinsel wire Graphite Motion Cable and the Silver Motion Cable did not seem to negatively color the sound in any way. As I listed longer to each, I began to notice that the Silver Motion Cable seemed to accentuate the higher frequencies a bit more and created a slightly crisper sound. After continued listening, I changed the iPod EQ setting from rock to flat and the result suggested that the bass frequencies may have been augmented by the stranded cable as well, in fact the lower frequencies sounded tighter.

I began to wonder why I could hear a difference in the two cables. I want to point out that both cables sounded great but there was a noticeable difference. My theory is based on the principle of the skin effect in wire. The skin effect causes AC signals to tend to travel on the outer surface of the wire. In the case of the Silver Motion cable, there is a much thicker layer of silver plating compared to the Graphite Motion tinsel wire.

Additionally the Silver Motion cable is made up of many very fine strands of copper wire. This means there is a thick silver plating for the audio signal to pass though. Silver is a better conductor than copper, in fact it is the best conductor, so the audio signal is less altered by the resistance of the wire.

frequency harmonic

Every frequency has a harmonic. If fact, multiple harmonics exist both higher and lower than the original frequency. Take 16 kHz for example. When a 16 kHz frequency is present, there is also a second order upper harmonic at 32 kHz and a second order lower harmonic at 8 kHz. Even though the second order harmonics of the original 16 kHz frequency are lower in amplitude, they are still present and augment the original frequency. In theory, the Silver Motion cable would not attenuate these harmonic frequencies and can present the audio signal in a more pure way.

Conclusion:

Listening environments can vary widely. Tinsel IEM cables like the Motion Series at Plastics One offer great flexibility and have a rugged construction that can take real world abuse from a jogger or stage performer. Listening to music in these environments negates the sonic improvement of a silver plated copper stranded IEM cable like the Silver Motion cable. Conversely, sitting and listening at home or in a quite office, one can really take advantage of a cable like the Silver Motion. In the same way we have different types of shoes for different activities, an audio cable make with your end purpose in mind can serve you better in different types of listening environments.


Andy Bishop - Engineer - PlasticsOne

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