Opening Photo courtesy of: kirlincableshop.com
I seem to enjoy finding myself in the middle of contentious topics among bassists, because here I am comparing instrument cables, which has long been a touchy subject for those with differing beliefs about the importance of instrument cables for electric bass. Do they really sound different from one another? Are expensive cables worth it? Is someone a chump for spending $X on a cable? (and other longstanding tropes). These are murky waters, and I wade carefully.
Let’s first separate out the tangibles from the subtle:
Some cables come with lifetime warranties, some don’t. Some utilize unquestionably higher quality connectors and materials than others. Some just feel more rugged and durable, some have heat shrink strain-relief covers on the connectors, abrasion-resistant “tech flex” outer layers etc…
From there, things get a little more esoteric. “Low strand count”, “cross braided tin copper shielding”, “increased grain linearity”, “Precision foamed polyethylene dielectric”. Do you know what any of this functionally means? If so, congratulations, most of us don’t have a functional knowledge of conductivity and the physics of electrical engineering.
Now, I’m not saying all of these assertions are purely marketing hyperbole, to the contrary, they literally are explaining what may make their product different from the crowd. But, as always, I’m not a lab tech, I’m a player. I don’t have the tools (or the desire) to put cables through rigorous bench testing apparatus. it’s just not where my interests or my strengths are.
When I thought of how I could be of value to this conversation…
…the best thing I could think to do was to get a small group of local bassists who I trust, some astoundingly good and highly seasoned players with lots of live and studio experience, but also those who have excellent ears and impeccable tone, for some good old-fashioned double-blind testing. I thought it would be mighty interesting to hear their reactions to a handful of high-end and budget instrument cables and see what, if any, themes, and trends rise to the surface.
I invited a handful of cable manufacturers to submit their products for this process and we had a blast listening and critiquing each cable against one another.
We tested everything from a $12.50 Rapco all the way up to a $220 Analysis Plus cable and a whole lot in between. Testing was done with an active 5-string Fodera Emperor Standard (EQ flat and tone wide open), Eich T-900 amplifier (set flat) and a Bergantino 2×10 cab with the tweeter at noon.
We first decided we should choose a “control” cable, one that we could refer back to when we couldn’t tell if our ears were deceiving us, or if the last thing we listened to was distorting our objectivity, so we came back to the control a number of times during the process. The group selected a Mogami Gold, as it was a familiar reference point for most of us.
Here is the list of cables we tested:
As we cycled through these at random, I played each for a bit (the same line or two over and over) as consistently as possible, and the fellas commented on what they heard.
Everyone’s perceptions are their own, and I/we are by no means the arbiters of any objective truth, I’m just doing my best to explore what I feel is a subtle but important component in a bassist’s playing experience:
- Some of the less expensive cables like the Rapco, ProCo and Hosa’s had a more “EQ’d sounding” and forward-accentuated high end, which some of the primarily live players thought might actually be more ideal for cutting through a busy mix on a loud stage.
- Some of the higher-end cables traded a bit of this articulate “spanky” high-end for more integration in the midrange, cleaner, less “congested” lows and general transparency overall. The mainly studio players among us tended to favor some of these, while the primarily live gigging players’ ears were drawn toward the cables with more audible bite. This, to me, is not surprising, given the goals of each type of player.
- One factor that wasn’t captured in this double-blind listening test was the concept of how a cable “feels” as a player experience, vs. how it sounds as a third-party listener. As the guy who played through all of these cables many times, I can attest that some cables felt faster, with a wider dynamic range, whereas others felt slower or more compressed to the touch. I do agree that this was more palpable as a player’s experience, as opposed to a listener’s. This is actually a big can of worms, as we often ask ourselves as testers or players “Yeah it kinda sounds xyz but is anyone gonna hear that on a gig?”. Well, if you FEEL that on a gig, that’s not nothing, regardless of whether the drunk frat party at table 6 is knocked out by your stellar bass tone. Your experience with your instrument and your sound as a player is super important, and will affect the way you perform, and likely how much you enjoy the experience. That’s true for me anyways.
Well, let’s get down to it, In the category of bass instrument cables, the Oscars go to:
Standout favorites – most universally well-loved cables for their overall tonal qualities: Lava Ultramafic, Asterope, Tsunami, Hosa Edge
Most articulate sounding – those with the most enunciated or present high end: Evidence Audio Lyric HG, Lava Ultramafic, Hosa edge, Rapco Player series
“Biggest” sounding – those with the fullest and largest sonic image: Colossal Sweet Fats, Asterope, Rattlesnake
If I had to pick the Top 3 as collectively indicated by the group for sound quality? Probably these:
- Asterope: “It had a certain clean, crisp yet warm character” that pretty much everyone loved right off the bat and kept referring to as a benchmark. This was my favorite-sounding cable of the bunch, all things considered.
- Lava Ultramafic: “Super quick sounding, very clear in the lower and upper octaves”, “Nice build quality, perfect blend of beefy but not bulky feeling”.
- Evidence Audio Lyric HG: “Really nice high end, lots of presence but not “poky” like some are up there”, “Very cohesive from top to bottom with excellent clarity”.
Best value MVP’s:
- Hosa Edge: Great sound with clear highs and balanced mids and lows, Neutrik connectors, lifetime warranty. A lot of bang for $44.
- Rattlesnake Snakehead: Very “big” sounding with “bone-rattling” low-end definition and good integration, at a competitive price point and with a lifetime warranty.
Some interesting and notable comments shared by the group:
- Control (Mogami): Dark, dry, a bit sterile, but well integrated.
- Lava Retro Silent Coil: “has a “spongy” sound to it.” “Almost like you put tubes in the head”.
- Zaolla Silverline: “Quick and clear, uncolored, highs and mids are well connected”
- Proco Evolution: “Ballsy in the low mid and low frequencies. Slower transients than some”
So, where is all this going?
Well, basically, that it’s apparent to me and the testers I enlisted that cables do indeed sound and feel different.
The trick is that what is “best” is highly subjective, and we all have different definitions of what that means. For some, it’s a ratio of cost to performance, for others, it’s reliability, for some it’s what simply sounds the best to their ears. But what even is THAT? More high-end articulation? Stronger lows? Smoother midrange? It’s clear that we’re all working with a different set of preferences, and that these preferences are based on our experience, our likes and dislikes, and the applications we find ourselves in.
I hope this long-winded and admittedly anecdotal analysis proves to be of some educational value to you. I sure enjoyed the process and look forward to the next muddy puddle of provocative topics that I find myself in.
Got some thoughts on this?
And huge thanks to all of the companies who participated, and sent us cables for testing:
Analysis Plus Yellow Oval: analysis.plus/product/yellow-oval/
Asterope Bass Cable: asterope.com/custom-shop/pro-bass-series
Colossal Sweet Fats: colossalcable.com/cables/sweet-fats/
Evidence Audio Lyric HG: evidenceaudio.com/products/the-lyric-hg-guitar-cable
Hosa Edge: hosatech.com/products/analog-audio/instrument-cables/hosa-edge-guitar/cgk-000/
Lava Ultramafic: lavacable.com/product/533/lava-ultramafic
Lava Retro Silent Coil: lavacable.com/product/530/lava-retro-coil
Proco Evolution: rapcohorizon.com/category/117/evolution-instrument
Rattlesnake Snakehead: rattlesnakecables.com/products/snake-head-rattlesnake-cable/
Rapco Instrument cables: rapcohorizon.com/category/49/instrument-cables
Tsunami Instrument Cable: tsunami-cables.square.site/
Zaolla Silverline: zaolla.com/products/zgt-000