Technical FAQs about Death Valley Cables
Read these incredibly interesting FAQs and then impress
everyone with your mind-blowing knowledge of guitar cables
Q: Can I use a guitar cable to connect a guitar amp head to a speaker cabinet?
A: No, no ... A thousand times no. Don't even think about trying it. NO!!
Oh but man ... Dude ... I forgot my speaker cable, and we're like over my best friend Todd's house in the METAL DUNGEON. Like Amanda and her girlfriends are coming over, and like we want to impress them with our way rad shredding.
Can't I just sub one of your BITCHIN' high-quality guitar cables for a speaker cable for like an hour? Amanda and her sweet bunnies will laugh at us unless our solo is CRANKED. We'll look stupid without an amp doing our shred duo, shoulder-to-rockin'-shoulder, making scary shred faces.
Without volume, dude, we can't whip our sweaty waist-length hair back and forth in time with the music. Can't I just use a guitar cable as a speaker cable for an hour? C'mon. Please say yes.
It might work for 15 or 20 seconds
Hey, Todd, go right ahead and use a guitar cable for a speaker cable ... It might work for 15 or 20 seconds ... Until you hit a power chord. Amanda will be way impressed when the guitar cable connected to the speaker cabinet starts to smoke and then MELTS.
Oh, and she'll really dig the thunderclap of the amp transformer melting down and shunting a couple hundred volts into your speakers. So not only do you toast your $10,000 300-watt handwired Flummo amp head, you also fry $2,000 worth of Celestial-Astron vintage speakers. All because you couldn't take 15 minutes to pick up a $10 speaker cable from your corner audio emporium.
I'll only do it for an hour
Exaggeration? No, in fact, there are really people dumber than Todd who toast their guitar amps and speakers every day because they actually think that subbing a guitar cable for a speaker cable won't damage anything "just this once." AFTER WE TOLD THEM NOT TO DO IT. The Death Valley Cable Company receives e-mails about this constantly and always a time is stated .... "I'll only do it for an hour."
We'll write back, and say: "No, you can't use a guitar cable for a speaker cable." We actually get replies that attempt to negotiate a safe time period: "What if I only do it for 15 minutes?"
NO!! Does it make any difference if you stick your thumb in a light socket for one second or 15 seconds? No, you'll always get a shock.
Why can't I substitute a guitar cable?
Ah, we can hear the next question before it even leaves your lips: Why can't I substitute a guitar cable for a speaker cable? They both have 1/4-inch TS plugs and look very similar?
They may look outwardly similar, but that's where the similarity ends. The design and construction of the two cable types are radically different. The job of a speaker cable is to move a substantial amount of electrical current from the amp to the speakers. A guitar cable moves a tiny amount.
Current flow is measured in amperes. Unlike guitar cables, which typically carry only a few milliamperes (thousandths of an ampere) the current required to drive a speaker is MUCH greater. For example, an eight-ohm speaker driven by an 100-watt amp will pull about 3.5 amperes of current. By comparison, a 600-ohm input driven by a line-level output only pulls about 2 milliamps.
Speaker cables don't need shielding
But more importantly, a guitar cable is constructed to "protect" that tiny amount of signal by "shielding" it from other signals, especially radio frequency interference. Speaker cables don't need that level of shielding.
Because the jobs of the two cables are radically different, so are the designs. Speaker cable is two-core cable where each stranded core is of an equal gauge (thickness). A
guitar cable has one insulated stranded positive (+ or "hot") wire in the middle SURROUNDED by a braided or circular shield (- or "ground") wire that acts as the ground connection.
|Using a guitar cable for a speaker cable could melt the cable — and fry your amp
In speaker cable, the two wires run next to each other. In a guitar cable, the hot wire is ALWAYS inside the ground or shield wire. Also, in guitar cable, the ground (or shield) wire is a different gauge (thickness or weight) than the hot wire. The shield wire is called a shield because it shields the hot center wire of the guitar cable from various types of interference.
The hot wire in a guitar cable is too small
A speaker cable delivers the amp’s output equally to the speaker’s positive and negative terminals. Here's where the problems start if you use a guitar cable for a speaker cable. A guitar cord — because of its unequal-sized hot and ground wires — creates unwanted capacitance, which usually creates an impedance mismatch between amp and speaker. What's more, the hot wire in a guitar cable is too small to handle the power needed to drive a speaker.
The impedance mismatch strains the amp’s output tubes and output transformer. (It also destroys the tone; a guitar cable used as a speaker cable will make your amp sound like cr*p.) The impedance mismatch heats up the tubes and transformer. The harder you drive the amp, the more these components heat up.
It will shut itself down by MELTING
Meanwhile, at the cable level, the "+" wire is too small in a guitar cable. It can't handle all the voltage. It starts to heat up also. In fact, it starts to heat up BIG time.
Ever plug too many appliances unto an outlet and trip your house's breaker? The breaker trips because the wire starts to heat up, and the breaker shuts it down before a fire starts. Guess what? Your wrongly used guitar cable has no breaker to shut it down when it gets too hot. It will shut itself down by MELTING.
If it melts, there are two outcomes, both equally nasty. If the improvised speaker cable shorts for any length of time, all manner of inside amp components will toast. If the improvised speaker cable melts and results in an open circuit, chances are the output transformer will fail, taking a bunch of internal components with it. Either way, your amp now needs extensive and expensive repairs, all for want of a $10 speaker cable.
So no matter how much you need to shred at volume to impress Amanda and her tightly tube-topped pals, you can't use a guitar cable to connect the amp head to the speaker cab. [Updated 2-22-09.]
Q: Gold versus nickel plating: Which is the best for guitar cable plugs?
A: The short answer: Under normal conditions, there is no difference in sound between gold-plated plugs and nickel-plated plugs on a guitar cable. However there are significant differences between plating types ... Read on.
Over the long run, gold is a slightly better at preventing corrosion. But it’s a softer metal than nickel, so it wears off slightly faster than nickel plating. HOWEVER, gold is plated over nickel for better adhesion on our plugs, so if the gold wears off, you have a nice nickel-plated plug underneath. All things considered, if nickel (silver) looks better with your guitar, order nickel-plated plugs.
The long answer: Plug plating is there to simply prevent corrosion of the plug surface. Corrosion will affect signal transmission if the plug surface starts to corrode because corrosion will adversely affect electrical contact between the cable plug and your amp or effect.
Is there any audible difference between the sound of chrome (nickel really) and gold if both are corrosion free? No. None that the learned Death Valley cable scholars can hear. Gold, however, is slightly better at preventing corrosion than nickel. Watch the SCUBA divers on numerous PBS specials bring up bright-and-shiny gold coins from the galleon sunken in corrosive saltwater for 400 years. Those coins are corrosion-free because gold oxidizes very slowly if at all. In fact, it is the impurities in gold that oxidize and not the gold itself.
Gold is softer
Having said that, gold is a softer metal than nickel. It will abrade slightly faster than nickel, but we’re talking years under normal use. And the gold is plated on a nickel-plated plug for adhesion, so if the gold were to wear off, there is not bare metal underneath but nickel plating, just like a nickel-plated plug.
So gold has a slight edge over nickel because it is less corrosive. Plus gold is, well, gold and people equate it with boundless riches, so a gold plug in many societies iconically suggests higher quality. On the other hand, some people like the way nickel looks with the chromed parts on their guitars. If that's you, go for it guiltlessly.
It won’t sound any different, unless you rub the nickel plugs with lemon juice or battery acid every night for some obscure religious reason, which will result in corrosion and bad contact between plug and amp/effect.
The brass plug
Some manufacturers will tell you or imply that the gold plating "carries" the signal on plugs. In scientific terminology, such a statement is big hooey baloney. The body of the plug carries the signal. In the case of G & H plugs — which we use — it's the copper core that carries the signal with a minimum of signal loss. Some guitar cord plugs are made of cheap alloys. So the signal travels through the copper of the cable itself, no problem, and then hits a plug made of who-knows-what. Does it degrade the signal? Uh yeah. Duh.
Brass: Only conducts 28% as well as copper
Then there's brass ... Some guitar cable manufacturers make their plugs out of brass and say how much trouble this is. However, brass only conducts electricity about 28% as well as copper, not good stats at all. Further, as the mix of copper and tin in the brass changes, and the composition drifts toward bronze, the conductivity gets even worse, dropping to seven percent compared to copper.
So are those Brand X guitar-cable plugs made of brass or bronze? Since they’re covered with nickel or gold plating, it’s hard to tell without X-ray vision or a metallurgical assay.
Pure copper plug core is the way to go
For us here at Death Valley cables, we’ll just use plugs with a pure copper core and avoid the whole brass/bronze mess altogether. Electricity, like water, follows the path of least resistance. If Mr. Electrical Current has a choice of brass or copper, Mr. Electrical current will zip right through the copper and avoid the brass. So even if the outside of the plug barrel were made of melted lawn chairs, Mr. Electric Current will always choose the easy way out via copper. BUT only G & H plugs have a pure copper core. That’s why we use G & H plugs.
Class dismissed. Spot quiz later in the week. [Updated 1-07-09.]
Q: Why don't you use silver wire?
A: Price wise, guitar cables with silver wire are out of the reach of most musicians. DVCC made some silver-wire guitar cables, but they didn't sell. They cost too much, customers told us, and — frankly — no one here could hear the difference between the silver-wire guitar cords and our copper-based guitar cables. (DON'T write us 8,000 e-mails saying that we must be deaf not to hear the difference. Maybe you can. We can't.)
Q: Why don’t you use oxygen-free copper (OFC) in your guitar cables. My friend says OFC guitar cables are so rippin' that he drifts into a fugue state when playing “Stairway to Heaven” and has seen God several times in this condition.
A: Drifting into a fugue state while playing "Stairway to Heaven" is probably caused by lack of oxygen and not oxygen-free copper cables. Did your friend have a plastic bag tied over his head while he reached this fugue state?
Bad comedy aside: From our research, we could find no scientific basis for oxygen-free copper guitar cords sounding better than “normal” copper-based guitar cables. Nor could we actually hear any difference.
Blind listening tests
From "blind" listening tests, we could hear no difference between test guitar cables made with oxygen-free copper (OFC) and our "normal" guitar cables. Maybe you can, but we can't.
So we made what we thought was a reasonably intelligent decision to not use oxygen-free copper cables — because OFC bulk cable costs substantially more than non-OFC cable, and we would have to pass that increased price onto you, our loyal customers. If we could hear a difference, we would have switched to OFC in a sec. But since we couldn't, we didn't.
99.90% vs 99.99%
Plus, our research turned up some interesting data about electrical conductivity and OFC, which is often left out of sales materials promoting OFC: “Normal” copper for electrical use is already 99.90% oxygen-free. Official oxygen-free copper (OFC) is 99.99% oxygen-free.
Let’s use common sense, or “our noggin” as dear old mom used to say. Do you really think that you can hear any difference in audio quality when two copper types differ by only .09 % in oxygen content? Now remember that we're NOT talking about copper content or the amount of impurities in the copper. We're talking about oxygen content.
You are completely correct if you answered this way: “Jeez, wise sage, that really is a tiny difference between oxygen content in copper types. I don’t see how I could hear any difference with such a small discrepancy.”
If you agree with that common-sense answer, you are one smart cookie and barking up the right tree. Let’s now explore a test that we think proves why there is no detectable audio differences between guitar cables made of OFC and those made of 99.90% oxygen-free copper.
ETP copper vs OFC
First, let’s get one thing straight: The copper type in a Death Valley guitar cable is anything but “regular old” copper. It is known as Electrolytic-Tough-Pitch (ETP) copper. It is the best copper to use for electrical applications, bar none. It is made to stringent specifications and used in everything from computers to spacecraft wiring.
Now check this out: Electrical conductivity specifications for C11000 ETP copper (99.90% oxygen-free copper) and C10200 (99.99% oxygen-free copper) are IDENTICAL.
Now read that last paragraph again. We didn’t say that the electrical conductivity specifications between the two coppers were “close” or “nearly the same” or “in the ballpark.” We said that the electrical conductivity was IDENTICAL. EXACTLY THE SAME CONDUCTIVITY. There is NO measurable difference in conductivity between OFC (theirs) and 99.9% copper (ours). This is according to a private firm called the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), who runs around testing stuff like this to unimaginable degrees of accuracy.
Why make OFC at all then?
Then why make oxygen-free copper at all if it doesn't conduct electricity better? BECAUSE IT'S NOT USED IN APPLICATIONS TO CONDUCT ELECTRICITY. There are other uses where nothing but OFC will do.
Oxygen-free copper is valued more for its chemical purity than its electrical conductivity. OFC is used in plasma deposition (sputtering) processes, including the manufacture of semiconductors and super-conductor components. It’s also the bomb in high-vacuum devices such as particle accelerators. It’s critical to use OFC in these apps because the release of oxygen (and/or other impurities) can cause undesirable chemical reactions with other materials in the local environment, i.e. expensive machines blow up and make a big mess and hurt people.
So lets sum up:
1. OFC in guitar cables makes no difference in sound that we can hear (because — according to the ASTM — there is no difference in conductivity between OFC and ETP coppers).
2. OFC in particle accelerators will prevent a mushroom cloud when you turn on the particle accelerator.
Having solved another one, let’s move on to more myth-busting in the next FAQ. [Updated 2-07-09]
Q: My buddy has a SUPER XYZ $125 directional guitar cable. It has arrows on it. He says it sounds tons better than a non-directional guitar cable if he plugs it in the correct way. Are your cables directional?
A: No and yes. Our cables fit one definition of a directional cable, so our cables can be said to be directional.
However, we do not believe that directionality in a cable makes any appreciable difference in audio quality. "Maybe" you can hear a difference, but that difference is so slight as to be negligible — if that difference is there at all.
Look, there is really no shortish answer to this question, about whether directionality makes a difference. The answer is so long and involved that maybe one person out of 500 will read the answer here, so it's not on the top of our list of things to do. If it is really important to you, stay tuned. we'll get the full answer up here eventually. In the meantime, you'll have to make due with the abbreviated answer, which is pretty darn long itself.
Different directional cables
First off, there are several types of directional guitar cables. Our guitar cables ARE one type of directional guitar cable.
Death Valley guitar cords don't have arrows on them because we don’t presume to know which way you want to plug your guitar cable into your amp or guitar. We leave it up to you to either mark the directional orientation or remember it. Some musicians may want to use their instrument cables with a straight plug in the amp and an angle plug in the guitar. Other contrarians may want the opposite.
You're trying to addle
my mind!!! AIEEEEE!
“But, but, but …. How can your guitar cables be directional if you can plug them in either way? AIEEEE! You are trying to addle my mind with double talk! A directional guitar cable must be only plugged in one way so the signal consistently flows in the correct direction.”
We are not trying to addle your mind. There are several types of directional guitar cables, as previously stated.
One type of directional guitar cord has a ground lift on one end. That type of guitar cable MUST connect to your amp and guitar in one direction only.
We have experimented with this type of guitar cable and have concluded that the design does NOT make the guitar cable sound better. In fact, the prototypes that we made actually added noise and sounded WORSE than a traditional guitar cable. As we said at the beginning, we hope to add a more-detailed rant/FAQ about this in the future. But for now, let's say a directional guitar cable with a ground-lift on one end is not important to this discussion because Death Valley guitar cables do NOT have a ground-lift at one end. They are wired in the traditional manner, ground to ground, hot to hot.
So what makes your effin guitar cable directional?
All right. Take it easy. Keep your shirt on. We needed to get the back story in. Here's the deal. According to one school of thought, any guitar cable made with high-quality copper cable/wire will be directional if you consistently use it in the same direction. As you break the cable in, which some say takes about 40 hours, the sound quality improves because the signal causes the crystalline structure inside the copper wire to align, therefore robbing the signal of less sonic subtleties. As long as you continue to use the guitar cord in that orientation, the sound quality will be better than if you reversed the direction. If you reversed the guitar cable direction, it would take time again for the electrical signal to realign the copper crystalline structure in the opposite direction.
Can we actually hear any improvement after the guitar cable has been used in one direction? Er ... Ah ... maybe. Perhaps?
If the difference is there, it is very very subtle. It's not something you could hear while playing in a noisy bar or in Madison Square Garden. In recording, you might hear the difference if using audiophile-quality everything. Maybe on a good day if the planets are aligned. If the sound quality of a directional cable is better than a non-directional guitar cable, the sound difference is not a "oh-my-god" kind of difference.
Here's another way of putting it in perspective. We can plainly hear the difference between G & H plugs and other plugs without copper cores. That's a not-so-subtle subtle difference. Directionality is so subtle that you may hear it — or you may not.
But here's the important thing to remember: Hear it or not, Death Valley cables are directional. We have you covered. If you can hear the difference, then always use your guitar cable oriented in the same direction. Look at it this way: What can it hurt?
Solid cable baloney
Some cable manufacturers claim that only cables with one solid copper wire at the center are directional. Through hokey double talk, they claim that the crystalline structure will not align in a stranded cable.
This is pure bunk, also known as hooey, pig slop, a big lie, etc. Any of you out there who were in a debating club can see why this is hooey without any more information: A stranded copper wire is nothing more than a group of SOLID copper wires. Every strand in a stranded copper wire is a solid copper wire. The crystalline structure can align in that smaller wire just as well as it can in one solid big wire.
Another argument put out by other cable companies: ALL other cable companies use cheap copper in their cables, and the crystalline alignment can only occur in top-notch copper wire. Well, we're not going to fight other cable manufacturer's wars for them, but we will say this: This is more unmitigated hooey.
Most top cable manufacturers (like us) use high-quality copper wire in their cables. Many (like us) use Electrolytic-Tough-Pitch (ETP) copper (described in the FAQ about oxygen-free copper). ETP copper is 99.90 percent oxygen free and the absolute best copper there is for electrical applications. There simply is no better copper available. So, yeah, directionality improvement can occur in just about any cable made of high-quality copper. [Updated 1-12-09.]
Q: What is the ideal length for a guitar cable?
A: The short answer is that a shorter cable sounds better. All other conditions being equal: A shorter high-impedance guitar cable sounds better than a longer one with passive guitar pickups. But check back for the long answer to this question. The Death Valley Cable Company crack cable-science research team is formulating the end-all answer to this age-old question.
You can safely prove that a shorter cable sounds best at home without endangering yourself or small animals. Simply plug your guitar into an amp with a good-quality six-inch patch cable. (Yes, you have to sit funny and very close to the amp.) Listen. Plug the same guitar into the same amp with a 20-foot guitar cable. Listen again. Hear the difference? We sure can.
And we're not talking a maybe-sorta-kinda hear a difference like directional guitar cables. The difference should pretty much blow your socks right off or at least remove them halfway.
Why? What's the best length guitar cable to use on stage? In the studio? We'll have all the details in an upcoming FAQ. For now, use a four-to-eight foot guitar cable in the studio and try to keep the guitar cable — running from your guitar to the pedal board — at 12–20 feet; the shorter the better. [Updated 08-17-11.]
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