It’s well established that an adequately built audio cable without any blatant manufacturing defects will transfer a line-level signal just as well with an “ordinary” material (copper is most commonly used) as opposed to a “premium” material made out of silver, adamantium, unobtanium, or whatever else proprietary blend an unscrupulous audio company might come up with. This has been repeatedly shown via measurements, and you can find a plethora of these tests with Google, and we have never seen a test that contradicts this, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here.
That said, headphone cables have to endure a lot more than speaker cables do. While the latter will sit statically, indoors, run along the wall of a room, headphone cables will necessarily move around with you and be exposed to the environment much more. That being true, there are a few factors that are worth considering and paying extra (but not exorbinately) to solve or mitigate.
Factor #1: Microphonics
What are microphonics? It’s the undesired noise that’s transferred through the cable when it’s physically touched from the outside. You can really hear it if, for example, you’re wearing a cheap pair of airplane earbuds and the cord rubs along a rough shirt.
How do we minimize this? Two main ways practically: One, good insulating material that is thick enough to buffer unwanted noise and smooth enough to make outside contact less noisy to begin with. Two is to reduce physical contact with the cable, which good insulation can help do as well, or it could be as simple as using a shirt clip to keep the cable in place.
Factor #2 Tangling
It goes without saying that everyone is annoyed by tangling. Tangling can also compound on poor microphonics when the cable rubs against itself.
How do we minimize this? Stiffer cables with decent elasticity, which is also achieved with decent and thick enough insulating material. It also helps if the cable has a little weight and hangs straighter.
Factor #3 Comfort
Much like a piece of clothing, a headphone cable becomes a “part of you” when you put it on. Comfort is somewhat subjective, but, once again, decent insulation makes the difference here – it shouldn’t feel abrasive against the skin and should move easily along clothing. A little weight is once again a good thing – the better a cable hangs and the less it moves the better.
Factor #4 Durability
Unlike regular speaker wire which simply sits still for 99% of it’s life, headphone cables are moved around, pulled, plugged and unplugged, etc. Of particular importance here are that the joints and connectors are nice and sturdy.
As it turns out, the outer construction of a headphone cable – not the actual metallic wire itself – is what can really make a perceptible difference in sound quality and usability. Will that cost a little extra? Sure, but not nearly as much as some of these companies are charging for a proprietary metal that has no actual proof of superiority.
In summary, here’s what we look for in a maximally performant headphone cable:
- thicker is generally better
- smooth/leathery outer insulation
- stiffer and more elastic
- a little bit of weight and hang
- sturdy joints and sleeves
If you’ve got those things there’s a 99.99% chance (citation needed) that your cable won’t limit sound quality in any perceptible way.