The humble microphone lead is far from the most glamorous part of your kit, but it’s nevertheless essential.
Before we dive into anything too technical, let’s just answer the oft-asked question – “do expensive microphones leads make a difference?”
In a word:
No. You won’t hear the difference. Unless the cheap one is broken.
Microphone lead vs XLR cable
Some quick definition here:
A microphone lead is typically used to connect a microphone to the mixing desk, or to a recording interface.
An XLR cablecould be exactly the same thing.
XLR refers to the connectors at the end of the lead – in this case, we’re talking about the 3-pin variety. Plug your microphone into one end of the microphone/XLR lead, and then plug the other end of the lead into your mixer or recording interface.
When is an XLR cable not a microphone lead?
Use an XLR lead to connect your mixer to powered speakers for a gig. XLR leads are also used in a studio situation, often to connect nearfield monitors or for plugging external signal processing. All of these are interchangeable and most definitely suitable for use as a microphone lead.
Digital XLR lead = AES/EBU, not suitable for an analogue microphone;
XLR lead for lighting = DMX cable, not suitable for microphone cable;
Amplifier to Speaker via XLR lead = don’t get us started! These should have died out years ago (and in most cases, they have).
We’re just going to focus on a microphone lead, with a female XLR on one end, and a male XLR on the other.
Hearing the difference between XLR microphone leads
Just to reiterate, in most situations, when you compare a healthy cheap microphone lead with a more expensive microphone lead, it’s very hard to hear the difference – let alone measure the difference.
We’ll explore a bit more to do with measurable data later, but to keep things super-simple… if it’s in good nick, it’s good to go.
Gold – is it worth it?
A little gold plating on the pins of your microphone lead can be a good thing. Not because it will make it sound any better out of the box, but for longevity. Gold-plating on the pins is far more resilient to the effects of corrosion over the years. In theory, this should allow for ‘better’ contact between the devices you are connecting.
But (there’s always a but), if you’re using the leads in a ridiculously frequent mating/unmating audio environment, the gold plating will wear off over time.
Gold summary: for a home studio, if the exact same cable and connectors are being used, and the gold-plated pin version is a just handful of dollars extra… it’s worth it. For weekly gigs, just buy a hard-wearing silver-contact version.
The quality of connector effectively has far less impact on audio signal than the quality of cable, when all is in good working order. However, ‘cheap’ connectors have a habit of failing way earlier than we’d like, making this the usual first point of disaster.
Choose genuine Neutrik connectors – they are the industry standard for good reason.
Neutrik XLR connectors are not only integrity-rated at over 1000 mating cycles, they’re super-hard to bash out of shape. If you are putting your microphone leads into a microphone stand case and transporting it around our great wide land, well you’re asking for trouble. However, for normal wear and tear, nothing is tougher than genuine Neutrik XLR connectors. Their pins are durable and, very importantly, the circular shell on a male connector remains ‘true’ (maintains its shape), making Neutrik the first (and in our opinion, only) choice for audio around the world.
Connector summary: when choosing a microphone lead, go for one with genuine Neutrik connectors if possible (definitely not cheap knock-offs). The small extra investment at the start will pay dependability dividends for years to come.
Cable to carry the signal
If we were ever going to make a case that you can hear a difference between cheap and expensive microphone leads, right here is where we’re going to do it.
The cable used in your microphone leads will make a big huge difference to longevity of the lead. It could also have a massive impact on interference from outside sources.
Reputable cable manufacturers include Canare, VanDamme, Eurocable, Mogami and Belden. We’re massive fans of using the Japanese-manufactured Canare L2T2S for microphone leads, simply because it has proven for a long time to be almost un-killable.
The heavily-braided shield provides great protection against electromagnetic noise, along with any physical damage. L-2T2S consists of 60 ultra-fine 0.08mm strands that offer excellent durability, while the highly pliable PVC jacket (6.0mm O.D.) offers further protection for the cable.
When you purchase a pre-made microphone lead, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to undo the connector boot and check the actual cable. You’ll either have to grab a brand you know and trust, or take a punt.
Note on Starquad (L4E6S): yes, there are benefits. More on that towards the end of this article.
Strain relief and solder
Here is why we love Neutrik. Here is also why we are dubious of “cheap” mic leads.
Once you finish assembling the above cable, the boot pushes the chuck to be flush with the connector body. When you then screw the boot onto the connector shell (not pictured), the chuck clamps firmly against the cable, providing strain relief to help maintain the integrity of the soldered connection.
So successful is this strain-relief mechanism, that we have made emergency belts for staff in store (it’s not often… but sometimes a belt breaks!). We’ve used a male and female XLR at each end, and measured the cable to suit the waist. Without solder – to test our theory – the belt held firm for weeks. In other words, zero strain would be applied to a soldered connection.
Again, it’s unlikely you’ll get to see the inside of a cable before you purchase, but we have seen enough cheap cables to understand where things go astray.
The solder point is definitely one part where things can fail. A dry, loose or broken solder joint (often referred to as a “one-legged” lead) will result in your signal sounding ‘thin’, cutting in and out, buzzing, or simply not working at all.
Summary and choices
There’s cheap, and there’s “cheap and nasty”. Likewise, there is expensive, and there’s “taking the piss”.
For all the reasons we’ve listed above, choose a lead that has quality components and has been manufactured to a high standard. In this case, our “expensive” mic lead (5m length) is this: XLR5.
It’s made from genuine Canare and Neutrik components, in house at Factory Sound – allowing us to control the quality of workmanship. Can you spend more money? Sure, get a version with gold contacts, or starquad cable, or both.
What about the boutique branded cables I see for 2-3 times the price? Come on, you already know the answer to that. You’re not going to hear the difference, and there’s certainly no guarantee they’ll last longer than the cables we make!
For the ‘cheap’ alternative, we’ve chosen to go with this one (also the 5m version): XLR5-ST
We’ve already said it, but we have been around long enough to see a slew of ‘cheap’ cables that don’t make the cut. We understand what to look for (and now so do you). The XLR5-ST passes our testing, no question.
As always, remember – “You are only as good as the weakest link in your chain“
That’s enough to cover most microphone lead FAQs. If you want to delve a little deeper, keep going!
Why can Hi-Fi boffins and audiophiles hear the difference between cables?
That’s a good question, and one that we field regularly!
Remember, we have been talking about microphone cables, not speaker cables. In fact, there are often obvious differences between speaker cables – the ones that connect an amplifier to your speakers.
For one, the amount of copper in a speaker cable makes a huge difference. As to the effect of gold plating the outside of a connector, and having a presentation box for packaging… we’ll leave that for you to decide if it makes a difference or not.
Extra protection against outside interference
Sometimes your microphone cable needs a little extra protection to ensure it works. Neutrik has developed the EMC series of XLR connectors (pictured above), which take care of that.
Sure, we use them as standard on our DIGITAL XLR cables (AES/EBU), however these EMC connectors can certainly be useful for analogue audio applications – especially when combined with StarQuad L-4E6S) – when you are likely to come across problems with radio transmission or mobile phones interfering with your critical broadcast or recording.
There’s no doubt that making your own microphone leads is a great way to go about things, especially if you have a huge amount to prepare for your studio or gig life, or if you have specific requirements – such as right angled connectors, Techflex sleeving, coloured boots, ID rings, or anything else.
If you’re not so handy with a soldering iron, we can jump in and sort things out for you. It’s easy to organise – just get in touch.
The microphone lead below was manufactured at Factory Sound back in 1999. It was pulled out of a garaged milk crate of goodies from the author’s house while this article was being prepared. Plugged it in, tested… perfect signal. The silver pins are still in pretty good condition, considering the poor storage conditions over the past 10 years, and the heavy workload for the 12 years before that.
A squirt of DeoxIT wouldn’t hurt after all these years, but nevertheless, it’s still ready to front up when required.
We mentioned much earlier in this article that it was possible to measure – and therefore hear – the differences between some microphone cables. Remember, we’re not talking about broken versus functional, we are comparing healthy cables. Let’s face it, you’re really not going to hear much difference between connectors, it’s ALL about the cable.
That’s where STAR QUAD comes in. Not the cheap knock-off versions, we are discussing genuine Canare STAR QUAD cable (L-4E6S).
If you want to learn more, grab the Canare-prepared fact sheet via the download button below
If you’re considering LONG cable runs, then we can definitely start picking up differences between cables. You’ll find some signal degradation, especially noticeable in the higher frequencies. For the purposes if this article however, we’ve really been looking at ‘standard length’ microphone leads.
What about the other XLR cables: AES/EBU and DMX?
If you’ve read this far, you are probably already switched on enough to know that these digital application cables have a specific impedance, and don’t have a place in our analogue microphone lead section.