The high cost of cheap cables

November 29, 2017 by Ben Stowe, CTS

At the request of a reader I’m writing this article about the differences between cheap and quality cables. It might sound somewhat self-serving since I have designed a line of cables that is widely regarded as one of the best you can buy, so I want to get that out of the way right from the start. I’ll take an objective and factual look at both the technological and financial trade-offs.

First, there’s the “something for nothing” equation. When you get a cheap cable, you certainly don’t get the same thing as a quality cable. Not in any example I’ve seen. I have seen some cheap cables marked up, but that just makes them highly priced cheap cables. It doesn’t make them a quality cable. Therefore, it’s important to look at the specs to know what you are getting.

Most cheap cables will use small conductors, inconsistent (if any) twists, and loose spiral shields. Since the job of a shield is to protect the signal from interference and other unwanted signal sources, we want a tight, robust shield. Not a loose, half-hearted one. In the photo examples here we can see a loose, cheap spiral shield vs. a tightly woven braided shield. We also see that on the cheap cable there is no twist of the two signal conductors (red and blue). A regular twist is essential to provide common mode rejection of interference. We also see that these conductors are substantially smaller than those of the quality cable. Lastly, we see that we must twist what exists of our shield into a ground conductor, while on the quality cable there is a ground conductor already provided, independent of the shield.

In summary, one cable is built very well to perform reliably for years and years. It will provide you a clean, interference free signal and will hold up under the stress of many, many shows. The other cable is woefully inadequate for the job right out of the box, and it’s poor construction characteristics will almost certainly cause it to fail far sooner than the quality cable.

It’s difficult to calculate the cost of failure. Lost time, lost years on your life because cables never fail at an un-stressful time, and loss to your reputation are all very difficult to put a number to. So, we’ll leave those out of the equation. We’ll simply focus on cost of ownership.

Since the cables I designed offer a “forever” guarantee, it would be nearly impossible to calculate the ROI. They are obviously the most cost-effective cables you could possibly own if you have a long career. Instead, I’ll work with a more manageable number than eternity. We’ll pick some arbitrary lifespans to calculate cable cost of ownership.

We’ll compare a $5 cable with a 1 year warranty, a $10 cable with a 5 year warranty and a $20 cable with a lifetime warranty. After just 1 failure, the $5 cable costs you as much as the $10 cable. After just 3 failures it now costs as much as the $20 cable, not factoring the incalculable costs we mentioned above. To say that it is likely that the $5 cable will fail 3 times in the lifespan of the $20 cable would certainly match my experience. In fact, probably many more. I would venture that over the life of the $20 cable, buying $5 cables would cost you more in the long run, all while doing a poorer job for you.

If it was up to me, I would cut apart any cable before I consider buying it. I want to know what’s on the inside, because that’s what counts. Marking up a cheap cable doesn’t make it better, only more expensive. If you can’t get clear, meaningful specs for a cable you are considering, don’t buy it.

Ben Stowe, CTS Ben Stowe, CTS (26 Posts)

Ben’s love of electronics and technology led to years of schooling in Electricity, Electronics, Robotics and Lasers. Ben supported himself through school by building and selling strobe lights and other electronic devices. He built his first DJ show largely from scratch and scrap, often repairing broken items others had thrown away because he could not afford to buy new equipment. He holds a Minnesota electrical license, and his AV installs have been featured in almost every major industry trade magazine. His relentless passion for education has led to a number of other certifications and accreditations, including the most widely recognized one in the AV industry, the InfoComm CTS. His love for education inspired him to begin the ProAcademy educational sessions, focused on increasing understanding of AV technologies within the industry. Ben has been involved in a number of technical writings, lectures, presentations, as well as research and development assistance with a number of manufacturers for products, industry wide. He is also a regular contributing author to industry magazines in the United States and Europe. Ben’s presentations have been featured across the world both as a part of industry leading trade shows, and as a presenter for various groups and functions. Some of these events include BPM in the United Kingdom, Mobile Beat, the ADJA National Convention, Wedding MBA, and a national tour as a headlining presenter for an industry magazine. The United States Armed Forces branches have also called upon Ben to provide engineering and training assistance. His highly informational, slightly nerdy and always funny presentation style have made him a favorite at events, while his sincere desire to help people with their application of technology have made him a favorite with them after the event. Ben serves the industry as the President of NLFX Professional, an industry leading supplier of sound, lighting and video systems, a role he has maintained since founding the company in 1993.

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