By Craig Anderton
The idea of reviewing cables might seem pretty dumb, unless you’re talking about plutonium-based, gold-leaf MagickalWire® that costs $70 a foot and if you plug the cable in the wrong direction the world explodes. (In that case, it’s worth writing a review just to plug the cable in the wrong direction, and find out whether the world explodes or not.)
While cables generally have more similarities than differences, cables do matter—if you want more details on why, check out the article The Truth About Guitar Cords. Granted, if you’re plugging a high-output synthesizer into a mixer a couple of feet away, you could probably get away with just about anything that conducts electricity. But for guitar players, where the pickup, amp input, and cable form an interdependent system, it’s a different story. And it’s an especially different story on stage, where reliability—not just sonic integrity—is of paramount importance.
As someone who usually makes his own cables because I figure no one cares about my cables more than I do, I assumed Planet Waves would do their usually good job (I’m a big fan of their whole Cable Station concept). Nonetheless, these cables incorporate several novel aspects that add up to more than the sum of their parts, and that’s why they merit a review.
First, there’s the cable itself. Cable capacitance involves a tradeoff, so there’s no “ideal” value. More cable capacitance can dull highs when feeding a high-impedance amp, and as capacitance forms a resonant circuit with magnetic pickups (thus creating a response peak), higher capacitance peaks at a lower frequency than cables with lower capacitance. But if the cable capacitance is too low, there’s a tendency for the cable to become microphonic. Planet Waves chose 28pF/foot capacitance, which I feel is the correct midpoint value for as many situations and instruments as possible.
The shielding is braided, not spiral or (horrors) foil, which adds to the expense and reduces flexibility somewhat, but is durable and provides best-of-class shielding. The center conductor is 22 AWG gauge, oxygen-free copper wire. Does oxygen-free make a difference? Many musicians swear they hear a difference, although this is difficult to quantify. Suffice it to say it doesn’t hurt, and most likely helps. 22 gauge wire is sort of in the middle of commonly-used guitar cable gauges, as thinner wire means less resistance to pull, but tends to favor flexibility. As a result these are very difficult cables to kink or tangle, because they’re supple, easy to coil, and have a tendency to lay flat.
Moving along to the plug, it’s made by Neutrik to Planet Waves’ specs and is way different from what I expected. Check out the tip: the standard V-shaped scoop that sits just behind the tip is more rounded and elongated than standard tips (Planet Waves calls it a “Geotip”), so the jack’s contact can be considerably out of tolerance (e.g., either closer/further to the jack tip or barrel than normal—unfortunately, not an uncommon problem) and still make full contact while locking in properly.
The outer plug shell is metal, and the strain relief is clever. Instead of crimping metal into the cable, there’s a separate, semi-round plastic covering that fits over the cable and has three strips with sets of five “teeth” that push gently into the cable’s outer jacket. Although they don’t extend far into the jacket, the sheer number means that the plastic covering grips the cable well.
When you screw on the plug’s outer barrel, it holds the plastic covering in place; if you pull on the cable, the cable—being clamped by the plastic covering—tries to pull on the covering but can’t because the covering can’t move, as it’s held in place by the outer barrel. Meanwhile, you can’t really pull the cable out from within the covering, because of the teeth holding it in place. That, coupled with the micro flame soldering process, keeps the wire anchored in place on the plug.
I thought it would be worth sacrificing a cable to test whether I could rip the cable out of the plug, and I really tried . . . but when I realized I was going to damage my hands rather than the cable, I gave up.
There are two other noteworthy elements regarding the plug. The center conductor is held tightly in place within the barrel—there’s really no way to bend it, but even if you could, it wouldn’t. Finally, there’s a small rubber washer where the barrel meets the rest of the jack, providing a tight seal and also, making it unlikely that the barrel could come unscrewed accidentally after being screwed in.
Overall, the American Stage cables—which actually are made in the USA, so extra credit for that—nail the two crucial cable criteria for instruments: They’re built to take the rigors of the road (and have a limited lifetime warranty), while making the right sonic choices for getting your signal from point A to point B. Yes, they do cost a bit more than average; but after taking one apart (and failing to destroy it), I understand why—it’s cost-effective insurance for making sure your cable doesn’t fail you at some crucial point during a performance.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.