One common question that you’ll often hear from musicians is “can I use instrument cables for powered speakers?” Some cables look alike and it’s normal to wonder if they can function similarly as well.
Even for touring professional musicians, certain predicaments such as accidentally leaving your cable at home can be quite common. For beginners, there may be some instances when the only available cable is the one attached on an audio sound system.
While there are some similarities in various types of cables, it is important to know the right one for the role. For example, ¼-inch speaker and instrument cables have a lot in common in terms of look, but they actually can’t be used interchangeably.
Cables are designed for various purposes. To understand what makes instrument and speaker cables different from one another, we need to check if it is shielded and also know what wire gauge was used for its construction.
Instrument Cables vs Powered Speaker Cables
One crucial difference between instrument and speaker cables is the shielding. Instrument cables are shielded, while speaker cables are unshielded.
Shielding is needed in instrument cables because they are used to connect instruments to an amplifier. An amplifier has a high impedance and shielding helps by protecting the signal wire to reduce interferences from radio frequencies and nearby electronics such as phones and lights.
For speaker cables, shielding is not necessary. The large signal from the amp and the speaker’s low impedance will just overwhelm any unwanted external noise and frequencies.
Instrument cables use smaller wires, while speaker cables use larger wire gauges.
According to Paul Rivera of Rivera Amplification, “transmission of power requires low resistance for low loss.” He also explained that high current needs a larger cross section of wire. Guitars only need small amounts of current, so their cables require smaller wires. Using an instrument cable for powered speakers will result in significant power transmission loss.
How to spot the differences
Before knowing if you can use instrument cable for powered speakers, it is important first to know how to distinguish it from a speaker cable.
Check the label
Before anything else, check the label or research on the model of the cable. Some manufacturers may state on their cable’s package or website whether it is for instruments or speakers. However, a lot of cables are also sold without labels and available info online, but don’t worry, there are other ways to verify.
Check the wires
Unscrew the end of your cable’s jack and check out the wires.
- Speaker cable
A speaker cable consists of two independent wires that go to the tip and the sleeve. They usually come in white and black or red and white color combinations. Speaker cables also don’t have braided wires or foil raps and their wires are usually around 16 or 18 gauge.
One indication that your cable is not for speakers is if its ¼-inch connector is a TRS end. TRS stands for Tip, Ring and Sleeve. They are commonly found on headphones and may not be used in place of a speaker cable, as well as an instrument cable.
- Instrument cable
For instrument cables, you just need to see if one or two of its wires are protected with a shielding that comes in the form of a braided wire mesh or a foil wrap.
What if I use the wrong cable?
Using a speaker cable for your instrument
The tremendous amount of noise is the number one problem that musicians will encounter if they attempt to use a speaker cable for their guitars. Because of the lack of shielding, your instrument’s signal will be joined by lots of buzzing and humming.
Objects and gadgets that can interfere with your sound include your amplifier’s transformer, other amps, cellphones, PA speakers, neon signs and lighting systems. Even if you are trying to pull off an experimental noise art routine, using speaker cables for your instruments is not the best tool for it, as you won’t have enough control over the presence of obtrusive noise.
Using an instrument cable for your speaker
On the other hand, if you use an instrument cable for your speakers, it can cause some fatal damage to your amp. At first, your amplifier will still function, but the high amount of current can melt the cable since its wire gauges are a lot smaller. If this happens, you could short your amp and damage it completely.
Because instrument cables are shielded, they bring with them a capacitive element that can impair your amp. A lot of amplifiers today can withstand the use of wrong cables, but it will get worse the longer you use it on your equipment.
Using instrument cables for powered speakers
Basically, cables are not passing current through powered speakers. Depending on what kind of speakers you are using, you can try using two unbalanced mono cables. Examples of unbalanced mono cables are the ones used for electric guitars.
Another option would be to use a balanced TRS cable that converts into an XLR on one end, or perhaps a full XLR cable if you can get one. For these setups only signal will be passing, but if the cables don’t have shielding and the wire gauges are thinner, your interference problem will just persist.
If you are still wondering if you can use instrument cable for powered speakers, the definitive answer is a “no.” Although there are remedies, especially for powered speakers, you still can’t expect the best sound quality out of your audio equipment. Experts recommend that you stick to using the right cable for both instruments and speakers in order to achieve their full potential, as well as avoid any issues in the future.