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Quality Quirks

By far, the most frequently asked question we get is, "Is this a good quality cable?", along with its follow-up question, "How do I know that this is a good quality cable?" In this article, we will attempt to offer some general guidelines for examining cable quality; we will also debunk some popular quality myths.

If you open a dictionary, you'll find several definitions for the word "quality." Generally speaking, though, it is understood that a "good quality" cable is one that:

So, the quality of a cable is a measurement of the extent that a cable does or does not satisfy those two requirements.

Unfortunately, determining if a cable is a "good quality" cable using the two tests above can be tricky, for several reasons. Although it is often easy to tell if a cable is built poorly, it is not necessarily easy to know if a cable is built well; even worse, a cable that appears to be well-constructed may still not be properly designed or engineered for the task it is supposed to perform. However, the other extreme also exists; there are cables that are over-engineered, with features that do nothing to enable the cable to perform.

To make matters worse, there are very few general guidelines that apply to all cables, as different cables have different constructions, different materials, and different manufacturing processes, and traits that are desirable in one type of cable may be completely inappropriate for another type. Having said that, in terms of a cable being "well-constructed", there are some general things to look for in almost any cable.

First and foremost, the place to look for signs of trouble with a cable is generally not along the length of the wire, but rather, the workmanship at the connectors, since 95% or more cable failures occur at the connector. Depending on the specific cable, most manufactured (as opposed to hand-made) cables have what is known as a "strain relief", which is a molded, slightly flexible section of the wire where it attaches to the cable.

Network Cable without Strain Relief Network Cable with Strain Relief
Comparison of two cables
with and without strain relief

Its purpose is two-fold: first, it helps anchor the connector to the wire, and second, it helps prevent the wire from bending too sharply (for example, at a sharp 90 degree angle) when it leaves the connector (hence the name "strain relief"). You will want to look for a strain relief that is firmly secured ("molded") to the connector, with no visible seams, cracks, or separation from the connector.

Some cables, by their very nature, make it easy for you to view the workmanship at the connector; certain telephone and network cables fall into this group, as well as some audio / video cables (such as certain RCA cables). When possible, examine the workmanship for clean cuts, clean solder connections (rarely visible), straight flushed connectors, etc.

3.5mm Stereo with Strain Relief Power with Strain Relief DB9 Serial with Strain Relief USB Type-A with Strain Relief
Examples of Strain Relief

Unfortunately, the vast majority of quality sins are committed in such a way as to make it difficult to see them. Such blatant examples as the yellow network cable below are rarely (though sometimes) seen in public. But most quality shortcuts are found inside the cable, where they won't be seen if you don't have the luxury of being able to cut the cable open.

So how can you protect yourself? One way is to ask the supplier for a technical drawing of the cable. This is a drawing that will detail the quantity and type materials used in the construction of that cable. Although sometimes very technical in nature and difficult for the lay person to understand, the fact that a supplier is willing to offer its drawings for public scrutiny generally speaks volumes about the supplier's commitment to quality. Among the interesting things you can learn from cable drawings are:

It is always good to be a little skeptical of sellers who tout quality features that can't explain exactly what the benefit of that "feature" is. It is also good to be skeptical of suppliers that will describe their cables in broad terms, but are unable or unwilling to provide detailed specifications on their products.

Poorly Made Network Cable High Quality RCA Break Down
Poorly Made Network Cable High Quality RCA Cable

Common Quality Myths

Below are some of the most popular myths surrounding cable quality.