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Are gold-plated connectors worth it? (Morrison's Mailbag)

CNET Reader LJM asks about cable materials and gold-plated connectors. Geoff Morrison helps him out.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
3 min read
Geoffrey Morrison (unmodified image via Monoprice.com)

CNET Reader LJM asks:

Does the quality of the materials used to make a cable influence the picture or sound quality? Specifically, what about gold-plated connectors?
Good question.

For years, cable companies have touted gold-plated this and oxygen-free that. There are two different aspects to consider with these marketing-based claims.

The first is the cable itself. All cables (with the exception of optical) have the sole purpose of transmitting an electrical signal. Ideally, this is done perfectly, without error or modification. That's impossible, but the difference in performance between cables is minimal.

It is theoretically possible for there to be a difference between different speaker cables, and to an even lesser extent, analog audio interconnects. For most people though, this difference is going to be so minimal that it doesn't justify much additional cost. You could spend $10,000 on silver-braided speaker cables, but you're going to get a much more significant change in sound spending $1,000 on a new amp, or $500 on a new DAC.

As far as analog cables go, I recommend getting "decent" cables, at whatever price you're comfortable with. The performance will be fine.

With HDMI cables, though, the signal is digital so the cable material matters even less. Check out my articles Why all HDMI cables are the same and Why all HDMI cables are the same, Part 2 for more information.

The other aspect is the connector, the part at the end you plug into your TV or Blu-ray player. You can't miss all the "gold-plated" boasts by every cable manufacturer. While this sounds cool, it's generally of little use. Gold is actually a worse conductor of electricity than copper, though in practice that matters little. The only real, physical reason to use gold is that unlike copper, it doesn't tarnish. Over time copper oxidizes when exposed to air, eventually developing a lovely green patina (like the Statue of Liberty). This decreases the conductivity, reducing performance. Depending on where you live, how long this takes varies.

So yes, gold-plated connectors offer a benefit, but it's a marginal one at best. If you're buying your cables online (as you should, check out Amazon and Monoprice), then the price difference between gold-plated and non is insignificant. If you want your cables to last a long time, then gold-plated is probably a good idea. Or you could just scratch off the patina when you see it, if you really want to save a few pennies.

Get it? Pennies! Because they're made out of...well zinc, mostly. Eh, you get the point.

Got a question for Geoff? Click "Geoffrey Morrison" below then click the "E-mail" link in the upper right to e-mail, wait for it...Geoffrey Morrison! Put "Morrison's Mailbag" somewhere in there. If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. No, I won't tell you what TV to buy. Yes, I'll probably truncate and/or clean up your email. You can also send me a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff.