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Thread: How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables

  1. #1

    How to Solder: An Illustrated DIY Guide to Making Your Own Cables








    Most enthusiasts who frequent this and other home theater forums are no doubt familiar with the Canare do-it-yourself cables that use the company’s proprietary crimp-on RCA connectors. Did you ever wish there were an alternative that didn’t require expensive tools? Well, there is: The old-school soldering method.

    Now, I’ll be the first to agree with what the fans of crimping tell us, that their method requires no special skills. They’re right: Crimping is straightforward and idiot proof. But once you’ve made the cables, what are you going to do with those proprietary crimping and cable stripping tools? After all, you can’t use them for much of anything else.

    It’s here that we see the distinct advantage of soldering over crimping. Most of the tools needed are inexpensive generic items that you can use for all kinds of projects. In fact, you may already have some of them in your toolbox. Even the soldering iron itself doesn’t cost much. A suitable iron can be had for less than a quarter the price of the Canare tools. A nice variable-heat soldering station, a considerable upgrade from a basic iron, is still about half the price of the Canare tools. Like the other tools, a soldering iron can be used for projects other than audio/video cabling. For instance, once I soldered a couple of wires from my garage door opener remote to a switch on the dash of my car. That put an end to fumbling for the remote every time I came home. Just one example of what you can do with a soldering iron and a little imagination.

    The only downside to soldering is that some people apparently can’t do it. However, if you have the ability to do intricate work with your hands and have a keen eye for detail, you can probably solder. All you need is the proper instruction – that’s why we’re here!

    Soldering can be tricky and intimidating, but it’s easy to understand in theory. It’s technically defined as a process of joining metals by fusion and solidification of an adherent alloy. The adherent alloy, or solder as it’s commonly called, has a relatively low melting point in the range of 350-400° F. The most common solder used for DIY cables and other electronics-related work is a rosin-core, 60/40 tin/lead alloy. Much as external fluxes accomplish with other welding processes, the rosin is a cleansing agent that removes oxides from the surface of the metal that would interfere with the molecular bonding of the solder. Typically only non-ferrous metals like nickel, brass, silver, gold, etc. can be soldered – at least with the type of solder used for electronics applications.

    The soldering process involves heating the surfaces of the metal pieces to be welded, typically with an electric soldering iron, to a temperature above the melting point of the solder but below their own melting point(s). When the metal pieces reach the proper temperature, the solder can melt and "flow" via capillary action into the joint and bond the pieces together. The rosin aids in the process by allowing the solder to flow smoothly. When the solder cools and solidifies, you have a sturdy bond that is extremely robust. Robust enough, in fact, that when cables and connectors are subjected to undue stress or abuse, the wire itself will physically break before the soldered connection fails.

    Once you know how to solder, you can make just about any kind of cable you might have a need for. Need an RCA to XLR cable to connect a BFD equalizer to your receiver and subwoofer? No problem. How ‘bout a 3.5 mm stereo to dual 1/4” plugs, like if you wanted to connect an i-Pod to a sound mixing console? I don’t even know if you can buy such a cable, but you can sure make one! If you have a store-bought cable that quits working, no need to discard it. You can clip the RCA off the bad end and install a new one.

    You can also terminate in-wall wiring for your home theater installation and save a lot of money. It’s far cheaper to buy spools of bulk cable and loose connectors than long lengths of custom-made, pre-terminated cabling. Not to mention, running and dropping bare cable inside walls is infinitely easier with non-terminated cabling.


    Choosing a good cable

    Naturally, if you’re going to take the trouble to make your own cables, you might as well make good ones. This means using quality materials, as not all cable is created equal. But how do you know if the cable you’re considering is any good?

    I suppose I have a advantage over many people in this department. Back in the 90s I spent several years as an installer for a sizable full-service pro audio company – “full service” meaning we did not only permanent installations in places like churches, recording studios and concert venues, but also sales, equipment rentals, and sound reinforcement for live shows (including national tours for big-name acts). One of my duties when installations were slow was making repairs to all the cables that came back damaged from the shows and rentals. So as you can imagine, I’ve cut up more cables and spent more time hunkered over a soldering station than anyone should ever have to. Not to mention making up from scratch any kind of unusual audio or video cable that an installation might require.

    The side benefit of a gig like this is that you learn to recognize what separates the good cables – and connectors – from the junk. That said, I certainly don’t pretend that anything I have to say on the subject should be taken as “the last word” – you are certainly free to cut up a few hundred cables and decide for yourself. Just kidding. In all seriousness, it should be obvious that my experience is limited to whatever came across my work bench and the installations I worked on.


    Internal / external construction
    Cabling pro or novice, we are all familiar with the skinny, generic cables supplied with most of the components we buy, and even a novice might rightly assume they are as cheap as it gets. But don’t assume a cable is better just because it is thicker. Thicker cable can be functionally just as bad, or even worse than the generic stuff. It’s what’s inside – under the outer jacket - that counts.

    All audio and video cabling will have an insulated center conductor housed inside a metallic shield. If there is more than one center conductor, better audio cables will intertwine other filler materials with the conductors, such as strands of cloth or plastic, to help the cable maintain a round shape. (However, this will generally not be the case with installation-grade cabling.) Here is a picture of a cable with the outer jacket stripped back, showing the shield, center conductors and filler materials:



    Courtesy of Canare Cable


    Typically, shields come in three types. A multitude of tiny, individual strands of wire arranged into a braided or spiraling configuration are the most common shields used in the cabling we use in our equipment racks, while a foil-wrapped shield is most commonly seen in the installation-grade wiring used for (logically) permanent installations.




    Braided shield
    Courtesy of Mogami Cable



    Spiral shield



    Alternative spiral shield
    (each conductor shielded separately)

    Courtesy of Mogami Cable



    Foil shield
    Courtesy of Parts Express


    Braided shielding is generally thought to be superior to spiral, but in my opinion that’s not an iron rule; there are certainly some excellent examples of spiral-shielded cable available. My rule of thumb for a good shield is pretty simple no matter what the type: If it’s dense enough that I can’t see the center conductor underneath, I’m a happy camper.

    Here is an example of a poorly-made cable with an inadequate shield:




    As you can see, the cable is fairly thick, which immediately gives a good impression. But take a closer look at the end, where the outer jacket is stripped back. See the copper and black spirals? The black is the insulator for the center conductor. The copper is the shield. That’s right – the shield is loosely wrapped, not fully covering the center conductor. And what’s there is really thin. Bad, bad, bad.

    This particular cable is a balanced mic cable. You can probably get away with a marginal shield with balanced audio signals because it’s a protocol with outstanding noise rejection properties. Not so with the unbalanced signals we typically use for home audio. For us, the shield is what makes or breaks noise rejection properties, so it must be substantial and robust. It may surprise the reader to know that the cheapie cables that came free in the box with your DVD player are actually better from a functional standpoint than the one shown above. At least they have a decent shield, even if their connectors are marginal.

    Last edited by Wayne A. Pflughaupt; 06-16-2015 at 12:54 PM.

  2. #2

    Materials
    In addition to a good shield, the materials and physical build of a cable will also define its quality. For instance, as audiophiles we naturally prefer oxygen-free copper for both the center conductor and shield, since both carry the audio or video signal.

    A supple outer jacket and high strand count of both the shield and center conductor(s) will affect the perceived quality of a cable - i.e., the more strands, the more flexible the cable is, which is generally a desirable trait. Having a pliable cable that feels nice to the touch goes to aesthetics more than electrical function, but really - who wants an electrically-excellent cable that’s all stiff and gnarly? Fortunately, you’ll generally find that most quality cables will look and feel the part – at least those designed for in-rack use (don’t expect installation-grade cabling to be aesthetically appealing).

    The material used to insulate the center conductor is important as well. The center insulator is typically some kind of nylon- or plastic-like material. Such materials are not terribly resistant to heat, but they need to be able to withstand enough for us to complete the soldered weld. I’ve seen cables where the insulator could not withstand heat and would melt away before the soldering could be accomplished, leaving the center conductor bare and exposed. That’s a recipe for a future short circuit. It’s fine if the insulator gets a little soft where it’s close the soldering iron's tip, but it should remain essentially intact long enough to complete the weld. (By the way, if a lot of this isn’t making sense, it will when we start soldering.)


    Capacitance
    A subject that often comes up with high performance cable is capacitance. Many custom cable makers prefer and recommend for audio uses specific cables that have very low capacitance specifications. However, capacitance is largely a “per foot” issue – i.e., more of an concern with long cable runs than with short. As such, in your equipment rack capacitance is virtually a non-issue because the lengths are so short. Long cable lengths are typically going to be in-wall and by building and/or electrical codes will require installation-grade stock, which precludes the use of anyone’s preferred ultra-low capacitance cabling.

    Is this to say that the cables from Blue Jeans and other makers are not worthwhile, or worth the money? Of course not – they use excellent supplies and materials, so you’re getting a first-class product. I just don’t think ultra-low capacitance specs or true 75-ohm RCAs (which we’ll discuss in Part 2) are truly needed in most home theater applications. It’s kind of like feeding your pet T-bone steaks when he’ll do just fine on Dog Chow.

    Downgrade a bit to more “regular” cabling and RCA connectors and you’ll find that there are plenty of excellent choices available for a very reasonable price. For instance, the cables we will be making will cost about 1/4 of what Blue Jean’s stereo interconnects sell for. Or put another way, their cables are four times more expensive.

    This isn’t to say that capacitance need never be considered. If you are able to discern audible differences between various interconnects, you might want to go ahead and use low capacitance cabling. Or, if you’re using longer-than-usual cabling – say, more than 10-15 ft., it might be a worthwhile consideration (subwoofer cable runs excluded).


    Cable recommendations

    Audio
    I typically recommend a two-conductor, balanced cable – also known as mic cable - for audio interconnects. For one thing, it’s easy to find well-made cable of this type. Mic cable also offers an advantage that regular single-conductor cable can’t, namely there are a couple of options for configuring it.

    For instance, the dual center conductors can be tied together at both ends when soldering to the RCA. This makes for a more reliable and durable cable: If one conductor fails for some reason, the other retains continuity and the cable still works.

    The other option is tying one of the conductors into the shield. This results in the signal (+) and (-) traveling on the center conductors, which are twisted internally through the cable. According to theory, the signal (+) and (-) traveling on twisted pairs further aids noise rejection.

    Canare's L-2T2S is a first-class, pro-grade mic cable that you can’t go wrong with, and it’s very economical. Like other Canare mic cables, it has an especially robust, tightly-woven tinned copper braided shield – great for minimizing noise, although more difficult to work with than a spiral shield (never fear, we’ll show you how to deal with it). Some vendors even sell the L-2T2S cable in colors. How cool is that? A red cable for right and black for left, if you’re so inclined.

    Canare’s L-2E5 is one of my personal favorites for home audio use. Canare bills it as a “low profile” cable, which is merely a fancy way of saying it’s good bit thinner than the L-2T2S, or most other premium audio cable for that matter.

    Don’t be put off by the smaller diameter - actually, there’s no good reason for the audio cable we usually use in our equipment racks to be as thick as they are. The larger diameter is merely achieved by making everything thicker, from the internal center conductors and insulators to the outer jacket. A heavier-duty cable is great to have say, on a stage where they get yanked around and heavy things run over and fall on them. But for home audio, where cabling generally suffers no abuse, it’s really overkill. So if you want to reduce some of that clutter behind your rack, go for the thinner L-2E5. It’s also a little cheaper than the larger L-2T2S (although unfortunately not available in colors). Here are the two Canare cables side by side so you can see the difference in diameter:



    Canare L-2T2S (top) vs. L-2E5 (bottom)


    Mogami is another excellent brand, well known to audio professionals but not so much to home theater enthusiasts. Some Mogami cable features a spiral shield, which (as noted) is much easier to work with than Canare’s tightly-braided shield. The downside is that Mogami is more expensive than Canare. Mogami’s spiral-shielded 2549 is a favorite of mine. It’s a bit more per foot than the Canare L-2T2S, but I can turn out a mic cable using 2549 in 30% less time than it takes with Canare L-2T2S or L-2E5's tightly-braided shield. So if you have a lot of cables to make, it’s probably worth the time saved to spend a little extra for the 2549.

    I don’t have a lot of experience with Belden cable, although I know it’s an excellent brand. If you prefer Belden, I expect you can’t go wrong with any mic or video cable they offer in the price range of the Canare or Mogami offerings.

    Perhaps you’re wondering, why not use regular single-conductor audio cable? Well, it’s hard to find some with the build quality of the Canare and Mogami mic cable. Canare does sell a couple of single conductor cables, the GS-6 and GS-4, billed as a guitar and instrument cable, as does Mogami. I’ve never used them, but I’m sure they are good cables. However, there usually isn’t much price difference between the single conductor and the mic cable; I’d just as soon use the latter with its inherent benefits of increased durability and configuration options.


    Video
    Video is more demanding than audio, which makes cable selection more critical. Typically you want 75-ohm cable for any video application, be it composite, S-video or component. For composite or component, it’s hard to beat Canare’s LV-77S, which also happens to be the cable used by fans of the DIY crimping system. It’s a dual-shielded RG-59 coaxial with a stranded center conductor (a rarity in coax) that helps make it more flexible than standard RG-59. A more economical alternative is the single-shielded LV-61S, at less than half the price of the LV-77S (there’s not much cause for a dual-shielded cable in our domestic settings). Like the L-2T2S mic cable, the LV- cables come in a variety of colors, which would be cool for component video. (NOTE: The LV’s can also be used for audio, although I expect they won’t be as supple and pliable as the mic cable.)

    To be honest, I’ve had excellent results using plain-vanilla RG-59 for video applications. It kinda goes against my “if you’re going to make your own cables, make good ones” mantra, but RG-59 is so cheap it’s certainly worth a try, especially if you’re talking about in-wall wiring to a projector or wall-mounted flat screen TV. Just make sure you use some with a copper shield, and if it’s for consumer component video or commercial RGBHV, make sure all cables are cut to exactly the same length. (NOTE: I recommend RG-59 over RG-6 because it is much more rack and installation-friendly, since it’s thinner and more flexible. You often hear of RG-6’s improved bandwidth capabilities, but that only applies to radio frequency [RF] signals from satellite and CATV feeds, not line-level audio or video signals.)


  3. #3

    Part 2: Choosing a Good RCA Connector



    Do you really need a bulky, high-priced connector?

    When you go shopping for RCAs, you’ll quickly discover that their prices vary wildly. You can find connectors from under a buck all the way to $50 or more – each. The pricey ones are certainly impressive looking – big and bulky, gold plated knurled barrels, the works. Here are a few examples from what I call the “Hall of Shame” – or maybe it would be better called the “Hall of Shameless”:



    Clear Audio Smart PMC - $16.00 pr.
    Courtesy of Take Five Audio



    Dayton RCAX-AU - $22.00 pr.
    Courtesy of Amazon.com



    WBT 0101R -$49.00 ea.
    Courtesy of Amazon.com



    WTB Nextgen Platinum - $80.00 ea.
    Courtesy of Amazon.com


    Are these RCAs really worth prices like this? And aside from the proliferation of precious metals (who knows, maybe next year we’ll see some that are diamond-studded), what are you getting for your money?

    To answer that, perhaps we should take a giant step back and confront a basic reality: In the world of connectors, RCAs are bottom feeders. Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes around any kind of professional-grade electronic equipment – audio, video, broadcast, telecommunications, laboratory, military, you name it – knows that good connectors have built-in locking mechanisms, to (a) insure that they are seated properly, and (b) to prevent them from being accidentally unplugged. You don’t get that with RCAs - or any other connector used for consumer applications, for that matter.

    Then there is the impedance issue. The sad truth is, most RCAs are 25-ohm connectors – even lower grade than most of us realize. Most audio cabling is 50 ohm, and good video cable is 75 ohm, so it’s not hard to see where the weak link in our signal chain is. So, manufacturers of RCA connectors can bulk-up and precious-metal-plate all they want, but it’s like putting lipstick and silk on a sow: at the end of the day the RCA is still a low-end connector.

    And we have to ask: What will you be plugging those expensive RCAs into? Anyone think the jacks on a typical receiver or DVD player are up to the build quality of a $45 plug, or even a $3 one? Get serious. It’s standard-issue, dime-for-a-dozen stuff straight from the mass-manufactured parts bin. Here’s what the RCA jacks in your receiver look like under the cover:



    Stock OEM RCA Jack Assemblies


    Another beef: These days the back panels of home theater receiver are a virtual sea of RCA jacks, accommodating all the gear we use in our systems. Am I the only one who has noticed that most “hi-grade” RCAs are so fat that you can’t unplug those in the center of a row without first unplugging all the others above or below?

    Folks, there is no functional need for an RCA to have a barrel so fat you can’t get a good grip on it. Typically you’ll find the makers of expensive connectors to be the “kings of bulk,” but not always – I’ve also seen relatively economical RCAs that were overly bulky as well. It may be difficult to find a good RCA that has a thinner-profile barrel, but it’s certainly a worthwhile effort to seek one out.


    Do you need a 75-ohm RCA connector like Canare’s?
    While I prefer soldering to Canare’s crimped RCA system, I will give them credit for raising the bar for the lowly RCA. They claim their RCAP plug is a true 75-ohm connector. As best as I can tell from inspecting one that Sonnie Parker was kind enough to send me, this is accomplished because the RCAP is crimped to the recommended LV-77S or LV–61S coaxial cable in the same manner that F-connectors are crimped to standard coaxial cable. This is significant: F-connectors, like the RCAP, are designed to keep the shield intact and fully surrounding the center conductor at the point of termination. This maintains the cable’s impedance from end to end, a feature that is impossible to accomplish with a soldered connection.

    In addition to its unique design, the RCAP is a solid, well-built connector that’s reasonably priced. And it’s not overly bulky. But just how necessary is a 75-ohm connector for our various audio and video applications?

    Canare claims that regular RCAs are “ ...virtually unusable for 6 MHz broadcast video frequencies, high bandwidth RGB video monitor lines, or even digital audio data bit streams.” Personally I find that statement a bit disingenuous. For one thing, we all know that 75-ohm video cables with regular (25-ohm) RCAs work just fine for the latter – we’ve been using them for over 10 years with our DVD players. As for the former and median, high bandwidth signals are the stuff of professional video and broadcast equipment, where twist-lock BNC connectors are the standard – not RCAs. In other words, any equipment that operates with high-bandwidth signals – audio, video or otherwise - won’t use RCA connections, period. Our home theater equipment simply does not fit that bill. If and when that changes, the connectors will change, too (HDMI for instance).

    In the meantime, regular (25-ohm) RCAs are just fine for audio or video. I’m told by reliable sources that the input and output impedance of the video circuits in consumer products are not tightly controlled. Thus it should be obvious that any impedance mismatches you’ll have with a soldered RCA are insignificant compared to the variances in terminating impedance in the source and destination components. So there’s no good reason to feel short-changed because we can’t use the 75-ohm Canare RCAP for our soldered DIY cables.

    That said, over the years I have seen some people claim they noticed a visible improvement in picture quality with their DIY Canare cables. So if you have high-grade video equipment, it might be worthwhile for you to go the Canare route, although in reality HDMI has rendered RCA-based cables obsolete for high-definition video signals.


  4. #4

    How to tell good RCAs from not-so-good
    Let’s take a look at a few RCA plugs I have accumulated in my parts bin over the years to determine what separates the quality connectors from the cheap ones. (Some have been previously used, so please pardon the latent solder residue.)

    We’ll start with a look “under the hood” of a common RCA and diagram it so you can get familiar with the terms we’ll be using. I couldn’t find anything on-line about the proper names for the various internal components of an RCA, so I had to create my own. Float these terms with the staff at Blue Jeans or other cable makers at your own risk. [img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/forums/images/smilies/biggrin.gif[/img ]

    The tip and solder cup have continuity for the cable’s center conductor; the sleeve and arm have continuity for the shield connection.



    RCA Dissected


    Here’s an example “under the hood” of an RCA that's heavier-duty than the one pictured above. Note that the cable will pass through the frame of the connector, and the cable clamp is a set screw.




    First up, let’s look at an absolute bottom-of-the line connector. This one is sold by Radio Shack, but I’m sure there are other vendors who carry the same kind. (Sorry for the coupler, folks – it was necessary in order to pose the connector in the proper position once the barrel was off.)




    Radio Shack #274-319


    As you can see, this RCA has not only a plastic barrel, but a plastic body as well, with metal termination points - i.e., the cup and arm. Actually, there is no cup, just a metal tab for the tip connection. Which in and of itself isn’t entirely objectionable, but frankly I find the prospect of heating up with a soldering iron termination points that are embedded in a plastic body to be a pretty scary proposition – so much so I’ve never bothered to use one of these. Perhaps one of our readers has more courage than I do.

    Next up is another budget connector. Radio Shack also sells this one, but many other vendors carry essentially the same connector.





    Radio Shack #274-339


    This is a fairly cheaply-made connector. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the arm/clamp assembly is light-gauge metal and extremely flimsy. The minuscule cable clamp will fully wrap around only the smallest of cables, not something more substantial like our preferred cable stock. Also problematic is the absence of a “scoop”-styled solder cup for the center conductor. Instead, as the bottom picture shows, there is a hole that the center conductor slips inside. I won’t go into details as to why this is undesirable, since we haven’t got to the step-by-step soldering instructions yet, but trust me – inexperienced DIYers should avoid an RCA like this. It is much, much easier to solder a plug with a “scooped” solder cup.

    Here is an example of probably the most miserable RCA plug ever made, strangely enough from Switchcraft, an otherwise highly respected manufacturer.






    Switchcraft #3502


    The problems with this RCA are numerous. As you can see from the side-by-side picture, it’s a very diminutive plug. Much as I like thin-barreled RCAs, this one is just too little of an otherwise good thing. In everyday use, its tiny barrel gives you practically nothing to hold on to (due to its short length) when you connect and disconnect it from equipment. The minuscule barrel also means that quarters “under the hood” are really tight as well, making it difficult to solder. The cable entry hole in the barrel is really small, so you are limited to using thin cable. Yet despite that, the cable clamp isn’t large enough fully clamp around even a low-profile cable like the Canare L-2E5.

    If all that weren’t enough, the center conductor is designed to stick all the way through the hollow tip and soldered at the end of the tip! (Note the hole in the end of the tip.) As you will better appreciate when we get to the soldering instructions, that means you have to strip back at least 1-1/8” of shielding, which is nearly four times as much as is usually needed. If you’re using braided-shield cable, and especially the tight-braided Canare cables, you’ll quickly find this is needlessly time consuming and tedious.

    Last up, a fairly popular connector from Radio Shack.




    Radio Shack #275-850


    This is certainly a nice looking RCA, but the arm and cable clamp are light-gauge and rather flimsy. Overall, Radio Shack’s Gold RCA is so-so connector that’s overpriced for what you get. Other connectors can be had from Dayton, Neutrik and Canare for the same or less money that are much more substantial.


  5. #5

    Recommendations for an RCA plug
    As you can see with the connectors above, I’ve used quite a few RCAs over the years, and naturally I’ve settled on a few favorites. To sum it up, I’m looking for a gold-plated plug, well-made with substantial internals and as thin a profile as possible. Oh yes, and a reasonable price. I’m not paying a king’s ransom for a low-end connector that’s going to be plugged into a 5¢ jack.

    Nicely meeting these criteria is the Neutrik Rean NYS373 plug that Parts Express and other vendors sell. You can’t beat the price, typically under $2 each. In addition to plain black, it comes with color-coded heat shrink sleeves for typical applications – red, white or yellow, even green and blue versions for making component video cables (if you didn’t use color coded Canare LV-77S cable).




    Neutrik NYS373


    Please note that the NYS373 does not have a traditional crimped cable clamp. Instead there is an unusual independent chuck-style clamp that’s not physically attached to the arm. It is slipped over the cable, and when the barrel is screwed on it tightens the chuck’s grip, evenly applying pressure to all sides of the cable’s circumference. Soldering this connector is a breeze, since there is no cable clamp attached to the arm to get in the way. As one positive review on the Parts Express web site puts it, the NYS373 looks like it was designed with installers in mind.

    In addition to the excellent stress protection supplied by the chuck, the NYS373 includes a spring-type strain relief to minimize the hard bend a cable has when hanging off the back of a component (which is the point where most cables fail). Two sizes are included for large- and small-diameter cable.

    By the way, remember this entry from the “Hall of Shame” that sold for $16 a pair?



    Courtesy of Take Five Audio


    That’s right, folks, it’s merely a rebadged Neutrik NYS373, but with the price more than tripled! If they can get away with selling them for $8 each, that should give you an idea of just how good this connector is. And what a bargain it is at $2.

    My second favorite RCA, and the one I used for many years until I discovered the Neutrik, is the Dayton Super RCA, also sold by Parts Express. As the picture below shows, it's a well-made connector, and it’s also very reasonably priced at under $3 each.



    Dayton Super RCA


    The main thing I don’t like about the Super is that it’s one of those bulky-barreled RCAs. However, the barrel is long, which means there is plenty of room “under the hood,” which makes soldering a breeze. Something to watch out for, the internal nylon bushing that the tip sits in is a bit more susceptible to heat than some other connectors I’ve used. The best way to avoid making the tip sag or misalign during soldering is to plug the connector into an RCA coupler.

    The Super RCA has a set screw for cable clamping instead of the standard crimped clamp, which I think is a mixed bag. On one hand, it doesn’t secure the cable nearly as well as Neutrik's chuck, but it makes recycling connectors a breeze compared to regular RCAs, since you don’t have to pry the clamp apart. Another downside to the set screw, if you’re using low-profile wire the set screw will fall out of the chassis before it “bites” the cable. All things considered though, I prefer a set screw to an arm/clamp assembly.

    Another practical feature of the Super RCA is that it comes with a couple of size options for cable entrance, 6.3 mm and 8.3 mm. This is a picture of the larger 8.3 mm opening.



    The 8.3 mm opening is a sufficient diameter to fit two thin Canare L-2E5 cables, if you wanted to make a “y” splitter cable. This is the preferred method for making a “y” connection: splitting at a connector. Many custom cable makers merely splice three short cable lengths together and cover the mess in heat shrink – totally bogus, in my opinion.

    Now that we have our cable and connectors lined out, let’s get our tools together!


  6. #6

    Part 3: Assembling the Necessary Tools and Supplies


    As with any worthwhile project, proper tools make the difference between things being a struggle or going smooth and easy. Here is a run-down of what you’ll need in order to solder cables. As mentioned before, many of these items are fairly generic and you’ll be able to use them for other projects and purposes; some of them you may already have in your tool box. Any specific brand/part number tools or supplies mentioned are items that I have found work best for their specific task in the process.

    Soldering iron
    The soldering iron is arguably the most important tool for this job, so I’m reluctant to recommend any bargain-basement options. Weller has been my brand of choice for over 20 years. I used the professional-grade WP35 while I was installing sound systems, and it saw heavy use with no reliability issues except for an occasion tip change. It bit the dust a few years ago, so I’m currently using the “hobbist” WLC100 soldering station, since I no longer require anything professional-grade. I’ve been very impressed with it. The iron itself works as well as the WP35, and you can’t beat the convenience of a built-in stand and cleaning sponge, not to mention the option of reducing the temperature settings for the occasional delicate project. All that for about the same price as the WP35. To let you know what a good deal the WLC100 is for the casual user, Weller’s pro-grade stations start at twice the price.

    Another Weller option might be the budget SP40L iron. I haven’t personally used this one, and quite frankly the price is so low it scares me. One thing that does catch my eye is that the SP40L doesn’t have an insulated grip like the other two I mentioned. So it seems to me like the handle could get uncomfortably warm during extended soldering sessions.

    Whatever soldering iron you choose, you’ll want it to be between 35-50 watts.


    Weller WLC100


    Weller WP35


    Weller SP40L


    Soldering iron tip
    Whatever soldering iron you get, plan on changing out the tip that comes with it. The stock tip will be something thick and blunt. Since soldering RCAs and other connectors is close-quarters work, we want a thin, pointed tip to better access the tight places. Weller’s SP7 tip fits the bill perfectly, and can be used with all three of the soldering irons discussed above. The smaller tip retains less heat because it has less mass, which is good for the RCAs. We sure don’t want to ruin them by melting the internal nylon bushings and insulators. Hang on to the original tip, however; it is useful for heavier projects, such as tinning the ends of large-gauge speaker cable. (Unfamiliar terms like “tinning” and others I may use in this section will be fully explained when we start soldering.)


    Weller SP7 Tip


    Helping hands
    In order to solder a connector, it needs to be stationary. Otherwise it’s rolling around all over the place, and we sure don’t want that. I was fortunate enough to pick up a so-called laboratory support stand assembly from a research facility I worked at many years ago that was slated for the dumpster, and it has been invaluable. Typically this is a three-piece system comprised of a heavy-duty support stand, clamp holder, and clamp. As you can see, this is a fairly pricey tool, but if you intend to do a lot of soldering, especially in an installation environment, it will be worth springing for one. The ability to raise the clamp to a height of a foot or more is invaluable for terminating connections at a wall plate, for instance.

    Fortunately, there are more economical options for the casual solderist (is that a real word?). The most common is probably the "helping hands" stands sold by Parts Express and other vendors. The downside to these is that the alligator clip doesn’t open very wide, so you’ll probably end up grabbing only the tip of an RCA plug. Fortunately that will be sufficient. The helping hands will also work fine for 1/4” plugs, but not so well for female XLRs. You’ll have to come up with something else for them.

    An alternative even cheaper than the helping hands, at least for RCAs and 1/4” plugs, is a plain old clothes pin.


    Helping Hands


    Homemade Helper


    Soldering Stand w/ Cleaning Sponge
    If you don’t get a soldering station, do yourself a favor and pick up a combination stand/cleaning sponge. Sure, you can get away with laying the soldering iron on the table when you’re not using it, but sooner or later it’s going to roll or fall off and burn something - or you. A common kitchen sponge, cut to size, can be used in place of a specific soldering sponge.


    Soldering Stand w/ Cleaning Sponge


    Solder
    Essentially, solder is a metal alloy with a low melting point, typically in the 3-400° range for the kind we’re using. The type of solder most commonly used for our application is a 60/40, tin/lead alloy. My favorite solder is an ultra-thin .031” type like Kester 44. Unfortunately, Kester seems to be available in nothing less than 1 lb. - which probably amounts to a lifetime supply for the hobbyist. As a more reasonable alternative, Radio Shack offers an 8-oz. spool of .032” for less than half the price of the Kester.

    There are at least a couple good reasons for using thin .031” solder over a thicker .050” or .060”. For one thing - as you’ll see when you actually do some hands-on soldering - with the .031” solder you can easily feed in the exact amount you need. With thicker solder, it’s easy to end up with too much.

    In addition, the thinner solder melts faster, and as we mentioned in Part 1, we want to be able to get our soldering iron in and out as quickly as possible to avoid potential damage to the cable or connector. You will occasionally find a use for thicker solder, like maybe for tinning large-gauge speaker wire, but probably not enough to justify buying some. If you feel the need, however, Radio Shack sells small spools for only few bucks.


    Kester 44 Rosin Core Solder


  7. #7


    RCA to 1/4” Mono Plug Adapter
    If you opt for the laboratory support stand w/ clamp, you’ll need a RCA to 1/4” adapter because RCA plugs are too small to fit in the clamp. The adapter may also prove useful if you use the “homemade helper” clothes pin as well. The RCA will plug into the adapter, which in turn is held by the clamp.


    RCA to 1/4” Mono Plug Adapter


    Utility Knife
    A utility knife will be used to score the circumference of the outer jacket insulating our cable.


    Utility Knife


    Xcelite 103S 5-1/4" Wire Stripper
    The Xcelite 103S stripper is ideal for the ultra-thin-gauge wire you’ll find inside a Canare, Belden or Mogami cable. It features an adjustable stop-wheel, which works great for stripping the insulation without cutting into the wire itself and losing some of the individual strands. That’s the last thing you want with thin, stranded wire; there’s precious little to spare. With a little practice you can get used to stripping the wire by “feel” alone and won’t need to fool with the wheel at all. Although this stripper is primarily designed for smaller-gauge wire, I use it for just about every wire I strip, from phone wire to Romex to large-gauge speaker wire. It’s easier and faster than using one of those strippers with the different-sized holes. Behind the stripping jaw, the Xcelite 103S’ edges are sharp enough to cut wire or cable, but you should use them only for cutting small-gauge wire; cutting anything large diameter can distort the entire jaw, rendering it useless for stripping. It’s best to use a specific tool for cutting wire and cable.


    Xcelite 103S Wire Stripper


    Xcelite 170M 5" Shearcutters
    The Xcelite 170M will be used for cutting away the filler materials you find in a cable once the insulator is stripped back. While the 170M will do some wire cutting, IMO its preferable to avoid that, as even a soft metal like copper will dull the cutting edges and make it useless for cutting the filler materials. The 170M is about the only angled-jaw cutter I’ve been able to find with completely flush cutting edges. That allows you to trim out as much of those filler materials as possible. As a side bonus, the 170M also ideal for flush-cutting the ends off of zip ties.



    Xcelite 170M cutters w/ flush-cutting jaw


    Xcelite R3322 Miniature Screwdriver
    A screwdriver like the Xcelite R3322 will be used for certain kinds of XLR connectors, most notably the Switchcraft brand, but possibly others as well. Alternately, you can use a jeweler’s screwdriver, but they have very thin handles. If a screw is jammed tight you won’t be able to get enough torque on it to break it loose. You’ll be able to with the Xcelite screwdriver.


    Xcelite R3322 Miniature Screwdriver


    Needle-Pointed Tool
    A sharp-pointed tool is most likely something you’ll have to make. It’s best to start with a small jeweler’s screw driver and grind or file the tip to a sharp point. This little gizmo will be used to unravel braided shields, especially the ultra-tight Canare shield. A bit low-brow perhaps, but I’ve found nothing better for the job.


    Needle-Pointed Tool


    6” Slip Joint Pliers
    Common slip joint pliers will be used for closing an RCA’s cable clamp, if you use that type of connector. Truth be told, just about any kind of pliers can be used, but the slip-joint type has a circular jaw to apply a more even pressure to the circumference of the clamp, rather than just two sides of it.


    6” Slip Joint Pliers


    6” Needle Nose Pliers
    A small pair of needle nose pliers will primarily be used if you ever want to recycle RCAs with a cable clamp. Once you pry the clamp off the cable you’ll find it will be distorted. The needle nose pliers can help re-shape it to something resembling its original round shape.


    6” Needle Nose Pliers


    8” Side Cutters
    A pair of fairly substantial side cutters, or some other variety of suitable cutters, be used for cutting our cable stock to length. As mentioned, the Xcelite cutters we’re using are not up to the task of cutting anything with a large diameter.


    8” Side Cutters


    Next up: Now that we have our tools lined out, it’s time to do some soldering!


  8. #8


    Part 4: Soldering RCA Plugs


    Okay. You have your tools lined out, soldering iron on and heating, and sponge wetted. You’re ready to go.

    For this illustration, we’ll be using the Canare braided-shield cable, since it is the most difficult to prep. Get this one down, and you’ll find most others easy to deal with. Likewise, we’ll start with RCA plugs. Once you master them, most other connectors (like XLR or 1/4”) will be comparatively easy.

    After you have cut your cables to the length you want, the first thing to do is slip the RCA’s barrel on the cable. If you’re using the Neutrik RCA, install the chuck clamp as well, with the tapered end facing the barrel.





    One of the keys to a successful project is to properly prepare the cable specifically for the connector you’re using. As you can see from the “under the hood” pictures of the various RCAs we showed you in Part 2, different connectors have physically different distances between the tip and sleeve connection points (i.e. solder cup and clamp/arm). Thus, the first step in prep’ing the cable is to determine how far the outer jacket needs to be stripped back. This is best done by measuring the distance between the cable clamp and the solder cup. (Actually, it’s good for the center conductor to be a smidgen longer than it needs to be – see the "Odds and ends" section on the next page.)



    With the Neutrik connector, you’ll measure the length between the solder cup and the end of the arm.



    A full-framed connector like the Daytona Super RCA has plenty of room under the barrel, so much so that it isn’t necessary to strip the jacket back the full distance between the solder cup and clamp. It doesn’t really matter from a functional stand point, but if you’re using Canare cable you certainly don’t want to deal with any more of that brutal shield than you have to!



    An easy way to measure the length you need to strip is to lay the cable end beside the RCA and mark the place you want to strip the jacket with the utility knife.



    Once you know where you want to strip the jacket, score the cable’s circumference with the utility knife. This is best accomplished by rolling the cable 360° over the blade with your thumb, applying a little pressure.



    Next take the Xcelite 103S wire stripper and position the jaw between the score and the cable end. Grip the cable and pull the scored insulator end off. As the picture below shows, you’ll probably find it helpful to push the strippers with your thumb while the other hand pulls. (NOTE: If the jacket doesn’t want to come off, it’s probably because it was not scored deep enough. With your next attempt, apply a bit more pressure when you roll the cable over the utility knife.)





    Now take the pointed jeweler’s screw driver and completely unravel the braided shield. (If you’re using a cable with a spiral shield, the shield will easily unwrap – no pointed tool needed.)






    Afterwards, fold the unwrapped shield down away from the filler material.



    Next, spread out the strands of filler material.


    Last edited by Wayne A. Pflughaupt; 06-16-2015 at 01:07 PM.

  9. #9


    Cut away the filler material using the Xcelite 170M shearcutters, as flush with the pulled-down shield as you can get it. The idea is to get rid of as much of the filler material as possible.





    Now pull the strands of shielding to one side.



    Twist the shields strands together, then proceed to strip the insulation off the ends of the center conductors using the 103S strippers. Try to make sure both are stripped to the same length.





    This is where it gets tricky. The jaws of the 103S strippers are very sharp and can easily cut right through the center conductor. If you’re unfamiliar with them, it’s best to set the stop wheel for the depth you want to cut – which would be just enough to cut through the insulator but not the strands of wire underneath. It might be a good idea to practice with a scrap piece of cable to get the right stop depth lined out, or maybe get a small spool of #22 or #24-gauge hook-up wire from Radio Shack to practice on. The center conductors are very thin and we don’t want to bite into them and thin out the strand count, if at all possible. That said, it’s not the end of the world if you do lose some strands. After you use the 103S strippers for a while you will get a feel for when you’ve cut through the insulator and reached the wire underneath, and you won’t need to use the stop wheel anymore. But until then - use it!

    Next, twist the two center conductors together.


    This is the prep for the “best durability” configuration, where the cable would still work in the event that one conductor failed.

    If you want to go with the “best noise rejection” configuration, the prep is a little different. With this configuration you would not strip both center conductors’ insulation the same length, as shown and described above. Instead, one of the center conductors will be stripped as close to the shield as possible.





    Bend the flush-stripped conductor’s wire strands over into those of the shield.



    Then, twist the center conductor wire strands into those of the shield (note the presence of both copper and silver stands in the shield in the picture below). This will send the signal (-), which normally travels on the shield, through one of the center conductors, which are twisted internally through the length of the cable. According to theory, when the signal (+) and (-) constantly change positions 180°, it aids in noise rejection. (The astute reader will no doubt note that the (-) signal will at this point be riding on both the second conductor and the shield. This situation will be addressed later in the Odds and Ends section – stay tuned.)


    Last edited by Wayne A. Pflughaupt; 06-16-2015 at 01:08 PM.

  10. #10


    With our cable prep’d, now we can solder it to the connector.

    Please keep this in mind as we proceed: Any time you pick up the soldering iron to use it, or return it to the stand after using it, the tip it should be cleaned by wiping it across the wet sponge, fore to aft.



    Cleaning before each use rids the tip of oxidation that builds up on its surface, which accumulates rather rapidly because of the extreme temperature. Cleaning afterwards purges the tip of solder and rosin residue. The rosin is especially problematic because once burned it becomes a corrosive agent that will eventually eat away at the tip and ruin it. Do this (i.e. soldering) long enough and you’ll eventually see a tip with a chunk missing from it, like someone took a bite out of it. That’s what latent rosin residue will do.

    The first step in the soldering process is known as “tinning.” Tinning is basically a “pre-loading” that infuses the stranded wire with solder. Any pieces that are to be soldered together must be tinned beforehand. This of course means that the RCA connector will need to be tinned as well as the wire. When you go to solder the wire to the connector, solder will melt and flow (exchange) between the two. The result is a connection that is both physically and electrically sound.

    Before tinning the cable or connector, first tin the iron by adding a dab of solder to it. Due to the necessary and frequent cleaning of the iron, it will need to be freshly tinned each step of the way. Basically, you should get in the habit of tinning the iron any time you pick it up, just as you should make it a habit to clean the tip. So to be perfectly clear, the proper procedure is: (1) pick up the iron, (2) clean the tip, (3) tin the tip, (4) tin the wires or connector (or perform the soldered connection), (5) clean the tip, (6) return the iron to the stand.

    You will notice some smoke when you tin the iron. This is from the rosin in the solder burning. It’s not healthy to breathe that smoke, so make sure you’re working in a well-ventilated area.



    In practice I like to tin the cable first, then the connector, because it requires less shuffling of pieces in and out of the helping hands clamps. However, for the sake of written continuity in these instructions, we will start with the RCA connector.

    Press the (cleaned and) tinned tip of the soldering iron into the solder cup for 2-3 seconds, then add solder. When the solder cup reaches the right temperature the solder will melt and flow into it. Feed in enough solder to fill the cup.





    Next press the tip of the iron to arm, slightly behind the solder cup. Heat and add solder. This picture of the Neutrik connector shows what your tinned locations should look like. As you can see, there is a small pad of solder on the arm, and the cup has a good amount of solder filling it. Any more than this is excess, which is not good.



    If you’re using a standard RCA, the arrow in this picture shows the correct location for the solder pad on the arm/clamp assembly.



    The next step is to tin the bare ends on our prep’d cable - i.e. center conductor and shield. We’ll start with the center conductor.

    Press the iron to the bare wire and immediately add a bit of solder to the wire. When the wire reaches the correct temperature, the solder will melt and flow into the wire. When that happens, pull the iron away. The whole process should take only 2-3 seconds (unless you’re using an iron with lower wattage than the 35-50 watts I recommended in Part 3 – if you are, it will take a bit longer). Leave the iron in place too long and the center conductor’s insulator may start to melt.







    The wire should be fully saturated with solder, but not to the point where it is “globbed” like this:



    Here is what a “before and after” should look like. Basically, if the wire looks pretty much the same as it did before, but you can see that the color has changed from copper to silver, you’ve done it right.


    Before tinning



    After tinning


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