Sunday, September 8, 2013

Speaker Wire: Choosing and Installing

Amanda P.
The speaker wire you use can have a noticeable impact on the sound quality of your system; even the greatest speakers won't sound their best with poor-quality wire. Most speakers don't include speaker wire, and choosing from the available options can sometimes be confusing. Read on for tips on selecting the right gauge, length, and type of speaker wire for your system, plus techniques and options to help you make dependable connections to your gear.
Note: Some speakers, such as those included with Bose® Lifestyle® systems and some pre-packaged surround sound systems, use non-standard plug-in connections. In these cases, using separately purchased speaker wire is not possible.

What gauge do you need?

The thickness of a wire's conductive copper bundle is identified by its American Wire Gauge (AWG, or usually just "gauge") number. The lower the gauge, the thicker the wire — and the better its capacity to pass the amplified audio signal. Most speaker wire available on the market today ranges in thickness from 12-gauge to 16-gauge.
When choosing wire gauge, consider the quality of your components and speakers, the overall sound quality you're trying to achieve, and the budget you're working with. Also, keep in mind the distance between your receiver or amp and your speakers — long wire runs can cause significant power losses and thus require thicker cable.
You can use the following chart as a guideline:
Length of wire neededGauge
Less than 50 feet16
50 feet or longer14
You may want to consider thicker speaker cable if:
  • You're connecting an audiophile-quality music system or a surround sound home theater setup. Thicker wire can help your system deliver fine musical detail or the explosive effects of 5.1-channel surround sound.
  • You can't avoid long wire runs to your speakers; for example, in the case of a wired multi-room system, where you'll likely use in-wall speaker wire from room to room. Thicker wire reduces the overall resistance, lightening the load on your receiver or amp. This can mean not only a difference in sound quality, but also in the long-term dependability of your system.
On the other hand, if you're buying a modestly priced system and trying to keep the overall cost down, or if your speakers are located relatively close to your receiver, standard 16-gauge wire may be the way to go. Aside from being less expensive, thinner wire can be easier to work with if you're routing it along baseboards or door frames.

Other indicators of quality speaker wire

Speaker wire manufacturers consider more than just gauge — better wire may have higher quality metals that increase conductivity. Some speaker wire also features special construction to protect your components from interference. To get the best possible sound from your system, look into these "bonus" characteristics when you're choosing speaker wire.

How much wire do you need?

Figuring out how much speaker wire to buy can be pretty simple. Just run a string from your intended receiver location to each of the intended locations of your speakers. Carefully pull the string along any door frames, corners, or other obstructions in the intended wire path. Allow plenty of slack for the wire to take gradual turns, since sharp bends can impair performance.
Measure the string carefully and double-check your work. Make sure to add some extra. This gives you a margin of error and allows some leeway for easier connection to your gear.

Matching cable length

Ideally, the lengths of wire running to your three front speakers should be the same. The longer the wire, the greater the resistance. Using the same length of wire for all three front speakers ensures they all get the same amount of power and thus produce sound at the same volume. But don't worry if the wire lengths for your three front speakers vary by a couple of feet or so — a difference this small probably won't create any noticeable differences in output. It's also a good idea to have the lengths of wire for your surround speakers match each other, though they don't need to match the length of your front speaker wires.

What type of wire do you need?

If you don't want to route your wire through your walls, you can use standard speaker wire. Flat, paintable speaker wire will blend into your décor for a cleaner look. Many home improvement and hardware stores also sell paintable cable management raceways that attach to your wall or baseboard and keep the wires hidden. For tips on clever ways to hide wire, see our article on home A/V cable management.
If you're going to run cable inside your walls or ceiling, you'll need UL-rated speaker wire labeled CL2 or CL3. The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) looks at heat generated from current flowing through wire, how quickly the cable will catch and spread fire when exposed to flame, and the wire's susceptibility to damage from external stresses. Take a look at our comprehensive in-wall wiring guide for more information. Finally, if you want to install your outdoor speaker wire underground, you'll need direct-burial rated wire.

Not convinced quality matters when it comes to speaker wire?

Speaker cable is an important part of your speaker setup. Very old or very cheap speaker cable can degrade sound quality. Of course, if you have a hard time believing speaker cable quality makes a difference, you're not alone — many people believe that those recommendations are just hype. Here's a suggestion: choose good-quality cable to go with your new speakers. Make sure you buy it from a retailer with a good return policy. Try it out at home, and compare the wire's performance to the sound you get from old, thin cables. If you don't hear a difference, just return the cables. Many people do end up hearing a difference, of course, and this is especially noticeable with higher-quality speakers.

Connection basics

In order to carry the amplified signal from your receiver's (or amp's) output terminals to your speaker's input terminals, speaker wire consists of two leads, typically encased and bundled in plastic insulation — one for the positive signal and one for the negative. Your speaker wire will probably be marked (+) and (-) to help you distinguish the two leads; if not, there will be some way to visually tell them apart.
Speaker wire connectors
For good, solid connections, use speaker wire terminated with connectors instead of using stripped bare wire ends. Speaker wire connectors help safeguard against harmful short circuits.
Types of connectors
Bare WiresBare wires might seem like the simplest route, but they can unravel and fray, potentially causing a short circuit.
Pin ConnectorsPin connectors are easier to work with than bare wire, and they fit securely in spring clips or binding posts.
Banana PlugsBanana plugs are a popular choice — they simply plug into the middle of a binding post, giving you a solid connection.
Spade ConnectorsSpade connectors offer a good connection and fit in behind the red or black collar of most binding posts.
Dual Banana PlugDual banana plugs connect both positive and negative speaker leads and are properly spaced to fit 5-way binding posts.
For ultimate connection ease, look for speaker cables with connectors already attached. If you want to cut your own wire to just the right length, so you don't have any extra wire to hide, you can find some connectors that are easy to attach. Before you order connectors — either separately or pre-attached to wire — be sure to verify that your receiver and speakers have compatible terminals.
If you do decide to hook up your wire without connectors, use a wire stripper to take about 3/8-inch of insulation off the ends of each lead, exposing the bare wire strands (be careful not to cut these strands). Twist each lead's bare wire strands tightly, so no stray strands are sticking out. Loose strands could make contact with the cable's other lead and cause a short circuit, potentially damaging your components.
Speaker wire terminals
Speakers have one of two different types of speaker wire terminals — spring clips and binding posts (see illustration below). Spring clips are very easy to work with. Simply press down on the clip, insert the speaker wire, and release. The spring-loaded mechanism holds the wire in place. Spring clip terminals can accept bare wire and pin connectors, but not spade connectors, banana plugs, or dual-banana plugs.
Binding posts provide a very solid connection for your speaker wire. Unscrew the collar to reveal the hole used to connect bare wire and pin connectors. Banana and dual banana plugs connect directly into the hole in the center of a binding post. A spade connector slides around the collar and is secured once you screw the collar back down.
Speaker wire terminals
Spring ClipsSpring clips offer simple, secure connections.
Binding PostsBinding posts make stronger connections.
A complete discussion of speaker connectors and terminals can be found in our speaker glossary.

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