Speaker wire seems like such a dull subject, right?
Who cares about all those annoying wires that make your room look messy? The fun stuff is the amplifier and speakers!
So, you buy the first wire you come across in your hurry to get on with the show.
Well, you might be surprised to know that there are loads of exciting things to learn about speaker wires.
Yes, as with many things in the home theater world, there’s plenty of technical stuff to get your head around.
And some people get very over-excited about this subject, which is fun!
So, if you want to understand more about the thrilling world of speaker cables, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
First, in the ultimate speaker wire guide, let’s start with the basics.
- What Is Speaker Wire?
- What Does Speaker Cable Look Like?
- What Type of Speaker Cable Do You Need?
- What Is the Best Gauge Wire For Speakers?
- What Makes Good Speaker Cables?
- Do You Have to Use Regular Wire for Your Speakers?
- What Is the Advantage of Buying Proper Cable?
- What Is the Best Speaker Wire?
- Best Selling Speaker Wire at Amazon
- What Is OFC Speaker Wire?
- Do Expensive Cables Make a Difference?
- How Much Should You Spend on Cable and Interconnects?
- Should You Buy Copper or CCA Wire?
- What Is the Maximum Speaker Wire Length?
- Should the Length of the Speaker Cables Be the Same for Both Speakers?
- How to Connect Wire to Your Speakers
- What's the Best Way to Hide Speaker Wires?
- Which Is Positive and Negative on Speaker Wire?
- Should You Replace Old Speaker Cables and Connectors?
- Should You Solder Connectors or Tin the Wire?
What Is Speaker Wire?
Speaker wire, or speaker cable, connects an amplifier and speakers.
An amplifier sends an electrical current audio signal to a speaker, and the current powers the speaker drivers – which is how they make a sound.
Therefore, a speaker wire is just a means to conduct electrical current, just like the cable that sends power to your lamp or television.
What Does Speaker Cable Look Like?
Speaker wire looks like the picture below – although many different types exist.
The traditional wire used for speakers has two conductors for connecting the positive and negative connectors on amplifiers and speakers.
Unlike the picture above, the wire usually has the same type of conductor for both cores, typically copper.
The inner core is insulated on the outside by some form of plastic. You must remove the insulation to expose bare wire at each end before connecting to your speakers or amplifier.
You can connect the bare wire directly to the speaker connectors – or use termination to make the connection easier and more reliable. Common types of termination are banana plugs or spade connectors.
See the guide on how to connect speaker wire for more information on this.
What Type of Speaker Cable Do You Need?
There are two main things to look for when buying cable for your speakers; the material used for the internal conductor and the thickness of the wire.
You will see other differences, but most of it is marketing smoke and mirrors to make you buy the wire, so it’s generally best to stick to the fundamentals.
1. Wire Core Material
There are three main conducting materials commonly used to make speaker wire (you may find more exotic versions if you look hard enough):
- Copper: standard for connecting speakers since the early days and used in many industries to conduct electricity. Speaker wire is typically stranded copper, with numerous thin copper lengths bundled together. You can’t go wrong with this.
- Copper-Coated Aluminum (CCA): as copper became more expensive, CCA became more popular because it was cheaper to make and buy. CCA wire is also typically stranded. Each strand has an aluminum core with a thin outer copper coating, which works just fine. However, it has a different resistance to copper, so you might need to get a thicker cable than copper for the same cable run.
- Silver: popular in more ‘audiophile’ speaker wire products. Silver has better electrical conductivity than copper, so it is supposed to be a superior solution. The cable is likely to be silver-plated copper rather than solid silver – although this does exist. If the cable length required is low enough resistance, there won’t be any audible difference between copper and silver. But, if you prefer, you can buy silver-plated wires. I won’t judge!
2. AWG Speaker Wire Gauge
The gauge of a speaker wire refers to the cable’s thickness.
But here’s where things get confusing. The higher the gauge number, the thinner the cable, which might seem counter-intuitive.
In North America, the American Wire Gauge (AWG) is the commonly used standard.
Although AWG specifies a wide range of sizes, when it comes to AWG speaker wire, the most common ones are 14 and 16 gauge, which will all work just fine for most home theater and stereo music systems.
If you want extra thick wire, then 12 gauge is popular with enthusiasts.
Now, things are different if you’re in the UK, where they measure speaker cable by cross-sectional area in square millimeters.
The common wire sizes for speakers in the UK are 0.5 mm² (which is about 20 AWG), 0.75 mm² (about 18 AWG), 1.5 mm² (around 16 AWG), and 4.0 mm² (roughly 12 AWG).
Just be careful when comparing different scales because it’s easy to get mixed up.
For instance, the cross-sectional area is not the same as the diameter of the cable. Who said this was easy?
What Is the Best Gauge Wire For Speakers?
You must choose the correct gauge wire to get the best sound from your speaker system.
To do this, you need to think about a few things:
- How far do you need to run the cable?
- What is the cable made from?
- What is the impedance of your speakers?
Respected loudspeaker engineer Roger Russell suggests that the wire’s resistance should be less than 5% of the speaker’s impedance. If so, it won’t alter the sound from the amplifier.
For example, if you have 8-ohm speakers and use copper wire, even a thin 22-gauge wire is OK for cables up to 12 feet long.
But if your speakers have a lower impedance, or you want a longer run, you should use thicker wire like 12 or 14 gauge.
Most people use a 14 or 16-gauge wire size for hi-fi and home theater speakers because it works well in most situations without worrying about the finer details.
For more details, check out Speaker Wire Gauge: What Size Should You Buy?
What Makes Good Speaker Cables?
The main feature that a speaker wire needs is a core with low resistance.
Less resistance means more signal will reach the speaker from the amplifier. We use copper as the core conductor for electrical and speaker wires, as it is an excellent low-resistance conductor for electricity.
Low capacitance and inductance are also important but less crucial than resistance.
Why is that? Because minor differences between the capacitance and inductance of wires will not be audible. So if someone tries to sell you wire based on those, don’t take it too seriously.
Apart from that, a speaker wire should have flexible and durable insulation outside the core.
Flexibility is needed to make installing the cable in tight spaces easy.
The insulation should also protect the core from electrical interference and oxidization – and not deteriorate over time and contaminate the core.
Do You Have to Use Regular Wire for Your Speakers?
You have to use something to connect your amplifier and speakers. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be a traditional speaker wire.
So, what is the difference between wire used for speakers and plain old electrical wire? Not as much as you might think.
Theoretically, you could use anything that will pass electric current from A to B – the cable used to power your lamp, for example, or a wire coat hanger…
However, you probably don’t need to do that – unless you really have no money to spend.
In practice, most people will buy ‘speaker wire.’
This comes in different sizes and at various prices; you just need to decide on the right choice for your equipment.
You will hear many opinions that you must buy an expensive audiophile wire to get the best sound in your room.
I don’t subscribe to that view. However, if you believe it helps, you should buy whatever you are comfortable with.
What Is the Advantage of Buying Proper Cable?
One advantage of buying wires designed for speakers is that one side will be marked with a line or with ridges.
The markings make connecting easier at the amplifier and speaker – positive to positive and negative to negative.
It will also have flexible and resilient outer insulation that makes it easy to install – and reduces interference from other electrical signals.
However, you will also see other features of dedicated speaker wires that are supposed to improve performance.
Some of these include:
- Oxygen-free copper
- Cryogenic treatment
- Directional cables
- Magic fairy dust (OK, that one was a joke!)
I’m not going to tell you this is wrong. Arguments have raged for years about whether it is possible to hear the difference between different types of speaker wires.
So, in the end, you’ll need to make up your own mind.
But I don’t believe there is any significant difference in performance between a simple wire and a ‘special audiophile’ speaker wire.
Some brands offer wires with connectors already fitted at each end, which can be helpful if you want a reliable connection and want to avoid the trouble of doing it yourself.
But, it’s not necessary – and, in most cases, you can always use bare wire for the connection.
What Is the Best Speaker Wire?
If you have read the previous points, you will know that I don’t think buying expensive speaker wire is worth your time – and money.
If you haven’t read the previous points, you should before buying speaker wire.
Are expensive brand-name products the best speaker wires that you can buy?
Well, if you think it improves the sound in your room and makes you feel better buying it, it is the best speaker wire for you.
But I won’t recommend any particular brand; you don’t need to overthink this.
Buy a well-known brand if you wish – but their basic wire is all you need. You can also get cheap unbranded copper speaker wire that will do just fine in most cases.
Just get the right gauge for the job.
In my opinion, the best speaker wire is simply the correct gauge for your system while taking into account the following:
- The impedance of your speakers.
- How far you need to run the wire from the amplifier to the speaker.
Then, it just needs to be well-made with a copper conductor.
Generally, I would buy copper wire if you can – but don’t lose any sleep over this.
To save money, buy cheaper CCA (Copper-Coated Aluminum) wire.
If you want to pay a little more for pre-terminated speaker wire with banana plugs or spades already connected at the end, that’s fine.
But what happens if you change your speakers or amplifier and want a different termination type?
It’s easy to connect the termination yourself.
While you can solder these connectors in place, most will screw on and are perfectly acceptable.
Best Selling Speaker Wire at Amazon
|Image||Product||Gauge (AWG)||Material||Length (Feet)|
|Amazon Basics Speaker Wire||16||Copper-Clad Aluminum||100||Check Price|
|InstallGear Speaker Wire||14||Copper-Clad Aluminum||100||Check Price|
|<||GearIT Pro Speaker Wire||14||Copper-Clad Aluminum||100||Check Price|
|GearIT Pro Speaker Wire||12||Copper-Clad Aluminum||50||Check Price|
|GS Power Speaker Wire||10||Copper (OFC)||25||Check Price|
|InstallGear Speaker Wire||12||Copper (OFC)||30||Check Price|
|GS Power Speaker Wire||12||Copper-Clad Aluminum||100||Check Price|
What Is OFC Speaker Wire?
OFC stands for Oxygen-free Copper.
OFC is copper that has been refined to reduce the level of oxygen. However, it still contains a tiny amount of oxygen, so it isn’t technically ‘oxygen-free.’
Nevertheless, it has become a popular method for making speaker wire because, in theory, the purity should aid electrical conductivity.
So, it’s another way to convince you to buy the wire – because the pure OFC wire will improve the sound, right?
Well, first, consider that the copper regularly used for electrical purposes (C11000) has a purity of 99.9%. And OFC has a purity of 99.95%.
Will that extra 0.05% actually make a difference to the sound coming from your speakers?
So, there’s no harm in buying OFC wire. It might be all that is available. Just don’t believe the hype.
Do Expensive Cables Make a Difference?
An expensive speaker cable doesn’t sound any different from a standard copper wire. There, I said it!
If you buy the correct wire gauge for the length you need, installing a cheaper speaker wire won’t degrade the audio signal between the amp and your speakers.
But if you think it does, that’s great. Whatever works for you.
I recommend spending your money on better speakers or fixing issues with the acoustics in your room before spending lots of money on expensive cables.
How Much Should You Spend on Cable and Interconnects?
A typical rule of thumb is to spend 5%, or 10%, of the cost of your sound system.
That’s a reasonable ballpark if you want something to go by.
However, there isn’t a need to set a fixed number – simply buy the right cable for the job.
Work out the correct wire gauge for your system and get some basic copper wire.
Should You Buy Copper or CCA Wire?
If money isn’t a problem, buy copper. It’s tried and tested, and you can sleep easy at night.
But CCA (copper-clad aluminum) is fine if you want to save money.
Just make sure you consider the higher cable resistance compared to copper when calculating the best gauge to buy.
If you only need short cable runs (or have a budget amplifier and speakers), it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference regardless of which one you buy.
Here’s a comparison table summarizing the difference between copper and CCA wire.
|Copper-Coated Aluminum (CCA)||Copper Wire|
|Composition||Aluminum core coated with a layer of copper.||Pure copper.|
|Cost||Generally less expensive due to the cheaper and lighter aluminum core.||More expensive because it is fully composed of copper.|
|Conductivity||Lower electrical conductivity compared to pure copper wire but still sufficient for many applications.||Higher electrical conductivity that ensures minimal power loss or signal degradation.|
|Corrosion Resistance||Copper layer offers protection against corrosion. However, if this protective layer gets damaged, the aluminum underneath can corrode quickly.||Naturally resistant to corrosion without need for an additional protective layer.|
|Weight||Lighter due to the aluminum core, which might be advantageous in applications where weight is a concern.||Heavier because copper is denser.|
|Durability||Less durable since the aluminum core may become damaged over time especially with frequent movement or manipulation.||More durable and can withstand frequent movement and manipulation better than CCA wire.|
What Is the Maximum Speaker Wire Length?
There is no exact number on how far you can run a speaker wire.
The general opinion is that over 50 feet may begin to give audible differences in sound quality – regardless of the thickness of the cable.
Should the Length of the Speaker Cables Be the Same for Both Speakers?
Try to make it roughly the same, but don’t lose any sleep if it’s not exactly right.
Theoretically, you might get a slightly different sound between speakers if one has a much longer cable running to it.
But it’s unlikely to make much difference in the real world.
Of course, try not to go to extremes. You know, by having a 3-foot wire to your left speaker and the whole 50-foot reel of wire connected to the right.
That would be silly.
And anyway, if you are connecting surround sound speakers around your room, it might be impossible to get these matched precisely.
Who knows what manner of furniture and wall furnishings you will need to avoid while running wire back to your amplifier?
Your room is hardly likely to be exactly symmetrical.
Try to make each speaker wire run as short as possible – but don’t worry about minor differences between speakers.
How to Connect Wire to Your Speakers
When it comes to connecting wires to your speakers, you have a few options.
Binding posts and spring clips are the primary ways to connect speakers with wires.
Binding posts are common; you will find these on most mid-range and high-end speakers. On the other hand, you will find spring clips on more budget equipment.
Once you know which connectors you have, you just need to decide how to secure the cable to the speaker.
Using bare wire is the simplest method since you don’t need any extra accessories. But you can also terminate the cables with various connectors, making it easier to plug them in.
Banana plugs offer a reliable connection using a standard screw-in connector. But they may require soldering if you want a more permanent solution.
Spade connectors are suitable for limited spaces and can be crimped or soldered. In contrast, pin connectors are generally used for spring clip connections and can be crimped, soldered, or screwed in.
For more information on this, learn how to connect speaker wires.
What’s the Best Way to Hide Speaker Wires?
Setting up a sound system is great fun. But there’s no denying it can create a bit of a mess if you’re not careful.
One of the biggest problems is all that pesky speaker wire taking over the room like a jungle of multicolored vines.
But don’t fret. There’s always a solution if you give it some thought.
Here are a few ways you can try to make those wires disappear from view:
- Hide them under carpets and rugs.
- Use raceways along the floor or baseboard.
- Get out the drill and hide them in the walls.
- Follow natural room features like crown moldings and window frames.
- Install in-wall or in-ceiling speakers.
- Buy flat speaker wire instead of traditional round cable.
There are plenty of ways once you think about it.
For more details on these solutions, plus a few more, check out how to hide speaker wire.
Which Is Positive and Negative on Speaker Wire?
A speaker wire doesn’t have a positive or negative. It is the speaker and amplifier connections that have positive and negative terminals.
Your job is to ensure the amplifier’s positive terminal connects to the positive terminal on the speaker. And the same with the negative side.
Speaker wire is typically marked with a line or a + and – sign to make wiring easier. Or sometimes, there is a colored line on one of the strands.
Look closely, and you will see it.
Just make sure to connect the side with the marking to the corresponding terminal at either end. But it doesn’t matter which way around you do it.
For me, the line is on the positive side.
But you can swap it around if you like. It will simply make life easier if you remember a convention you always use.
Is the same piece of wire connected to the positive at both ends? Is the other wire connected to the negative at both ends?
Yes? Sorted. Make sure you do the same for every speaker.
Should You Replace Old Speaker Cables and Connectors?
Don’t get too hung up about this. However, if your cable and connections are a year or two old and look dirty, giving your system a bit of TLC will not harm.
If you are using bare wire, then just cut off the end and strip a new section of insulation. That is, assuming you have enough slack to spare!
The speaker wire inside a banana plug or other termination types should be protected and clean. That’s one advantage of using these types of connectors.
But, if the connectors on the wire or the speaker and amplifier are dirty, clean them.
I always use Isopropyl alcohol cleaning fluid. There are many brands that you can pick up cheaply enough.
This one at Amazon is perfect for cleaning all types of electrical components.
- 99.9% isopropyl alcohol
- Safe cleaning for all types of electronics
- Perfect for cables, electrical contacts and electronic devices
- Not suitable for health purposes - electronics only
Should You Solder Connectors or Tin the Wire?
I don’t. However, that’s mainly because I’m terrible at soldering!
My take is that you don’t need to, but you can if you want.
Tinning speaker wire applies a thin solder coating to the wire’s bare end, which can help prevent oxidation and keep rogue copper strands in check.
But it also might make getting a solid connection with a binding post or screw-in plug harder.
Once the bare wire is tight inside the binding post or banana plug, it shouldn’t get dirty anyway.
A soldered connection for a plug might give you less chance of oxidation and a more reliable connection. But you need to be sure your soldering skills are up to the job, or you might make it worse.
Some people do solder the connections. Most people don’t.
Many banana plugs will have a screw-in connection which will work just fine. Just go with what you are comfortable with. There’s no need to lose sleep over it.
You may have thought purchasing speaker wire for your system would be simple.
Not so fast, my friend!
As with most things in the home theater world, there are plenty of fun things to learn if you want to dig into the detail.
Before getting some speaker wire, you have learned some of the most important things to understand.
But it’s pretty easy.
First, work out how far you need to run the cable and the impedance of your speakers – then, you can purchase the correct gauge wire for your room.
It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
If you want to go for some expensive ‘audiophile’ wire, that’s up to you – but in most rooms, it’s likely to make little difference to the sound.
Keep it simple and spend extra money on a better amplifier or speakers.
But it’s your choice.
About The Author
Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has been a sound, lighting and audio-visual engineer for around 20 years. At home, he has spent more time than is probably healthy installing, configuring, testing, de-rigging, fixing, tweaking, re-installing again (and sometimes using) various pieces of hi-fi and home cinema equipment. You can find out more here.