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Speaker Wire 101: All Your Questions Answered

Speaker Wire 101

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Choosing the best speaker wire can be a minefield. What gauge? Expensive or cheap? Get your questions answered in the ultimate guide to speaker wire.

Speaker wire might seem like such a dull subject, right?

Who cares about those annoying wires that just make your room look a bit messy? The fun stuff is the amplifier and speakers!

So, you just buy the first speaker 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 wire.

Yes, as with many things in the world of home theater, 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 wire, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

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GS Power Speaker Wire 12 Copper-Clad Aluminum 100 Check Price

What Is Speaker Wire?

Speaker wire is used to connect an amplifier to a set of speakers. In some parts of the world, it is also known as speaker cable.

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 wire that sends power to your lamp or television.

What Does Speaker Wire Look Like?

Speaker wire looks like the picture below – although there are many different types.

Speaker wire with the insulation stripped at the end

Traditional speaker wire 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, usually copper.

The inner core is insulated on the outside by some form of plastic. This should be removed to expose bare wire at each end before connecting to your speakers or amplifier.

The bare wire can be connected directly to the speaker connectors – or, sometimes, a form of termination is added to make the connection easier and more reliable.

See the guide on how to connect speaker wire for more information on this.

Do You Have to Use Speaker Wire?

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 speaker wire and plain old electrical wire? Not as much as you might think.

In theory, 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 price points; you just need to decide which is the right choice for your equipment.

You may hear people say that you need to buy an expensive audiophile speaker wire to get the best sound in your room – and, while some people do, many don’t.

If you think it helps, you should buy whatever you are comfortable with, but if you are in doubt, just buy some cheap, basic wire.

What Is the Advantage of Buying Proper Speaker Cable?

One advantage of buying wire designed for speakers is that one side will be clearly marked with a line or with ridges.

This makes connecting easier at the amplifier and speaker – positive to positive and negative to negative.

It will also have a 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 wire 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!)

There have been arguments raging for years about if it is possible to hear the difference between different types of exotic speaker wire.

So, in the end, you’ll need to make your own mind up.

But, it is unlikely you will hear any significant difference in performance between a simple wire and a ‘special audiophile’ speaker wire.

Some brands offer speaker wires with connectors already fitted at each end of the wire, which can be helpful if you want a reliable connection and don’t want 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 Makes Good Speaker Wire?

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.

This is why copper has always been used as the core conductor for electrical and speaker wires – copper is an excellent low resistance conductor for electricity.

Speaker wire should also have low capacitance and inductance – but these are less important than resistance.

Apart from that, a speaker wire should have flexible and durable insulation outside the core.

Flexibility is needed to make it easy to install the cable in tight spaces.

The insulation should also protect the core from electrical interference and oxidization – and not deteriorate over time and contaminate the core.

What Type of Speaker Cable Do You Need?

There are two main things to look for when buying speaker wire; 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 3 main conducting materials commonly used to make speaker wire (you may find more exotic versions if you look hard enough):

  • Copper: standard since the early days of speaker wire and used in many industries to conduct electricity. Speaker wire is typically stranded copper, which comprises many thin lengths of copper bundled together. You can’t go wrong with this.
  • Copper-Clad 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. However, if the resistance is low enough for the length of cable that you need, there is unlikely to be any audible difference between copper and silver.

2. Speaker Wire Gauge Types

The gauge of the speaker wire refers to the thickness of the cable.

It can be confusing because the higher the gauge, the thinner the cable, which appears counter-intuitive.

The American Wire Gauge (AWG) is the standard used in North America.

This standard wasn’t created explicitly for speaker wire but is used in various industries that employ different wire types.

You might also hear it called the Brown & Sharpe wire gauge.

Although the AWG specifies a wide range of sizes, the most common sizes for speaker wire are probably 12, 14, and 16-gauge.

These will be ideal for most wiring duties in an average home theater and stereo music system.

Speaker wire gauges - AWG and Diameter in millimeters
Speaker Wire Gauges – AWG and Diameter (not to scale)

Is the AWG standard recognized around the world? Unfortunately not, and there are several other wire gauge standards used worldwide.

Here is a wire gauge comparison download that might be useful if you want to compare wire sizes worldwide.

In the UK, speaker wire is often measured by cross-sectional area in square millimeters – which, incidentally, is not the same as the diameter.

However, sometimes, the AWG is quoted. How confusing is that?

Here is a chart that shows the comparison of the most common AWG speaker wire sizes and cross-sectional areas:

Speaker Wire AWG & Cross Section Comparison Table
Speaker Wire AWG & Cross Section Comparison Table
Source: sengpielaudio.com

The common wire sizes for speakers in the UK are:

  • 0.5 mm²
  • 0.75 mm²
  • 1.5 mm²
  • 2.5 mm²
  • 4.0 mm²

So, it’s not an exact match to the table above, but you can see the approximate equivalent size in AWG.

For example, 1.5 mm² is about the same as 16 AWG – and 2.5 mm² is roughly equivalent to 14 AWG.

The gauge of speaker wire is the most important feature when deciding what to buy.

Why? Because as the wire gets thicker, the resistance decreases.

And, to get the best audio performance, you want the resistance below a certain level.

What Is Bigger – 14 or 16 Gauge Wire?

14-gauge speaker wire is thicker than 16-gauge.

14 gauge wire is 1.6mm in diameter, and 16-gauge wire is 1.3mm.

Is Thicker Gauge Speaker Wire Better?

Sometimes.

A thicker gauge wire will have less resistance (impedance) – and less resistance is good.

If the resistance is kept below a certain level in your system, it won’t degrade the audio passing from your amplifier to your speakers.

So, if you need long cable runs, it is more important to use thicker wire to keep the resistance low.

However, it isn’t the case that thicker wire is better or worse – it’s about getting the correct gauge for the job.

Depending on the length of the speaker wire that you need, a thinner speaker cable may have the same audio performance as a thicker one.

But if you need to run a cable for a longer distance, yes, a thicker speaker wire might be better.

What Is the Best Gauge for Speaker Wire?

What is the right size speaker wire for your room?

Well, it depends on a couple of factors.

The best speaker wire gauge for your system will depend on:

  1. how far you want to run the cable
  2. the type of material that the conductor is made from
  3. the impedance of the speakers

Respected loudspeaker engineer Roger Russell says that the ideal resistance for a speaker wire is less than 5% of the rated impedance of the connected speaker.

If so, there will be no audible effect on the sound coming from the amplifier.

So how are you supposed to work that out?

Fortunately, Roger has also produced a simple table to make this clear.

Here are his guidelines for 4, 6, and 8-ohm speakers connected with two-conductor copper wire – which should cover most speakers designed for the home.

Roger also has the numbers for 2-ohm speakers on his site, so check that out if you need those.

Speaker wire gauge chart - maximum speaker wire length for two-conductor copper wire
Speaker Wire Gauge Chart – Maximum Wire Length
*For Two Conductor Copper Wire. Source: www.roger-russell.com

As you can see from the speaker wire gauge chart above, if you have 8-ohm speakers, then even a skinny 22 AWG wire can be run up to 12-feet with no loss of audio fidelity.

That might be plenty for your front left, front right and center speaker.

Not that you should necessarily buy 22 AWG wires – most systems will use 16, 14 or 12-gauge AWS wire.

16-gauge copper wire can run up to 48-feet with 8-ohm speakers.

So, if you want a wire size that will suit most circumstances, then a 16-gauge copper wire is probably a good fit.

But for speakers with a lower impedance, you might go with 12 or 14 AWG just to be safe.

Even though the table refers to lengths up to 200 feet, you wouldn’t want to run cable this far. Roger suggests a maximum cable run of 50-feet.

What About CCA Wire?

You shouldn’t forget that this data refers to copper speaker wire.

If you buy copper-clad aluminum wire, this will have an increased impedance compared to copper.

Roger Russell doesn’t provide these figures, but just bear this in mind when buying your cable.

As a rough rule-of-thumb, maybe get the next thickness up to be on the safe side.

So, if 16-gauge copper wire is fine for your room, then maybe get 14-gauge if you buy CCA.

Of course, this may cancel out the cost savings of buying CCA instead of copper! Life is full of tough decisions.

It really doesn’t matter which you buy for short cable runs – say 10-feet and under – you are unlikely to hear a difference.

If in doubt, and assuming you can afford it, just buy copper cable.

Your Speakers Have a Nominal 8-ohm Rating; Which Gauge Wire Should You Buy?

Great question!

You previously learned that the wire gauge you buy depends on the speaker’s impedance.

However, a speaker’s impedance is nominal, which means it is an average value – so, at some frequencies, it can go above and below the nominal figure.

If so, how do you work out the best wire gauge?

First, you should find out the minimum impedance for your speakers – you should be able to get this from the user manual or manufacturer’s website.

Then, if you wanted to be sure of getting it exactly right, you could use this as the impedance for your speakers.

Now, you have plenty of slack when working out the best wire gauge for a cable length – so the chances are it won’t make a difference.

But, if you are close to the distance limit for a particular gauge, you might want to consider the minimum impedance of the speaker rather than the nominal value.

Either that or just get the next size up anyway.

What Is the Recommended Wire Gauge for Home Theater and Surround Sound?

Choosing the correct speaker wire gauge might seem necessary for audiophile stereo speaker systems.

But what about home theater and surround sound? What is the correct speaker gauge for this?

Well, the rules are the same – you are still using amplifiers, speakers and wire.

So, just select the correct gauge depending on your speaker impedance and the cable length.

If you want a quick answer, a 14-gauge AWS speaker wire should cover most solutions with no problems – and most people will be fine with the cheaper 16-gauge AWS.

But, if you want to be sure, take a look at the maximum wire length table above and make the right decision for your room.

What Is the Best Speaker Wire?

If you have read the previous points, you will know that buying expensive speaker wire is unlikely to make a noticeable difference to the sound in your room.

Are expensive brand-name products the best speaker wires that you can buy?

Well, if you think that it improves the sound in your room, and makes you feel better buying it, then that is the best speaker wire for you.

But, in most cases, you don’t need to overthink this and don’t need to sweat it over a particular brand.

Buy a reputable brand if you wish – but their basic wire is all you probably need. You can also get unbranded copper speaker wire very cheaply that will do just fine in most cases.

Just get the right gauge for the job.

The best speaker wire is simply the correct gauge for your system while taking into account:

  1. the impedance of your speakers.
  2. how far you need to run the wire from amplifier to speaker.

Then, it just needs to be well-made with a copper conductor.

Generally, go for copper wire if you have the choice – but don’t lose any sleep over this.

If you want to save some money, buy some CCA 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 not difficult to connect the termination yourself.

While you can solder these connectors in place, most will just screw on and are perfectly acceptable.

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 speaker 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?

Probably not.

So, there’s no harm in buying OFC speaker wire – it might be all that is available – just don’t believe the hype.

Do You Hear a Difference with Expensive Speaker Cable?

If you do, that’s great. Whatever works for you.

But, if you buy the correct wire gauge for the length you need, installing cheaper speaker wire is unlikely to affect what you hear much.

However, feel free to buy more expensive wire if you think it makes a difference.

You will probably be better off spending more money on your amplifier or speakers – or fixing issues with the acoustics in your room.

How Much Should You Spend on Speaker Cable and Interconnects?

A typical rule-of-thumb is to spend 5%, or maybe 10%, of the cost of your sound system.

That’s a reasonable ballpark if you want something to go by.

However, there isn’t really a need to set a fixed number – just buy the right cable for the job.

For speaker wire, simply work out the correct gauge for your system and get some basic copper wire.

Should You Install Expensive, Thick Speaker Cable for Your Front Speakers and Cheap, Thin Wire for the Surrounds?

This is a common way of thinking.

The idea is that thicker wire is better quality, so you should use this on the most important speakers at the front.

Whereas the surround speakers are less critical – and further away – so you can save some money and buy cheaper, thin speaker wire.

The funny thing is, the opposite is true.

The thicker wire has less resistance, so it should be used for longer cable runs. For shorter runs, you can get away with much thinner wire.

In the end, don’t overthink this.

If your maximum cable run is less than 48-feet – and you have 8-ohm speakers – just buy some simple 16-gauge copper wire and use it for everything.

Should You Buy Copper or CCA Speaker Wire?

If money isn’t a problem, just 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 that you consider the higher resistance compared to copper when you calculate the best gauge to buy.

If you only need short cable runs, or you only have a budget amplifier and speakers, you’re unlikely to hear the difference whichever you buy.

What Is the Maximum Length for Speaker Wire?

There is no exact number on how far you can run speaker wire.

General opinion seems to be that over 50-feet might begin to give audible differences in sound quality – regardless of the thickness of the cable.

Should the Length of Speaker Cable Be the Same to Both Speakers?

Try to make it roughly the same, but don’t lose any sleep if it’s not exactly right.

In theory, you might get a slightly different sound from two speakers if one has a different impedance in the cable run.

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 then having the whole 50-foot reel of wire connected to the right.

That would just 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, is it?

Just try to make each speaker wire run as short as possible – but don’t worry about minor differences between speakers.

Which Is Positive and Negative on Speaker Wire?

Speaker wire doesn’t have a positive and negative.

The speaker and amplifier connections have positive and negative terminals.

You just need to make sure that the positive terminal on the amplifier is connected to the positive connection on the speaker.

And the same with the negative side.

Positive and negative terminals on a spring clip speaker connection
Positive and negative spring clip speaker connections

This is why speaker wire has one side marked somehow – usually a line or maybe with a + and – sign.

Look closely, and you will see it.

Just make sure the side with the marking is connected to the corresponding terminal at either end – but it doesn’t really matter which way round you do it.

You can swap them around if you like.

Is the same piece of wire connected to positive at both ends? Is the other wire connected to negative at both ends?

Yes? Sorted. Make sure you do the same for every speaker.

Should You Replace Old Speaker Cable and Connectors?

Most people don’t need to worry too much about this.

However, if your cable and connections are a year or two old and look dirty, then it will do no harm to give your system a bit of TLC.

If you are using bare wire, just cut off the end and strip a new section of insulation. That is, assuming you have enough slack to spare!

Speaker wire inside a banana plug or other type of termination should be protected and clean, which is one advantage of using this type of connector.

But, if the connectors on the wire – or on the speaker and amplifier – are dirty, give them a clean.

It is common to use an Isopropyl alcohol cleaning fluid, and there are many brands that you can pick up cheaply enough.

MG Chemicals Isopropyl Alcohol Electronics Cleaner
MG Chemicals Isopropyl Alcohol Electronics Cleaner
Image Credit: MG Chemicals

This is perfect for cleaning all types of electrical components.

Should You Solder Connectors or Tin Speaker Wire?

You can if you want, but many people don’t bother and don’t have an issue.

Tinning the bare ends of speaker wire with solder can help to prevent oxidation and keep rogue copper strands in check.

But it also might make it harder to get a solid connection with a binding post or screw-in plug.

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 may also 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.

Many banana plugs will have a screw-in connection which will work just fine.

Just go with what you are comfortable with – it’s not worth losing sleep over.

Conclusion

So there you were, thinking that buying speaker wire for your system was the easy bit!

Not so fast.

As with most things in the world of home theater, there are plenty of fun things to learn if you want to dig into the detail.

You have learned some of the most important things to understand before getting some speaker wire.

But, it’s not that difficult.

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, then that’s up to you – but in most rooms, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the sound.

Keep it simple and spend extra money on a better amplifier or speakers.

But, at the end of the day, it’s your choice.

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Speaker Wire 101

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About Home Cinema Guide

Paul started the Home Cinema Guide to help less-experienced users get the most out of today's audio-visual technology. He has worked as 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.

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