Choosing the best speaker cable can be a minefield. What gauge? Expensive or cheap? Where do you start? Well, by reading the ultimate speaker wire guide.
Speaker wire might seem like such a dull subject, right?
I mean, 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 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 Speaker Cable?
- What Is the Best Speaker Wire?
- Best Selling Speaker Wire at Amazon
- What Is OFC Speaker Wire?
- Does Expensive Speaker Cable 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 Cable Be the Same for Both Speakers?
- How to Connect Wire to Your Speakers
- Which Is Positive and Negative on Speaker Wire?
- Should You Replace Old Speaker Cable and Connectors?
- Should You Solder Connectors or Tin the Wire?
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 Cable Look Like?
Speaker wire looks like the picture below – although many different types exist.
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.
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, with numerous thin copper lengths 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. If you disagree, that’s fine; I won’t stop you from buying silver-plated speaker wires.
2. AWG Speaker Wire Gauge
The gauge of a speaker wire refers to the cable’s thickness.
But here’s where things can get a bit confusing. The higher the gauge number, the thinner the cable, which might seem counter-intuitive.
North America uses the American Wire Gauge (AWG) as its 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 a bit different if you’re in the UK.
Speaker wire is often measured 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.
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.
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.
When it comes to speaker wire, having low capacitance and inductance is also important but not as crucial as having low resistance.
This is because minor differences between the capacitance and inductance of wires will not be audible.
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 speaker wire 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 speaker wire to get the best sound in your room.
I don’t subscribe to that view. However, if you think it helps, you should buy whatever you are comfortable with.
What Is the Advantage of Buying Proper Speaker Cable?
One advantage of buying wires 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 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, I made this one up!)
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’ve yet to be convinced 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 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 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, I think 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, as I don’t think you need to overthink this.
Buy a well-known brand if you wish – but their basic wire is all you probably 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.
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.
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 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?
So, there’s no harm in buying OFC speaker wire. It might be all that is available. Just don’t believe the hype.
Does Expensive Speaker Cable Make a Difference?
In my experience, an expensive speaker cable doesn’t sound any different from a standard copper wire.
If you think it does, that’s great. Whatever works for you.
But, if you buy the correct wire gauge for the length you need, installing cheaper speaker wire will unlikely affect what you hear.
However, feel free to buy more expensive wire if you think it makes a difference.
I would suggest spending more 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 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 Buy Copper or CCA 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 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, you’re unlikely to hear the difference whichever you buy.
What Is the Maximum Speaker Wire Length?
There is no exact number on how far you can run speaker wire.
General opinion seems to be that wire runs over 50 feet might begin to give audible differences in sound quality – regardless of the thickness of the cable.
Should the Length of the Speaker Cable 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, is it?
Just 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 speaker wires, 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, spring clips are typically found 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 may require soldering if you want a more permanent solution.
Spade connectors are suitable for limited spaces and can be either crimped or soldered. While 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.
Which Is Positive and Negative on Speaker Wire?
Speaker wire doesn’t have a positive or negative.
The speaker and amplifier connections have positive and negative terminals.
You just need to ensure that the amplifier’s positive terminal is connected to the positive connection on the speaker.
And the same with the negative side.
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 matter which way around you do it.
You can swap them around if you like.
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 Cable and Connectors?
I wouldn’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 do no 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, then give them a clean.
I have always used Isopropyl alcohol cleaning fluid. There are many brands that you can pick up cheaply enough.
- 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
This is perfect for cleaning all types of electrical components.
Should You Solder Connectors or Tin the Wire?
I don’t. Although that’s partly because I’m terrible at soldering!
My take is that you don’t need to, but you can if you want.
Tinning the speaker wire’s bare ends 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. I would say 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. It’s not worth losing sleep over.
So there you were, thinking that buying speaker wire for your system was easy!
Not so fast.
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.
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, 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.
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.