The Right Speaker Cable for the Job
Steve Kindig has been an electronics enthusiast for over 30 years. He has written extensively about home and car A/V gear for Crutchfield since 1985. Steve is also a volunteer announcer in the folk department of community radio station WTJU, where he is one of the regular hosts of "Atlantic Weekly."
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Speakers almost never come with the wire necessary to connect them to your receiver or amplifier. If you shop around, you may be unsure about the best wire thickness or construction for your stereo or home theater setup. With wire prices ranging from a few cents per foot to dollars per foot, you don’t want to spend more than you have to, but you also don’t want to short-change the capabilities of your speakers and electronics. Based on feedback from our customers, and some listening tests we recently conducted at our Lab, here are five tips for choosing cables.
1. Quality cables don't perform magic — their job is damage control
In recent years, we've been consistently impressed by AudioQuest's line of speaker cables, and we share their basic philosophy: That no cable can magically improve the original audio signal. What good cables can do is reduce the distortion caused by inferior cable design and materials. And even though some people think that good cables are only for audiophiles, there are reasons besides sound quality to consider better-quality speaker wire.
2. Longer runs require thicker wire to prevent power loss
|Length of wire needed||Gauge|
|Less than 50 feet||16|
|50 feet or longer||14|
Speaker wire thickness generally isn't a factor if your speakers are near your receiver. But when doing multi-room runs requiring lengths greater than 50 feet, wire that's too thin can result in power loss that's both measurable and audible. To avoid the hassle of ever having to re-install wires in your walls or ceiling, it's better to use wire that's thicker rather than thinner. Wire thickness is indicated by "gauge" — the lower the number, the thicker the wire. For in-wall use, we recommend flexible wire like AudioQuest's 14- or 16-gauge FLX-series. For more information on how to choose the correct wire gauge, see our article on choosing and installing speaker wire.
|AudioQuest’s stranded FLX in-wall cable (top) is flexible, for easy installation. AudioQuest’s Type 4 cable (bottom) uses solid-core copper conductors.|
3. The core of any cable is the copper
When you peel back the flimsy jacket on typical lightweight speaker-wire-on-a-spool, you find a bunch of super-thin copper strands. That's OK for conducting electricity to a lightbulb — after all, this wire is known as "lamp cord" — but it's not ideal for audio signals. AudioQuest makes stranded wire, too, but they use high-purity "long grain" copper, and the strands are precisely arranged to reduce distortion. Stranded wire works well for in-wall installation because it's flexible. Larger speaker cables often use solid-core conductors to carry the signal, which can provide superior bass and dynamics, but which also make for a stiffer cable.
|Banana plugs make a quick, easy connection to your speakers, receiver, or amp.|
4. Go bananas
Plain old wire can fall short where it connects to your speakers and receiver. Bare-wire connections expose the copper to the air, and oxidation can compromise the connection. Over time, that shiny copper wire will grow dull, and it can actually dull your speakers' sound by increasing the wire's resistance. And stray strands touching can even cause a short circuit in your amp. Instead, we recommend banana connectors, either pre-attached or added separately. Bananas are compatible with nearly all speakers, and because they plug straight in, they're often the best choice for the crowded, hard-to-get-at back panels of A/V receivers. Good banana plugs are plated with gold or silver to resist corrosion.
5. Jacket required
If you’re going to run cable inside your walls or ceiling, we recommend using 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. AudioQuest's UL-rated FLX-series wires have a tough, smooth outer jacket that's easy to pull through wall studs. The wires are color-coded so that it's easy to get the connections right.
To find out how much of a difference speaker wire makes, we grabbed some co-workers and did some listening tests in the acoustically optimized home A/V room of our Lab.
First, we compared generic 18-gauge "lamp cord" to AudioQuest's Type 4 cable, and the Type 4 won hands down with most of our listeners. So then we tried a more challenging test: AudioQuest’s 16-gauge in-wall wire versus the Type 4. It was more difficult to hear differences, but the Type 4 consistently delivered stronger bass and greater presence on voices and instruments.
If you're interested in experimenting with cables, we'd suggest trying them in your system for at least a month. Then re-connect your old cables and see if you hear any difference. And if you care at all about how your music sounds, we'd recommend at least using good 16-gauge wire to connect your speakers.
Check out the full scoop on our listening tests.