If you are setting up your home theater and have just bought your first set of high-quality speakers, you may be surprised to discover that they do not come with speaker wires. Additional surprises may await you when you go to buy some and find the number of choices available to you, as well as a raging debate over how much of an effect the cables have—if any—on the quality of sound.
Some will insist that the quality of your audio cables is of equal importance to the rest of your equipment. Others will suggest that they make little to no difference when it comes to sound and that budget cables work just as well as high-priced alternatives. Do you really need to spend a hefty sum to get the best sound?
With the amount of conflicting and confusing information regarding speaker wires, it can be difficult to decide. Some of the factors to consider include the wire’s thickness, length, materials, and more.
Let’s take a look at some common questions about speaker wires to help you decide what you need.
Is a Thicker Wire Always Better?
You will need to select the appropriate wire thickness for your system. Speaker wire thickness is measured by gauge, which indicates the thickness of the copper wire inside the speaker wire, not counting the insulation that surrounds it. The gauge of speaker wires can range from 12 (thicker) to 18 (thinner).
You will likely hear at least a few sources saying that thicker wires are always better, but in many cases, if not most, 16-gauge wire will be adequate. Using very thick wire, especially over a short distance, will not result in a difference in audio quality discernible to the average person.
While not necessarily better in every situation, a thicker wire has lower resistance, which allows for the passage of more current. While the 16-gauge wire is suitable for speakers within 30 meters or so of the amplifier, greater distances may require 14 gauge (up to 60 meters) or 12 gauge (up to 120 meters).
Thicker wire, therefore, is usually recommended for long-distance runs. It is also suitable for driving low-impedance speakers of about 4 ohms, or high-powered amplifiers (250+ watts). Thicker wire also helps to prevent power loss and is more efficient at transferring power to your speakers.
Having thicker wires than necessary will not have a negative impact on your sound, but you also may not notice a dramatic improvement. Additionally, while thick speaker wires are more durable, they will normally be more expensive, heavier, somewhat stiff, and may prove too thick for a given connector.
What Effect Does Resistance Have on Performance?
Resistance is affected by the length of the wire and the cross-sectional area (thickness) of the wire. Effectively, the shorter your wire is, the less resistance it will provide. It then becomes something of a balancing act to position your speakers an appropriate distance apart while minimizing the length of your wires.
Resistance, as the name implies, creates opposition to the flow of current in the wire, diminishing power to the speakers. Less power results in less sound.
Bi-Wire or Single Wire?
This may not even be much of a consideration for you. If your system only uses a single wire connection, then you will clearly use a single wire, but having two sets of speaker connections means that they can be bi-wired.
As with the more general topic of wires themselves, the pros and cons of bi-wiring vs. single wire continue to be debated by die-hard audiophiles. Some state that bi-wiring creates a more open sound with greater detail, while others will argue that single wiring creates a more coherent sound.
If you have the option of bi-wiring, whether to use it will be a personal preference, but it is worth noting that bi-wiring of equivalent quality to single wiring will almost assuredly be more expensive.
Can Speaker Wires Be Cut?
If you need to shorten a wire, you may be concerned about whether you can cut it safely. You can relax because it is safe for you to cut them. This may be necessary if you have bought a bundle of wire and need to trim it to appropriate lengths. There may also be times when you rearrange your speakers and need to shorten the wires. Just be sure that when you do so, they are not connected to a power source or any sort of device. After ensuring that the wire is not connected, you may cut it using pliers-style wire cutters, scissors, or a knife.
To avoid accidentally cutting a length of wire too short, carefully measure the distance that the wire needs to cover. A convenient way to do this is to use a length of string, running it from the location of the amplifier to the proposed site for the speaker. Leave a little extra length to be certain and in case small changes in position are needed. This will save you from needing to cut another length because the first was too short.
Does Age Affect Speaker Wire Performance?
Everything ages and that can sometimes result in diminished performance. For some things, excessive use can hasten this aging process. Fortunately, speaker wires age well. With proper care, they can last many decades without degradation. The key part of this being “with proper care.”
When speaker wires are not looked after correctly, the copper wires may become exposed. With time, this exposure causes pure copper to react, creating copper oxide, which will cover the exposed surface, turning it green or black. The result of this oxidation is that a barrier is formed between the speaker or amplifier and the wires. The wires then gain resistance, thus becoming less conductive. That, in turn, may influence the sound quality.
Oxidation may also occur on wires that have remained connected to speakers and other devices for several years. To help prevent this from occurring at the connection points, it is recommended that you unplug and then re-plug the wires on occasion. It is also a good idea to clean all speaker wire connection points periodically.
If your wire has already suffered oxidation, you can trim it, stripping away a few inches of the insulation. This will typically reveal clean copper wire underneath, indicating the rest of the wire is still in good condition.
More modern speaker wires are less likely to suffer from this issue due to improvements in manufacturing and the use of higher-quality, oxygen-free copper. This type of copper is less vulnerable to corrosion and as a result, it has a greater lifespan.
Other materials may also be used in speaker wire to avoid oxidation. Silver, for example, is slightly less resistive than copper, allowing for thinner wires to be used, but due to the price difference, a thicker copper wire remains the cheaper alternative. Gold does not oxidize, allowing it to be used on open terminations, but it is rarely used as a speaker cable, as it has a higher resistivity than silver or copper.
Copper-clad aluminum is another alternative, which has become more common over the years as the price of copper has increased. As the name suggests, this is an aluminum core with a thin copper plating. It is a lighter and less expensive option, but aluminum isn’t as good a conductor as copper, resulting in a higher resistance and a need for thicker wires to obtain the same level of quality as pure copper.
Can Speaker Wire Be Used as Remote Wire?
Remote wiring is used in vehicles to connect the stereo to the amplifier. Car audio systems will typically have an amplifier to supply extra power to the speakers, and the remote wires are what allow the amplifier to power the speakers and itself. The purpose of the remote wire is to create an extended switch connected to a power source. The amplifier will only turn on when the remote wire touches the power source, or the remote wire switch is turned on.
A remote switch can be made with any copper wire. Being made with copper, speaker wire is, therefore, suitable for use as a remote wire.
Can a Wire Be Too Thin for Use with a Speaker?
As discussed above, wires come in several thicknesses, or gauges, with the higher numbers representing thinner wires. Thin wires can be used to drive speakers, provided they are located relatively close to the amplifier. As the speakers are moved progressively farther away, thicker gauge wires should be used, as the thick wires will offer less resistance and allow more current to pass. Using thin wire over too long a distance will result in a reduction of power to your speakers. Worse, if the wire is too thin for the amount of current it is trying to handle, it might melt, causing damage to the amplifier.
What If the Wire is Too Long?
As previously mentioned, when choosing your speaker wire, there are several factors to consider, including the length. It is possible for your wire to be too long. When it comes to speaker wires, the ideal maximum length would be about 15 metres. Going past that length is generally considered too long as it will begin to adversely affect the quality of the audio.
While it was mentioned above that greater distances required thicker wire, the 15-metre limit should still be respected, even when using the appropriate gauge. The reason for this is that the longer the run of your wires, the greater the impact on the sound quality.
If you cannot avoid longer distances, be sure to use speaker wires with a lower gauge, providing less resistance and diminishing the risk of power loss.
Do Splices Affect the Sound?
You may hear that splices have an effect on the sound, but when the wires are properly spliced and soldered, they will not degrade the sound. Small voltage drops or spikes may occur, as detected by an oscilloscope, but the voltage used for driving speakers experiences regular fluctuation regardless, and these are minor changes that will not be audible. The short answer, then, is that splices will not affect the sound.
Do Speaker Cables Require “Break In”?
Some companies will try to sell you wire “cookers” or a break-in service. The idea here, according to some audio experts, is that the electric current passing through your wires will gradually alter the wire physically, resulting in an audible change over time. This is not true, however, and not something you should be spending money on.
What About the Fancy Audio Cables?
You will find no shortage of highly priced cables on the market. Cable and other audio theater accessories are some of the most profitable products for retailers, but despite the claims of manufacturers and audiophiles, there is no scientific data supporting the notion that their highly-priced cables offer a true advantage over standard wires and cables. You needn’t worry about paying for fancy gimmicks or special wires, as you will receive the same performance from regular, high-quality cables.
Many audiophiles are adamant in their beliefs regarding speaker cables, making it difficult for a new buyer to know who to believe. This often results in buyers spending more than they need to on “special” wire that offers no real benefit.
When you are seeking the best possible sound from your system, the most important consideration will be the thickness/gauge of your speaker wire. The right cable for you will be compatible with your amplifier’s output rating and the Ohm rating of your speakers. Keep in mind the appropriate length for your setup to avoid excessively long wires.
While purchasing thicker wires than necessary will not negatively impact your system’s sound quality, it will have an impact on the price you pay. It is best to simply purchase the appropriate thickness for your equipment and speaker setup.
Once you have your perfect speaker wires, don’t forget to find the perfect home theater chairs from Elite HTS.