How to Choose the Right Speaker Cable
Choosing the correct AWG speaker wire is essential for great sound
Jared Norman | Jun 3, 2013, 2013
A person may spend a fortune on a great set of speakers only to have the sound quality ruined by bad cables. If you have a hard time believing this, you’re not alone. Cables often get overlooked when setting up a speaker system. After all, if you buy great speakers do the cables really matter? The answer: yes, it matters. Bad cable equals bad sound. The most important thing to think about is AWG (American Wire Guage). Getting the wrong AWG for your speaker setup can end up giving you horrible sound quality. But AWG isn't the only thing to think about, let's take a look at what makes good quality cable.
When deciding what kind of cable to use for your speaker setup, one of the first things to consider is the cable’s AWG (American Wire Gauge). The AWG refers to the thickness of the copper wire in the cable. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the wire. Most speaker wire ranges from 12 AWG to 16 AWG. It’s important to use the correct gauge for your speaker setup.
When you buy speakers, watts are a big deal. But when you are looking for speaker cable, what you need to worry about is the speaker’s impedance. If you choose your cable based on length and your speaker’s impedance, the cable will be able to handle the speaker’s watt output just fine. So what is impedance? Impedance refers to the property the speaker has to add resistance to electrical current. Think of a garden hose with water flowing through it. Putting a nozzle on the end of the hose adds resistance to the flow of water.
In a speaker setup, the speaker is like the nozzle of the hose, it adds resistance to the electrical current running through the wires. A speaker’s impedance is measured in ohms. Most speakers have impedance ratings of 4, 8, or 16 ohms. But that number is more like an average. So if a speaker has an impedance rating of 4 ohms, it may vary between 2 ohms and 8 ohms during use. It’s important to choose a wire that can handle your speaker’s impedance. Otherwise you risk distorting your sound and possibly damaging your equipment.
That brings us to length. Length is a big factor in deciding what gauge wire to use. For longer lengths of cable, you may consider using a thicker wire. For most average speakers 16 AWG wire will work well for you in lengths of less than 50 ft. For longer runs or for higher end speakers, you probably want thicker wire. Below is a chart to help you match your speaker with the best cable thickness and length.
Gauge isn’t the only thing to consider when you buy speaker cable. You also want to know what the cable is made of. Copper is the standard by which other electrical materials are rated. Other metals such as aluminum, zinc, and nickel are less conductive, but they are also usually cheaper. To cut down on cost, some cables are made with alloys mixed into the copper. While the percentage is relatively low, it still makes the wire significantly less conductive. Less conductive wire means poor sound quality. Adding in different alloys can also lead to cable breaks when going around tight corners. Pure copper cable might be a little bit more expensive, but it is definitely worth it in the long run.
When dealing with copper, oxygen is bad news. Poor quality wire sometimes has microscopic pockets of oxygen trapped in the copper. Over time, these pockets can become larger and cause oxidation, which can make the copper less conductive, and may even destroy the cable. If you need your cable to last a while, make sure you look for oxygen-free cable.
Marked for Easy Installation
Okay, so this isn't strictly essential, but it can make your life easier. Ideally, the cables running to paired speakers should be the same length. That could mean a lot of measuring. Luckily, most cable comes marked on the jacket at every foot mark, making it easier to get just the right length before you cut.
AWG is the most critical thing to consider when buying speaker cable, but what the cable is made of is also important. Oxygen-free pure copper wire will give you better sound, and it will last longer than cheaper speaker cable. Now, get out there and make you're home theater awesome!