We are always wondering how to make our stereo and home theater systems sound better, buying new equipment, moving things around, getting better and higher resolution music recordings and spending hours on the internet researching.
And yet one of the most basic things we can do to really improve our system’s performance is lying right in front of us – speaker wire – and it is a big upgrade that might be very inexpensive, or not cost us any money at all!
So we here at Speakergy have prepared this how-to article on speaker wire, a simple and understandable guide covering these important topics:
- How to choose a high-quality speaker wire
- How to connect a speaker wire
- Getting the best sound from your existing speaker wire
- Knowing when it might be time to replace your existing speaker wire
- How to find the best upgraded wire for the best price
Essential Connections: Speaker Cables
Good speaker cable can make your system sound much better, and is maybe the least expensive way to improve performance, but only if the speaker wire is properly connected – secure connections, proper polarity and many other considerations will make all the difference, and it’s all so easy to do!
Inspecting your Speaker Wire – Is it Good Enough, or Should it Be Replaced?
First we want to determine if your existing speaker wire is in good condition. Poor quality, old and degraded wire can really hurt performance and sound quality, and you should check for the following things and replace the wire if you find one or more of them:
- Is the wire is oxidized or discolored?
- Does the plastic insulation have any cracks or breaks?
- Are there any breaks in the wire itself?
- Do you have different types or thicknesses of wire for different speakers?
- Is the wire very thin (under 18 gauge)?
- Is it really speaker wire, or designed for something else (like electrical wire)?
If your wire is old, in bad condition, or has any of the other conditions listed above, it is essential to sound quality (and sometimes to the health and safety of your stereo system) to replace it with good, new wire. Fortunately, basic good quality speaker wire is quite inexpensive, and even extremely good audiophile speaker wire is often surprisingly reasonable.
Selecting Your Speaker Wire – What Type of Wire do you Need?
What Gauge (Thickness) of Speaker Wire do you Need?
Although many people say that even the thinnest speaker wire is just fine for almost any system, we have found that thicker wire will always sound better – sometimes there’s not a huge difference in sound quality, but there’s usually an even smaller difference in price, so why not? So much of the fun of this hobby is in making little upgrades and tweaks and being able to hear little (or sometimes big) improvements!
Anyway, for longer runs of speaker wire, more powerful amplifiers and lower impedance speakers, thicker wire is always better, and even necessary, for sound quality and the health and reliability of your equipment.
Wire thickness is measured in gauge, as identified by the standard American Wire Gauge (AWG) number. The larger the number, the smaller (thinner) the wire. Again, most sites will recommend using at least 18 gauge, but we would never use less than 16 gauge wire for our own equipment, which again is a bit thicker than 18 gauge, and recommend that you don’t either.
We would also recommend oxygen free wire, which offers better conductivity and will last longer without any degradation of materials or sound quality.
An excellent basic speaker wire for a really reasonable price is the MaxBrite oxygen-free 16 gauge wire, which is durable, easy to work with, and will improve the sound of almost any stereo or home theater system – except for really high-end systems, but more about that below.
And for longer runs, you should use a slightly thicker wire, here offered in a large spool – perfect for big rooms, multi-speaker installations, and home theater.
For high-end systems there are hundreds of different makes and brands of audiophile speaker wire, sometimes costing literally hundreds of dollars a foot (!), but we here at Speakergy have found a superb audiophile speaker cable for a very low price, from one of the most beloved and respected names in audio – AudioQuest. You would have to spend a lot more to get better sound, and this wonderful speaker wire will make any system sound awesome.
How to Install Speaker Wire
Step 1: Measure Length and Cut
The first step in installing new wire, or properly re-installing your existing wire, is to determine the length of wire you will need. For various reasons, it is a very good idea to have the exact same length of wire on the right and left sides, so it you need 10 feet for the right side, and 15 feet for the left side, you should cut 15 foot lengths for both sides.
For home theater systems, match the length side to side for each type of speaker – for example, you may need 15 feet for each side of the front right and left speakers, and 30 feet for each side of the rear left and right speakers. They don’t have to be the same length as the front speakers, but the left and right rear speaker wires should be the same length as each other.
Make sure to leave yourself a little extra, so that you can tuck and hide wire when necessary, and so that the wire doesn’t need to drape unattractively or pull on the speakers or components.
Step 2: Split the Wire
Once you have your lengths cut, you will need to provide some bare wire on each end. If you don’t have one, a good quality wire-stripper is essential – for this and many other jobs. We would recommend the excellent and inexpensive Klein Tools Wire Cutter and Wire Stripper.
With your wire strippers, or very carefully with a knife, separate the two leads of the speaker wire by cutting the plastic insulation between them to about two inches. Then use the wire strippers to remove the insulation and bare about one inch of wire on each lead.
Step 3: Lay Out Carefully
You should lay the speaker wire out from the system to the speakers in whatever way is most efficient and looks best to you, but there are a few important considerations.
- Don’t leave wire lying across walkways, or anywhere where people (or pets) might trip on run into it
- Don’t lay out the wire in a way which leave it pulling down with pressure on the connectors of the speakers or stereo
- Don’t coil, bundle or wrap speaker wire up onto itself at any point – it should be a single, free length of wire
- Avoid laying your speaker wire against or close to any other wires – stereo or home theater wires, AC power cords or anything else – and also avoid any electrical appliances or other devices, to avoid interference and noise coming through your speakers
Step 4: Connect Both Ends
The Importance of Polarity
Before we get into the specific steps of how to connect speaker wire, we should first mention the most important thing when connecting any and all speaker wires – polarity, or having the positive lead of the speaker wire connected to the positive terminals on the speaker and stereo, and the negative to the negative – an absolute must to get the best sound from your system.
Speaker wire will have two leads, and while the two wires are identical they will be marked differently – one side will usually have a + (positive) sign, and the other a – (negative) sign, or the positive lead will be marked with a continuous line printed along its side’s length. If these symbols aren’t there, the speaker may instead be color coded, usually red and black.
The connectors on both the speakers’ and stereo’s back panels will also be in pairs, one for each lead of the speaker wire, and they will also be marked or color coded. It is very important to make sure that the + lead of the wire goes into the + side of the connector – both on the speaker and the stereo – and the – lead goes into the – side of the connector. In the same way, you should always put the red side of the wire into the red side of the connector, and the black into the black.
If, between the speaker wire, the speakers’ connectors and the stereo system’s connectors, you have a combination of + and – signs and red and black colors, don’t get confused. Just always use red for + and black for – and everything will work perfectly.
Making the Connection
There are a few different types of connectors you may find on your stereo or home theater equipment and/or on your speakers, but two types are by far the most common, and it is almost certain you will be using one or the other.
- Binding Post
- Spring-Loaded Connector
Binding posts appear in pairs, and are metal posts with larger plastic knobs (usually red and black) which can be turned. When you turn the plastic knobs counter-clockwise they will start to come out toward you, and reveal more of the metal post underneath. When enough of the post itself is revealed, you will see it has a small hole through it, and all you need to do is push the exposed speaker wire through the hole and then screw the plastic knob back clockwise to clamp it down on the inserted wire.
Spring-loaded connectors also come in pairs, and have plastic tabs (again usually red and black) next to metal holes. When you press down on the plastic tab, the metal holes will open up, and you can easily insert the speaker wire into the hole. Releasing the plastic tab will close the hole ack down, thereby clamping down on and securing the speaker wire.
These connectors can be found on both the speakers’ back panel and the back panel of your stereo or home theater system’s receiver or amplifier, and the exact same technique is used in both cases. Always make sure the connection is neat, and that there is no extra frayed wire sticking out or touching the other connector (which can cause a short and even damage your equipment).
On the home theater system, make sure to connect the correct speakers (front, rear, subwoofer, etc.) to the correct speaker outputs. If you are connecting speakers to a stereo system, you will probably have a choice of Speaker A or Speaker B, and if you only have one pair of speakers it doesn’t matter which you use (though we always, for some reason, choose Speaker A – it just seems to make sense…) but make sure you have that selection (Speaker A or Speaker B) chosen on the front panel switch of your stereo receiver or amp.
Additional Tips & Information on connecting speaker wire
Banana Plugs – Easy, Secure and Sound Great!
When you follow these instructions, securely connecting speaker wire to a stereo or home theater system, and to the speakers, is quite easy, but there is a way to make it even easier, and more secure, and to get even better sound from your system – the banana plug.
Banana plugs are connectors you put at the end of your speaker wire which make connecting to any kind of speaker, stereo or home theater system super easy. They are usually either silver or gold plated, allowing for the highest level of conductivity, which improves sound and makes the connection more reliable over the long term. Banana plugs are, in fact, a fairly standard, even mandatory, accessory for almost any high-end system.
We recommend two different banana plugs – Mediabridge and AudioQuest. Both will make the whole process of connecting speaker wire much easier, and both will noticeably improve your system’s sound, but the AudioQuest banana plugs are true high-end products, suitable for even the most discerning listener and the most premium systems, and are especially good to use with the AudioQuest wire we’ve recommended above (though they work equally well with any speaker wire).
Installing Banana Plugs
Installing speaker wire onto banana plugs is very similar to connecting speaker wire to a binding post, as detailed above. It is, in fact, easier, since you can hold the banana plug in your hand while doing it, and don’t have to bend behind your stereo or speakers. The banana plug will have a screw that needs to be turned (and should also include a little tool to do so) which will reveal a small hole in which you insert the speaker wire. Put the exposed end of the wire into the hole and turn the screw in the opposite direction to clamp down on the wire and you’re done! Please remember polarity – + to +, – to -, red to red, black to black…
Once the wires are connected to the banana plugs, the plugs themselves just plug into the spring-loaded connectors or into the end of the binding posts. With binding posts in particular this makes things much easier, since you don’t even need to unscrew the plastic knob. You will find that the post has a hole at the end which is exactly the right size to securely accept the banana plug – just plug it in!
Tips and Warnings
- If you are doing an in-wall, in-ceiling or under-ground installation, make sure you use wire approved for such use – UL-rated speaker cable that’s tagged CL2 or CL3.
- Always make sure that polarity is correct – positive to positive, negative to negative.
- Never leave speaker wire where it can be tripped on or run into – this can cause injury and damage your equipment.
- Do not bundle speaker wire upon itself, do not bundle it with other signal wires, AC power lines or anything else, and keep it away from appliances or anything else electrical.
- If your wire is old and frayed, replace it, and don’t skimp – good wire sounds better and lasts longer!
- For longer runs of wire (over 50 feet), low-impedance speakers (6 ohms or lower) or high power amplifiers (over 100 watts per channel), use thicker gauge wire – at least 14 gauge.
For stereo systems in particular, there are a couple of special installations which you might hear about, or need to know for your own system:
- Bi-Wired Speaker Connection
- Bi-Amped Speaker Connection
Both of these special connection options require specific speakers that have two sets of speaker connectors on the back of each speaker – one for the tweeter and one for the woofer. If your speakers don’t have this, you cannot do either bi-amplification or bi-wiring.
Bi-wiring means to run two sets of speaker cable from the single set of speaker outputs on the back panel of your stereo receiver or amplifier. You have to connect two wires to each of those binding posts on the system itself, and then run one to the tweeter connectors on the speaker and one to the woofer connectors. While many audiophiles tout this method as a real improvement in sound, we here at Speakergy have honestly never noticed any difference, and don’t recommend bi-wiring – a bit of a waste of time and resources, and anyway it can actually cause sound problems since you might not get as good of a connection on the back panel of your stereo system.
Bi-amplification is different, though, and just awesome. It is also very expensive, since it requires a separate active crossover, separate amplifiers (one for the tweeter and one for the woofer) and separate speaker wires. If you are going to bi-wire your system, all of the above instructions for how to properly connect speaker wire still apply, but you might want to contact us directly for more guidance.