March 26, 2008
| by Scott Varn
Q. As professional installers, do you use generic wire and cables or do you go high-end? Does it depend on the job? Can you tell the difference? -Thomas, Chicago, IL
A. Wire….My eyes are rolling - everyone worries about it. Fear of getting insufficient quality drives dramatic concern. After all, it is the highway on which your signal travels to your speakers. You could ruin the quality of the music. Logical concern: great amp + excellent speakers + bad cable= lousy sound. This is true, but you can really go overboard. Many people have been taken advantage of by “measurable” differences. Here are a few basic guidelines to keep it simple.
Get the biggest wire possible? First, quick wire education. The lower the gauge, the larger the wire - 10 being the lowest reasonable size and 22 gauge being the smallest. So go with 10 right? Rarely.
There is definitely a point of diminishing returns. If wire is too small you will lose some of the frequencies and therefore fidelity. But, average 16 gauge wire will handle an 8 ohm full range speaker up to 48 feet with no discernible change. And since most speakers are easily within 25 feet of your amplifier, don’t spend the extra money. THX is very particular and they rate 14 gauge at 40 feet and 80 feet for satellite speakers. For distributed audio to ceiling speakers, 14 to 16 gauge is typically fine. Since most in-ceiling speakers can not reproduce music with high end subtlety, any frequencies lost would have likely not even been produced anyway.
Oxygen free? This wire has less impurities (iron etc.) and technically conducts better, but not a discernable amount. The reason it is worth buying is because it is less prone to corrosion and therefore performance will not degrade.
The Jacket: Often a cable is made to look better by having a large transparent jacket that enlarges the look of the copper much similar to an object under water. Basically, it’s marketing but it often has the adverse effect of stiffening the cable and making it less manageable. In-wall rated cables have more flexible yet stronger jackets and can be “plenum” rated to meet fire codes. And, for outdoor speakers we use cable that has a direct burial rated jacket.
Twisted wire? This is much like Cat5. Twisting speaker cable can dramatically reduce electrical interference. If simply running from your amp to your speaker in room, this is not necessary. But when long runs in walls are required, especially when running where there is high voltage, it can help reduce interference and keep the dreaded hum out of your speakers.
Gauge your situation to select the right wire. (sorry about the pun). Simply stay above the minimal requirements and you will be fine.
Scott has been in the technology industries for over 20 years. But his experience as an artist is what led him to create an award winning business that combines engineering and aesthetics for home theater design.