What You Need to Know About Speaker Wiring Cables

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When it comes to speakers, the wires or cables you use are important. They may not affect the sound quality overall, but if you want everything to work properly, make sure you’re using the right tool for the job.

Types of Speaker Wire

These days, we deal with two types of speakers: active or powered speakers, and passive or non-powered speakers. Speaker wire is for carrying a signal from an amplifier to passive speakers. We’ll look at cables for active speakers in the next section.

Speaker Wire

One of the most common ways of connecting speakers is bare wire. With this, you get a length of a pair of wires: red (positive) and black (negative). You don’t need to know too much about how speakers work to use these, just make sure you’re matching the red and black wire to the matching terminals on the back of your speakers.

Bare speaker wire can get unruly after you’ve used it a few times, leading to pricked fingers and dodgy connections. To combat this, we’ve seen the introduction of the banana plug, so named because of its resemblance to the fruit. Speaker wire with banana plugs is the same as bare wire, it’s just easier to plug in.

Banana plug on speaker wire
Kris Wouk

Speaker Cables

If you’re dealing with setting up a home surround sound system or a simple stereo setup, the two types of wire above are likely all you need. That said, if you’re using studio monitors for an audiophile music listening setup, for example, you may see some other connections.

Studio monitors and outdoor speakers often use speaker cables with a single 1/4-inch tip ring sleeve (TRS) cable for easier connections. Occasionally, you’ll also encounter the more proprietary Speakon connector, but this isn’t common for home use.

Cables for Powered Speakers

These days, more and more speakers use their own built-in amplifier. Whether you’re talking about a Sonos One or just a subwoofer, speakers with built-in amplifiers use different connections than their passive siblings.

When dealing with connections for powered speakers, assuming they aren’t wireless, there are two types of connections: balanced and unbalanced. The issue here is dealing with line noise and background noise.

Unbalanced Cables

Balanced connections provide less noise, but require special connections and aren’t always necessary for home use. Unbalanced connections are technically noisier, but use cheaper cables, and you’ll find they sound great for most home uses.

Stereo unbalanced RCA cable
Kris Wouk

For unbalanced connections to speakers, there is one major cable standard used, which is RCA. You’ve likely seen plenty of these cables if you’ve ever wired up a home theater system. These often come in pairs of red and white cables for stereo, but occasionally, you’ll see singles.

RELATED: Home Theater Wiring: What Are All Those Connections?

Balanced Cables

If your powered speakers are studio monitors, you’ll occasionally see unbalanced RCA connections, but balanced connections are far more common. The two types you’ll encounter the most are tip ring sleeve (TRS) and XLR, which stands for “external line return,” though you’ll seldom see that used.

XLR is the standard connector when it comes to pro audio cables, alongside TRS, and you’ll see this on mid to high-end speakers. This is a more secure connection, but these cables are typically more expensive than TRS or RCA cable.

Closeup of an XLR cable.
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We’ve already touched on TRS speaker cables, but they aren’t the same as the TRS audio cables used for powered speakers, despite sharing the same connector. TRS audio cables use shielding to prevent interference, while this isn’t necessary when using a TRS connection between an amp and passive speaker.

Shielded TRS audio cable
Kris Wouk

Make sure you use actual speaker cable for passive speakers, because while speaker cable doesn’t need shielding, it does need to be thicker than TRS audio cable.

Gauge and Length of Speaker Cables

Most of the speaker wire you encounter will range from relatively thin to extremely thin. This is because most of the time, this is all you need, especially for home use. But look around on the web, and you’ll find speaker wire and cables available much thicker in diameter than what you’d typically use at home.

What is this for? The longer a run of cable, the thicker in diameter the cable needs to be. If you use too thin a cable, this can result in worse sound quality, and it can potentially damage your amplifier or even pose a fire hazard.

If you’re running cable lengths over 20 feet (6.1 meters), you’ll want to start looking at thicker speaker cables. Keep in mind, we’re mainly talking about passive speakers and unbalanced connections here, as balanced connections will prevent some of the noise that long cable runs introduce.

Typically, speaker wires run from 16 gauge to 12 gauge, with the higher number representing a thinner cable. The thinner 16 gauge wire is fine for shorter runs in your home, but for longer cable runs, consider 14 or 12 gauge.

Do Some Cables Sound Better Than Others?

There are cable brands charging up to hundreds of dollars for speaker cables and other audio cables. The question is: are these actually worth the extra money?

There is no scientific evidence that using gold or other pricier materials will provide better sound coming out of your speakers. If you’re looking to upgrade your sound, stop thinking about cables and look into upgrading another part of your setup.

That said, better materials like shielding and materials less prone to corrosion are useful and do cost more. Pricier speaker cables do have their value, but for most home use, plain old thin speaker wire should be all you need.

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