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 overall sound quality, but if you want everything to work properly, make sure you’re using the right tool for the job.

Speaker cable types

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 to connect speakers is with bare wire. With this, you get a length of one pair of wires: red (positive) and black (negative). You don’t need to know much about how speakers work to use them, just make sure you match the red and black wire to the corresponding terminals on the back of your speakers.

Bare speaker wire can become unruly after several uses, which can cause finger pricks and unreliable connections. To combat this, we have seen the introduction of the banana plug, named for its resemblance to the fruit. Speaker wire with banana plugs is the same as bare wire, just easier to plug in.

banana plug on speaker cable
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speaker wires

Whether it’s setting up a home surround sound system or a simple stereo setup, the above two types of cables are probably all you need. That said, if you’re using studio monitors for an audiophile music listening setup, for example, you might see a few other connections.

Studio monitors and outdoor speakers often use 1/4-inch ring-sleeve (TRS) single-sleeve speaker cables to make connections easier. Occasionally you’ll also find 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 integrated amplifier. Whether you’re talking about a Sonos One or just a subwoofer, speakers with built-in amps use different connections than their passive siblings.

When it comes to connections for powered speakers, assuming they’re not wireless, there are two types of connections: balanced and unbalanced. The problem here is dealing with line noise and background noise.

unbalanced cables

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

Unbalanced Stereo RCA Cable
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For unbalanced connections to speakers, one main cable standard is used, which is RCA. You’ve probably seen a lot of these cables if you’ve ever hooked up a home theater. These often come in pairs of red and white stereo wires, but you will occasionally see individual wires.

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 much more common. The two types you’ll encounter most often are Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS) and XLR, which stands for “external line return,” though you’ll rarely see it used.

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

Close-up of an XLR cable.
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We have already touched TRS speaker cables, but they are not the same as TRS Audio cables used for powered speakers, despite sharing the same connector. TRS audio cables use shielding to prevent interference, while this is not necessary when using a TRS connection between an amplifier and a passive speaker.

Shielded TRS Audio Cable
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Be sure to use real speaker cable for passive speakers, because although speaker cable doesn’t need shielding, it needs to be thicker than TRS audio cable.

Speaker wire gauge and length

Most speaker cables you come across 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 search the web and you’ll find speaker wire and cable available in a much thicker diameter than you’d normally use at home.

What’s it for? The longer the cable run, the thicker the cable diameter should be. Using too thin a cable can result in poorer sound quality and may damage your amplifier or even pose a fire hazard.

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

Speaker wires are typically 16 to 12 gauge, with the higher number representing thinner wire. The thinner 16-gauge cable 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 that charge up to hundreds of dollars for speaker cables and other audio cables. The question is: are they really worth the extra money?

There is no scientific evidence that using gold or other more expensive materials provides better sound through your speakers. If you’re looking to upgrade your sound, stop thinking about cables and look to upgrade another part of your setup.

That said, better materials like armor and less corrosion-prone materials are useful and cost more. More expensive speaker cables have their value, but for most home uses, thin, old speaker cable is all you need.