Hi-Fi Speaker Cable Buying Guide

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Hi-Fi Speaker Cable Buying Guide

Amid all the excitement of bringing audio components home and setting up the new system, it is easy to overlook the connections. If the system is an integrated design, undoubtedly cables are in the box somewhere. For people who like to build their set-up from separate components, speaker cabling is an important element that needs to be carefully planned.

Loudspeaker cabinets often contain more than one loudspeaker, with different sizes performing better over specific frequencies. Common terms for these are "woofers" for the larger units and "tweeters" for the smaller ones. From the cabling perspective, however, this is not an issue because speaker units have their individual elements wired together as part of the construction. There is no need to plan multiple cabling for multiple speaker arrays. It can be confusing though, when the term "speaker" applies both to the normally conical working part and also to the entire enclosure that might contain several working parts. Buyers should be knowledgeable about the materials used to make cables, the best lengths to use, and how to properly connect them in order to make an informed purchase decision about hi-fi speaker cables.

Some Background about Loudspeakers

What makes the difference between hi-fi speakers and other kinds? The term "hi-fi" has been around since the 1950s, and it originally differentiated the new 33 rpm long playing records and the old-style 78 rpm kind. One of the improvements that the new technology brought was a sharp reduction in the noise transmitted from the surface of the record. Vinyl records were also capable of a greater dynamic range and wider frequency response. Loudspeakers, however, did not undergo a technology upgrade at the same time. Rather, users became more discriminating about their selection, especially when stereo became the norm in the 1960s and particularly after the growth of FM radio complemented it.

Hi-Fi was always a relative term despite brief attempts to introduce standards, so determining the right kind of cable for a new audio or home cinema system is a question of cutting cloth and making judgements. For an expensive set of components it would be ridiculous to skimp on cables, while fixing up some recycled speakers from a skip does not require heavy duty studio cable.

Hi-Fi Speaker Cables

The function of a hi-fi speaker cable is to conduct electric current from the amplifier to the loudspeaker. The best kind of material for a cable is the kind that conducts electricity the most efficiently. In an ideal world, that would mean cables made from silver; in reality, the equation also includes price, and copper is a far more abundant high-conductivity material. The International Annealed Copper Standard grades materials for their conductivity, with copper being rated at 100 percent. The following table compares it with some other conductive materials:

Material

ICAS Conductivity Percent

Silver

105

Copper

100

Gold

70

Aluminium

61

Brass

28

Zinc

27

Nickel

22

Tin

15

Steel

3 to 15

It is not unusual for high-end terminals to be made from gold, but that is because gold is exceptionally resistant to corrosion; therefore, gold terminals ensure clean connections in the long term.

The baseline standard for dual-core cable is bell wire, or two-core flex. Since neither of these is designed for use with audio components, they are best used only as a last resort, or else as an emergency measure until the appropriate materials have been obtained.

Cables are supplied in different grades, which are appropriate to different distances between the amplifier and loudspeaker. One further factor is the impedance of the loudspeaker being connected. Impedance is rated in Ohms, for which the standard symbol is the Greek omega Ω. There is no absolute quality difference between Ohm ratings as far as loudspeakers are concerned; it is more important that the amplifier and loudspeaker are on the same page. The most common ratings are 4 Ohm and 8 Ohm.

Other things being equal, resistance is lower in thicker wire. The standard numbering of gauge (American Wire Gauge, or AWG) decreases with width so that the lowest number corresponds to the widest girth. For an 8-Ohm speaker, 16-gauge cable is sufficient for up to 15 metres or 50 feet, but lower-rated speakers need a thicker (i.e., lower) gauge. Car systems, which tend to use 2-Ohm speakers, need thicker cable than domestic systems.

A useful rule of thumb is that the cable should not add more than 5 percent to the impedance rating of the speakers. The following table gives recommended imperial cable lengths based on the impedance using the guidelines.

Wire size

2 Ω load

4 Ω load

6 Ω load

8 Ω load

22 AWG

3 ft

6 ft

9 ft

12 ft

20 AWG

5 ft

10 ft

15 ft

20 ft

18 AWG

8 ft

16 ft

24 ft

32 ft

16 AWG

12 ft

24 ft

36 ft

48 ft

14 AWG

20 ft

40 ft

60 ft

80 ft

12 AWG

30 ft

60 ft

90 ft

120 ft

10 AWG

50 ft

100 ft

150 ft

200 ft

The next table gives the same data in metric measurements. Note that in Europe, cable gauge is expressed as a measure of cross sectional area in square millimetres per strand. A rating like 7/0.2 designates a cable made up of seven strands of 0.2 mm2 wire. The table below assumes single strands, and it is a direct conversion from the Imperial-denominated figures in the previous table:

Wire Size

2 Ω load

4 Ω load

6 Ω load

8 Ω load

0.326 mm²

0.9 m

1.8 m

2.7 m

3.6 m

0.518 mm²

1.5 m

3 m

4.5 m

6 m

0.823 mm²

2.4 m

4.9 m

7.3 m

9.7 m

1.31 mm²

3.6 m

7.3 m

11 m

15 m

2.08 mm²

6.1 m

12 m

18 m

24 m

3.31 mm²

9.1 m

18 m

27 m

36 m

5.26 mm²

15 m

30 m

46 m

61 m

Finally, there are two more important considerations about high-end speaker systems and their cables. One concerns a special form of copper called low-oxygen or zero-oxygen. These reduce the cable’s impedance by 1 percent at best, and experts do not consider them worth the additional cost, bearing in mind the rule of thumb that says that a cable should not add more than 5 percent to a circuit’s impedance. The one percent reduction is from that five percent, not of the overall system.

Bi-wiring is a recent innovation, and it is more highly regarded. To bi-wire a system, the speaker cabinet needs to have the necessary terminals. As the name suggests, the practice doubles up the speaker wiring. No extra terminals are required at the amplifier end; instead, both cable lengths are wired to the same point but separated at the speaker end.

The justification is that mechanical and electrical resonances can arise and cause distortion. Bi-wiring is claimed to minimise this, thereby delivering a cleaner signal. Usually, they are found on cabinets that have two speakers, and the separated signals are delivered to the two speakers independently. There is some dispute whether this arrangement is in fact effective, but suffice it to say that for the purposes of buying cable, bi-wiring cable is a specially designed alternative to using two entirely separate lengths of cable.

Hi-Fi Speaker Cable Connections

At both ends of the cable, there are a number of different ways that joints are made. Normally, the exposed end of the cable is bound to a capstan, which is either fitted with a finger-tightened screw or a spring-loaded grip. Some variants use a screwdriver-tightened screw; these usually work better with spade endings, which need to be attached to the cable. Others again use either banana plugs or din plugs. There is apparently neither an industry standard nor a recommended style or method.

Having said that, most experts advise that avoiding signal degradation is the most important aspect of cabling, so direct connections between wire and terminals are best. The problem with soldered or crimped ends is that they introduce an opportunity for impaired connectivity, either from a faulty joint or else from progressive oxidation of the solder.

However, working with exposed multicore cable ends can be fiddly and frustrating, especially in the tight confines of a home cinema amplifier’s outputs, where often there is a minimal space between terminals. For that reason, connectors are often used. They can be adapted at one end and not the other; sometimes, a loudspeaker cabinet offers no choice but to make a direct connection.

The simplest solution to the multicore wire problem is to tin the exposed ends with solder, having first gently twisted the fibres to form a single strand. Other types of connector include spade lugs that are either crimped to the wire with pliers or else soldered. Banana plugs are single-wire connectors designed with a spring mechanism that helps retain the plug in its socket. DIN plugs are a German standard multi-pin plug. A DIN plug may have several pins, depending on the specific standard, but for loudspeaker use, only two are required.

What to Plan Before Making a Purchase

It is best when installing a new set of speakers to have a clear idea of where they are going to be placed in relation to the amplifier driving them. While it might seem sensible to take a cautious approach and order far more cable than strictly required, the best results are obtained from a balance between short distance and acoustic effect. Two speaker cabinets situated next to each other does not result in good stereo separation, but neither is situating the speakers at opposite ends of a room necessarily ideal either.

There are many sources of advice for speaker placement, but for cable buying purposes the important thing is to have just enough of the right grade. That typically involves making careful measurements. Remember to take safety into account. Wires trailing across a floor can be dangerous, so laying them along walls and over doors is preferable. Underneath the carpet is another equally valid route, provided that any upheaval involved is acceptable.

The other main thing to take into account is the types of terminals to be connected and to include any components that might be needed to complete the cabling job. Cabling can be bought with specific terminal types already attached.

Buying Hi-Fi Speaker Cables on eBay

Once plans have been drawn up, and all requirements have been estimated, it is time to proceed with making a purchase. Hi-Fi speaker cables can be found in eBay’s lists. A simple search on "speaker cable" typed into the search window on eBay’s home page is a good way to start. However, that probably returns up a variety of bits and pieces that might be better used on computer speakers or personal stereos. An alternative initial term is "audio cable"; either may need filtering to focus the results on the types of cable that are appropriate to a domestic hi-fi project. If you have decided to go for a particular type of cable, such as "oxygen free", you can incorporate that in the initial search.

As well as cable, the various kinds of terminator can be found on eBay, such as "gold banana plugs" and so too can accessories, such as adaptors that convert one type to another like spade to banana. Additionally, you might want to take the opportunity to get yourself a "soldering iron" and some "solder wire".

Conclusion

For true audiophiles with the appetite for long technical conversations and the money to spare, there are ways to differentiate hi-fi speaker cables from the run-of-the-mill, everyday varieties that the rest of us use. Oxygen-free copper, bi-wired cabinets, gold-plated spades, and so on all have the capacity to improve the efficiency of the signal throughput from amplifier to speaker. As long as there are cynics ready to contend that these are a waste of time and money, those conversations can be drawn out and intense.

The main things to take into account are the distance between the amplifier and speaker cabinet and the rated resistance of the respective components. Provided that the cable installed can handle the load, the only remaining concern is the quality of the connection. Undoubtedly, hi-fi speaker cables can be an easily overlooked and potentially confusing aspect of setting up a new audio system. But with careful research and planning, there is no reason why it need be an ordeal.

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