There are a wide variety of home audio systems, often referred to as "Hi-Fi Systems" (which stands for "High Fidelity), on the market. Most people choose to buy an all-in-one or shelf unit, which has the amplifier, CD player, and a turntable or cassette tape player all in one box. In most cases, the speakers for this system are separate, although they might be connected. Those who prefer higher quality sound buy a system consisting of separate Hi-Fi components (amplifier, CD player, turntable), all of which need to be connected together.
The various components of these systems are usually connected together with interconnects that have RCA terminations on them. This type of termination has been the audio industry standard for home audio for many decades. The exception to this rule is for speakers, which may be connected either with RCA terminations or unterminated.
The question we face is which is better, terminated or unterminated speaker connections. Both sides of this debate have their points, which explains why the debate has never been fully settled. Many manufacturers provide both RCA terminations and screw posts for using unterminated wire to connect speakers to their amplifiers. This leaves the decision to the preference of the buyer.
Clarifying the Terminology
To help eliminate confusion, it would be a good idea to clarify the terminology that we are using. The words "termination" and "connector" are synonymous; both refer to the device at the end of the interconnect, which provides physical and electrical connection to the electronic device. Likewise, the words "interconnects" and "cables" are synonymous. Both refer to the wire that is used to interconnect devices together. However, they usually refer to wire that has terminations soldered onto it, not bare or unterminated wire.
The other area of confusion is in the terms "plugs" and "jacks" which refer to the male and female terminations. Plugs are generally male and in Hi-Fi systems are connected to the end of the cable. Jacks are generally female and are mounted into the chassis of the device.
The Science Behind the Question
Electrical current consists of the movement of electrons from one atom to another. All atoms have a number of electrons circling the nucleus. These are negatively charged. When a wire is attached to a device which produces or stores electricity, such as a battery, it causes some of these electrons to move from one atom to another, going from the negative terminal of the battery to the positive. We use this movement of electrons to power a wide variety of devices.
For these electrons to be able to move from one atom to another, the atoms must be touching. This is not a problem within a piece of wire, but it can be when two pieces of wire are connected together. For a good electrical connection to happen, there must also be a good mechanical connection. The two wires must be in solid physical contact, without any air or other non-conductive material between them.
Advantages of Unterminated Hi-Fi Interconnects
Proponents of unterminated interconnects for Hi-Fi speakers state that the bare wire should provide the best possible connection. Every time another connection is added, there is a potential for a bad electrical and mechanical connection. This is true. In audio and video production they say that 95 per cent of problems are connection problems, not equipment problems.
By eliminating terminations and using unterminated interconnects, one additional connection is eliminated. In theory this should reduce the potential for problems. It also reduces resistance, as every connection has some electrical resistance in it, however minor. Eliminating that resistance reduces the workload of the equipment, allowing it to be louder, have less noise and last longer.
Disadvantages of Unterminated Hi-Fi Interconnects
Copper, the material most often used for wire, oxidises. A copper ring on somebody's finger causes a green band on their finger. That green band is oxidised copper that has gotten into the pores of the skin. Oxidation prevents good electrical connection between wires or between wires and other electrical devices. They can still have a good mechanical connection, but the electrical connection is damaged.
Terminations do not have bare copper making the connection, like unterminated wire does. So, the possibility of corrosion is greatly reduced.
The second problem with using unterminated Hi-Fi interconnects is that they require more skill to install properly than terminations do. For a unterminated interconnect to make the best connection, a screwdriver must be used to make the connection. The entire wire must be under the screw head, making contact with the termination on the speaker. Most people have trouble doing this, especially with larger diameter wires. Therefore, they are losing some of the wire's current carrying capacity.
Pros and Cons of Terminations
The other option, besides using unterminated interconnects is to use terminated interconnects. In almost all cases, RCA terminations are used for Hi-Fi systems. However, not all RCA terminations are created equal. They can vary considerably in quality.
There are two important points to the quality of a RCA termination. The first is how well the outer ring of the connector grips the female terminator mounted on the equipment. If it does not grip the female terminator solidly, the mechanical and electrical connection can be compromised. The second is whether the wire is soldered or crimped to the terminator.
Manufacturers of crimp technology equipment state unequivocally that their crimped connections are as good as soldered connections; the tight crimp prevents any possibility of corrosion. If this were true, then no car would ever fail to start because of corrosion at the battery terminals. Those are crimped connections, yet they still corrode.
Advantages of RCA Terminations
RCA terminations on interconnects are much more convenient for connecting and disconnecting, if the equipment must be moved. Not only do they not require any tools, but quality RCA terminators repeatedly provide a solid electrical and mechanical connection, without any skill required to make the connection.
If the terminations are properly soldered to the wire, then there is no possibility of poor electrical or mechanical connection between the wire and terminator. The terminator is "tinned" meaning that it is coated with tin or with a tin/lead mixture, to reduce the potential for corrosion. So, for long periods of time, they are more likely to maintain a corrosion-free connection.
Disadvantages of RCA Terminations
If crimp-type RCA terminators are used, or if they are improperly soldered, the problem which proponents of unterminated interconnects talk about raises its ugly head. In those cases, there is one more connection added into the interconnect, increasing the possibility of a problem.
The Advantage of Gold Plated Terminations
High quality terminations of all types are available in gold-plated versions. The reason that gold is used is that gold cannot oxidise. Therefore, there is no possibility of corrosion affecting the connection. This advantage is especially valid when equipment is left connected for long periods of time, without moving it. The very act of connecting and disconnecting interconnects provides an opportunity for corrosion to be cleaned off. RCA terminators do this automatically when being connected and disconnected. However, in the case of equipment that is left connected for long periods of time, this automatic "wiping" does not happen.
Soldering, the Best Connection
The best electrical and mechanical connection is accomplished by soldering. The possibility of corrosion is totally eliminated, and a solid electrical and mechanical connection is formed. However, this only happens when the soldering is done properly. Improper soldering, what is commonly referred to as "cold solder joints," does not provide either a good electrical or good mechanical connection.
To be able to solder Hi-Fi interconnects would require modifying the equipment, as it is not designed for this. For this reason, soldered connections are not normally used, although in some permanent installations, such as speakers which are installed in walls and ceilings, soldering is common.
The other problem with soldering is that there is no way of disconnecting equipment to move it. The wires have to be cut, and new solder joints created after the equipment is moved.
Buying Hi-Fi Interconnects on eBay
eBay is an excellent source for all types of Hi-Fi interconnects, with or without terminators. The easiest way to find interconnects for your Hi-Fi system is to use the eBay search engine. To do so, type "audio cables" into the search bar at the top of all eBay pages. This brings up a listing of all interconnects which can be used for audio applications. Use the filters to select only those sound and vision cables used for audio.
Once the excess interconnects have been removed, the filters change, allowing you to select the types of terminators you want on both ends of the interconnect. This makes searching extremely easy, as the search engine helps you find exactly what you need. For cables which are unterminated, you would need to select "None/Raw" in the filters.
Many of the interconnects listed on eBay are supplied by full-time eBay businesses. They are able to provide you with the best possible prices for your interconnect needs. In some cases, these sellers pay the postage, lowering the overall cost even further.
The debate still rages over whether it is better to use unterminated or terminated interconnects for Hi-Fi systems. Both methods have their adherents and both have their advantages. Overall, the advantages of unterminated interconnects are strongest when used by experienced audiophiles, who can be sure of making a good connection. For everyone else, terminated interconnects are probably best.
The biggest troublemaker for interconnects is corrosion. Copper, the material most used in wires and cables, can oxidise, increasing resistance and reducing its ability to carry the signal from the amplifier to the speakers. Good quality, soldered interconnects reduce this risk, as the soldered connection can not oxidise and the connectors are made of materials that do not oxidise.
For better protection against oxidation, gold-plated terminations are recommended. Gold does not oxidise, eliminating this risk. Although these types of terminators are more costly, the extra cost pays for itself in ensuring secure connections.