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What is speaker wire gauge and why does it matter?
How does gauge interact with length?
Here’s what you need to know about speaker wire gauge and thickness.
All right, so you spent some of your hard-earned money on your dream set of speakers – only to realize that the overwhelming majority of speakers sold these days don’t come with speaker wires or speaker cables.
That’s going to be a problem.
You see, if you want to connect your speakers to an audio source you are going to need some specially made copper wire designed to work with the particular set of speakers you have.
Making things even worse, of course, is that there are so many different speaker wire options out there on the market today.
We’re not just talking about the number of different manufacturers all claiming to be “the best”. But we’re also talking about the different American Wire Gauge (AWG) options that you’ll have to pick and choose from, too.
Truth be told, there are so many different speaker wire options out there that it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
But does size really matter in this department? Is the wire gauge you choose really a make-or-break kind of feature?
Let’s look at all these things right now…
Speaker Wire 101
Before we get into whether or not speaker wire gauge really matters, and before we dig even deeper into the American Wire Gauge scale in general, it’s important to understand exactly what speaker wire does.
So, as you probably figured, the wire carries the signal from your amp to your speakers. This isn’t a digital signal that gets decoded by the speakers – it’s an electrical current that is used to move the speaker cone and produce sound.
From this perspective, speaker cables are a critical component in your studio or hi-fi setup. If you don’t get the right cables, you risk ruining the signal right as it’s about to hit your speakers. So all your work researching and sourcing the right speakers and amp will be completely ruined if you’re not paying attention here.
You can find speaker wire in various gauges (or thickness). Thicker cables have less resistance and so the current flows easier. But that’s simplifying things too much. Before we understand more, we need to look at the AWG scale.
Understanding The AWG Scale
The AWG scale applies to almost all of the wires you can purchase and connect to your speaker system these days.
This system of measurement has been in place since the mid-1800s and is universally regarded as the “gold standard”, even with international speaker wire manufacturers.
One tricky thing you will need to get used to is that the smaller numbers on the scale are thicker wires.
For example, a 12 gauge wire is always going to be thicker than an 18 gauge wire – and a 12 gauge wire is about as wide as you’re going to want to look for when it comes to a speaker set up. Go any wider than that and capacitance really goes haywire and your signal quality degrades in a big way.
Interestingly enough, the AWG scale applies to any wires that are carrying any kind of electrical signal and not just speaker wire alone. So this is not a term that is specific to the audio world by any means.
As we highlighted above, thicker cables are going to provide a lot less resistance to your audio signals carried over the wires themselves.
Think of it like this.
Let’s say instead of a standard garden hose, you had one as thin as a drinking straw. If you had to water a garden, it would take much longer as you simply cannot move much water through the pipe easily.
This should hopefully help you understand a bit about how voltage works with speaker wire. Thicker wires have less resistance and can travel longer distances while thinner wires resist more current and must be shorter.
Does Speaker Wire Gauge Really Matter?
Believe it or not, size really does matter when it comes to the kind of wire you are picking for your new speaker system.
Depending on how serious you want to get, though, you can usually get away with an educated guess on thickness. Or maybe you want to really drill down into the specifics to find the exact optimal cable length and thickness.
If you’re going to ballpark things in terms of the length, it’s a good idea to stick with 16 gauge wire as it’s a healthy middle-ground in the AWG scale. With this gauge, you can get just over 10 feet of length before you run into problems.
This is a somewhat universal wire size that most professional sound system experts are going to recommend for 99% of applications out there. Especially if you are a more casual listener and don’t necessarily need to squeeze every single drop of power or performance out of your equipment.
If you do want to go down that road, though, you can carefully match your speakers and wires perfectly.
There are a lot of sites out there that provide formulas to double-check the impedance of your audio source as well as your speakers, factor in the distance between your speakers and your receiver (as well as one another), and a variety of other elements before telling you exactly which gauge wire you should choose.
Those that go down this direction inevitably end up with speaker wires perfectly designed for their set up – completely optimized in terms of both length and thickness.
Oh and this should be obvious but make sure you get the same speaker wire gauge and length for both left and right speakers.
We already know that length affects signal strength and quality and you don’t want one speaker to be louder than the other. Don’t just reach for the stereo balance control! Solve the problem properly by evenly matching the wire length.
Cleaning Up a Couple of Speaker Wire Myths and Misconceptions
Now that we have covered some of the basics of what you’ll want to know before you set up your hi-fi system, it’s important to look at some of the most common myths and misconceptions out there revolving around wired connections and copper speaker wire.
Let’s jump right in!
Myth: Thick Speaker Wire is Always Better
We mentioned above that thicker cables are always going to provide less resistance to your audio signals.
We also mentioned that when you get really thick cables (around 10 gauge, for example) you can start to see a tremendous amount of impedance and capacitance issues – especially over longer wire runs of 50 ft, 100 ft, or even further.
It’s important that you remember to try and keep the gauge number of your wires as low as possible without ever dipping below 12 gauge.
14-18 gauge wire runs are the way to go with most speaker installations. Anything outside this range should only be considered for specialized setups.
A lot of people (including self-described audiophiles and professionals) will tell you that braided wire eliminates a lot of low impedance problems and dramatically improves overall audio performance while eliminating the “skin” effect that can negatively impact your audio signal.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Braided wire is (maybe) a little more durable than solid copper – but that’s about it. It doesn’t have any real impact whatsoever on the amplifier or on the overall inductance of your cables.
If anything, the odds are good it’s nothing but a placebo effect.
Myth: Your Wires Need to Be EXACTLY the Same Length
Sure, it’s not a bad idea to have your speaker set up position to equidistant from where you are going to be sitting most of the time while you listen.
We did previously talk about the importance of matching the gauge and length of your cables but there’s no need to perfect this to the millimeter.
Yes, theoretically you could end up with some phase shifting or signal loss if your wiring set up isn’t exactly the same length.
However, when you’re talking about such short distances (maybe an extra foot or two on one side compared to the other) there’s absolutely no noticeable difference whatsoever.
Definitely keep things close for cable management and aesthetics, but don’t knock yourself out if you’re wiring is a little bit longer on one side or just a bit asymmetrical.
Myth: Your Wires Need to Warm and Break-In
The idea that a small electrical signal riding across your wiring is going to somehow physically “wear in” the cable seems quite bizarre – but it’s something a lot of “audio professionals” looking to push products aren’t shy about mentioning.
Once again, there’s no science to back this up.
That tiny electrical signal is so minuscule that it’s going to have absolutely no effect on anything in any significant way. We are talking about a signal that moves at the speed of light with very low voltage.
There are certainly some companies out there selling “cooker” products to warm up and break in your wiring configuration, but avoid them at all costs. That’s nothing more than modern-day snake oil.
I can’t think of a time where I felt a brand new speaker cable sounded “bad”. If this did happen, I would be checking that the speaker wire thickness and length is appropriate for the impedance of my speakers as well as my amplifier’s ohm load. It’s important to think rationally before jumping to any wacky conclusion about “breaking in” cables.
Check out these articles if you want to learn more about cable length and impedance: