If you are setting up a new stereo or home theater system, you will want to invest in some good speaker cables. Getting the right cabling will deliver the very best from your new speakers, or give new life to those classic speakers that still sound so good. Many people choose to hide the cabling for their speaker, which can affect the type of wiring required.
Relatively speaking, there is no such thing as speaker cables that are "too good." A little bit of overkill ensures every nuance of the audio source will make it into the musical landscape. This doesn't mean you have to spend a lot, however, because better isn't always more expensive.
Most cables designed for speakers are made from inexpensive braided copper because it is highly conductive with low resistance. Some are made from silver, as this metal is even more conductive than copper. Silver is also more expensive, and if it contains impurities, it can be inferior to good copper wiring. For this reason many audio professionals recommend sticking with quality copper cables.
There are a few basic rules regarding speaker cables. First, shorter runs are better than longer runs because signals degrade with distance. Secondly, thicker wire preserves signal integrity over a longer distance than thinner wire. Thicker wire also minimizes resistance, allowing for more of the quickly-lost lower resonance frequencies to make it through. In short, thicker wire is better than thinner wire.
The thickness of the cables is indicated by the "gauge," with the lower the gauge, the thicker the wire. For example, 10- and 12-gauge wire is quite thick, while 18- and 20-gauge is comparatively thin. The average person will probably be very happy with 14-gauge speaker cables as all-around decent cables for average runs and audio systems.
That said, audiophiles will likely opt for a little more assurance that they are getting everything they can from their sound system, and might choose 12-gauge for surround-sound speakers, and 10-gauge for the subwoofer. The subwoofer delivers the bass sounds in a home theater system, and the thick 10 gauge cable assures low resonance signals will be replicated nicely. Surround sound speakers can also be wired with 10-gauge cables, but this is probably an unnecessary margin of overkill. In home applications, it is rare to use anything thicker than 10-gauge cables.
While receivers for home theater systems process audio sources to send bass signals to the subwoofer and special effects or brighter sounds to other speakers, traditional two-speaker stereo systems must handle brighter frequencies and bass together. For this reason 10- or 12-gauge speaker cables can vastly improve the sound of stereo speakers that might be currently wired with older 18- or 20-gauge cables.
While several popular manufacturers of audiovisual cabling charge fairly high prices for speaker cables, humbler brands can be just as good. For this reason many people, including many audiophiles, buy quality cable by the foot from large spools at home improvement centers, electronics shops, or other general vendors, rather than paying for expensive packaging and trendy names. Those who are even less concerned buy spooled lamp cord to save additional money. Manufacturers of speaker wire provide specifications as to shielding, impedance, and resistance, however, while those that make lamp cord have no stake in how their wiring will sound.
Optional connectors, like banana plugs or spades, can be attached to the ends of the cables, making it easier to connect them to the speaker or receiver. Purists contend that connectors only impede the signal, no matter how nominally. This group prefers to trim the bare ends of the wire every year or so to produce a fresh connection. Trimming off any corrosion keeps the connections clean and unhampered.