Speaker wire is one of the most common types of audio cable. While it looks simple at a glance, there are a fair number of factors that come into play. Some speaker cables have connectors while others are blunt (ending with bare wire). The AWG (American Wire Gauge) of speaker wire comes in a few different varieties with different types having advantages and disadvantages depending on the application.
Speaker Wire Connectors (or Bare Wire)
Most speakers (and some similar equipment) do not come with the speaker wire they need. The first step in selecting one is deciding how you the wire will be connected to the speaker. Many speakers have the option to insert the bare wire, eliminating the need for a connector. Bare wire does provide the best sound quality since there is nothing between the wire and speaker but comes with a few downsides. Since the wire is out in the open it can be frayed or otherwise damaged over time, which can lower the signal quality or even break the cable. If the cable or speaker ever needs to be moved, it is also easier to unplug a connector than undo bare speaker wire.
All types of speaker connectors work in pairs. One cable will be positive (red) and the other will be negative (black), similar to a car battery. Typically, connectors are sold in pairs since they are designed to be used together.
Banana connectors are the most common speaker wire connector, with virtually every speaker on the market having banana ports. Bare speaker wire is inserted into the back of the banana plug and held in place with small screws. These screws act as the conduit between the rest of the banana connector and the speaker wire itself. Using a banana connector is securer than just bare speaker wire. The banana connector protects the speaker wire, making it much less likely to fray and lose integrity over time.
Speaker pins are similar to banana plugs but are much slimmer. Like on banana plugs, the speaker wire goes into the back of the speaker pin and is held in place with small screws. Being smaller and more fragile, and not offering any real advantages over the competition, speaker pins are rarely used.
Spade plugs (also called spade lugs) are not as common as banana plugs but commoner than speaker pins. They are designed to slide over binding posts and tighten down for a secure connection. This can be a little problematic since some binding posts are the wrong size to fit a spade plug. There is no advantage to using spade plugs over one of the other options so it is usually easier to use banana plugs instead.
If you cannot decide between banana plugs, speaker pins, or spade connectors, there are also interchangeable connectors available. They do come in different sizes, so make sure to pick one that will fit your speaker wire AWG. Made with threads on the end, these connectors work with three interchangeable tips that allow users to switch between all three options.
Banana plugs (left), speaker pins (middle), and spade plugs (right)
Speaker Wire Terminals
Along with speaker connectors that go on the ends of wires to speakers, there are a number of options available when running wire from speakers as well. These speaker terminals are typically put into wall plates. Like speaker connectors, speaker terminals should be used in a positive and negative pair (red/black).
Binding posts are the most common and popular type of speaker wire terminal. Bare wire, banana connectors, speaker pins, and spade plugs can all be used with binding posts. Binding posts are also available as keystone jacks, as well as wall plates that have binding posts built directly into them.
Banana jack panel mount connectors are specifically designed to go with banana jacks. Essentially, these are just the female version of a banana connector. The back of the terminal accepts bare speaker wire and a banana connector goes in the front.
Spring clips are a type of keystone jack (made for use with keystone wall plates) that accept bare speaker wire and speaker pins. One bare speaker wire goes in the back while the second bare wire (or speaker pin) goes into the front.
A binding post (left), banana jack (middle), and pair of spring clips (right)
Speaker Wire Gauge (AWG)
Speaker wires are available in various AWGs (American Wire Gauges) ranging from 10 to 22 AWG. Common speaker wires are usually somewhere within the 12 to 18 AWG range, with bigger or smaller sizes being used for special applications. The lower the AWG, the thicker the wire will be. Thicker wire carries a stronger signal and works better for long distance runs. Thinner wire has greater flexibility and is more common for at-home use.
The signal going through a speaker wire is electricity. Speakers and other equipment is able to translate the signal into sound, but the cable itself carries an electrical signal. Thicker wire uses a larger metal core, meaning it can conduct more electricity. This results in stronger signal strength when using thicker AWG speaker cable. Determining which speaker wire is best for your set-up largely depends on the length of the cable, but that is not the only factor.
Speaker cables are built with different resistances (measured in ohms). Resistance is when a cable absorbs the electricity going through it and starts to heat up. The longer a cable is, the more resistance will be generated. Thicker cables absorb more resistance, making them essential to avoid overheating on long-distance runs. Different speakers have different ohms, so check the speakers’ ohms before selecting a cable. Most speakers use 4, 6, or 8 ohms and a combination of the ohms and AWG will determine the maximum length of a speaker cable.
On the maximum length of speaker wire, you will notice a pattern between the numbers. For example, on 18 AWG cable, the maximum length increases by 8 feet for every 2 ohms. On 16 AWG cable, it increases by 12 feet for every 2 ohms. Similar number patterns can be seen on all the different AWGs used for speaker cable.
For standard at-home speakers, 16 AWG speaker wire is the most common choice. The average home use speaker is 8 ohm, so 16 AWG will give you a maximum length of 48 feet. 48 feet may sound like overkill, but when cable goes up a wall or is wrapped around an entire room it starts to feel a lot shorter. For anything beyond an off-the-shelf speaker for a home theater, a little preemptive research is a good idea.