Just like the Mac® versus PC controversy, or who the greatest NBA™/NFL™/MLB™ player of all time is, the question of whether expensive speaker cables are worth it often sparks a passionate debate. And like most great debates, there is no one simple answer.
Among the audio faithful, there is a wide gap between those who believe a $3/foot bulk cable is just as good as a high-end cable that costs $100/foot and those who wouldn’t dream of using a cable that only costs $3/foot in a system that costs $50,000. Who is right? In this article, we’ll make the case that the answer is more of a spectrum between those two end points than a definite point in-between.
To help understand why a seemingly simple question like this is so controversial, consider that transmitting audio is much more complicated than transmitting, say, power. For example, a power cord just has to get one frequency of signal — 60 Hz — from the wall outlet to your coffee maker. The challenge with transmitting music is getting 10 octaves of frequencies to all arrive at the destination at the same time and at the proper level.
Let’s start with some basic objective factors for evaluating how well a speaker cable does its job, which is carrying an electrical signal from an amplifier or receiver to the speakers that convert the signal to sound.
– Resistance. This is the most important characteristic. It’s a measure of how easily current flows through the cable, expressed in ohms, represented by the Greek letter omega: Ω. Fewer ohms, or fractions of ohms, means lower resistance (i.e., current flows more easily from the amp to the speaker).
– Gauge. The thickness of the cable, measured in American Wire Gauge (AWG). The smaller the gauge, the thicker the cable, with thicker cables having less resistance. Common sizes include: 16 AWG, 14 AWG and 12 AWG.
– Length. Longer cables create more resistance, so the distance from your amplifier to your speakers is an important factor in deciding what cables to use. Follow this rule of thumb: for longer distances, use thicker cable (smaller AWG).
Beyond the basics, there are electrical aspects to consider, such as:
– Speaker impedance. The resistance of the speaker to the current from an amplifier is referred to as the load a speaker places on an amp, measured in ohms. Impedance determines how much current the amp can provide to the speakers, but, unlike resistance, impedance changes with frequency. In reproducing voice and music, an amplifier produces many different frequencies, so a speaker’s impedance is different at every frequency. To simplify this phenomenon, manufacturers list the nominal impedance of their speakers — for example, 4 Ω or 8 Ω. This is the value used in calculating the maximum run of speaker cable that can maintain resistance within the recommended limit (generally less than 5% of the speaker’s impedance).
– Inductance and capacitance. These are related to resistance, but they are frequency-dependent. For example, higher frequencies can pass through a capacitor more easily than lower frequencies. Likewise, lower frequencies can pass through an inductor more easily than higher frequencies. Cables inherently have a little inductance and capacitance, but since the ultimate goal is to have all frequencies arrive at the speaker at the same time, more expensive cables go the extra mile and take these factors into account.
– Conductor material. The purer the conductor, the more it costs. Copper is commonly used because of its low resistance and low cost. Silver has an even lower resistance, but is considerably more expensive. Manufacturers offer different price points by using different kinds of copper and silver, including oxygen-free copper, pure bare copper, tinned copper, silver-plated copper and various percentages of silver.
– Terminations. The material and type of connector used on the end of the speaker cable also affects the sound, but we’re going to keep this discussion to just the cable itself. For more information on terminations, see our previous posts on banana plugs and installing speaker cable.
In terms of the factors above, there are many reasonably priced options available, including the Monoprice 2747 12-gauge speaker cable chosen by Wirecutter as the Best Speaker Cable in 2019.
The main problem that expensive cables try to address is timing. And here’s where angry mobs start reaching for their pitchforks and torches, with terms like “snake oil” tossed around.
The science is this: Low frequencies travel straight down the middle of a conductor, while high frequencies tend to travel on the outside of the conductor. This behavior, which is known as skin effect, can cause low and high frequencies to arrive at the speaker at slightly different times. It’s a phenomenon that dulls the dynamics of the music and adversely affects the soundstage and imaging.
Expensive cables use many strategies to get all frequencies to arrive at the speaker at the same time and at the proper level, including:
– Dielectrics. A dielectric is insulation that keeps current from flowing between the conductors. In speaker cables, a dielectric is used to separate the positive and negative conductors. Dielectrics can be made of vinyl, Teflon™, polypropylene or even air. Different dielectrics are chosen for their flexibility and electrical characteristics.
– Conductor geometry. There’s more going on inside that cable than you think. Aside from what the conductors are made of, the way they’re arranged within the jacket (sometimes referred to as the “outer cover”) affects the performance of the cable. Two conductors arranged in parallel have higher inductance than a pair of conductors twisted together, which will have a higher capacitance. Expensive cables use different numbers of conductors in different arrangements to minimize factors that can negatively impact the sound, such as inductance and capacitance.
– Aesthetics. Even though most people think speaker cable should be heard and not seen, others think every piece of their setup should be a work of art, including the not-so-humble cables. If you want to step up from a white PVC jacket, you’ll find PVC in different colors, striped PVC and even braided jackets, topped off with connectors as shiny as candy apples.
Audio pundits can spout facts and figures, but as the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As with everything audio, the ultimate determinant of whether a product is subjectively “good” or “bad” is your ears. And the corollary to deciding whether a cable sounds good is deciding whether the price is worth it. If you are happy with a $3/foot cable and think it sounds great with your system, then your search is over.
On the other hand, if you are spending thousands of dollars on your components, taking the time to place your speakers precisely, and consider yourself an audiophile, you may appreciate the subtle differences that some expensive cables produce. In fact, the differences may not be subtle to you at all.
The bottom line is this: Wherever your speaker cables land on the spectrum between low-end and high-end, the important thing is that they sound good in your system to your ears. Follow that dictum and you’re bound to be satisfied with your speaker cables, whatever the cost.
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