Is There a Difference Between Speaker Cables and Regular Wires?
Audiophiles can be a finicky bunch. With their fancy surround sound speakers complemented by subwoofers, audiophiles are willing to go the extra mile to produce high-quality and high-fidelity audio. However, we understand that sophisticated sound systems aren’t for everyone. Some people are perfectly contented with hearing the audio directly from their TVs, while some may bother hooking up a speaker system but are not willing to shell out money for high-end speaker cables.
On the subject of speaker cables, a question we often encounter is: how are speaker cables different from regular electrical cables? Can one be changed for the other? If these questions have lingered in your mind, then read on we investigate the matter.
What are electrical wires and how do they work?
Of course, if we’re going to completely understand the difference between speaker cables and electrical wires, we are going to have to take a back-to-basics approach. The first thing to tackle is the humble electrical wire. How do they work, anyway?
Electrical wires connect our electrical devices and appliances to a power source, creating a “bridge” for the current to pass through. This is done by the use of high conductivity materials such as copper, aluminum, or stainless steel. Most electrical cables used for interior wiring, which are probably the most familiar to us, are Romex cables. These are also known as non-metallic sheathed (NM) cables. A Romex cable is made of three or more wires wrapped inside a flexible plastic jacket.
There are also other types of electrical wires that are used for more specialized applications. Ribbon wires are designed for applications that require the connection of several parallel wires but are limited to low-level voltages. On the other hand, shielded wires are encased by strands of conductive material to minimize electromagnetic interference and are typically for sensitive or high-voltage applications.
What parameters affect the performance of electrical wires?
Despite the seemingly simple principle behind their use, there are dozens of different types of electrical wires and choosing which one is appropriate for your use can be a bit overwhelming. This can be made much easier by understanding how each characteristic of the electrical cable affects its performance.
1. Wire size
In electrical wires, size refers to the diameter of the metal conductor. These are typically presented according to the American Wire Gauge (AWG) system. Small AWG numbers are assigned to larger diameter wires and are also an indirect measure of how much current can pass through the wire safely. For instance, a 10-gauge wire can only safely transmit a 30-amp current while a much thicker 2-gauge can handle up to 95 amps. There is a high risk for a short circuit or heat buildup when the size of a wire is not properly matched to the amperage of the circuit for to which it will be used for.
A conductor is any material that allows current to pass through and is an essential element of all types of wires. A vast majority of all electrical wires used today use copper as their conductor material. Although copper is by no means the most conductive metal, it also comes with the desirable characteristics of being cheap and ductile and having high heat resistance. This has made it easy to fashion long and flexible wires from copper.
In the past, aluminum was almost equally as popular as copper as a material for electrical wires. However, the practice of aluminum gradually faded as it became apparent that it was not as conductive as copper and was also more prone to creeping when overheated. The expansion and contraction of aluminum wires as they repeatedly went through cycles of heating and cooling resulted in terminal connections coming loose.
Gold and silver are also highly conductive metals, but they are only appropriate for very specific wiring applications. Gold, aside from being very expensive, is also very malleable, making it the preferred conductor microprocessors and circuit boards. Silver is much more conductive than copper but is sparingly used since it is chemically a very reactive metal.
3. Insulation material
Individual wires within a single cable need to be covered with insulation to avoid coming into contact with each other and causing a short circuit. The cable itself is also covered with an insulating jacket to protect the wires against external damage and to reduce electrical leakage.
When choosing for the best material for wire insulation, the quality of the material and how it reacts to the environment should be considered. Some materials may have superior heat resistance, while others can retain their flexibility even in extreme cold. For wires in outdoor applications, the insulating material must have a high level of UV resistance. Some applications may require that the wires be able to move around constantly, so the insulating material must not become brittle or stiff over time.
The choice of which insulating material to use for a wire is probably one of the most complex decisions to make when designing a wiring installation, if only for the fact that there so many choices. There are easily-accessible plastic options such as PVC, PE, or Nylon. There are also rubber products that all give the benefit of flexibility, such as Silicone or Neoprene. While all these materials generally do a good job of preventing contact between wires, they differ in durability and longevity depending on the environment.
Wires meant to carry high voltages or those used in sensitive applications typically come with shielding. A shielded cable has a conductive material that encloses the insulated central conductor core that acts as a Faraday cage. This shield minimizes the noise or interference caused by the electromagnetic field naturally generated by other electrical sources. For a shield to be effective, it must be grounded at both terminals.
The two most common cable shielding methods are foil and braided shielding. Foil shielding, also known as “tape” shielding, uses a thin sheet of conductive material such as copper or aluminum. This sheet is usually bonded to the external jacket of the cable, with both components working to enhance the durability of the cable. The advantage of foil shield is the near-100% shielding it provides. However, foil shielding is very delicate and hard to work with, especially when laying out cables in convoluted orientations.
In contrast, braided shields use a mesh of woven copper wires that are much more flexible and durable. However, the braided shield provides much less coverage – typically between 70% to 95%. Cables with braided shields are also heavier and more expensive, owing to the use of more expensive copper wire.
What are speaker cables?
Simply put, speaker cables are simply electrical wires that are used to connect speakers, amplifiers, and other audio components. The electrical signals sent through these wires are then translated to the mechanical movements, inducing the cones of speakers and subwoofers to vibrate at the appropriate rhythm, volume, and frequency. Most speaker wires available nowadays are composed of only two wires that are essentially identical but have opposing polarities.
Though it may sound simple, anyone who has ever been in any consumer electronics store know that speaker and audio cables can come from standard bargain-bin versions to top-of-the-line premium-grade options. This range in perceived quality begs the question: what makes speaker cables so special?
What makes speaker cables so special?
To understand why speaker cables are seemingly held to a higher standard, we must a high-quality surround sound system relies on the lossless transmission of electrical signals from the receiver to the individual components. Thus, speaker cables put a premium on preserving signal integrity. Audiophiles typically have more considerations when choosing a speaker cable than your average person shopping for electrical wires.
High-end speaker cables choose silver over copper due to the former’s superior conductivity. Many audiophiles claim that using a silver-cored cable reduces the portion of the high-frequency signals that travel towards the outside of the cable, resulting in the transmission of signals with higher integrity. This is less of a crucial factor for subwoofer cables, as the loss of lower frequency signals is almost negligible. Thus, copper-winded subwoofer cables are typically satisfactory.
Shielding is a particularly big concern for the audio industry, as the pickup of renegade signals from nearby electrical sources can greatly diminish the quality of the audio output. Either foil or braided shielding is considered acceptable for speaker cables. Audio enthusiasts are also very particular about the quality of crimping and soldering on the terminals of the cable, as these parts are also susceptible to signal noise.
Capacitance refers to the ability of all conductive materials to store a small amount of electricity. Although this value is typically very small for cables, any excess capacitance along the length of the cable can result in oscillation of electrical signals. This can end up damaging your speakers or receivers.
As a rule of thumb, longer cables have higher capacitance values. This means that getting a speaker cable that is only as long as you need is recommended.
4. Gauge size and resistance
Even though speaker cables are made with naturally conductive materials, they still have an intrinsic resistivity value that can contribute to signal loss. A cable with a larger diameter has a lower resistivity value, as does a shorter cable. This means that thicker diameters (around 12-gauge) are recommended for longer wires, and shorter wires can make do with smaller diameters (around 16-gauge). You can also choose to get higher-end speaker wires that have built-in internal conductors that
So, can I use an electrical wire as a speaker cable?
To answer the question posed at the start of this article – yes, you can use a regular electric wire as a speaker cable, as long as it comes with two same-sized conductor wires. With the knowledge of how conductivity, resistance, and shielding affect signal quality, you can now also manage your expectations of output quality when using electrical wires to connect your speakers to a receiver.
Understanding how cables work – whether for electrical supply or audio – will allow you to make an intelligent decision on whether you’re going to buy those thousand-dollar speaker cables. If that’s your thing, then go for it. If you don’t have that type of budget, then you can make do with getting an electrical wire with a high-quality copper core and braided shielding. Just crimp in some banana plugs, and you have a satisfactory audio cable at a fraction of the price.
When it comes to buying speaker cables, there is an oft-repeated piece of wisdom that we like to live by: listen with your ears, not with your eyes. There is a huge array of high-end speaker cables out in the market that cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, promising unequaled audio quality. While there are certainly a lot of audio purists who will stand by these products, there are much cheaper alternatives that are not much worse off in terms of output.
Armed with the knowledge of the fundamentals in the transmission of electrical signals through cables, you can customize speaker cables out of any regular electrical wire. They will probably not look as nice and might not equal the quality of high-end audio cables, but they are so much cheaper. In any case, it’s still comforting to know that there are budget-friendly alternatives to seemingly expensive hobbies.