If you’re setting up a home theater for the first time, you might be confused about speaker thickness and its impact on sound quality. But don’t worry: I’m about to dissect the matter for you and help you pick between 12 gauge vs 14 gauge and 16 gauge speaker wires.
12 gauge speaker wires (3.31 mm2) are thicker than 14 gauge (2.08 mm2) and 16 gauge (1.31 mm2) wires. They are required for longer runs or in-wall and underground applications to minimize losses in sound quality. For shorter length requirements, you can safely use thinner 14 or 16 gauge wires.
12 Guage vs 14 Gauge vs 16 Gauge Speaker Wires
Here’s a quick comparison table between 12 gauge, 14 gauge and 16 gauge speaker wires:
|12 Gauge||14 Gauge||16 Gauge|
|Thickness||3.31 sq mm||2.08 sq mm||1.31 sq mm|
|Max Length (4 ohm/8 ohm)||60 ft / 120 ft||40 ft / 80 ft||24 ft / 48 ft|
|Applications||Longer runs, in-wall & underground cabling||Medium runs, high impedance speakers||Shorter distances, lower impedance speakers|
|Cost||Most expensive||Lesser than 12 gauge but more than 16 gauge||Least expensive|
Read on to learn more about why you might opt for a certain gauge. I’ll first outline how the measurement system works, and then we’ll go through each gauge to see in what situation you should use it.
I’ll also provide some additional tips at the end of the article so you’ll know exactly what to buy.
Also read: How to Extend Home Theater Speaker Wires
Speaker Wire Gauges
At first, you might be confused by all the different gauges. However, it’s a fairly simple system that we can explain in under a minute.
The American Wire Gauge (AWG) is the standard scale in America, and it’s also sometimes referred to as the Brown & Sharpe wire gauge. We don’t use it only for speaker wires, but all sorts of wires. It’s not the only wire gauge in the world, but it’s the one used in America.
As you might assume, the numbers refer to different sizes. However, the system may be a bit counterintuitive. The lower the number, the thicker the wire, and vice versa. So, a 12 gauge wire is thicker than a 16 gauge one.
The most common sizes are 12, 14, and 16 gauge, but there are many thicker and thinner wires out there—they’re just not used as much. This is especially true when it comes to home theaters and sound systems in general.
Now that we’ve got this out of the way, let’s take a look at the most common gauges and see how you could use them in a home theater.
12 Gauge Wire
12 gauge wire is the thickest wire we have on the list here. You might think that a thicker wire is always better, but that’s not always the case. The ideal thickness of your wire depends on a couple of factors:
- Speaker impedance
- How you’ll use your wire
Length and speaker impedance go hand in hand, and they’re going to be the main determining factors when it comes to your choice.
The longer the wire, the thicker it has to be. It should also match the impedance of the speakers. Ideally, it should be less than 5% of the rated impedance of the speaker.
For example, it’s advisable to use 12 gauge wire for distances between 60 and 120 feet. The distance also depends on the speakers. For example, if the load is 8 ohm, you can use a longer cable. The lower the load, the shorter the cable should be.
Thicker wires are also a good idea if they have to go through holes in walls or underground. This is simply because they are more difficult to damage and will not get snapped in half if pressure is put on them.
In a nutshell, use 12 gauge wire if you need a long wire run or if you need heavy-duty wire. Otherwise, it might not really be necessary. Keep in mind that thicker wire costs more, so if there’s no need to use it, you’ll just be wasting money.
14 Gauge Wire
14 gauge wire is also a good choice for longer runs, although not as long as the ones you would use 12 gauge wire for. It’s a good choice for runs between 40 and 80 feet, as long as the power output is not too high, and speaker impedance is not too low.
14 gauge wire is also slightly cheaper than 12 gauge, so it might be the better choice if you are looking to save a few dollars.
16 Gauge Wire
16 gauge wire will do just fine in almost all circumstances. It’s good for short distances, and it’s very likely that you won’t have to stretch your wire over hundreds of feet to attach your speakers to the amp.
16 gauge wire does a pretty good job with low impedance speakers, as long as the distance is not too great (24-48 feet).
16 gauge wire is also cheaper than 12 and 14 gauge wires, which makes it even more attractive. Therefore, unless you’re trying to outfit a home theater for the whole neighborhood (a neighborhood theater, I guess), 16 gauge is the best choice for you.
At short distances, thicker wire will not give you any benefits, and will just cost more money. Therefore, 16 gauge is the right choice for most people, most of the time.
Can Speaker Wire Be Too Thin?
Speaker wire can be too thin, in theory. If the wire is too long, you’ll need to compensate with more thickness. However, this is not going to be a problem for most people. You’re not likely to use a piece of wire so long that its thickness becomes an issue.
Let’s take a detailed look at this. Overall, it’s much easier for electrical signals to travel through thicker wire. This is because, otherwise, too much of the signal can be absorbed by the wire, which can, theoretically, decrease the sound quality.
The logical conclusion might be that thicker is always better. However, there are some practical considerations we need to keep in mind.
If you’re using a relatively short piece of wire, it will simply not be long enough to generate resistance high enough to audibly affect the sound quality. Unless you’ve got the hearing of a seasoned elephant, you’ll probably not notice any differences.
Thinness only becomes a problem with very long pieces of wire. The longer they are, the more resistance there will be, and the more your sound quality will be damaged. In such cases, you need to compensate with thickness to mitigate this effect.
For most people, this is not going to be an issue, so there’s no need to worry about cable thinness.
Can Speaker Wire Be Too Thick?
Speaker wire can’t be too thick. Even if you use thicker wire than necessary, it will not negatively affect your sound system. There is no way for a thicker wire to harm your speakers.
The only thing that can be potentially damaged if you use a wire that’s too thick is your budget. You’ll end up paying much more money than necessary, and you probably won’t get anything out of it.
But if you’re worried about damaging your speakers, you can relax. Nothing can happen to them if the wires are too thick.
Can Speaker Wire Be Too Long?
Speaker wire can’t be too long, in the sense that it won’t negatively affect your sound quality. It’s even advisable to get cables that are a bit longer. However, they can get in the way if they’re too long, so you’ll want to avoid that.
As long as you choose thicker cables for long distances, there will be no problems. In fact, you should probably let the cables be a foot or two longer, so you can cut off the bare piece of wire and simply strip off the plastic from the next inch or two in case the bare end oxidizes.
The only problem with having a cable that’s too long is that it can get in the way, and it can become quite messy and aesthetically unappealing. You’ll probably want to avoid that, especially if you’re prone to tripping over wires and cables.
Speaker Wire Material
If there’s one thing you should absolutely pay attention to, probably even more than wire thickness, it’s the material. The material it’s made of is going to significantly impact its durability, sound quality, and physical resilience.
It’s also going to make the price significantly higher. But in this case, it’s worth paying more, since you’re actually getting more out of it.
The typical materials used in wire production are:
- Oxygen-free copper
You can also find alloys of copper and different materials, which manufacturers make to cut costs.
Copper is the best material for wires because it’s an excellent conductor, doesn’t oxidize quickly, and doesn’t create much resistance. It’s not the cheapest material on the list here, but it’s definitely the best choice.
Oxygen-free copper is a version of copper that contains less oxygen, which means that it’s not technically free of oxygen.
In theory, less oxygen makes it purer and it should be a better conductor. However, it’s only around 0.05% purer, so the differences will not really be audible.
Most of the other materials on the list, as well as the various alloys, are going to be cheaper than pure copper.
However, they are not good conductors, they’re more resistant, and they break easily, so you’ll end up buying wires more often. It’s best to steer clear of these, unless absolutely necessary.
Silver and gold can be really useful materials, but they can’t be used for everything due to their high prices.
For example, silver is less resistive and oxidizes more slowly than copper, but the price of a silver cable would put it outside the budget of most people.
Gold is more resistive than silver or copper, but it never oxidizes, so it makes it a good choice for open terminations. However, its price and properties make it a bad choice for wires.
Is Expensive Wire Better?
An expensive wire is usually not much better. As long as it’s made of the right material, and is of the right thickness and length, it will get the job done. There’s no need to spend extra money on speaker wire.
If you’re a hardcore audiophile and think you can hear the difference in sound between cheap and expensive wire, feel free to shell out more money on it. However, most people are not going to be able to hear any difference.
When you think about it, it’s just a piece of copper in a plastic casing. You can’t reinvent the wheel, and you can’t make such a product significantly better than your competitors’ versions. The higher price you’ll pay is probably hiked up by the brand name and the quality.
As long as it’s made from pure copper and you’ve got the right size, you won’t have any trouble even if you get a cheaper option. You’re much better off investing that money in your audio equipment or sound treatment.
Or you can just get some snacks and drinks to have more fun while you’re enjoying your sweet new setup. That’s also not a bad idea, I’d say.
How Much Should You Spend on Wire and Connectors?
A rough estimate is that you should spend around 5% and no more than 10% of what you’ve spent on your entire sound system. You can get away with paying less, but if you’re spending more than this, it’s probably an unnecessary cost.
There are no strict guidelines when it comes to this. You should try to find the most suitable cable for the job, and that’s it. The most important thing is that it’s made from copper and that it’s the right gauge.
Don’t get caught up in the hype and buy an overpriced cable just because it’s made from some super-duper special magical material sprinkled with fairy dust. It’s probably not worth it, and the advertised benefits are so minute that you probably won’t even hear them.
Should You Use Different Wires for Different Speakers?
You shouldn’t use different wires for different speakers. Ideally, you should use the same type of wire for all the speakers. You can use thinner wire for the front speakers and thicker for surround speakers if you really have to, but it’s not ideal.
People sometimes think that they should use thicker wire for the front speakers as they’re the most important speakers.
The idea is that, since these speakers are more important, they should use the kind of wire that allows electrical currents to pass through more easily.
Likewise, since surround speakers are less critical for the sound, they can use thinner wire to connect those. While this logic may seem to make sense initially, it’s far from the truth.
If you really wish to use different thicknesses for different speakers to cut corners, you should do the opposite. You can use thinner wire for the fronts since they’re closer and don’t require as much wire.
When it comes to the surrounds, you should use thicker wire. As we’ve discussed, the longer the wire is, the thicker it has to be.
However, the best idea is to just use the same wire for all the speakers. It’s not like you’ll save a whole lot of money if you use different wires, and it’s probably safest not to do it. Don’t overthink the situation.
If possible, try to get banana connectors for your wire. Attaching bare wire ends is possible, and many people choose that route, but it can be quite a pain in the neck, so it’s best to use proper connectors. If your preferred wire comes without connectors, you can always buy them separately.
If that’s not an option or you simply prefer bare wire ends, there are a couple of steps to follow.
- Use a wire stripper to remove some of the insulation from the wire, no more than an inch (2.54cm).
- Twist each lead wire’s strands tightly, so there are no strands sticking out. This could cause a short circuit.
- Identify the positive and negative leads.
- Connect them accordingly to your amp or receiver. If you get this wrong, you’ll get terrible sound quality.
As you can see, this process is not rocket science, but it still takes more effort than using banana connectors. Plus, there’s always room for something to go wrong, and we want to avoid that as much as possible.
For most users and for most purposes, 16 gauge wire is more than enough. Your home theater is probably not big enough to warrant really long cables, so there’ll be no loss in sound quality even if you use thinner wires. Plus, they’ll be cheaper, so you’ll save a little bit of money.
The only truly important detail to buying wires for your setup is that they’re made of copper.
If you need longer wires, you can opt for 14 or 12-gauge wires. These are a good choice if you need to cover longer distances, since you’ll have to compensate for the length with thickness.
Jason is a home theater expert with over 10 years of experience in setting up home cinema rooms and systems. What started out as a hobby soon transformed him into an authority in the audio-visual field. He is passionate about providing readers with accurate and up-to-date information on the latest audiovisual technologies and their applications for home theaters. Read more about Jason.