Building your own home theater is a big thing. Once you’ve done the exciting part of buying all the equipment, you still have one more thing to do before the fun can start: assemble everything.
Here’s the deal:
This is the part many people don’t enjoy, and there’s honestly no shame in getting someone to do it for you.
However, if you decide you do want to build it yourself, you’ll need to get some cables sorted. This is the bit I always found the most confusing, and I consider myself reasonably experienced in the matter.
So, to help you work out exactly what you need, I will be presenting a list of the 9 cables you need for a home theater.
What To Look For While Buying Cables For Home Theaters
Before we get into the types of cables you need, there are a few points worth considering. Most importantly, you don’t want to cut corners when it comes to cables.
A poor, budget cable will essentially void any quality you’ve intended by buying an expensive TV or speaker system. So investing in good cables is an important step in building your home theater.
It’s crucial to look for cables with good conductivity. After all, conductivity ensures you’re getting exactly the quality you expect from your devices.
There are three main metals to choose from that provide the best conductivity, which are:
This is the most common choice, and the cheapest from the range of good conductors. However, copper wires will be more expensive than generic ones, but it’s worth the investment.
The only problem with copper is that it corrodes, which will obviously have a negative impact on conductivity.
This is the middle ground for good cables, and offers less resistance than copper. However, silver does oxidize, which increases resistance.
By far the most expensive material for cables, but also the best. Gold has the absolute lowest resistance, and doesn’t corrode or oxidize.
You’ll usually find that the wires themselves aren’t made of gold, but connection points will be gold plated. This is enough to make a difference, and it really does.
This is obviously another important factor when choosing the right cables, and will be dependent on the kind of setup you’re looking to build.
The longer a wire, and its respective connections, are, the more resistance you’ll have in your setup. More resistance means quieter and less clear sounds, so it’s important to keep a check on this.
Generally, you want to try and keep wires as short as possible. This will mean less resistance in your setup, and so you’ll get the most out of your speakers.
However, you still need to position your speakers correctly, and this should be the most important thing. You can compensate for increased resistance by using thicker wires, but this will probably be unnecessary.
Also, keep all of your wires equal. If you don’t, then resistance will be unequal, which will lead to strange things happening with your speakers.
Do everything possible to ensure wires are the same length, because then if you do get any resistance, at least it’ll be the same.
The Cables You Need For Home Theater
As you can tell from the title, there will be 9 cables required for home theater, or only some depending on your setup, and they are as follows:
- Composite video cables
- HDMI cables
- DVI cables
- Coaxial video cables
- Component video cables
- Stereo RCA cables
- Coax digital S/PDIF cables
- Optical cables
- Speaker wire
To make this list easier, I’ve divided the types into audio and video, seeing as these are the two types you’ll need. First up are video cables, as it’s a longer and slightly more complicated list.
Composite video cables
Younger readers probably won’t have any idea what these are, but they’ll be a familiar sight to everyone else. They cover the same bases as RCA cables, and usually have red, white, and yellow pins.
They do the same job as old SCART leads, and function on the same devices. Composite video cables carry standard definition signals from older devices (such as a VCR or DVD player).
Realistically, these are probably one of the few cables you won’t need, but it’s useful to know what they are and which devices need them.
They’re the most basic level of cable, and you won’t even need to go near them if you’re only dealing in HD devices.
This is probably the type of cable most readers are familiar with, and they’ve become the industry standard. HDMI cables are used to transfer signals from a high definition input device (DVD player or games console) to a high definition output device (TV or projector).
HDMI cables are generally inexpensive, but costlier models will usually offer better audio and video quality.
The best thing about HMDI cables is that they do everything you need them to. Unlike composite video cables, a HDMI lead carries video and audio signals through the same input connection, meaning all you need to do is plug in and go. They can provide HD video (up to 4K) and up to 32 channels of audio.
DVI stands for digital video interface, and these are specifically designed to get the most out of an LCD monitor.
Generally, they’re used for hooking up computer monitors, but you might use these in your home theater if you’re connecting a computer to a different visual display (for example if you want to use your TV as a computer monitor for gaming).
DVI cables are capable of giving out HD signals at very high resolutions and excellent frame rates.
DVI cables come in several different varieties, and the type you need will depend on your input device, but if you’re connecting one up then you probably know what kind of cable you’re looking for.
DVI also come in single and dual link formats, which refer to how many digital information transmitters they have fitted (single has one, and unsurprisingly, dual has two). Changing this effectively increases the speed and quality of the signal being transferred.
Coaxial video cables
This type of cable is typically associated with digital and cable TV, so you’ll inevitably have one of these fitted already if you watch digital TV.
They’re used for sending a signal from your antenna, satellite, or cable TV box to your TV. A coaxial cable sends both audio and video signals, but does so separately within the same cable.
Coaxial cables are capable of pumping out high definition video signals all the way up to 1080p. They currently don’t cover 4K, but the technology is still very new and not available on standard TV channels anyway.
The other thing to look out for is to make sure the cable is threaded, meaning it needs to be screwed in, as this is the only way to guarantee a secure and high quality connection. This is the industry standard now, but you might find some older cables that are just plug in.
Component video cables
These are another somewhat archaic cable, but if, like me, you hang on to old video devices, then you may find yourself needing them at some point.
They used to be the industry standard for high quality video signals, but this is obviously now covered by HDMI cables.
Component video cables carry black and white and color signals separately, and generally don’t include audio signals.
So if you find yourself needing component video cables, make sure you’ve also got an audio cable handy, as you’re probably not intending to watch a silent movie.
Stereo RCA cables
Stereo RCA cables are perhaps the most basic and traditional form of audio cable.
They can produce stereo audio (as is probably obvious in the name), and nothing else.
They’ll be your standard cable for connecting music devices (CD player or turntable) to your AV receiver or subwoofer.
Coax digital S/PDIF cables
These are another basic audio cable, and are typically used for sending high quality audio over short distances.
They are used for surround sound setups, and you’d typically use them for connecting your receiver to output devices, although you can also use HDMI cables for this.
Optical TOSlink digital cables
These are exactly the same as the coax cables mentioned above, but rather than using an RCA connection, they use an optical connection instead.
They use fiber optics to transfer information, which means they can do so much quicker and cleaner than an RCA cable.
However, this also means they’re much more fragile, and generally only work over distances of 5-10m. While they are great at what they do, this does limit their performance slightly.
Typically, speaker systems don’t come with their own connecting wire, and so this is something you’ll have to go out and buy yourself.
All of your speakers need to be wired together, so make sure you actually buy enough to reach. The easiest way to do this is to place your speakers and then run a piece of string around to measure the distance.
Speaker wires come in several different gauges, which are 12, 14, 16, and 18. Thicker wires are represented by lower gauge numbers (12 and 14), and these provide less resistance.
Thicker wires are better for longer setups, high power usage, and low impedance systems. They carry signals better over long distances because of their lower resistance.
Thinner wires (16 or 18 gauge) will be suitable for connections under approximately 50ft. They also function well with high impedance speakers (8 ohms), and are usually cheaper than thick wires.
Choosing the right type of speaker wires for your needs can be difficult, but there’s plenty of information available online to help you work it out.
Getting the right cables for your devices isn’t too difficult, as many of them will be specific to that one type of device, and this will usually be labeled quite clearly.
For example, a Blu-Ray player is only going to run off a HDMI cable, and a VCR will only run off composite video cables.
There’s really not that much that can go wrong, but the idea of wiring up devices can be daunting. Here are some tips for getting everything perfect.
1. Get the right cables for your speakers
As I mentioned above, speaker cables come in different gauges, and it’s important to get the right type for your needs. The two biggest factors that impact your decision are length and resistance.
You can use thinner gauge cables for short runs (and by that I mean under 50ft) without any problems. 50ft might sound a lot, but you have to remember that this cable will be connecting all the speakers together, and so it really gets eaten up.
Resistance is directly related to length, as well as some other factors. However, length is probably the one that you’ll find most important.
Again, resistance increases with length, so if you’re using a lot of wire, make sure the resistance is low. This can be impacted by the type of material and the cross sectional area.
This is just a fancy term for the gauge, but be aware some manufactures will prefer one term over the other.
2. Make sure your HDMI cable is the right one for the job
HDMI cables come with different functions. This is a relatively new addition, as HD used to just mean HD. However, with the invention of things like 4K, you need to make sure that your cable does what you need it to.
Other new features include ethernet channel and 3D capabilities. All of these things should be labeled, allowing you to get the right one.
The best piece of advice I can give is plan for the future, particularly if you’re investing in a good quality cable. Sure, you might not have a 4K TV right now, but as the technology becomes cheaper this might change.
Also, 3D gaming is becoming increasingly popular, so if you’re into games this might be something you want to accommodate for the future. Your cables should be as much of an investment as your tech, so bear this in mind.
3. Make sure speakers are connected in phase
Connecting speakers in phase means that all positive wires are connected to positive ports, and all negative leads to negative ports, including the receiver.
This might seem incredibly basic, but it’s surprising how easy this is to get wrong. If everything is connected as it should be, your speakers are additive, which is good.
If one of the connections is wrong, your system is called subtractive. You might not notice the effects in the overall performance of your speakers, but it can wipe out certain frequencies. This becomes noticeable if it’s the bass that’s affected, or higher end frequencies.
Taking the time to connect everything properly makes a difference, but it’s not the end of the world if you only notice it later. It just means you’ll have to go back to wiring.
4. Make sure your devices are well ventilated
This isn’t necessarily connected to wiring, but it’s always worth mentioning. Many devices in a home theater system produce a lot of heat, which is never a good thing for electronics.
If it doesn’t have an impact on the device’s performance, it can impact conductivity and the lifespan of cables. Ensure your devices (particularly ones used a lot, such as AV receivers) have plenty of space around them, and whatever you do, don’t pile them all into a cupboard with the door shut.
5. Plan your distances before buying
Distance is important when it comes to buying the right cables, and the last thing you want to do is buy a 50ft cable with extra low resistance to wire two devices a meter or so apart.
Plan your layout carefully before buying cables, and make sure to minimize distance as much as possible. This way, you’ll be able to use higher quality, more expensive cables and still get top performance.
For standard audio and visual cables, you want to start considering alternatives over distances of 10ft, although this will vary depending on the cable.
For example, a passive (unpowered) HDMI cable can carry signals around 25ft without any reduction in quality, and an active (powered) one can do up to 100ft. An audio cable, on the other hand, can typically do about 10/15ft before any loss of quality occurs.
Final Thoughts About Cables For Home Theater
Getting the right cables for the job really doesn’t have to be a struggle. Providing you know what cable your device needs, the hardest part deciding which one suits.
There are plenty of options available, and the market is totally saturated in some respects. It can be really easy to just go and buy an expensive cable and expect it to work.
However, the best piece of advice I can give is to do your homework. Spending plenty of time researching helps massively, as it does with any decision.
Look out for online reviews too, as home theater enthusiasts are usually pretty eager to share their likes (and dislikes).
Buying cables is probably the most boring part of setting up a home theater, but it’s possibly one of the most important.
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.