Wiring together the devices in your home theater really doesn’t need to be difficult. When I first started building my home theater I was put off from wiring it myself because it seemed very complicated, but it’s really not.
Wiring up a home theater will depend on what devices you’re connecting together, but most will either come with the correct wires or have instructions on what you need to do. It’s mostly connecting matching terminals, which are usually clearly labeled.
Although wiring your home theater can seem like a daunting idea, once you’ve connected a few devices together it’ll seem much easier. Below is a handy guide on wiring up the most common devices, but I also discuss the right gauge wiring to use, and the easiest way to hide the wires in your home theater.
How To Wire Up Your Home Theater
The first piece of advice I can give when it comes to wiring your home theater is to know the scale of your project. If you have a big development planned that involves ceiling speakers and other flashy gadgets that require structural alterations, then it might be best to hire a professional.
However, if you’re looking to set up a more restrained home theater, or you’re confident in your DIY ability, then go ahead and do the job yourself. Just be aware that the project might take a little longer than you think.
The next thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with the types of wires you’ll be using in your home theater, and the connections on your various devices. TVs and A/V receivers will have the most potential connections, but manufacturers are usually quite helpful and label the different connections so you know what goes where.
Speaker systems (particularly surround sound) will probably present the biggest problem to novice wirers, simply because they tend to come without the necessary wiring, meaning you have to go out and buy the correct gauge wire for your needs, and then connect the system up yourself. However, it doesn’t need to be overly complicated, and I’ll discuss wire gauges in more detail later.
Another thing that’s worth knowing before you jump in to wiring up your home theater is the different terminology used around the topic. Home theaters buffs use the terms interconnect, cable, and wire when discussing their equipment, but what do these words mean?
An interconnect is something that joins together two audio-visual devices. For example, the wire joining a TV to an A/V receiver, or the wire that joins a DVD player to a TV. A HDMI cable is an interconnect.
The terms wire or cable generally refer to something that sends audio signals from the amplifier to the speakers. However, these terms are usually used quite interchangeably, and wire/cable are the most common, but it does help to know the difference.
Knowing Your Wires (And Interconnects)
It’s helpful to have a brief explanation of the most common types of cable you’ll come across when wiring your home theater. Here is a list of the most common:
- HMDI. This is the most standard cable for connecting TVs to other devices. They produce a high definition picture, usually in 1080p.
- DVI. These cables are used to send either digital or analog signals, and will generally be used for projectors and computers.
- SCART. These are pretty old-school cables, and you’ll only come across them if you’re looking to connect standard definition devices (such as a VCR). Generally speaking, most people who will want to do this will already be familiar with these cables.
- Component. These are a pretty common type of connection, and can send both standard and high definition images. A component connection is made up of three colored pins (usually red, blue, and green).
- VGA/RGB. This is the most common connection for computers and laptops and is the same type of connection that links computer monitors to the rest of the hardware.
- S-Video. This is an analog video connection that’s widely available on many products, but doesn’t produce as good an image as some other connections.
- Coaxial. These are used for transferring high quality audio signals between devices, and are a popular choice for home theater enthusiasts.
- Stereo/Multichannel RCA. RCA is a common method for sending analog audio signals, and comes in 2-channel and surround sound versions.
I’ve talked about these cables in detail in my article here.
Although these are definitely the most common types of cable you’ll find in your home theater, there are plenty more. However, we’d be here all day if I were to list all the types of cable and the ways to wire them, so it’s best to stick with the most common. It’s likely that if you’re using less common cables then you already know how to connect them anyway.
As a general rule, most of these cables are quite easy to connect. The relevant ports are usually labeled on the devices, meaning all you need to do is plug them in and you should be good to go. If you’re missing the right type of connection on one device (for example, one is showing HDMI and the other DVI), then all you need to do is buy an adapter. They’re inexpensive and easy to buy online, and will solve multiple issues.
Wiring Your Home Theater Speakers
So, as you can see, when it comes to connecting the majority of your home theater devices, it simply means plugging the right cable into the right port. However, speakers are slightly more complicated because they don’t come with the correct equipment (namely wires) and require you to hook them all up together.
The reason speaker systems don’t come with wires is pretty simple: people have different needs for their systems, and different sized spaces, meaning there can’t be a universal wiring system for every speaker. A surround sound system that’s wired for a 3ft room is going to be of little use in a 9ft room after all.
Getting the job done properly isn’t too hard if you have all the information needed before you start. The things you need to consider are:
- The size of your space
- The amount of speakers you’re wiring together
- The audio quality level you’re expecting
- Whether or not you’ll be hiding the wires.
Speaker wires are made from thin metal strands that allow audio signals to pass along them to the speaker connected. This is a pretty simple concept, but there is more that you need to know. For example, it’s worth knowing the properties of the metal used in the wires to know if it’ll be suitable for your needs.
Resistance and Impedance
All cables have some level of resistance, which refers to the amount of energy lost as the signal passes along it. Obviously, you want as little resistance as possible, but you’re always going to get some. The key is to balance the resistance with the distance a signal travels so that you can minimize the potential loss of quality.
Another factor you need to consider is the cable impedance. In short, this is the relationship between the current and the voltage in a given circuit. While it’s not an issue on its own, mismatches between impedance can cause a signal to reflect back at any point along the circuit, causing loss of quality and potential damage to your equipment.
Ghosting is an example of impedance mismatch, as the reflected signal then shows up on your video device later than the original signal.
As a general rule, most home theater devices work on an impedance rating of 75 ohms. While this in itself isn’t too important, it’s worth knowing that devices can be connected without impedance mismatch. However, it’s worth bearing in mind so that if you have two devices that will cause an impedance mismatch, you can resolve the issue with a transformer, which are really easy to buy online.
Getting The Right Type Of Wire
Choosing the right type of wires for your needs is an important part of the installation process. I’ve found many people overlook wiring as a last-minute job, which has always seemed a bit contradictory to me. Why would you spend lots of money on good equipment only to use shoddy wiring?
Anyway, before I discuss gauges, it’s worth looking at the best materials to use for wiring. There are three common types of metal used in speaker wires, which are selected for the relevant signal transferring capabilities. The types of wire you’ll generally come across are:
This is the least expensive and most common type of wire. Copper has good conductivity and low resistance, but its drawback is that it oxidizes. This is when the pure copper reacts to air and turns green. This will generally happen at connection points, and will massively increase resistance if left alone.
Silver has lower resistance than copper, but is obviously more expensive. Also, it oxidizes, so there are very few situations in which a silver wire will be better and more cost effective than a copper one.
Gold is by far the most expensive, but it’s also the best. It has the lowest resistance and doesn’t oxidize, meaning you’ll get the best connection and conductivity. However, gold typically isn’t used for the whole wire because of its cost. You’ll usually find wires with gold-plated connections, but this is enough to improve signal quality.
So the most important thing to remember when choosing the type of wire for your speaker system is that resistance is important, and you want it to be as low as possible. I’ve found that copper wire does the job fine, as you’re paying more money for silver without a massive jump in quality, and “gold” wires are something of a con because it’s only the connections that are gold. The wires inside are generally copper.
Here are some other general tips to consider when choosing the correct wires, and for when you come to actually wiring the speaker system up.
- Resistance is proportional to length. As a result, you should aim to keep your wires as short as possible. Plan your layout accordingly so you’ve got a good distance between speakers, but it’s minimal enough to not have issues with resistance.
- Keep your lengths equal. This again helps with resistance because equal length wires will have equal resistance. This will lead to a better audio balance, which can be very noticeable if you’re way off the mark with your distances.
- Check the cross-sectional area. The actual math behind a cross-sectional area isn’t necessarily relevant here. What is though is the fact that a smaller cross section means higher resistance. So if possible, keep your cross sectional area larger for lower resistance.
If this sounds like a lot of incredibly complicated information to take in, then don’t worry. When I first came to start wiring my home theater, I was overwhelmed by all the different factors you need to consider.
However, most manufacturers are quite helpful and provide detailed information on a wire’s characteristics, so all you need to know really is the gauge you need and the area to cover. Everything else should fall into place from these bits of information.
What Gauge Wire Should You Use For A Home Theater?
The gauge of a wire refers to its thickness. The thicker the wire, the lower its gauge number, and the lower its resistance. The standard unit of measurement is the American Wire Gauge number, which is what you’ll find on pretty much all wires sold online.
Wire gauge is given in four types: 12 gauge, 14 gauge, 16 gauge, and 18 gauge. 12 gauge is the thickest wire, and 18 gauge is the thinnest. All the other factors I mentioned earlier are decided by the thickness of the wire, and they’re suitable for different kinds of jobs in your home theater.
12 or 14 gauge wire is used for long runs because it has lower resistance, which allows signals to travel easier over long distances. “Long runs” is probably much longer than you actually think when it comes to speaker systems, and this refers to a run over 50ft.
For wire runs shorter than 50ft, 16-gauge wire is generally the best to use. It has low resistance, and is still chunky enough that you don’t have to worry about damaging it during installation. You should use 16-gauge wire for 8 ohm speakers, and thicker gauge wire for low impedance speakers (such as 4 or 6 ohms).
All this is explained beautifully in the video below:
Also read this article by audioholics.
You also need to make sure that you buy all the correct connections for wire you’ve bought. Some wires will come with the right connectors, but if not, then use banana connectors, as these will make your life so much easier.
For my home theater system, which is in a relatively large room and has a surround sound system, I used 14 gauge copper wire with banana clips. My wiring is hidden in the walls, so I had to use wires specifically designed for in-wall installation, but I’ll cover this in more detail shortly.
Some General Connection Tips
So I’ve covered tips on how to choose the right wires, including materials and gauges, but it’s also worth discussing the actual installation process. For the most part, connecting speakers together isn’t too complicated once you’ve got a handle on the process. It’s important to remember that you’re basically building a circuit, and so every speaker needs to be connected properly for them all to work.
Here are some other tips:
- Make sure you know which are the positive and negative leads on your speaker wires. Because this is a circuit, you need to be sure everything is connected properly. It’s important when connecting each speaker together, and when wiring to the amp. If it’s not done properly, you’ll either get no sound, or very bad sound.
- Although I’d recommend using connectors, if you decide not to, then get some wire strippers. You need to take off around 1cm of insulation from each end and then twist the strands together so they’re tight. This can then be connected to the speaker, but loose copper strands can impact audio quality.
- Speakers have either spring clips or binding posts for their connection terminals. Both are easy to use, but spring clips can only be used with bare wires or pin connectors. Check your speakers before deciding what type of connector you need (if any).
- Binding posts however can take any type of connector, but you’ll find it more difficult to work with bare wires. Binding posts give a much more secure connection because they actually screw into place rather than being spring-loaded.
- Plan your speaker layout before measuring cables. Measure the distance between speakers, and then add another 15-20cm of cable to ensure they’re not going to be pulled too tight when connected. This should give you plenty of slack to worth with.
- If your speakers sound too quiet when connected, it’s likely they’re too far away from each other. Rather than moving the speakers, upgrade to a thicker wire (although I’d recommend trying to work this out before buying wire).
- EMF interference is always something to be aware of when wiring speakers. Avoid too much excess cable, particularly if there’s enough for it to be coiled on itself. This is why measuring is so important.
- Try to hide wires where they won’t be tripped over or damaged. While this is about your safety, it’s also about keeping the wires in working order. After all, they’re quite fragile.
How Do You Hide Wires For A Home Theater?
As you’re probably already aware, setting up a home theater means using lots of wire. If you’re like me then you probably want to do everything possible to not have all of these wires lying around. Sure, it’s not the end of the world, but if it can be avoided, then it should be.
The biggest thing to consider is that having wires lying around can be a major trip hazard. On top of this is the potential damage to wires from them getting stepped on, crushed by furniture, or being pulled from their connections. All of this will have an impact on the lifespan of wires and the devices themselves.
So, how do you hide wires for a home theater? The easiest and cheapest option is something that electricians call “trunking.” This term covers a few different things, but it’s basically a strip of plastic that contains all the wires, and is then glued or nailed to a wall. This keeps all of the cables tidy and out of the way, and is easy to install yourself.
Basic plastic trunking is incredibly cheap and easy to buy (see the image below). You should be able to find it in any DIY store, and online, and some will come with self-adhesive backing to make the job even easier.
I used this in my first home theater, and it does the job fine, particularly if you can’t make any structural changes to your space.
However, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing addition to a room, although it is quite easy to disguise. I found that while I was using plastic trunking it wasn’t my favorite thing, but you just tend to ignore it after a while. Its practical benefits outweigh its look.
If you’re handy enough though, the best solution is to simply do in-wall wiring. This is exactly what it sounds like: hiding all necessary cables inside the wall cavities so they’re out of the way. For the most part, there are no restrictions on installing low-voltage wiring yourself, but always make sure you’re allowed (for example, if you’re not the property owner or you live in an apartment complex).
This is actually a good choice for speakers because it’s likely that you’ll want them mounted on the wall anyway. This is what I did for my new home theater, and it looks much more professional and sleek.
It’s also a good choice if you’re building a space specifically for a home theater, because if you’re ripping up the walls as part of a renovation, you might as well lay the cables while you’re in there. You’ll need in-wall rated cables, which have a rating of CL2 or CL3. These are designed specifically for the purpose.
How To Hide Wires In-wall
Although it involves some cutting and drilling, the job itself won’t be too hard if your house is made of drywall. All that will involve is cutting holes, running cables to the right places, and installing some plates and brackets. While this might sound like a simplified version, it’s hardly much different from wiring speakers in any situation. Follow these tips:
- Plan everything properly. Mark on the wall where you want the speakers, A/V receiver, and TV to be, and plan all of this before you make any cuts. Once you make a hole there’s no going back.
- Take advantage of existing open spaces. For example, if you have a basement or crawlspace, use these to reduce the amount of cutting you need to do. You can also do your wiring in the attic and then simply drop the devices into spaces after.
- When you’re buying wire, make allowances for plenty of extra. For example, if you’re installing ceiling speakers, make sure there’s enough extra wire for you to place the speaker somewhere while you connect everything up.
- As a general rule, allow for between 10 and 15% more wire than you think you’ll need.
- Consider what type of connections you’ll need and then find the right wall plates. You can also get wall-mounted volume controls, which you might as well install if you’re cutting holes in the drywall.
- You can get wall brackets specifically for speakers that are mounted onto the drywall supports. Obviously, this means the drywall needs to be removed first, so these might be a better option if you’re building from scratch.
- You can get all kinds of junction boxes for your devices, so do your homework first to ensure you’re getting the right ones.
- A final tip is to always make sure you install nail plates if wiring behind drywall. A nail plate is basically a piece of metal that covers your cable, for example, if you run cables through a joist. The nail plate prevents cables from being damaged by any later work you do to the wall.
Final Thoughts On Home Theater Wiring
Wiring your home theater really doesn’t need to be a difficult task. Through my years of home theater development, I’ve found the hardest part is sorting out speakers, but this is actually quite easy once you have the terminology sorted.
Choosing the correct cables is based entirely on your needs, so the best piece of advice I can give is to make sure you plan everything properly before making any purchases (or cutting any holes).
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.