Speaker cable guide

Speaker cable guide

It doesn’t matter what you have, a basic system, an all in one unit, a home cinema or a cost no object hi-fi, you need speaker cable. Whatever you are connecting speakers to, the cable you use is going to have a big influence on the way your system sounds. We reckon around 70% of hi-fi and home cinema owners don’t come close to experiencing the real potential of their system. All because of poor quality speaker cable.

The problem is that whilst even the cheapest, thinnest speaker cables out there will work (in the loosest possible terms). A better quality speaker cable will improve everything you listen to.

Yes, even the most basic speaker cables will carry an electrical current between the amplifier and speakers. But what it is really carrying is an extremely complex audio signal and this is where the design and the quality of the materials used really start to matter.

In our experience the musical elements that speaker cable can have a really big effect on are dynamics, detail, tonality or timbre and perhaps most critically of all, musical coherence or timing. Timing is fundamental to the proper enjoyment and understanding of almost all types of music. Without it music is just beautiful noise.  With it, it’s an involving, immersive, emotional and thrilling experience. This is what a good quality speaker cable can bring to the music you love.

So have a look at the cable that connects your amplifier to speakers. If it’s basic copper and PVC then you are almost certainly not getting the best from your system and more importantly, you are not experiencing your music in the way you should.

Shielded speaker cables

We started producing shielded speaker cable around 2004. By then we were already using really effective wide frequency shielding on interconnect cables. The improvements the shielding made were very easy to hear but there was still a nagging doubt. At the time, we had some very talented musician friends with some very beautiful instruments. There was a string quartet which we listened to a lot. The complexity and depth of the timbre of their instruments was breathtakingly lovely. Yet trying to reproduce this, on what would then have been regarded as a very good hi-fi system, was hugely frustrating.

Our first shielded speaker cable was Chord Signature and for the first time, listening to a recording of the string quartet, we could hear some of that wonderful complexity and timbre that made their music so magical. We now produce a range of shielded speaker cables. It’s not just timbre and tone they improve, rhythm is better defined, as are dynamics. Sound staging is improved; someone once described being able to walk among the musicians with Signature speaker cable in their system. If you haven’t listened to a shielded speaker cable you should do so. They can bring so much to the enjoyment of music.


Speaker position

Changing speaker cables probably means changing the position of your speakers. For us, the aim with any design of speaker cable and interconnect is to produce a cable which has as little effect on the tonal characteristics of a system as possible; in other words, neutral.  To some degree though, almost every loudspeaker cable has a tonal characteristic to it, and this tonal characteristic is something that may well affect the position of your loudspeakers.

So for example, you may have set your system up with a speaker cable that has a tonal characteristic that tends to emphasise bass frequencies.  If you then change to a cable with a more neutral tonal characteristic, then it is worth doing a bit of serious listening and perhaps experimenting with the position of your speakers.  This isn’t likely to mean a major shift in placement but you may find that if the system is sounding slightly light in the bass, it is worth shifting your speakers slightly back towards the wall.

There’s a good way of doing this.  Start by moving the speakers about 3 inches backwards.  If this is slightly too much, move them forwards about an inch at a time.  There will be a point when you are moving them forwards when everything starts to sound coherent and properly balanced.  At this point, try moving the speakers backwards half an inch or alternatively forwards half an inch.  You will arrive at the correct position.  If you’re doing this with floor standing loudspeakers, make the process easier by removing the spikes (and if you aren’t using the spikes then you should be!).  This will let you easily move the speakers to the correct position.  Once you have found the best position, re-fit the spikes.  This is a good opportunity to re-level the speakers and ensure that there is no movement as well; properly stable speakers do sound very good.  If it’s new speakers and new speaker cable? – set the system up but bear in mind everything will need to run in, speakers and speaker cable in particular, so after 100 hours or so it may be worth re-doing the above process.

Follow these instructions and you should end up confident that your system is sounding at its best.

Speaker cable materials

A basic speaker cable is probably going to be built from copper wire with PVC insulation. There are though, better conductors, and better insulation materials. A higher quality speaker cable is likely to use Oxygen free copper. This is superior to standard copper and (unsurprisingly) contains a lot less oxygen. Our speaker cables that use oxygen free copper conductors have polyethylene insulation instead of PVC. Polyethylene, in terms of dielectric measurement polyethylene is very much better than PVC, and ideally suited for use with oxygen free copper conductors.

A better conductor option, and one that we use a lot, is silver-plated copper. This we think is a particularly good at carrying musical information accurately across a wide frequency range. Also used, but not by us, pure silver and also gold.

Where this gets really interesting is the relationship between the type of conductor used and the material chosen to insulate it. This is a very important area because using the wrong type of insulation with a particular type of conductor can result in a speaker cable behaving like a tone control, and introducing a series of unwanted colourations into the music you play. The problem with these colourations is that they can emphasise particular frequency ranges and in doing so, affect levels of perceived detail and crucially the coherence and timing of a piece of music. There is no point in having a fabulous sounding bass if it sounds like the bass player is not listening to the drummer.

Silver has an undeserved reputation for making systems it is used in sound too bright and ultimately tiring to listen to. We think though that silver is an excellent and tonally a very neutral conductor, as long as it is used with the correct insulation material. Copper is often thought of as sounding warmer than silver but again, the right choice of insulation material will play a big part in its tonal characteristics.

To get the best from silver-plated conductors we use PTFE or Taylon® insulation. Difficult to use and expensive, it does though have a better dielectric (link to dielectric measurements on Wikipedia) measurement than either polyethylene or PVC, two more commonly used insulators. The fact that PTFE or Taylon® is a better insulator is important, but we use it because when used to insulate silver-plated conductors, we think we can make some of the best and most neutral speaker cables available. What this combination of materials does is carry all the parts of a complex musical signal extremely accurately. Detail, dynamics (think both micro and macro) and the wildly differing tonal characteristics of instruments and voices are all carried not just accurately but coherently as well.


Speaker cable length

The ideal speaker cable length for your system is no longer than you need to comfortably install the cable. If in any doubt, measure using a bit of string routed how you plan to install the cable before purchasing. Too long is not really a problem, too short however can be embarrassing and expensive, so measure twice, install once. Typically, most hi-fi and home cinema systems tend to be installed with the equipment sitting between the front speakers. This can be a good thing. It means that the length of cable needed for the speakers or front left and right and centre speakers on a home cinema system can be kept pretty short. This means that a really good quality speaker cable can be used to guarantee the best sound quality without it costing a fortune. When you are planning the route of the speaker cable it is worth, if possible, avoiding running the speaker cable alongside any mains cables and if you have to cross a mains cable, try to do so at a 90 degree angle.

The resistance of a speaker cable can have an effect on performance and the longer the length the greater the resistance. However in a typical hi-fi, a cable as discreet as Chord Leyline can be used in length of over 15 metres before sound quality is directly effected by the length of the cable.

There is an obvious logic in keeping the lengths of speaker cable used in the hi-fi system the same. The vast majority of pairs of speaker cable that we supply are of equal lengths. Increasingly though, people are using odd lengths of speaker cable in a system. This is something that we researched quite carefully. What we found was that a difference in length of not more than 40% worked pretty well. So a 5m/3m pair, 7m/4m pair and a 10m/6m pair were good. There are a couple of important points here though. Whilst the vast majority of amplifiers will be completely happy with a different length pair of speaker cables, some amplifiers use the speaker cable as part of the circuitry and in this case, cable lengths should be kept the same. Before using different lengths of speaker cable, it is important to check with the manufacturer of the amplifier.

Home Cinema speaker cable

Home cinema amplifiers are somewhat different and the set up process for the typical home cinema processor means that there is no issue with different lengths of speaker cable. In fact, keeping the cables in the home cinema system to the length they need to be for each speaker, means less mess and probably better sound quality..

Fitting home cinema speaker cables can suddenly start to look like an expensive proposition. There are popular ways round this though. What a lot of people do is to use a good high performance cable on the front left and right and centre loudspeakers. Quite often the amplifier is sitting between the speakers anyway so the length of cables are not too long and the front speakers are where a lot of the action takes place, so a good cable really improves the experience. In an ideal world you might well want to wire the rear speakers with the same cable but this can turn into a very expensive exercise. We produce a speaker cable called Leyline. This is designed to work well over the longer runs typically needed for rear speakers. It is white, it is 6mm in diameter, so it is easy to install and very cost effective, it is also designed to be compatible with all our other speaker cables and shares the same design principles.

There is another way of really improving a home cinema system that is readily available to a lot of people. Got 7 channels of amplification and only 5 speakers? If your front left and right speakers are bi-wireable, there is nothing to stop you bi-amping them with the two spare channels of amplification. All this requires is a second set of speaker cable for the front left and right speakers and the result is better detail, better definition, better dynamics and all round improved sound quality.


Connecting speaker cable to an amplifier

It is worth thinking about how to connect speakers to amplifiers. A good quality speaker cable is a very good place to start but what about the connectors on the end of the cable? Most hi-fi and home cinema equipment will give you a choice of connections. On the back of the equipment you will find a set of colour coded binding posts.

The binding posts have a central 4mm hole (sometimes covered with an easily removable plastic cap) that you can connect a standard 4mm banana plug to. This is probably the most popular and straightforward method of connecting amplifier to speakers. This is our preferred method and we manufacture a very high quality 24 carat gold-plated banana plug that we fit to all the terminated speaker cables we produce. We like this connection because it provides a point of extremely high pressure contact between the plug and the socket and we think this produces the best sound quality.

The other commonly used connection is the spade connector. The colour coded casings of the binding posts on the amplifier and speakers can be unscrewed. A spade connector slipped over the post and the casings tightened back down to hold the spade connectors firmly in place. If you choose this method it is important to periodically check the tightness of the binding posts. They are subject to vibration and over a period of time could work loose, degrading sound quality.

Some amplifiers are fitted with a BFA Camcon connector. Amplifiers with this connector will require a set of speaker cable fitted with Camcon plugs. These are available to order and can be fitted to all Chord speaker cables.

Binding posts are used on the majority of hi-fi and home cinema equipment and speakers. However, on some smaller amplifiers you may find a colour coded spring clip connector. These can only be used with unterminated speaker cable. The spring clip is lifted; the bare wire slipped into the socket and then the spring clip is lowered to hold the speaker cable firmly in place. There are disadvantages to this type of connector. Firstly, you will be limited as to the size of speaker cable that can be fitted and secondly, the speaker cable will be subject to oxidisation which can increase resistance and affect sound quality. Interestingly, although silver oxidises, the oxides have far less effect on sound quality than would be the case with a copper cable. Finally, be certain that the speaker cable is connected correctly. It is far easier to wire speaker cable out of phase with spring clip connections.

Connecting speakers in phase

When connecting stereo speakers or home cinema speakers it is important to make sure that they are connected in phase. If the wires for the left and right speakers (in a stereo setup) are not connected “in phase” with each other (the + and – connections on the speaker and amplifier should be connected + to + and – to -), the loudspeakers will be out of phase. This will have a serious effect on sound quality, particularly across the bass frequencies. The more you turn it up, the worse it gets. Connecting the speakers out of phase will not damage either the amplifier or the speakers but it will affect sound quality.


Bi-wire or single wire?

Many hi-fi and home cinema loudspeakers have two pairs of binding posts. This allows the speaker to be bi-wired using two sets of loudspeaker cable or bi-amped using two amplifiers.

As a general rule (and there will always be exceptions) we find that bi-wiring will open out the sound stage and increase perceived levels of detail. However, single wiring will often sound the most musically coherent. During our research, nearly all single wire speaker cable out-performs the bi-wire equivalent. This makes a lot of sense; the single wire speaker cable has two high quality conductors and the bi-wire cable requires four. So for a given budget, we believe that a single wire cable will always out-perform the equivalent bi-wire cable, so much so that we no longer produce dedicated bi-wire cables.

What the two sets of connectors on the back of the speaker do allow you to do though is bi-amp. This means using an amplifier to drive the bass units and another to drive the treble units. This can make a big difference to sound quality, bringing extra definition, control and dynamics. If you choose to do this we would suggest connecting each amplifier with a pair of single wire speaker cables. We believe that this will sound better than using a single bi-wire cable and will be easier to route.

What connections on the back of the speaker should I connect my single wire speaker cable to?

As a general rule, the treble connections are usually reckoned to produce better sound quality than the bass connections. However, in many cases, we find that a diagonal connection produces the most musically coherent sound. To do this, connect the positive (+) speaker cable to the positive treble connection and the negative speaker cable (-) to the negative bass connection. So in effect, the cable is connected diagonally. This is quick, easy and fun to do and the results are easy to hear.

The missing links

Most bi-wireable speakers are supplied with gold-plated links that join the two positive and the two negative connections together so they can be single-wired. Another easy lift in sound quality can be achieved by replacing these with either short runs of the speaker cable you are using, or better still with dedicated links. A genuinely surprising improvement can result, particularly across the treble frequencies.

Cleaning speaker cables

No matter what type or level of system you have, be it home cinema, hi-fi or a cute all in one unit, it is never a bad idea to periodically unplug and clean all the connections. Doing this once every six months will keep your system performing at its absolute best. Unplug everything from the mains, disconnect the interconnects and speaker cables and clean all the relevant plugs and sockets with a proprietary contact cleaner. We use Caig De-oxit or Blue Horizon Clean-IT.


Terminating your speaker cables at home

A lot of speaker cables are available off the reel so should you choose to, there is nothing to stop you preparing and terminating the cable yourself. There are termination guides available that will help you to do this. There are some useful tips. First of all, despite much experimentation, we still choose to solder the banana plugs that we use rather than screw or crimp. We do this mostly because we think it produces the best sound, but it also seals the connection and prevents any oxidisation of the conductors.

Screw type connectors work just fine but there will be oxidisation occurring and the screws will need to be checked because they can work loose and affect sound quality. What this means, particularly in relation to copper cables, is that periodically you will need to remove the cable, cut away the oxidised section and then re-strip the cable and re-fit the termination. It may sound a bit involved but it’s worth doing. This also applies if you choose to connect the bare wire of the speaker cable directly to the binding posts.


Speaker cable direction

Almost all speaker cables, in fact almost all audio cables, be they for digital or analogue are, in our experience, directional in that the sound will be better with the cable connected in a specific direction. Chord speaker cables should be connected so that the print on the cable reads in the direction of the signal. In effect, the C of Chord should be nearest the amplifier. The fact the cables are directional is a subject of much debate but our experience is that these differences range from slight to quite marked. One of the main areas that can be affected by the direction of the cable is timing and coherence. With the cable connected in the correct direction the sound will be more articulate and involving.


Burning-in cables

If cable direction is a much debated subject, cable burn-in and the changes that occur is highly controversial! Whilst not being able to offer a totally coherent explanation for this, we do absolutely accept that changes in sound quality occur as a cable is used. Rather like direction, the degree to which sound quality changes varies from cable to cable. As a general rule though, most speaker cables need at least 100 hours use before all the improvements they will bring to the performance of the system can be properly experienced.