Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Audiophilia: Random Speaker Wiring Tips

I'll augment this with some pictures when I get a chance, but here's a quick survey of the tips I've picked up over the last few weeks:

**Speaker wire is measured in "AWG" which stands for something... All you need to know is that the lower the number, the fatter the wire. And the fatter the better. 10 AWG wire is probably the fattest wire one could reasonably afford on a per foot basis (~$0.60/ft). 12 AWG is a little cheaper and is okay for reasonable runs (30ft or less). I wouldn't go with anything smaller than 12 AWG though. Hardly seems worth the cost at that point. And unless you're disgustingly rich there doesn't seem to be much reason to spend extra money on exotic speaker wire. A good 10 AWG wire should do the job without much compromise.

Recommended 12 AWG wire: PartsExpress Sound King $0.43/ft
Pretty flexible and feels like a fatter version of your average speaker wire. Nothing fancy here. The individual strands are small and a little delicate. This wire has gotten good reviews out on the Web.

Recommended 10 AWG wire: Blue Jeans Cable's "Ten White" $0.57/ft
Comes in a somewhat rigid white jacket with helpful black/red insulated wire inside. The wire itself is stranded, composed of rather thick, strong strands. Definitely feels substantial. A large upgrade from the 12 AWG Sound King wire. I really like this stuff. I have not done A/B comparisons against the Sound King wire (even I have better things to do with my time) but I have absolute confidence in the quality of the "Ten White".

**A good crimp to a spade lug is a better terminator than wrapping bare wire around a binding post and your only audiophile-grade option if you're not skilled with a soldering iron (which I am not). The problems with bare wire are many:

- heavier gauge wire isn't all that flexible and is difficult to bend around a speaker post. Doesn't do much good if most of your wire is bulging out of the speaker post.

- The connection will suffer corrosion over time. It's far from airtight and, supposedly, the connection will deteriorate over time. People talk of annual cleaning sessions to treat and retighten their bare wire connections.

A spade lug offers a relatively large bit of surface area to contact against the speaker posts and can be gold-plated to avoid corrosion.

An ideal crimp creates an airtight bond at some point inside the crimped area (the metals are deformed into each other). Chances are you won't actually achieve this though.

The key to a good crimp is having the right crimping tool (no, a pair of pliers will not do). Soldering opens up a huge can of worms and the end result may actually be worse than a good crimp if you don't do a good job. A good crimp with the right tools is almost foolproof and should be on par with a good solder join. Why mess with foolproof?

Recommended crimping tool: Gardner Bender GS-88 ~$9
Perfect for crimping 10-12 AWG wire to spade lugs (I'll post a pictorial/tutorial when my last batch of spade lugs arrives). The key is that the crimping head is wide enough to make a broad crimp - you don't want a crimp that only pinches down at one narrow point.

Recommended spade lugs: Audioquest 1/4" spade lugs $2/pair
Nothing fancy here, just a simple gold-plated spade lug that can be easily crimped. I can't say how well my crimp will hold over time, but so far I can't complain about the results. These spades are rather thin, but that was important to me - the only way to biwire my amp is to fit two of these spades onto the same terminal. Anything thicker than these would not be possible. And the "premium" spades are $7/pair - that's a 3.5x price jump! The red/black insulating sleeves are simple and effective.

**If your speaker binding posts allow you to thread a bare wire through the center, don't do it! When you tighten down the cap you'll just be cutting into the wire. If it's a crappy thin wire (e.g. 22 AWG), you'll sever the thing entirely. My mom's satellite speakers were wired in this way and I couldn't figure out why the speaker would crackle whenever I moved the satellite. Well, now I know why...

**Banana plugs aren't really a great wire termination option unless you're expecting to constantly move around or change your speakers. They're damn convenient but over time they'll lose their springiness and therefore contact less and less with the speaker posts.

**Banana plugs with screw-down connectors (as opposed to crimping or soldering) don't really hold your wire in place all that well. I've had two such plugs let the wire pull out of the housing under modest pressure after shifting a speaker twice. When you use higher grade wire (e.g. 10 AWG) the wire doesn't deform much, thereby reducing the amount of mechanical hold a screw-down pressure contact might be able to maintain.

**Spade lugs with screw-in connectors can hold just fine but I question the efficacy of their electrical contact with the wire. You feed the wire through the hollow back, separate and fan out the wire strands in all directions, then screw a top cap on top of and around the strands. The mechanical hold on the wire is quite strong, but I don't like this separating and fanning out of the wire strands.


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