Our research shows there really is no best speaker cable. But the Monoprice 2747 12 gauge is the speaker wire I’d buy. I base this on extensive research on available cables and actual listening tests. The 2747 offers excellent value, solid construction, and, perhaps most importantly (and surprisingly), better sound quality. But keep in mind that this is the least important piece of gear in your entire home theater setup and the impact it makes is negligible.
Who am I? I review and write about audio for CNET, Sound + Vision, Forbes, and was technical editor of Home Theater and editor-in-chief of Home Entertainment. I am neither a “true believer” when it comes to cables (spend all you can!) nor an absolute skeptic (all speaker cables sound the same!). I believe in the process of blind listening tests with multiple people and evidence ahead of assumptions. And going into this piece I had no assumptions or wishes for the results to come out any way in particular.
Audiophile types almost always say thicker wire is better to transmit sound: ‘thicker cables sound better.’ On the other side of the spectrum, hardcore non-audiophile skeptics say there is no difference in cables, so get the cheapest speaker wire you can find. For them, even 18 gauge is too expensive; that 24 gauge wire for pennies a yard is enough.
I’m not going to be able to convince someone that thinks 24 gauge wire is good enough otherwise. Nor will someone who thinks braided, silver-laced, carbon-wrapped $1,000-per-inch cable is the bare minimum be convinced that $14.68 Monoprice cable is a good purchase.
If you belong to one of these groups and want to leave a comment, I ask that you read this entire article carefully before doing so.
If you’re not at the far ends, read this article to see where I’m coming from, the testing I did, and why I chose the Monoprice.
There are countless (literally: I tried counting) options for speaker cable, from no-name cheap $6 50-foot spools to $1,000-per-inch “audiophile” offerings. I searched common outlets (Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, Crutchfield and others) for speaker cable options. This initial list had over 140 products, and that’s only the ones that weren’t obviously overpriced or otherwise obviously undesirable.
What makes them undesirable? Well, what’s the point of recommending a cable that doesn’t exist by the time you read this article? So I narrowed it down to companies I’d heard of and/or had a large amount of positive reviews. Along the same lines, I have no doubt there are other options buried deep on some random webpage, but who knows if Joescableshack.biz will be around in a month.
The list included every company you’ve ever heard of if you’ve ever shopped for speaker cables: Monster, RCA, AmazonBasics, Pyle, RadioShack, Rocketfish, Dynex; and a lot of brands you probably haven’t heard of, like XXX, Pyramid, Xpress, and Seismic. I also checked several boutique cable brands, but if a company specializes in cables, they don’t seem to bother playing in the price ranges we’re looking at here.
In this initial partially-vetted list, I ranked the cables’ price-per-foot per gauge (as in, what was the cheapest for each wire thickness).
A word about gauge. Speaker wire comes in different thicknesses, most commonly ranging from 12 gauge to 18 gauge (this can also be written as 12 AWG to 18 AWG). Confusingly, the wire gets thicker as the numbers go down—12 gauge is thicker than 18 gauge. As you’d expect, as wire gets thinner it generally gets cheaper.
All speaker cable is part of an electrical circuit that includes each driver, the other components in a speaker, plus all the elements in the output stage of the amplifier. Each cable is going to have slightly different properties that in theory can subtly change the sound.
I’m also specifically talking about speaker cables. Other cables, like HDMI cables, are not worth spending money on. Being a packetized digital signal, HDMI cables either work perfectly, or they don’t work. When they don’t work, you’ll either get no picture, the picture will drop out intermittently, or you’ll start to get snow-like “sparkles” before the signal drops out entirely. In these cases, a different (but equally inexpensive) HDMI cable is likely to work fine. If the image looks correct, it is 100% correct. Unlike analog cables, there is no “OK” HDMI cable. One cable won’t be softer, or have different color accuracy than another. I mention this, not just because it’s worth pointing out, but to assuage some that I’m not the type of person that thinks people should spend a lot of money on cables. After all, I wrote a series of articles called Why all HDMI cables are the same.
So given the assumption that there can only be a truly minor difference with speaker cables and the desire to get something inexpensive (but good) from a recognizable source and from a company I’d heard of, I narrowed to potential picks: AmazonBasics’s 16 gauge ($6.95, $0.14/foot), Monoprice’s 2747 12 gauge ($14.68, $0.29/ft), Monoprice’s 2748 14 gauge ($12.87, $0.26/ft), Pyle’s PSC1250 12 gauge ($14, $0.28/ft), Pyle’s PSC1450 ($11, $0.22/ft), and RCA’s AH1450SR 14 gauge ($11.42, $0.23).
All prices were for 50-foot spools. Larger spools were sometimes slightly cheaper per foot. This length should be fine if you’re wiring up a pair of speakers. If you’re wiring up the 5 speakers in a 5.1 speaker system, a 100-foot spool is probably better. You want the least amount of speaker cable between your speakers and receiver, without hassles like stepping over cables. Measure twice, buy once, so to speak.
The prices between these were close enough that they all seemed reasonable competitors, and all were the cheapest or near-cheapest of their respective gauges. All the other cables on my initial list were either significantly more expensive, or brands of dubious longevity.
The only way to figure out what was best was to test them. For this I enlisted the help of audio guru Brent Butterworth and voice actress / audio reviewer Lauren Dragan. Both Brent and Lauren review headphones and myriad audio gear. Both are also Wirecutter contributors.
Unsolicited by me, their opinions on speaker cable were similar to mine.
So I wouldn’t be biased, Brent cut two 10-foot lengths of each cable, labeling them with letters (so Lauren and I, at least, wouldn’t know which brand was which). We started with high-end gear but, to remove the gear from the equation, we switched in inexpensive speakers at the end of the test. Our gear included:
Panasonic’s DMP-BDT350 BD player (just used as a CD transport)
At the end of our test, we swapped in Hsu Research’s HB-1 Mk2 speakers
For our first round of testing, we pitted all the 14 and 16 gauge cables against each other. This test was to see if we could hear a difference between the different brands of these similar thickness cables. While Lauren and I listened, Brent swapped the cables. Then I switched to Lauren’s seat, and she switched the cables for Brent and me. Music clips were short, so we could focus on specific sections.
To say the differences were subtle would be an overstatement. We are experienced audio reviewers, and this was really high-end gear, and we had a difficult time picking out differences. This isn’t to say they sounded the same, we each had cables we liked better than others… but our rankings couldn’t have been more different. So different, in fact, I’d call them random. There was no clear winner. Worse, there was no clear result.
For our next test, I selected one of the cables I liked from the first round, and we put that against the Monoprice 2747 12 gauge. This was to see if the move to a thicker gauge made an audible difference.
Interestingly, after our murky results from the first round, the difference between the 14 gauge and the 12 gauge was not only noticeable. It was definitive. Though the difference was still subtle, a difference was noticeable and repeatable across different music selections and seating positions. The 2747 sounded slightly fuller, like there was more heft to the sound. By comparison, the 14 gauge seemed thinner. Remember, this was done blind; we didn’t know which brand/gauge was which. We could, though, repeatedly pick out which cable sounded better and have that pick consistently be the same cable. This was the only result so far that we were confident in.
Next, we compared the Monoprice 2747 to the Pyle PSC1250. This test was similar to our first test, in that it was the same thickness of wire but different brands. The result was less apparent than the result from 14 vs. 12 gauge test, but there was still a noticeable difference. The Monoprice sounded a little more open and slightly richer.
For one final test, we swapped in the $320/pair Hsu Research HB-1 Mk2 bookshelf speakers. This was to see if we heard a difference on inexpensive speakers, and to see if different cables sounded better on these speakers than those that sounded good on the Krells.
Since the difference between the 14 and 12 gauge wires was the most obvious difference, we re-did this test with the less expensive speakers. The difference was far less noticeable than with the big Krell speakers. We were fairly confident in our choice (not nearly as much as we had been with the other test), and that choice turned out to be… the 14 gauge. Defeat snatched from the hands of victory.
Should we have done another round of testing, and figured out what the best 14- or 16-gauge wire was for the Hsu? We could have, but to what end? That would just have just told us what was good for those speakers.
Yep, this is getting ugly.
It would easy to dismiss the results above, especially how extensively I hedged that these were subtle effects. Except, there’s an electrical explanation of what’s happening. Bear with me; it gets a bit technical.
Speaker cables are simply wire that connects different parts of an electrical circuit, as I mentioned earlier. This wire has three different electrical properties: resistance, inductance and capacitance. These can change depending on the gauge of the wire, the length of the wire, the material of the wire, and so on. In general, the thicker the wire, the lower the resistance.
You don’t need to understand resistance, inductance and capacitance to understand why we care. Because the speaker, amplifier, and speaker cable are all part of the same circuit, changing the properties of one of these items can affect a slight change in the others. For example, one cable may change the frequency a crossover operates at slightly, causing a change in the speaker’s sonic properties.
I had Brent Butterworth run some objective tests on the cables, to give you some numbers on how it’s possible they’re different:
Monoprice 2748 (14 AWG): 0.011 ohms, 19 pF
RCA AH1450SR (14 AWG): 0.013 ohms, 22 pF
Pyle PSC1250 (12 AWG): 0.015 ohms, 21 pF
Monoprice 2747 (12 AWG): 0.010 ohms, 16 pF
Ohms are the measure of resistance while “pF” is picofarad, the measure of capacitance. These measurements are per foot. Inductance was below the threshold of the Clio measurement gear.1
Are these cables electrically different? Yes. Are these differences very slight? Absolutely. Is this a big deal? Not really.
Technically, yes. After doing the above listening test, Brent and I decided to dig around some more, and spoke to a number of speaker and audio experts to pick their brains. One of the people he talked to was Allan Devantier, manager of acoustic research at Harman International (makers of JBL, Infinity, and Revel). Allan pointed Brent towards some previous studies that showed potential frequency response differences with cables. Brent measured some very disparate cables (in price and gauge) and wrote a fascinating article called Do Speaker Cables Make a Difference? Science Weighs In. His additional testing backed up our findings: “Turns out Devantier was right — I could measure this. As you can see in the chart, the results with the two 12-ga cables were only subtly different. The biggest change was a boost of maximum +0.4 dB between 4.3 and 6.8 kHz. Is this audible? Maybe. Would you care? Probably not. To put it in perspective, that’s about 20 to 30 percent of the change I typically measure when I test a speaker with and without its grille.”
But when he switched to a thinner gauge cable, the difference was pronounced, “But switching to the 24-ga cable had a huge effect. For starters, it reduced the level, requiring me to normalize the measured response curve by boosting it +2.04 dB so I could compare it with the curve from the [expensive] Linn cable. The 24-ga cable’s resistance also had obvious effects on frequency response. For example, it cut bass between 50 and 230 Hz by a maximum -1.5 dB (at 95 Hz), cut midrange between 2.2 and 4.7 kHz by a maximum -1.7 dB (at 3.1 kHz), and reduced treble between 6 and 20 kHz by a maximum of -1.4 dB (at 13.3 kHz). Is this audible? Yeah. Would you care? Yeah. Would you like the sound better with the skinny cable or one of the fat ones? I don’t know.”
This is with much higher (i.e. thinner) gauge cable than we were using in our test. However, it shows that as an extreme, it’s an objectively measurable difference. With cables closer in size (i.e. 12 and 14 gauge), the difference will be much less pronounced. It’s also worth reiterating that price itself has no direct relationship here. More expensive cables don’t sound “better” they can only, maybe, sound “different.” More about this in the “Spend more?” section.
Over long distances, thin cables can have an even greater effect on the sound. Audioholics has an incredibly detailed article about why this is. If you’re not up for the science, he concludes with, “There is no magic number when choosing what gauge to use over a specific distance since the system dynamics are often too complex. But, if you’re choosing between two cable gauges, I usually recommend going for the [thicker] one (all other things being equal) to ensure your cables won’t be the chink in your audio chain for pursuing audiophile nirvana.”
He has some good advice beyond just gauge too, like “I always recommend you avoid snake oil when purchasing cables otherwise you will likely find yourself spending more money than you should because of nebulous claims and fancy packaging while at the same time buying higher gauge cables as most of the exotic cables tend to be.”
Is it possible that spending even more on cables would result in an even bigger difference? Well, not necessarily. In our first round of testing we had a ringer: an uber-expensive “high-end” speaker cable. These don’t come in 50-foot spools, but if they did, they would cost $600. Since our picks in that round were barely better than random, it’s safe to say these 100x-more-expensive cables didn’t stand out. Could a different high-end cable make more of a difference? Well, that’s an interesting and frustrating question.
In a typical Wirecutter article, we’d recommend a step-up product for those willing to spend a bit more to get more performance. As you’ve read, each cable could interact with your speakers slightly differently. So while I think the Monoprice 2747 is going to be the best option for just about everyone, if you really want to spend more to potentially get the “perfect” cables for you, I can’t recommend something. At least not something specific. Instead, for those looking to get the “perfect” speaker cable for their system, I recommend getting the Monoprice (as a baseline comparison), then calculate the price per foot of other cables you’re interested in. Then get them all in and test them out on your own system.
So after all this research, all this testing, and, on your part, all this reading, I’m saying there’s no “best” speaker cable. How can I still recommend the Monoprice 2747 after all that? Because it was the clear winner with the reference system and nearly the same with the less-expensive speakers. It’s also quite inexpensive. In addition, because it’s a thick 12 gauge cable, it’s capable of much longer runs than thinner cables. It’s the safest bet and best deal for those not wanting to spend the time trying out multiple cables to find the “best” with their system.
So for those looking for a decent cable at a decent price, a high value-per-foot per gauge and potentially better-than-average sound quality, the Monoprice 2747 is our pick.
Intrigued by our initial testing, About.com’s Brent Butterworth did some additional research and testing. In his first article, he concluded, “Mainly, don’t use skinny cables in any system where you care about the sound quality. Also, maybe don’t be so quick to judge those who say they hear differences among speaker cables. Sure, many of them are obviously exaggerating these effects, and the ads from high-end cable companies often grossly exaggerate these effects. But the calculations and experiments we did here suggest it’s possible they really are hearing something.”
Spurred on by curiosity, Brent wrote a followup article called Using Measurements to Clear Up the Cable Controversy. In it, he tested a bunch of really expensive high-end cables to see if he could objectively measure a difference with expensive audio measurement equipment. His findings? Speaker cables can change the sound of a system, but the difference would be very subtle: “…even in the cases where listeners can hear a difference between cables, the desirability of that difference may change depending on the speaker you use.”
So are any of these cables worth considering? Not particularly. They’re all vastly more expensive per foot than our pick, and as he and we found, any minute difference in sound quality is going to vary per speaker system. In other words, if you’re looking for some good speaker cable, the Monoprice fits the bill. If you’re looking for the absolute perfect speaker cable for your amp and speakers, the only way to figure that out is by testing them yourself, in your theater.
Originally published: August 25, 2013