Home Theater Design Guide:
Home Theater Wiring Made Simple


I do just want to make a quick note that the content of this article will cover home theater wiring and general electrical topics before you read any further, not the connection of components within your home theater system. That topic will be covered in another area of our site.

Home Theater Wiring

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Some home theater enthusiasts may scoff at what I’m about to say, but unless you’re concerned about squeezing the absolute maximum performance out of your home theater system, just about any wire available at your local retail store will do the trick. Besides, if other variables in your home theater aren’t optimized, it isn’t going to matter much anyways. I’ve listened to many different systems on many different grades of wire and I’ve hardly been able to tell a difference using the “naked ear”. I’d personally recommend buying a mid-grade wire from a price perspective (with the appropriate gauge) rather than buying the cheap wire or the most expensive, either. With that said, let’s continue…

Planning

Like most other projects, planning is the key to ensuring your home theater wiring project gets off on the right foot. Careful thought needs to go into how you will lay out your home theater. The placement of speakers, components, and lighting, among other things, will in many ways dictate your home theater wiring and electrical needs.

By this stage of the project, you should have already identified the following (may vary depending on the scope of your home theater wiring project):

  • General layout of the room
  • Placement of all speakers
  • Placement of home theater components
  • Placement of video source
  • Lighting needs
  • Possible future enhancements
  • Budget constraints for home theater wiring and electric materials

At this point, you also need to take an assessment of your skills and whether or not you’ll be doing the work yourself or hiring a professional contractor. If you’re even thinking about doing this yourself, you need to make sure that you fully understand the local electric code for installing in-wall wiring. All wiring that you use for your project must be Underwriters Laboratory (UL) compliant. Further, other HT professionals and electricians have indicated that the speaker wire you’ll want to use should fall into either the UL Class 2 or UL Class 3 categories (the packaging typically indicates CL2 or CL3, which is the same thing). Wire of this caliber isn’t that much more expensive and you’ll sleep better at night knowing that you’re using something that has been tested and ultimately will be the safer approach. If you purchase your speaker wire from a local electronics store such as Best Buy or Circuit City, you really don’t have to worry about this, if at all.

From a budgeting standpoint:

  • Make the obvious note that wiring within an unfinished area will be cheaper than in a finished area
  • Buying home theater wiring in bulk quantities will save you money
  • Take note of the linear length of wire you need to complete your runs; buy at least 25% more than what you think you need
  • Include some money in your budget for wire management products

Home Theater Wiring Characteristics: How to Select the Right Wire

Unless you’re a huge tech geek, please bear in mind that you’re probably only going to go through this process once. So don’t be a cheapskate when it comes to buying the wiring for your home theater system. But despite all of the marketing gimmicks, claims and testimonials, and brand name recognition, you don’t have to buy the most expensive wiring/cables, either. It’s simply one of the those things that you have to balance, taking into account the law of diminishing returns – in reality, you’re probably spending a lot more to realize a small benefit in performance.

The characteristics that are important to the composition of a good speaker wire are gauge, shielding, and termination. I’ll discuss each of these now.

Gauge
The thickness of a wire is measured by it’s AWG (stands for American Wire Gauge). This is the single most important factor to be used in your purchase decision, in my opinion. The lower the number, the thicker the wire. A thicker wire is a better conductor of electricity (your sound signal) and typically yields better performance because it exhibits less resistance to the electrical signal passing through the wire. Less resistance also is beneficial to your receiver/amplifier by means of less stress/load. There are many tables available on the Internet for determining the appropriate gauge wire to use for each “run” (i.e., length of the wire). For most home theater wiring projects, you’ll use either 14 or 16 gauge wire.

Shielding
In many cases, shielding is a term used interchangeably with insulation – but in reality they are not the same. Insulation is merely a material that provides some level of protection against something external to the wire, specifically another wire. Shielding, on the other hand, is what helps reduce interference from other things emitting electrical and magnetic signals. You’ll typically find wire that is shielded using one of three methods: foil, braid, or a combination of both. Again, some will argue that one type influences sound clarity more positively than another, but I can’t recommend one over the other. The fact that a wire is shielded should be enough to adequately perform in your home theater environment.

Termination
It’s debatable about whether or not bare wire termination is better or worse than wire terminated with connectors. Some will argue that bare wire termination is easier and provides the same or better level of performance because the signal doesn’t have to travel through any connection joints. Others will argue that bare wire termination degrades sound clarity and connectors provide an easy installation mechanism that looks more professional. I personally don’t think it matters which way you go, but I typically prefer to terminate my wiring with connectors. I haven’t seen any performance benefit under either method, but I think it makes hooking up my components a little easier.

Wire/Cable Management

One important guiding principle to follow when it comes to home theater wiring is to keep it simple. Make every effort to keep your home theater wiring need and organized. There are a variety of cable management products available to you at your local hardware store or retailer, as well as on the Internet.

Are you working with a finished area and don’t think there’s a way to run wire for your system? Be sure to check out the types of raceways that are offered to run cable around baseboards or walls.

Make sure you purchase wire that is coded for polarity. It’s important to ensure polarity is correct within your home theater system to maximize performance and to safeguard against electrical problems.

In unfinished areas, if you need to run the wire through studs, make sure you drill your holes in the center to maintain the structural integrity of the stud. If you’re not using conduit, make sure you secure the wire to the studs using some type of wire/cable tack, horseshoe, or clamp.

Avoid running wires in close proximity to other electrical lines and try not to run them parallel with them, either. Wiring ran around power supplies or cords should be avoided, as well. Any of these can potentially lead to interference in the sound transmission.

Installation Tips

Avoid splicing your home theater wiring. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line – in the case of speaker wire, the shortest distance to better sound performance is a “straight wire” between your receiver/amp and speaker. This may seem a little contradictory to what I said earlier about using connectors for terminating your wires, but there is no debate about the detrimental effect of splicing on sound and the wire’s susceptibility to interference.

Leave yourself plenty of slack in each of your wiring runs so you have enough to work with when terminating wires and making connections to your system’s components.

If you’ve just ran wire as part of a building project, it’s a good idea to place tape over any gang/junction boxes or to conceal any exposed wire. The drywall process that follows the rough-in stage is a pretty messy process and cleansing a wire of dried up joint compound isn’t a fun thing to do.

Conduit
Whenever possible, take the time to run conduit for your wire. Using PVC material, this is very inexpensive to do and can save your some trouble down the road. This will provide some added protection against damage to your wire and makes it easier to upgrade in the future, which is much more difficult to do in the absence of conduit. It’s even more important that you do this if you’re running wiring that is ran within the exterior your home, such as a crawl space or attic.

Safety Tips

Below are some safety tips that you’ll want to consider, especially if you’re the one who will be installing the wiring.

  • Make sure you’ve cut the power at the circuit breaker box for the area you’ll be working in before you begin.
  • After cutting the power, make sure you have an ample amount of lighting to do your work.
  • Even if you’ve cut the power, make sure you carry a tester (and use it) to determine if something is “hot” or not.
  • Ensure circuit breakers will handle your system components and lighting. Put them on separate breakers, if warranted.
  • Make sure you’re using a UL-compliant wire/cable.
  • Use conduit whenever possible – this will prevent your wires/cables from being damaged.



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