Hello everyone. As promised, here is my analysis of the common 12 Gauge speaker wire. Hope you find it useful
. I will be creating an online article from this so please critique both technical points and writing.Introduction
Why test 12 gauge (AWG) wire? 12 AWG speaker wire is a “safe bet” from performance point of view because anything thinner may interact with the low impedance of your speakers and cause the frequency response to vary beyond threshold of hearing (-0.5 dB). That change can “color” the sound.
Once you get to 12 AWG and in reasonable (shorter) lengths, you should be good. This conclusion however only holds if the wire you buy is actually 12 gauge wire and has the nominal resistance that is used in the computation of dB drop. For this reason, it is useful to see if the wires that one can readily buy online or from local sources in US complies with the nominal values for 12 AWG. The measurement in question is “DC resistance” where we measure the resistance of the wire when it is being fed direct current (DC). This is the most basic parameter for cables.
I plan to keep updating this data. So if you like your favorite speaker wire measured, PM me for address and be ready to mail a 4 foot/1.5 meter section of your wire and I will measure and add its value to the measurement table below.Test Methodology
The purpose of a good speaker cable is to transfer energy with very little drop. That very characteristic makes it very hard to measure the resistance by definition, that is a very small value. Typical (DC) resistance of speaker wire is in the area of 0.0015 ohm/0.15 milliohm per foot. This small resistance puts typical multimeters out of business since they become inaccurate in single digit ohm let alone in thousands of an ohm.
There are different solutions to this problem. The one I opted for is the so called 4-wire or Kelvin measurement invented by Lord Kelvin 100+ years ago. At high level, the 4-wire system separates the leads that provide power to the load (i.e. our speaker wire) from the leads that measure the voltage drop across it (which given the current, tells us the resistance using Ohm’s law). Because the leads are separated, we are now free to provide much more current and as a result, create a larger voltage drop. Not only that, but we also eliminate the effect of meter probe because the current that is going through them is a fraction of what we are feeding the load. Please look online if you like to have more details about its operation.
Unfortunately high-end milliohm meters are quite expensive, some going for as much as $5,000. I don’t do enough of this work to justify investing in them. The unit I have used here is a portable unit which has resolution down to 0.1 milliohm and accuracy of 1% (plus 5d). Its output current is rather low at 200 milliamps since it runs on batteries. That however, is still 200+ times more than standard multimeters which use 1 microamp to 1 milliamp typically for resistance measurements.
In my test fixture, I am using a common, 2-probe system. There are still 4 leads going to the load but they attach to the load in pairs. This removes one of the sources of mistakes (using the wrong probes for high current and voltage measurements) and makes it much faster to test multiple items. Accuracy is still quite high.
As is always the case, the reality and theory are different. A milliohm meter is a very sensitive device. This means that it will actually measure the contact resistance of its own probes. This is easy to back out however by zeroing out its lead resistance first which is what I did. What is not so easy is to guarantee that you put the same contact pressure on the wires in question. There is an easy solution to this which is to use a much longer length of cable and hence, have its resistance swamp the connection load. Problem with that is the wire will coil every which way and won’t match from sample to sample. I wanted a predictable setup where every wire was tested the same way which meant straight and flat.
My solution to the problem was to use a ~3 foot segment of wire that I could hold flat on my desk but then short out one end and measure the resistance as seen from the other end. This does create a new problem in that the twisted end again has certain resistance and variability. To counter that, I put “clamping” load on it in the form of a beefy paper clip. I tested that fix by pushing hard on the connection while the clip was holding it and the difference was negligible. Without that clip, there would be considerable change when I put force on it.
Here is what the final fixture and my test setup looks like:Sample Wires Tested:
Here are the samples that I managed to acquire during a two week or so period:Monoprice 12 AWG Speaker Wire:
I bought a 50 foot spool through Amazon third-party service. I paid $25.35 and shipping was “free” (Prime). Monoprice’s own price is lower but you have to pay shipping and I prefer to not create accounts online any more than I have to.
The cable itself has a blue stripe on one of the wires which is useful in identifying which wire is which. The reel was cardboard and the overall impression screamed budget/low-end. The stripped wire did not hold well together due to many soft strands. Stripping it resulted in loosing fair number of strands.RadioShack 12 AWG “AUVIO” speaker wire:
I bought a 50 foot spool this on sale for $39. With tax it came up to $43 or so. Since I picked it up locally there was no shipping.
This is one good looking cable and spool! It oozes quality. The spool is blue and substantial. Likewise the wire looks thick and beautifully wound. I weighed the spool and wire and it was 4.51 pounds. In comparison, the Monoprice was 2.68 pounds. If I put the two next to each other and put the price tag on them, I am pretty sure most people would go for the RadioShack wire. The visual difference is unmistakable.Parts Express Wired Home SKRL-12-50:
I bought a 50 foot spool again through Amazon for $24.20. Shipping was an additional $7.69 for a total of $31.89. I went to their site and it was similar in price with shipping so I bought it from Amazon. It took over 7 days to get this wire. They shipped it quickly but they used economy service to send it to me. Being spoiled by free Prime shipping from Amazon, it was quite annoying to pay nearly $8 and have to wait a week.
As the listing indicates, this is from a company called Wired Home. It came in a nice blue plastic spool. It was not nearly as substantial as the RadioShack wire but definitely a step above lower end stuff.Belden 5000UP 12 AWG:
This is an in-wall speaker cable. As one of the largest cable suppliers in the world, and set of measured specifications, I thought this would provide a nice baseline to compare others. I could not find 50 foot spool of this wire on Amazon. All that was available through third-parties was 100+. Parts Express sold it however by foot though so I ordered 20 feet. The cost for that was $19.60 and shipping was $14.00 for express delivery.
The outer wrapping in this cable is thick and substantial. Not to the level of RadioShack wire but still above average. The individual wires inside strip easily and hold their form strongly. It is the closest thing to electrical wire.Fry’s 12 AWG Wire:
It was hard finding this wire at Fry’s Electronic as it was not with the rest of the speaker wires in the AV department. This is what it looks like:
Price was a reasonable $15.99 for the 50 foot spool. The spool is very light and the wire pretty flexible.Electrical Wire:
This is your typical stranded 12 gauge electrical wire that I had bought from Home Depot. It is a single conductor wire so not very suitable as speaker wire. But I thought I include it as a reference since I had it in my drawer of electrical parts. I don’t have the label handy but it is similar to this:
It strips easy because it matches the gradations in the a typical wire stripper but is very stiff.Colman in-wall 12 AWG:
I have a few hundred feet of this in my house. My then contractor (before I started Madrona Digital) selected it without my involvement. I told the contractor to pick “good quality cable” and this is what he bought. The application is non-critical (background music in the kitchen and feeding power to other devices). This is what it kind of looks like:
As you can see, it is a typical in-wall (CL3) cable with outer insulation and Belden like inside wires.ICE 12 AWG Speaker Cable
: ICE is one of the “go to” brands of cables for custom AV installers. We use a number of different speaker cables at Madrona and I found this left over reel in the shop and thought I should test it:BestBuy 12 AWG Cable
As with Fry’s, the speaker area had a bunch of wires from Monster and their own house brand but nothing that went up to 12 AWG. I remembered that the automotive section often has heavier gauge wires and that was the case. They had a non-descript 20 foot spool. One conductor is copper colored and the other “silver.” I suspect it is actually aluminum wire.Canare 4s11
This is a premium in-wall cable. It has four 14 gauge conductors. You can use two of the 14 gauge wires together if you only need one speaker feed which is the way I tested it. Alternatively you can use it as redundancy in case during construction a nail or screw went into it.Coat Hanger:
No, you don’t new glasses; I did say coat hanger!
There is an online fish story that says someone performed blind testing of coat hanger against monster cable and nobody could tell the difference. There are other issues with that story but here, I thought I focus on the DC resistance.
The specimen I used has no brand or label. It is awfully thick though and was very hard to unwind into a straight “wire.” To combat contact resistance, I zeroed my meter by putting the probes next to each other and using that as the new “zero.” In a real situation that contact resistance would also be part of the equation.Measurements
OK, enough rambling; let’s get into the measurements. The table below shows all that data. The first column is the length of the wire I was testing. I was not anal about keeping the length exactly 3 foot. So instead, I measured the actual segment and used that in the computation. In some cases I had a fixed length already and I used that.
The second column is our key data, the measured resistance in milliohms. Since this would vary based on the length of the wire being tested, I divided its value by the length and arrived at the industry standard milliohms/ft.
Next is the claimed DCR if available. Yes, there are discrepancies between my measurement and theirs. Since these are stranded wires, it is hard to get the exact number the resistance is supposed to be. Likely there are differences between my fixture and the one cable manufacturer used. So the best use of the measurements is as a relative value to compare one wire against another, rather than attempting to match it to any published spec. To that end, I used the measured DC Resistance of Belden cable as the baseline and used that to create a ratio in the next column (“Ratio to Standard”).
The Relative Difference column takes out the value of the Belden cable giving us a “pure” percentage of how much higher or lower the DCR is relative to Belden. In that regard, Belden gets a reference of 0. Negative numbers now mean a wire has higher resistance than Belden and positive numbers the other way around.
The bottom row in green is the Geometric Mean (Geomean) of the column of data above it. Geomean is an average of a set of numbers that doesn’t get thrown off badly by one or more samples being way off the scale. Since that is what I am dealing with here, it makes for a better value than simple average. The number then provides a statistic average of the samples I tested.
Here is the table as computed in my spreadsheet:
And the Relative Difference charted as bar graphs:
I have color coded the underperforming wires in orange. As you can see, Monoprice, Fry’s, Bestbuy and Coat Hanger fall in this bucket. The coat hanger actually went past the bottom of the graph so whatever story there is on how it sounds is quite suspect.
Fry’s and Bestbuy wires must be aluminum cored to have such high resistance. They are not thin enough for the difference to be due to that. I would certainly avoid using both in any high fidelity application.
Of the none-in-wall wires, the RadioShack by far leads the pack on both subjective quality and measured DC Resistance. It managed to slightly outperformed our Belden reference. At $40, that is not much of a premium cost wise considering that you can pick it up in person and be able to instantly use it.
The Monoprice’s resistance is almost twice as high as RadioShack wire but not nearly as bad as the BestBuy and Fry’s no name wires. But being least bad doesn’t translate to good in my book
. My recommendation is that if you want to go the mail order route, go with the Parts Express Wired Home cable. It outperforms Monoprice both subjectively and in measured resistance (50% lower than Monoprice).Conclusions
So there it is. Clearly 12 AWG wire is not 12 AWG when you buy a no-name brands. The notion then that you should buy any old wire that says 12 AWG and shopping purely based on price is not a wise one. When you can, buy branded cable that comes with proper specification.