Smart Home Wiring For Epic Sound!
June 26, 2022
I’ve been addressing a lot of the pros and cons lately around wired and wireless networks to support your smart home. As I’ve been reviewing my wiring plans it occurred to me that audio wiring is part of that overall plan, with integrated smart devices. I realized that other than covering my specific plans with my Let’s Hear It For Home Audio or Pre-Wiring Considerations For Your Smart Home Build posts a while back, I hadn’t done a deeper dive on wiring your smart home for sound.
The audio wiring and capabilities of our new home are a particular area of interest to me. It promises to provide unique audio options we’ve not experienced before, other than the surround sound we installed in our San Antonio home game room. We’ll have that in our new home, including individual app and voice audio control in individual rooms (or zones) as well as synced throughout the house — and outdoors. I’m excited about that as it’s a new home feature for us. And with the opportunity to run wire during construction we can do it right.
When it comes to speakers, the wires or cables you use are important. They may not affect the sound quality overall, but if you want everything to work properly, it’s important to make sure you’re using the right tools for the job.
Current audio solutions deal with two types of speakers: active or powered speakers, and passive or non-powered speakers. Speaker wire is specifically designed to carry a signal from an amplifier to passive speakers. The Klipsch speakers we’re going to use are all passive as they require a separate amplifier. These are perfect as we’ll be using an amplifier like the Sonos Amp that will give us app and voice audio control as described above, room by room or whole-house.
One of the most common ways of connecting speakers is bare wire. Generally, a length of a pair of wires — red (positive) and black (negative). You don’t need to know too much about how speakers work to use these, just make sure you’re matching the red and black wire to the matching terminals on the back of your speakers.
If you’re dealing with setting up a home surround sound system or a simple stereo setup, the two types of wire above are likely all you need. That said, if you’re using studio monitors for an audiophile music listening setup, for example, you’ll most likely need other connections.
Most of the speaker wire you encounter will range from relatively thin to extremely thin. This is because most of the time, this is all you need, especially for home use. But look around on the web, and you’ll find speaker wire and cables available much thicker in diameter than what you’d typically use at home.
Why is this? The longer a run of cable, the thicker in diameter the cable needs to be. If you use too thin a cable, this can result in compromised sound quality, and it can potentially damage your amplifier or even pose a fire hazard.
Wire thickness is identified by its American Wire Gauge (AWG) number. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the wire. Thicker wire presents less resistance to current flow. Typically, speaker wires run from 16 gauge to 12 gauge, with the higher number representing a thinner cable. Thick wire (12 or 14 gauge) is recommended for long wire runs, high power applications, and low-impedance speakers (4 or 6 ohms). If you’re running cable lengths over 50 feet — and most if not all of speaker runs for a home audio solution will be — you’ll want to start looking at thicker speaker cables. Keep in mind, we’re mainly talking about passive speakers and unbalanced connections here, as balanced connections will prevent some of the noise that long cable runs introduce.
For relatively short runs (less than 50 feet) to 8 ohm speakers, 16 gauge wire will usually do just fine. It’s cost-effective and easy to work with. 16 gauge is what I’m designing my home audio system with — specifically 16/2 which indicates 16 gauge, 2 conductor — which means two 16 gauge wires. This design will support the 8 ohm speakers I’ll have ceiling mounted throughout the house.
For our house, all of the speaker wire will be run inside walls and ceilings, requiring us to spec UL-rated speaker wire labeled CL2 or CL3. I don’t have any immediate plans to have speakers outdoor, other than the covered patio (which will be in-ceiling wiring) but I will put conduit in the outer walls to route speaker wire (and Ethernet) to provide future flexibility. But if the day comes to install outdoor speaker wire, it’ll be underground from the house to the destination and need to be wire rated for direct burial.
I covered the details of the physical wiring in another recent post — What Do I Need to Install My Own Ethernet Cabling? — where I talked about the tools and procedures for wiring an Ethernet network in your home. The wiring for home audio follows the same guidelines, including terminating the wire at the media center end in the patch panel. My preference is the modular binding post connectors to insert in my racks as they have the most secure connection. I also like the spring clip options but the springs can fail or displace themselves, requiring replacement.
Connecting up all the speakers and amplifiers is a relatively easy process:
- Identify the positive and negative leads of your speaker wires — these could be silver/gold or red/black. Make sure you connect them accordingly to your speakers and your amplifier or receiver. If you get one of the connections crossed, your music won’t sound right.
- In our case, we’ll use wires without connectors. To complete the wiring, use a wire stripper to take about 3/8-inch of insulation off the ends of each lead, exposing the bare wire strands. Twist each lead’s bare wire strands tightly, so no stray strands are sticking out. Loose strands could make contact with the cable’s other lead and cause a short circuit, potentially damaging your components. On a side note — I may ‘tin’ the ends after twisting by coating the exposed cable ends with solder.
Speakers and amplifiers usually have one of two different types of wire terminals — spring clips and binding posts. Other options could be banana clips or RCA jacks. Spring clips are very easy to work with. Simply press down on the clip, insert the speaker wire, and release. The spring-loaded mechanism holds the wire in place. But, as noted above, not my preferred option due to potential spring issues.
Binding posts provide a very solid connection for your speaker wire. To connect your wire, you unscrew the collar to reveal the hole used to connect bare wire and pin connectors. Insert the speaker wire, and screw down the collar. Simple and secure,
There are other ways to connect the wiring. Better materials like shielding and materials less prone to corrosion are useful but do cost more. There are cable brands charging up to hundreds of dollars for speaker cables and other audio cables. The question is, are they actually worth the extra cost?
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that using gold or other pricier materials will provide better sound coming out of your speakers. If you’re looking to upgrade your sound, stop thinking about cables and look into upgrading the components of your setup. Pricier speaker cables do have their value, but for most home use, plain old thin speaker wire should be all you need.
For our smart home enthusiast friends out there we’d love to hear your thoughts on home audio. How are you using audio to enhance your entertainment experience? What equipment are you using to accomplish your home audio goals? Have you run your own in-wall wiring or hired someone to do it?
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …