So you’ve purchased all the best home theater gear you could afford and now it’s time to hook it all up. Of course you’ve also set aside enough money for interconnect cables and speaker wires. Yes, it’s true that most components come with free cables, but often these cables simply don’t do justice to a quality home theater. DVD players are usually bundled with inexpensive composite or S-Video cables and RCA audio cables. Using the best connections and quality cables can make a noticeable difference in the performance of your home theater. So don’t take cable shopping less seriously than the rest of your gear. The rule of thumb is that you should spend between 5 to 10 percent of your home theater’s budget on cables.
Begin by measuring the distance from your receiver to each of your speakers. Make sure to add at least 60 cm (or 2 feet) to each measurement to allow enough slack if you want to move the speakers or fiddle with the receiver later. Speaker wire is commonly available in 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16 gauge (or size). The smaller the gauge number, the thicker the cable. Most home theater enthusiasts recommend using 12-gauge cables for all of your speakers. This will ensure that enough power reaches each speaker and is particularly important in longer cable runs (like to your surround speakers). Look for speaker wires that are made out of oxygen-free copper otherwise your cables will corrode quickly. There is usually no quality difference between brands of speaker wire, unless you get into very high-end products. If you buy expensive speaker wire you might be paying simply for the brand, not added quality. For ease of set up, speaker wire kits are available from some manufacturers. They come in predetermined lengths and have connectors installed on the ends. This is certainly convenient, although you’ll end up using much longer cables than necessary compromising the performance of your home theater. You should always use cables that are as short as possible. The best thing to do is purchase a roll of speaker wire, cut it into appropriate lengths and install your choice of connectors on the ends.
Speaker wire can be connected to the speakers and receiver using bare wire, pin plugs, banana plugs, or spade lugs. Bare wire connections are generally used to connect entry-level equipment. Pin plugs are thin, metal rods that can be used with binding posts and spring connectors. They make the connection with the least surface area, making them not very desirable. Both spade lugs and banana plugs provide the most surface contact making them the best choices for home theaters. Banana plugs are probably the most commonly used type of connector because they are the quickest to connect and disconnect. Some connectors may require you to solder them to the wire, while most are available in solder-free versions.
All above connectors are available with a gold-plating. Gold-plated connectors are not used specifically for transmission of audio video signals. The gold-plating simply protects the connectors from corrosion. It’s the corrosion that deteriorates the connection from the cable to the component.
If you’re setting up a dedicated home theater room, it’s a good idea to run the speaker wires inside the walls if possible. This will give your home theater the cleanest possible look. You can then install speaker connector wall plates close to your speakers. For many enthusiasts this is not possible, but there is another option. An easy way to hide wires is to take off the baseboards in the room, place all speaker wire behind them, and replace the baseboards. Alternatively if it’s a brand new room and it doesn’t have any baseboards installed yet, you can buy baseboards that open up and store cables inside them.
Flat speaker wires are also available from many manufactures. These may be more desirable if hiding speaker wires is not a possibility in your home theater.
All cables, other than speaker wires, in the home theater are called interconnect cables. These consist of all audio and video cables that run between your receiver, CD/DVD player, amplifier, and picture display. The type and quality of interconnect cables plays a very important role in the overall performance of your home theater. Not only are all interconnect cables prone to signal degradation (like speaker wire), they also pick up interferences from electronic products and other cables. It’s important to keep all audio and video cable runs away from AC electrical cords.
To start with, you’ll need to figure out what types of cables your components will be connected with. Always use the best connections possible. Possible video connections from best to worst are: HDMI or DVI, component, S-Video and composite. The best audio connections are digital (optical or coaxial) and less desirable are RCA analog connections (although analog connections are sometimes also required for surround music playback).
Since all your components (like your receiver, amplifier, DVD/CD player, and VCR) will be very close to each other cables connecting them should not exceed 1 or 2 meters (3 or 6 feet) in length. Cables running to your display will obviously depend on how far it is from the rest of your gear. Again, remember to purchase cables a little longer so that if you ever need to access the rear panels of your equipment you can easily slide it out of its space.
Next you’ll have to choose the quality of the cables you’re about to purchase. Prices of home theater cables vary from a few dollars to several hundred dollars per cable. Good quality to high-end cables are constructed with 6N oxygen-free copper centers.
Prices of composite video, S-Video, component video and RCA audio cables depend on how well the cable is insulated, the geometry of its copper center and its length. Directional twisted-pair (or winding) geometry copper centers do a better job than multi-stranded copper centers, but cost substantially more. The better the insulation, the higher the cost as well. Don’t go cable crazy. As mentioned above cables shouldn’t cost more than 10 percent of your entire home theater budget.
Good quality video cables must maintain 75-Ohm impedance throughout to ensure a clear, sharp picture without creating ghosting or phase delays.
Prices of optical (Toslink), HDMI and DVI cables depend mostly on the quality of the connectors and the durability of the protective jacket. These cables do not pick up electrical interferences and hence don’t require shielding.
A cable is only as good as the connector terminating it. Gold-plated connectors ensure the best audio/video signal transfer and provide a long lasting connection that won’t corrode over time.
Some retailers will allow you to take cables that they carry home and try them out. And be careful of big box stores - they’ll try to push unnecessarily expensive cables with every piece of equipment you purchase.