Step-by-Step Guide to Home Theater Wiring
Wiring Basics and Home Theater Speaker Wiring
The nature and quality of your home theater wiring will not only determine the level of safety in your home theater room, but equally important, will have a noticeable impact on the video and sound quality of your system components.
Unfortunately, many tend to take the cheapest route when wiring their home theater. But keep in mind that you will only be going through this process once. You would not be replacing your wiring anytime soon. So it is best to plan your wiring carefully and invest in the necessary extra effort when running cables - whether it is for your audio, video, lighting, data, networking, etc.
In this wiring guide, we will look at the basics of wiring in the home theater; we then discuss home theater speaker wiring in-wall wiring, and installation basics.
When it comes to home theater wiring, the guiding principle is...
Do it safe
Do it once
Do it right
Safety: This is a most important aspect in any installation. Do not save on your wiring by using sub-standard cables.
With in-wall installations, you should use specially certified wires (UL-rated CL3 wires) that comply with national standards for resistance to fire, chemicals, abrasion, and temperature extremes.
Abiding with these standards does not yield a much higher expense, and you will surely sleep better knowing your home theater wiring meets all safely regulations.
Planning: You also need to plan your wiring carefully; planning is the key to future proofing your installation while avoiding costly alterations later on.
Think about your all AV equipment and speaker placement, your room lighting requirements, networking, possible future additions, etc. These will determine the quantity and placement of the various audio/video points in the room as well as the electrical needs for your home theater installation.
Part of your planning process is to determine the best route your cable runs should take. This will help you estimate the required cable lengths as well as any cable management products and wall termination plates necessary for the whole home theater wiring project.
FFinally, when it comes to estimating the required cable lengths, do not just calculate the linear lengths to complete your cable runs; allow for at least 20% extra to cover for possible errors and slack for terminations.
Budgeting: The wiring requirements you come up with during your planning stage will determine the budget necessary for your home theater wiring project. However, the actual project cost will also depend on your level of DIY skills. The whole issue here is...
Will you be able to complete such a home theater wiring project yourself, especially if you opt for in-wall wiring?
If not, you will have to add a good portion to cover the cost of a qualified contractor or home theater installer.
In addition, AV cables can be very expensive but often, all you are paying especially when it comes to mid-range and premium quality cables is the brand — so be careful! You definitely need to invest in appropriate quality cables for the job BUT this does not mean you have to opt for the most expensive AV cables or speaker wire. As we say in our article Selecting Speaker Wires and in our Cable Quality Implications discussion, in most instances it would be impossible to tell the difference in audio and video performance between cheap and expensive cables especially with short runs. So try to opt for good quality thicker cables rather than for the cheapest or the most expensive.
At this point just take note that when it comes to a new wiring installation project, buying cables in bulk if appropriate for your installation, will save you money.
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While wiring requirements for your system components, lighting, control, etc. are mostly product dependent, and therefore you can never plan in isolation from your gear, when it comes to home theater speaker wiring, there are a few basic principles you have to abide with if you want to get the best sound out of your home theater system, irrespective of your equipment and speakers.
Many fail to realize that home theater wiring can have a noticeable impact on speaker performance. The greatest speakers will not sound their best with the use of inappropriate speaker wires or an incorrect wiring installation. In particular, selecting the correct speaker wire thickness is essential for the best speaker performance.
At the same time, keep in mind that some speaker manufacturers use non-standard connectors with their speakers; in these circumstances, use of optional third-part speaker wire and connectors may not always be an option unless you take the extreme route of splice your wiring — something which is not recommended in most home theater installations.
Selecting the correct thickness for your home theater wiring is important as it affects the speakers' performance; it will impact the speakers' ability to deliver the explosive effects in home theater sound.
The thickness of a wire conductive copper part is identified by its Wire Gauge, normally expressed either in AWG (American Wire Gauge) or SWG (British Standard Wire Gauge). The British standard represents a thicker wire for the same wire gauge number. In this article, all references for wire thickness are in the AWG standard.
Irrespective of the standard you use, a lower gauge number relates to a thicker wire, and a better capacity to pass the amplified audio signal. Good quality speaker wires fall in the range 12 to 16 AWG.
Avoid speaker wire thinner than gauge 16 when installing your home theater wiring unless you are working with very short runs. A major factor is the distance between the AV amplifier or home theater receiver, and your speakers; you see, long wire runs can cause significant power losses, and thus require thicker speaker cables.
Even with short runs, AWG 18 is the minimum thickness you can go. When choosing speaker wire, consider the quality of your gear. In other words, the build-up quality of the speaker wire should match that of your speakers and amplifier. Ensure also that your speaker wire support the power rating of your sound system. Note however that thicker home theater wiring is more expensive; hence keep an eye on your available budget.
Single Room Installation:
If you are planning a new home theater wiring installation, our advice is to go for the thicker wire you can afford - at least for your primary listening room. The thicker wire will help bring out fine musical detail in quality music systems, as well as deliver the explosive effects of surround sound.
In those situations where long speaker wire runs cannot be avoided, thicker wire helps reduce the overall resistance, and therefore amplifier load - leading to lower operating temperatures. This will result in improved sound quality and long-term stability.
And as we have already stated, match the build-quality of the selected home theater wire with that of your gear.
If you are after setting up a modestly priced home-theater-in-a-box package, do not go for the more expensive thicker wire unless you plan an upgrade sometime in the future; using gauge 16 speaker wire should suffice in this case.
In a multi-room installation, long home theater wire runs are inevitable; the suggested wire gauge to use in your home theater wiring is given below:
|Distance between speaker and amplifier||
Speaker Wire Gauge
Less than 50 feet
50 to 100 feet
100 to 150 feet
more than 150 feet
Note however that the 'length factor' is not the only issue to consider when determining the wire gauge to use. There is also the speaker impedance that should be taken into account as further detailed in our Guide to Speaker Wire here.
Required Speaker Wire Length:
Once you decide on your home theater speaker and equipment placement, it should be a simple straightforward job to figure out how much speaker wire to buy. At this point, we suggest checking our home theater speaker placement and home theater equipment placement guides for more information on placement considerations.
One method to determine the wire length is to run a string from your intended receiver location to each of your speakers, along the path you plan to run the speaker wire. Make sure to add a little bit of extra length per run as suggested above to allow both for a margin of error and cable termination.
Speakers and amplifiers/receivers normally come equipped with one of two types of connectors - spring terminals or binding post connectors.
Each speaker connection have two such terminals marked (+) and (-) to help you distinguish the two leads. Maintaining correct polarity all along your home theater wiring is important. For this reason, speaker wire and terminals are normally color coded black for the -ve terminal and red for +ve side.
Spring terminals will only accept pin connectors or tinned base wire ends. Instead, binding posts accept many types of connection, including pin, banana plug or spade.
The use of a bare wire connection is debatable. Some argue that a bare wire termination provides better performance because there are no extra connection joints for the signal to pass through. But the reality is that it all depends on the type and quality of the connector you use.
Our preference is to terminate speaker wires using the appropriate connectors as we find that bare wires tend to corrode over time - leading to a degraded connection.
There are other advantageous as well to using speaker connectors. Speaker connectors make hooking up easier. They also help safeguard against harmful short circuits as a result of loose strands from bare wire positive and negative leads. Keep in mind that short circuits may lead from just a simple temporarily amplifier shutdown to a serious and costly amplifier damage.
For the ultimate in home theater wiring, look for speaker cables that come pre-cut from the manufacturer with connectors already attached — they'll reduce the effort required to install the system.
If you order pre-terminated speaker wire, check the type of connectors for compatibility. In addition, order your speaker cables from a reputable source; this is the only way to ensure that you will get the quality you are paying for.
Hiding home theater wiring inside walls, under floors, and in the ceiling can be a great option as it leads to a neater look but it can be an expensive option especially if you have to call for professional assistance.
Proper planning is extremely important here as it would not be easy to alter a finished in-wall installation later.
In-wall home theater wiring is the norm for multi-room sound, outdoor speakers, and dedicated home theater room installations.
The whole issue is...
Bulk Cable Wall Plates
Can you do it yourself?
It all depends on your DIY skill level. However, an in-wall home theater wiring project is much easier and less expensive to do during initial construction or as part of a whole home renovation project than as an isolated room project in an otherwise finished house.
If you have any doubts about your ability to do it, consult with an electrician or professional home theater installer. Equally important, find out if your building code calls for a permit and an inspection.
And as already indicated in our introduction, national building safety standards may require the use of specially certified wire for in-wall installations. This is typical with in-wall installations.
If you have never done an in-wall installation but still would like to give it a try, here is an easy-to-follow hands-on guide from Crutchfield Advisor on how to hide the wires (courtesy: www.crutcfield.com).
Do not run home theater cables in close proximity or parallel to other electrical lines, nor run your wiring around power supplies as these can lead to interference issues with both your audio and video system components.
Avoid splicing your wiring at all cost, as it leads to a lowering in performance. In addition, always use direct speaker wire runs straight from your amplifier to each speaker. This is the way you normally wire your sound in the home theater but in the case of a multi-room audio installation, some may simply skip on this and splice the speaker cable along the way. Doing so may not only lead to a detrimental effect but equally important, makes fault tracing even more difficult later should problems arise.
Leave plenty of extra length at each end of your cable runs. And if your home theater wiring is part of a renovation project, it is also advisable to cover the extra cable lengths and termination/junction boxes. The plastering/painting process that follows can be really messy.
In this whole process, ensure to keep your wiring simple and organized. Use cable management products where necessary. Label all cables to make tracing easier. Use plastic conduit where possible; it would not add much to the overall home theater wiring cost and apart from the added protection, it also provides some added future flexibility. And in for those instances where you will not be using conduit or trunking, make sure to secure the wire to the studs, wall, etc., by using an appropriate cable tack or clamp.
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