Types of Home theater & Surround Sound cables

There are two main types of cables you need for a home theater installation and these are Video and Audio cables. Each cable category has a load of other cables bringing the total number of cables to around 14.

Video Cables Audio Cables
HDMI cables
S-Video
F-type (RF) or coaxial cables
RCA
Composite video cables
Digital video interface (DVI cables)
Component video cables
VGA cables
Stereo RCA cables
Optical cables (TOSlink digital cables)
Speaker wires
S/PDIF cables (digital coaxial)
XLR cables
USB cables

But you won’t 14 cables for your surround system. Usually, you will need around 3-4 cable types depending on your equipment. But here is what you should know.

How to choose home theater cables

Here is what you should consider when choosing a cable for your home theater;

1.      Cable length

This is one of the most important considerations to make when cable shopping. Cable length will depend on your setup.

The idea here is to keep the cables as short as possible to reduce resistance which is especially true for speaker wires. Shorter wires will ensure that you are getting the most out of your speakers also depending on your wire gauge (thickness).

Longer cables may be needed for a larger room and for multi-room setups. However, longer cables will have more resistance increasing power loss and hence lower volume levels. This can be offset by using wire with a smaller gauge (thicker).

You can use a string to measure how long your cables should be before shopping depending on where you plan to place your AV equipment.

2.      Conductor type

There are 3 main types of conductors used in AV cables that include copper which is the most common, silver and gold.

This will not affect the integrity of your audio or video signals as much as some marketers want you to believe. However, gold-coated copper cable connectors are much durable as they do not easily oxidize (recommended).

You can also decide to use cables with gold or silver connectors if your budget allows it. Gold oxidizes the least, followed by silver and finally copper is more prone to oxidation which can increase resistance at the exposed ends.

3.      Insulation

All home theater cables should be well insulated to prevent current from leaking to the ground or to other cables (crosstalk) and to reduce the effect of a Radio Frequency (RFI) and electromagnetic interference (EMI).

RFI and EMI can introduce electrical noise in your home theater system lowering the video and audio experience due to signal quality loss. Noise can be manifested as static on your viewing device such as a TV or a hum/buzz in your sound.

The insulation should be high quality to withstand wear and tear.

Consequently, different cables will require different types of insulation depending on the specific use case. Usually, braided cables will provide the best kind of insulation for any home theater system.

4.      Durability

Durability is often neglected when it comes to purchasing A/V cables.

Cables are an investment that should last you a couple of years before they go obsolete to be replaced.

Well-manufactured cables should have durable insulations and connectors that can withstand constant plugging in and out. Usually, such cables should last you 7+ years to as many as 20 years since the conductors themselves don’t wear out from use.

5.      Home theater equipment

Different types and generations of AV gear will use different connector jacks for both audio and video.

Newer home theater components use more improved cables such as HDMI 2.1 (with CEC and Arc) and Type-C cables but if you have older equipment, cables with legacy connectors such as S-video cables will come in handy (more on this later).

6.      Cost

As crucial as cables are, don’t overspend on them since they are only a single part of any surround sound system.

Some manufacturers may justify exorbitant cable prices with endless marketing jargon about how they can add “mojo” to your image and sound quality. But the most important thing to remember about cables is that they either work or they don’t.

However, you can spend a tard more on high-quality cables that are more durable and are well-insulated but don’t break the bank on “magic cables“. Balance cost with returns.

Audio cables

Long gone are mono analog audio days. Nowadays, there are different audio codecs ranging from Dolby Atmos to DTS-X and different channels such as 2.0 (stereo) to upwards of 11.2.4 and so on.

Depending on the kind of codecs your gear can handle and the port selection, you will need to choose a suitable cable for your audio. These include;

S/PDIF cables (digital coaxial)

Digital coaxial cables are basic audio cables used to send audio signals over short distances. You can use digital coaxial audio cables for connections between your audio/video processor and the output devices and also for a surround sound setup.

Coaxial cables are capable of transmitting uncompressed digital signals from the source to the next input and compressed 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound signals.

However, they cannot support High-res audio codecs such as DTS-HD, DTS-X, Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, etc.

RCA audio cables

Stereo RCA audio cables are another type of basic and analog audio cable that only transmits stereo audio signals.

For most traditional connections between audio devices such as turntables and receivers, stereo RCA cables will be needed.

RCA cable

Optical cables (TOSlink digital)

Optical audio cables transmit audio signals from the source using light pulses and cannot be affected by electrical or magnetic inference. And like coaxial cables they can handle signals for up to 8 channels (7.1 surround sound) but cannot support 3D audio formats.

Despite being unaffected by electrical or magnetic interference, optical cables only work for short distances typically between 5 and 10 meters maximum and are fragile.

USB cables

USB cables can transmit signals from your PC/tablet/phone/mp3 player to a processor/receiver or integrated amplifier.

When shopping for a USB cable, ensure it is high-quality to reduce timing errors. You should also put into consideration the type of USB connector on your devices that can either be micro USB, Type B, Type C, or Type A.

XLR cables

XLR cables are common with audiophiles and studios. They are capable of delivering balanced audio signals for high-performance equipment.

An XLR connector will have 3 pins one for the ground wire, another for the negative conductor, and the positive conductor. Noise from the negative and positive conductor cancel out giving clearer and more balanced audio compared to RCA cables.

XLR-cable-connectors
XLR-cable-connectors

Speaker wires

Most speakers do not come with wires as a package which often means having to purchase your own speaker wires.

Speaker wires come in different gauges/thickness that is 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18. The smaller the gauge number the thicker the speaker wire is and vice versa. Getting thicker speaker wires will mean less resistance and thus better and clearer audio, especially over longer runs.

If you are planning to have longer wire runs, ensure the wires have a smaller gauge (thicker). Thicker wires are great for low impedance and high-power setups.

Thinner wires on the other hand (typically, 16- and 18 AWG) are great for speaker connections that run for less than 50ft. Higher gauge wires cannot be used over longer runs since they lose a fair of the power as heat other than powering the speakers meaning lower SPL (sound pressure levels).

Video cables

HDMI cables

Most media rooms and home theater use HDMI cables to transmit digital video and audio signals from the media source to the display device. HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) cables can also be used to carry audio signals to and from your processor and media display.

How to get the right HDMI cables for your set up

When shopping for HDM cables, the length should also be one of your considerations. Typically, most HDM cables will need to be about 2 meters or less. For 30+ feet, you will need HDMI cables that use hybrid fiber/copper conductors, fiber or active circuitry. Longer HDMI cables should run in-wall.

You should also consider the resolution you want to be watching. A 1080p cable (HDMI 1.0 or higher) would be great, but investing in a cable that can handle 4K resolution is even better (HDMI 1.3 or higher).

Most HDMI cables sold nowadays are capable of handling 4K resolution at 60 Hz or higher and are also backward compatible with lower resolution. Ensure the HDMI cable you get is labeled as “HDMI premium certified” for true 4K.

Having an HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) would be great if you want to avoid having a separate cable for your audio. This is if your devices support HDMI ARC. There is also HDMI eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel) designed to provide you with uncompressed and high-quality audio and can also handle 3D audio formats and higher bandwidth.

The table below is a breakdown of Standard HDMI specs and what they can handle;

Cable type SpecificationResolution @refresh rate
(max)
Audio supportMax bandwidth
Standard Cat 1HDMI 1.01080p @60 Hz 8 audio channels4.95 Gb/s
Cat 1 with CECHDMI 1.1-1.21440p @30 HzOne-bit and DVD audio4.95 Gb/s
Standard Cat 2
(High Speed)
HDMI 1.3 1440p @60 HzAudio/video sync
DTS master audio
& Dolby TrueHD
10.2 Gb/s
Cat 2 with ethernet (HEC)HDMI 1.44k @30 HzAudio return channel (ARC)10.2 Gb/s
Standard Cat 3 (4K)HDMI 2.04K @60 Hz with HDR32 audio channels18 Gb/s
Standard Cat 3
(8K)
HDMI 2.18K @60 Hz with
dynamic HDR
eARC
Hi-Res audio formats e.g DTS-X & Dolby Atmos
48 Gb/s
HDMI table chart

However, anything below HDMI 2.0 would be considered obsolete by today’s standards.

There is also HDMI 2.2 or HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). This HDMI version was designed to prevent illegal copying of Ultra HD content (4k copy protection).

It is also important to keep in mind that there are different types of HDMI connectors with the standard connector being the most common and the one your gear will probably support.

Types-of-HDMI-Cables
Types-of-HDMI-Cables

F-type (RF) or coaxial cables

Coaxial cables can be used for both digital and cable TV with an RF connector also known as an F-connector or cable Tv connector. These R-type cables can be used to carry both video and audio signals from a satellite dish, antenna, or cable TV box to your display.

RF cables can pass up to 1080p resolution videos.

When shopping for a digital coaxial cable, you should look for one stamped RG-6 with better shielding, thicker insulation, and a larger conductor. You should also look for a threaded coaxial cable for a high-quality connection free of noise.

Composite video cables

Composite cables have similar connectors to RCA cables and come in three-color cables typically, red, white, and yellow. These were the most common cables for video back in the day carrying signals from older components such as DVD and VCR players.

If you are using an older Tv and older media sources, this may be your go-to, but if that is not the case, you may never need to purchase one of these cables.

Component video cables

Before the invention and betterment of HDMI cables, component video cables were the standard video cables for high-quality home theater images.

If you use older HT equipment, component video cables will come in handy.

They handle color and black and white signals separately with no audio. This means that if you plan on using component video cables you will need a separate audio cable.

DVI, DVI-D or DVI-I cables

DVI stands for digital visual interface cables and can be a hybrid of both analog and digital cables (1920 by 1200 resolution at 60 hertz) or can be fully digital (19 -25 pin DVI-D).

These cables are designed to get the best out of your LCD monitor but can also be used in your home theater or media room to connect your PC to a different display device.

There are several types of DVI cables;

  • The Single-link DVI-D cable is the most common (digital-only cable).
  • The Dual-link DVI-D cable (high bandwidth digital only).
  • DVI-A (analog only).
  • The Dual-link DVI-I cable (analog and high bandwidth digital).
  • Single link DVI-I cable (analog and digital).

Single link DVI cable comes with one digital information transmitter while a dual-link DVI cable has two information transmitters.

S-video cables

Today, these retro cables are not used much.

They work by using 4 pins that separate color signals from black and white signals like composite video cables. However, s-video cables have a better resolution and a better image quality overall than composite video cables.

VGA cables

VGA cables are commonly used to connect a PC to a display monitor or any display device with a VGA connector. These cables can support both analog and digital video signals.

Home theater cable tips

Plan before shopping

Having cables of the right length is very important, especially when it comes to saving on cost. Having a plan before buying your cables will help you buy better cables of the right length.

Keep AV cables away from the power cables

Doing this will help minimize the interference between your signal cables and your power cords.

If AV cables have to cross with power cables, ensure they do so at a 90-degree angle.

Avoid bending your cables

Bending cables or trying to make short cables reach can cause stress and easily damage them, especially for optical cables.

Label your cables

When you label your cables, you will get to know where each cable is running to in case you are planning to move your set up or when you are doing an upgrade.

Connect your speakers in phase

Connecting your speakers in phase means that the negative wires are connected in the negative ports and the positive wires are connected in the positive ports in both your speakers and receiver/amplifier.

Not doing this can wipe some of the frequencies but sometimes you may never notice the losses. However, you will easily notice when the audio is subtractive for lower and high frequencies.

Final thoughts

Knowing the kind of cables that will best suit you depending on your device can save you a lot of time and money during installation.

Check the port selection on your devices, consider how big your room is, and the kind of audio and video you want to transmit.

You can also go wireless for most parts of your system if your equipment supports wireless connections such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

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