Cables are yet another hotly controversial topic in the world of audiophilia – imagine spending thousands of dollars on premium speakers, only for them to be bottle-necked by cheap cables, and falling majorly short of their sonic potential. Or so it says on some sales page or another…
It’s totally reasonable to think that a high quality cable, or perhaps an adequate cable, will allow for a speaker or subwoofer to be fully performant. But it’s also reasonable to suspect that a cable that costs hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars (yes they do exist) is promising snake oil, not actually doing anything that a basic cable can’t do, and is thus a total ripoff. This gets yet more convoluted when dealing with subwoofers specifically because, while they absolutely can improve home theater and musical performance, it’s just harder to tell if and how the low pitches that come from a subwoofer actually sound better.
So, how much does subwoofer cable actually matter? What are the different types and ways you can actually hook up a subwoofer? What’s the best type or brand of subwoofer cable? That’s what this article intends to help you figure out.
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What Are the Various Home Theater Subwoofer Connection Types?
First it makes sense to talk about the actual connection types/terminals that you will see on home theater subwoofers. The best subwoofer cable for you will likely depend on the types of connection terminals that are on your subwoofer, the device you’re planning to connect it to (an a/v receiver most likely), and the overall goals you’re trying to accomplish with your system.
Line Level Left/Right RCA
This is probably the most common type of input that will allow a subwoofer to connect to just about any device with RCA inputs, which is essentially all of them, as RCA is the most common/ubiquitous connector type on audio equipment.
Single/Mono RCA Input
A less common but still fairly prevalent alternative that just combines the traditional white/red left/right into a single input, and functions effectively the same if you’re only using one subwoofer, which is what most people will do.
Low Frequency Effect (LFE)
LFE is a specific type of RCA connection that’s intended for home theater use, like TXH or Dolby Digital, and transmits a signal that only contains frequencies up to 120 Hz, and sort of functions as a crossover but earlier in the signal chain.
External Line Return (XLR)
Some subwoofers have XLR inputs to support the option of using an XLR cable, which is basically a beefier balanced cable that’s designed to support longer runs of ~25+ feet and is mostly used in commercial/professional settings.
Regular Speaker Terminals
A lot of people don’t know that you can actually use regular speaker wire for line-level preamp connections in addition to regular amplified connections that run to passive speakers. Some home theater subwoofers still have regular speaker terminals despite also having a built in amplifier.
What Are the Various Types of Subwoofer Cables?
So called “subwoofer” cables are often just standard cables that work with the inputs we just discussed. Additionally there are all kinds of “hybrid” cables you can use that connect two different types of inputs, for example a sub-out to left/right RCA “Y” cable.
Below we’ll discuss the various types of “subwoofer” cables that are generally used:
Most products that are marketed as “subwoofer” cables are just RCA cables with some additional extras that make them a little more optimized for connecting a subwoofer specifically. That said, there is no reason a generic RCA cable won’t work, and odds are it will yield just as good sound as “premium” subwoofer cable will.
RCA cable is going to be the easiest and most sensible way to hook up a subwoofer for most people. Almost all modern receivers and many plain amplifiers have a sub-out input, which takes a single RCA cable that can connect to a corresponding input on the subwoofer which includes mono, LFE, or left/right stereo, the latter of which can be accomplished with a Y cable or by just plugging into a single side designated as mono (usually the red input).
An XLR cable transmits a line-level signal in the fundamentally same exact way as an RCA cable does, but is different in that it’s balanced (with the third prong) and is generally bigger, with thicker gauge wires and more insulation.
XLR inputs are usually only present on higher end equipment, and XLR cable is mainly used in commercial settings where, with longer runs and much more tandem cabling, external interference is going to be much more of a significant issue. If you’re plugging in a single subwoofer to your home audio/theater system then XLR cable is probably not necessary, but is perfectly fine to use over RCA if you have the option to.
If you plan on using “high level” or speaker level inputs on your subwoofer, then you connect it with the exact same speaker wire you use to connect your passive speakers, and the terminals are exactly the same.
What’s the Difference Between So Called “Subwoofer” Cable and RCA Cable?
If you go to any given retailer and look at audio cables for sale, you might come across something titled “subwoofer” cable that looks something like this:
Or come across a standard RCA cable that looks like this:
And you might wonder if there’s an actual difference between the two. Fundamentally the answer is no: subwoofer cable is just an RCA cable and the connectors work exactly the same.
Designated “subwoofer” cable might have thicker insulation and shielding, which might help block any interference in some cases (like if you’re doing a long 15-20 foot plus run), but there’s no reason you can’t just use a plain/standard RCA cable to connect the sub-out on a receiver to the corresponding line-in on a subwoofer, and odds are it will sound just as good as “premium” subwoofer cable does.
So What’s the Best Type or Brand of Subwoofer Cable?
The short and anticlimactic answer to this question is there isn’t one really. A generic ~$10 RCA cable from any reputable brand will do just fine for most people. A nicer “subwoofer” cable (which again is just a single/mono RCA cable) with thicker wire and insulation might yield a little improvement in sound quality if you’re needing to do a longer run or have a lot of other electronics/wires in the room that might cause interference, but the worthwhile extra price for that would be like $25 to maybe $50 tops.
Subwoofer cables that are marketed as “premium” or “elite” and cost hundreds of dollars are a snake oil rip off that should be avoided. We have never seen any measurable proof that so called “premium” audio cable actually does anything better than “basic” audio cable, nor have we ever even seen a cogent argument as to why “premium” audio cable can make a noticeably worthwhile difference.