One of the main challenges of setting up any permanent sound system is wiring it, and this is especially true for outdoor speakers – special consideration needs to be taken to make sure that everything is properly weatherproof. Wiring a sound system is something that you want to do once, and do right. If not? Best case scenario you have to re-run wire, which can be a particular pain with outdoor runs. Worst case scenario? Compromised wire can cause a short and permanently destroy an expensive speaker. This article intends to show you what you need to know to ensure you do it right.
Firstly: You Might Alternatively Consider a Simpler Active or Wireless Speaker
Outdoor speakers that require wiring to supply power (which is most of them) are called “passive,” meaning they don’t generate their own amplified power, which thus must come from an external amplifier or receiver. “Active” speakers, alternatively, have built in amplification and can “self generate” their power. What this means essentially is that they can simply be plugged into a standard wall socket and are thus much simpler to set up. Also you don’t have to worry about the purchase cost of a receiver.
Unfortunately there just aren’t many active outdoor speakers, but there are some that are decent. One such product we like are the Sound Appeal BT-BLASTs. They have specs on par with plenty of good lower-tier powered speakers, and they go at a decent price:
The other alternative is to just go with a simple all in one wireless speaker. Portable speakers have come a long way even in just the last decade – there are many wireless speakers that, though they may look modest, are actually quite powerful and decent sounding. There are definitely some notable advantages to going wireless worth mentioning here:
No Risk of Set-Up Failure – Though wiring permanent speakers might be understandably intimidating to a non-audiophile, just about anyone with a pulse can charge a wireless speaker and pair it to a source component.
Less Work – No set up hassle. Enough said.
Portability – If you want to take the party to a friend’s place, the park, or even the beach, you can bring it with you.
Less Expensive – Even if you are thrifty and manage to snag a high quality set of speakers for, say, under $100, you still have to pay for the wire, a receiver/amp, a source component, etc. On the other hand, you can get a solidly good wireless speaker for under $100, and that’s all you need – most people already have a smart phone, a laptop, etc. that can pair with it as a source component.
A rough rule of thumb: If you’re going to be listening within 10 feet of the unit, and you’re not a stickler for high fidelity sound, a decent wireless speaker will *probably* be sufficient. Plus you also get the upsides of portability, convenience, etc.
If you’re starting to feel swayed, lets go on a quick digression and recommend some alternatives:
One of our favorite such products is the ION audio block rocker. It’s a step up from your run of the mill hand-held wireless speaker that’s closer to a traditional powered speaker:
Or, if you’re now thinking a fully weatherproof portable wireless speaker might be the best choice, our current top recommendation is the Ultimate Ears (UE) Roll 2 – the modest unit packs unexpectedly decent volume/power, and can literally be dropped into a pool and be a-ok:
OK, we’ve veered a little off topic here, but now we can get down to brass tacks:
Picking Correct Outdoor Speaker Wire
Firstly – it is imperative that any speaker wire you run to outdoor units be CL2 or CL3 certified. CL2/3 wire is enclosed in a specialized sheath that will sufficiently protect it from airborne outdoor elements and also make it safe to run through walls from inside to outside (non CL2/3 wire can potentially start a fire). Speaking of walls, now’s the time to mention: Do not lazily run speaker wire from inside to outside through a door, window, or whatever other “soft” opening – besides the obvious danger of tripping on it and damaging a connection terminal or the wire itself, the wire could get crimped, which could cause a short, which (said again) could permanently destroy a speaker. Negligent/Improper set-up generally falls outside of any warranty (understandably so), so if this happens, you’ll be out the cost of the speaker, the wire, etc.
Secondly – if you’re running wire to ground/floor speakers, a “rock” speaker for example, the wire needs to be additionally rated for direct burial, which means it’s sufficiently protected from direct contact dirt, moisture, etc. But even then, an unwitting gardener with a shovel or maybe a digging dog could accidentally sever the wire. Therefore, when running outdoor speaker wire underground, it is strongly recommended (and in fact perhaps legally required in some cases) that you run it through electrical grade PVC conduit. It is also prudent to flag a run of underground wire to let anyone know that it’s there and where it is. This might seem like a fair bit of work, but, just remember that once you do it right, you’re set for several years or more. So don’t cut corners!
Thirdly – you need to make sure your run of wire is long enough. An easy way to do this is to run a string along the projected wire path, mark the string, straighten it out, then measure it. Then, get that length +10-20% so that you have some slack as a safety net.
Fourthly – you need to make sure the wire is sufficiently thick. Wire thickness is expressed via gauge, where, somewhat counter intuitively, lower gauge means thicker wire. The thicker the wire, the less resistance it imposes and the more electric current it can carry. Distance negatively impacts electric current, so you need thicker wire (i.e. less resistance) for longer runs to ensure that sufficient power ultimately gets to your speakers. Here is a *rough* summary of the gauge of wire you should get, based on the length of run:
|Wire gauge||Max Length|
(8 ohm impedance)
(6 ohm impedance)
(4 ohm impedance)
|16 AWG||~ 20 ft||just get 14+ AWG||just get 14+ AWG|
|14 AWG||~ 40 ft||~ 30 ft||~ 20 ft|
|12 AWG||~70 ft||~50 ft||~ 35ft|
|<= 10 AWG||~ 100+ ft||~ 75+ ft||~ 50+ft|
A few more things regarding wire:
Different authorities will quote different figures here. Some people swear by specialized low gauge wire and will use it exclusively, no matter how short the run-length. Other people will say that the alleged loss of quality can’t even be detected by the human ear, and that 14 gauge wire is fine for just about any run-length. If you want to ensure maximum quality, go for the lowest possible gauge wire just to be safe. If you’d rather save money and don’t have a nitpicking audiophile’s ear, 14 gauge wire is *probably* just fine.
And Now: Our Recommendations
Now that you have a basic understanding of what kind of speaker wire (and accessories perhaps) you’ll need, you’re probably wondering what the “best” speaker wire is, and who makes it.
Our honest opinion? It doesn’t really matter. Gauge, outdoor-grade certification, etc. are all strictly regulated standards. So, as long as the wire is sufficiently graded for the job, just go with whichever brand is cheapest, even if it’s plain-jane generic wire.
A lot of audio companies sell glammed up speaker wire at exorbitant prices, with dubious claims as to why their “specialized” wire is superior, but it’s all hogwash for the most part.
Bottom line, if the wire is thick enough, and it’s sufficiently graded to be safely run to where you want it, then you’re good to go.
Below we’ve prepared links to pre-built searches to Amazon.com based on the type and length of wire you need. Disclaimer: Please double check that any wire you purchase through the links below actually has the right specifications. These search links aren’t foolproof, but rather they are tools to help you find the lowest possible price for the wire you need for your set up. Definitely take a few minutes at least to find the lowest price you can get, as well as to make sure the wire you choose has the right specs required for your set up.
|Direct Burial (y/n)||Link to outdoor speaker wire products|
|no||cl2 50ft speaker wire - all gauges|
|yes||50ft direct burial speaker wire - all gauges|
|no||cl2 100ft speaker wire - 14 gauge|
|yes||100ft direct burial speaker wire - 14 gauge|
|no||cl2 250ft speaker wire - 12 gauge|
|yes||250ft direct burial speaker wire|
Happy listening! And, in case you’re wondering about which wired/permanent outdoor speakers we think are the best, you can check that out here.
Image credits: Chippycheeky