Lamp cord vs. Romex

March 19, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of my readers wrote to me with an interesting observation. I will present it to you as I received it, in two parts:

First, after upgrading his receiver he decided at the same time to lay down enough shekels to also upgrade his speaker cable—from a low-cost off-the-shelf Amazon special with gold connectors to something more high-end. He was flabbergasted with the improvement the pair provided—so much so that he retired to the garage both the old receiver and speaker cable and that is where our story continues.

Garage systems are like refrigerator leftovers: edible, sometimes tasty, but always an afterthought. With low expectations, the system was fired up and music began to play. Ugh. No life. Flaccid. The very sound he had just upgraded the amp and cable to improve had now taken up residency in the garage.

What to do? His amp, a Cambridge, was nothing to write home about but certainly more musical than what he was hearing. He wrote to me in desperation.

As I suspected, the old cables were your standard 12 gauge stranded cable with fancy gold ends. Lamp cable.

I counseled it would be foolhardy to spend money on upgraded speaker cables for a garage system.

My recommendation?

12 gauge Romex from Home Depot. Cheap, efficient, and really excellent sounding compared to the same gauge of stranded lamp cable.

This is a wonderful example for folks still on the fence about cables—or someone who insists they cannot measure the difference and therefore it does not exist.

Want something cheap and interesting to try this weekend? You got it.

The only requirement is you must actually listen.

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48 comments on “Lamp cord vs. Romex”

  1. Romex looks like standard 15A mains flex. People have been known to use that here in the UK. Solid core cables are popular and I used them for years. They are also very cheap. There are two approaches, twisted pairs (mine were from Origin Live) and spaced pairs (DNM). DNM have pages of theory about it on their website. The parallel geometry of mains flex is not ideal.

    14 AWG (2.5mm2) multi-strand cable is hugely popular, the best known being QED79, which was the first cable I ever used. It is not lamp cord, which is thinner with far fewer strands, sometimes only 0.5mm2. QED79 was recommended for Quad ESL because it has very low inductance. I used Atlas Hyper 2.0, which is very similar, even lower inductance, and am still using it.

    Here if we wanted to be derogatory about a cable we called it bell wire, which is extremely thin, single strand, not lamp cord, which is fine in principle, as long as it is thick enough. It depends on the size of the lamp.

      1. Who?

        At least we agree on mains flex, whether solid core or multi-strand. From what I understand, from the electrician’s viewpoint, the only difference is solid is cheaper, multi strand more flexible, and for speakers you want flexibility.

        It’s only a matter of time until someone mentions skin effect.

        Edit: Just as I posted, some science turned up below. The DNM solid core aren’t shielded (they are in transparent PVC) and the cables in my main system (Townshend Isolda) aren’t shielded either. High purity copper does not make cables expensive.

        1. I have listened to the DNM solid core vs 1.5mm dia. solid core electrical wire & the electrical wire sounds better than the DNM; more open & with more definition.

          Unless you are constantly moving your loudspeakers around the room flexible wire is not important since once your loudspeakers are placed correctly then there they will stay.
          Besides, solid core dose have some flexibility, just not quite as much as stranded.

            1. Hi Grav,
              1.5mm solid core is rare as hen’s teeth in Australia these days.
              1.0mm & 2.0mm is easier to source but not quite as sonically pleasing as 1.5mm.
              You’ll have to search to chase it up.
              Someone in Tassie might have a 100m roll hidden in the back of an old warehouse if you’re lucky.

              1. Thanks FR, happy with what I’ve got, but quite curios none the less. I remain positive – it’s quite amazing how often a Tasmanian will apparently uncover hen’s teeth (along with Thylacines/Drop-Spiders, ‘Trust-me’ politicians and the like).
                Having said that, it is hard to source a good range of quality audio equipment here. We have only 1 (ONE!) quality hi-fi retailer on the whole island, and they, by small demand only have a limited range of goods. It’s a short flight to Melbourne to audition but adds extra cost and inconvenience for sure. I’m glad that I no longer need to do that for gear now – just the small, intriguing things left now – like 1.5mm cable Ha! 🙂

    1. Hey I actually used door bell wire once before. I braded it and it worked for me. I wanted something solid that I could use for a long run and I was able to tuck it very nicely between the carpet and baseboard. Kept my first administrator happy not seeing wires everywhere 🙂

  2. I’ve said it before & I’ll say (type) it again.
    If you’re doing runs of up to 5m (16′) per side, then THE value for money that you can’t go past is 1.5mm diameter solid core copper lighting wire (cable)
    It’s about 80cents per metre, so if you buy it & you really don’t like the ‘sound’ of it you’re out
    8 bucks (max)
    I’ve listened to a lot of loudspeaker wires in my years in audio retail & 1.5mm dia. solid core is hard to beat for coherent sound.

  3. Sadly cables make a difference. As I’ve said many times before whereas if want an elite sound, you can’t take shortcuts. It is what it is and for those who argue that there is no science to that statement just look up how the purity of conductive metals when well shelled, yield a greater signal altogether.
    Audio is a magnificent beast and you have to feed it the right food. Bad cables is like putting sugar in your gas tank or a well oiled pro athlete eating fast and processed foods everyday.

    Just my opinion of course. 😉

  4. Shouldn’t a CAT 8 Ethernet cable specifically designed for HF signal and best shielded be also best suited for LF audio interconnects? 🙂

  5. I don’t know what Romex is (I’m in Sydney Australia), but for short distances to the speakers I’ve used Australian 12ga solid core mains wire (I had to buy 100m rolls from an electrical wholesaler), which is actually single run very pure copper, unfortunately with PVC dielectric (pretty bad compared to say PE or Teflon), with remarkable results (though there is little comparison to my Anticables level 3.1 solid core wires).

  6. The QED79 wire Steven mentioned is duplicated in size and function by many manufacturers. AudioQuest makes a similar one at a buck-fifty a foot. I have found it to improve sound as Paul mentions over lamp cord or the thin coiled stuff. I tried big unwieldy hose sized cables some time back and not sure they made much difference over the much more flexible 14 gauge AQ wire.

    Now, let’s discuss whether the little arrows on the wire espousing directionality of the signal make any difference? I’m not sure, I have performed little to no testing, but installed the wire the recommended direction “just because”.

    1. Hi Larry, in my experience, excellent quality speaker wire is EXTREMELY directional. The differences are quite stark. It’s like the changes when you make any improvement in a system – you might not be sure that you can hear an improvement, but when you go back to how it was before, you can’t live with the old sound.

  7. Some might say I’m nitpicking but isn’t that what audiophiles do?

    The good news. I got an email this morning about today’s topic, the sharp dark almost black print easy to read.

    The bad news. Transferring to the website the print is now this grey shade and less clearly defined against the background. My ageing eyes find it harder to read. It also subjectively appears smaller but possibly isn’t. To me this is a backward step. I wouldn’t opt for less definition in my system, why do it here.

    On topic.

    I used a cheap solid core speaker cable for some time 1mm sq. It worked and I was happy with it but prefer the silver cable I’m now using. I don’t find it bright as some might suggest. It’s got to be better as it was so much more expensive. 😉

    1. I would second your observation and experience about the website. I also got the email this morning with notice of the post, so that part is functioning. I would absolutely agree as well that the text color of this webpage, against a very very white background, could be darker. I had to tilt my monitor a bit on the laptop to create a bit more contrast between the two.

    2. Darker font please.
      Flimsy fonts are well passé
      And drop this sad belief that sans serif is cool.

      Why do fontigraohers in newspapers use serif fonts for body text? Because those little tags aid visual intelligibility.

      Especially as most of us are using eyes that are well past their maximum acuity.

  8. I use 12 AWG Solid Tracer wire with PE insulation (~$0.164 per foot.) I would prefer single crystal solid wire with Teflon insulation, but that is too pricey.

  9. I experimented with solid-core wires — interconnects and speaker cables — when it was all the rage with a few UK reviewers in the ’80s. No thanks. Yes, it proves that cables make a difference, but not in a good way. 😉 If I remember correctly, the same reviewer who loved solid-core wires also loved pulling all the stuffing out of his loudspeakers.

    1. eatpac,
      “pulling all the stuffing out of his loudspeakers” works for small bookshelf/standmount loudspeakers. We used to do that back in the late 80’s/early 90’s & it improved the bass response & also improved the speed of the mid/bass driver…don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it 😉

  10. The built-in sound system in my 50 year old house used a twisted pair of 12 gauge solid core copper wiring. I initially thought very little of the potential quality of sound from this installation.

    But after upgrading the speaker drivers and crossovers (the builder had actually installed high quality cabinet speakers in the house) and amplifier, I was happily surprised at how good the sound was.

    And I definitely wasn’t going to rip into the walls to put a new wiring 🙂

    1. I have pondered since moving into my current home replacing or upgrading the in-wall speakers that were installed when the home was built in the early 1990’s. The wiring is nothing special, I can trace it in the basement to where it goes into the walls and it is probably 16 gauge at best. Every time I have someone come look at the speakers though they tell me they were really high quality JBL speakers when installed and that I might not gain much (especially how high on the wall they are mounted). I resist the urge to rip them out and start over, if I want better sound while wandering the house I put on my headphones 🙂

  11. I am old enough that when I started in audio wire was wire (can we please get darker print in the comment box). My first set of speakers were JBL’s that had connectors that were designed to work with lamp cord.

    I remember the first time I discovered cables make a difference. I had a mid range system with an NAD receiver and my first floor standing speakers made by ADS. At the time I was still using first generation Monster cable ( the fat copper wire in the clear shield ). On a whim I decided to by a set of newer Monster speaker cables that cost two or three times more than the old original cables. Before the record I was playing spun more than two or three revolutions I said “NO” in total disbelief that the sound was so much better.

    1. Had heavy gauge Romex, then in 1986 switched to the Monster Cable Pro HR Reference 10ga Speaker Cables to use with my ADS 1290 Series II Towers…big sound improvement! These 3m SP Cables are in my current Stereo listening setup…still sound Great today!!

  12. Interestng post. I was a movie theater technician for decades. I was hired by one of the largest theater chains in North America just prior to the first commercial digital sound movie release, Jurassic Park. Many locations nationwide were upgrading existing locations and installing appropriate equipment in their new auditorium.
    Because of the attention to this new film sound format, there was concerns that it be successful.
    Enter the science. NATO (North America Theater Owners) paid much money to study which cables would sound good and be cost effective. They used different tests, including blind listening, to come up with a winner-12AWG romex.
    That being said, I prefer twisted stranded wire over solid primarily because I believe solid is better where the wires will be undisturbed. For my home, I use stranded wire because the connections will be more robust when the wires are disturbed.
    Nice post, Paul. (Like all of your posts.)

  13. I use the same brand/model loud speaker cable that the speaker designer used in designing and voicing my loudspeakers. I found a used pair on Audiogon and saved a bundle. The cable design, supposedly by audiophile engineers who used to design cables for the NASA aerospace program, is non-shielded, proprietary 6N copper helical and twisted cable geometry for EMI and RFI noise-rejection. The sound is more neutral, open and transparent compared to some other copper cables I’ve tried, but not as bright and sterile sounding as silver cables can be.

  14. A better use of 12Ga Romex is for a 20A dedicated line to your main rig.
    Better yet, 10Ga for a 30A dedicated line…assuming you use the proper breakers.
    There are even some High End in-wall cables specifically designed for dedicated lines.

  15. Impedance, impedance, Impedance…
    Like grey text on a grey background… when the impedance matches.. things just disappear.
    Our speaker cables are effectively ‘transmission lines, as they propagate waves of ‘electron pressure’ down the transmission line, the waves are ‘slowed down and diminished’ by the resistance of the cable, so fatter is better (for the cable, not us)at reducing the I2r losses. there is also impedance – a tricky thing at the best of times. Impedance is affected by the frequency of the waves we inject into the cable, the distance apart of the conductors, the diameter of the conductors and the dielectric properties of the insulation between – length is also a factor, but only when the impedance of the line is not matched to the impedance of the speakers.
    Now if the cable impedance is different than the speaker impedance, the waves that reach the speaker will be (partially) reflected back along the transmission line… colouring the sound we hear. Match the impedance of the cable to the impedance of the speakers and the reflected waves are disappear. I have some lovely images of this in action, so when I find a suitable way of presenting them I will share them with y’all. It really does demonstrate scientifically why cables DO matter – it’s not snake-oil or myth. Music to our ears AND it’s science baby!
    In the mean time here is an online calculator to play with for transmission-line impedance calculation. use option 2 (Balanced 2 wire line) and 0.95 for the Er. put in your cable dimensions and see how your cable experiences match up with what the calculator tells you. YRMV, because your ears are always right – Despite what the WAF report says.
    http://www.emclab.cei.uec.ac.jp/xiao/Wire/index.html
    Have fun with your cables!!

    1. But wait, there’s more! The standard open-wire transmission line runs at around 200 Ohm impedance…. so we need to use something else to provide a match to the speaker motor.
      Ahhh, the crossover network. Oh BOY, that’s a whole new topic. So now we are matching the speaker cable impedance to our crossover input impedance. This is a job for Paul!

      1. I don’t claim to understand all this stuff but isn’t the given impedance of a speaker a nominal value as impedance varies with frequency. Therefore wouldn’t it be impossible to match any cable for all frequencies. In telecoms impedance matching is also used for maximum power transfer, something I’ve not seen mentioned with regard to audio.
        Looking forward to seeing those lovely images 🙂

    2. In the audio spectrum, speaker cables are not transmission lines, nor can they be. Simply cables with inductance, capacitance and resistance. A Smith chart can show you why.

  16. We talk about cable, but I noticed that a decent cable can sound horrible with poor connectors. What do I look for in a good spade or banana connector? Check online, and you’ll find literally hundreds with the same description. Gold plated……..blah blah blah

    1. Ihorp,
      Using connectors just introduces another gap for the audio signal to have to jump (regardless of the quality of said connectors); that’s why I’ve always defaulted to bare wire.

    2. That’s so true. For getting the best contact quality contact force and contact area are crucial. Contact area is optimized by pairing soft and hard materials when pairing plugs and sockets! There are even audiophile wall warts which are optimized in this way! I wonder if soldering offers a superior contact quality than crimping?!

  17. I refreshed this page late afternoon and it seems the text is darker, or is it my imagination? In the comment box it is not, but, once I save the comment it becomes darker. Maybe it seems this way because it is darker outside?

    1. I hadn’t noticed but now you come to mention it, maybe? On the other hand it could be the screen auto compensating in the ambient light.
      If something had been done I’d have expected it to be mentioned. Unless Paul is just checking that we’re looking as well as listening.

    2. No,imagination methinks – still looks really dull.
      Hell, most audiophiles are codgers of 103 years old (I am) – how the heck are we to be expected to read this without whacking the contrast way up to make it look like an Etch-a-Sketch board?
      Sorry gotta go, the nurse is calling.

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