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What are the different types of audio cables and connectors?
What are balanced and unbalanced connections?
Find out everything you need to know about audio cables and jacks.
Ever get confused about what type of audio cable you need to connect your newest piece of gear? Just getting started working with audio and simply don’t understand why there are so many different cables?
This handy guide is here to help explain what different audio cables (and their various connectors) are used for. You’ll also find some handy tips to optimize your own studio setup and not get fooled by all of the crazy things you’ll read on the packaging.
What Are You Using Your Cable For?
One of the biggest things you need to keep in mind when choosing any audio cable is what you are using it for. There are various types and qualities of audio cables available, and hence some major considerations to keep in mind.
If you are planning on using your cable for live gigs or shows, one huge thing to keep in mind in any purchase is how durable the cable is going to be.
You do not want to end up at a gig with one less cable than you need to make the event happen because one of your cables breaks that day (hot tip: always bring extras!).
Another thing to consider for “live” sound audio cables is the actual size of the cable itself. The thinner the cable (or higher gauge, like 18 or 24 gauge) the more likely the cable will bend and eventually break.
For cables that you connect to speakers, like from guitar amps or unpowered PA speakers, it’s usually recommended to use 14 gauge or 12 or even 10 gauge wire.
This also helps with preventing possible interference because there will physically be more shielding around a bigger wire, and due to the fact that connecting PA equipment and speakers transfer a LOT of electrical power, thicker cables will be better optimized to handle the load.
Cables For Recording
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are planning on using your cables for studio recording use, you may want to consider the overall quality of each cable. Since the goal in the recording is to both preserve the original sound and ensure that the most accurate and “cleanest” sounding version is picked up by your audio gear, many people recommend that you use higher quality cables.
Some (not myself though) subscribe to the notion that you can actually hear an audible difference between a cheap cable, say, one from amazon, and a high-quality cable like Mogami.
While I certainly agree that Mogami cables are very high quality and feature really durable connectors and wire (and a lifetime warranty!), I do not think that any typical audio person is seriously going to hear a difference between the sound of a Mogami cable and the sound of a cheap cable from Amazon.
It’s important to consider the value and durability of higher-priced and higher quality cables, but at the end of the day, it is not going to make your studio sound “better”.
There are a couple of important terms to understand when it comes to any type of audio cable, and these will help you understand how a cable is used.
The most common term that is frequently seen and often misunderstood is the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables. A balanced cable is one that has three connectors and three conductors within the wire (a positive, a negative, and a ground).
A common example of a balanced cable is your average 3 pin XLR microphone cable. Another is a TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) cable. Unbalanced cables, on the other hand, only feature two conductors and two connectors within the wire (signal, and ground).
Most consumer-grade audio gear uses unbalanced connections, as do standard 1/4 instrument cables. The important benefit of balanced cables is the fact that they are much better at rejecting interference and preventing noise from getting into your signal.
In both unbalanced and balanced cables, the ground wire surrounds the signal wire(s), which helps prevent electrical interference, but it isn’t always perfect (especially over a long distance).
Balanced cables are able to very effectively reduce the noise caused by electrical interference through their 3rd conductor. A balanced cable will split your signal into two “copies” of itself, but the polarity will be reversed on one of them. Any two identical signals with reversed polarity will cancel each other out, resulting in silence.
So how does a cable that flips the polarity of the signal not just result in silence?
On the receiving end of the cable, the signal with reversed polarity will be flipped back to the same as the other signal, and they will be added together. However, because both signals were exposed to the same noise and interference along the wire, the noise will be exactly the same on both channels (and opposite polarity), and will thus be canceled out when they are combined. Pretty clever, right?
Using the Right Cable for the Right Job
One other important consideration with balanced and unbalanced cables is the fact that your gear (and its connections) need to match the cable type that you use. For example, using a balanced cable on an unbalanced connector does not benefit you in any way, because the equipment does not have the capability to actually utilize the benefits of a balanced cable.
In the same way, if you use an unbalanced cable where a balanced one is designed to be used, you are much more likely to pick up noise and interference in your equipment.
If balanced cables do such a better job at preventing noise from getting into your audio signals, why does anyone even use unbalanced cables? It mostly comes down to size concerns, and ultimately, cost.
An unbalanced connector is able to be both smaller and cheaper than a balanced connector because you simply do not need as much wire to pass the signal. They also take up a lot less space than 3 pin XLR connectors.
When it comes to instruments, 1/4 unbalanced connections are typically used to save space on the instrument, and you are ideally able to keep the cable short enough to prevent noise. However, most unbalanced cables also feature some amount of electrical shielding to prevent interference from getting into your cable as it is.
Shielding is an extra layer of copper that is wrapped around the entire input wire to prevent noise from entering the signal. While having a shielded cable is most important in unbalanced connections, it also helps to add to the overall clarity and noise prevention of your cable.
What Are The Different Types Of Audio Connectors?
While there are only a few different types of wire that go into audio cables, there is a much bigger variety of connectors or plugs. In most analog audio applications, there are 5 major audio jack connections that you will find on most equipment.
TRS (Balanced Connection)
TRS, or tip, ring, sleeve, cables are balanced cables that typically feature a 1/4 connection. The TRS refers to where each pin of the connector is connected on the jack (IE Tip is positive, Ring is negative, Sleeve is ground). They are commonly mistaken for a run of the mill 1/4 instrument cable, but you can easily tell the difference by looking for the 3rd connector “ring” on the shaft of the jack.
TRS cables are typically used to connect sources like headphones, outboard gear, or audio interfaces. They are commonly used in place of XLR connectors where space is a concern (such as on interfaces). The ubiquitous “aux cord” is typically an 1/8 (3 5mm) stereo TRS cable.
Quarter inch TRS Stereo Cable, designed to connect pro audio gear and DJ equipment such as studio monitors, mixers, amplifiers, and similar devices with balanced phone jacks. It may also be used as a stereo interconnect.
The most commonly used 3-pin balanced cable, XLR cables are the standard for microphones, preamps, mixers, or line-level signals to speakers. They are also commonly called microphone cables (or mic cables).
XLR cables are generally preferred for the ability to have locking connectors, which can prevent them from accidentally being unplugged while in use. This combined with their overall ruggedness makes them reliable in live situations.
XLR cables feature two different types of connectors. XLR male connections are typically found on equipment for “sending” signals, such as on the output of a microphone, DI box, or piece of outboard gear. XLR female connections are typically found on the receiving connection, such as on the input of a mixer, interface, or preamp.
TS cables, or tip, sleeve, cables, are more commonly known as instrument cables (or guitar cables). They are two-conductor unbalanced cables. The TS in TS cables refers to where the two conductors in the wire are connected to the jack, with the signal being on the tip and the ground being on the sleeve.
They are what you typically use to connect guitars or other unbalanced equipment to amplifiers, mixers, or other sources. They are designed to transmit signals that work at instrument level, not line-level voltage. They usually use 1/4 inch jacks in pro audio applications, but can also be found as 1/8 inches (3.5mm) for consumer audio products like earbuds.
1/4 TS cables are also sometimes used as speaker cables for connecting PA speakers to amplifiers. These speaker cables can commonly be mistaken as an instrument cable, but are in fact quite different in construction.
1/4 instrument cables feature more shielding and a smaller overall wire inside, designed to handle the lower voltage signals from a guitar or instrument. 1/4 speaker cables feature a much thicker and less shielded wire designed to handle the high voltage transfer from an amplifier to a speaker.
Using a 1/4 instrument cable in place of a speaker cable can easily cause damage to the cable or speaker from too much voltage and heat passing through the cable, and using a speaker cable in place of an instrument cable will likely cause a significant amount of unwanted noise in your instrument.
RCA (Unbalanced Connection)
RCA cables are a two-conductor cable that are most commonly used on consumer-grade stereo equipment. The most common RCA cables are stereo cables with two jacks, one for the left and right channels, which are usually white and red colored respectively. RCA cables were invented and first implemented by the company RCA, which is where the name derives from.
They are still commonly found on vinyl turntables and various pieces of consumer equipment because of their small size and low-cost construction, but they are slowly fading away due to the rise of digital audio connections and wireless devices such as Bluetooth. RCA cables are also commonly sometimes called phono plugs or more recently “aux cord”.
Speakon (Unbalanced Connection)
Speakon cables are almost exclusively used in the pro audio world for connecting speakers and amplifiers. They typically feature a 2 conductor connection, but are also available in 4 or 8 conductor versions, typically for high power or bi-amped configurations in live sound.
Speakon cables are widely preferred in live sound over 1/4 speaker cables because of the ability of speaker cables to lock into place like XLR cables. Speakon cables were developed as a replacement for people using XLR connectors and 1/4 connectors on Speakon cables to prevent mixing up the unbalanced speaker cables from instrument cables or balanced XLR cables.
Digital Audio Cables and Connectors
While all of the aforementioned cables and connectors help you physically connect various types of electrical audio signals, with the rise of modern technology there are various cables that exist to connect equipment digitally. These are commonly found on your audio interface, but also on digital (and analog) mixers and other modern audio equipment.
Typically the advantage of a digital audio connection is the ability to send multiple channels of information along a single cable. The physical makeup of these cables varies greatly by the application and design, and they typically are not interchangeable with each other so you typically will not have an issue accidentally connecting the wrong cable.
One of the most common digital cables is a MIDI cable. They are one of the oldest existing digital connectors, initially introduced in the 1980s to connect various synthesizers to sequencers and external controllers. MIDI cables feature a 5 pin connection and are similar in size and shape to an XLR cable.
MIDI cables do not transmit any audio information or sound. Rather, they are used to send information about a musical performance – mainly what keys to play and how hard to play them.
Although USB cables have become popular as an alternative, MIDI cables are still used for various applications today. It’s a reliable protocol that is still relevant nearly 40 years on.
MIDI is also becoming a common control protocol for use with some digital guitar processors. One of the biggest benefits of MIDI is that it can send up to 16 different channels of information through a single cable.
ADAT cables are used to connect two pieces of digitally compatible audio equipment. ADAT refers to the ADAT optical interface protocol that is used within the two pieces of equipment. ADAT uses an optical cable and allows the transfer of up to 8 channels at 48 kHz / 24 bit quality through a single cable.
They are most commonly used to connect extra inputs or preamps to an audio interface. ADAT cables use the same connectors as a S/PDIF connection, but the protocols used between them are different.
Dante is a relatively new digital audio connection protocol that operates using common CAT-5 or CAT-6 ethernet cables. Dante does not actually refer to the connections at all, but rather to the digital protocol that it uses to transmit your audio stream.
Dante setups are becoming a new standard in live sound because of the ability to transfer massively high track counts (up to 256 channels!) over a single ethernet cable. Dante connections are commonly used to connect digital snakes or stage boxes to a digital mixer. Dante is also starting to be utilized in some interfaces, mostly because of the ease of accessibility of ethernet connections in many existing buildings and the continued use of ethernet on most computers.
In the audio world, USB cables are commonly used as a digital stream to connect an audio interface to a computer, but also to connect MIDI devices to a computer.
The flexibility and speed of USB audio makes it a popular choice for interfaces and synths. Advances in technology mean that many channels of audio can be sent through a single USB cable in real-time. Using USB for multi-channel audio ensures more widespread compatibility than other types like ADAT or S/PDIF.
What Is The “Best” Audio Cable?
While many companies and manufacturers frequently mention the necessity of specific quality cables for the “best” sound, in reality, the greatest audio cable is the one that works for your application and fits into your budget.
As long as the cable functions properly and is getting the job done, it’s the right cable. In my own experience and from the knowledge I have gained from others in the audio industry, there is virtually no audible difference between using a “cheap” cable and using an expensive one.
Claims that gold plated connections are better conductors than others may have some amount of accuracy, but again, no one is going to be able to hear the difference. It is not worth it to break the bank spending all of your studio budget on cables when you could be spending it on proper soundproofing or the right equipment you need to make music.
With that said, there are some notable differences between audio connectors that can make a functional difference in your equipment.
Most commonly, many cheap XLR cables use a less sturdy jack design that can make their connections feel “loose” in a microphone or other input source, and at worst will actually not complete the connection, causing signal loss.
Most companies are now moving towards using the modern “Neutrik” designed XLR connection that is much sturdier and prevents this from happening, but you can still find the “old” XLR connector on very cheap cables.
Ultimately, most in the audio community agree that Mogami makes some of the highest quality XLR cables available on the market today, and with their lifetime warranty, they will replace any cable you purchase from them free of charge if it breaks. While their cables are potentially cost-prohibitive, if you are looking for “the best” they are generally what people recommend you use.
But do not forget! The best audio cable you can choose is the one that works for you, not the one that costs the most money.