Ever get confused about what type of audio connectors you need to connect your newest piece of gear? Have you only recently begun working with audio and are wondering why there are so many different types of cables?
This helpful manual explains the functions of various audio cables (and the various connectors they use). 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.
Table of Contents
What Are the Different Types of Audio Connectors?
While only a few different types of wire go into audio cables, there is a much bigger variety of connectors or plugs.
There are five main audio jack connections that are used in the majority of analog audio applications and are present on most pieces of equipment.
TRS (Balanced Connection)
TRS cables, also known as tip, ring, and sleeve cables, are balanced cables that typically have a 1/4 connection. The TRS designates the positions of each connector pin on the jack (i.e., tip is positive, ring is negative, and 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 frequently used to link sources like headphones, external equipment, or audio interfaces. Where there is a need for more space (such as on interfaces), they are frequently used in place of XLR connectors. The ubiquitous “aux cord” is typically an 1/8 (3 5mm) stereo TRS cable.
Studio monitors, mixers, amplifiers, and other similar devices with balanced phone jacks are some examples of pro audio equipment and DJ equipment that can be connected with quarter-inch TRS Stereo Cable. It can also be utilized as a stereo interconnect.
Why We Love It:
- Provide high-quality audio
XLR (Balanced Connection)
XLR cables, the most popular 3-pin balanced cable, are the industry standard for speakers, preamps, mixers, and microphones. They are also frequently referred to as microphone cables (or mic cables).
Because XLR cables have locking connectors, which can prevent them from being accidentally unplugged while in use, they are typically preferred. They are trustworthy in real-world situations due to this and their general ruggedness.
Two distinct connector types are present on XLR cables. XLR male connections are typically found on equipment for “sending” signals, such as on the output of a microphone, Outboard equipment such as a DI box. XLR female connections are typically found on the receiving connection, such as on the input of a mixer, interface, or preamp.
This specific feature enables the chaining of multiple XLR cables together in the event that a single cable is insufficient.
professional-grade XLR cord made for microphones and other 3 pin XLR equipped recording, mixing, and lighting equipment.
Why We Love It:
- Noise free signal
TS (Unbalanced Connection)
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 the location of the wire’s two conductors’ connections to the jack, with the signal on the tip and the ground 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 the instrument level, not line-level voltage. They typically have 1/4 inch jacks for professional audio applications, but 1/8 inches (3.5mm) are also available for consumer audio items like earbuds.
1/4 In some cases, TS cables are used to connect PA speakers to amplifiers as speaker cables. Although they look similar to instrument cables, these speaker cables are actually built very differently.
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.
As a result of excessive voltage and heat passing through the cable when a 1/4 instrument cable is used in place of a speaker cable, damage to the cable or speaker is easily possible. Your instrument will probably make a lot of unwelcome noise if you use a speaker cable instead of an instrument cable.
RCA (Unbalanced Connection)
On consumer-grade stereo equipment, RCA cables, which have two conductors, are most frequently used. The most popular RCA cables are stereo cables, which have two jacks, one for each channel and are typically white and red, respectively. RCA, from which the name derives, was the company that created and first used RCA cables.
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. Although they typically have a 2-conductor connection, they are also offered in 4- and 8-conductor versions, which are typically used in live sound applications for high power or bi-amped configurations.
Due to speaker cables’ inability to lock into place like XLR cables, Speakon cables are frequently chosen over 1/4 speaker cables in live sound applications. In order to avoid confounding instrument cables or balanced XLR cables with unbalanced speaker cables, Speakon cables were created as a replacement for people using XLR connectors and 1/4 connectors.
Digital Audio Cables and Connectors
While all these cables and connectors help you physically connect various types of electrical audio signals, with the rise of modern technology, various cables connect equipment digitally.
These are frequently discovered on audio interfaces, digital (and analog) mixers, and other contemporary audio gear.
The benefit of a digital audio connection is typically its capacity to transmit multiple channels of data over 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.
A MIDI cable is among the most frequently used digital cables. They are among the earliest digital connectors still in use today. They were first developed in the 1980s to link different synthesizers to sequencers and external controllers. MIDI cables resemble XLR cables in terms of size and shape and have a 5 pin connection.
No audio data or sound is transmitted over MIDI cables. Instead, they send instructions on how to perform a song, primarily in terms of what keys to play and how hard.
MIDI cables are still used in many applications today, despite the fact that USB cables have gained popularity as a substitute. Despite being in use for almost 40 years, it is a dependable protocol.
Another common control protocol for some digital guitar processors is MIDI. The ability to send up to 16 different channels of information over a single cable is one of the main advantages of MIDI.
includes molded connector shells on both ends and a standard 5-pin DIN connector with keys. The cable jacket is soft but enduring and will last a lifetime.
Two pieces of digitally compatible audio gear are connected using ADAT cables. The two pieces of equipment’s ADAT optical interface protocol is referred to by the term “ADAT.” With ADAT, up to 8 channels can be transmitted at 48 kHz/24 bit quality over a single optical cable.
Adding more inputs or preamps to an audio interface is where they are most frequently connected. Despite having different protocols, ADAT cables use the same connectors as an S/PDIF connection.
Dante is a relatively new digital audio connection protocol that uses regular CAT-5 or CAT-6 ethernet cables. Dante refers to the digital protocol that is used to transmit your audio stream, not the connections at all.
Because Dante systems can transfer incredibly high track counts (up to 256 channels! ), they are quickly emerging as the new standard in live audio.) over a single ethernet cable. To connect digital snakes or stage boxes to a digital mixer, Dante connections are frequently used. Dante is also beginning to be used in some interfaces, mainly because ethernet connections are still readily available in many existing buildings and are still commonly used with most computers.
In the world of audio, USB cables are frequently employed as a digital stream to link MIDI devices and audio interfaces to computers.
The flexibility and speed of It’s a popular option for interfaces and synths because of USB audio. Modern technology allows for the real-time transmission of numerous audio channels over a single USB cable. Compared to other multi-channel audio formats like ADAT or S/PDIF, USB offers a wider range of compatibility.
Read More: Coaxial Cable Connector Types
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.
The cable is appropriate as long as it performs as intended and accomplishes its intended purpose.
In my experience, there is virtually no audible difference between using a “cheap” cable and an expensive one.
There may be some truth to the claims that connections with gold plating are better conductors than those without. But again, no one will be able to hear the difference.
Spending all of your studio budget on cables is not worth it when you could be investing it in proper soundproofing or the instruments you need to create music instead.
Having said that, your equipment’s functionality may vary depending on some noticeable differences between audio connectors.
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. At worst, they’ll lose the connection and disrupt the signal.
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 extremely cheap cables.
What Are the Three Main Types of Audio Connectors?
There are numerous types of audio connectors available. The most common types are 3-pin 6.5mm TRS, XLR, and RCA plugs are available.
What Does XLR Stand For?
The XLR Connector, which stands for External Line Return, is a type of electrical connector found primarily in professional audio, video, and stage lighting equipment.