If you’re a musician or someone working in the sound industry, chances are you’re going to come across different audio connectors or cables. All these colorful little wires might leave you wondering what a specific cable is used for. In this guide, I cover all the different types of audio connectors and cables you might come across.
I’ll break down what each connector is commonly used for and get into the technical aspects of cables and wiring. I’ve split the article up into two sections: the first deals with the different types of audio connectors, and the second deals with audio cabling. If you’re only looking for information on cables – feel free to jump ahead!
Male vs Female Connectors
Before we get into each connection type, you should know that all connectors come with what we refer to as a male and female end. Male connectors fit into female connectors, and female connectors receive male ones. Keep this in mind when you see a reference to a male or female connector, or if you see an image of a connector and thing “that doesn’t look like the connector,” – it might be that you’re thinking of the male connector but looking at the female part.
You’ll generally find the female connection built into the device or equipment you plug the cable into. However, sometimes, you might use a female connector to extend two or more cables to create one longer one.
TRS vs TS Connectors
You might have also come across a cable labeled as either “TRS” or “TS” and wondered what those mean or what the difference between the two is.
TRS stands for Tip, Ring, Sleeve. As you might have guessed, TS, therefore, stands for Tip and Sleeve. Here is a diagram illustrating the two connectors side by side:
As you can see, a TRS connector has three contact points, whereas a TS connector only has 2. What does this all mean? A TRS connector can carry a balanced signal while the TS signal is unbalanced. A TRS connector will also carry stereo sound, while a TS connector will be mono. For more information on TRS cabling, click here to skip ahead to that section.
If you’re looking for information on a specific connector, simply click on the picture below to jump straight to it.
¼ inch Connector
- Also called an instrument cable or guitar cable
The ¼ connector looks very similar to that of a 3.5mm headphone jack but is actually larger in size (6.3mm). It’s a very common connector used for musical instruments (especially guitars), as well as speakers, amplifiers, effect pedals, and mixing consoles.
This connector comes either in a TS or TRS design. As mentioned previously, you’ll use the ¼ inch TRS connector for balanced audio lines and stereo sound.
You’ll usually find that an ¼ inch cable comes with male connectors on both ends of the cable. One goes into the instrument, and the other into the amp or pedalboard.
- Also called a 1/8-inch, mini cable, headphone jack or AUX cable
A 3.5mm connector is most commonly used for audio on smartphones, portable devices, and computers. The two rings on the connector are for carrying right and left stereo sound. You’ll see the connector has a third ring for earphones with a built-in microphone. This third ring also allows an audio signal to be carried.
- Also called a microphone cable/lead, cannon cable/ lead
The XLR connector can be used for balanced audio signals in various audio applications, such as microphones, amplifiers, mixers, and monitor speakers.
The XLR connector comes in various designs ranging between three and seven pins (for male connectors) or holes (for female connectors). The most common design in audio equipment is the three-pin XLR.
Fun Fact: The XLR connector was originally invented by Cannon Electric. They first released the Cannon X range, followed by the Cannon XL (which featured a locking switch), and finally, the Cannon XLR, which later became known as just an XLR. This is why you might sometimes hear this connector being called a “cannon connector.”
- Also called a Neutriks cable/connector
The XLR connector can be used for balanced audio signals in a variety of audio applications, such as microphones, amplifiers, mixers, and monitor speakers. Originally manufactured by Neutrik, the SpeakON cable was designed to take high-current signals and connect loudspeakers to amplifiers. A noticeable design feature is that the SpeakON connector has a locking system that prevents it from disconnecting easily or accidentally. They’re ideal for live music events where a lot of people and fumbling over cables might occur. The XLR connector can be used for balanced audio signals in a variety of audio applications, such as microphones, amplifiers, mixers, and monitor speakers.
- Also called phono connectors and sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as an AUX cable.
The RCA connector is most commonly used in hi-fi systems and other home audio equipment. You’ll also find an unbalanced, mono connector on DJ mixers. RCA connectors are made up of 2 connectors, one for left-side audio and the other for the right. They’re commonly found in the colors of red and white, but this is not always the case.
Fun Fact! RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, which developed this connection. In the 1940s, the RCA replaced the ¼ inch TRS connectors on phonographs which allowed them to be connected to amplifiers. This is why you’ll sometimes hear this connector called a phono connector.
- Known just as a MIDI connector.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) cables are mostly used by electronic musicians and DJs. In a home studio setting, you’re likely to use a MIDI cable to connect your MIDI controller/ keyboard to a MIDI interface, which then connects to your computer. The purpose of the connection is that it allows you to control the virtual instruments within your DAW. However, with the introduction of USB connectors to the audio industry, MIDI cables aren’t being used as often. This is because USB cables are able to transfer MIDI data directly to your computer.
- Also called banana plug/ jack/ socket or 4mm connector.
Banana connectors are used to create connectors on bare speaker wires. Typically, you’ll find two types of terminals on your speakers – The first is a clip type, where you slide the bare wire directly into the clip. The second type, which your banana connector fits into, is called a five-way binding post. Five-way binding posts are generally gold-plated and more durable, and you’ll likely find them on your more mid to high-end speakers. Pictured below is an image of the clip type as well as the five-way binding post type:
Banana connectors come in various sizes and types to accommodate different wire gauges. The benefit of adding banana connectors to your speaker wire, rather than using the bare wire, is a permanent, high-quality connection. Often, bare wire connections become unreliable as they pull out or fray over time – which can then affect the sound quality. Using a banana connector on your speaker wire instead looks more aesthetically pleasing and ensures the wires will last longer.
- Also called USB Type-C
USB connectors come in a variety of types. In this guide, we’ll be looking at just USB-C type as they’re the most relevant. The idea behind the USB-C connector was to create a universal standard connection you could use across all your devices. While great in theory, it hasn’t worked out, with many experiencing connection issues.
With more companies abandoning the headphone jack, the USB-C connector allows you to connect your headphones still – should you wish to use a wired connection over wireless.
You’ll find this connection port on many of the newer Android phones and Apple’s latest MacBooks. Some portable Bluetooth speakers are also starting to include this connection for their charging ports.
- Also called an HD cable
Most people will have come across the HDMI connector by now. HDMI stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface and provides high-quality audio and visual transmission. It’s mostly used with HD TVs, gaming consoles, Blu-ray players, and cable boxes. The HDMI connector replaced the RCA connectors, meaning devices would only need one connection port for an HDMI connector rather than two (or three for audio and visual) RCA ports for RCA connectors.
While not used directly for audio, any engineer or audio enthusiast will likely come across DMX cables in their lifetime. DMX cables resemble XLR connectors and transmit MIDI signals, specifically for lighting control.
AES/EBU (Audio Engineering Society/European Broadcasting Union) cables are digital cables that use XLR connectors and follow the AES3 standard for digital audio transmission. AES/EBU Cables are commonly used in professional applications, including broadcasting, recording, and live sound.
SPDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) is a digital audio cable that transfers signals between two devices. In home theatre systems, SPDIF cables commonly utilize RCA connectors to transmit two-channel stereo audio or multi-channel surround sound signals between devices.
Ethernet cables are often used in live sound applications to transmit many audio channels over a single cable, usually to form a bridge between two consoles. Ethernet audio transmission can also be found in some home theatres, conference rooms, or other scenarios where multiple channels of audio need to be sent over a long distance, occupying as little space as possible.
Now that we’ve covered all the common wired audio connector types, it’s worth mentioning the two most common wireless connector types, too.
A lot of new speakers and headphones released today are Bluetooth-enabled. This allows you to ditch the cables and listen to music wirelessly. While convenient, Bluetooth is still inferior to wired connections regarding audio quality. Bluetooth connectivity definitely has its place in the portable speaker world but is not a replacement (or at least, shouldn’t be) for wired connections.
I guess you could say WiFi is the new kid on the block. We’re starting to see more speakers being WiFi-enabled, particularly smart speakers. WiFi provides a better connection than Bluetooth as it offers a further range and better sound quality. WiFi is better for linking multiple speakers to a network (such as you would with multi-room speakers), whereas Bluetooth is better suited for just a single-speaker experience.
Moving along to the different types of audio cables, we’ll be looking at all the various aspects of cabling. I’ve separated this into easy-to-read sections so that by the end of this guide, you’ll have a really good understanding of audio cables.
Analog vs Digital Cables
Analog vs Digital Cables
The very first thing to know about audio cables is that you’ll find two different types: analog and digital. What’s the difference between the two, you might ask? Analog cables transmit information using electricity, whereas digital cables transmit information through a long string of binary codes (1’s and 0’s). Keep reading below to find out which of the connectors we spoke about above are analog and which are digital.
Analog Audio Cables
Within this category, there are two types of analog cables: balanced and unbalanced. We use balanced cables for microphones and audio equipment, whereas instruments such as an electric guitar will use an unbalanced cable.
Balanced vs Unbalanced Analog Cables
Now you might be wondering what a balanced signal means and why is it important. Simply put – a balanced cable reduces noise, while an unbalanced cable does not.
For a more technical explanation:
When you have a balanced cable, both the positive and negative wires receive identical versions of a signal. While they receive identical versions of the signal, the polarity of the negative wire is inverted. As the signal travels along both wires inside the cable, both wires gather noise. This is true for both balanced and unbalanced cables. However, before they re-combine at the end of the cable, the polarity of the negative wire is flipped back to positive. The opposite polarities then cancel each other out, which in turn leaves the signal noise-free.
This should raise the question: “If an unbalanced cable is noisier – why use it?”
Due to the way electric guitars and various other musical instruments are designed, starting off with a balanced signal isn’t always possible. Oftentimes, you’ll find guitar cables tend to get too noisy beyond 20-25 feet. To correct this, you’ll need to use a direct box (also sometimes called direct injection) to convert the signal.
Balanced vs Unbalanced Analog Connectors
In the first half of this article, I spoke about the various types of audio connectors, which of those are analog, and more specifically, which of those are balanced or unbalanced analog.
The XLR and TRS connectors I mentioned above are both balanced analog connectors. They have three wires: positive, negative, and ground. Remember, an XLR connector has 3 separate pins, while the TRS connector has 3 contact points.
Finally, the RCA, TS, SpeakON, and Banana connectors are unbalanced analog connectors.
TRS vs. TS Cabling
After looking at TRS vs TS cabling, you might be imagining what they actually look like. Above is an image of a TRS cable, which has two separate wires, and a TS cable, which has only one. The way that each cable will be wired to the connector is as follows:
In a TRS cable, the wiring will be:
Tip – Positive
Ring – Negative
Sleeve – Ground.
However, in a TS cable, the wiring will look like this:
Tip – Positive
Sleeve – Ground.
Here is a video to sum up balanced vs unbalanced audio cables:
Digital Audio Cables
Moving along-to-digital cables they’re pretty straightforward, and unlike analog cables, you don’t need to understand how they work in order to use them correctly. There’s no useful purpose for going into the schematics of digital cables, so I’ve left them out. However, there are a variety of digital cable types, so being able to identify them can be useful. The digital connectors we looked at in this guide are MIDI, TOSLINK (optical), USB, and HDMI. For more information on each type, jump back up to the first half of this guide, where we discussed each connector.
One important thing to note about digital cables is that it’s best to keep them on the shorter side. Longer digital cables have a greater chance of working incorrectly.
Audio Cable Shielding
Audio cable shielding is a metal shielding that protects (or shields) the core wires inside the cable, which transmit the original sound. The reason that shielding is vital is that certain radio or electromagnetic frequencies can disturb the path of an audio signal, resulting in unwanted noise. When it comes to audio cable shielding, there are three different types of shields, which we will look at below:
As the name suggests, braided shielding consists of copper strands around the original signal conductor wires. This type of shield offers between 50% to 97% protection, depending on the angle of the braid, the number of picks, as well as the rate at which they were applied. While braided shielding provides great protection against unwanted noise, these cables are less flexible and more prone to damage or breaking when twisted or bent. Due to this, braided shield cables are generally used for more permanent installations where they will not be rolled or twisted.
Serve Shedding, also known as ‘spiral-wrapped’ shielding, is similar to braided shielding in that it is also made of copper strands. However, with serve shielding, the copper strands are wrapped around the original signal conductor rather than being braided together. They’re more flexible and, therefore, better suited for live performances. While they are more flexible than braided cables, they do provide less protection against Radio frequencies (RFI).
Finally, we have foil shielding. This type of shielding provides 100% protection. It consists of a thin layer of aluminum foil and a copper line. The metal-to-metal contact of the aluminum and copper increases the effectiveness, but the copper line decreases the cable’s flexibility. You’ll often find this type of shielding in digital audio cabling.
That wraps up this guide! I hope you’ve found this information useful, that it has answered many of your questions, or simply added to your knowledge. If there’s anything I’ve left out or perhaps a question I didn’t answer, please let me know in the comment section below, and I’ll be sure to get back to you!
To summarise all the audio connectors I’ve discussed in this guide, I’ve put everything into a quick-reference table below: