Types of Audio Cables: An Ultimate Guide on Audio Cable Types

FACTS CHECKED BY  Jose George​

When you say something to a microphone, the audio cable sends these microphone signals for processing so that you hear it from the loudspeaker. However, no matter how properly you connect an audio cable, there is noise and distortion. Different types of audio cables are meant for various applications, and knowing which cable to use is essential for reducing signal loss and noise interference.

What are Audio Cables?

Audio cables help transmit digital and audio signals from one piece of equipment to another. Analog audio cables convey electrical signals, whereas digital audio cables send digital data.

Audio cable 3.5mm jack plug

Audio cable 3.5mm jack plug

Analog cable understanding

Analog cables are of two types; unbalanced and balanced. 

Balanced cables

They are standard cables for professional audio equipment as they are immune to external noise, such as electronic equipment noise or radio frequencies.  These cables have three wires; positive signal, negative signal, and ground.

The balanced analog cable usually has one of three connector types on both ends: XLR male, which helps connect to different inputs in hardware; XLR female, which helps connect to the Microphone and other hardware outputs; and TRS connectors that can connect to both inputs and outputs.

These connectors have three contact points that help carry signals from negative, positive, and ground wires, as mentioned above.

When audio signals enter a balanced cable, both positive and negative signal wires receive the exact version of the signal with only the polarity difference. The positive and negative conductor wires gather noise as the signal passes through the cable. At the cable’s opposite end, before the signals recombine, the polarity of the negative wire flips back to match the positive wire polarity. So, now the noise patterns lie on opposite polarities, and thus the identical signals with opposite polarity will cancel each other’s noise effect giving you a noise-free signal.

Unbalanced cables

As opposed to balanced cables, an unbalanced cable has only two wires, i.e., signal and ground. The one extra wire in balanced cables is responsible for noise reduction and better sound quality.

Usually, unbalanced analog cables have only one connector, i.e., TS connectors, which you can see in instrument or guitar cables.

Do you know why you use unbalanced cables for noisy signals? For most electronic instruments, you cannot start with a balanced signal. So, we convert them into balanced signals, so you attach a direct box or direct injection that converts unbalanced signals from electric guitars to balanced mic signals.

Three levels of audio signals

These cables help transmit three levels of audio signals, namely;

  • Mic level: mic level signals come from the mic, and you can send them through a microphone cable. A mic preamp boosts these signals to line level.
  • Line level: This is the standard signal strength you use with all pro-audio equipment. Thus, it would help if you converted all mic level and instrument level signals into line level before sending them in the signal chain.
  • Instrument level: Signals from guitar/bass transmit through a common type of audio cable, and then a direct box boosts them into line-level signals.
Speakon cable

Speakon cable

Digital cable understanding

Analog cables help make physical connections to different equipment and audio signals. Modern technology allows for a single cable. Unlike analog cables, digital cables send signals in binary code. These cables vary in application and design; thus, they are not interchangeable. 

USB cables

USB cables

Audio cable types

According to the connectors attached, you can divide them into different types.

XLR Cables(balanced connections)

Balanced XLR cables form connections with the help of 3-pins. 

You can use them with preamps, mixers, microphones, and line-level signals to speakers, and you may also know them as microphone cables or Mic cables.

These cables have locking connectors so that cables do not unplug accidentally. Further, their durability and ruggedness make them suitable for all types of live locations. 

XLR cables have two types of connectors; XLR male connectors on sending equipment like DI box, Microphone, or outboard gear, and XLR female connectors on receiving connections like a preamp, mixer, and interface.

TS Cables (unbalanced connection)

TS or Tip sleeve cables are guitar or instrument cables with two conductors. The TS on these unbalanced cables refers to the conductors which connect to the jack with the ground on the sleeve and signal on the Tip.

You can connect an electronic guitar and other unbalanced instruments to mixers, amplifiers, or other sources. These cables can send signals created at the instrument-level voltage rather than the line-level voltage. For pro-audio applications, these cables use a ¼ inch jack, but you can also find them in a 1/8-inch jack for consumer audio products.

Sometimes, you may use ¼ TS cables for connecting PA speakers to amplifiers instead of speaker cables. However, these two types are pretty different in their construction. The ¼ inch TS cables have better shielding and a small overall wire that can handle low-voltage signals from any instrument. On the other hand, ¼ speaker cables are thicker with less shielding. They can handle the high-voltage signal transfer from amplifiers to speakers.

If you use ¼ instrument cable in place of a speaker cable, it can cause damage to cables or speakers from high voltage and heat. On the contrary, using a speaker cable instead of an instrument cable will result in too much-unwanted noise.

TRS (Balanced Connections) 

TRS are balanced cables featuring a ¼ connection. You may mistake it for a standard ¼ instrument cable, but looking carefully, you can easily see the 3rd connector ring on the shaft. You can use these cables to connect headphones, audio interfaces, outboard gear, and other audio devices.

On interfaces where space is an issue, you can use them in place of XLR connectors. The commonly found AUX cable is a 1/8 stereo TRS cable.

TRS cables also carry stereo audio information, which makes them unbalanced.

Balanced MONO vs. Unbalanced STEREO

TRS connectors you see on balanced cables are the same as on headphones. How come one is MONO, and the other is STEREO?  The fact is STEREO headphone cables are unbalanced. Well, the TRS connectors have balanced MONO wiring having positive, negative, and ground, while the Stereo wiring has Tip (right channel), Ring (left channel), and Sleeve (ground).

TRS Vs. TS connectors

The TRS connectors differ from the TS connectors regarding their contact points.  TRS connectors have three contact points, while TS has only two. The third and extra point in TRS connectors allows for carrying a balanced signal.

The wiring in the TRS is as follows:

  • Tip contact for positive
  • Ring for negative
  • Sleeve for ground

TS connector wiring includes:

  • Tip for positive
  • Sleeve for ground

RCA Cables (unbalanced connection)

You can use these two conductor unbalanced cables on consumer-level stereo equipment. The standard RCA cables have two jacks, one for the left (white) and the other for the right (red) channel. You can also call these cables phono plugs or Aux cords.

You can still find these cables on vinyl turntables and other consumer electronics as they are cost-effective and small. However, these cables gradually fade away with the rise of digital audio connections.

SPEAKON Cables (Unbalanced connection)

You use these cables to connect professional audio equipment to speakers and amplifiers. They also have two conductor connections, and four and 8-conductor versions are available.

SPEAKON cables are preferred to ¼ speaker cables in live sound as they can lock into place like XLR cables.

MIDI cables (Digital connection):

The MIDI cables connect various synthesizers to external controllers or sequencers. They have a 5-pin connector and resemble XLR cables in shape and size.

These cable types are not meant to transmit audio sound or information. Instead, they can send digital audio signals regarding the musical performance, i.e., what keys and how hard to play. 

Though USB cables gradually replace MIDI cables, they are still used in several applications. One of the main benefits of the MIDI cables is that you can send 16 channels of information through one cable. These cables are becoming standard control protocols for digital guitar processors.

ADAT cables (Digital connection)

You can use ADAT cables to connect to pieces of audio equipment that are digitally compatible. These cables use an optical cable that transfers information to 8 channels at 48 kilohertz/24 bit via a single cable. The cable refers to the optical interface protocol used within two pieces of equipment. Mostly, you can connect extra inputs and preamps with an audio interface with these cables. ADAT cable has a different protocol but the same type of connector used in PDIF connection.

DANTE Cables (Digital connection)

Dante is the latest digital audio connection protocol that uses Cat5 and Cat6 ethernet cables. It refers to the digital protocol that helps transmit audio signals. 

Dante cables are becoming a new choice in live sounds as they can transmit high-track counts over a single cable. With Dante connections, you can connect stage boxes or digital snakes to a digital mixer.

Some other interfaces have also started using Dante because of the easy accessibility of ethernet connections in modern buildings.

USB (Digital connection)

The audio world is incomplete with USB cables. You can use them to connect various audio interfaces and MIDI devices to the computers. These cables have become popular due to their super speed and flexibility. You can send many audio channels in real time with a single USB cable.

In multi-channel audio connections, USB cables show widespread computability.

Different types of audio cable connectors

Different types of audio cable connectors

Factors To Consider in Choosing the Different Types of Audio Cables

Numerous types and grades of audio cables are available, requiring specific considerations.

  • The first thing to consider while picking an audio cable is its application. 
  • If you want cables to connect to speakers like unpowered PA speakers or guitar amps, 14-gauge wire, 12-gauge wire, or 10-gauge wires are recommended. As the larger wire has better shielding, it will also reduce interference. Further, as the speaker carries a lot of electrical power, thicker cables can manage the load in a better way.
  • On the contrary, if you want cables for recording studios, you should focus on the overall quality of the cable. Using higher-quality cables for studio recording is always suitable for retaining the original sound while picking the most precise and accurate sound.
  • Apart from these factors, you must always look for the cable’s durability, cost efficiency, and stereo cable format.
Different types of audio cables

Different types of audio cables

Conclusion

People believe that purchasing an audio cable is difficult because there are wide varieties. However, if you know the cable application, you get the right one. Cloom has a massive collection of wire assemblies suitable for varied purposes.

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