The Complete Guide To The Different Types Of Audio Cables

Most of us don’t pay too much attention to them, but using good audio cables is important for good sound quality. They are responsible for transporting the audio signal, and their task is essential.

An audio cable doesn’t affect the sound that much, and it doesn’t need to be too expensive to work well either. But bad audio cable can cause unwanted noise in the sound. And this is true for the cables of a stereo system, a home cinema, or a professional audio interface.

In this article, we summarize all the information you need to know about the different types of audio cables and all the connections needed to set up any sound equipment. If you still don’t know what an HDMI, optical, or RCA cable is, don’t worry. We intend that you will be able to connect and control any audio device by the end of the article.

What is the difference between analog and digital audio cable types?

The first question that a beginner in the world of sound might ask is, what is the difference between a digital audio cable and an analog type of cable? The answer is simple and probably obvious to some:

  • Types of analog audio cables: they transmit audio information through electrical signals.
  • Types of digital audio cables: they transmit audio information in binary code (zeros and ones).

What is the difference between balanced audio cables and unbalanced cables?

Unbalanced cables

The unbalanced audio cables integrate two conductors: a signal wire that sends the audio signal and a ground wire. 

Instrument cables are of this type. 

Unbalanced sound cables are more likely to pick up interference or noise than balanced cables. 

The length of the cable also influences: the longer the length, the more interference, so it is recommended that unbalanced cables do not exceed 6 meters.

Balanced cables

A balanced cable has three wires: two signals wires and a ground wire. 

The extra conductor allows balanced cables to reduce electrical interference or noise more efficiently. 

Balanced cables typically have XLR or TRS connectors.

In many cases, balanced and unbalanced cables can be interchangeable. 

The need to use one or the other is determined by the equipment you want to connect. 

To microphone, for example, is usually connected with balanced cables. 

When you need to connect equipment with long cables, balanced cables are the best option, as they help you maintain a noise-free signal.

How to convert an unbalanced signal to a balanced one?

In some situations, such as when an instrument is far away from the mixer, it is recommended to convert the unbalanced signal to a balanced signal.

Electric musical instruments, such as guitars or basses, tend to have unbalanced connections, and long unbalanced audio cables are prone to noise and interference.

The most common method is to use a DI box (direct box). The direct boxes are devices that transform an unbalanced signal (RCA, TS, line) into a balanced signal (Mic, XLR, TRS). 

Another solution would be to route the instrument signal to another smaller mixer and connect it to the main console via an XLR cable.

Audio signal

Balanced and unbalanced types of audio cables are used to transfer different levels (voltages) of different signals:

  • Microphone level: Microphone-level signals are different from line-level signals because they’re not designed for amplification. They’re meant to be picked up by microphones or other devices that require a very low-level signal.
  • Line Level: Line level is the standard signal level used in most professional audio equipment, such as mixing consoles and effects processors.
  • Instrument level: The instrument level is used to connect guitars, basses, keyboards, and other instruments to amplifiers or mixers directly without an additional preamplifier or DI box. 

How to choose an audio cable?

The basic purpose of an audio cable is to transfer a signal from one device to another without degrading sound quality or introducing unwanted noise. 

There are audio cables designed to keep a clean signal free of noise, and you can also find very cheap cables that do the job but wear out quickly.

Most musicians don’t need to use the more expensive audio cables for live performances. 

Since the noise-free signal transmission is more important for recording or mixing than live performance, more expensive audio cables are often used in studios.

An audio cable can be made from various materials. 

There are audio cables with gold-plated connections and oxygen-free copper internal cables, but this is not necessarily important. 

Gold plating may reduce resistance a bit, but it’s more susceptible to damage than nickel plating, so it can backfire if you’re audio cables that keep plugging in and out.

How to connect audio cables? Which ones are recommended?

The most important thing is to look for solid and flexible cables with a well-soldered connection. 

No type of audio cable lasts forever, although the most expensive ones usually last longer. 

We recommend not buying the cheapest options on Amazon. On the other hand, we recommend not buying excessively long, but try to buy the length you need. 

The longer the type of audio cable, the more susceptible it is to introducing unwanted noise into the signal.

Analog audio connectors

Analog audio connectors are the oldest type of connector. They have a wide variety of applications and can be found on various equipment, including computers, home theatre systems, and portable music players.

Analog audio connectors are used to transmit analog signals between devices. The most common analog connectors include RCA, 3.5mm jacks, and TRS.

What are TS and TRS (1/4, 1/8) connectors?

TS

TS (Tip, Sleeve), jack or phone connectors transmit unbalanced signals. 

They integrate two contact points, and there are two sizes: 1/4″ and 1/8″ (3.5mm and 6.3mm, respectively). 

They are often used with musical instruments such as guitars and are usually a mono signal.

TS audio cables are also known as 1/4″ connectors (the diameter of most audio inputs for phones and MP3 players) or guitar cables. 

TRS

TRS connectors are the most common type of audio connector used in consumer audio applications. They are short for “tip, ring, sleeve” and are so named because they have three parts: a tip (the positive connection), a ring (the negative connection), and a sleeve (a ground).

TRS connectors are typically used to connect stereo earbuds or headphones to portable devices such as CD players, MP3 players, and media players.

The TRS connector is a balanced interface that allows for more accurate audio transmission by eliminating noise caused by electromagnetic interference. 

What is an RCA cable?

RCA cable is a type of audio cable that carries an analog signal. 

While it can carry both audio and video signals, it’s most commonly used to carry stereo audio signals from one device to another. 

This type of connection is mostly used with audio equipment such as CD players, turntables and amplifiers. 

The RCA connector is also used for connecting video devices such as VCRs (video cassette recorders) and camcorders to televisions or monitors.

The RCA connectors are color-coded, so you know which wire goes to which function. 

They are usually colored red, white and yellow, although other colors may be used in some cases.

The red wire is usually the right channel, the white wire is usually the left channel, and the yellow wire is for video signals.

What is an XLR cable?

XLR cables are balanced audio cables that feature a male connector and a female connector. 

XLR cables, also known as Cannon connectors, are the most common audio interconnects in pro audio. 

They’re used to send balanced signals from one piece of gear to another. 

The XLR pinout is standardized across all professional gear, so you don’t have to worry about incompatibility issues when using different brands or models of equipment.

XLR cables and connectors have three pins corresponding with the left, right, and ground connections. 

XLR cables are designed to be more durable than other cables, such as 1/4-inch TRS cables or RCA cables. 

This makes them ideal for use in live performances and other applications where you need to make sure that your cables won’t break easily when the going gets tough.

What are Banana plugs?

 A banana plug is a cylindrical pin/plug with sprung metal blades designed to be inserted into an audio cable and provide a solid connection. 

Banana plugs are used in conjunction with bare wire or spade lugs on speaker wire or other audio cables.

Banana plugs are frequently used to connect speakers to amplifiers or other devices. They can also connect various types of audio equipment, such as connecting a turntable to a receiver or amplifier.

Other uses include connecting audio equipment in professional studios, connecting amplifiers to computer sound cards, and connecting speakers to stereo systems or home theaters.

What is a Speakon connector cable?

Speakon connectors are designed to be precise in their use in speaker cables. The plugs are clearly labeled, and the holes are shaped to fit into the matching holes on the cable’s jack.

The Speakon connector is a standardized audio connector used in professional audio and lighting applications. 

It was developed by Neutrik and was used for many years as a standard microphone connection. 

Speakon Connectors are commonly found on amplifiers, subwoofers, loudspeakers, and large sound reinforcement systems power supplies. 

Digital audio connectors or cables

Now, let’s see digital audio connectors or cables.

What is a MIDI cable?

MIDI cables are a type of cable used to connect electronic musical instruments, allowing them to communicate with each other and perform synchronized music in real-time. 

They are also known as MIDI cables because they are used to transmit MIDI signals between devices.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. 

The MIDI Manufacturers Association developed in 1983 as a universal language standard for computers and electronic devices that allows them to communicate with each other.

What is a USB cable?

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. It is an interface that allows devices to be connected and used by a computer. 

The USB standard supports data transfer rates of up to 20 Gbps (gigabits per second). 

The cable is commonly used to connect printers, scanners, external storage drives, and other peripherals to computers.

USB connectors are rectangular and come in four sizes. There are two main types of USB connectors: Type A and Type B. 

Type-A connectors are used on host devices (such as computers), while type-B connectors are used on peripheral devices (such as printers).

What is a Firewire cable?

Firewire connectors are typically found in high-quality audio interfaces and can transfer at significantly higher speeds than USB. 

There are three types of FireWire connectors: 4-pin, 6-pin, and 9-pin. 4-pin or FW 400 connectors transfer data at 50 Mbps (megabytes per second). 

The 6-pin offers the same transfer speed as the FW400 but can also supply power to a device. The 9-pin connectors, also known as FireWire 800, can transfer data at 80 Mbps and supply power.

What is a Thunderbolt cable?

Thunderbolt cables are used to connect Thunderbolt-compatible devices. These cables have a special plug on each end designed to connect to a Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt cables are available in different lengths and speeds, depending on how fast you want your connection to be. 

The speed of the cable is determined by the number of channels it supports, which ranges from one channel (10 Gbps) up to four channels (40 Gbps). 

What is an HDMI cable?

HDMI is a digital connection that sends high-quality video and audio signals between devices. 

HDMI cables are used to connect your TV to a cable box, DVD player, gaming console, or other devices.

HDMI cables come in several types, including standard, high-speed, and high-bandwidth. 

The main difference between these versions is how much data they can carry. 

Standard HDMI cables can handle up to 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second. 

High-speed HDMI cables support 4K resolution at 60 frames per second, and high-bandwidth HDMI cables can carry up to 18 gigabits per second of data, more than double the amount in a standard cable.

Audio cables and optical connectors

An optical audio cable is a cable that carries audio signals using light. It is a pure digital signal. 

It will not degrade over long distances and can carry a very high sound quality. 

The optical cable uses fiber optic cables that can only carry the signal in one direction.

Optical audio cables are perfect for those who want to get rid of the clutter of wires and want to send their audio signal across longer distances. 

They are made up of fiber optic cables, they are also safe from interference from other devices and electromagnetic interference (EMI).

ADAT

ADAT stands for Alesis Digital Audio Tape, and it’s a standard for transmitting eight channels of digital audio between devices. 

Alesis developed it in 1992 to use it as a way to connect multiple keyboards to one computer.

The format uses fiber optic cables, which transmit data at a rate of up to 120Mb/s (1.2Gbps). 

This is significantly faster than USB 2.0 or FireWire 800 but slower than Thunderbolt.

ADAT cables have eight channels: four analog inputs and four analog outputs. 

Each channel can carry 24-bit audio at sample rates up to 96kHz. 

This bandwidth can be used for recording high-quality multitrack sessions at home studios or live shows where multiple microphones are required.

S/PDIF

S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface) is a standard for transmitting digital audio. 

It was developed in 1980 by Sony and Philips to transmit high-quality digital audio between devices. 

The S/PDIF format is also known as IEC 60958, an international standard for audio over digital connections.

S/PDIF uses two connectors, an optical TOSLINK connector and a coaxial RCA connector. 

Optical TOSLINK cable has become the most popular form of S/PDIF transmission because it’s easy to use and supported by most manufacturers.

S/PDIF supports bit rates up to 24 bits at 192 kHz, but most consumer products use 44.1 kHz 16-bit or 48 kHz 16-bit formats instead. 

The bit rate determines how much data can be transferred per second; higher bit rates mean better quality audio but slower transfer speeds.

AES/EBU

AES/EBU cables are digital audio cables used to connect professional audio equipment. 

AES/EBU uses coaxial cables with XLR connectors at both ends. 

The cable is terminated with 110 Ω resistors on each end to limit signal reflections. 

The cable has a characteristic impedance of 110 Ω and can handle up to 26-bit, 96 kHz audio.

The AES/EBU format consists of two channels of audio, which are often referred to as LFE (low-frequency effects) and RFE (right-front effect). 

These channels are sometimes referred to as subwoofer and front-right speaker channels.

AES/EBU is used primarily in professional audio applications such as recording studios, broadcast facilities, live sound reinforcement and post-production houses. 

High-quality two-channel surround sound systems are used for mixing and monitoring purposes.

BNC

BNC connectors are widely used in audio, video, RF and other electronic applications. 

They feature a bayonet mounting system and a threaded coupling nut that provides a good mechanical connection.

The BNC connector is one of the most popular RF connectors for coaxial cable systems. 

This type of connector has been in use since the 1940s and is still widely used today.

BNC connectors are often used to connect devices such as televisions, VCRs and satellite receivers to antennas. 

They are also used in other applications such as fiber optics, digital video broadcasting, test equipment and intercom systems.

TDIF

TDIF (Tascam Digital Interconnect Format)  is a digital audio interface developed by Tascam that allows up to eight channels of unbalanced digital audio signals to be sent or received tags. 

TDIF digital audio cables can connect up to eight inputs or outputs from one compatible device to another with a single cable.

Conclusion

With the above facts in mind, it is clear that audio cables are a very important part of any sound system. 

There are many different varieties of audio cables. 

The type of cable used is critical for making sure that the music you listen to sounds exactly like it was meant to. 

The type that you need is determined by how your gear is configured. 

If you are unsure, it’s best to talk to a professional. 

They’ll help you determine what sort of cables will work best for your system.

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