Audio cables: All the different types of audio cables explained in a simple way.
Most of us don't pay much attention to them, but using good audio cables is important for good sound quality. They are responsible for carrying the audio signal, and their task is crucial.
An audio cable does not influence the sound that much, and it does not need to be very expensive to work well. But a bad audio cable can cause unwanted noise in the sound. This is true for cables for a stereo system, a home cinema or a professional audio interface.
In this article we will tell you all the information you need to know about the different types of audio cables and all the connections you need to know to install any sound system. If you still don't know what an HDMI, optical or RCA cable is, don't worry. Our intention is that by the end of this article you will be able to connect and control any audio device.
What is the difference between analogue and digital audio cable types?
The first question a beginner in the audio world might ask is: what is the difference between a digital audio cable and an analogue type of cable? The answer is simple and may seem obvious to some:
- Analogue audio cable types: transmit audio information via electrical signals.
- Digital audio cable types: transmit audio information in binary code (zeros and ones).
What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables?
Unbalanced types of audio cables have two wires inside: a conductor wire that carries the audio signal and a ground wire. Instrument cables are of this type. Unbalanced audio cables are more prone to pick up interference or noise than balanced cables. The length of the cable also has an influence: the longer the cable, the more interference, so it is recommended that unbalanced cables do not exceed 8 metres.
A balanced cable has three wires inside it: two conductor wires and an earth wire. The additional conductor, called the negative conductor, allows balanced cables to more efficiently attenuate any electrical interference or noise. 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. A microphone, for example, is usually connected with balanced cables. When you need to connect equipment with long cables, balanced cables are the best choice, as they help to maintain a noise-free signal.
How do you convert an unbalanced signal to balanced?
On certain occasions, such as when an instrument is a long way from the mixing desk, it is recommended to convert the unbalanced signal to balanced. Electric musical instruments, such as guitars or basses, have unbalanced connections and long unbalanced sound cables are very prone to noise and interference.
The most common method is to use an injection box, also known as a Di box. Di 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 a smaller mixing console and then connect it to the main console via an XLR cable.
Levels of audio signals: microphones, line, instruments.
Balanced and unbalanced types of audio cables are used to transfer different levels (voltages) of different signals:
- Line level: used for most professional audio equipment. Instrument and microphone signal levels must be turned up to reach line level.
- Instrument level: the signal coming from electric instruments, such as guitars or basses, is weaker than the line signal. They must be connected to a Di Box to reach the Line level.
- Microphone level: the signals coming from microphones are even weaker than those coming from instruments. The audio cables of the microphones must be connected to a preamplifier to reach the Line level so that the voices can be heard.
How to choose an audio cable?
The basic purpose of an audio cable is to move a signal from one device to another without degrading sound quality or introducing unwanted noise. There are audio cables designed for audiophiles that can maintain a clean signal free of noise, and you can also find very inexpensive cables that do the job but are quickly damaged.
Most musicians do not need to use the most expensive audio cables for live performances. The more expensive audio cables are often used in studios, as noise-free signal transmission is more important for recording or mixing than for a live performance.
An audio cable can be made of various materials. There are audio cables with gold-plated connections and oxygen-free copper internal cables, but this is not necessarily important. Gold plating can reduce resistance somewhat, but it is more susceptible to damage than nickel plating, so it can be counterproductive if you are connecting and disconnecting audio cables all the time.
How to connect audio cables which ones are recommended?
The most important thing is to look for flexible, strong cables with well-soldered connections. No audio cable lasts forever, although the more expensive ones generally last longer. At Cultura Sonora we recommend not to buy the cheapest options. On the other hand, we recommend not to buy excessively long cables, but to try to buy the length you need and little more. The longer the type of audio cable, the more susceptible it is to introducing unwanted noise into the signal.
Analogue audio connectors
As the name suggests, analogue audio connectors are those that transmit the signal in analogue, i.e. with electrical pulses.
what are TS and TSR (1/4, 1/8) connectors?
TS (Tip, Sleeve), jack or phone plug connectors transmit unbalanced signals. They integrate two contact points and are available in 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 sound cables are also known as 1/4″ connectors (the diameter of most audio inputs for phones and MP3 players) or guitar cables. This is a good TS guitar cable and if you need a 3.5mm-6.35mm mini jack to connect your headphones to an amplifier you can follow this link.
TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) audio cables have three contact points that allow a balanced signal to be transmitted. A TRS mini jack cable looks the same as a TS cable, except that an extra segment called the “ring” is added. TSR connectors are used with balanced and stereo cables
What is an RCA cable?
RCA audio cable types are most often used with stereo equipment, but they also allow you to connect a CD player to a stereo system, for example. RCA audio cable types integrate a separate pair of wires with different colours for the left and right channels of stereo sound equipment. The name “RCA” comes from Radio Corporation of America, the company that introduced the design in the 1940s. An RCA cable is also known as a phono connector, as it is used to connect turntables
What is an XLR cable used for?
XLR connectors transmit balanced signals, as they integrate three contact points that handle the signals from the lead wires and the ground wire. They are typically used in microphone cables. An XLR cable can be either male or female:
- Male XLR cable: Has three pins and connects to the inputs of various sound equipment, such as voice recorders.
- Female XLR cable: Has three holes and connects to microphone and audio equipment outputs.
You can get a male-to-female XLR cable that is resistant to electromagnetic interference and is ideal for connecting microphones for PCs, audio consoles, external sound cards or voice recorders.
What are Banana Plugs?
Banana Plugs are used to securely connect audio cables to amplifiers, speakers and other equipment. Audio cables using Banana Plugs are held in place by screws, rather than solder. This allows for quick and easy repair if the audio cable is damaged.
What is a Speakon cable?
Speakon connectors are used to connect speakers, amplifiers and studio monitors. Today these types of speaker cables are gaining popularity over TS and Banana Plugs, as they are secured at the inputs and cannot be accidentally disconnected. The term “Speakon” is a registered trademark of Neutrik, so other companies also call them “twist connectors“. If you need a good quality, reasonably priced Speakon cable, the Pronomic is perfect.
Digital audio connectors or cables
What is a MIDI cable?
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) cables allow the transfer of data, such as notes or velocity, from electrical instruments to peripheral devices. They are often used in home studios to connect a MIDI keyboard or controller to an audio interface, which in turn connects to a computer to control virtual instruments. MIDI cables are less commonly used these days, as USB cables can transfer MIDI data directly to a computer. If you are looking for a cheap and well-built MIDI cable, we recommend the Kenable MIDI cable.
What is a USB cable?
USB (Universal Serial Bus) are the most common digital connectors. They allow you to connect anything from printers to any digital audio equipment and can also be used to power some devices. There are USB cables with different connectors: type A, B, mini-A, micro-A, mini-B, micro-B and type C. Until recently, the different types of USB cables offered rather slow data transfer. However,the new USB 3.0 version transfers much faster and can rival Thunderbolt cables in terms of performance
what is a Firewire cable?
Firewire connectors are typically found on high-end audio interfaces and can transfer at significantly faster speeds than USB. There are three types of FireWire connectors : 4-pin, 6-pin and 9-pin. The 4-pin or FW 400 connectors transfer data at 40 Mbps (megabytes per second). The 6-pin connectors offer the same transfer rate 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 also supply power.
What is a Thunderbolt cable?
Thunderbolt connectors are among the newest audio equipment and offer great transfer speeds. Thunderbolt was introduced by Apple in its mobile devices in 2012 to replace the older 30-pin connectors. Today Apple, and many other companies, offer adapters of different types (HDMI, USB, VGA) to allow integration of equipment with Thunderbolt connectors with any type of device
what is an HDMI cable?
Nowadays HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) cables are the most commonly used cables to connect Blu-Ray or DVD players to HD televisions. An HDMI cable can transfer video and audio signals without compression, which is why professional audio equipment has started to use these types of cables for professional audio. There are five types of HDMI connectors (A, B, C, D, E) and each has unique pin configurations. To find out which type you need, you should read your equipment's user manual
Audio cables and optical connectors
An optical audio cable transmits digital audio signals using pulses of light and is virtually immune to interference. It can handle multiple channels of surround sound, so they are found in the best home cinema systems.
The ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) audio interface is the standard for digital audio transfer over optical cables. ADAT professional audio cable types can transmit up to eight channels of digital audio
S/PDIF connectors transmit audio over a coaxial cable or an optical audio cable. A coaxial cable is similar in performance to an optical cable, but they are less common. Coaxial cables use RCA connectors, but are not interchangeable with analogue RCA cables. S/PDIF connectors are typically used to transmit a stereo mix from an audio interface to a pair of speakers.
An AES/EBU optical audio cable uses an XLR connector to transmit an optical S/PDIF signal. These digital audio cables are not very common, but can be found on some CD and DVD players, as well as other more expensive equipment. They use the same XLR connectors as a microphone cable, although they are not compatible.
BNC (Bayonet Neill-COncelman) connectors were originally designed for military use, but can now be found on many audio and video equipment. BNC connectors use miniature coaxial cables and allow multiple digital devices to be synchronised in large sound studios.
TDIF (Tascam Digital Interconnect Format) is a digital audio interface developed by Tascam that allows unbalanced digital audio signals of up to eight channels to be sent or received. TDIF digital audio cables can connect up to eight inputs or outputs from one compatible device to another with a single cable.
We leave you with a video that presents a simple guide on how to connect your sound system to an HDTV. If you're looking for information on quality speakers, headphones, mini-system, micro-system, voice recorder or any other music equipment, you can visit our culturasonora page. There you will find in-depth and honest reviews of the best audio devices on the market.