With so many different audio cable types to choose from, whether purely for listening or for creating, it's not always easy to know which type is best for your new setup. Some devices only support digital or analog cables, others are legacy devices that require older audio cable types, and you also need to consider cable length.
Still, the variety of different cables used for audio production and enjoyment doesn't have to be opaque and intimidating. Here's a comprehensive guide to the various audio cable types available, and why you might want to choose some over others.
Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
Before we dive into the various audio cable types you can choose from and what they do, there's an important term to explain: balance. Some audio cable types are considered balanced, while others are considered unbalanced.
Balanced cables are specifically designed to avoid external electrical interference by using extra conductors inside the cable. A balanced cable has a pair of conductors and a ground, while an unbalanced cable will have only a single conductor and a ground. The two conductors in a balanced cable work together to eliminate any external electrical noise that might interfere with or affect the signal and, in turn, the audio data carried by the cable.
Most mainstream cables aimed at home users are unbalanced, but cables designed for audio creation or professional tasks are almost always balanced to prevent signal degradation.
In order to have a truly balanced audio system, however, it’s important to remember that you need all of your cables to be balanced, and your devices need to be balanced too. If your device isn’t balanced, that’s not the end of the world, though. To avoid excess signal interference, keep all of your cables as short as possible; ideally under six feet.
Now that you understand the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables, let’s dive into cable types.
TS Cables – short for Tip / Sleeve and often referred to as guitar cables or instrument cables – are one audio cable type that you want to keep as short as possible, because they are always unbalanced. They allow you to connect mono (one-channel) audio sources like guitars, other unbalanced instruments, effects pedals, and drum machines to amplifiers, mixers, and audio interfaces.
TS cords are mostly available in 1/4-inch sizes, though you’ll also find the 1/8-inch (3.5mm) TS cable used in consumer products like mono headset microphones. The 1/4-inch TS cables feature better shielding and are the better option if given the choice to avoid signal noise.
Although TRS cables look quite similar to the TS audio cable type, you’ll be able to spot the difference because it has two rubber strips on the connector header, which form 3 conductors: Tip / Ring / Sleeve. TRS cables can either be balanced or unbalanced depending on their use. TRS cables can be balanced with a positive, negative, and ground conductor when used on mono equipment. TRS cables can also carry 2-channel stereo audio, making them unbalanced because the left and right audio channels take up two of the conductors.
TRS cables are most commonly used in headphones and headphone outputs on certain instruments, mixers, audio interfaces, and studio monitors.
With both TRS and TS cables, there are plenty of methods of converting between the connector types and others – from TRS to TS cables to 3.5mm to 1/4 adapters.
One of the most iconic and durable audio cable types, XLR cables are big, bulky, and as you might expect from such a sturdy cable, XLR cables are always balanced. That means that you can run really long XLR cables without fearing signal interference in the same way you would with a TS cable, for example.
XLR cables are found on all sorts of devices, but particularly microphones, speakers, PA systems, DMX lights, and certain instruments. XLR cables are a great way to connect these sorts of devices to mixers and stage speakers to guarantee a clear and crisp signal, whether you’re running a short six foot cable, or a longer one that extends 50 feet.
Not all XLR cables are created equal. Cable Matters’ own XLR cables are designed for professional use, with strain relief on the connector, gold plated XLR pins for increased durability over long time use, and individual insulation and foil shielding for the internal wires, to further improve noise protection for the signal. You’ll also find plenty of XLR converter cables for XLR to 3.5mm, XLR to TRS, and XLR to RCA cables.
Speakon cables don’t see any use in the consumer device space, and are most commonly used for connecting together professional speakers and amplifiers. Although they are typically unbalanced, they are still a popular alternative to 1/4-inch speaker cables thanks to their ability to lock in place to avoid accidental disconnection during live performances. They also often come with reinforced cable braiding to improve durability, reducing wear and tear.
As speakon cables are solely designed to be used in high current audio systems, they can be used with impunity for speaker and amplifier connections. Before their development, there was the possibility of using low-current microphone or instrument cables to connect speakers. The distinctive look of speakon cables further helps them stand out from other cables of similar size or construction.
For connecting devices that don’t have the speakon connection, there is also the possibility of using 1/4-inch speaker cable to speakon cable adapter cables. Do note, however, that there are different types of speakon cables, some designed for higher powered bi-amped configurations. Speakon cables not rated for such use, will not be viable.
Speaker Cables / Banana Plugs
Although similar in size to a TS cable, speaker cables are distinctly different in construction and are designed for connecting speakers to amplifiers – though more commonly in home audio or hobbyist audio production than professional instances. They are most often used to connect A/V receivers to external speakers.
Although these cables can end in open copper wiring, a popular way to make the connection neater and more secure, is with banana plugs. These can be incorporated with a banana plug wall plate in a home theater to reduce speaker wire clutter behind TVs or A/V systems.
RCA cables are a common feature in home A/V systems and are also often found in DJ setups connecting CDJ players and turntables to mixers. Similar to TS cables, each RCA cable has just two wires inside, making them inherently unbalanced, so it’s a good idea to keep them as short as possible.
Although many devices will be able to connect directly to one another over a pair of RCA to RCA connectors, for devices that are otherwise incompatible, it is also possible to use interconnect cables with different headers to bridge that divide. Cable Matters stocks a number of options for those sorts of connections, including 3.5mm to RCA cables and XLR to RCA cables.
Used to send event messages, rather than audio signals, MIDI is a cable standard that has been around since the 1980s and has been an important component in the development of digital audio production ever since. Although USB cables can take the place of MIDI in some instances, MIDI is still an important component of many sequencers, synthesizers, and instruments.
The MIDI audio cable type can be used interchangeably for MIDI In, MIDI Out, and MIDI Through connections, and always features a five-pin connector. Some devices come with all three of these different MIDI port options, so which you plug your MIDI cable into will very much depend on where that device is placed in your audio setup. You may wish to use multiples of those ports too, sending and receiving MIDI event messages to and from the same device.
S/PDIF, or Sony/Phillips Digital Interface cables, are more commonly found on mainstream consumer A/V systems, some set top boxes, games consoles, and TVs. They come in optical (also known as Toslink), and coaxial (RCA) form.
They’re a little antiquated in the consumer space, with HDMI largely taking the place of this sort of audio connection in modern devices. However, older devices can still benefit from using optical where HDMI isn’t an option, or when a dedicated audio (rather than audio and video) connection is more desirable to ease setup and device configuration.
Arguably the most popular digital interface the world has ever seen, USB cables are almost ubiquitous on modern audio devices, equipment, and accessories whether they’re designed for listening or creating. They come in various sizes and types, with USB-A and USB-B being the most common.
USB cables can deliver audio data, power, and even MIDI commands using the MIDI over USB protocol. This makes them great for connecting computers to audio interfaces and synthesizers, and in many cases it can take the place of multiple cables where audio and MIDI cables are required for a complete connection. The new USB-C connector includes built-in support for audio, making it an increasingly popular replacement for the 3.5mm TRS connector on smartphones and tablets.
However, USB cables aren’t compatible with some older instruments and accessories and compared to some of the sturdier audio cable types, they can be prone to damage after prolonged use.
Thanks for reading our guide on audio cable types. While there are so many different types of cables out there, each one has its pros and cons. JMTO prides itself in creating the best audio products in the market.