"Hand me that audio cable" is not something that you'll hear in the world of audio production and live performances. There are nearly a dozen different types of common-use audio cables — and each one has a unique purpose, application, and advised use type. Many instruments and devices have very specific ports, and even the most common ports must be used with care to ensure you pick the right type of audio cable for the job.
How do you know which audio cable to use? Why so many types? And how do you stock up on cables so you never run out of (or break) the type you need, when you need it?
The best way to answer these questions is a full tour of cable design, purpose, and type in the audio world. Let's start with what you're using your audio cables to accomplish.
What are you using the audio cable for?
How you use an audio cable strongly influences which cable you need. Of the dozen types of audio cable available, each type also has different gauges (wire thickness), quality level, and shielding design. You can have two cables that have identical ends that are very different in performance depending on the gauge, shielding, and balance.
Understanding cable gauge
Cable gauge is the thickness of the wires inside the cable. The higher the gauge, the thinner the wire. Thin wires transmit less electricity but can also generate less "noise" on the line. Thicker wires can handle more juice - and are less likely to snap in a live show - but are also more expensive.
Guitar amps typically use between a 10 to 14 gauge, but thinner audio wire gauges can go as high as 24 gauge. The larger the equipment you're using, the higher a gauge (and more shielding) you want.
Durable cables for live performances
If you're planning for a live performance, you want to prioritize thicker wires with a lower gauge. This means they are less likely to snap during setup or during the performance itself. If you need to move around or adjust equipment, a thicker wire is more durable. Thicker audio cables also tend to come with more shielding, meaning they can handle heavier voltage loads and are less likely to generate noise from that load.
High-quality cables for recording
More delicate cables with less voltage are ideal for recording - where sound quality and noise reduction are paramount. Well-shielded cables are important, especially if you have multi-cable clusters and channels to create your sound from instruments and other sources. Balanced cables also have a noise-reduction quality that makes them preferable - but not always an option - for high-quality recording.
The difference between balanced, unbalanced, and shielded audio cables
When shopping for audio cables, you may notice a difference in labeling noting "balanced", "unbalanced" and "shielded". What does this mean? it indicates how the wires are put together inside the cable sheath and the type of quality or signal you will get down the line.
Balanced vs unbalanced cables
Unbalanced cables are the standard - for pricing and sizing issues alone. An unbalanced cable has two wires: Positive and Ground. The positive wire sends the audio signal and ground stabilizes the circuit.
A balanced cable has three wires: Positive, Negative, and Ground. The positive and negative wires both send the audio signal. However, over the length of the cable, the Negative wire has reversed polarity.
If you know something about audio signal, you may know that a sound played against its reversed polarity creates silence. Why isn't a balanced cable silent? The polarity is unreversed at the end, but the "noise" created along the length will be effectively silenced.
Choosing balanced or unbalanced
The trick is that you need a balanced jack to actually use and translate the noise-cancelling signal - and most jacks are unbalanced. The industry runs - mostly - on unbalanced cables as a matter of size and cost. However, if you have a pair of balanced devices, a balanced cable can significantly increase the quality of your sound through polarity-reversing noise cancellation along the line.
What shielding does for audio cables
Shielding is another way to cancel noise along the line by reducing interference with the signal wires. A cable is shielded by applying an extra layer of copper down the length of the input wire to stop static "noise" from interfering with the signal along the way. When working with unbalanced cables, shielding is a vital trait, but it can also improve clarity on a balanced cable as well.
What are the different types of audio connectors?
TS vs TRS
If you pick up a cable and it looks like a standard audio or "aux" cable in 1/8 (headphone type) or 1/4 inch size, it's either a TS or a TRS. But it's important to know which one you're dealing with so you plug it into the right device for the right purpose.
TS (Tip Sleeve)
- Instrument cables
- 1/4 and 1/8 Inch
- Don't confuse speaker and instrument 1/4 TS cables
A TS or Tip Sleeve cable comes in 1/4 and 1/8 inch and is your standard aux cable. It is unbalanced with a single ring, so the tip is the positive and the sleeve is ground. This is your typical instrument cable. Most guitars and many other electric-ready instruments use a TS cable. Using a TRS cable will not improve quality unless the port is balanced-capable, and most are not.
Of the 1/4 variety, some have a larger gauge and are designed for high-voltage speakers while others are more delicate and designed for instruments. Getting them mixed up can damage either type of device using the wrong TS 1/4 cable.
TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve)
- 1/4 and 1/8 Inch
- Can see the extra ring for the extra negative channel
- Connect "sources" like headphones, outboard gear, and audio interfaces
- Used in the place of XLR connectors to safe space
TRS look just like TS cables, but with an extra ring (two rings) around the post. The tip is positive, the ring is negative, and the sleeve is ground. These are balanced aux-cables and typically connect sources. The 1/8 inch is your standard headphone cable, while the 1/4 inch may be used to connect larger sources like outboard gear and audio interfaces. They can be used in a standard balanced-capable port instead of an XLR 3-Pin.
- 3-pin design
- Microphones, mixers, speakers
- Locking connectors
- Male and female ends
If you're familiar with microphone 3-pin cables, then you know the XLR type of cable. These are commonly used at the line-level for microphones, pre-amps, mixers, and line-level signal to speakers. These are balanced and provide excellent sound quality for recording.
XLRs are preferred for live performances because they have a locking connector and can't be unplugged by accident. They also have a male and female end structure, meaning they can be chained together to create cables of the right length if you need extra-long distance.
- "Phono plugs" and "aux cords"
- Red/blue or red/white twin connectors at each end
RCA cables are a signature for audio setups, you may recognize them by their two-headed ends. One head is red, and the other is either white or blue. The unbalanced RCAs are named after the company, RCA, who originally designed them. They are still commonly found on turntables, head units, and many other audio devices. RCAs are sometimes called "Phono plugs" and the other type of "Aux cord".
- Connecting speakers and amplifiers
- Locking 1/4, preferred in live performances
speakON cables were designed to replace XLRs thus they also lock and are preferred for live shows. Still unbalanced, speakONs are specifically intended to connect speakers to amplifiers for large audio setups. They can be found in 2, 4, and 8 conductor connections for high-powered and bi-amp configurations. speakONs are relatively new and used exclusively in the professional audio world.
Digital audio cables and connectors
What about digital audio cables? With the rise of electronic music and production, recording the sound from instruments is not always the goal. Digital audio can convey multiple channels with relatively low voltage down the line and a high level of digital-only fidelity in signal quality. Therefore, digital cables do not relate to the balance/unbalanced equation.
MIDI cables have been the leading digital audio cable of choice since the 1980s to work with synthesizers, sequencers, and external controllers. They have a 5-pin connection, but don't actually transmit sound. They transmit digital channels that indicate keys emphasis rather than the tone itself. That is what differentiates the MIDI cable from a typical audio cable. MIDIs can send up to 16 channels with the 5 pin system.
USB cables are the MIDI-cable upgrade and are more universal. The USB MIDI-type cable is more universal, you can find it in most modern mixing and digital instrument designs. It often has a USB A end and a device end that looks (but is not exactly) like a USB printer cable. This allows you to easily connect digital sound equipment and instruments to a computer for mixing.
Now we're getting into the esoteric protocol cables. ADAT is an optical cable - like fiber optic glass in the line - that can transfer up to 8 channels at 48kHz / 24-bit quality. ADAT refers to the optical interface protocol used between certain equipment. It is most often seen as extra inputs or preamps to an audio interface.
Dante is a digital audio protocol that can make use of CAT-5 and CAT-6 ethernet cables - like the kind you plug into your modem and wifi hub. Dante cables are becoming popular due to the commonality of ethernet cables, signals, and ports in both building installations and devices. Dante can transfer up to 256 channels in the 8-wire ethernet cable design. They are most likely used to connect digital snakes or stage boxes to a digital mixer.
Do you know which cable you need?
For live shows, durable, locking cables are definitely high on your list of priorities. For recording natural sound from instruments and mics, you want as many balanced and shielded cables of high-quality as possible. For fully digital multi-channel work, you probably want to prioritize digital cables over aux-cables.
The "best" audio cable selection is whatever delivers the right quality of sound, type of signal, and fits in your price range. Don't break the bank on gold-plated when it's up for debate whether it actually improves your signal. Also don't go for thin cables if you need a jump-around live performance to go perfectly.
Build your cable system based on the ports, quality, and durability you need from the whole setup and each individual connection. That's what will deliver the best sound and the best final performance.