Here at Sweetwater, we know that choosing the right cable for the right device can sometimes be tricky. Sweetwater’s Cable Buying Guide should demystify some of the confusion surrounding cables, how they work, and which ones connect to what. To maximize your sound quality and minimize noise, it is important to understand which cable is the appropriate choice for any given application. And if you are ever in doubt, Sweetwater’s Sales Engineers are cable experts and can help you make the right decision
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables
A balanced electrical signal runs along three wires: a ground, a positive leg, and a negative leg. Both legs carry the same signal but in opposite polarity to each other. Any noise picked up along the cable run will typically be common to both legs. Assuming the destination is balanced, the receiving device will “flip” one signal and put the two signals back into polarity with each other. This causes the common noise to be out of phase with itself, thus being eliminated. This noise cancellation is called “Common Mode Rejection” and is the reason balanced lines are generally best for long cable runs. XLR and TRS cables are used to transmit balanced audio from one balanced device to another.
Unbalanced cables are less complicated, but they’re much more susceptible to noise problems. In general, unbalanced lines should be kept as short as possible (certainly under 25 feet) to minimize any potential noise that may be carried with the signal into the connected equipment.
Common Cable Connectors Explained
In the audio world, there are six common cable connectors you’ll come across frequently: TRS and XLR for balanced connections and TS, RCA, SpeakON, and banana plugs for unbalanced connections.
TRS is the abbreviation for “Tip, Ring, Sleeve.” It looks like a standard 1/4″ or 1/8″ plug but with an extra “ring” on its shaft. TRS cables have two conductors plus a ground (shield). They are commonly used to connect balanced equipment or for running both left and right mono signals to stereo headphones. You will also find TRS connectors on the stem of Y cables. These are used for mixer insert jacks where the signal is sent out through one wire and comes back in through the other.
XLR connectors are 3-pin connectors: positive, negative, and ground. They are usually used for transmitting microphone or balanced line-level signals. In audio, you will typically see XLR cables connecting microphones to mixers and connecting various outputs to powered speakers.
TS is the abbreviation for “Tip, Sleeve” and refers to a specific type of 1/4″ or 1/8″ connector that is set up for 2-conductor, unbalanced operation. One insulator ring separates the tip and sleeve. The tip is generally considered the “hot,” or the carrier of the signal, while the sleeve is where the ground or shield is connected. TS cables are best known as guitar or line-level instrument cables.
RCA is the common name for phono connectors used to connect most consumer stereo equipment. Typically, you will see tape or CD inputs and outputs using RCA connectors. In the digital audio realm, RCA connectors are also used for S/PDIF connections, although true S/PDIF cables are more robust.