This is the kind of subject that always comes back when building a professional or home recording studio. It is quite common for one to stumble upon weird audio cable types or connectors when buying a new piece of gear or when upgrading to a balanced setup. In this article you will find a big compilation of the most important in the industry, as well as the most common use cases.
When speaking of audio cable types, we are most of the times referring to the connectors on each side of the cable. The cable ends up inheriting the name of the connectors used in it.
These are the most common audio cable types around:
- TRS (P10 / P2)
- TRS (P2)
- TRRS (P2)
- TS (P10 / P2)
- S/PDIF (Toslink)
Wire vs Cable
Let’s start with the basics: what is a cable? Well, a cable is composed of several wires enclosed together, but electrically unconnected. In each tip of a cable there is a connector, and we usually call the cable by the connector name.
Each wire is an electrical conductor, usually made of copper or aluminum. Wires come in two versions, solid and stranded. A solid wire is basically a very long and thin cylinder made of a conductor material. A stranded wire is nothing more than a bunch of very thin solid wires twisted together and electrically connected. This way it inherits the properties of a larger gauge wire but gives the cable more flexibility, which allows it to be twisted, wrapped and moved around without damages.
In audio, almost all wires used are stranded (unless we’re talking about a 1950’s equipment).
[% image solid vs stranded Legenda: Left = Solid; Right = Stranded %]
Connector soldering and wire selection
Each audio connector requires a certain number of wires. If you’re buying premade cables, the wires will already be soldered to the pins inside the connector. But if you building your own, selecting the right cable to the right connector is fundamental.
The right way to decide which cable to buy for a certain connector is by checking the amount of pins it has. If a certain connector has 4 pins but the cable you’re using has only 2 wires inside, that cable is inadequate and should not be used. Generally speaking, a cable should always have a number of wires that is greater or equal to the number of pins in the connector.
For some audio cable types, it is possible that not all pins must be connected for it to work. In those cases, the cable should have at least the minimum amount of pins the connector require to work. And when building a cable like that, some of the pins should remain unsoldered (unconnected) to any wire.
A wire soldered to pins on both sides of the cable is what allows a signal to pass through and it is called a conductor. So for example if my connector has 3 pins but my cable has only 2 wires, 1 pin would be left unconnected and I would only have 2 functional conductors.
The sleeve is the rubber or plastic shell that encloses the wires and the cable. The sleeve is responsible for isolating the wires electrically and protecting them against mechanical damage. There are several different kinds of sleeves available in the market, from plastic to rubber types, and even cotton. Some sleeve types (like twisted cotton) allow for more flexibility and durability, but are usually more expensive.
[% image Legenda: Left: Cotton, rubber and plastic sleeve %]
Some cables have a metallic net between the sleeve and the wires. This shell is called shield and it works as an interference isolator. Usually the shield is soldered to the connector and grounded in the equipment. If you’ve never seen a cable like this from the inside, this is what it looks like:
[% image Legenda: Left: Cable for unbalanced wiring. Right: Cable for balanced wiring.%]
The cable on the left has only one core wire and the shield, while the other has 2 cores and the shield. The shield counts as a conductor as well and it’s soldered to the connector, so we can say that the left one has 2 conductors and the other has 3.
Unbalanced connections need cables with at least 2 conductors while balanced connections need cables with at least 3.
If you don’t know what a balanced cable is, go read our balanced cables guide. If you are already familiarized with the term, you probably know that any cable with at least 3 conductors can be wired and used as a balanced cable.
Balance itself is a property of the system, it depends on both a balanced cable and the devices’ capabilities of providing and receiving a balanced signal. So all the cable has to provide are 3 conductors to transmit signal from one device to another. The vast majority of the balanced cables out there us either TRS or XLR connectors.
Audio cable types, explained by connector
Alternative names: Cannon
Mainly used for connecting: Mics & DIs to Interfaces & Mixers, rack equipments.
Channels: 01 Mono (balanced) or 01 Stereo* (unbalanced)
Spotting tips: To deduce the pins check for the lump on the connector. The closest pin is always pin 2 (Signal); the bottom one is always pin 3 (Inverted Phase signal).
Pins / Conductors: 3
- Pin 1: Ground
- Pin 2: Signal (Hot / + )
- Pin 3: Inverted Phase Signal (Cold / – )
Sizes: P10 (6.35mm / 1/4 inch) and P2 (3.5mm / 1/8 inch)
Alternative names: For 6.5mm: P10 Mono, 1/4 Inch Mono, Guitar Cable, Unbalanced P10. For 3.5mm: Mini TS, P2 Mono, Unbalanced P2.
Mainly used for connecting: Guitars & Basses (P10), Desktop Microphones / Headset with separate microphone plug (P2)*
Channels: 01 Mono (unbalanced)
Pins / Conductors: 2
Spotting tips: The TR has only one rubber ring on the connector.
Disclaimers? The P2 TS is also the connector used in some guitar pedal power supplies, like the Big Muff Pi. In this case, acts as an AC adaptor.