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Audio Cable Types | Different Types of Audio Cables (TS, TRS, XLR)

Even though wireless audio slowly dominating the single user market (especially due to the removal of 3.5mm headphone jack), there are several situations or applications where you have to use a specific audio cable to transmit/receive audio signals. Be it your surround sound home theatre system, a simple home recording studio or a professional setup, audio cables are an essential part of playback and recording industry. In this guide, we will take a closer look at some of the popular audio cable types that we encounter in our homes and recording studios.


You don’t have to be an audiophile to know that there are different types of audio cables for different jobs. If you are a content creator or record music in a studio, then you need slightly professional grade audio cables.

But if you bought a new multi-channel surround sound system for your home theatre, then you have to probably work with a different type of cable.

Another important factor that comes into play is the type of audio you are trying to play/record i.e., analog or digital audio. There are dedicated analog and digital audio cables that carry respective signals without any hassle.

If you work with instruments (guitars, keyboards etc.,), then make sure to choose a proper instrument cable and not a speaker cable (yes, they are slightly different).

Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables? Does it Matter?

Before looking at different audio cable types, let us first clear the air regarding an important aspect of audio cables: Balanced and Unbalanced Cables. What exactly is the difference between these two?

Any balanced cable has three conductors (and respectively 3 pins at the connector) for positive, negative and ground signals. An unbalanced cable on the other hand has only two conductors: one for signal and one for ground.

A balanced cable will transmit two signals through the positive and negative conductors. The difference between these signals is they are exactly the same except the negative signal is just the inverse of the positive signal.

The device at the receiving end will flip the negative signal and adds it to the positive signal. As both signals have same noise, they cancel out when we add them. Hence, the output has a much better noise free signal.

Although both balanced and unbalanced cables can deal with electrical interference from external world, a balanced cable does this job much better. They also tend to be slightly expensive than unbalanced cables.

It is very important that you choose a proper cable for your setup. As a matter of fact, most consumer grade audio equipment and cables are unbalanced. So, you have to use unbalanced cable only. If your equipment supports balanced signals, then choose a balanced cable.

Audio Cable Types

Let us now take a look at different audio cable types. The following is the list some popular types of audio cables.

  • TS Cables
  • TRS Cables
  • XLR Audio Cables
  • RCA Cables
  • MIDI Cables
  • Speakon Cables
  • Speaker Cables / Banana Plugs
  • S/PDIF Cables
  • USB Cables
  • HDMI Cable

TS Cables

TS Cables

Tip/Sleeve Cable or more popularly known as TS Cable is a common choice of instrument cable for guitars, keyboards etc. This is an unbalanced cable as it has just two conductors.

As a result, most TS cables re suitable only for short distances to connect to mono instruments. Some popular instruments that use TS cable are: guitars, drum machines, effects pedals and other unbalanced instruments.

We usually connect these instruments to mixers, amplifiers and other audio interfaces using TS Cables. Some popular TS Cable connector sizes are 1/4 inch for instruments and 1/8 inch (3.5mm) for mono headphones.

TRS Cables

TRS Cables

The TRS Cable is very similar to the TS Cable except that it has an additional Ring. TRS is short for Tip, Ring, Sleeve Cable. Depending on the application, we can use a TRS cable as a balanced cable or an unbalanced cable.

For balanced signals, we can use the tip, ring and sleeve to carry positive, negative and ground signals to use with a mono instrument/device. In case of unbalanced connection, we can configure it to carry 2-channel stereo audio for left and right channels.

Some common applications of TRS Cables are headphones, headphone out of mixers and studio monitors. They are available in a standard 1/8 inch or 3.5mm size. You also get adapters for converting 1/8-inch (3.5mm) TRS to 1/4-inch (6.35mm) TRS connectors.

XLR Audio Cables

XLR Audio Cables

Perhaps the most popular audio cable is the XLR Audio Cable. It has a bulky three pin connectors that is almost always used as a balanced cable. As a result, you can use XLR Cables for long distances without fear of distortion, noise or interference.

In fact, most pro-grade microphones, speakers, instruments, PA Systems and Stage lighting (DMX Lighting) use XLR Connectors and cables. These cables are popular for stage shows, concerts and professional studios, whether you want a short cable (less than 6-feet) or a relatively large cable (over 50-feet) to connect to equipment.

Many popular cable manufacturers also make XLR to TS and XLR TRS (3.5mm) and XLR to RCA adapters for inter-connection of different instruments, devices and equipment.

RCA Cables

RCA Cables

Th Radio Corporation of America manufactured a low-cost consumer grade audio cable that is popularly by the initials of the company as RCA Cable. They produced both the male and female counterparts of the cable initially intended for phonograph (gramophone or a vinyl player).

Due to its simple design and relatively low-cost construction, the RCA Cable became the standard cable for home stereo equipment and AV Systems. RCA Cables are essentially unbalanced cables as they have only two conductors.

Hence, we often restrict them for a short distance. The red and white stereo cables are very popular even today for connecting analog audio devices and equipment.

MIDI Cables

MIDI Cables

Technically speaking, MIDI Cables don’t send actual audio or sound but rather they send event information between MIDI compatible equipment and devices. They are one of the early digital audio cables that have a special 5-pin connector (looks similar to an XLR Connector).

As they essentially carry messages in digital format than the actual audio signals, most modern MIDI communication has been replaced with USB Cables and connectors.

Speakon Cables

Speakon Cables

Neutrik designed and developed a special type of connector known as Speakon Connector for using in professional audio equipment, speakers, and amplifiers. They are typically available as 2-conductors unbalanced cables but some cables come with 4 and 8 conductors for bi-amping.

Due to its design, Speakon cables are more rugged and durable and hence, they are often used as an alternative to standard 1/4-inch cables during stage shows, live performances and concerts.

Speakon cables also have higher current carrying capability than other cables and as a result we can use them for large loud speakers as well.

Speaker Cables / Banana Plugs

Speaker Cables Banana Plugs

Another popular set of connectors and cables are simply known as Speaker Cables with Banana Plugs. They are very similar in size to TS Cables but the connectors are actually very different.

We often use these cables with our home audio equipment to connect speakers to amplifiers or AV Receivers.

S/PDIF Cables

SPDIF Cables

Strictly speaking, S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Audio Interface) is a standard to carry digital audio from one device to other. We can use two types of cables for S/PDIF data. One is the regular RCA Cables while the other is an optical fiber-based cable with a TOSLINK Connector (Toshiba Link).

The TOSLINK fiber-optic cable are very popular in home-audio setup to connect TV to surround sound system or a soundbar. Due to its bandwidth limitations, S/PDIF cables cannot carry modern lossless (uncompressed) audio. HDMI Cables largely replaced S/PDIF Cables in the consumer market.

USB Cables

USB Cables

One of the simplest and extremely popular digital audio interfaces is the USB. First, USB relaced the MIDI Connector to transmit the event messages. Since USB can also carry power and data (digital), we are also using USB to transmit audio signals.

The latest USB Type-C has largely replaced the 3.5mm headphone jack in modern mobile phones. Apart from USB-C, USB cables are also available with other connectors with USB Type-A, Micro-USB and USB Type-B being the other popular options.

HDMI Cables

With HDMI Revision 1.4, the HDMI Forum introduced ARC, which is short for Audio Return Channel. This feature enabled to reduce the number of wires between a TV and the other equipment such as Soundbar (or surround sound system) and an AV Receiver (or any other input device).

As a result, in the battle of HDMI ARC vs Optical Audio, HDMI came on top due to its significantly high bandwidth support to carry lossless audio and almost all modern audio formats.

Which Audio Cable is the Best?

It is very difficult to give a universal answer to this question. Everyone’s requirements are specific to their use case. So, do some more research on the type of audio setup you are planning and decide on a compatible cable that suits your need and also fits your budget.

That said, if you are running a semi-professional or a professional or you create audio related content, then an XLR cable for microphones offers you the best quality. An HDMI Cable is suitable for connecting your TV to a soundbar while you can use Speaker wires with Banana plugs to connect your amplifier to your surround sound audio setup.


There are different types of audio cables that serve different purposes. We saw some of the popular audio cable types in this guide along with their typical applications. Each audio cable has its advantages and disadvantages and you have to carefully figure out the proper audio cable for your requirement.

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