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Audio Connectors and Cables

By Edited Nov 30, 2016 0 0

Assorted Audio Adaptors

Assorted Cables and Adaptors
Credit: Michael Keen

Ahem, a word about innuendo

Whatever type of audio system you use I bet there are some cables and connectors involved. Even something as simple as connecting your smartphone to your hi-fi requires some kind of wire to plug in at either end. Standards have changed and evolved over the years and now industry seems to have settled on the ones that are commonly encountered by consumer and pro alike. This has meant a great swelling in the interconnectivity of devices used in both home, live and studio situations. In this article we will have a look at the more common types of cables and connectors so that we get the best quality of sound. Unfortunately as with most things in engineering there is lots of innuendo to be giggled at when talking about connections made in two parts, male and female. This is in fact a common feature for most connectors so...grow up.

Clips for bare wire

Nearly every audio device ever conceived has either an input or an output of some kind. The most basic connection type has been to clip in the bare ends of a signal wire using either spring clips or some kind of screw based clamp. There are advantages to this approach. Among these are the fact that reels of cable can be cut to custom lengths without then requiring a skilled solderer to attach connectors to the wire. The clips which are usually part of the audio device (usually an amp or a speaker) allow for quick installation of nonstandard lengths of cable. They do however allow for a mistake to be made on polarity (which way round the wires go) or even mistakes between channels that cables fitted with connectors cannot suffer if the cable has been correctly manufctured. With everything becoming smaller in the consumer market these types of connectors are falling out of favor.

A slight improvement on bare exposed wire is the bananna plug. These are the simplest plug you can get and they are basicly a single pin that goes into a single socket. Because most things require a send and a return you often see them used in pairs, they are especially common in older equipment.

Speaker connector, spring clip

cable clip
Credit: Michael Keen

TS/TRS connectors (jack plugs)

Guitarists will be familiar with the 6.5 mm TS jack found at both ends of a guitar lead. Originally used to connect telephone lines on a switchboard by provinding an unbalanced audio path that could be utilised immediately by the simple act of plugging in a cable to the correct socket. With the rise of electronic musical devices such as the electric guitar the concept of a musical instrument using the same technology has certainly cemented the "jack plug" into eternal popularity. While the switchboards are gone new mobile phones still use a somewhat evolved TS plug to use peripherals such as headphones.  

By far and away the most common connector that is encountered by most people is the 3.5mm headphone jack. Its proper name is a 3.5mm TRS. The male part (stop laughing at the back!) is made up of three distinct metal surfaces that are the Tip , ring and sleeve, hence the name. Guitar leads have TS jacks, i.e tip, sleeve. In any size or configuration the tip has an angle machined onto it that serves as an anchor that holds the connector in place when it is inserted into the female connector. It also carries the "hot" audio signal in a TS or one side of a stereo signal (usually the right side) in a TRS. The other side of the stereo signal is carried by the ring, which is the metal band that is in the middle of the connector plug. The sleeve is connected to the cable shield which acts as the return path for the circuit. Studio monitors can utilise TRS connectors to carry balanced audio (more on this later) instead of the bulkier XLR connector. If this is the case a balanced source must be available for the monitors to work properly. Female XLR to male 3.5mm TRS cables are available and can be used for this purpose.

There are many variations on the general TS/TRS family especially with the rise of the mobile phone but the basic design remains with us I suspect, forever.

TS/TRS Connectors

TS/TRS connectors
Credit: Michael Keen

RCA

RCA connectors are another solid standard that have been adopted by almost all manufacturers. Especially favored by DJs in a professional setting, there is a good chance you are using some in your home. They connect everything from TV, DVD, speakers, games consoles and are even used by older camcorders to transmit video signals. They are of a robust design that has stood the test of time.

RCA Male and Female

RCA Connectors
Credit: Michael Keen

XLR Connectors

Familliar to audio professionals everywhere, XLR is used to send balanced audio signals through long lengths of cable with high clarity. Balanced audio works by having two conductors within a shielded cable. The fire that carries the audio signal unaltered from the source is known as the positive or "hot". The second wire, known as the negative or "cold" carries an inverted version of this audio, a mirror image if you will. The amplifier that receives a balanced signal works using the difference between the voltage of the two signals. Any interferance that is picked up by the cable is identical in each wire, and because there is no difference in either wire the interferance is cancelled out. There are three pins to an XLR connector, hot cold and earth. They are of substantial construction, by which i mean they are big so their use is generally reserved for pro audio. In the home you will most likely see them as a microphone connector if at all.

XLR Connectors

XLR Connectors
Credit: Michael Keen

DIN Connectors

DIN plugs are becoming scarce in the modern world. This may be due to their design being far flimsier than RCA, XLR and TS/TRS designs. The only common use for them these days is the 5 pin version in use as a MIDI connector. There are many forms of DIN connector in use in vintage and very specialist kit, but if you own anything that uses it chances ae you already know about it.

DIN Connectors

DIN connectors
Credit: Michael Keen

If sound quality is paramount to you then my advice to you is not to buy cheap. If you do you will be at greater risk of such demons as volt drop, interferance and breakage. If you are buying cables look around for respected cable brands. Companies that make audio equipment may offer cables but they can sometimes be overpriced for the sake of having "marshall" or some other name written on them.

It is important to take care of your cables and connectors. As they are essentially made of metal they can suffer from corrosion and fatigue which can add noise to your sound, or cause a complete failure. Store cables neatly coiled on a shelf or in a suitable box or bag in a cool dry area. WEll that is all for now, be sure to check out my other articles on music related topics.

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