In this article, I want to discuss what types of audio cables you need as a beat maker.
Audio cables are definitely a confusing concept, but after understanding the basics, it’s pretty easy to understand!
If you just want to know the best brands to buy for speaker cables..
Recommended Studio Audio Cable Brands (TS, TRS, + XLR)
But it’s always better to gain some knowledge and insight before whipping out your wallet. I’m really big on making wise purchasing decisions.
Take 5 minutes out, read this article, and you’ll be up to speed.
So here’s some questions you’re probably thinking if you’re new:
- Do you buy XLR, TRS, or TS cables?
- Does each cable have a different purpose?
- What about balanced vs. unbalanced cables?
I want to make these confusing topics easy to understand!
What You Will Learn
- What’s the Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables?
- The Difference Between XLR, TRS, and TS Cables
- The Purpose of XLR, TRS, and TS Cables (And my recommendations on which to buy.)
- 1/8″ vs. 1/4″ Audio Connectors
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Audio Cables
I feel if I first cover balanaced vs. unbalanced.. It will make understanding the connection types (TS, TRS, and XLR) way easier to understand!
The whole concept is confusing because of how it’s described.
Let me explain:
An unbalanced cable only has two wires.
It has the wire that caries the signal, and a ground.
This ground is used as a shield to prevent noise/interference from being introduced to the signal.
And while this ground does help prevent noise.. it’s not perfect.
Since unbalanced cables only have two wires, that’s its weakness.
And the longer the cable, the more chance of interference being introduced!
This is why TS cables are typically quite short, like no longer than 3 meters!
So how is a balanced cable better?
Now this is actually really cool!
This is some creative genius putting theory into practice, achieving real-world results!
A balanced cable has 3 wires.
Two of these wires now carry the signal, and the third wire is still a ground!
This ground is doing its same purpose; preventing interference into the signal.
But, the ground is no longer carrying any signal.
With the two wires carrying the audio signal, one of the the phases is inverted. (Flipped upside down.)
And what we know from audio already is if you take a signal, duplicate it, and flip one of the signals, it will 100% cancel the signal out so that there is dead silence.
Think of math.
If we have 10, and then -10, we have 0 right?
The same happens in audio when we have the same signal flipped on itself.
So let’s imagine we’re at one end of the cable.
The audio hits the connector, starts to go down the cable, but one of the wires is inverted.
So in theory.. there is no audio going down the cable.. (kinda)
BUT.. noise is always there lurking.. trying to attack our clean signal by getting into our wire from surrounding things in the area.
Things such as wall wart transformers (those big plugins on some equipment), or radio frequencies for example!
But, this is where the idea of a balanced cable is absolutely genius.
If we now look at the other end of the cable’s connector, we have no audio because one signal is inverted, right?
Well, the noise that was attacking us is on the inverted side.
What if we were to invert the signal back at our gear?
We’d get our audio signal back.. but would we be canceling out the noise?!
Yes. Yes we would!
Genius. Absolutely genius.
So the end result is the noise gets phase cancelled out, but we get our clean audio signal.
This is why balanced cables can travel long distances!
How to actually achieve a balanced signal?
This is the confusing part.
You can only achieve a fully balanced signal if the whole signal path is balanced.
This means you must used a balanced cable and the gear’s input/output must be balanced as well!
What happens otherwise? Well.. it becomes unbalanced.
I was a bit confused when I found this out.
My thoughts were..
“Why isn’t everything just balanced so we get the highest fidelity in our signals?”.
And then I read a post (linked below) that explained it all comes down to cost.
Balanced is just more expensive.
Here’s a great example I was reading:
A microphone’s volume is super quiet (also known as mic-level signal).
If a microphone wasn’t a balanced output, this has a huge risk of having noise introduced.
And since the signal is so quiet, when we boost up the level with a preamp, it would also boost up the noise!
We can’t have that with our vocal.. now can we?
But whereas instruments.. such as keyboards and guitars..
They output a level much higher than microphones.
Therefore, we can get away with unbalanced signals, even if some noise is introduced, the signal to noise ratio is MUCH better than microphone levels.
And for the analogy I read on that post (on quora)..
Think of your home..
We’ve been building our homes with wood for so long, and it’s quite affordable in compared to steel.
Sure steel might be more rigid and last longer.. but it’d be more expensive..
And is that extra cost worth it when wood has done us great all these years?
I do suggest you read these posts below!
They were extremely helpful to me in writing this post!
- Read: What’s the Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced?
- Read: Why do instruments like guitars and keyboards use unbalanced TS cables and not balanced TRS cables?
The Difference Between XLR, TRS, and TS Cables
We as music producers use 3 main types of cables.
- TS (Tip, Sleeve)
- TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve)
- Also.. RCA (which is not used as often.. mostly for turntables for example)
I’ll cover each one in order of the list above.
TS Cables (Tip, Sleeve)
(Notice this TS cable only has one ring. This means it has a tip and a sleeve – it only has two wires, and two contact points on the connector.)
A TS cable is an unbalanced cable.
This means it only has two wires (conductors) inside the cable, and also only two connection points on the connector itself! (Just Tip and Sleeve)
This means there’s no cool phase cancellation stuff going on, so it is more susceptible to noise being introduced to the signal.
Again, this is why we do not use long lengths for TS cables.
The only usage I’ve really seen for TS cables is pretty much in instruments such as guitars and keyboards..
As mentioned, it seems to be used only because of money/price concerns.
Sure, you can plug a TRS cable into a unbalanced output.. but you’re still getting an unbalanced output because the whole chain has to be balanced to get a balanced signal.
TS Cable Recommendation
For most of my cables, I’ve always bought monoprice cables.
So here’s a TS cable that I would recommend to you:
(This has two rings, which means it has a tip, ring, and sleeve. It has 3 wires, and 3 contact points. The sleeve is always the ground in both TS and TRS cables.)
TRS cables stand for Tip, Ring, Sleeve.
The tip is the positive signal.
The ring is the negative signal.
The sleeve is the common (or ground.)
What makes this tricky is when it comes to headphones..
Typically, a TRS cable does carry a mono signal, which is carried on both wires (and phase cancelled).
But you will hear about “stereo on balanced cables”..
This is typically to do with headphones..
The tip, which is positive, will become your left headphone.
The ring, which is negative, will become your right headphone.
(And sleeve is still ground preventing interference.)
TRS Cable Recommendation
(This is an XLR cable. It is the same as a TRS cable in terms of 3 wires and 3 connection points, but just a sturdier build. These often have a lock-release, which keeps the cable in securely.)
XLR, from my understanding, is the exact same thing as TRS.
The only difference is the actual connector, which people say is sturdier.
It’s still a balanced cable, containing 3 wires.. (Hot, Negative, and Common/Ground).
XLR Cable Recommendation
I actually don’t use a monoprice XLR cable for what ever reason..
Lately I’ve been using the XLR cable recommended below:
I recommend getting a bit longer than what you think you’re going to need.
There have been times where I’ve moved my studio around and realized my cables were too short now!
You’ll read people recommend getting the shortest cable for the job because of less noise..
But in my opinion, the convenience of having an extra long cable is way worth your time rather than caring about such a small detail.
The Purpose of XLR, TRS, and TS Cables
I’ll quickly state what each type of connector/cable is for:
- TS – Typically for instruments.. such as guitars and keyboards. This means the signal is unbalanced, which many of these instruments are because of the price of manufacturing balanced input/output ports on gear.
- TRS – Mostly used for connecting speakers and other types of hardware around the studio.
- XLR – Most often used for microphones, but also very popular for speakers and hardware too, as most speakers/hardware allow for both TRS and XLR connections!
What about 1/4″ and 1/8″ Jacks?
From what I’ve seen, 1/4″ jacks are more robust and common in the audio world.
1/8″ jacks, or 3.5mm (same thing), are typically for headphones because they plug into smaller devices like iPods etc.
If you were to use an adapter from 1/8″ up to 1/4″ sound quality shouldn’t be degraded or anything!
Audio cables are super confusing because of the terminology around the internet.
Some people say stereo and mono for balanced and unbalanced cables.. but again this is confusing.
If you send a stereo signal down a balanced cable.. you do not have a balanced signal because you’re not doing the phase cancellation rejection of noise.
(You have different audio on both wires on headphones, which creates stereo.)
I hope this write-up on audio cables helps you along you way.