A Quick Guide to Different Types of Audio Connections
Updated: August 26,2022
Have you ever gotten irritated by the crackling from your earbuds when listening to your favorite song? It’s aggravating, but many of us get used to it instead of just replacing our headphones or cable.
Proper cable management is the reason why professional audio engineers take such great care of their cables and are careful how they pack them. It certainly saves money on constantly having to buy new ones.
That said, signal quality is affected not only by the state of your cables but also by their type. There are different types of audio connections, and sound these days travels via both analog and digital sound cable connectors or even wirelessly. Some of these methods are sturdier, and some provide us with better signal quality.
With all that in mind, let’s talk a little bit about audio connections, what types of connections are available these days, and their effects on the sound.
Audio Connection Walkthrough
An audio signal is a digital representation of the vibrations made by producing any type of sound. Audio signals are converted from analog to digital through a microphone connected to an audio interface connected to the computer. The computer or the audio device are connected to the speakers or monitors via different types of audio connectors.
The connectors mainly differ by the quality of the signal they can preserve when transmitting it from point A to point B and their durability. This is why different audio connectors serve different purposes. For example, if you’re doing a live show, you want to have a sturdier cable that won’t plug out of the amp, the mic, or the monitors during the show. If you’re in the studio, you will probably go for quality first, as the cables won’t have to deal with as much wear and tear.
Unbalanced vs. Balanced Connection
In terms of audio connectivity, balance and disbalance are technical phrases for an audio cable and its ability to stop interference from external electrical signals that can create noise and downgrade the quality of the transmitted signal.
With the balanced type of audio cables, two conductor wires of different polarities can keep any interference between them, canceling the noise almost entirely.
With unbalanced cables, you have only one conductor wire and a ground, meaning that it does not have the opposing polarity to cancel out the noise.
Unbalanced cables are usually more affordable and are thus often used in home recording studios.
Technology has been transferring from analog to digital in every aspect for decades now and at an ever-increasing pace. Ever since we were introduced to digital music, everything has become more accessible to wider audiences. However, quality on par with analog sound is not that easy to achieve.
Just like when comparing vinyl recordings to a CD or an MP3 file, the analog connectivity brings a certain amount of sound quality to the table, which the digital format has yet to reach (though it’s getting closer and closer).
The first three can all be put in the same category as they differ only in the number of contact points. A TRS connector is a standard type of audio connector that we’ve all used through the headphone jacks on our phones.
“TRS” stands as an acronym for “Tip-Ring-Sleeve,” referring to the contact points. They have a positive wire on the tip and a negative wire on the ring, and due to different polarities, they both gather and cancel out any noise and interference. Such audio connectors are considered to be balanced connectors.
TRS cables are used as both mono and stereo cables and can provide a clean, crisp audio signal. The width of the connectors varies from 3.5mm to 6.5mm. A 3.5mm mini-jack is commonly used as the best connection between gaming speakers and computers or headphones and a phone or tablet. Meanwhile, a 6.5mm cable is used in a professional studio environment.
On the other hand, we have TS (Tip-Sleeve) connectors, which are unbalanced. A ground wire passes through the sleeve, and a signal wire directs the signal through the tip. Due to the risk of noise in the signal, this audio connector is used as a mono cable with instruments like an electric guitar or a keyboard.
The third type is the TRRS, and, you guessed it, it has two rings in its integration.
It uses the same principle as the TRS or a TS connector, the only difference being that extra channel that balances mono with video and allows you to use a mic. These types of audio cables are used on our tablets and phones. TRRS jacks are usually compatible with TRS plugs.
XLR cables have been developed by Cannon and consist of a small barrel and 3 to 7 pins or holes (depending on if it is an input or an output) within a 2 cm diameter. With this audio cable type, the signal is able to travel long distances without losing quality. The cable balances the signal and reduces any EMI interference.
The most common design is the 3-pin connector, primarily used as a microphone cable but also to connect mixers, audio interfaces, or monitor speakers.
These sound connectors were created by the Radio Corporation of America, which is also where they got their name from. Creating an unbalanced connection, they are used as mono cables and come with two connectors: one white for the left channel and one red for the right.
RCA is also known as the phono connector, as it is used to hook a gramophone up to the amplifier. You can also use it to connect the speakers to the TV, plug a beefy subwoofer into the rest of the sound system, or connect it up to a home theater setup.
TOSLINK is usually known as an optical digital audio connector and was initially created by Toshiba to read their Toshiba CD players and send the digital audio signal between different devices. However, it has become so popular that other manufacturers have integrated it with their own devices.
It converts the digital audio signal into light, transferring it through the optical fiber. Today, it is considered outdated due to its short range, which can not transmit a signal over 17 feet. It supports audio formats such as compressed 7.1 Dolby Digital and Lossless 2.0 PCM.
Another audio connector type is the SpeakON connector, the latest innovation in analog technology used for audio signal transmission. It can work under high currents, but most importantly, it prevents arcing damage when getting disconnected. A big plus is a twist-lock mechanism that secures the connector to the device, stopping it from falling out at any moment.
6. Banana Plugs
Banana plugs are created to unclutter the mess of cables hiding behind your workstation. This type of audio plug groups your wire strands and makes the installation easier while not influencing the sound quality. The metal pin is shaped like a banana which is how they got their name.
Considering their affordability and the fact they do not adversely affect the sound, banana plugs are an excellent choice to prevent having a mass of cables at your workstation.
7. Speaker Pins
Speaker pins are the same type of audio plug as the banana plug. Grouping your cables together, they can be attached to the binding post and spring-loaded terminals, unlike the banana plugs that can only be used with the binding-post type of terminals. Depending on your setup, the speaker pins might be a better option for you.
Analog sound connectors send information using electricity. Digital connectors transfer information using a series of 0’s and 1’s. Analog gives us the natural sound with all its imperfections, while digital is a lot more accessible and can imitate the natural sound very well but is frowned upon by some music purists.
Although it was, and still is, primarily a video connector, an HDMI cable can carry compressed audio as well. It supports the lossless audio quality of the DTS (Digital Theatre System) for 7.1 surround setups. The 1.4 version also features ARC (Audio Return Channel), meaning that it sends the audio from the TV to the receiver and equalizes any delays between video and audio.
Note that if you do not have a proper sound system or at least a quality soundbar to connect to your TV, there won’t be much difference in the sound itself. To properly hear the difference in sound, you would need the technology that can emulate the signal it is receiving.
USB types of audio plugs were first implemented in microphones in the early 2000s, but the sound quality was far from satisfying.
However, as time passed, it became better and better, and USB connections can these days be separated into Class 1 (24-bit/96kHz) and Class 2 (24-bit/192 kHz) audio transmission.
USB utilization allows you to bypass the computer’s sound card, letting the USB DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) make far better conversions.
Finally, we have the MIDI ports. They are not your typical audio connectors, as they do not produce sound themselves. Instead, they send information to the devices that do create sound regarding the kind of audio they are supposed to produce. MIDI ports are just as reliable as USB ports but a little slower.
4. Wireless Audio Connection Types
Currently, the most widely used wireless connection globally relies on Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth connects various devices, like our keyboard and mouse to our computer or a tablet, headphones to the phone or a laptop, and even a vacuum cleaner with the device you use to control it.
When it comes to audio, Bluetooth is mainly used with consumer-grade speakers. With many quality speakers being so affordable today, it’s no wonder so many people fell in love with this technology. The tech works by transmitting radio waves between two devices, and it does so with different types of codecs (signal compression or decompression).
The sound quality here depends more on the device itself than the connector.
For an average consumer, the beautiful thing about it is that there are no different types of audio jack, no plugs, and no cables hanging from your ears. You can enjoy audio without any distractions and don’t have any wires to mess up.
However, it still does not come close to a wired connection as the sound can start cracking due to interference and the distance between the sender and the receiver. This is why the technology is constantly evolving, and we cannot wait to see what the future will bring and how some of these technical challenges will be solved.
A few decades ago, when we were switching from SCART or VGA to HDMI cables, it was tough when, for example, you had a console you wanted to connect to your TV, but they both had different plugs and ports. Audio adapters were invented to save space and money so that different audio jacks could connect to different audio port types.
Incompatibility is not an option when you are on a tight schedule or need to improvise, which is where audio adapters come in handy. However, the downside is that the more connection points you have, the higher the possibility of failure or that the signal is simply not transmitted with adequate quality.
Different types of audio connectors will provide you with differing sound quality; some are only for simple audio enjoyment, while others are mandatory to create a good quality recording. In the end, it all comes down to how important sound quality is to you.
For some, it’s pure hedonism, while for others, it’s simply not worth it. For people whose careers are based or will be based on audio, sound quality is paramount, both for their own enjoyment and for providing their clients with the best possible sound.
Think about usage scenarios but also your budget. Deciding between durability and quality is never an easy choice, so if you find an audio connector that covers both, we would say that it is a worthy investment, but only if you genuinely need it. At the end of the day, audio connections and cables come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, so it’s up to you to decide what you need and how much you’re willing to pay for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
The main types of audio connections are those through TRS connectors, XLR connectors, and RCA connectors.
There are seven types of audio inputs:
- TRS input (3.5mm),
- TRS input (6.5mm),
- XLR input,
- Banana input,
- RCA input,
- Speaker pin input,
- TOSLINK input.
Speakers can be connected via:
- Banana Plugs,
- Pin Connectors,
- Speaker Terminals,
- Audio Jacks (TRS connectors),
- speakON Connectors.
Your email address will not be published.
While Damjan started his career in humanities, his interests quickly moved on to the tech and IT world. VPNs, antiviruses, firewalls, password managers - cybersecurity is what he knows best. When Damjan’s not losing hair over the dwindling of our collective sense of tech safety, you’ll find him looking for solace in 100-hour-long RPGs and rage-inducing MOBAs.