What good is an audio device without an adequate connection to marry it to your system? Let’s delve into the labyrinthine pool of audio cables and connectors which wrap around our world of audiophilia.
Ever since Thomas Edison’s phonograph belched out the words “Mary had a little lamb”, the world has stayed in a relentless
pursuit of recording and reproducing audio. The advancements led to more intricate machines, specializing in different aspects
of sound. How do all these machines interact to produce our favorite symphonies? Cables of course. And even though we’re moving towards a wireless society, the premium fidelity provided by wires still stands leagues ahead.
Cable connections as we know are broadly split into two categories; balanced and unbalanced. Unbalanced connections have two conductors – one for carrying the signal and the other for grounding. Balanced on the other hand has three conductors – one stays for grounding and the other two carry the signal. One of those two carries the signal in normal polarity while the other carries it with the polarity flipped and at the destination is corrected back to normal.
When the second signal is inverted to original orientation, all of the noise it captured also gets its polarity flipped. Now when the two signals meet, each carrying noise of opposing polarities, the noise gets nullified, resulting in clean audio. This makes balanced cable an ideal option for long cable networks.
The cable connections consist of a wire and connector ends, with each of them having their own abilities and feature sets. First up, the most common audio connector known to mankind – Phone Connector. Never heard of it? Well, you sure have used it, in fact, you use it every day. The quarter-inch TRS connector or the commonly designated headphone cable’, both belong to the parentage of phone connectors.
For a bit of history, when telephones were first brought to mainstream usage, they came with a middleman called the ‘operator’. The operator’s job was to manually connect you to the other person with a phone connector. Fast forward to today, we have them in three different sizes, and for three different cable types.
6.35, 3.5 and 2.5
6.35 mm connectors are most notably associated with electric guitars as the instruments come with a female side of the connector. They are also found on certain loudspeakers as an alternative to Speakon connectors (discussed later) and professional headphones. 3.5 mm connectors are the ones used in almost every mobile device.
They are the ones which come at the end of most headphones, earphones and auxiliary cables and therefore are found in almost everything which is capable of producing sound. 2.5 mm ones are the rarest amongst the three.
They do the same jobs as the 3.5 mm in audio space with the advantage of being smaller and the disadvantage of being weaker.
TS, TRS, TRRS and more
The second classification which divides phone connectors is the cable type. TS or Tip-Sleeve connector works with an unbalanced connection, tip carries the signal and the sleeve takes the ground.
TRS or Tip-Ring-Sleeve connector works with the balanced cable, tip and ring carry the signal and the sleeve takes the ground again. TRRS or Tip-Ring-Ring-Sleeve is for a balanced cable that also carries a microphone signal. The extra ring or
the sleeve carries this signal.
The phone connector family, classified by size Standards for a TRRRS configuration for a 3.5 mm connector were recently approved to add another conductor to the roster. This new conductor can be used for active noise cancellation, a second microphone for binaural recording or to connect an external power source.
Close to the middle of the 20th century, Radio Corporation of America came to the conclusion that a connection for high-fidelity content was needed. And thus they created the RCA connector. The cable is split into two or three ends, one for ground and the other(s) for the signal.
The ends are color-coded for easy distinction. White for mono or left channel, red for the right channel, and yellow for composite video. The obvious disadvantage of using these is the absence of balanced connection capabilities. Originally intended for phonographs, RCA connectors have obviously gone through a number of uses.
One can find them on record players, DVD players, televisions, and DJ mixers. They’re mostly on older gadgets, including older headphones. Because of the lack of balanced signal support, they are more susceptible to noise and pose an issue in longer lines.
A man named James H. Cannon invented XLR connectors which are called Cannon connectors. Having three or more pins on the male side, they were only intended for balanced connections.
They started as Cannon X, then the addition of a latch made them XL connectors and finally when the female end was surrounded by synthetic rubber, they were declared as XLR. Though they were superficially similar to older DIN connectors, they weren’t compatible.
XLRs are an industry-standard in balanced audio, found on almost all professional microphones, especially condenser microphones as they can easily produce phantom power. That’s something a lot of condenser mics need. They were also widely used in loudspeakers until Speakon connectors took them down too.
They are still used to move line-level signals to powered loudspeakers and are also found in some professional headphones and a lot of intercom systems.
Loudspeakers have worked with a lot of connectors, but one particular connector suspended them all. The mighty Speakon connector was designed and originally manufactured by Neutrik especially for loudspeakers. Traditionally loudspeakers were either connected by 6.35 mm phone connectors or sometimes XLRs.
But because contact areas were too less in traditional connectors, the need for a new standard arose. Apart from being more capable, Speakons are also quite well designed. The contact pins of both male and female ends are placed inside a cavity. This reduces the chances of coming in contact with strong currents traveling to and from loudspeakers. Speakon works with poles arranged in two concentric circles.
The inner ones are called + poles and the outer ones are called – poles. They come in three configurations – 2, 4, and 8 poles. 4 pole configuration enables bi-amping without two separate cables and 8 does similar for tri-amping and even quad-amping. Speakon is found in most loudspeakers and amps.
In 1983 Toshiba came up with TOSLINK, an optical fiber connector based on Sony Philips Digital Interconnect Format (S/PDIF). TOSLINK is used for transferring high-fidelity audio at extremely low latencies. It can carry com-
pressed signal for surround sound or two channels of uncompressed audio for amplifying receivers. The only problem, it doesn’t support major modern formats, including some lossless ones.
TOSLINK was too overpowered for its time and by the time consumers reached the level of need, HDMI overshadowed it. Yet TOSLINK female ports are found in most computers, televisions, and media receivers. Now even though they didn’t get the same limelight as HDMI, there are a few things one can do with a TOSLINK cable lying around.
A lot of audio systems from the time of TOSLINK don’t support HDMI, yet perform brilliantly. TOSLINK can be used on such devices to deliver high-fidelity output. Another possible use is to kill the ground loop by using TOSLINK for the culprit device. Because TOSLINK is either made of plastic or both glass and plastic, there is no conductivity to cause ground loops.
Another household name in media connectors in HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). It was founded by a consortium of Hitachi, Sanyo, Philips, Silicon Image, Sony, Technicolor SA, and Toshiba in 2002 and later joined by more companies. HDMI has become a standard in high-quality media transfer, capable of carrying compressed and uncompressed video and audio signals. The large compatibility span and a long list of strengths are the reasons for its popularity.
It’s even capable of transferring Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio formats. They are found on all modern computers, video projectors, digital televisions, and audio systems. In 2011, Apple registered Thunderbolt’s trademark as an extremely powerful interface. It really was powerful and it still is. Intel, with whom Apple had co-designed the interface, received the total responsibility of Thunderbolt.
In its first two iterations, it used Mini DisplayPort connector and for Thunderbolt 3 it switched to using USB Type-C. Thunderbolt from the ground up was designed to be mother-of-all-interfaces, with abilities to stream media at extremely low latency, support PCI Express, and even provide DC power.
They really didn’t want you to use any other interface. Because of its speed, it stands as an incredible option for streaming audio to your system and real-time effects processing. If your tastes have made you sensitive to even the minor latencies of older USB connectors, Thunderbolt will come to your rescue.
It can even daisy-chain up to 6 devices and help reduce the loss of time due to heavy transfers. The only catch – its price tag. With Firewire gone and older USBs being too weak to handle the modern demands, Thunderbolt seems to be moving towards the crown. With the iPhone 7, Apple officially dropped a bomb on its support for 3.5 mm phone connector. Lightning was introduced to completely replace it. Although a Chinese company, LeEco, was the first to ditch the ‘headphone jack’ for USB type-C. The reason why Lightning connector is garnering more traction than the other companies’ alternatives phone connectors is that Lightning was already established for audio by Apple.
In 2014 itself Apple released specifications for the Lightning port to its Made-For-iPhone/iPad/iPod (MFi) program. Why would Apple exactly switch to the total Lightning interface? Well other than the fact that Apple has plans for global domination, the phone connectors are too old. Even with their revisions, the hardware they’re based on is outdated.
Modern fidelity needs demand more power and Lightning is here to provide that. Unpowered audio systems are forced to use the amps built inside mobile devices because the phone connector is too weak to transfer the power needed. Now in a place where even the battery has a hard time stretching, expecting better amps is pointless.
This is where Lightning will shine, as it can push much more power to the audio systems compared to the traditional phone connectors.
Now it’s time to go primal. Banana plugs are what we call single-wire connectors. Each of them has only one conductor and thus carries only one type of signal. They are mostly used in couples. Most notably found on a lot of amplifiers, loudspeakers, and other high fidelity sound systems, they’re preferred for their ease of usage and aesthetics.
They also come in a customizable segment as each connector is manually attached to a wire. They are available in a variety of designs, but the basic idea to screw the wire stays.
Because of the number of options available out there, it becomes even more important to know about as many connectors and interfaces as possible. Although we’re dominated by phone connectors and HDMI, they’re not exclusive choices. HDMI takes the league in video/audio department with Thunderbolt pushing hard in the same segment as well. The phone connector is still prominent and growing, but is not the best quality option.
With USB Type-C support, Thunderbolt wants to take away 3.5mm jack’s job. On the mobile front, Type-C and Lightning have already started extinguishing the phone connector’s existence. For sound recording, XLR has taken its major piece of the pie and holds its ground very well. Speakon has absolutely shattered the competition in loudspeaker and amp systems.
Even though TOSLINK never got to live a bright future, its presence in modern systems makes it something to keep an eye on. If you’re looking to improve the audio experience through your mobile device, you can look into Type-C or Lightning peripherals. It should be noted that the market is small for this and it’ll be harder to ditch the headphone jack, especially if you’re an Android user. But nonetheless, if the quality is what you absolutely desire, you do have options.
For loudspeakers and amps, there is a great lead by the Speakon connector. It’s powerful, safe and easy to use. If you’re willing to step outside the common, Thunderbolt also becomes an incredible option, including instrument-level signals. The main drawback with Thunderbolt is its price, but its large compatibility makes it a viable upgrade. Apart from audio, Thunderbolt also promises great video/audio integration, thereby becoming an option alongside HDMI.
If you think that old is gold, TOSLINK and RCA should be on your radar. They are built for high-fidelity content. A lot of older devices which are quite capable and don’t support modern connectors, accept them gracefully. Finally, if you’re into recording and keeping large amounts of high-fidelity audio, XLR and Thunderbolt should be your options.
XLR performs great with microphones, especially with its skill to produce phantom power. Thunderbolt’s ability to daisy chain and channel high speeds makes it a powerful solution for moving files around a studio space and also facilitating backups.