Musical Cables: A Brief Guide

The sound of life is the sound of music. People love to have some background music playing at either key moments of their lives (for dramatic effect) or just when they do day-to-day chores. We love a little playlist when working out, during road trips, and, most importantly, going to concerts. What the layperson experiences at a concert is a whole different conversation, and what goes on behind the scenes is a whole different story. It involves not only the musician, but the turntables, the sound system, the instruments, and, most essential of all, the cables that bring the whole show home. 

But things are not as harmonious as they seem. Your setup is only as seamless as your strongest cable. Whether you want to connect your bass guitar, your microphone, or your epic turntable system, you need the best cables available. 

Let’s learn more about the cables that carry audio signals and deliver a melody. 

The cables that transmit audio signals can be put into two broad categories: balanced and unbalanced cables. 

Balanced Cables

Three wires make up a balanced cable: two pairs that carry the same signal, one with an opposing polarity, and the remaining would connect the grounds and shields. An unbalanced cable is made up of only two wires, so the balanced cable has an advantage over it with its additional wire. The advantage it has is that the devices that use balanced cables can decipher the signal, overlooking any interference on the receiving end. The interfering cable will affect both wires the same way, so when reassembled, its presence is canceled out. This is the reason why balanced cables are used in live studio setups. 

The following are some common balanced connector types:

  • XLR

XLR stands for External Line Return. These are the universal cables found in a musician’s bag. They are available in various pin configurations: three-pin, four-pin, five-pin, six-pin, seven-pin, PDN, and two-pin (discontinued). The three-pin is the most common as it is also known as the mic cable. These cables also transmit lighting control data and AES/EBU digital audio.

  • TRS (tip/ring/sleeve)

The TRS is very similar to a type of unbalanced connector called TS (tip/sleeve); the only difference is the ring part, which helps the transmission of the signal for the second wire. These are used to connect balanced audio signals in the back of consoles, and patch bays, in stereo cables where we need to carry two discrete signals using the same cable. 

  • TT (tiny telephone)

TTs are just the tinier versions of TRSs. They are most commonly used in studio patch bays because they save a ton of space. For example, in a regular 19-inch rack, you fit up to 96 connections.

Unbalanced Cables

All you need to transmit audio the standard method of transmission is via unbalanced cables. They have one less wire than the balanced cables, which have three wires. When dealing with instruments or audio cables, an unbalanced cable would have a hot wire that transmits the signal and a shield. If it's a speaker cable, then it would just have a pair of wires without the shield. 

The issue with the design of the unbalanced cable is that it is susceptible to noise and interference. At the core of these cables is a long piece of metal, and there is nothing like a long, thin piece of metal to act like a radio antenna. It is advisable to use balanced cables should you want to have run times of a considerable distance with no noise, interference, or degradation. 

Following are some common types of unbalanced cables:

  • TS (tip-sleeve)/instrument

These are the most widely known and used familiar connection types for all musicians. They weren’t always used by musicians for their electric guitars, though; they got their start (and have remained unchanged in design) in the late 1800s with the invention of telephone switchboards. 

  • RCA

RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, named so because they were the ones that invented it. These cables are most commonly found in home audio equipment and DJ turntables. They were also used to connect TV sets to DVD and VCR stations or the stereo receivers to CD players. Additionally, this connector can be used in the S/PIDF protocol (Sony/Phillips Digital Interconnect Format). Regardless of the RCA, S/PDIF is a method of transmitting digital info, not audio. 

Instrument vs. Speaker Cables

One cannot use an instrument cable instead of a speaker cable, and vice versa, even though they look the same. Speaker cables are made of two wires, while the instrument cables have a wire and a shield. One can technically use a speaker cable as an instrument cable; there would be a lot of noise from interference, but it’s doable. But you should try to do it the other way around. This can work at low levels for a short time, but at high levels, it will distort the signal completely, in addition to heating up. The insulation would melt and result in an electrical short. 

Let’s go through the common speaker connectors:

  • TS speaker: They are very similar in their looks to the TS instrument cable. 
  • Speakon: These have a twist-lock system which gives you a secure connection. They are available in multiple lead varieties that can run multiple pairs of speaker signals in the same cable. 
  • Banana plug: The banana plug for speakers are cheap and easy to install/remove. They are not particularly strong connectors, so you should avoid using them where you constantly need to plug and unplug cables.

There are plenty of other types of cables that you may use to set up your home studio: MIDI, BNC, optical/Toslink/ADAT Lightpipe. The cables that generally carry control data from any kind of controller, to be then used by another device to generate sounds, is the MIDI, short for musical instrument digital interface. These don’t actually contain any audio data. The BNC connector is a coaxial cable that is just a little different connector type, the British Naval Connector, to be precise. This is the go-to cable to transmit the World Clock, which syncs up the clocks of various digital devices. Lastly, the ADAT Lightpipe. The ADAT part has gone out of vogue, but the Lightpipe has stuck around, and has become the basic method for digital audio transfer. 


No matter how you like your music, whether you make it, love to scream along with your favorite musicians, or vibe to whatever the DJ is putting on, now you will appreciate the thought and work that is put into finding the correct cable. Cables make those dulcet sounds you love; the cables maintain the smooth flow from the beat drop to the guitar riff.