Picture the scene…
You’ve just bought a new audio interface from your local branch of Dawsons. With your new toy clutched in your hand, you travel the distance home, anticipating setting it up, and beginning to record the double album concept you’ve been working on for over a year. On arrival, you excitedly un-box the device, plug it into the computer with the included cable and install the drivers. But then, disaster strikes – you discover that you’ve got the wrong cables to connect your speakers to it. This is an easy mistake to make, due in no small part to the fact that there are many different audio cable types and connectors – often called by incorrect names.
So, to save you from wasted journeys, incorrect purchases or simply as guide to the names of each connection type, and what they look like, here is…
1. The 1/4-inch (Quarter-Inch) Jack Connector
Perhaps the most common connection to be found on musical equipment, the quarter-inch jack is the type of connection that is used on electric guitars and guitar amps. The plug itself is always 1/4-inch or 6.3mm jack, with a single black hoop called an insulating ring towards its tip (this indicates that this is a ‘mono’ or single-channel connection). Available as ‘Instrument cables’ (with shielded cabling), used for instrument and line level connections, and ‘Speaker Cables’ (unshielded cables), which are used for connection speakers to amps, guitar heads to cabinets.
Also known as…
- Phone-Jack (these were commonly used in early telephone exchanges)
- 6.3mm Jack
- Guitar Jack
2. The 1/4-inch Balanced Jack (Or Stereo Jack) Connector
As the name suggests, this plug is exactly the same size as the above. The difference between the two it that this connection is capable of carrying two channels of audio (e.g. a stereo signal, with a separate left and right channel). This is done via a Tip, Ring, Sleeve (TRS) design, the plug itself now divided with two black hoops. The tip is the pointy end, the ring is the section after the first black hoop, and the sleeve is after the second.
The tip and the ring carry the left and right channel signals, while the sleeve acts as a common earth. The most common use of a stereo jack connection is that of a headphone output, on keyboards, pianos, mixing desks, recording equipment, guitar amps and hi-fi equipment.
The same plug is often known as a balanced 1/4″ Jack. Without going into too much technical detail, balanced audio connections use TRS plugs (a balanced connection is required at both ends) to form a mono (single channel) connection that is far less susceptible to external noise, particularly when running long cables. This type of connection is most commonly found on audio interfaces and recording equipment, mixing desks and PA equipment. Equipment manuals will generally specify if your equipment features balanced connections.
Also known as…
- Stereo 1/4″ Jack
- TRS Jack
- Balanced Jack
- Stereo Phone-Jack
3. The Stereo Minijack Connector
This is now, arguably, the most common audio connection of all. The stereo minijack is the plug that you’ll usually find on MP3 player headphones. This connection is smaller, with a 3.5mm (1/8″) plug. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that this is also a TRS arrangement, with two insulation rings. And, again, the left and right channels are carried by the tip and ring with sleeve as a common ground.
The most common use for these is for portable music player headphones, for connecting MP3 players to car stereos, and audio connections on computers. Mono minijacks do exist (spotted by their single black hoop/insulating ring), but they are relatively infrequently used.
Also known as…
- (Stereo) minijack
- 3.5mm Jack
- 1/8″ Jack
- Occasionally, it may get referred to a ‘headphone jack’
4. The RCA Connector
The RCA plug may be as familiar to you as mini-jack plugs, as these are used frequently in Hi-Fi and home audio equipment. The acronym RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America and is they who were responsible for the development of this connection. They instigated the replacement of 1/4″ TRS Jack connections on Phonographs in the 1940s, to allow them to be connected to amplifiers, hence why this connection type is also called a Phono connection.
The RCA is an unbalanced, mono connection commonly found on DJ mixers, Hi-Fi equipment, audio interfaces and frequently on the ‘tape in’ and ‘tape out’ connections on mixing desks, and usually (but not always) features a red, right channel connection and a white, left channel connection, as pictured here…
Also known as…
- RCA plugs
- Phono plug
- Cinch plug
- Occasionally, incorrectly referred to as an ‘Aux cable’
5. The XLR Connector
The XLR connection is another balanced connection. Used in many pro audio applications, its design is a barrel of approximately 2cm in diameter, with between 3 and 7 pins (male) or holes (female). The most commonly used format in audio applications is the 3 pin XLR. Originally produced by Cannon Electronics, and released as the Cannon X range, this led to them being known as ‘Cannon’ connections. The second revision was the Cannon XL (featuring a locking switch) and the third, the Cannon XLR. Thus, this connection became known as an XLR.
The XLR is used across a broad range of musical and audio applications, due to the fact that it is both balanced, and a very secure connection. As a general rule of thumb, female XLR plugs usually receive output signals from devices (a microphone, for example), and male XLR plugs are generally used to plug into inputs (a mic pre-amp on a mixing desk, or active studio monitors, for example), with male XLRs plugging into female sockets and vice versa.
As a result, the most commonly used XLR cable is the trusty mic lead, featuring a female XLR plug on one end and a male XLR on the other. Common uses are for mic cables, monitor speakers, audio interfaces, PA applications and much more besides.
XLR female plug, and the male XLR socket it would plug into…
XLR male plug, and the female XLR socket it would plug into…
Also known as…
- Cannon leads
- Mic leads
6. The Speakon Connector
The most recent of the audio connections and sounding somewhat like an alien race intent on overthrowing the Earth (‘The Speakons are invading! we’re all doomed!’), is the Speakon connection. Developed by cable supremo’s, Neutrik, it is available in 2-, 4- and 8- pole iterations, though the 2- and 4- pole are those most commonly used in everyday audio applications. The Speakon is designed to take high current signals. Typically, female plugs connect to male panel sockets, and have a twist-lock mechanism that secures them into the socket. This makes Speakon connectors ideal for live sound applications, most commonly connecting power amplifiers to loudspeakers. As a result, Speakon to XLR cables are also very common.
Female Speakon Plug, and Corresponding Male Speakon Socket
And that pretty much covers the most common analogue audio connections. So, now you know a Speakon from a balanced jack, and can confidently ask for a stereo minijack to a pair of RCAs, to connect your iPod to your DJ mixer, knowing that you won’t have any nasty surprises when you get home. Well, at least not cable related surprises.
Get in touch
View our complete range of audio cables, leads and adapters over at the Dawsons website. Alternatively, head to your local Dawsons Music store, where our in-store specialists will be more than happy to help you out.
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Now you know your RCAs from your XLRs, learn how to keep your gear in pristine condition with our “How Not to Coil a Cable” guide.
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.