The Engadine Music Guide To Cables
So many options; which cable is right for you and your application? Let’s discuss how cables work, which ones connect to what, and how to select the right cable for any given application to maximise sound quality and minimise noise.
Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables
A balanced electrical signal runs along 3 wires; a ground wire, and also two other wires that carry copies of the same incoming audio signal, the hot (or positive) signal and the cold (or negative) signal. The two signals are reversed in polarity, though once the hot and cold signals arrive at the other end of the cable the polarity of the cold signal is flipped, so that both signals are ‘in phase’ and in sync. Any noise added to the cable is carried along both of those cables until it reaches its destination, at which point a process called ‘common-mode rejection’ cancels out the noise. Balanced cables are 6 to 10db louder than unbalanced cables.
An unbalanced cable has a signal that runs along 2 wires; the signal and ground. The signal wire carries the audio signal, whilst the ground wire picks up unwanted noise. These type of cables are best kept at short distances to minimise noise picked up as it is sent along the cable length.
Common Cable Connectors
TS is an abbreviation for ‘Tip, Sleeve’. The connector has 2 rings and are commonly known as guitar leads or instrument cables.
TRS is an abbreviation for ‘Tip, Ring, Sleeve’. The connector looks like a standard jack plug, but with an extra ring on the shaft. TRS cable connectors have 2 conductors plus a ground. These are commonly used to connect balanced equipment.
XLR connectors are 3-pin; positive, negative, and ground. They are commonly used for microphone and balanced line-level signals.
RCA is the name most commonly used for plugs on cables used to connect most consumer stereo equipment.
Speakon connectors are used to connect power amplifiers to PA speakers and stage monitors. These are preferable over TS connectors as they lock into place.
Banana Plug is an connector designed to join audio wires, such as those from a speaker, to the binding posts found on powered amplifiers. Wires are held in place by a locking screw.
Avoid using a guitar or instrument cable to connect speakers. At low levels it is probably OK. But at high levels trouble can occur as the power from the amp attempts to flow through the instrument cable’s conductor, which is too small to handle this to any great effect. Following this a lot of the power generated from the amplifier is converted to hear and never reaches the speakers. The result is reduced speaker output, the likelihood of distortion, and possible cable failure for amplification overheating.
Conversely, a speaker cable can be used as an instrument cable as the load is far weaker than that generated from an amp. But speaker cables are not shielded, and so the unshielded conductors can pick up interference from lighting, power supplies and various other external AC sources.
Engadine Music has a large array of cables and connectors available for your musical needs available online or in store. We can also source far more than listed, so if you are searching for a specific lead (or power supply) don’t hesitate to contact us via email or call (02) 9520 3044.