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AV Connector Types – A Must Know! (Sound)

So you are ready to put together all the audio equipment you’ve bought for your home studio. You are very excited to start your very own music production, as soon as that long awaited audio technology course starts next month. But hold up a second, what else am I missing? Hmm…maybe some cable connectors?

I for one, know that the different AV connector types, can be quite confusing for people who are relatively new to this whole mumbo jumbo (I meant the audio world). And many times, it seems that various connectors can just be RCA Connectorsinserted into the same inputs. Hey, as long as there is sound coming out right? But is that so?

In this article, I am only going to touch on audio connectors. While there are quite a few things to look through, I aim to be as brief as possible while still providing enough information to you people. So, without further ado, let’s dive into world of connectors!

Audio connectors? Do I need them?

Unless you plan on causing your lead singer to have an “emergency room-worthy” throat infection, as she is trying to compete with the guitarist’s amplifier on high gain, then yes, you do need audio connectors.

Audio connectors are in essence, electrical connectors (or optical connectors) that carries audio signals either in analog or digital format. As electrical wires are often prone to have its signals weaken due to interferences (especially for longer cables), most analog audio connectors are made using shielded cables to inhibit radio frequency interference (RFI) and noise.

In order to ensure successful transfer of signals between different electrical audio equipment (even with video equipment), you need to make sure that the family of connectors you plan to use, are compatible with various interfaces. To put it simply, audio can be divided into two categories:

  • Analog signal
  • Digital signal

For the sake of this article, we will not be touching on the definition of those two terms, but only look at the different connectors that are required to carry those signals respectively.

Analog Signal Connectors

These are the type of connectors that musicians and sound engineers will come across a lot through their careers. Even consumer products like home karaoke systems also uses some of these connectors which are:

  • Phone Connector
  • XLR Connector

Phone Connector

Also widely known as “phone jack”, “audio jack” or “jack plug”, it is a family of connectors primarily used for analog audio signals. It has a cylindrical shape with up to 4 point of contacts. I would say that the most commonly seen ones are the three-contact versions known as “TRS connectors”, where T stands for “tip”, R stands for “ring” and S stands for “sleeve”. Similarly, two- and four-contact versions are called TS and TRRS connectors respectively.

phone connectors

From left: 2.5mm, 3.5mm (mono), 3.5mm (stereo), 6.35mm

Some of the sizes that are typically used:

  • 2.5 mm mono “TS” (Used for earpieces on transistor radios)
  • 3.5 mm mono “TS” (Same with the 2.5mm version)
  • 3.5 mm stereo “TRS” (MP3 Players, Laptops, Smartphones, Ipods)
  • 6.35 mm (14 in) “TRS” (Electrical guitars, Headphones, Loudspeakers)

If you are still confused as to what connector sizes to use, just take note that the 6.35 mm (14 in) plugs are common on home and professional audio equipment (most electronic instruments and amplifiers), while 3.5 mm plugs are used for possibly every single portable audio equipment (music players, smart phones etc).

TRRS Phone

Photo by HereToHelp / CC BY-SA 3.0

The 2.5 mm plugs however, are not as common and are normally used on communication equipment such as cordless phones, mobile phones, and two-way radios (generally not used by consumers today). You might also come across a TRRS version where you would see three black stripes on the connector. These are found on newer smartphones such as the iPhone, that uses a 4-conductor (TRRS) phone connector for its headset that includes a built-in microphone and control button (refer to picture on the left).

XLR Connector (Three Pin)

Like the phone plug, it is also an electrical connector, mainly used for professional audio, video, and stage lighting equipment. They have a circular design and have a range of 3 to 7 pins. Most engineers would largely associate it with balance audio interconnection, including AES3 digital audio. In this article, we are only concerned about the most common type of XLR  connector in the audio world, which is the “Three Pin”.

XLR Connectors

Photo by Jmb / CC BY 2.5

Consumer-level audio products usually do not utilize the “Three Pin” XLR connectors. These connectors are also available in male and female versions in both cable and chassis mounting designs, a total of four styles.

Many engineers and audio professionals alike depend on the “Three Pin”, thus it becomes an industry standard for balanced audio signals. You will find that most professional microphones use the XLR connector. In the past, they were also used for loudspeaker connections, for example by Trace Elliot in its bass enclosures.

However, The Speakon connector now replaces the XLR (in terms of loudspeaker connections) as it accepts larger wires and carries more current, and it provides a better shield for the contacts, which may carry dangerous voltages when connected to an amplifier. But do not be confused, there are also types of loudspeakers that only accepts XLR connectors, and this are usually known as “Active” speakers.

Digital Signal Connectors

These are the types of connectors mainly used for consumer audio equipment to carry audio over considerably short distances. It interconnects components in home theatres and other digital high fidelity systems. Some types of digital signal connectors are:

  • RCA Connectors (Also can be used to carry analog signals)
  • TOSLINK

RCA Connector

RCA Video component

Photo by E3uematsu / CC BY-SA 3.0

An “RCA” connector, sometimes called a “phono connector” or “cinch connector”, is a type of electrical connector commonly used to carry audio and video signals. You might realise that some people also casually refer to it as “A/V jacks”.

When component high-fidelity systems started becoming popular in the 1950s, “RCA” connectors started to replace the older quarter-inch phone connectors for many other applications in the consumer audio world . Despite this, quarter-inch phone connectors are still common in professional audio, while its miniature variant, the “3.5mm” phone connector have become predominant in personal stereo systems.

Xbox 360 Composite cables

Xbox 360 Composite cables

Just like most other audio connectors before it, the RCA has been adopted for uses other than what it is originally intended for, including as a power connector and occasionally as a connector for loudspeaker cables. It is also very commonly used for composite video signals, but provides poor impedance matching. RCA connectors and cable also carry “S/PDIF-formatted” digital audio, with orange-coloured plugs to make them distinct from other typical connections.

The “RCA” connector is not just used for home DVD players or video game consoles, it is also quite frequently used to connect to professional mixing consoles (especially in live sound) or some older amplification systems.

TOSLINK

TOSLINK Connector

Photo by Hustvedt / CC BY-SA 3.0

Generically known as an “optical audio cable” or just “optical cable”, it is generally used in consumer audio equipment (via a “digital optical” socket), where it carries a digital audio signal from components such as CD and DVD players, DAT recorders, computers, and modern video game consoles.

Normally, these digital signal then travels to an AV receiver that can decode two channels of uncompressed lossless PCM audio or compressed 5.1/7.1 surround sound such as Dolby Digital Plus or DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Unlike HDMI, “TOSLINK” does not have the bandwidth to carry the lossless versions of Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio and LPCM.

You would rarely see “TOSLINK” being used in a professional sound system set-up or even in a recording studio (unless it is a studio equipped with surround sound capability). Just like the “RCA” connector, it is largely used for home theatre systems or some of the latest video game consoles.

Toslink CableJust for your information, “TOSLINK” was originally created by Toshiba, to connect their CD players to the receivers they manufactured, for PCM audio streams. Soon after, it was adopted by manufacturers of most CD players.

Alright, I hope this article was not too much of a headache to read. I tried to keep it as brief as possible so that our friends who are still quite new to this, could digest most of it. Thanks for reading (you did read at least the title right?) and be sure to leave a comment below!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

4 Comments

  1. Wow! Great info. Never knew there was so much to learn about audio cables. I am familiar with most of what you mentioned but never knew their significance.

    I don’t see HDMI cables mentioned. Maybe they are considered visual and not audio, although I have to set my receiver to HDMI to get any sound?

    Anyway, great informative site. Keep up the good work.

    Wayne

    • Hey Wayne, it’s good to know that you have found it useful.

      I did not mention HDMI as it is normally used at homes for consumer level products like your home theatres etc. I have decided to narrow down this article to connectors that are more for professional audio use (although some are used for consumers as well).

      Just for your info, HDMI carries both video and digital audio signals =)

      Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Wow! You really are a master with this kind of connector art Farhan. I didn’t even know until I read this post of yours that there are lot of types of connectors that exist in the market.

    I’m really curious what you do personally. Do you belong in a band or something? I used to be in a band but the instrument I only know how to use is the mic. I don’t even connect it to the amplifier because once we are on stage it’s already set up. LOL!

    • Hey Norstad! You flatter me with your compliments, thank you.

      Yes, I am a musician. However professionally, I come from an audio engineering background and I work freelance. I’m glad you got something out of this article!

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