Common Cable Connectors Explained

In the audio world, there are six common cable connectors you’ll come across frequently: TRS and XLR for balanced connections and TS, RCA, SpeakON, and banana plugs for unbalanced connections.


TRS is the abbreviation for “Tip, Ring, Sleeve.” It looks like a standard 1/4″ or 1/8″ plug but with an extra “ring” on its shaft. TRS cables have two conductors plus a ground (shield). They are commonly used to connect balanced equipment or for running both left and right mono signals to stereo headphones. You will also find TRS connectors on the stem of Y cables. These are used for mixer insert jacks where the signal is sent out through one wire and comes back in through the other.


XLR connectors are 3-pin connectors: positive, negative, and ground. They are usually used for transmitting microphone or balanced line-level signals. In audio, you will typically see XLR cables connecting microphones to mixers and connecting various outputs to powered speakers.


TS is the abbreviation for “Tip, Sleeve” and refers to a specific type of 1/4″ or 1/8″ connector that is set up for 2-conductor, unbalanced operation. One insulator ring separates the tip and sleeve. The tip is generally considered the “hot,” or the carrier of the signal, while the sleeve is where the ground or shield is connected. TS cables are best known as guitar or line-level instrument cables.


RCA is the common name for phono connectors used to connect most consumer stereo equipment. Typically, you will see tape or CD inputs and outputs using RCA connectors. In the digital audio realm, RCA connectors are also used for S/PDIF connections, although true S/PDIF cables are more robust.


A speakON connector is used to connect power amplifiers to PA speakers and stage monitors. These are often preferred over 1/4″ TS connections because of their ability to lock into place. Since you should NEVER use an instrument cable to connect an amp to a speaker, they also help to avoid risky cabling mixups.

Banana Plug

A banana plug is an electrical connector that is designed to join audio wires, such as speaker wires, to the binding posts on the back of many power amplifiers or to special jacks called banana jacks. These jacks are commonly found at the ends of binding post receptacles on the back of power amps. The ends of the wires are held in place by a locking screw.

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