Greetings mate and Welcome aboard! Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, so…
In the realm of audio equipment, cables are often overlooked but play a vital role in connecting devices.
With years of experience in the audio hobby and gross amounts of random cables strewn about my apartment, I was inspired to create a comprehensive guide covering various cable types used in the audio sphere.
Join me in exploring these cables, from standard 3.5mm connections, to RCA, to specialized balanced cables that cater to specific needs, and much more.
We’ll also cover couplers and other various accessories that help simplify and organize your setup.
In short, this guide will cover every type of cable that I have here and we’ll attempt to discuss everything under the sun – starting from the most basic cables to the most complex/rare.
I’ll explain why I included each/what I used them for!
The guide will be split up into sections:
- Part I: RCA/Line/Optical/Couplers
- Part II: Lightning Cables, USB Cables & Adapters
- Part III: XLR/TRS/TS/Midi/Instrument
- Part IV: Single-Ended/Balanced Headphone + Amp/DAC Cables
If you have any suggestions, comment below!
Whether you’re an audiophile or brand-spankin’ new to the hobby, this guide will provide insights and my thoughts on the wonderful world of audio cables.
Part I: RCA/Line/Optical/Couplers
3.5mm to 3.5mm
I have this one as well.
A 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable, commonly known as a 3.5mm audio cable, is a versatile and widely used audio connection cable.
It features a 3.5mm (1/8 inch) jack on both ends and is known for its simplicity and compatibility with various devices.
Let’s explore its various uses and applications:
One of the most common uses for a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable is connecting headphones to various audio sources.
You can plug one end into your headphones and the other into a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or audio player to enjoy your favorite music, podcasts, or videos.
Many audio devices, such as car stereos, portable speakers, and home theater systems, feature a 3.5mm auxiliary input jack.
A 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable allows you to connect your device, like an MP3 player or smartphone, to these audio systems to play your music through their speakers.
Connecting DACS and Amplifiers
Another example is connecting a standalone DAC to a Standalone Amp – using the output of the DAC and the input of the Amplifier.
Recording and Broadcasting
In audio recording and broadcasting setups, 3.5mm cables are used to connect microphones, headphones, and other audio equipment to mixers or recording devices.
They’re also commonly used by podcasters, video creators, and/or vloggers for connecting microphones to their cameras or monitoring audio.
Gamers often use 3.5mm to 3.5mm cables to connect their headsets and/or microphones to gaming consoles, controllers, or PCs.
This allows for in-game communication and audio output.
- Recommended: The Best Headphones for Gaming [In Depth Guide]
A quick example of a headset microphone utilizing a 3.5mm jack would be the V Moda Boom Pro.
Interconnecting Audio Devices
Personal Audio Mixing
Some people use these cables to create personal audio-mixing setups.
For example, you can connect a music player to a smartphone and mix the audio from both sources, giving you the ability to play background music while recording voiceovers.
- Music Player: You have a music player (e.g., an older device with RCA outputs) that is playing music.
- Smartphone: You have a smartphone with a 3.5mm input.
- Mixing Audio: By using an RCA to 3.5mm cable, you can connect the music player’s audio output to your smartphone’s 3.5mm input. This allows you to take the audio output from the music player and route it to your smartphone.
- Recording Voiceovers: On your smartphone, you might be running a voice recording app or software. By mixing the audio from the music player with your voice (captured by the smartphone’s microphone), you can record voiceovers while having background music playing at the same time.
Essentially, it’s a DIY setup that lets you mix audio from different sources, like background music from a music player and your voice from the smartphone, which could be useful for creating content, recording commentary, or other creative audio projects.
It’s not a common scenario, but it illustrates one of the potential uses for RCA to 3.5mm cables in a creative context.
Adapter and Extension Use
Sometimes, you might need to adapt a 3.5mm connection to another type, like 1/4-inch (6.35mm) or RCA connectors.
This is very common in audiophile or general listening setups where not every Amplifier has the same-sized headphone output jack.
In other words, if you’re a lazy couch potato who plays video games on his couch (like me), you’re gonna need mad extension cables to ensure you’ll never have to actually get up or move.
Home Theater Systems
In some cases, home theater systems come with 3.5mm audio inputs for connecting auxiliary devices like gaming consoles or media players.
A 3.5mm cable can be useful for these connections.
Educational and Presentation Tools
3.5mm cables can be employed in classrooms and conference rooms to connect laptops or mobile devices to projectors, sound systems, or interactive whiteboards for presentations and educational purposes.
RCA to mini (3.5mm)
Price: Check Amazon
The RCA to 3.5mm cable, also known as a stereo RCA to 3.5mm or mini-jack cable, much like the 3.5-3.5, serves as a bridge between different audio devices with varying connection options.
This cable typically has two RCA connectors on one end, which are often red and white, and a 3.5mm (1/8 inch) jack on the other end.
Here’s a look at its various uses and applications:
Connecting DACs to Amps
In the above image, the Zen Can Amp sits on top of the accompanying DAC. Note the input options: balanced 4.4mm, 3.5mm (Single-Ended), and RCA.
Connecting a headphone DAC to a headphone amplifier using an RCA to mini cable is a common practice among audio enthusiasts (the good folks) and snobby audiophiles (the bad) alike.
This setup allows for the conversion of digital audio signals into analog and then amplifying them for superior sound quality.
- Recommended: What Is a Headphone Amp?
It’s a straightforward and effective way to enhance your headphone listening experience, ensuring a clean and powerful audio output.
Connecting Audio Sources
The primary use of RCA to 3.5mm cables is to connect audio sources with RCA outputs to devices with 3.5mm inputs, but they can also be used in the following scenarios:
Connecting Audio Components to a Home Theater System
You might use RCA to 3.5mm cables to connect various audio sources (like a DVD player, CD player, or gaming console) with RCA outputs to a home theater receiver or soundbar that has a 3.5mm input.
An example would be my CD Player to my receiver using the TV/CD inputs.
Linking DJ Equipment
DJs often use RCA cables to connect turntables or other audio equipment to a mixer, which may have both RCA and 3.5mm inputs/outputs.
Connecting Older Audio Equipment to Modern Devices
Sometimes, people might adapt their older audio equipment with RCA outputs to work with more modern devices like smartphones, tablets, or portable speakers that have 3.5mm inputs. This could be for nostalgic or experimental purposes.
In general, the purpose of RCA to 3.5mm cables is to bridge the gap between different types of audio equipment, but the specific use case can vary widely depending on the devices in question and the user’s needs.
Connecting a CD player or turntable directly to a smartphone might be unusual, but it’s technically possible if you want to play audio from those sources through the smartphone’s speakers or headphones.
Pairing With Active Speakers
One common connection I use in my studio is hooking up a headphone amplifier with preamp capabilities – such as the FiiO K3 – with active speakers like the Presonus Eris e3.5.
The connection utilizes the K3’s 3.5mm output and the Eris’ RCA inputs.
Recording and Mixing
Musicians and sound engineers utilize RCA to 3.5mm cables to connect audio equipment, such as keyboards or synthesizers with RCA outputs, to mixers, recording devices, or amplifiers with 3.5mm inputs for recording or live performances.
TV and Soundbars
In scenarios where a television has RCA audio output and a soundbar or external speaker system has a 3.5mm input, this cable can facilitate audio connection, improving sound quality for your TV viewing experience.
RCA to RCA
I have since bought these to replace the ones pictured below. If you’re wondering why, it’s because the ones below are too stiff and not quite long enough.
The RCA to RCA cable is similar in design to an RCA to Mini (3.5mm) cable, only it uses RCA at both ends.
The choice between these cables often depends on the equipment involved and the specific requirements of your setup.
For instance, one DAC may have RCA outs, while the other has a 3.5mm line out and vice versa.
Similarly, an amp may have RCA inputs or it may have a 3.5mm input. Sometimes it may have both. I like to keep both types around for convenience.
RCA to RCA cables are more suitable when connecting audio components that feature only RCA connectors, which is a common scenario in home theater systems, vintage audio setups, and professional audio equipment.
On the other hand, RCA to 3.5mm cables are handy for bridging devices with RCA outputs to those with 3.5mm inputs, like headphones, portable speakers, or certain car audio systems.
Dual RCA Female To Dual RCA Male
Price: Check Amazon
A Dual RCA Female to Dual RCA Male cable, commonly referred to as an RCA extension cable, is a versatile audio cable used to transmit analog audio signals between various audio components.
It consists of two connectors on each end: the Dual RCA Female, which is an input, and the Dual RCA Male, which is an output.
These connectors are usually color-coded, with red and white connectors denoting the right and left audio channels, respectively.
One common application for a Dual RCA Female to Dual RCA Male cable is to extend the reach of audio connections between different devices, such as connecting a turntable to powered speakers like the Eris e3.5.
Here’s how this setup works:
The turntable typically has a built-in phono preamp that processes the analog audio signal from your vinyl records. It outputs this signal through Dual White and Red RCA connectors.
RCA Extension Cable
In many cases, the turntable may not be positioned close to your powered speakers, so you need an extension cable.
The Dual RCA Female to Dual RCA Male cable comes in handy here.
Connect the Dual RCA Female ends of the extension cable to the RCA male outputs on the turntable.
Powered Speakers (Eris e3.5)
The Eris e3.5 speakers, like many active speakers, feature RCA inputs for connecting audio sources.
Plug the Dual RCA Male ends of the extension cable into the RCA inputs on the back of the Eris e3.5 speakers.
Ensure that you connect the red plug to the right channel and the white plug to the left channel for proper stereo sound.
After connecting the cables, ensure that both the turntable and the powered speakers are plugged into power sources and turned on.
Make sure to select the appropriate input source on the Eris e3.5 speakers, which is usually labeled “Line In” or “RCA.”
Place a vinyl record on the turntable, start the turntable’s motor, and gently drop the needle onto the record. You should now hear the analog audio from the vinyl playing through the Eris e3.5 speakers.
The Dual RCA Female to Dual RCA Male cable serves as a simple yet effective solution for extending audio connections between audio components, allowing you to enjoy your vinyl records with the Eris e3.5 powered speakers without the need for complicated setups or additional adapters.
They can also be plugged into the RCA inputs or outputs of audio or video equipment, such as amplifiers, audio receivers, DVD players, CD players, and more.
3.5mm Female to Dual RCA Female
Price: Check Amazon
This adapter functions exactly like the one above only it’s meant for small computer speakers that typically utilize a 3.5mm jack.
RCA to 1/4″ TS
Price: Check Amazon
This is a handy cable for all of the following use cases:
Keyboards/Synths to Mixers (RCA to 1/4″ TS)
If you have a keyboard or synthesizer with RCA output and want to connect it to a mixer with 1/4″ TS inputs, you’ll need an RCA to 1/4″ TS adapter cable.
Plug the RCA end into the keyboard’s RCA output and the 1/4″ TS end into the mixer’s input.
DACs with 1/4″ TS to Amp (RCA)
If you have a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with a 1/4″ TS output and want to connect it to an amplifier with RCA inputs, you’ll need a 1/4″ TS to RCA adapter cable.
Connect the 1/4″ TS end to the DAC and the RCA end to the amplifier.
Sound Mixer Output to Amplifier (RCA to RCA)
When connecting the output of a sound mixer with RCA outputs to an amplifier with RCA inputs, you can use RCA cables.
Connect one end of the RCA cable to the mixer’s RCA output and the other end to the amplifier’s RCA input.
Amp with Preamp to Speakers (RCA to Speaker Wire)
To connect an amplifier with a preamp to speakers, you typically use speaker wire.
Connect the RCA output from the preamp to the RCA input on the amplifier. Then, connect the amplifier to the speakers using speaker wire.
Good Choice: Here
An optical cable serves as yet another digital audio transmission medium, commonly used in various entertainment setups.
When employed in console gaming alongside a headphone amp such as the FiiO K5 Pro, it facilitates high-quality audio transfer.
Optical cables enable the transmission of digital audio signals between gaming consoles (such as PlayStation, Xbox) and external devices like the FiiO K5 Pro or K7 headphone amp.
This setup enhances the gaming experience by delivering clear, high-fidelity sound, allowing gamers to immerse themselves in the game environment with a good set of headphones.
Headphone Amp Connectivity
The optical cable connects the gaming console’s digital audio output to the optical input of the FiiO K5 Pro headphone amp.
This connection ensures that the audio signal maintains its digital integrity, reducing interference and delivering superior sound quality to headphones or speakers connected to the amp.
Home Theater Systems & Soundbars
Optical cables are frequently utilized in home theater setups to connect devices like Blu-ray players, soundbars, AV receivers, and TVs.
They transmit high-quality digital audio from these devices, ensuring clear and immersive sound for movies, TV shows, and music.
An example would be using a PS4’s optical output to connect to a Soundbar like the Ultimea Apollo S40.
#8 – Bonus
These connectors have two female RCA jacks on either side, and they are primarily used to connect two male RCA cables, effectively extending the length of your audio or video connections.
These connectors are widely used in both home audio and video setups and professional audiovisual environments.
Part II: Lightning Cables, USB Cables & Adapters
It’s only right we start with one of the most ubiquitous, but also incredibly frustrating cables in existence; the dreaded Micro USB.
Add this to the ever-growing list of things that make me feel old, but when I first started this blog, micro was still pretty much the standard for basic connection cables from DACS to PCs, DACs to Phones, DACSs to Consoles, etc.
This cable is infamous for having to be inserted 1 specific way, but there are plenty of actual real issues with it as well:
Micro USB connectors may be more prone to wear and tear compared to newer USB types like USB-C.
The design is less robust and repeated insertions and removals can lead to connector or cable damage over time.
I’ve had more than my fair share of these break down, with the most famous example being the cable that came with the original Blue Yeti. I had to buy this replacement, but it’s held up well since so that’s always a plus.
Data Transfer Speed
Micro USB is an older standard, and as such, it generally supports slower data transfer speeds compared to more recent USB standards like USB 3.0 or USB-C.
If high-speed data transfer is a priority, a different cable type might be more suitable.
Limited Power Delivery
Micro USB ports often have limitations on power delivery. If you’re looking to charge devices quickly or power larger devices, such as laptops, newer USB standards like USB-C might be more suitable.
As technology advances, newer devices may shift towards using USB-C or other standards, potentially leaving Micro USB devices less compatible with the latest accessories and peripherals.
Perhaps the most annoying issue for me personally was how many types of Micro cables there were/and still are.
In other words, they’re all not created the same and come in a plethora of shapes and sizes.
Looking back, whoever thought all this was a good idea should probably not speak up and let everyone know about it.
What’s interesting to me is that the Creative SoundBlasterX G6, a DAC that I still recommend a lot, comes with a micro slot. I don’t know why Creative hasn’t updated this in a new iteration, but I digress.
Price: Check Amazon
Type-C didn’t really start to take off until recently, but some companies were utilizing it back around 2017 or thereabouts.
The thing is that it was more sporadic and infrequent. Nowadays, 99.9% of the products I receive use either Type-C or Type-B.
Price: Check Amazon
I enjoy this one because you know exactly what it is almost without having to even look.
A company very well known for their Type-B cables is FiiO (specifically their desktop amps/dacs). They just loooooove them for whatever reason, and I’m completely fine with it. As long as you keep making good products, I’ll recommend them, FiiO.
Type-B also happens to be perhaps the smoothest insertion there is. It really does slide right in.
In fact, I can plug one of these in with my eyes closed and one hand behind my back while also doing the dishes. 🙂
Like Micro, they can only go in one way but the end of the cable, unlike Micro or type-c, is DUMMY THICC so it’s real easy to slip it in.
USB-C to Lightning
Price: Check Amazon
This is nice and convenient if you have an iPhone and say, a DAC that supports USB-C.
If your DAC dongle is USB-C and your phone (non-iPhone) is also C, then you’re good – but if you’re like me, you may need the following:
USB-C (Female) to Lightning Adapter
This little buddy is great for iPhones (Lightning) with all dongles that support USB-C.
- Recommended: iFi Go Link Review
Maxin’ on the couch with some dope beats? (Beets)
You can even walk around with it and listen to music while you’re cookin’ up some sweet bro mealz for the week.
It’s a … gain either way. 😀
USB Type-A (Female) To Type-A (Male)
This used to be how iFi’s hip-dac connected to your PC, and I can’t say I was the biggest fan. The cable itself is bulky, blue and tends to give me the blues.
You know when someone is a little too dummy thicc? Like kind of dumpy? That’s this cable. It’s large and in charge like Coach McGuirk, and not in a good way.
Thankfully, iFi has since updated their cable on the hip-dac 3 to a standard USB-C, so no harm no foul.
USB-C (Female) to Type-A
This is a nifty little buddy that comes with the Hidizs S9 Pro (top image) and FiiO Q15 (bottom).
The S9 Pro is made primarily for phones, but this adapter allows you to quickly and easily connect to a PC if it doesn’t have a Type-C slot.
- Recommended: Hidizs S9 Pro Review; A Cobalt Killer?!
The Type-A cable is perhaps the most common, as the majority of things sold probably have one. It’s just about the most universal as well, with nearly all PCs coming with at least 1 or 2 slots.
Different varieties include Type-A to Type-C, Type-A to Type-B (discussed above), Type-A to micro, etc.
Part III: XLR/TRS/TS/Midi/Instrument
TS Instrument Cable
Price: Check Amazon
1/4″ Female to 3.5mm Male Adapter
Price: Check Amazon
Since the Volca Keys only has a 3.5mm female jack, I must use this adapter to bridge the gap between the synth and the TS cable.
The male TS from my interface simply plugs into the 1/4″ female jack on the adapter, and the other end connects to the Volca Keys.
The Sennheiser HD650, which terminates in a 1/4″, also happens to come with a variation of this adapter.
XLR (Female) To TRS Male
Before purchasing them, I thought the balanced jacks would come in handy later on down the road, and they did just that when FiiO sent over the K9 Pro.
To be able to listen to speakers balanced, at such a cheap price is one of the main reasons I still recommend them even though I’ve since upgraded to the Yamana HS7.
It’s important to note that this, unlike many of the other cables we’ve discussed, isn’t exactly cheap or convenient for most people.
Because I demo a lot of gear, it worked out, but for those already planning on spending a lot of money on the K9 Pro, pairing them with $100 speakers is probably a bit of a crime.
This was more meant as a demonstration about something random I decided to do to be as thorough as possible with the review.
- Related: FiiO K9 Pro Review
Now, if there were $100 DACS out there that had balanced XLR or TRS outputs, that would be rad, but AFAIK there aren’t any.
XLR Female To Male (Standard Mic Cable)
Perhaps the most common type of cable in a home studio setting, the XLR cable is responsible for facilitating the transfer of your voice (analog) to your Audio interface (Digital) for playback, EQ, editing, and distribution.
I have a few here; one specifically from a very long time ago (before 2010) that still functions like it did the day I bought it.
The cable quality debate (i.e. really expensive cables) is kind of a can of worms for another day, but if that’s something you’d be interested in for an article or video, let me know down below in the comments.
XLR (Male) To TRS (Male) or XLR to XLR/TRS to TRS
Before showing the world your music, you’ll want to EQ it first. This is where the XLR to TRS comes in.
Just make sure to get the Yammy HS7s if you can swing it; they’re the bee’s knees.
MIDI (Standard Instrument)
I put this last because, well, it’s from the dinosaur age. The very first keyboard I bought back in 2007 had MIDI jacks only, and so I bought some MIDI cables.
Fortunately for you and me, you don’t really need them (per se) anymore, but I supposed they could still come in handy with something like a Korg Minilogue XD that I’m interested in.
With that, you can record both MIDI data and sounds, or send MIDI from the computer to the synth to trigger notes.
USB has become a more common and convenient interface for connecting keyboards to computers and other MIDI-compatible devices.
Part IV: Single-Ended/Balanced Headphone + Amp/DAC Cables
3.5mm (Dual) to 3.5mm (Single)
Talk about the most basic bitch cable on the planet. It’s definitely this one; the one your Grandparents first introduced you to. xD
In all seriousness, this is about the most common headphone cable you’ll come across. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the idea is the same: it’s a 3.5mm sausage fest all around.
Even so, most of these packaged with headphones come with a 1/4″ adapter that you can either snap or screw on for those DACS that have a 1/4″ headphone output.
Dual 3.5mm to 1/4″
Samsies as above only this time the cable terminates in a 6.35mm (1/4″) and thus doesn’t need an adapter.
These are very common in flagship models like the Arya, and generally, much beefier amps and dacs.
2-Pin To XLR
This 2-pin To XLR is specialized for the HD600, but there are other varieties as well. For instance, Apos sent me the HD800 variety of this cable by mistake but told me to just keep it in case I ever get my hands on Sennheiser’s Flagship model.
Pretty sweet if you ask me.
2-Pin To 4.4mm
Good Choice: Here
The 2-Pin To 4.4 is great because a lot of companies are jumping on the 4.4mm bandwagon – even JDS Labs has one on their ATOM 2. I love the convenience of this one and highly recommend a purchase if you love listening balanced. I know I do!
2-Pin To 2.5mm
Good Choice: Here
Before FiiO jumped on the 4.4mm train, they utilized 2.5mm balanced for quite a while.
And I still have one of these lying around for my HD600. It works with the FiiO K3 and anything else that has a 2.5 jack.
Balanced 4.4mm to Dual XLR
Price: Check Amazon
It’s another specialized cable but will come in handy with other dacs and amps that have these inputs and outputs.
Dual 3.5mm to Balanced 4.4mm
Good Choice: Here
These are great for desktop setups since, as mentioned before, most of them come with a 4.4mm jack.
The K11’s for instance is a fully balanced system which makes it pretty easy to swap out cables.
And with that, I think I’ve covered everything I have here!
Bookmark this baby because I’ll certainly be revisiting it fairly often to add cables, give impressions of new ones, etc.
Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed, THE CABLE GUIDE, and came away with some valuable insight.
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!
If you love what I do here and want to support the blog and channel in a more personal way, check me out on Patreon and discover all the value I have to offer you.
What’s your favorite set up? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,