The Best Studio Monitor Cables At a Glance
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In addition to the cables we suggest below from Amazon, take a look at this handy Sweetwater cable finder.
XLR to TRS Connectors
RCA to TS Connectors
- Hosa HPR-005X2 – Amazon – Male to Male
Table of Contents
- Types of Audio Cables
- Balanced and Unbalanced
- Types of Connectors
- Connectors used on Output Gear
- Getting the Right Audio Cables for Your Monitor
- Final Thoughts
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Types of audio cables
In most any type of recording or production studio, several different types of cables may be used for the purpose of passing audio from one piece of equipment to another.
You are probably already familiar with instrument cables, which connect electric guitars and keyboards to amplifiers, signal processing devices, or directly into the mixer. These types of cables are typically of the TS variety, which will be explained in more detail below.
You may also be familiar with cables used to record microphones, which generally use the XLR type connector.
For purposes of connecting studio monitors to other equipment, the aforementioned TS cables may be used as well. However, commercial recording facilities generally use TRS and XLR cables to connect studio monitors to mixing consoles or studio amplifiers.
These types of audio cables will be the main focus of this guide.
Balanced and unbalanced cables
The subject of balanced and unbalanced cables is often the cause of a great deal of confusion, particularly as it pertains to wiring up studio monitors.
The main difference between the two is that unbalanced cables carry only the positive audio signal and the ground, while balanced cables carry the negative signal in addition to the positive signal and the ground.
Unbalanced cables only have two conductors, which are typically seen as the two contact points on either end.
Balanced cables have a third conductor, which can be determined by the three contact points on either cable end as well. With this type of cable, the negative and positive signals are out of phase with each other, resulting in a ‘balanced’ signal.
Why go balanced?
Balanced cable connectors have a number of benefits over unbalanced connectors. They generally have higher signal-to-noise ratios, making them better suited to applications wherein audio quality is a priority.
The higher signal-to-noise ratio also makes balanced connectors more suitable for longer cable runs, or connecting equipment over longer distances.
Finally, balanced connectors are less prone to electrical interference than unbalanced cables. This helps reduce buzzes, humming, and crackling in the audio path, if not eliminates them entirely.
The case for unbalanced connections
When connecting two pieces of equipment that are capable of handling balanced signals, using a balanced cable is a no-brainer…
But there are situations where unbalanced connections might be more feasible—if not the only—option.
Some mid-range and entry level studio monitors are equipped only with unbalanced input ports, which may be of the quarter-inch or even the RCA variety. With such monitors, the only option is to use unbalanced cables.
Even if you have studio monitors that are capable of handling balanced signals, your output device may not have similar capabilities. For example, many audio interfaces intended for the hobbyist or home studio market do not have balanced outputs. You then have no choice but to use unbalanced cables.
Getting the maximum benefit from a balanced cable connection
One of the most important things to remember with regard to balanced connections is that every single component in the signal path should be balanced in order for the connection to be truly balanced.
This is point that many novice studio owners and engineers will miss.
It is especially important to make this distinction when you consider that many balanced ports are designed to accommodate unbalanced signals as well. Many mixing consoles for example have input ports that are able to handle both balanced and unbalanced signals.
To illustrate this point more clearly, a connection can only be said to be truly “balanced” if all of these are balanced:
- The output of the audio signal source
- The cables used to make the connection
- The input of the device receiving the audio signal
If even just a single one of these is unbalanced, the entire connection is unbalanced as well. When in doubt, always check the manual or do some research online on your gear to find out what type of connectors your equipment has.
Types of connectors
For purposes of connecting studio monitors, the connectors you are most likely to see are the quarter-inch plugs similar to those used for plugging in electric guitars into amplifiers and effects processors.
But not all quarter-inch plugs are the same, and it is important to know for which specific purpose each type is intended.
TS and TRS connectors
Quarter-inch plugs basically come in two varieties: TS (or tip-sleeve) and TRS (or tip-ring-sleeve).
The easiest way to tell the difference between the two types is to count the number of contact points or distinct metal surfaces on the plug itself.
TS connectors only have two contact points, while TRS connectors have three. This allows TRS plugs to carry a balanced signal, as explained in the previous section. The most significant physical difference between the two types is the inclusion of the ring, which carries the negative signal.
With TS plugs, the tip carries the positive signal, while the sleeve carries the ground. In a TRS plug, the tip carries the positive signal and the sleeve carries the ground as well.
Some studio monitors are equipped with XLR ports as well, which of course accommodate XLR plugs.
Like quarter-inch TRS plugs, the three contact points of XLR plugs carry positive and negative signals as well as ground, allowing the handling of balanced signals.
Instead of three exposed metal surfaces, TRS plugs have three pins that plug into the three holes of a TRS input port.
“Male” and “Female”
In studio parlance, you will frequently hear jacks referred to as ‘male,’ and plugs referred to as ‘female’. This practice dates back to a time when political correctness was an unknown concept, and the naming convention has remained a part of studio-speak for better or worse.
In any case, you can generally distinguish male connectors from female connectors by the presence of some sort of protrusion.
Connectors used on output gear
Depending on how you have wired up your studio, your monitors may be connected to a mixing console or an audio interface.
Many professional-grade mixers have XLR speaker outputs that pass balanced audio signals to your studio monitors. These generally provide the highest quality audio signal, with minimum noise and electrical interference.
You may also have the option to plug your speakers into your mixer via quarter-inch TS or TRS connectors. For live performance monitoring from the control room during recording or tracking, plugging in your monitors via unbalanced TS connections is usually acceptable.
For intensive mixdown or mastering tasks however, the lower noise and better audio fidelity of TRS connectors make them the better choice.
In many DAW-only studios, there may not even be a mixing console at all. With such a setup, it isn’t uncommon to see monitor speakers being fed audio directly from the audio interface. Many pro-level audio interfaces are equipped with quarter-inch TS as well as TRS connectors, while mid-priced and budget-range models generally have a combination of quarter-inch and RCA connectors.
Note: Keep in mind that RCA connectors are capable of handling only unbalanced signals.
Choosing the right audio cables
Among the most important factors to consider when choosing the best studio monitor cables are:
- Cable length
This is frequently subject to contention, with some factions claiming that it can affect the quality of the audio, while others insist that the difference is negligible or non-existent. Among those claiming that cable length affects audio quality adversely, the reasoning is that all cables are subject to the effects of capacitance. The prevailing theory then is that longer cables result in a slight loss of detail in the high end.
It has also been suggested that, given two identical studio monitors, the one connected with a longer cable will exhibit ‘looser’ bottom end response. That being said, the difference in response between two monitors connected with cables of different lengths is generally considered to be too insignificant for most listeners to notice.
In any case, most people agree that it is best to keep cable lengths for monitor speakers under 25 feet. For connecting near-field monitors, around 10 feet per speaker is the standard length.
Many monitor speakers intended for studio applications are equipped with quarter-inch audio input ports (female). Depending on the particular model, these may accommodate TS or TRS plugs.
Quarter-inch TS plugs are unbalanced connectors that are typically used for plugging in electric guitars, keyboards, and signal processing equipment to amplifiers or mixing consoles. If your studio monitors have unbalanced inputs, you may use TS plugs to pass the audio signal from your mixing board or audio interface.
Studio monitors equipped with quarter-inch balanced ports require TRS plugs. These types of connectors are more typical of higher-priced studio monitors or those intended for the professional market.
High-end monitors may be equipped with XLR inputs exclusively, although most will have XLR, as well as quarter-inch TRS inputs. XLR connectors are almost always balanced, and the appropriate cables typically have XLR plugs on one end and a quarter-inch TRS plug on the other. XLR audio inputs on studio monitors are usually intended for +4 dBu/dBm line level signals.
Some mid- and low-priced studio monitors may have RCA connectors instead of the quarter-inch and XLR connectors used in high-priced units. These are typically unbalanced input ports that are designed to handle –10 dbV line levels.
Knowing about the different types of audio cables is essential to getting the most out of your studio equipment. In particular, knowing when and why you should use a specific type of cable to connect your studio monitors to your other equipment is crucial for ensuring clean and accurate audio reproduction, as well as prolonging the life of your equipment.
1. What are the best cables for studio monitors?
As you can imagine, the best studio monitor cables deliver the highest possible quality of audio signal. This means having a cable that introduces the lowest interference and noise possible. For digital cables, look for high-quality shielding. As for analog cables, generally, you should be looking at balanced cables, the TRS and XLR ones. Sound-wise, there is not a lot of difference between the two. In terms of material, shielded balanced cables offer more protection from interference. Gold is usually the best material for connectors.
2. What cables do I need for audio interface?
It depends on your audio interface. Many manufacturers are now producing hobbyist and entry-level audio interfaces, some of which have inputs and outputs for unbalanced cables, aside from the digital plugs (usually USB or Thunderbolt). But if your interface has plugs for XLR, get yourself a high-quality XLR cable.
Rubber and plastic are good shielding material, but they are not very flexible. Some cables use fabric-based shielding mesh which is a lot more flexible. Check the durability of the connection between the connectors and the wire, as this is usually the most vulnerable part of most cables.
3. What makes the best XLR cables?
XLR cables with copper center, gold, or silver-plated conductors are usually the best ones. Gold is considered the best material for XLR connectors. Those with double or even triple shielding are also considered as the highest quality. Also, look at the warranty coverage. If the brand is willing to cover their product for a considerable duration, then it means they are confident about the quality of their product.
4. Why are XLR Cables better?
XLR cables are not necessarily ‘better.’ It really just depends on your needs. XLR cables and TRS cables have the same audio quality. However, TRS cables are meant to be easy to unplug. Therefore, they are best suited for instruments and other equipment that needs to be unplugged when not used. On the other hand, XLR cables are designed to latch more tightly, making them perfect for monitors, mixing consoles, and any other connections that stay put. XLR cables are also preferred in live settings where things can get a little bit hectic. No one likes going to gigs where a person can trip over a wire and unwittingly sabotage an act.
5. Are XLR cables better than RCA, or TRS?
As we have already explained, XLR and TRS cables are not very different. As for XLR and RCA, the difference is with the voltage signal. Signals carried by XLR cables usually have a higher voltage (typically 4 volts) compared to 2 volts that most RCA cables carry. This does not necessarily mean that the signal is of higher quality. For instance, if a device has an XLR output and it is connected to an amplifier with an RC connection, what you’ll get is an overdriven, slightly harsher sound. This is because of the discrepancy in the voltage. Therefore, sound quality is largely dependent on the compatibility of the connections with the demands of the devices. Always check what your device needs. This will dictate what kind of cable you should use.
6. Do balanced cables sound better?
The main difference between a balanced signal and an unbalanced signal is, theoretically, the signal-to-noise ratio. Unbalanced cables are more susceptible to external signal interference. Balanced signals eliminate noise by canceling them. In short, they carry the same signal – balanced signals just sound ‘better’ because of the cancellation of unwanted signals. However, many instruments such as guitars only generate unbalanced signals. In fact, most unprocessed signals are unbalanced, such as those captured by contact mics. Balancing the signal through a third-party device, say, a direct box, necessarily mutates the sound.
Some even think that these interferences and artifacts make a signal sound better or ‘warner’, as in the case of vinyl or cassette recording. It really comes down to personal taste and the demands of the project.
7. What are the different types of audio jacks?
There are many different kinds of audio jacks. The most common is the 3.5mm audio jack which is practically the standard in smartphones and laptops. Apple notoriously did not include them in their latest iPhone products. There is also the 2.5mm jack which has become a rarity nowadays. There are also the RCA jacks and the USB jacks. Recently, many manufacturers are switching to wireless Bluetooth-based connections for headphones.
8. Are speaker cables balanced or unbalanced?
Most speaker cables are unbalanced for the simple reason that the signal that they are dealing with has already been amplified. Thus, there is no need to further balance, clean, or amplify the signal. It can be transmitted as is to the speaker. Moreover, most speakers require a lot of power to function. This is why they require thicker cables for a heavier current load. This load is resistive because it is meant to transform the signal into another form of energy (electricity to sound). On the other hand, balanced cables are needed for inductive load – that is, for cables carrying audio signals from one source to another. This is to preserve audio quality.
9. Are XLR cables stereo?
XLR cables are balanced cables. The balancing is made possible by the use of two identical signals. The resulting signal is mono. While it is possible to have an XLR connection that has a stereo signal, this can only be done through two separate XLR connections, both of which respectively carry different channels. This is the case with most studio headphones.
10. How do I know if my cable is mono or stereo?
The best way to know is to simply plug the jack and listen. If the signal has two distinct channels between left and right, then it is stereo. However, from a physical standpoint, you can also inspect the plug and see if it has one or two contacts. One contact means it is mono while two means stereo.
Generally, you will not encounter any problems connecting a stereo cable to an unbalanced mono jack. However, if you insert a mono cable to a stereo jack, the sound will only come out on the left channel. Fortunately, there are not a lot of professional devices that have stereo inputs, particularly since multiple mono signals have higher fidelity than a single stereo signal.