Audio & Video Cables
Audio and video cables go hand-in-hand, often being paired together. Some cables can even transmit audio and video on just one line. Over time a lot of new audio and video cables have been introduced, so the cable you need will often depend on the age of the equipment you are using. Most TVs, computers, and other devices can use multiple types of audio and video connections, so it is good to be able to identify them and know your options.
Audio-only cables include:
- Optical Toslink
Video-only cables include:
- VGA cables
Audio/video cables include:
- RCA cables
3.5mm, also called ⅛” cables, is one of the most common audio cables. They are sometimes called “headphone jacks”, being the type of connection used for headphones. These ports are frequently found on cell phones, computers, and televisions.
There are a few different versions of 3.5mm: TS, TRS, and TRRS. TS cables will have one ring, dividing the metal sections into two conductors and are most often used for mono connections like microphones. TRS has two rings to give it three conductors, allowing them to be used for stereo connections such as speakers. TRRS has three rings for four conductors to support stereo audio and a mono microphone at the same time.
A side-by-side of TS (left), TRS (middle), and TRRS (right) connectors
2.5mm is a downsized version of 3.5mm. They are the same shape and have the same functions but are a bit smaller. Like 3.5mm, they are divided into TS, TRS, and TRRS versions. Cell phones used to use 2.5mm connections but today they are mostly seen on radios and cordless home phones.
¼” cables are an upsized version of 3.5mm. Whereas 2.5mm is smaller than 3.5mm, ¼” is bigger but still looks the same. Like the other two variants, ¼” cables come in TS, TRS, and TRRS. These larger plugs are heavy-duty and usually used in professional grade audio equipment such as speakers, amplifiers, and musical instruments like guitars. Sometimes they are called “instrument jacks” or “guitar jacks” since their usage there is so common.
Mono (left), Stereo (middle), and Headset (right; microphone+stereo) are all industry standards
Optical Toslink, sometimes referred to as just “optical” or just “toslink”, is the new standard for at-home audio. This type of cable converts the audio signal into lasers (light), sends them down the cable, and then converts back to audio at the other end. They function the same way as fiber optic cables, just with audio instead of data.
Newer TVs are usually built with a port for optical cables and for some televisions it will be the only option for audio. Optical Toslink uses a digital signal to provide crisper and clearer audio than older types of cables. The downside is that the signal has a maximum distance of about 5 meters (15 feet) before it becomes too weak and stops working, although you can get around that with an extender. If you need to hook up something older that only has analog, like a VCR with RCA connections, you have to use a converter to translate the signal.
If you do need a converter, please note that any analog/digital converter is one-way. For example, say you were connecting an old VCR with RCA connections to a brand-new TV that only has Optical Toslink. In that case, you would be going from analog to digital and would need this converter. Now say you were hooking up a new Blu-ray player with Optical Toslink to an older TV that can only use RCA. In that scenario, you would be going from digital to analog and would need this converter instead. Hooking up the wrong converter will not damage anything, but it will not work.
XLR connections are used for professional audio equipment, similar to ¼”. There are a few different versions of XLR, the distinction being the number of pins or holes inside the connector. A 3-pin is the most common version, but XLR can have up to seven pins. Professional audio equipment such as microphones or mixers almost always use XLR if they do not use ¼”, with some equipment using both.
Along with audio, XLR can also be used for lighting. This version is called a DMX cable and is not interchangeable with the regular XLR variant.
There are also mini XLR connectors, which are used on equipment where a normal XLR connector would take up too much space.
A full-size XLR (left) compared to a Mini XLR (right)
Note how the holes are much closer together on the Mini version.
SpeakOn is one of the newest types of audio cables. They are used for many of the same applications as ¼” and XLR connections, most commonly on professional audio equipment like loudspeakers. They are designed to carry large amounts of power, making them ideal for heavy-duty amplifiers and other high voltage equipment. Their metal contacts are located inside the connector where you cannot accidentally touch them and electrocute yourself. SpeakOn connectors even lock into place, so they cannot be accidentally pulled out. While still new enough that they are not widespread yet, SpeakOn is quickly catching on and cables that can connect from SpeakOn directly to ¼” are already on the market.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) looks similar to 5-pin XLR cables but are made using 5-pin DIN connectors. This cable connects musical devices like keyboards to computers, allowing the audio signal to cross over as a data signal. MIDI is not limited to audio and can also send information like samples and patch data.
S-video is an older type of video cable that is now considered obsolete. You will not find an S-video connection on any newer devices but plenty of older equipment still uses them. Until all the old TVs, VCRs, and other devices die off S-video will still see usage, but its days are numbered.
DB9 is another type of outdated video connection. This type used to be common on computers and computer monitors. Over time, they were gradually replaced with newer connections such as VGA. DB9 can also be used for data signals, but they are also obsolete there, having been replaced with USB. Older computers and other machinery might still use DB9 but, like S-video, it is now considered obsolete.
VGA (Video Graphics Array) is not 100% to the point of being replaced, but it is getting there. It is the sole survivor of the purely analog connections used on computers. VGA has a maximum resolution of 640 x 480, much lower than newer types of video cables. Some computers today are still built with VGA ports but you may not see them on new machines, especially devices like laptops and televisions. Being analog, VGA has largely been replaced by digital connections such as HDMI and DVI. Plenty of VGA devices are still up and running, but VGA is long past its golden years.
DVI is a bit more complex than other types of video-only cables because there are different versions of it. These can be classified as DVI-A (Analog), DVI-D (Digital), and DVI-I (Integrated). Additionally, DVI-D and DVI-I come in both single-link and dual-link variants.
DVI-A is analog only, making it compatible with older devices that only have VGA.
DVI-D is digital only. The single-link version can support resolutions up to 1920 x 1080 while the dual-link version can handle up to 2048 x 1536 resolution.
DVI-I combines the other two to support both analog and digital. It also comes in single-link and dual-link, both of which support 1600 x 1200 (single-link) and 2048 x 1536 (dual-link) resolutions.
There is also a version called Mini-DVI that was once used by Apple for various Mac computers. Mini-DVI was discontinued in 2008 and is no longer used.
Top: DVI-A (left), DVI-D single-link (middle), and DVI-D dual-link (right)
Bottom: DVI-I single-link (left) and DVI-I dual-link (right)
F-type is a coax cable connector, most commonly used to connect to the back of a television. Sometimes they are just referred to as “coax” cables. The term “F-type” is the name of the metal connector on the end of the cable. There are a few different types of cable that F-type connectors can be used with, the most common of them being RG6 and RG11 cables. The average F-type connector will be threaded and screws on to hold itself in place. There is also a push-on version which just slides into place.
When building an F-type cable, there are a few different options for attaching the connector. F-type connectors come in crimp, compression, and twist-on variants. You will need different tools to complete your cable depending on which variant you are using. RG11 cable carries a stronger signal than RG6 but it is also thicker, less flexible, and more expensive.
A threaded F-type (left) vs. a push-on F-type (right)
BNC is another type of coax connection, this one being commonly used for radios and security cameras. They are built with a pair of lugs that allow the connectors to lock into place. These connectors are used with low frequency, low voltage applications. BNC comes in two versions: 50 ohm and 75 ohm. While the two are technically compatible, they do not work too well together when you mix and match. Sticking with one or the other based on your application will ensure that everything runs smoothly.
RCA is a type of connector that can be used for both audio and video. You probably remember these as the red, white, and yellow jacks on the back of your old TV. The red and white connectors controls the audio. You can use just one connection for audio but will only get mono sound quality. For stereo sound, you need to have them as a pair. The yellow cable transmits the video signal.
These RCA cables are also referred to as composite but are usually just called RCA. Being analog only, RCA cables have fallen to the wayside as various types of digital cables start to replace them. You can connect RCA devices to newer digital connections using converters, but your signal quality will still only be up to par with RCA’s outdated standards. There are also RCA cables that are audio-only or video-only (just the red/white or just yellow) for equipment that only needs audio or video instead of both.
There is also a newer, digital version of RCA. This version is a single cable that is usually colored orange. Sometimes these are just called “digital coax” instead of RCA. Being digital, they provide much crisper audio/video than their analog counterparts and have shielding against signal interference that you will not find in standard RCA cables.
Component cables look very similar to RCA but with different color-coding. Red and white cables are still used for audio but the video signal now uses three separate cables colored red, blue, and green. These extra lines result in a stronger signal through than the single cable on a composite RCA. This is still an analog cable, so a converter box will still be necessary for hooking it to newer digital inputs.
Digital RCA (left), composite RCA (middle), and component RCA (right)
HDMI is the new standard for audio and video connections. Everything from televisions to Blu-ray players to video game consoles are built with HDMI today. HDMI is fully digital, providing video resolutions of 4096 x 2160 (commonly called 4K). There was a point where only some HDMI was capable of 4K, but any modern HDMI cable should be 4K ready. From a small basic 3’ cable to a high-grade 50’ cable, you should be getting 4K quality on any TV or monitor built to handle that.
There are a few different types of HDMI. The standard HDMI commonly seen on devices like televisions and computers is technically called a Type A, but people usually just say “HDMI” when talking about this one. Then there is Mini-HDMI, also called a Type C. Mini-HDMI is used for medium-sized devices such as tablets and some laptops. Finally, there is Micro-HDMI, also known as Type D. Micro-HDMI is used for especially small devices like cell phones.
The newest HDMI cables are also built ethernet ready, meaning they can transmit an Internet signal. Say you were using HDMI to connect your computer to a new Smart TV. The ethernet will be able to travel through the HDMI cord from your computer to the TV, giving you a hard line connection that tends to be much faster than using Wi-Fi. This lets you get your audio/video and Internet from just one line instead of also needing an ethernet cable.
Many cable TV providers are switching over to HDMI on their cable boxes, eliminating the traditional F-type connection and replacing them with HDMI. Some new televisions do not even have an F-type connection anymore, opting to replace them with HDMI ports. Unfortunately, there is not a way to translate F-type over to HDMI so if you are buying a new TV, plan accordingly.
The downside of HDMI is its distance limit. HDMI has a maximum length of 65’ but can start having problems as short as 50’. You can use couplers to chain two cables together for a bit of extra distance. For long distance runs you can also use HDMI extenders. These extender boxes come in pairs with one HDMI cable coming out of each box. Then you run one or two ethernet cables between the boxes, essentially allowing you to use ethernet cables as extension cords. These extenders can run ethernet for hundreds of feet, well beyond the normal limits of HDMI.
HDMI cables are also notoriously difficult to repair. While they can be fixed, doing so is so difficult that even some professionals will not touch them. If you are running an HDMI cable someplace you cannot get to it, like behind a brick wall, it is highly recommended that you use an extender with ethernet cable. If something ever breaks, it is much easier to repair or replace an ethernet cable than an HDMI cord.
HDMI (left), Mini-HDMI (middle), and Micro-HDMI (right)
DisplayPort is another digital connection with many of the same functions as HDMI. Whereas HDMI was built for all-around usage, DisplayPort was made with computers in mind. These are most commonly used to connect newer computers with newer monitors. Most computer monitors today are built with both HDMI and DisplayPort options. You will occasionally see it on other equipment, like home theater equipment, but DisplayPort is uncommon compared to HDMI.
The upside of DisplayPort over HDMI is their ability to transmit data. Since DisplayPort was designed specifically with computers in mind, they can transmit signals much faster than HDMI. Like HDMI, DisplayPort does trade off its excellent quality for distance limits. DisplayPort cables cap out at about 15 meters (49 feet).
There is also another version called Mini DisplayPort. Created by Apple, this is a downsized version of DisplayPort that was created to save space. Function-wise, it performs the same as a full-sized DisplayPort. Apple puts these on most MacBooks today and allows other companies to use Mini DisplayPort under a free license, so you may see them on Windows-based machines as well.
Consumers should note that Apple also has an updated version of Mini DisplayPort called a Thunderbolt connector. While they look identical, a Mini DisplayPort device will not work with a Thunderbolt connection. Thunderbolt, however, is backwards compatible and will work with Mini DisplayPort connection. If you try to plug one of these in and it does not work, you are probably trying to use Mini DisplayPort cable with Thunderbolt port. Newer Thunderbolt cables and ports have a small lightning bolt symbol on them, making them easier to tell apart from their Mini DisplayPort counterparts.
DisplayPort (left) vs. Mini DisplayPort (right)