Audio cables buying guide
Learn about analog and digital cables for home use
Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.
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Cables are what bind an audio/video system together, allowing the signal to be passed from one component to another. Construction and quality of materials can make a significant difference in the accuracy of the signal transfer, especially with high-performance audio gear.
When purchasing cable — either to upgrade or to expand your system — there are a few things to keep in mind.
Measure before you buy
What length of cable do you need? It’s pretty easy to figure out. Take a piece of string and run it from one of the terminals you want to connect to the other. If your components are only accessible from the front, measure with the receiver and/or source component pulled out of the rack or cabinet. Most cables come in standard lengths, so you don’t have to be too precise as you lay out the string. If the string measures 4 feet, for example, you’ll know it’s the 2-meter and not the 1-meter cable you’ll need. (One meter is just shy of 3.3 feet.)
Match the quality of the cables to the quality of your system
It’s the same rule-of-thumb one would apply to automobiles. Putting $50 tires on a Maserati makes no sense, as they can hamper the performance of the car. Yet $50 tires can be just fine for a compact car, and have no appreciable impact on performance. Similarly, while any system can benefit from better quality cables, the improvement top-of-the-line cables can bring is most noticeable in high-performance systems.
Sometimes, you have a choice of connections. Here's a run down of the most commonly-used types of home audio cables, and what they're used for:
Stereo RCA terminals (left) and connectors (right).
RCA audio patch cables
RCA connectors have been used on audio/video gear since the 1960’s. Sometimes the only way to connect an older component to a newer one is through RCA cables.
RCA patch cables pass analog line-level (sometimes called preamp-level) audio signals. They feature a pair of leads for left and right stereo channel connections.
Powered subwoofers also use RCA connectors. Because subwoofers send a mono signal, subwoofers cables are sold singly.
Stereo minijack terminal (left), and connector (right).
Stereo minijack patch cables
The headphone connection for virtually all portable devices — tablets, smartphones, laptop computers, radios, etc. — is a stereo minijack. The connector passes both left and a right analog audio channels through a single cable. Minijack cables are handy to connect a portable device to an audio system or speaker.
Want to plug your smartphone, tablet, or laptop directly into your receiver? You can get a cable that has a minijack on one end and RCA connectors on the other.
Optical digital terminal (left) and connector (right).
Optical digital (Toslink) cables
Optical digital connectors (also called Toslink connectors) have various uses. They can be used to send audio from a TV to a receiver if it can’t be done via HDMI. They can be used to connect a CD player or network music player to a receiver, or integrated amp. They can also be used to send digital information from a component to a high-performance DAC (digital-to-analog converter), bypassing the component’s inferior built-in DAC.
Coaxial digital terminal (left) and connector (right)
Coaxial digital cables
Coaxial digital cables use RCA connectors, and are similar to Toslink cables in function.
USB port (left) and connector (right)
Most people are familiar with the USB charging cables that come with smartphones and laptops. But USB cables are also used to connect digital music libraries — stored in computers or external hard drives — with component systems.
USB-B port (left) and connector (right)
Digital to analog converters (DACS), external hard drives, and other computer-based peripherals use USB cables, but often ones with different connectors than those found on portables. These devices generally have a square port, known as a Type B, rather than a mini USB port. When purchasing a USB cable for a DAC, external drive, or other digital audio gear, check its USB port first to ensure you get the right cable.
XLR terminal (left) and connector (right)
XLR audio patch cables
XLR analog audio cables are used primarily with high-performance gear, such as DACs, power amplifiers, SACD players, and subwoofers. The connector has three pins — a positive conductor, a negative conductor, and a ground. The ground wire helps reduce electronic noise throughout the cable. XLR plugs lock into place, ensuring a secure connection.
If you have a choice of analog audio connections – RCA stereo, or XLR — the XLR connections should deliver the best signal. Compared to stereo minijack and RCA stereo cables, XLR cables designed for home audio are usually made of higher grade materials for better signal transfer and their wires have stronger shielding to minimize interference compare.
Looking for cables for your home recording studio or next live gig?
Check out our Pro Audio Cable Guide. The requirements for pro audio are different than home electronics, and cables designed for one don’t usually make a good substitute for the other.