An Introduction to Audio Cables

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An Introduction to Audio Cables

An audio cable connects a TV, stereo system, musical instrument or other device to a stereo receiver. For those who want optimal performance from their home speaker system, getting a quality one is essential. A solid connection is needed to enable the signals to pass effectively between components. If the cable isn't designed well and isn't made of durable materials, it can lead to poor signal transfer and thus worse overall sound (blurring the bass, decreasing detail, distorting the highs, etc).

Hence, those in need of a speaker cable are advised to take some time to learn about the basic components, types and purchasing considerations. This will make finding an audio cable that matches your system as well as your needs and preferences much easier.


Basic Components of Audio Cables

When learning about the basic components of audio cables, it's easier to consider the interior parts first, then work outward to the jacket and connector.

Center Conductor

As the primary conductor, the center conductor is the driving force of the audio cable. These are usually made of copper or silver-coated copper (an even better conductor). Additionally, gauge is important; be aware that large gauges (which have smaller numbers) are more effective than smaller ones.


Air injected and usually made of foam polyethylene, the dialectic wraps the conductor as an insulator. It's vital in deciding the impedance (resistance to electrical current) of the cable, which is crucial because speakers can blow without resistance. The cable impedance should match the electrical source's output impedance so that impedance won't change between point A and point B.


Just as the name suggests, the shield protects the center conductor, mainly from extraneous noise that can disturb signal transmission. When looking at shields, percent of coverage is most important (the more, the better).

Cable Jacket

The general role of the cable jacket is to keep the inner materials safe from damage. It's usually constructed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).


These are the parts that plug into the electrical devices (receiver, speaker system, CD player, etc). Connectors can be molded onto the cable or screwed on as an assembly. For durability reasons, consider going with a molded connector.


Types of Audio Cables

There are all kinds of cables on the market today. There are unbalanced cables (use two connectors, one a signal wire and one a ground wire) and balanced cables (which have two signal wires and a ground wire). Different cables are also designed to handle digital and analog audio. Listed here are some main kinds of audio cables as well as other cables that can be used for audio.

Analog RCA Cables

Great for connecting old and new components, RCA cables have been around since the 1960's and feature a pair of connectors on each end. They are useful for connecting DVD players, TV sets and other home electrical equipment to stereo receivers.

Speaker Cables

Speaker cables are unbalanced cables that transmit audio signals to speakers from a stereo receiver. These wires are usually bigger because a higher voltage must be carried. Some examples include banana clip, Speakon and 1/4'' phone cables.

Optical Digital Cables

Able to transmit digital sound as light pulses, optical digital cables are completely shielded from outside interference. They are used in everything from new televisions to network music players. Optical digital cables are also known as Toslink cables.

Coaxial Digital Cables

Popular with new home electrical equipment, coaxial digital cables are a common device today for transmitting digital sound between components.

Other Audio Cables

Stereo mini-jack cables are useful for portable devices. HDMI cables are becoming the standard for transmitting audio signals for consumer electronics. USB cables are useful for audio in Smartphones and computers, and can also be employed to connect digital music libraries to receivers. XLR cables are balanced cables that have a 3-pin connector system that enables great sound balance; thus, they are an attractive choice for professional music use (microphones, mixers, etc).


Considerations When Buying Audio Cables

Careful assessment of needs and budget must be completed before getting an audio cable. Also, it absolutely is vital that the cable matches the components.

Suitable Type

First, make sure the right type of cable is chosen. If possible, test various cables to see the differences in sound. Match the quality of the audio cable to the quality of the system to ensure optimal performance. After all, a Ferrari wouldn't do its best on $75 tires.


Try not to go cheap. However, buyers only need to go expensive if they are using it with an expensive system, for making music or in a heavy-duty application. Expensive in terms of audio cables starts in the low hundreds and goes well into the thousands of dollars. For normal home speaker systems and similar uses, solid cables can be found for as low as $10.

Material and Quality

Reading reviews and going with trusted brands is always a good method. Personally inspecting the cable also aids in determining quality. Also, ensuring each component is made with the material suggested is advised, as well as listening to other advice in the components section.


Don't go too long, and definitely don't go too short. The sound should only travel the distance it needs to get from point A to B. Measure that distance prior to shopping.

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