Professional or beginner musicians and audio engineers can easily get confused by all the types of audio cables and stuff lying around in their recording studios.
It can be difficult to tell some cables apart, and the next thing you know, you connected the wrong cable into the wrong jack.
But don’t worry!
This article will look at the difference between two commonly used cables; the TRS vs. TS cables!
Let’s get into it!
TRS vs. TS Cables: The Main Differences
Let’s start with TRS cables first.
TRS cables come in either 3.5mm or quarter-inch cables and have three contact points; the TIP, RING, and SLEEVE (hence what TRS stands for).
The main function of a TRS cable is to transmit BALANCED AUDIO SIGNALS. That’s why these cables are sometimes referred to as BALANCED CABLES or STEREO CABLES.
TRS cables can use both mono signals and stereo signals and balanced signals and unbalanced signals.
What all this means is the audio signal being inputted is canceled out (or balanced) because of the opposite polarities (which we will cover later) in the tip and ring wires, resulting in crisp, clear sounds!
And the presence of the THIRD wire in the sleeve makes the cable less prone to noise!
The LONGER a cable is, the MORE PRONE it is to pick up noise, but thanks to the balanced signal of a TRS cable, these are usually the cables used for long distances.
Now let’s move on to TS Cables!
Unlike the TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve), the TS cable only has, you guessed it, the TIP and SLEEVE only as its two contact points (hence TS connector).
The audio signal goes through the tip and passes through the ground wire (or ground) through the sleeve. This helps shield the signal from interference.
TS cables are called MONO CABLES because they can only send ONE SIGNAL. You will need two TS cables for stereo audio. They can also be called phone jacks or guitar cables.
The main difference between TRS cables and TS cables is that a TS cable is an UNBALANCED CABLE, meaning they carry unbalanced signals.
This means that whatever audio signal is picked up is the one you will hear in your audio interface or mixing consoles, making it more prone to noise and interference.
You can use TS cables as instrument cables or speaker cables. You can also connect them to electric guitars, guitar effects patch cables, and keyboards.
TS cables also come in shorter lengths because of their unbalanced signal.
Which One Should You Use?
Now that we know the difference between both cables, what about the application? Different cables will affect the audio quality you’ll get.
How do we know which cables should we use on our studio monitors?
Let’s break down each cable’s uses!
Use TRS Cables When…
You have to transmit BALANCED AUDIO.
A TRS cable or TRS connector is mostly used to transmit balanced signals.
A condenser microphone with a 3.5mm jack plug is an example of balanced mono signals. Monitoring headphones create balanced stereo signals when plugging them into a headphone jack.
In a nutshell, a TRS cable is used for anything that transmits a BALANCED SIGNAL or audio equipment that requires balanced connections.
Did you know that TRS cables were used back in the day on manual telephone switchboards? Now, they are used in any modern music and audio production!
Use TS Cables When…
You have an UNBALANCED AUDIO SIGNAL.
You can use a TS cable to connect guitars, patch cables, or keyboards, which all use an unbalanced signal.
Other examples of unbalanced TS inputs are DI boxes or Hi-Z instrument inputs commonly found in audio interfaces and other unbalanced TS jacks.
Because TS connectors only carry one audio signal, they should be used with unbalanced TS jack plugs. You must also use two cables when dealing with stereo signals.
Back then, TS cables were also used to connect calls during telephone exchanges, but now, you can use them on any unbalanced inputs.
What are these Cables Made of?
Now we know what each cable does and how it functions. But let’s go even deeper and see what these cables are made of on the inside!
Well, we know that such cables are made of connectors, PVC coating, and copper wire cores, but what else?
All parts of TRS cables are electrically isolated to carry two audio signals.
TRS cables have two signal conductors and a ground shield. The shield is used to reduce noise and electromagnetic radiation from other devices.
The two signal wires have OPPOSITE POLARITIES.
The TIP has a POSITIVE WIRE which carries a HOT SIGNAL, while the RING has a NEGATIVE WIRE which carries a COLD SIGNAL.
When an audio signal passes through, the cable inevitably picks up NOISE.
However, since the signals are opposites, they CANCEL EACH OTHER OUT, which helps REDUCE noise interference.
They only cancel each other out up until they reach the input device. The cold or negative signal is then flipped to positive to MATCH the hot signal, resulting in no noise!
As we already know, TS stands for Tip and Sleeve, and quarter-inch TS connectors have two applications; instrument and speaker.
A quarter-inch INSTRUMENT cable has a signal wire surrounded by a SHIELD and is used to carry an unbalanced mono signal or stereo signal.
On the other hand, a SPEAKER cable consists of two wires, which have NO SHIELD surrounding them.
TS cables only use one conductor vs. a TRS cable’s two, making it an unbalanced cable.
What is the Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables?
Let’s take a look at the different applications of balanced and unbalanced cables/signals!
An UNBALANCED CABLE or SIGNAL consists of two conductors.
An unbalanced audio cable only consists of one signal conductor, while a balanced one has two. They are connected by ONE signal wire and ONE ground wire.
In unbalanced signals, you have the ground covering the signal. The ground wire’s main function is to carry part of the audio while shielding the main signal from noise and interference.
It is not as effective in rejecting noise as a balanced cable, so noise can still be picked up along with the signal.
- Unbalanced cables are mostly used for connecting guitars to amps and other instruments but are not as efficient in canceling noise and signal balancing.
- On the other hand, a BALANCED CABLE or SIGNAL consists of two signal wires and one ground, for a total of three conductors.
Similar to unbalanced cables, the ground in balanced cables also shields the two signal wires from interference, but what makes TRS connectors more efficient is that THIRD CABLE!
As mentioned earlier, the two signal wires carry identical signals but in reverse polarities and noise. In turn, they cancel each other out, leaving no noise!
It’s like in math, when you put together +10 and -10, giving you 0!
A TRS connector that gives balanced connections is usually longer and less prone to noise thanks to the canceling of signals.
TS vs. TRS Cables: Which One is Cheaper?
TS cables come for cheaper because of the unbalanced signaling. Unlike TRS, they do not have the luxury of a third cable that can help cancel out noise.
On top of that, a TS cable is a lot shorter compared to a TRS cable. As previously mentioned, the longer a cable is, the more prone to interference.
And since TS cables are unbalanced, you will probably get more noise with them.
On the other hand, TRS cables are more expensive because they are longer and more balanced. The balanced signaling helps the cable go for longer distances.
If you want to keep your audio crisp and clean no matter which cable you use, it’s best to invest in high-quality studio monitors.
Is One Better than the Other?
Both TS and TRS cables have different uses and professional recording applications.
While some would argue that TRS cables are better because of the balanced signal, it depends on what you want to do!
While TRS cables are more professional, a TS cable is great for standard instrument connections and unbalanced signaling.
TS – Uses two conductors (1 main signal and one ground) to carry unbalanced signaling. These are mainly used to connect instruments but are not very good at canceling noise.
TRS – Uses three main wires (2 signal wires; positive and negative, and one ground) to carry balanced signaling. The opposite polarities of the two signal wires help cancel noise more effectively than TS wires.
Hopefully, this guide was able to help you differentiate between TS and TRS cables!
These two cables are quite similar and different at the same time!
They serve different purposes and have different uses, but either can be helpful to any musician, depending on what you need.
Want to make sure your track is clean? Check out some good-performing headphones!
April 18, 2022 – minor content edits