Audio isn’t difficult to grasp, and we’ve got lots of articles on the subject, from how active noise cancellation works to what a Bluetooth codec is. So, why is it that audio hookups are so difficult? This is for you if you’ve ever spent hours on your TV or receiver switching between inputs trying to find out why there was no audio to go with the image.

We’re going to break everything down once and for all, explaining each audio connection and what it’s for. We’ll go through the headphone jack, USB-C, MMCX, Bluetooth, XLR, banana clips, speaker cables, RCA, optical cables, and HDMI ARC in that sequence, just so you don’t spend your time reading about stuff you don’t care about.

What is the purpose of a headphone jack?

The headphone jack connector is the only audio connection that most people are likely to be acquainted with. Depending on the application, this comes in a few distinct flavors. There’s the 14″ connection, which is the biggest and one you may know if you’ve ever worked with audio equipment, high-end headphones, or late-nineteenth-century switchboards. Then there’s the 3.5mm connection, which is the most popular and generally what comes to mind when you hear “headphone jack.” Because of its small size, it is frequently utilized on mobile devices. Finally, there’s the 2.5mm connection, which is the tiniest and least frequent, although it’s nevertheless utilized when space is limited. The Monoprice Monolith M1060 headphones, for example, feature 2.5mm inputs at the bottom of each earcup to which the cable may be connected.

But that’s not all there is to know about these connections, since they’re not only for transmitting audio. When you’re on the phone, your headphones may be required to transmit your voice, as is the case with most headphones. They may also be used to divide audio into one or two channels in certain situations (mono or stereo). The names TS, TRS, and TRRS are used in this context. It may seem complex, but it isn’t, just like everything else in audio.

The tip, rings, and sleeve are the three primary components of headphone jack plug assemblies. The letters “T” represents for tip, “R” means for ring, and “S” stands for sleeve when you read “TRS” or “TRRS” on a spec sheet. The sleeve (the longest portion) is usually used to ground the electric connection, while the rings and tip are utilized to transfer the signal. Fun fact: Apple uses a slightly modified TRRS connection with the ground and microphone portions swapped, which is why there are headsets labeled “Made for iPhone.” I know it’s boring, but it’s also extremely easy!

What exactly is USB-C?


You may have also heard about USB-C, a fresh new kind of connector that is touted to be the newest and greatest plug that will cure all of our issues. Engineers from some of the world’s most prestigious businesses collaborated to develop this new standard connector, which is capable of transferring massive quantities of digital data as well as charging your gadgets. The transmission of audio data is one of the many use cases available. We recommend reading the full explanation of how USB-C works and how it differs from the analog 3.5mm jack, but in summary, the goal of USB-C audio transfer is to keep the data as digital as possible for as long as possible so that there is little degradation in quality when it is converted into analog sound waves that you can hear.

It sounds wonderful in principle, but the problem is that, despite the fact that the standard is intended to be global, there have been a number of issues with device compatibility. Some USB-C headphones are compatible with specific devices, while others are not. Not to mention that if you have a device with just a single USB-C connection (such as a smartphone), you’ll need another adapter to charge and listen to music at the same time, which is inconvenient. Hopefully, the USB-C market will mature into something worthy of the headphone jack, but for now, it isn’t a good substitute just because it can transmit audio.

What exactly is an MMCX connector?

You may come across a few pairs with MMCX connections after you leave the world of cheap earbuds and start searching for something that puts a greater emphasis on sound quality. But what exactly does it imply? MMCX stands for micro-miniature coaxial, and they are, as the name suggests, small. It’s small enough to slip inside a set of in-ear headphones. Because in-ear monitors are generally not inexpensive, this attachment is mostly utilized in them. They’re tough to manufacture technical marvels, so it doesn’t make sense to have to discard them every time the audio wire is broken or frayed over time.

Using an MMCX connector allows the user to just swap out the cable in those instances when it becomes damaged versus needing to buy a whole new pair of in-ears. Plus, the connection itself locks into place and allows for 360 degrees of rotation, so not only does it make the wire easier to replace but it also makes it harder to break in the first place. Then there’s the added benefit of versatility. If you buy a pair of quality in-ear monitors for your phone, you might only require a standard 1.2m cable. But if you and the band make it big and are performing at Good Morning America next week, you can get a longer cable fit for performing on stage without needing to buy a brand new pair of headphones. Though at that point you can probably afford to buy whatever you want, but I digress.

Then there’s Bluetooth

Bluetooth headphones

If you don’t want your headphones to have any cables, you’ll have to go for Bluetooth. Bluetooth audio has exploded in popularity, and the fact that the market for Bluetooth speakers and headphones is growing is why we all have employment at SoundGuys. But it doesn’t change the fact that Bluetooth is awful, at least in terms of sound quality. While it’s gone a long way since its beginnings, and most people won’t notice a difference, our testing indicates that wired is still the king of quality.

When you want to get rid of the cables, Bluetooth is a good option. It’s widely used in consumer headphones and portable speakers. Because of the sound quality, Bluetooth is seldom seen in professional equipment, but as the technology develops, I wouldn’t be shocked to see it appear here and there. The main issue with Bluetooth is that it needs a low latency codec to keep the audio and images in sync if you want to use it to connect a set of headphones or speakers to watch movies. Otherwise, if you use the normal SBC codec, the lips of the actor on the screen will move before you hear what they’re saying, which may be very irritating. If you’re going to use Bluetooth headphones or speakers, ensure sure they have a low latency codec built in.

What are the advantages of using an XLR cable?

This seems to be an appropriate moment to mention another essential kind of audio connection: the XLR. Most individuals would never need to know about XLR cables, but if you intend to work with professional audio equipment, you should get acquainted with them. XLR is the industry standard for professional microphones. XLR cables feature a female and male end, as well as a number of pins on the interior that must match when connecting to equipment.

The most popular has three pins and is known as XLR3, although there are others that may have more. Again, professional microphones are the most frequent use case for XLR cables, but if you’re just getting started with audio and don’t want to deal with all of the equipment that comes with XLR mics, don’t worry. You can still get a good USB microphone that you can connect straight into your computer.

What exactly is a banana clip?

Banana clips are another kind of connection you should be acquainted with when it comes to putting up home audio speakers. I’m not sure why it’s called a banana clip, but I suppose it looks like a banana to some people. The unusual form is due to a small spring inside that pulls outwards when you plug it in, guaranteeing excellent contact with the metal. When you need to connect cables to power speakers or link them to other types of equipment, they are often utilized. These should be placed at the end of your speaker wire for a more solid and efficient connection. Plus, you’ll be able to trim the speaker wires to the precise length you need, eliminating a tangle of speaker cords behind your receiver.

Let’s discuss about speaker cables

speaker wires

The simplest way to connect a set of speakers or an amplifier is to use speaker cables to link everything together. This is a basic project that will utilize the same binding posts as the banana clip we spoke about previously. The main difference is that you’ll remove the binding posts instead of plugging in a piece of metal as you would with banana clips. Not completely, but just enough to view the holes into which the speaker wires must be inserted. You’ll want to expose part of the wire now and twist it to make it easier to put through the hole. After that, you may screw the binding post back in place. The positive terminal will be the red post, while the negative terminal will be the black one.

What is an RCA connection?

RCA connector

If you were living before the era of 4K Ultra-high-definition curved TVs, you most likely held a trio of multicolored wires in your hands at some time. The cables are RCA plugs, which stands for Radio Corporation of America, the cable’s original manufacturer. At the end of an RCA cable, it divides into three connectors. One is usually red, one is white, and one is yellow. These are utilized in contemporary times when audio and video must be transmitted across devices at the same time. The right audio channel is represented by the red cable, the left audio channel by the white cable, and composite video is represented by the yellow cable. My earliest recollections of this connection are from the early 1990s, when VCRs and game systems like the Nintendo 64 could be connected to a television. Thankfully, the matching connectors on the back of the TV were also color coded, making the process of getting everything hooked up quite simple.

What is the definition of an optical cable?

An optical cable is another method to send audio and video data at the same time. They are used for the same purpose as an RCA connector: to connect any device with a visual component, such as DVD players or gaming systems. The most significant distinction is that, unlike RCA cables, optical cables utilize ultra-thin polymers that can transmit light instead of copper wires to carry information.

This drastically improved the quality of the signal over long distances when compared to RCA cables, because RCA cables transmit electricity which can degrade with distance. That isn’t a problem with light, so the end signal of an optical cable ends up being much much closer to the initial information. This is why the optical cable has largely replaced RCA in newer devices. As we mentioned, you’ll most likely find an optical port on anything that needs video and audio to co-exist, like a gaming console, DVD player, or soundbar.

HDMI ARC is also an excellent choice

While we’re on the subject of connectors that transmit both audio and video, there’s one final one to mention: HDMI ARC. You’re undoubtedly already acquainted with HDMI as the most common kind of screen connection, but what does ARC stand for? The “High Definition Multimedia Interface Audio Return Channel” (HDMI ARC) stands for “High Definition Multimedia Interface Audio Return Channel.” It may seem to be a lot, but when you think about it, it’s a good name. HDMI ARC simply allows audio to flow via the same HDMI connection that is used for visual transmission.

Instead of plugging in an HDMI wire and any audio connections you need to obtain sound, you can do it all with just one. The greatest issue is that not all devices are compatible with HDMI ARC, and even a TV with HDMI ARC may only have one suitable port. So all you have to do now is keep an eye out for whatever one it is so you can take advantage of it. HDMI ARC, like optical cables, is most often used in circumstances where the visual and audio must sync. So, whether you’re looking for a new gaming console or soundbar, keep an eye out.

If you want to transmit audio across devices, these are the most common methods. The most significant distinctions are determined by the kind of equipment you want to connect and the purpose for which it will be used. Hopefully, this has been helpful, and you now know what to do whether you want to listen to music wirelessly or connect up a cutting-edge soundbar.