Vintage Audio - Introduction to cables and connectors
The goal of this post is to gain insight in the different types of connectors you can stumble upon while putting together your audio system. By reading this post you will be able to very that your turntable can be connected to your amplifier, or make you able to identify the missing cable for your setup. Apart from the basic information about connectors, I would like to provide some technical background information as well.
An easy question to start with: Why do we need to connect the different devices? In a time before Wifi, Bluetooth and one-click-to-configure-everything, information needed to be transferred over cable. This information was transferred in the form of signals.
What signals are we talking about? Let’s keep it simple and define a signal as a voltage change over time. In the audio world we speak about two types of signals, called analog signals and digital signals.
The transferred signal typically has a minimum and maximum voltage. An analog signal can have an infinite number of values in this min/max interval range. Pure audio signals are analog. Example of an analog signal:
The digital signal however, has a finite set of values. Most often this is reduced to 2 values: 0V and some other voltage (5V for example). Image this like and switch turned on and off. A digital signal can be the discrete representation of an analog signal to a finite number of values. Example of a digital signal:
Let us go back in time, before the existence smartphones and computers. The first types of circuit boards used in amplifiers were built from the very basic components: resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes and transistors. All of these are basically analog components. When I talk about vintage audio equipment, I mean analog audio equipment. For the rest of this post, I will only focus on cables and connectors for analog signals since the rest did not yet exists that time.
Type of connectors and cables
First of all we will talk about the types of analog cables. There exists two types of analog cables: balanced and unbalanced. Balanced cables are relatively immune to noise and radio interference and are therefore mostly used in professional environments.
Balanced cables consist of 3 wires: Signal (+), Signal (-) and Ground. Whereas unbalanced cables only have 2: Signal and Ground. To simplify, the third cable is used for noise cancellation.
Balanced Analog Connectors
XLR Male and Female
The connectors are circular in design and have between 3 and 7 pins. For audio, XLR3 (3 pins) is used. XLR cables can snap into place, making it impossible to disconnect them by accident. Most of the professional microphones use XLR3. Another usage is for connecting loudspeakers.
TRS stands for Tip-Ring-Sleeve (see image). In contrast to XLR, TRS does not use pins and holes but instead it uses 3 different contact surfaces. TRS cables are used for both input and output. The unbalanced version (TS) is commonly used as guitar/instrument cable.
Unbalanced Analog Connectors
We discussed the TRS connector before. The TS cable is the unbalanced version and mostly used for instruments. Keep them as short as possible or they will pick up noise and electrical hums.
RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America. As the name suggests, this is an American standard. RCA became popular in the fifties en is still very widely used nowadays. RCA is always unbalanced. These are the most common wires used by DJs to connect CD players and turntables to mixers.
One of the connectors you will probably encounter is the DIN type. DIN dates from the early seventies and is a standard from the Deutsches Institut für Norming. Since this is a German standard, you will find it mostly with german brands like Dual. However, Other brands like Philips and Lenco used it as well for some devices. DIN exists for many applications (audio/video/Computer/...) and can have different size and different amount of pins according to its purpose. Most input devices will have a connector with pins (called male), which insinuates you need an amplifier with a DIN connector with holes (called female). Make sure to count the amount of pins (usually 3, 4 or 5 for audio).
If you have any questions about a certain type of cable or connector, don't hesitate to contact me.
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