Whether you are recording or creating music, you want a clear and crisp sound quality. While many factors can influence sound quality, your choice of audio cable has a drastic impact on your audio project quality.
Essentially, the audio inputs and outputs must flawlessly work together to achieve professional and studio-quality audio work. But which one between XLR and TSR is a good choice? Perhaps it would be easier to make your choice if you understand the characteristics of these two audio cables. Read on to learn more.
XLR vs. TRS: Beginner’s Guide to Audio Cables
TRS – Tip, Ring, and Sleeve
TRS stands for the three fundamental components of the cable that deliver audio signals depending on the contacts they create. These components are the tip, ring, and sleeve. You get different sound signals depending on the type of cable you use. TRS cable comes in in two channels, whereas TS has a single audio channel called TS, two channels called TRS. TRRS has two audio pathways plus a microphone channel.
You can tell when the cable is a TS, TRS, or TRRS just by looking at the jack plug. Notice the black ring close to the tip. A TS cable has one black ring, two rings for TRS, and three for TRRS. This type of audio connector is also called ¼ or quarter inch. It is essential to know what application you will be using the audio cable for to deliver the best possible sound quality.
A TS cable, for instance, produces only one sound signal. For this reason, it is commonly referred to as mono. TS cable does not have a ring, and the points of contact rely only on the tip and sleeve. The tip transmits the signal while the sleeve serves as a return path.
Since the single audio signal is sent straight to the equipment it is connected to, there is a risk of noise or feedback, or the sound getting distorted. This is especially true for longer TS cables – the longer the cable is, the more likely you will encounter interference issues. This can lead to “dirty” or bad sound quality. This type of cable is also unbalanced; if you want stereo audio quality, you will have to use two cables.
Meanwhile, a TRS cable is just like the TS but with an added ring that allows two contacts for that balanced right and left audio channel. This is also known as stereo audio.
Inside this cable are three wires designed to carry the left (or hot) signal, right (or cold) signal, and the ground. TRS cable is great for both mono and stereo signals, which means it is excellent for headphones and other equipment where a balanced connection is preferred. TRS cable is also a safe choice for plugging the equipment into two or more devices.
Finally, a TRRS cable is just like the TRS but with the inclusion of a microphone channel. A common application for this type of cable is a headphone, where you can not only listen but also speak through the built-in microphone. TRRS is favored over the other two types for multi-media device use.
Pros and Cons of TRS
To help you decide if a TRS audio cable is right for you, let’s look into its strengths and weaknesses:
- Affordability. If you have a limited budget, TRS is a reasonable choice. The sound quality is not that much different than the more expensive XLR, anyway.
- Versatility. TRS cable is a standard choice for musical instruments such as guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers. While keyboard workstations are now supporting XLR connectors, there are still lots of instruments that only support TRS connectors.
- Connectivity. TSR cable connects to inputs and outputs easily.
- TRS cables do not need a preamp, which translates to less equipment required for a recording job.
- Unsecure. TRS cable connection tends to get loose over time due to its plug-unplug nature of usage. It also makes the cable prone to getting detached from the connection.
- Wiring. TSR cable’s wiring is not separate unlike XLR, resulting in slightly poorer sound quality.
XLR – External Line Return
When people say “microphone cable”, they are most likely referring to XLR cable – the standard microphone connector used since the 1950s. XLR connectors transmit balanced mono audio and sometimes stereo signals. It is commonly used to send and receive audio signals between devices. It has a balanced connection that resists noise or any kind of interference.
As with TSR cable, XLR cable houses three wires that carry ground (X), left or hot (L) signal, and right or cold (R) signal. XLR connectors may be male (characterized by three pins in the connector) or female (with three pinholes). The male connector transmits the audio signals, while the female connector receives them.
Pros and Cons of XLR
Will XLR meet your audio quality requirements? Here are the pros and cons when you choose XLR cable:
- Power. XLR cable can run without being connected to a power source. It can even deliver power to a condenser microphone. This is called phantom power, and it can be such a useful advantage.
- One thing about XLR cable is that, unlike TSR, it is tug-resistant. It does not get detached so easily because of its locking mechanism. You get a more stable connection which is a plus during live production when people move around a lot on stage.
- Balance. XLR cable is always, always balanced, which means there is less likelihood of noise and interference. This also makes the audio quality superb.
- Flexibility. It is easy to connect multiple short XLR cables to form a longer one. To daisy-chain XLR cables, you only need to plug the male connector into the female and continue this connection until you get the length that you need.
- As already mentioned, the XLR cable is the top choice for microphones, past and present. And it’s difficult to go wrong when you choose something that’s been the choice of many for years and years.
- Expensive. XLR cable costs more than TRS cable. Sure, there are cheap XLR cables but they don’t last very long as they are low quality. It will not be cost-effective to keep buying cheap XLR cables.
- Inflexibility. The equipment you are using must be compatible with XLR cable, which means the equipment must be a female port and the connector must be a male port.
XLR or TRS? Here’s What Audiophiles Say
Most professional music creators and producers prefer XLR over TRS, but there are cases when the latter is a more sensible choice.
For example, a TS cable is suitable for guitar since it only needs a mono sound output. TRS is also great for the same reason. For audio equipment requiring a balanced or stereo signal, TRS is a better pick than TS cable.
When performing on stage, it makes more sense to use TS cables as they are longer and easier to connect. Ideally, it should not be more than 20 feet long to avoid noise and any sound interference.
Although TRS and XLR don’t differ that much from each other as far as sound quality is concerned, there are many situations when XLR cables are a more favorable choice.
XLR can filter out noise for a more clean sound. It is also highly compatible with microphones. These make XLR cable an ideal choice for studio recording.
For live shows, XLR may not offer the same benefit as TRS because of its rather short length. However, XLR can provide more robust and balanced audio without catching too much noise. XLR also provides a more secure connection, whereas TRS connection loosens in time.
The bottom line is – XLR is fantastic for studio recording, and also works well for live performances. If superb sound quality is what you are after, XLR is your best bet.
If you are looking for an inexpensive audio solution, or prefer to keep things low-key, then TRS cable can do the job.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.