The Ultimate PA Audio Cable Guide

One of the biggest challenges when setting up a PA speaker system is cabling everything up. This article will cover the following topics:

  • What PA cables do I need for my speakers?
  • Where does each cable go?
  • What order do I put the cables in?
  • Can I use Bluetooth instead?

Broadly speaking PA cables are in 2 categories; power cables and signal cables.

One of the first things to ask is 'are your PA speakers Active (amplifier built in) or Passive (no built-in amplifier)?' We will look at both active and passive speaker cabling configurations.

Remember, Bluetooth has significant quality issues. Bluetooth audio has come a long way since its noisy beginnings, but Bluetooth is still not ready to replace the cable or the headphone jack. If you want to deliver superb audio to your audience, we'd always advise to use a cable.

XLR Cables

XLR to XLR

XLR stands for External Line Return and was designed by James Cannon. These plugs are often referred to as cannon connectors.

If you are using active speakers with amplifiers built in, you only need signal cables. The most common method of delivering a signal is with a 3 pin XLR to XLR. 

Most plugs are male, and sockets are female. Cables generally have a male on one end and a female on the other which makes joining multiple cables together easy.

3-pin XLR to XLR cables come balanced or unbalanced and in varying lengths with the most popular being the 10m. Signal loss is minimal as the cable is screened and 1.5mm thick.

The difference between balanced and unbalanced 3-pin XLR cables is balanced audio uses three conductors to carry a signal. Two of the conductors carry negative and positive and the third is used for ground.

An unbalanced XLR to XLR cable uses two conductors. One carries positive one negative. These cables are open to outside interference.

The advantage of a balanced signal is the ground is separate from the negative conductor which means the signal is protected by a screen and less chance of interference.

Phone / RCA Cable

RCA, Phono or Cinch cables

Often colour coded. Red is always positive but negative can be black or white and yellow is for video. The cable is coaxial which means it is a single core surrounded by a concentric conducting shield, separated by insulation to prevent interference.

When you purchase RCA cables, always go for a thick cable - never go below .7mm thickness and check the cable quality OFC = Oxygen Free Copper and this is superior to copper coated alloys.

Try to keep the length of this cable to the absolute minimum and ensure the centre core is a flex not a solid core like TV aerial cable.

TRS / TS Cable

TS and TRS (Commonly Called Jack Plugs)

TS ¼” Jack Plugs have one ring meaning two separate connections, the tip and the sleeve. One of these connections is used to carry the positive audio signal, while the other is the ground. As there is only one connector dedicated to audio, this cable only carries a mono signal.

TRS ¼” Jack is the stereo version of the above. A single cable has the capacity to carry two audio signal channels as well as a ground. These two signal channels will be left and right audio.

Stereo TRS cables usually come out of headphone outs and monitor outputs while mixing desks, monitors and audio interfaces usually use the balanced TRS cables.

Unscreened is fine for linking an amplifier to a speaker (as long as it is less than 250w), but you need a screened one for a guitar or other musical instrument as the shield prevents RF interference from all the electronics nearby.

Jack plugs come in 2 sizes for PA; 3.5mm often used in mobile devices and 6.35mm often called a ¼ inch Jack.

The rule here is the bigger the plug the better the connection and the better the signal. Try to avoid the plastic plugs on the ¼ inch jack, instead use metal plugs and make sure the cable is at least 0.6mm thick.

When buying a 3.5mm cable try and spend as much as you can as the higher quality cable delivers a better performance.

SpeakON Cables

SpeakON

The word SpeakON is a registered trademark just like Hoover is to the humble vacuum cleaner. The SpeakON cable connectors are the industry-standard connectors used for connecting amplifiers to speakers. They come in 2, 4 and 8 pole but the most common is the 2 core. They are designed to operate with high inductive loads.

You will see SpeakON cables called “2 pole speaker plugs”, “4 pole speakers plug” or “twist lock” speaker plugs” (as you put them in and twist them to make the connection and lock the plug in the socket) these are perfectly compatible but are not genuine Neutrik, who as the designers of the plug guard the word SpeakON with a rod of iron.

Unlike the jack plug which is only a push in the SpeakON offers more safety during use as it cannot be kicked or pulled out. The SpeakOn has a much higher power handling capability than a jack plug.

90% of speakers use 2 pole SpeakON plugs but if you are not sure and it does not say on the speaker then call Andrew on 07973 223949 for expert advice.

PowerCon Cable

PowerCon

PowerCon once again is a Neutrik trademarked name. This device looks remarkably similar to a SpeakON but is used purely to transmit mains power and must not be used anything else.

The PowerCon is far superior to the standard IEC cable often called a kettle lead as you twist it to lock it in. The Powercon will handle 20amps at 240v. 

 

The Ultimate PA Audio Cable Guide

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