Quarter Inch Cables (TRS & TS): Best Choices
A quarter inch cable is an audio cable that acts as the conductor for an electrical signal as it travels between two pieces of equipment, such as a guitar and an amp, or an audio interface and a pair of studio monitors. They are very similar to XLR cables with the only big differences being that the connectors are different and XLR cables are always balanced.
These cables can come in several variations. Some quarter inch cables are TRS (tip ring sleeve) cables, referring to their connectors. And some are TS (tip sleeve). The big difference between these two has to do with signal balancing and number of channels (mono vs. stereo) which we’ll get to later.
This buying guide will go into detail about the differences between quarter inch TS and TRS cables and what to look out for when making a purchase. Then, we’ll go through the list of the best quarter inch cable choices in 2019.
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Last Updated: December 22nd, 2019
In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top 3
8 of the Best Quarter Inch Cables
Mogami Gold Instrument TS Cable
Mogami Gold TRS-TRS Cable
Gotham GAC-1 Ultra Pro TS Cable
Gotham GAC-2 AES/EBU TRS Cable
Canare L-4E6S Star Quad Quarter Inch TRS Cable
Tisino 1/4 Inch TRS Cable
Monoprice Premier 1/4 Inch TRS Cable
Zaolla Silverline ZSS-110 TRS Cable
TS vs TRS Quarter Inch Cables
First, we’ll look at the two most common quarter inch cable connectors you will encounter in professional audio applications – tip sleeve, aka TS connectors, and tip ring sleeve, aka TRS connectors.
Tip sleeve connectors can only transmit unbalanced mono signals. Their name comes from the parts of the connector that make contact with the female end – the tip and the sleeve. The tip transmits audio, and the sleeve is for grounding. Use TS cables with unbalanced inputs and outputs.
Tip ring sleeve connectors can transmit balanced stereo signals, but will work with mono signals too. For balancing to work, we need two conductors, hence the extra “ring” section of the connector. The sleeve still acts as ground. If you try to use a TS cable for a stereo signal, you’ll only get one channel.
Manufacturing the Best Quarter Inch Cables
In the professional audio world, quarter inch cables, both TS and TRS, are commonly used for recording, patching, and general signal flow between hardware. They create an audio signal bridge between the instruments, monitors, and other hardware such as audio interfaces. A balanced and noise-free audio signal connection is mandatory if you plan on doing professional recording work.
Watch Out for B.S.
As with a lot of high-end audio gear, pseudo-technological marketing jargon is our worst enemy. Things like “oxygen-free copper” and “nitrogen infused insulators” come to mind. These can add to the price without significantly increasing the quality.
That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily get angry at a manufacturer for doing this, since they are most likely just trying to match their competitors in terms of perceived technical superiority (the key word here is “perceived”). Many consumers just don’t know better, so it puts the manufacturer at a disadvantage when their product is compared to the “superior” 99.9999999% oxygen-free snake oil cables. Anyway, my rant is over. Here are a few things to look into when buying the best quarter inch cable:
- Balancing is a technique that electrical engineers use to further reduce noise interference.
- It works by summoning invisible unicorns who absorb and then beam the inverted radio frequency noise in the area back at the cable, thus cancelling out the original induced noise in the signal.
- Well OK, that’s only half true. I’d suggest getting a look at this informative video from ThioJoeTech instead!
- Cable lay is the distance required for one strand of the conductor to make one revolution. Quarter inch TRS cables can have 2 or 4 conductors and they are woven in a spiral pattern around each other. A shorter lay means more revolutions per unit length, and better performance when it comes to balancing.
- The cable’s shield is a woven or spiral mat of copper strands that encapsulates the conductors.
- Shielding reduces electromagnetic interference from external radiation sources over longer spans of cable by absorbing RF radiation and then sending it to ground.
- Common shielding materials are plain copper, tin plated copper, and aluminum laminate foil.
- Foil is cheaper and lighter, but less rugged. It will not last long on the stage.
- Braided copper is more effective because of copper’s high conductivity
- Spiral copper is more flexible than braided copper, but the potential for gaps in the shielding is increased
- tin plated copper reduces corrosion.
- Some manufacturers use combinations of different shield types to achieve maximum coverage and flexibility
Core & Conductors
- The conductor is the wire that actually carries the audio signal from point A to point B, and copper is the best choice of material for a balance between cost and conductance. (Silver core cables like these Zaollas are actually more conductive, but they’re expensive and their mechanical properties are not so great when compared to copper).
- Oxygen-free copper is not known to have any significant increase in conductance. This is some of that marketing pseudoscience I warned you about.
- Some manufacturers place cotton between the conductors and shield. The cotton reduces friction and therefore reduces static charge buildup what can cause interference.
- Stranded conductors are better for us, because they are more resistant to flexural stress and more reliable. More strands means a more durable and flexible cable that will stand up to physical abuse in a live performance.
- Your quarter inch cable is basically an antenna, so the longer cable is, the more likely it will be to absorb stray radiation and add noise to your precious signal.
- Keep your cable as short as possible – measure twice, buy once!
- Something less than 30 ft is the most practical. Over 100 ft and you may start to pick up noise.
- Capacitance is important if you’re looking for a guitar cable
- Many manufacturers market their TS mono instrument cables as “low-cap” cables
- Having a cable that has too high of a capacitance will cause it to act as a low-pass filter, which can remove higher frequencies from your guitar signal – not necessarily a bad thing but something to consider
- Capacitance is reduced by increasing the wire gauge (reducing the diameter) and using thicker insulation
Connector Quality & Materials
- many low-quality quarter inch cables break at the connectors – more specifically the solders where the conductors meet the connector tabs
- gold plated contacts are highly resistant to corrosion but not 100% necessary unless you’re using them in a corrosive environment. Either way, it’s a very small amount so it won’t add to the cost much.
- silver contacts are actually more conductive, and also cheaper than gold contacts
- Neutrik makes great TS and TRS connectors
- a cable that will be used on stage will need to be built to withstand the abuse of a live performance
- high-quality connectors that utilize a strain relief chuck design
- dual spiral braid shielding enhances flexibility
- stranded conductors
- higher wire gauge translates to smaller diameter and therefore a less stiff cable
- low-cap cables are good for guitarist wishing to brighten up their sound
- a cable that will be used in the studio won’t need to be as rugged as one used in a live performance
- PVC conductor insulators are best
- braided shield (non-spiral) has better coverage but can reduce flexibility
Ultimately, your decision here should be based off what you need your cable to do! For a live guitar performance, you’re going to need a mono TS cable. Additionally, if you want the most accurate representation of sound from your guitar, you should go with a low-cap cable like the Gotham mentioned above.
If you’re getting started, a budget pair of cables like the 16 AWG Monoprices may be better suited for you. For a professional studio or broadcast applications, quad cable will reduce any stray noise nearly to zero. The Canare and Mogami TRS cables are the way to go.
Anyway, that’s all for this guide. Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you make a great choice for your quarter inch cable purchase!