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Audio Connections between components -- Digital and Analogue

I regularly encounter people who don’t know whether a connection between two components is analogue or digital, let alone the differences between them, so I thought I’d write up a quick guide. 



Click on the picture for a larger version.


A connection is either analogue or digital, not both. Different analogue connections can be connected with an adaptor cable, but different digital connections cannot. You cannot use a cable to connect a digital socket to an analogue input. That requires a DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter).


Confusingly, some 3.5mm (1/8") analogue headphone sockets also have an optical digital transmitter built in. When a 3.5mm (1/8") headphone plug is connected, they are analogue. When a mini-optical cable is connected they are digital.



3.5mm (1/8”) TRS

6.5mm (1/4”) TRS

These are the same plugs and sockets your headphones and IEMs use, because they carry the same signal.  TRS stands for “tip, ring, sleeve”. The tip carries the left signal, the middle ring the right, and the bottom and sleeve are the combined ground and signal return.

RCA — “Single-ended"

This is the most common plug for connecting hi-fi components. Left and right each have their own plug, where the centre pin is the positive and the outside shell is the negative and ground. The difference between RCA and TRS is just that the plugs are different, so you can buy an adaptor cable to go from one to the other.


XLR — “Balanced"

Like RCA, left and right each have their own plug. The difference is that the ground is separate from the signal return, which is a mirror-image signal of the positive. It is most commonly used for long cable runs in pro audio as this set-up cancels out noise. It is also popular in high-end audio as many components use differential (balanced) topologies to cancel out noise and/or lower crosstalk between channels, depending on the intent of the designer.



If you are connecting devices using a digital connection, the device that receives the connection and outputs music to your headphones is doing the digital to analogue conversion. The transmission will be usually in the PCM format. A digital connection doesn't send an MP3, FLAC, AAC or ALAC file, but it is converted (decoded) to PCM first and sent using a specific method of digital audio transmission, usually either USB or S/PDIF*.



A balanced version of S/PDIF that uses a 3-pin XLR plug, similar to analogue XLR, but carrying a digital signal instead. It requires a 110 Ohm cable to be used to prevent issues.



Some computers and phones now support APTX audio transmission, which gives almost CD quality over wireless.



Sony/Phillips Digital Interface. The most common digital connection available other than USB. Technically, it should use 75 Ohm coaxial BNC-terminated cables, but for convenience most manufacturers use RCA sockets and cables which confusingly look similar to the RCA cables used for analogue connections, even if they do use 75 Ohm cable. 



Toshiba Link. This has become the standard optical transmission method of S/PDIF. The almost square-shaped plug and socket is known as Toslink, and the 3.5mm plug is known as mini-optical. Some headphone sockets, such as on Apple's computers and Astell&Kern DAPs, have a headphone socket that is also a mini-optical port.


USB digital audio has a specific transmission standard that is different to how digital data is transmitted to and from regular computer components.


*Note: As this is a basic guide, I haven't mentioned DSD.

Comments (16)

Thanks for making this Currawong! I was certainly confused between the different inputs/outputs of audio interfaces and this guide is a quick and easy-to-understand reference.
Although I had a grasp of the basic terminology, it was nice of you to spell everything out here. I used to get a little confused seeing both analog and digital cables that have XLR connectors.
Here's a good question: which devices should use analog power cables, and which should use digital ones?
"Audiophile" power cables supposedly work by rejecting high-frequency noise and interference that can affect audio circuits. I'd guess that different types of noise affect different types of circuits to greater degrees. The main thing I avoid is cables with gold-plated pins on the plugs, as gold isn't a good conductor. The cables I use aren't so exotic as they are mostly stiffer with better shielding.
Well, what I was referring to was power cables that are labeled as, for example, "analog AC power cord" and "digital AC power cord" within the same product line, and which devices each type are compatible with. For one, I think all headphone amplifiers would use the analog one, but I could be wrong.
The information about USB digital audio above is very useful. More extended it could help cooling down the overheated discussions about cables...
I personally would like to read more.
- What are the specificities of USB audio data transmission? I suppose there is no control on the quality of data transmission, as was already the case with CD reading. When I print a high resolution picture on a dedicated photo printer, it is sharp, not fuzzy. The characters of a printed text are sharp too, not approximated.
- Why should audio always be mistreated?
Unfortunately, I did not ready any contribution in the forums by an IT guy who would be competent in matters of transfer protocols.
@rhadorn It is a complex matter unfortunately. For USB Audio transmission, like digital audio transmission, the timing of data arrival is critical, unlike regular digital data transmission, and cannot tolerate speed changes or interruptions. It also transmits a considerable amount of noise from the computer, which can get its way into even a well-made DAC. The solutions for this are making their way into DACs, but even companies like Schiit discovered with the Wyrd that even things that shouldn't make a difference sometimes do. Expensive analysers and measurements don't tell the full story.
Thank You for posting this guide & image, I did not know what the symbol for bluetooth was until just now.
I love days that teach me something new, seriously. thanx.
The advantage of gold plated connections is that gold does not tarnish.
Copper does.
Tin plating and sliver plating turn black in time.
I'm not a metallurgist, BTW....
I don't get the concept of a balanced digital signal
Short answer:
A balanced digital signal uses a balanced output on the source,a balanced digital cable and a balanced (i.e differential) input on the DAC's digital input.
The system is balanced to reject noise picked up in the balanced digital cable.
Nice short and to the point answer!  Good Post
The tip carries the left signal, the middle ring the right, and the bottom and sleeve are the combined ground and signal return.
So if u listen to MW radio or mono sources, do not push the, plug all the way in, as this is for stereo not mono.
You'll just hear more interference in stereo.
@xylolz  I wouldn't not advise suggesting not pushing a TRS plug all the way in, as it might short the connections and damage the amp.
Yes, you should only use a Tip-Sleeve plug for mono signals and use a TRS plug for stereo.
ive been trying to find  a 3.5mm jack to 3.5mm jack, about 5cm in length, to connect a portable dap to a portable amp. no amount of searching on the net has been successful, other than a multitude of images, can someone help please, i'm in the uk
ive been trying to find  a 3.5mm jack to 3.5mm jack, about 5cm in length, to connect a portable dap to a portable amp. no amount of searching on the net has been successful, other than a multitude of images, can someone help please, i'm in the uk
or at least a name for it
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