TS vs TRS Cables – What’s the Difference?

A ‘TS’ cable stands for ‘Tip Sleeve’ and is generally used for mono and unbalanced signals such as a guitar or bass. Whereas, a ‘TRS’ cable is short for ‘Tip Ring Sleeve’ and can be used for balanced mono as well as stereo signals. 

If you have been to a recording studio or observed the sound desk at a music festival, you may have seen various types of cables with different heads. While a standard TS and TRS cable may appear similar at first glance, they have very different purposes and the circuitry is completely different.

Read on to find out what exactly are TS and TRS cables and when to use them:

What’s The Difference Between a TS and a TRS Cable?

  • A TS cable is used for unbalanced audio signals whereas a TRS cable can be used for a balanced or an unbalanced signal.
  • A TS cable is used for mono signals and a TRS cable is used for either mono or stereo signals.
  • TRS cables have lower noise interference than TS cables.
  • TS cables carry one audio signal through a single connector. This is why they are also known as ‘mono’ cables. Unofficially, they are also referred to as ‘instrument’ cables. 
  • TS cables cannot transmit balanced audio since they have only one conductor, located at the end. This is known as the “tip”. 
  • TRS cables are often referred to as “headphone” cables since they can have two audio signals.
  • Good quality TRS cables are generally more expensive than TS cables. 

What Are TS Cables Used For?

TS cables are used to connect instruments such as guitar, bass, or even microphone to an amplifier. Guitar pedals and footswitches, loudspeaker outputs, line outputs, and even electronic keyboards need TS cables to connect them to sound output. 

The connector of a TS cable is 6.35mm (1/4-inch) in size. It is a two-contact plug where the tip is insulated from its adjacent body and sleeve. 

TS outputs can be found on audio interfaces and need TS cables for you to connect the interface to a speaker or any other audio output device.

TS cables are also used for many different Euroracks, Moog synthesizers, and other modular synthesizers. 

What Are TRS Cables Used For?

TRS cables are used for devices such as microphones, stereo headphones (to combine both the left and right mono channels), and even mixing desks.

Historically, TRS cables were used by telephone operators when connecting calls between people. This is why they are still called “phone” jacks or cables by many people today.

LCD monitors will built-in speakers generally require a 3.5mm male TRS or TRRS to connect to an audio interface. You can check out different headphone jack sizes and plugs for a more detailed insight.

Interestingly, TRS cables are also used in home security systems. They provide protection from power surges and radio frequency interference. 

Is Guitar A TRS Or TS?

A guitar uses a TS cable.

Although TS cables often have noise interference because they are unbalanced, most instruments and audio units still require them. This is because switching to balanced cables would require additional complex components and the process would be expensive. The common cable for guitar is indeed the TS.

Since TS cables are shielded, they do not produce an unmanageable amount of noise. Good quality cables not only last for a long period of time but also have minimal interference. If you have been using high-quality cables and still experiencing issues, then you should look into your amp because that could be the main culprit. 

Why Don’t Guitars Use Balanced Cables?

Guitars don’t use balanced cables because this would require changing the standard circuitry, output jack, and additional components. This would make it an expensive process and hence not much research has gone into output jacks that require balanced cables to produce sound.

Humbucker pickups were created for electric guitars to cancel the sound produced by single-coil pickups. Thus, guitars today do not produce large amounts of unwanted noise interference even though they use unbalanced cables.

Professional guitar players who use many different guitar pedals will often plug their pedalboard into a DI (Direct Injection) box that is connected to their guitar. A DI box converts an unbalanced signal into a more usable one. This is a much cheaper alternative to changing the guitar’s circuitry. 

TRS cables are better suited for instruments such as microphones which produce a high interference. They require a balanced output which can then go into a mixing desk or an audio interface.

Will A TRS Cable Work As A Guitar Cable?

Yes, a TRS cable will work as a guitar cable but it will still not conduct a balanced signal.

This is because even when you plug a balanced TRS cable into your guitar, the guitar is capable of producing only an unbalanced signal. 

So if you are planning to use a TRS cable to get rid of noise, this method will not work. However, in an emergency when you don’t have a TS cable, a TRS can work as a replacement. 

While there is a slim chance of damage to the amp or the guitar when using a TRS cable, one may have connection issues. You need to ensure that the parts of the connector are touching the correct parts within the circuit.

Are TRS Cables Shielded?

Yes. TRS cables are shielded.

In addition to two conductors, TRS cables also have a shield. This shield creates a Faraday cage which reduces electrical noise from affecting the signal. The shield also prevents electromagnetic radiation from affecting other devices surrounding it. 

If you have a fried TRS cable lying around or one that no longer works, you can open it up to see the shield covering the conductor when you take it out of the jacket. 

How Do You Know If A Cable Is TS Or TRS?

It is sometimes easy to get confused between a TS and a TRS cable because they can look quite similar.

One of the major differences between the two is that a TRS cable will have an additional ring around the tip sleeve. Since there are two conductors (and a shield) in a TRS cable, there are two rings.

A TS cable, on the other hand, has one ring. 

Summary

Both TS and TRS cables can be of different sizes. Some of the common ones are ¼” and ⅛”. While a TS cable only processed unbalanced and mono audio, a TRS cable is capable of balanced audio in both mono and stereo format.

The noticeable difference between the two types of cables is that the TS cable has one ring on the tip, whereas the TRS cable has two rings.

For a guitar, you should always use a TS cable. You should only consider using a TRS cable as a substitute or a worst-case scenario.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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