The Ins and Outs of DJ Cables for your Gear

When setting up your home DJ setup there is one component that often gets overlooked and that is the cables you will need for your new setup. While it may not be the most interesting part of your studio it is one of the most important.

You need to have a good understanding of the different types of DJ cables you may need. You also need to know how to connect your gear correctly. Every single cable in your setup has the potential to add noise and alter your sound quality. This is why getting it right the first time will save you a lot of headaches down the track.

In this guide, I’ll give you the info you need to make sure you have the appropriate cables on hand to get set up when your gear arrives.

Analog VS Digital

Before we jump into the various types of DJ cables you may need or come across it’s good to go over some core concepts. First up is the difference between analog and digital cables. Analog cables send sound via electrical signals. These cables alternate the voltage between positive and negative in a sine-wave pattern to represent the audio. Digital cables send data in the form of binary code or “1s” and “0s” much like the data that your computer processes.

Unbalanced VS Balanced

The other core concept you need to be aware of is the difference between unbalanced and balanced cables. Both are useful in different scenarios. The choice between the two is dependent on what type of equipment you are plugging in.

Unbalanced cables are made up of two wires encased in a plastic wrapping. One wire carries the audio signal while the second wire serves as a grounding wire to protect the other cable for exterior interference. This second wire tends to only work within a certain distance. It’s usually recommended to not use unbalanced cables that are longer than 15 ft (4 meters). Anything longer than this length and the amount of potential exterior interference increases. You can use unbalanced cables if your speakers are nearby without having to worry too much about potential interference.

Picture of audio cables.
Selecting the right cables for your gear is an important part of setting up your studio.

Balanced cables take a completely different approach to handling audio. These cables have 3 wires. Two of the wires carry the audio signal and the third much like unbalanced cables are used to protect the other two from exterior interference. What makes balanced cables the choice of many is the way those first two cables handle the audio. One cable carries the original sound while the second one has the same sound but this time it’s an inverted mirror. When the sound hits your equipment any distortion that has made its way into your sound will be out of phase and hence will be eliminated. This leaves you with nothing but the pure audio signal. This allows you to run much longer cables. They’re the better option if your speakers are on the other side of the room.

Irrespective of what cables you want to use you need to make sure that your gear can accommodate those cables. You won’t get the benefits of using balanced cables that run into an unbalanced connection. Luckily most DJ gear has the types of connections marked on the back of the equipment. If you’re in doubt be sure to check the manual or the manufacturer’s website.

Types of Analog Cables

Analog cables come in both balanced and unbalanced options and there are a few different varieties out there. Most higher-end DJ equipment should give you multiple choices when it comes to the types of cables it supports. Let’s go over the different types and see what each type has to offer.

RCA

RCA cables are probably the type of cable that you will be most familiar with. They were designed in the 1940s by the Radio Corporation of America, hence the name RCA. They’re used in home Hi-Fi systems and you’ll likely have several of these already throughout your house. If you buy a cheap DJ controller for beginners it will likely have one RCA master output. Likewise, the best budget studio monitors will likely have RCA as the primary connection option.

The signal in RCA cables is unbalanced and usually comes in the form of two connected plugs, one red and one white. Generally, the red cable is for the right side and the white is for the left side. These all-purpose cables excel at short distances. They’re often used to connect components to your mixer or from your DJ controller into your sound system. Since these cables are unbalanced it’s best to keep your connections as short as possible to avoid potential interference.

XLR

XLR cables are among the most common form of analog balanced cables available. They’re usually the primary connection point for more professional DJ equipment. For example, the range of Mackie studio monitors adds an XLR connection option once you get to the larger sized monitors while the smaller monitors only offer RCA and TRS. These cables have three pins for the three wires and will have a convenient clip feature to prevent your cables from getting unplugged.

A Picture of XLR cables.
The clip feature makes XLR cables ideal if there is a chance for accidental unplugging.

Since they’re balanced you can run these over greater distances compared to RCA cables. You’ll need two cables, one for the right channel and one for the left. Keep this in mind when purchasing your cables.

TRS/TS

The other most common cables you’re likely to come across are TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) or TS (tip, sleeve) cables. They come in two different sizes 1/8” or 1/4” jack. TRS cables are balanced while TS is unbalanced and while they look very similar they’re easy to tell apart by looking at the jack. TRS cables will have an extra ring on the jack compared to TS. Where possible stick to TRS cables due to their balanced nature.

By far the most common place you will see these cables will be on headphones. Both Pioneer DJ headphones and Sennheiser DJ headphones (two of the most popular DJ headphone brands) offer a choice of TRS connection sizes. In fact, everything from the headphones that come with your MP3 player or phone all the way to high-end DJ headphones will use this connection.

Headphones aren’t the only application for these cables. Many high-end DJ mixers will use these cables as a balanced output alternative to XLR cables. They can be used for either the main or booth output. Due to their more compact size, they are a popular option to deliver balanced sound.

SpeakOn

The last type of analog cable I want to cover is SpeakOn cables. These cables offer an alternative to XLR cables since they also offer balanced audio output. These ingenious cables designed by Neutrik offer a unique twist lock mechanism to secure the cable in place. They can also handle high current signals. As a result of these features, they have become a popular choice when connecting to large PA systems. It’s unlikely you’ll come across these when setting up your home DJ studio. It’s still worth knowing what they are in case you come across these types of connection options on your gear.

Types of Digital Cables

Now that we have covered the range of analog cables it’s time to tackle the other end of the spectrum. Digital cables have become more and more prevalent and can serve a range of different purposes. One of the main benefits of digital cables is the elimination of interference since the data is sent digitally. Let’s dive into some of the cables you may come across when setting up your studio.

Optical

Optical cables transfer audio signals in the form of a series of light flashes which is then interpreted. These fibre optic cables can withstand interference. They can deliver high-quality sound over multiple channels. These cables come in one of two types. S/PDIF carries the signal over two channels and is usually used to connect to your studio monitors. The other type is ADAT cables which can carry 8 channels. These cables tend to be used in more high-end production studios. Since interference is non-existent these cables don’t need to be balanced.

USB

Many of today’s modern DJ controllers have USB ports. Some controllers use this port to connect to your laptop or PC so that it can communicate with your DJ software. Some stand-alone controllers and various higher-end mixers offer the ability to plug in external hard drives or flash drives via USB ports. This allows you to use your digital music library without the need for a laptop or PC.

A picture of a USB cable.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) is one of the most common connection types.

USB speeds have also increased over the years allowing more data to be sent at a greater speed to minimise latency. USB ports are often utilised in all sorts of music production gear. Drum machines, midi keyboards and synths often are connected with a USB cable. As a result, it’s likely you’ll come across these cables when setting up your home DJ studio.

Thunderbolt

Developed by Apple the Thunderbolt cable was a direct replacement for Apple’s 30 pin connectors. These days you’ll often find these associated with phones and various other electronics. They’re used as a quick way to transmit data and also charge devices. In the DJ world, some pieces of hardware utilise this connection but it’s not as prevalent as other types of connections. If you are buying an iPad DJ controller you’ll use this connection type.

Midi

USB has become the most common way to transfer data. As a result, Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) connections have become less common. At one stage it was the primary way for various pieces of gear to communicate with a laptop, PC or external remote control interfaces. Unlike other audio cables, they don’t actually send the audio signal. Instead, they send different aspects of the performance like the note and velocity. Midi allowed external devices like keyboards to be controlled via your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). If you do expand into music production you may come across these cables especially with older gear.

Signal Conversion Devices

These devices are a way for various types of audio to be converted. They allow you to convert unbalanced audio to balanced audio. For example, you can run unbalanced RCA cables to the device. Then from the device, you can run longer XLR balanced cables to your speaker setup. By using a Signal Conversion Device you won’t experience interference due to the distance.

You may also come across various audio interfaces that can convert analog signals to digital signals. With the increase in technology, many modern DJ controllers have these audio interfaces built in.

Tips & Tricks

You should now have a good understanding of the various types of DJ cables you’ll encounter. Before we wrap things up there are a few hints and tips I’d like to offer.

When it comes to cables do treat them with care. If possible don’t bend them in odd ways or have them squashed by heavy objects. Keep them rolled up and out of the way especially from your arms and legs. You don’t want to be tripping over them in the middle of a set or even worse accidentally unplug them. While no cable will last forever if you do look after them they’ll last you a long time.

Also don’t get dismayed if the cables you have are not compatible. There is a vast range of various adapters allowing you to get the type of connection you need. There are headphone connectors that can turn your 1/4” jack into a 1/8” jack. There are even adapters that allow you to split audio. I do recommend you get the dedicated DJ cables for the connection you want. If you do need a quick temporary fix these can be an option.

A picture of a headphone cable.
There is a large range of adapters available to help with matching up connections.

I’d also suggest you try to keep your setup as clean and as simple as possible. Running a lot of cables can be a confusing mess and can make it more difficult to identify problems down the track. If you want your setup to be portable it’s going to be far more convenient to minimise the number of cables you need to take with you. It also allows you to get set up much quicker. Aim to buy quality DJ cables for the specific connection you need in the length that will be suitable for your needs.

Be Prepared!

You now have all the tips and tricks up your sleeve plus the knowledge you need about the various types of DJ cables. Setting up your home DJ studio is a rewarding and fun experience. You don’t want all your hard work to be stalled because you don’t have the right cables. Take the time to familiarise yourself with the gear you’re buying and the connections available. You’ll then be able to accurately plan what cables you’ll need. This way you can be laying down quality mixes as soon as possible!

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Robert Calabrese

Robert Calabrese

I've loved electronic music since the age of 12. From listening to tapes on my walkman, buying CD's and now in digital format. As the music evolved so has my experience and I'm passionate about sharing my journey with you.

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