Putting together a live streaming setup doesn’t need to be daunting. You just need to take it a step at a time and focus on each crucial element along the line.

One of the main ingredients of live streaming is audio. Sound sources vary. If you’re a gaming streamer, half of your audio comes from software, and the other half is from you through a microphone if you’re doing live commentary. Live music performances rely heavily on external audio sources—i.e., vocal and instrumental inputs.

Broadcasting audio from mobile devices is a pretty straightforward process. Phones and combination earphones for mobiles have built-in or in-line microphones. You’re live with sound with a tap of the screen. Meanwhile, a computer setup isn’t as simple.

Whatever it is you’re live streaming, if you’re adding sound from an external source, you’re going to need audio cables.

So what are the different types of audio cables needed for live streaming? These are what we’re here to tell you. But first, let’s have a look at the larger categories under which these pieces of hardware fall.

Analog and Digital

Both types transfer electrical signals, and both are meant to do so in real-time or close to it. But they differ in many ways.

Analog cables

Analog cables continuously transfer signals that are analogous throughout the line. This means the quality of information that reaches the destination is very close to the source. Think of it as organic produce. These cables transmit raw, unprocessed data from end to end.

Because of their old-fashioned construction, analog cables are vulnerable to interference, like noise and hums. These can come from an assortment of sources, like wireless signals or disturbances caused by faulty wiring. This is remedied by balancing.

Balanced and unbalanced analog cables

Unbalanced cables usually have one conductor wire and one ground wire. Balanced cables have a dedicated conductor wire, which helps offset most forms of disturbance.

Using unbalanced cables doesn’t always equate to having clean audio. To lessen or eradicate noise, your entire system must be balanced. This doesn’t just involve your cables. Your mixer, computer, and everything else in between must have balancing or noise-canceling measures applied to them.

Digital cables

Digital cables carry signals in their binary form—the ones and zeroes that make up digital data. The bits of information that run through these cables are processed in one way or another.

These cables are also susceptible to interference. However, because of how digital data is stored, signal defects can be corrected through both hardware and software.

Data degradation is also a lesser concern when using digital cables. Digital signals are more robust than analog. They can run through greater lengths of cables before they start losing integrity.

Different Audio Cable Types for Live Audio

Let’s jump into the meaty stuff. Like with most computer-related hardware, audio cable names mostly follow the initialism naming convention. But we’ll walk you through each of them. Here are the common audio cable types you’ll need for live streaming.

Universal Serial Bus (USB)

USB Type-A cable

Image Credit: Malcolm Koo (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

USB cables come in a variety of flavors. You have your types A and B, and their mini and micro derivatives. There’s type C, which is getting more and more popular. And, although they work under different protocols and are proprietary by brand, many users put Lightning and Thunderbolt cables under the USB umbrella as well.

As in the name, USB cables are versatile. They carry both power and various forms of digital data, including high-quality audio. Many beginners use USB microphones and headsets with mics that connect directly to their computers for their live streams. Audio interfaces and mixers also link to computers via USB cables.

There are many USB cable combinations. They’re available in male-to-female, USB-to-Lightning, regular-to-mini/micro format, and so on.

Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS)

TRS cable

Image Credit: Evan-Amos

TRS cables are what you might call “generic” audio cables. The telltale look of their connectors makes them one of the most identifiable audio components in use today.

The rings are insulating bands that divide the plug into segments, which represent the conductors in the cable. Each one carries an audio signal (mic, left and right channels). One segment is always the ground connection.

This analog cable type varies from just tip-sleeve (TS) to tip-ring-ring-ring-sleeve (TRRRS). They are either balanced or unbalanced, depending on what type of conductors are present within.

They come in different sizes, from 2.5mm to 6.5mm. But the most common is the 3.5mm, which is used for earphones for mobile devices and computers.

High-end microphones and instruments, such as guitars, often require large format TRS cables to connect to an external sound interface which, in turn, link up with computers.

TRS cables also function as extensions if one end has a female connector.

External Line Return (XLR)

XLR male-to-female cable

Image Credit: SparkFun Electronics (CC BY 2.0)

As far as live audio is concerned, XLR cables are used in combination with professional microphones. This analog cable is balanced by default and must be connected to an interface or mixer.

An XLR connection is a step up from USB because it offers a lot more room for adjustments by way of an external controller. And since XLR microphones are generally better than plug-and-play ones, you get superior sound quality.

In an events setup, XLRs are also used for loudspeakers and controlling lights.

Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)

MIDI cable

Image Credit: Opersing2688 (CC BY 3.0)

A MIDI cable looks like an XLR cable at first glance, but it actually transmits digital signals. MIDI is its own protocol. It enables the communication between electronic musical instruments, such as keyboards and synthesizers, and an interface.

Mixers and audio dashboards today rarely have ports for MIDI connectors. A dedicated MIDI interface is usually required to establish a connection between instruments and computers.

MIDI is considered a retro protocol. Musicians use it for composing chiptunes and electronic music. You’ll find it being used by EDM producers on live-streamed performances.

Radio Corporation of America (RCA)

RCA cable

Image Credit: Laurentb64 (CC BY 3.0)

Like TRS cables, RCA is one of the most recognizable audio cable types by appearance. It’s also one of the most senior cable and connector formats—coming out in the 1930s.

RCA cables represent a single audio channel per connection. They also transmit video signals. Even though it’s a legacy format, most TVs still come with RCA jacks and cables. You’ll get the trademark trio of yellow (video), black/white (left channel), and red (right channel) cables, which will gather dust in storage because you’ll probably use the vastly superior HDMI.

Fewer and fewer interfaces accommodate RCA these days. It’s analog, so professional audio engineers are usually the market for this old-timer. They’re often used for carrying signals from older music devices, such as vinyl record players, to a preamp or mixer.

Category 5 Enhanced (Cat5e)

Cat5 cable

Image Credit: nrkbeta (CC BY 2.0)

Cat5e is an ethernet, and yes, LAN cables aren’t just for internet connections.

It’s a more advanced type of ethernet cable as it can provide power and transmit high loads of digital data at the same time. It’s also a hardy piece of equipment, as it’s able to maintain low latencies at very long stretches of the wire.

A single Cat5e cable supports up to 40 audio channels. It’s less for, say, streaming games and more for larger events. Examples include broadcasting worship services, concerts, and sporting events.

Snake Cables

snake cable

Image Credit:VK1LW (CC BY 3.0)

The draw of snake cables is more for convenience than offering unique audio functionality. They’re cables combined into one casing, which drastically reduces clutter.

Snake cables come in many different formats involving various combinations of audio cable types. Most snake cables end at a junction box, which holds different kinds of ports for both male and female connectors.

They are useful in live band setups, podcasts with multiple guests, or any type of broadcasts that involve throngs of inputs and outputs.

Mic and Headphone Splitter

mic and headphone splitter

Image Credit: Tiia Monto (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

An audio splitter isn’t enormously vital but it’s nice to have around just in case you need it.

Audio jacks differ from device to device. Mobiles and laptops have one composite audio port, which sends out stereo sound and takes in audio from a mic at the same time through a single cable and connector.

Desktop PCs, on the other hand, usually have a dedicated jack for a microphone and another one for stereo headsets or earphones.

The example shown is for devices with a single combination port. What if your headset with a built-in mic conks out? If you have a spare set of earphones and a separate mic on you, a splitter will come in handy.

Splitters also come in reverse format for desktop computers. They’ll have two male connectors for the separate mic and audio out jacks and a female port on the opposite end. Splitters are nifty cables to have in and out of live streaming.

Side Note

You’ll notice that we didn’t include the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cable in the list. While HDMI does indeed support ultra-high quality audio, it’s largely associated with how it complements video. We have a separate post discussing the finer points of the godly HDMI.

We also didn’t consider the Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) and Toshiba Link (TOSLINK) cables. Commonly and collectively known as optical cables, they’re mainly used for personal audio requirements, like for home entertainment systems. Their use in broadcasting live audio is very limited.

Types of Audio Jacks

Let’s clear one thing up first because many people confuse jacks with connectors. An audio jack is the fixed port into which a connector is plugged. Jacks are almost always female receptacles. They are also named after the plug they support mostly.

Audio jacks on desktop computers take 3.5mm TRS plugs. They are connected to the motherboard, with each port serving a specific purpose. These jacks are grouped on the back panel of your rig. Depending on the housing, there may be auxiliary speaker and mic ports at the front.

Here are the different types of audio jacks you’ll find on your computer.

audio jacks

Image Credit: BasementOnFire

1. Orange. Center channel and subwoofer

2. Black. Rear left and right surround speakers

3. White. Side left and right surround speakers

4. Pink. Microphone

5. Green. Front left and right speakers/headphones

6. Blue. Line in for external sound sources, such as CD players or instruments that support 3.5mm connectors

Many high-end designer motherboards don’t support the color-coded standard shown above in the name of aesthetics. But you can always refer to the connector and cable identification chart in your motherboard’s user manual.

Audio interfaces and mixers are more complex and offer a lot more jack options compared to onboard ports on computers. They accommodate different audio cables, including most, if not all, of the items we’ve listed here.

Beginner-level interfaces would have TRS jacks of varying sizes for instruments and headphones. They may also have at least one XLR jack for a high-quality microphone. Professional-grade audio dashboards can have tens of audio jacks and support both modern and legacy connectors and cables.

Wired vs. Wireless

With the exception of Bluetooth headphones, an entirely wireless system for a live stream setup is still over the distance. Wireless technology is improving by the day, but it’s far from what a hard-wired system can offer.

Cables, which directly connect devices, are susceptible to interference. Wireless audio devices? Even more so. Wi-Fi signals, microwaves, wayward radio transmissions, and other ambient signals adversely affect the performance of cable-free gadgets. There are also latency and battery issues.

Until these concerns are addressed and remedied in inexpensive and convenient ways, cables are kings in the realm of audio.