TS and TRS cables might look almost identical, but the roles they fulfil can be dramatically different, and being able to tell them apart can be vitally important when setting up your audio equipment and instruments. A TS cable in the wrong place can lead to audio distortion in some cases, while a TRS cable could be overkill in others.
If you’re looking at a pair of cables that only seem to be differentiated by how many black bands there are on their connectors, this is the guide for you. Here’s everything you need to know about TS and TRS cables, and why you want to pick one over the other.
For more information on different audio cables, have a look at our complete audio cable types guide.
What is a TS Cable?
TS cables, or Tip/Sleeve cables, are audio cables which feature just two contact points, the titular tip and sleeve. The signal wire sends the audio through the tip, while the ground wire passes through the sleeve, helping to protect the signal from interference. They typically are used to carry mono, single channel audio signals (and are sometimes called mono cables because of it), like those of electric guitars, guitar effects pedals, and single switch amps, connecting them together and to audio mixing equipment.
TS cables are unbalanced, which means that the audio signal is more prone to distortion than other cables. While that would be a problem for sensitive audio mixing equipment or synthesizers, with instruments that only send a mono signal, that’s less of a concern, as mono signals aren’t necessarily at less risk of interference with balanced cabling. They’re available in a range of sizes up to 25ft, giving live musicians more freedom to move around a stage – though 20ft is about the maximum you should target for most uses.
TS cable connectors come in a few different shapes and sizes, from the standard 1/4-inch used in most musical instruments, to the 1/8-inch (3.5mm) and 1/16-inch (2.5mm) sizes used in computers and handheld devices.
You can tell a TS cable from its peers, by the fact that it has a single black band dividing the tip and stem portions of the connector.
What is a TRS Cable?
TRS cables, so called because they have three contact points – Tip, Ring, and Sleeve – might look similar to TS cables, but they are fundamentally different. That extra contact point lets them have both positive and negative wires, which balance out a mono audio signal and provides a cleaner sound. TRS cables can also be unbalanced like TS cables, and are usually used in this configuration to carry standard 2-channel stereo audio. In professional audio, however, they are most typically balanced, making them better suited to more sensitive audio equipment like mixers and synthesizers.
Like TS cables, TRS cables are available in a range of sizes, including 1/4-inch, 1.8-inch (3.5mm), and 1/16-inch (2.5mm). There are also adapters to turn 1/4-inch to 1/8-inch TRS connectors, and TRS to TS connectors, including splitter cable options.
The best way to tell a TRS from a TS cable, is that a TRS cable features two black bands on its connector, designating the three contact points: tip, ring and sleeve.
TS vs. TRS Cables: Which One Do You Need?
The main difference between TS and TRS cables, is that one is unbalanced, and the other is (usually) balanced, so which cable you need depends on whether you need a balanced, or unbalanced cable.
For connecting guitars to effects pedals and amplifiers, especially if it’s for a live performance on stage, TS cables are best suited. For instruments like guitars which produce a mono signal, TS cables tend to be available in greater lengths, giving the musician more room to move on stage. Don’t go over 20ft for any one cable though, if you can help it, as anything longer than that increases the risks of audio signal degradation.
For more sensitive audio equipment or those dealing with a stereo audio signal, like headphones, audio mixers, and synthesizers, you want a TRS cable instead, where the balanced wiring can help maintain the integrity of the audio signal - or in the case of stereo audio, enable carrying two channels of audio. This is particularly important if you’re using the audio equipment in any kind of professional capacity, where any distortion of the audio should be avoided at all costs.
TRS cables are typically more expensive than TS cables, especially for the most premium options, so only use them if you really need to. When you do need them though, it’s worth paying for the privilege to secure the integrity of your audio.