Cables are a vital component of all modern technological devices. Despite the growth of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity, and wireless battery charging, there’s still very little substitute for some of the world’s most important cables. From USB to Ethernet, HDMI, to MIDI, whatever kind of task you’re tackling and whatever kind of hardware you’re using, chances are you’re going to have to plug something into it eventually.
You’re going to use a cable for something. Choose Cable Matters when the cable matters. We manufacture and supply many of the best cable types you can find. Here’s a look at some of the most important types of cables we work with, and how they offer the best ways to bring your devices together.
Cable Types: What You Need to Know
There are a lot of different cable types for all sorts of different jobs. Some of them transmit video, some of them transmit audio, others transmit data, and some cables can do all that and more. Here are some of the most common cable types you’ll come across, what they do, and where you might use them.
Ethernet cables are the backbone of local and wider area networks the world over. They let computers get online, and give servers all the bandwidth they need to handle our mountains of data. Although for many consumer devices, Wi-Fi is the preferred method of networking, there’s still a place for Ethernet in the home, with gaming PCs, games consoles, TVs, and some laptops still enjoying the benefits of a more stable, high-speed network connection.
Ethernet cables are often used by streamers, too, since they’re the only way to get a guarantee of a high-quality connection without interference.
Ethernet cables were first introduced in the 80s, and have been improved with successive generations of cabling ever since. They were originally based on coaxial cable designs, but have since been replaced by twisted pair and fiber optic cabling.
Most modern Ethernet cables use twisted copper pairs for the internal wiring and are available in a few different generations with different specifications and features. Cat 5 is the oldest commercially available Ethernet cable, with official support for network speeds up to 100Mbps. Cat 5E replaced it, introducing Gigabit networking speeds for the first time, with Cat 6 able to handle 10 Gbps over shorter cable runs of up to 55 meters.
Cat 7 cables are a unique offshoot of the main line of Ethernet cables and are only worth considering in specific cases. However, their performance is similar to that of Cat 6A, with both cables able to handle 10Gbps networking at up to 100 meters. The latest generation, Cat 8 cables, are rated for up to 40Gbps.
Ethernet cables can come in both shielded and unshielded forms, with the latter categories of cable offering greater shielding options, including braiding, foil wrapping, and splines. There are also Ethernet cables that are rated for running through walls, between floors and some with greater protection against fire damage.
Fiber Optic Cables
Fiber optic cables are a unique type of cable since they don’t use electricity to transfer information, but light. Instead of being built with copper wire at their core, they use glass. This makes their signal far stronger, in turn making fiber optic cables some of the best for transmitting data over extremely long distances.
Fiber optic cables are mostly used in networking, replacing copper Ethernet cabling where more extensive transmission speeds and distances are required. They’re split into two key categories: Multimode fiber optic cables, and Single Mode fiber optic cables.
Single-mode fiber optic cables use a single strand of glass at the core. This stops the signal from bouncing around too much inside the cable, reducing signal attenuation and maximizing both the distance of the cable and the performance of that cable over its entire length. Single-mode fiber optic cables are available in OS1 and OS2 designs, with the latter able to transmit as much as 100 Gbps, and can reach up to 125-mile distances without repeaters.
Multimode fiber optic cables use multiple strands of glass at their core, which means their signal attenuation is greater than that of single mode, making them unable to handle extreme distances. However, with a wider core, multimode cables are able to transmit more data, with the highest-rated OM5 multimode fiber optic cables able to handle as much as 400 Gbps of data, though only at distances up to 500ft.
HDMI cables are the most popular solution for connecting consumer devices with consumer displays. Games consoles, Blu-ray players, streaming sticks, and even gaming PCs, all use HDMI to connect to a TV or monitor, and with good reason. HDMI combines audio and video in a single cable, is able to support the most popular resolutions and refresh rates, including 4K at 120Hz with the latest HDMI 2.1 connections.
HDMI also supports audio return channel technology for streamlining TV-connected A/V systems, variable refresh rate, Display Stream Compression (DSC), chroma subsampling, and auto low latency mode for gaming.
Most of those features were only introduced with the latest generation of HDMI cable, but some were added over the many generations it’s gone through in the past 20 years. Where the first generations of HDMI cables were only able to manage 1080p resolution at up to 60Hz, the latest can even support 8K resolution.
Digital Visual Interface (DVI) cables made their debut in the mid-90s as a replacement for analog interfaces, like VGA. It is a cable that exclusively transmits video, so unlike newer HDMI and DisplayPort standards, it cannot transmit audio alongside video. It was primarily used to connect desktop computers to monitors, more so than living-room consumer devices like games consoles and VHS players, and hasn’t been used in mainstream devices for well over a decade.
DVI cables could come in DVI-I and DVI-D formats, with the former supporting the analog VGA interface, while the latter was an exclusively digital connector. They also came in single and dual-link configurations, with the former supporting 1080p at up to 60Hz, with the latter managing 2,560 x 1,600 at up to 60Hz.
USB cables are the most universally used cable for all personal and consumer devices. They evolved from a simple data transfer cable in the 90s to a cable type that transmits data, power, video, audio, and more. Today USB cables are some of the most powerful and versatile of all cable types and can be found on just about anything with a consumer focus.
USB cables have gone through many iterations over the years, though. The classic rectangular (non-reversible) Type-A connector came first, with speeds as low as 1.5 Mbps, but that quickly evolved and by the time 2001 rolled around with USB 3.0, USB cables could transmit up to 480 Mbps of data, and came in a range of types and sizes. That included Type-B connectors for larger peripherals like printers and scanners, and smaller Mini-A and Mini-B connectors which were used in smaller portable devices like MP3 players, early smartphones, and computer peripherals with detachable cables.
Everything changed with the introduction of USB 3.0, though. These new “SuperSpeed” ports could handle much more data – up to 5Gbps, and eventually 10 Gbps. The naming scheme grew incredibly complicated with USB devices at this time, however, with USB 3.1 followed by USB 3.2, with the USB Forum eventually renaming all USB devices as USB 3.2 Gen 1, Gen 2, or Gen 2x2.
Another major change came with the introduction of the USB-C connector. This reversible USB connection offered the same speed as the fastest USB-A cables but also added support for higher-wattage power delivery, and the ability to transmit video and audio, as well. This has only increased since, with the latest USB4 cables featuring monstrous bandwidths as high as 80 Gbps, with support for over 100W of power delivery for charging devices, and the ability to transmit 8K video and beyond.
USB technology also forms the foundation of Intel’s Thunderbolt standard, which offers similar bandwidth but with a greater guarantee of performance and features.
Power cables have been around since the 1800s, but most often today they’re based on two or three-wire and ground PVC-insulated cable designs. These can output in a wide range of headers, though, from the larger C13 “Kettle lead” power cables for more demanding appliances and devices, to the smaller C5 “Cloverleaf” design, to the comparably-tiny 5v “Barrel” connectors.
There are even smaller coaxial power cables that are used to connect very low power consumer electronics to the mains electricity supply, and they can come in a wide range of shapes and sizes.
However, many of these mains power cables are being replaced by USB-C connectors. Where most homes have USB chargers for their smartphones that have USB-C connections, many devices – particularly those that require charging, rather than an active mains power source – are switching to USB-C connections to simplify charging and powering all devices.
Often seen as a contemporary rival of HDMI cables, DisplayPort cables are typically used in higher-end desktop computers to connect them to a high-end monitor. It can transmit both audio and video and does so with an asymmetrical rectangle connector. Through successive generations of DisplayPort cables, they’ve offered greater performance than that of HDMI, thereby allowing those using these cables on compatible computers and displays, to enjoy higher resolutions and refresh rates.
The introduction of HDMI 2.1 closed that gap, but then the newer DisplayPort 2.0/2.1 standard came along and stole the top spot once again.
DisplayPort cables can support a wide range of resolutions and refresh rates, including 8K resolution and up to 60Hz, and 1080p at 900Hz – although there are no monitors to take advantage of some of these capabilities at the time of writing.
Thunderbolt cables are an Intel-created standard that began life using the Mini DisplayPort connector but has transitioned to using USB-C connectors for more recent generations. Thunderbolt combines PCI-Express and DisplayPort protocols into a single connection, along with DC power.
Although offering comparable features and specifications to the most capable of USB-C connections, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 are held to higher standards than even USB4 cables, meaning you get a higher guarantee of performance and features with Thunderbolt than with generic USB cables.
The high capabilities of Thunderbolt connections mean they’re often used as the sole connector type on some laptops, or at least offered alongside a more limited selection of other ports, since adapters allow Thunderbolt to effectively function as any kind of port you like. It can be used for high-speed data transfers, for sending audio and video to external displays or even to create a network connection with an Ethernet adapter.
Thunderbolt 4 is the latest Thunderbolt release to date, with guaranteed bandwidth of 40 Gbps, as well as support for multiple high-resolution displays through daisy chaining, and support for up to 100W of power charging. Intel has announced a newer, Thunderbolt 5 specification, however, which will offer up to 80 Gbps of bandwidth for data transfers and up to 120 Gbps for video transmission.
As with USB-C connections, Thunderbolt is entirely backward compatible with all other Thunderbolt connections that use the same connector.
This is one of the largest categories of cable types, as all sorts of different devices use different cables for audio transmission. There are some that we’ve already talked through here, like HDMI, Displayport, and USB, which carry both audio and video, but there are also many different audio-only cables that are used in consumer devices, for live performances, and in professional audio mixing settings.
Some of the most common audio connections are TS and TRS. These 3.5mm connections are used with some consumer devices like laptops and some smartphones, though they are becoming increasingly uncommon as consumer devices drive towards wireless connectivity for accessories.
Due to being unbalanced, TS cables are typically used with mono audio equipment like guitars, while TRS cables are balanced, so tend to be used with headphones, speakers, and mixers, where balancing is important.
XLR cables are typically used with professional audio equipment like microphones. They’re big and bulky, with three thick pins within the circular connector. SpeakON cables are similarly bulky, but provide a locking mechanism for unbalanced cabling, making them a great solution for professional speakers and amplifiers in live performance, where an accidental unplugging could bring the whole performance to a close.
RCA cables and banana plugs are often used in home cinema setups for powering surround sound systems, or for connecting stereo audio equipment to larger A/V systems.
For more information, consult the Cable Matters complete guide to audio cable types.
Developed in the 1980s, MIDI cables aren’t technically audio cables, but they carry event messages between instruments and computer systems to aid production. They allow certain instruments to connect directly to digital audio workstations and synthesizers. Although MIDI cables have been replaced or augmented by USB cables in some cases, they still find use in contemporary audio systems today.