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Getting the Right Stereo Cable for Your Home

With so many high-definition and full-stereo options available, from headphones to speaker systems and subwoofers, using the cables that can carry all that data is vital! You don't want your cables slowing down your groove, so get ahead with these stereo options (And learn how to identify them!)

What is Stereo vs Mono?

Stereo Audio Explained

 A simple question, but a no less important one. Stereo audio is audio which is split in to different channels; namely the left and right audio channel. This gives your headphones an idea of which earphone to play which sounds from (Which is a simpler version of the "Surround Sound" we use to get directional audio from headphones). When it comes to speakers, some play stereo on their own via multiple driver units in one device while some set-ups actually use individual speakers for each channel (Again, this expands further in to the 5.1 Surround Sound set ups we see in home cinema).

Mono Audio Explained

Mono Audio is precisely the opposite; rather than splitting the audio in to different channels to be divided over different speakers, Mono audio is played equally across a system. Mono audio has a single channel, and plays with the same equalisation, balancing and directionality through every device.

Why Would You Use Mono Audio?

Incidentally, this is why if you are using only one earphone of a pair of headphones with the other one off of your ear (Like I do to work) then you should always use Mono. Otherwise, the right ear (Or left depending on which you have off) audio is lost entirely. Playing in Mono ensures all the audio is sent and you hear the complete song via just one earpiece.

Stereo Ready Audio Cables

Understanding the difference between stereo and mono audio allows us to more easily identify which cables will be suitable for stereo audio. After all, you can't expect a cable with only one channel to carry audio which is split in to two! The humble 3.5mm cable is the best example to explain this design:

3.5mm Stereo Cables (AUX)

3.5mm cables are some of the most common audio cables out there. Often called AUX cables, these simple wires carry audio data exceptionally well. If you buy a Bluetooth adapter, headphones, speaker or even TV then you'll likely have an AUX cable or at the very least an AUX port on the device.

This reel from the UK-Based tech manufacturer August International shows how these 3.5mm cables can carry different audio channels and even microphone inputs back and forth from PCs, Laptops, Phones and more...

As you can see, a 3.5mm cable is actually divided in to sections on each end. These metal segments carry signals, while being separated by the insulated black lines. This creates a single cable which can split data across multiple channels.

Already, it's easy to see how this makes the cables stereo-ready. Stereo audio is audio split in to two channels, and a 3.5mm cable is a cable split in to two channels. By delivering the audio channels independently, a 3.5mm cable is able to maintain the stereo divide, allowing the headphones or speaker connected to play each channel out of the appropriate left and right speaker units.

You may have noticed that some 3.5mm cables have a third section. This third contact point, separated by a black insulator line like before, actually carries Microphone channel audio. This separate channel ensures that stereo audio is preserved even when using devices that have a Mic like headsets.

Optical Audio Cables (TOSLINK)

Another type of audio cable which can carry Stereo (And even those 5.1 Surround Sound signals I mentioned) is the Optical Audio Cable TOSLINK. These cables do as the name suggests and convert the Audio data into digital packets of light. The LED or laser is projected down the cable, bouncing around until it contacts the other end and delivers a digital audio signal.

Unlike 3.5mm cables, Optical Audio doesn't need separate connectors or sections of insulation. Optical cables can carry so much data, so fast (Think of how much you can download over Fibre-Optic internet!) that stereo audio is no issue. In fact, 5.1 surround sound using 5 different channels is supported through optical cable!

With so many beams of light and digital decoding possibilities, TOSLINK can simply send enough data at once that a separated cable like the 3.5mm isn't needed.

Red, White, Yellow Cables (RCA)

One final type of common stereo connector is RCA cable. RCA connections take a similar approach to 3.5mm cables, in fact they are often opposite ends of the same cable!

Remember how different sections of a 3.5mm cable end carry different channels? An RCA cable uses that concept but instead of having different channels on one adapter, there are actually separate ends for each channel.

The white and red connectors on an RCA cable are carrying left and right channels, respectively. This carries the audio signal while delivering each channel independently to be used for stereo.

RCA stereo requires the device to have separate Audio Right and Audio Left ports which can be more cumbersome than a simple 3.5mm jack carrying both in one port. However, RCA is still a common way for devices to connect, especially large-scale simple stereo set-ups like small pop-up stages.

Choose the Best for You

With multiple ways of keeping your left and right channels separated you can set up a stereo system for your home cinema in no time. Understanding these ins-and-outs makes using stereo devices a lot more intuitive. For example, you can ensure the right RCA coloured channel leads off the correct direction so your audio isn't played from the wrong direction!

Having the confirmation that TOSLINK optical audio can support stereo and beyond is also reassuring, given that other stereo options are either multiple cables (RCA) or have clear dividers (3.5mm), while TOSLINK simply delivers all the data digitally and it is decoded in to left / right channels on receipt.

We hope this brief overview of your stereo audio cable options has been an inspiration and help in your own home set ups!

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