Over the years, we have seen a wide range of improvements in all forms of equipment in the music industry. And some of the biggest developments have been in and around the world of the microphone.
These days there are wireless microphones that don’t need to be plugged in at all. But they haven’t replaced the mic that you physically connect or plugin. These connections happen via a range of plugs and jacks.
But what do the words plugs and jacks mean?
Well, let’s find out as I take a closer look at, what is the difference between a microphone plug and jack?
We all know that to use a microphone, it needs to have a connection to an audio device. In that way, the signal it carries can be processed for reproduction or for recording purposes. As I mentioned, in some cases, this operation is performed wirelessly, without cables. But that is not what we are looking at here.
Normally the connections are made through plugs and jacks, and before we get into looking closer at both, let’s just simplify the difference between them.
The Plug And The Jack
Some people I have heard confuse the terminology for ‘Jack.’ A jack is a fitting designed to receive the plug. It is what is sometimes known as a ‘female’ connector.
The ‘Plug’ of the microphone, sometimes called a ‘male connector,’ is inserted into the jack to make the required connection. But there is a little more to it than this. Let’s take a closer look.
Defining Plugs And Jacks
A plug is an electrical connector that connects a device, or a power source, to another device. In this case, it is the connection from a microphone to transfer the audio signals. As I have said, it is often referred to as a ‘male connector.’
Attached to the end of a mic cable, you can have either…[bl]
- 3.5mm TRS.
- 3.5mm TRRS.
- Phone Connectors.
Or the most common option…[bl]
Today with the advent of the USB mic, you will also find USB plugs that go straight to a computer. I will take a closer look at the USB mic later.
The jack or the ‘female’ connector receives the plug to allow the transmission of the audio signal between the devices. We are looking at microphones specifically, but you will also find them on Speakers and Headphones.
Obviously, the jack will need to be compatible with the plug, which is something worth considering.
How Do They Work Together?
Providing that the jacks and the plugs are of the same connection type, the electrical audio signal will pass from one to the other. To ensure this is the case, the wiring in both plug and jack also needs to be compatible with each other.
For example, the three-pin XLR has a standard wiring pattern of…[bl]
- First Pin- ground/shield.
- Second Pin- positive polarity audio signal.
- Third Pin- negative polarity audio signal.
Obviously, each of the plug/jack options has its own wiring options, which always need to be compatible with each other.
…is easy, and a lot of the time, it is a simple push-pull connection. With the XLR option, it is only necessary to align the three pins on the plug and jack. They are designed so that they can only connect in one way, so there isn’t a problem.
For the standard phono connectors, and TRS and TRRS connectors, it is just a matter of inserting the plug into the jack.
When there is a connection, the electrical audio signal can flow between the wiring of the jack and the plug.
The Flow Of The Signal Between Microphone Plugs to Jacks
The microphone reacts to and collects sound waves and then outputs them as electrical audio signals. This output is made through the microphone output plug into the connected jack of a microphone cable.
We refer to this as the flow of the signal from the microphone, from plug to jack. Sometimes you may output your signal to a preamp using an XLR cable. Just for information purposes, the mic preamp input is referred to as a microphone jack.
Male to female…
In terms of traveling through the connections to a preamp (or any other device), there will always be a ‘male’ to ‘female’ alternating connector pattern.
This route is the mic plug which is a male connection to the XLR jack on the microphone cable, which is female. Then the signal continues its journey down the cable to the XLR cable plug (or other connector type) on the other end of the microphone cable, which is male, to the input jack on the preamp (or other device), which is female.
This continuing connection of male to female is how these connections are designed to operate. So, here’s a quick tip for those who use XLR cables; it is quite obvious, but it’s surprising how many people seem to not know it. Since an XLR cable is a male to female connection, if you need a longer cable length than the one you have, simply plug another XLR mic cable into the one that is too short to extend it as far as you need.
If You Need To Send Power Through Your Connections
If you are using a condenser microphone, then you will need to send phantom power through your connections. This is because condenser mics need it to power the necessary internal mechanics of the mic.
This isn’t a problem as long as you are using XLR microphone cables and all your plug and jack connections are compatible. If they are not compatible, this can damage the microphone and any audio equipment, and it is unlikely you will get any signal at all. A good reason to check your equipment and make sure your jacks, plugs, and cabling are all in good order.
Next, let’s take a quick look at some questions that are often asked related to plug/jack issues.
Microphone Connection Problems FAQ
Is a Jack For A Microphone the Same As A Headphone Jack?
No, they are not the same, even though they may use the same connection, e.g., XLR or TRS. The jacks for a microphone are designed to get the audio signal from a Microphone plug. The jack on a headphone has the job of sending the audio signal to a headphone plug.
Can You Plug Your Mic Straight Into A Speaker?
Yes, you can, providing it is an active or powered speaker with a pre-amp stage. Active or powered speakers have a built-in amplifier that will carry an input for your microphone. This input has been designed so that it will receive the signal from the mic and amplify it. If your powered speaker features either an XLR or a 1/4-inch input, it should be compatible with a microphone.
This will not work on passive speaker systems that have no built-in amplifier; for those, you will need to plug the microphone into an integrated amplifier, or a separate pre-amp and power amp stage.
The USB Microphone
With the arrival of digital microphones came a further option for connection via USB. The quality of the USB mic has not yet reached the level of the better ‘mainstream’ mics. However, they are proving to be a popular alternative for lots of applications.
Of course, they use USB output jacks instead of the usual plugs. And effectively, they could have a plug, or a ‘male’ connection, at each end. The plug connects to the USB computer jack, and digital data is sent through the USB cable to the computer.
A very manageable system, and as the standards of the microphones improve, I suspect that their popularity will grow as well.
Need to know more about Microphones?
Then check out our informative guides on What is Microphone Feedback and How to Eliminate it for Good, What to Look for in a Microphone, How Much Do Microphones Cost, How to Connect a Wireless Microphone to a Computer, or How to Record a Drum Set with 2-3 Microphones.
Or, if you’re after a new microphone, take a look at our reviews of the Best Microphones For Recording Vocals, the Best Interview Microphones, the Best USB Microphones, the Best Live Vocal Mics, the Best Microphones For YouTube, the Best XLR Microphones, the Best Snare Mic, or the Best Condenser Microphones you can buy in 2023.
What Is The Difference Between A Microphone Plug And Jack?
Not much, to be honest, apart from how they look. They are just the opposite ends of the same connecting system that are perfectly designed to fit into each other to carry an audio signal.
The ‘plug and jack’ system was designed to be easy to use, and as long as you follow the rules and requirements I have discussed, you should have no problems connecting a microphone to any device.
As always, let yourself be heard!