What is an RCA cable? RCA cables have been around since the 50s

If you've ever connected a CD or DVD player to your TV, you've probably used an RCA cable. A simple RCA cable has three color-coded plugs extending from one end of a cable that connects to three matching color sockets on the back of a TV, projector, or other output device. These cables carry audio and video signals from the component device to the output device (such as a TV or speakers).

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The RCA connector is named after the Radio Corporation of America, which first used it in the 40s to connect phonographs to amplifiers. It entered homes in the 50s and is still in use today. The two most common types of RCA cables are composite and component video.

RCA cables for composite video

The colors used in composite RCA cables are generally red and white or black for the left and right audio channels and yellow for composite video. Composite video is analog or non-digital and carries all video data in one signal. 

Since analog video is made up of three separate signals, for starters, compressing them into one signal degrades the quality somewhat.

Composite video signals typically consist of PAL 4807 NTSC / 576i standard definition video signals. Composite video is not designed to be used for high definition digital or analog video signals.

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Component cables

Component cables are more sophisticated cables that are sometimes used on HD TVs. Component cables have three video lines usually colored red, green and blue and two audio lines colored red, white or black. The two red lines usually have an additional color added to distinguish them.

Component RCA cables are capable of much higher resolutions than composite video cables: 480p, 576p, 720p, 1080p and even higher.

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Using RCA cables

Although an HDMI cable is a more modern way to connect devices, there are still plenty of opportunities to use RCA cables.

An RCA cable can be used to connect a variety of audio and video devices, such as video cameras to televisions or stereos to speakers. Most high-end camcorders have all three RCA sockets, so the signal entering or exiting the camcorder passes through three separate channels - one video and two audio - resulting in high quality transfer as well.

Low-end camcorders, however, usually only have one jack, called the stereo jack, which combines all three channels. This results in lower quality transfers because the signal is compressed in one channel.

Either way, RCA cables carry analog or non-digital signals. For this reason, they cannot be connected directly to a computer or other digital device. RCA cables connect amplifiers to all types of devices.

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Quality of RCA cables

Several factors affect the quality, price and performance of RCA cables:

  • Materials. The connectors on RCA cables are often gold, silver, or copper. As expected, cables with gold connectors are the most expensive. They are also better than silver and copper connectors in preventing oxidation, but not as good in electrical conductivity. Silver connectors are best for electrical conductivity. Other suitable materials are nickel, zinc and tin.
  • Cable length. The length of the cable has a negative effect on the quality of the signal. Purchase a long cable only long enough to connect for better signal quality.
  • Shielding. A well-shielded cable provides a better signal than an unshielded one.
  • The other end of the cable. If possible, match the material used in the other end of the cable to the material used in the connectors. Do not combine tin with gold or silver with gold. These combinations can cause problems due to an electrolyte reaction.

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Further Reading:

  • Best 4K HDMI Cables
  • How to connect a DVD recorder to a TV
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