Overcoming Your Fear of Connection

"Only connect," the novelist E. M. Forster famously urged. But many people suffer from connectophobia - a paralyzing fear that can strike when you take your new Dolby Digital receiver out of the box and first lay eyes on its back panel. Chances are, you'll find it bristling with all manner of inputs and outputs, some using connections more exotic than the simple RCA jacks that once ruled unchallenged in the audio (not yet A/V) world. And it's not just receivers. As computers have become more versatile and sophisticated, their backsides have sprouted A/V connections rivaling their home theater brethren's - as well as giving advanced A/V gear new sets of computer connectors. Moreover, the wild popularity of portable gear has caused different miniature connectors to proliferate. But you can dramatically reduce connection anxiety by following our guide to what goes where - and why. Audio Connectors RCA: By far the most common audio connector. Used for every sort of analog input and output, these come in color-coded pairs - usually red for right, white or black for left (it really doesn't matter to the electrons). Also used for composite-video (coded yellow) and coaxial digital audio cables. "Coaxial" means that the signal carrier and its shield are aligned along the same axis (generally a signal wire runs down the middle of a cylindrical shield). First used to connect early electronic record players to radios and still sometimes called "phono jacks." Toslink: The most common optical connector for digital audio ("Tos" because it was developed by Toshiba). The cables themselves can use either plastic or glass fibers, but the connectors are usually plastic, although at least one brand uses brass connectors. ST optical: A fiber-optic connector that supposedly improves transfer of a digital audio signal from cable to jack. Compatible with Toslink but more expensive and rarely used. Also called AT&T ST. Phone: A 1/4-inch-diameter connector originally used for plugging in telephone connections, hence the name. The banks of telephone-company operators seen in old movies were needed to plug and unplug these connectors. Mono phone jacks are still used for some microphones; stereo phone jacks are very common to connect headphones to home audio components. Mini phone: A 1/8-inch-diameter version of the phone jack developed for applications with severe space restrictions. Commonly used on headset portables and for audio connections to some computers and headphone jacks on some TVs. Both mono and stereo versions exist. DB-25: A 25-pin connector borrowed from the computer world, where it's been used for both serial and parallel ports; sometimes used for controlling audio gear by computer or, on THX gear, to connect multiple audio channels with one cable. Also used in custom installations where numerous cables must be bundled. XLR: A very robust, three-pin locking connector widely used in professional audio; also called a Cannon connector after one of its most prominent original manufacturers. In analog applications, particularly in some high-end consumer audio equipment, XLR connectors are used with balanced lines for optimal interference rejection. The pins in an XLR connector usually "point" in the direction of signal flow. AES-EBU: A professional connection standard for digital audio over copper wire adopted by the Audio Engineering Society and the European Broadcasting Union. Usually uses XLR connectors. DIN: These round multipin connectors, developed in Europe in the 1960s, show up on some older imported audio equipment and on U.S.-made components aimed at an international market. Generally hated by North American audiophiles. Still used in the odd piece of audio gear as well as in a good deal of car stereo equipment. The name stands for Deutsche Industrie Normen, the German standards-setting body. S-video connections are made with miniature DIN plugs and jacks. A/V Connectors IEEE 1394: An interface standard adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for very fast (400 megabits per second) digital data transfer, especially of streaming video. Also called FireWire (Apple Computer's trademarked name) and i.Link. In A/V applications, tiny but robust 1394 connectors have so far been used mostly for digital camcorder outputs, but they will become extremely important in computer-controlled home entertainment/communication/appliance networks. USB (universal serial bus): Another computer connection, USB allows computer peripherals, including eventually some A/V gear, to be added in daisy-chain fashion. The connector is similar to IEEE 1394, but it transfers data at a slower rate, a maximum of 12 megabits per second. Far from universally adopted, though provided on many of the latest Wintel and Macintosh computers, USB may be supplanted by a USB2 in the near future. BNC: A very secure bayonet-style locking connector used in broadcasting gear for both video and radio signals. It is also common on professional test equipment. In consumer audio/video, BNC connectors are mostly used in high-def set-top receivers and high-end video monitors, often as RGB or component-video inputs. F-type: The ubiquitous cable-TV and FM-antenna connector, used in conjunction with 75-ohm coaxial cable. Cheap, simple to install, and relatively secure in its screw-on form. Also available as a nonthreaded slip-on connector, which can be useful if connections have to be changed often. RJ-11: The common modular telephone jack. Universal on phones, modems, faxes, and the like and increasingly used in satellite-TV receivers and cable systems to keep track of things like pay-per-view transactions and billing services. Video Connectors RCA: Physically and electrically identical to audio RCA connectors. S-video: Small multipin connector that carries separate brightness and color signals from a source component like a DVD player or satellite receiver to a TV set. In the usual plastic form, these are difficult to orient properly when plugging them in - which is typical of connectors of DIN (Deutsche Industrie Normen) origin. VGA/SVGA: The standard 15-pin connector for linking a monitor to a computer, it carries the three primary colors (red, green, and blue, or RGB) plus horizontal and vertical synchronization signals. The name stands for (Super) Video Graphics Array. Component-video: The "color-difference" signals in a component-video connection usually flow through triple RCA or BNC connectors in the case of professional gear. Some digital TVs accept both component-video signals through RCA connectors and RGB signals through a VGA/SVGA connector. Speaker Connectors Banana plug: A slender, slightly bulged (sort of banana-shape) metal prong that is attached to the stripped end of a speaker cable by a set screw in a plastic or metal sleeve. A banana plug can be inserted into a special jack that sits almost flush with the component's surface or into a binding post (see below); the slight bulge keeps the plug firmly in place. Also available in a dual-prong version ("dual banana plug"). Screw terminal: On older audio and video equipment, the speaker connections, and often antenna connections, too, were made with small screws tightened onto a spade lug or even a loop of bare wire. These terminals have mostly been replaced by more advanced connectors, but they remain in use for ground connections for phono-cartridge inputs. The screw part is usually fluted metal or plastic that can be tightened by hand. Spring clip: A common speaker and antenna connector found primarily - but not exclusively - on less expensive equipment. A spring-loaded lever is pressed down and a stripped wire inserted into a hole in the center of the connector. When the lever is released, it grips the wire. A variant is a snap clip. Both are quite secure but fairly fragile if many disconnections and reconnections are necessary. They will make better connections if you pull slightly on the wire after it has been secured, causing the teeth inside the connectors to bite into the wire. Binding post: Often referred to as a five-way binding post, this is a heavy-duty speaker connector to which a cable can be attached in several ways. It consists of a threaded shaft with a knob that can be tightened to secure either a spade lug or a loop of bare wire at the end of a cable to the shaft. The shaft is hollow, so it can accept a banana plug, and there is also a transverse opening into which a wire can be inserted and secured by tightening the knob. The same opening will also take a pin connector - a straight, thin, solid-metal pin that used to be common as the signal probe on test equipment. Beware: not all connectors that look like five-way binding posts offer all of these hookup options. In fact, most A/V-receiver binding posts will only accept single banana plugs or bare wire.