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What's the difference between these two types of plugs? Why do they exist? Why can't all plugs be 3.5mm ?

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Conversely, why can't all plugs be 1/4"? –  Warrior Bob Mar 16 '11 at 15:55
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Don't forget the 2.5mm plug! First come the 1/4" plug. I have seen it in an old manual telephone exchange from 193x. When things got smaller they developed the 3.5mm version, and later the 2.5mm version. The 2.5 and 3.5 versions breaks more easily then the 1/4" since they are smaller. –  some May 26 '11 at 4:46
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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Different form factors allow use for different applications - I believe they are capable of carrying the same signals. 1/4" cables are more durable - I've bent many mini jacks.

The thing to be aware of is that there is professional line level and consumer line level, so you need to make sure your equipment is calibrated to work together.

From your picture, the cable on the left is stereo (trs) and the right is mono (ts) - you can tell by the black bands on the tip. If the 1/4" had the two bands, it could be stereo or a balanced mono cable, depending on how you use it.

See here for some detailed info and history:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRS_connector

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I do not know of any meaningful electrical difference between them at the line- or instrument-level voltages that they usually carry.

I believe the 3.5mm plug was created to be a "miniaturized" version of the 1/4" plug, which was already in general use. 3.5mm is more commonly seen in consumer electronics, and it's usually a TRS plug (for "Tip-Ring-Sleeve"), which is sometimes called "stereo," as opposed to TS ("Tip-Sleeve") or "mono."

I generally see 1/4" plugs used more often in audio production - instrument cables, hardware inputs and outputs, and headphones. I think this is largely due to tradition, but I must say that I generally prefer the larger plug if I'm frequently plugging and removing cables because it feels a little bit more stable to me. 3.5mm plugs require a more precise mechanism because of the smaller size, which strikes me as more delicate.

The Wikipedia link in Sam's answer is also excellent.

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Yea the 1/4" plug does feel more durable. It would be funny having them on an iPod though :) –  7wp Mar 16 '11 at 16:23
    
I don't think apple would find it funny - it would take up too much space inside the device - which is why the mini plug is created. If you look inside some of your electronic, check out the volume which is taken up by each jack. The 1/4" is huge, whereas the mini takes up much less space. Why can't they all just use bluetooth? ;) –  Sam Greene Mar 16 '11 at 16:50
    
Oh yeah, I think the 3/5mm plug makes WAY more sense on devices like iPods or CD players or walkmans or whatever. But this isn't about whether one plug is better than another - clearly they both have their fans in different areas! –  Warrior Bob Mar 16 '11 at 16:57
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There's a lot to be said here for tradition and how standards endure, not because they're the current best, but because they're the current ubiquitous way of connecting things together. The 1/4" type connector is a good example of that. –  Ian C. Mar 16 '11 at 21:19
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