Red White Yellow Cable: Composite Cables Explained

So you want to take a trip down memory lane by watching some old family videos on your VCR machine. The problem is your VCR uses the three colour-codes cables (red, white, and yellow) and your modern TV doesn’t have any of those ports.

How do you connect an old media device to a new TV or monitor? Why are the cables colour-coded? And what does each cable do? Why does the device need three separate cables?

In this article, we’ll explain how the red white and yellow cables work, what they do, and how you can use them to connect to modern devices.

What Does RCA Stand For?

Identifying these cables can be a little confusing because they go by several names. To start, the cables are called RCA or composite cables. Most people simply refer to them as red, white, and yellow cables, which is easier to understand.

Other names:

  • Composite Cables
  • AV Cable
  • RCA Connector
  • Audio Video Cable

These connectors were designed all the way back in the 1940s and are still in use today. Once, they were the standard for connecting electronic devices. Today, HDMI is the new standard, but there are still plenty of devices that require RCA cables.

Why the name RCA? The abbreviation RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America which was the first company to produce these cables. They’re also known as RCA connectors. RCA cables can come in a wide variety of colours, but the most common colour combination is red, white, and yellow.

While these connectors were the standard for connecting media devices back in the day, they’re being slowly phased out, and a lot of new TVs manufacturers scrapped them entirely, in favour of HDMI. In a word, they’re outdated and mainly used for connecting older media devices to modern displays.

 

Composite AV Audio Video Cable


 

The Colors Explained:

Usually, attaching the cables to the ports is very easy because both the connectors and the ports on the TV are colour-coded, so it’s a matter of matching the colours. Your TV will usually have a little diagram on the rear, next to the colour-coded ports, that will help you match the connectors to their ports.

What do the colours mean? Each colour in the trio has a specific purpose. One colour, usually the yellow one, is responsible for the video signals. It only carries analogue video, no audio.

The “composite video” refers to the yellow cable in the RCA cable bundle; yellow, red, and white. The cable that’s responsible for video signals. In some cases, a TV won’t have a yellow port, but it will have a port labelled “Video In” which works the same.

The two remaining colours, red and white, are for the analogue audio. Specifically, the red cable is for the audio on the left side, and the white connector is for audio on the right side. When used together, you get stereo audio. If you only plug one of these in, then you’ll probably only have audio from one speaker or one side of your monitor or TV or no audio at all.

Make sure the yellow cable is plugged in properly, otherwise, the video could be black and white. Bear in mind, the video connector (RCA cables) was never designed for today’s high definition resolutions, so it’s maximum resolution is about 480i NTSC. That resolution is good enough for watching old movies from a VCR player or retro games, but not much else.

What do Different Colors on AV Cords mean?

The red – audio line for the right channel
The white (also black) – audio line for the left channel
The yellow – carries video signals

How to Convert Composite to HDMI?

Assuming your display has HDMI ports, the best way to convert composite video to HDMI is by using a composite video to HDMI adapter. These are also called RCA to HDMI converters, and make sure to buy one that has an external power source because that extra power is needed to convert the analog signals to digital (HDMI).

Component Video vs. Composite Video? What’s the Difference?

component cable

Credit:
Evan-Amos / Public domain

At a glance, the words component and composite seem similar but they’re quite different. It’s important to understand the difference between the two or you risk buying the wrong cables. Composite cables, the ones we have been talking about, come with three colour-coded cables, red, white, and yellow. They’re designed to carry video and audio signals.

The component video also uses three colour-coded cables; green, blue, and red, but the main difference is these cables can only carry over video signals. Essentially, it splits the video signal into three separate entry points.

It’s like if you were to split the previous yellow cable into three separate cables. Each of these cables sends a different video signal, for instance, the green one carries the brightness, and the blue and red are for their respective colours.

The advantage of component video is it can support higher resolutions because the video signals aren’t jam-packed into one cable, but rather separated into three.

The downside; to get the audio working you might need to use two RCA audio cables while leaving the yellow one unplugged. Both cable types use an analogue signal, so you’ll need a powered-converter to convert the signals into digital for HDMI.

 

How to Connect Old Gaming Consoles to HDMI-only Displays?

So you have an old gaming console, such as the Wii, and you want to connect it to your HDMI-only display. It’s fairly easy, but you will need a specific converter. You could use an RCA to HDMI adapter, but then the resolution will be limited to 480p.

To increase the maximum resolution (if the console can support it), you should use component cables, the ones with green, blue, and red. The reason is component cables can support higher resolutions, so you can easily achieve 1080P.

Bear in mind, using only component videos you won’t receive any audio. So I recommend looking for an HDMI converter that has ports for component video and also RCA audio (red and white). While this setup requires multiple cables, it works the best.

And remember, the HDMI converter needs to be powered by an external source because extra power is needed to convert analogue to digital. It sounds rather complicated, but in reality, it’s a matter of buying the right adapters and plugging everything in. Very simple.

So don’t throw away those old media devices! With the right cables and converters, you should be able to use them on your modern displays with no problems whatsoever.

Picture attribution: Evan-Amos / Public domain

About S. Santos

Tech columnist and tech blogger, audiovisual aficionado trying to keep up with the ever-evolving world of gadgets, home entertainment, and personal technology. If not fiddling with AV cables at home or in front of the computer, he can be found playing tennis or padel.

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