Line level is the specified strength of an audio signal used to transmit analog audio between components such as CD and DVD players, television sets, audio amplifiers, and mixing consoles.

Line level sits between other levels of audio signals. There are weaker signals such as those from microphones (microphone level or mic level) and instrument pickups (instrument level), and stronger signals, such as those used to drive headphones and loudspeakers (speaker level). The strength of these various signals does not necessarily refer to the output voltage of the source device; it also depends on its output impedance and output power capability.

Consumer electronic devices concerned with audio (for example sound cards) often have a connector labeled line in and/or line out. Line out provides an audio signal output and line in receives a signal input.

The line in/out connections on consumer-oriented audio equipment are typically unbalanced, and connected with stereo RCA jacks, or with a 3.5 mm (18 in) 3-conductor TRS minijack connector providing ground, left channel, and right channel.

Professional equipment commonly uses balanced connections on 6.35 mm (14 in) TRS phone jacks or XLR connectors. Professional equipment may also use unbalanced connections with 6.35 mm (14 in) TS phone jacks.

Nominal levels

Voltage vs. time of sine waves at reference and line levels, with VRMS, VPK, and VPP marked for the +4dBu line level.

A line level describes a line's nominal signal level as a ratio, expressed in decibels, against a standard reference voltage. The nominal level and the reference voltage against which it is expressed depend on the line level being used. While the nominal levels themselves vary, only two reference voltages are common: decibel volts (dBV) for consumer applications, and decibels unloaded (dBu) for professional applications.

The decibel volt reference voltage is 1 VRMS = 0 dBV.[1] The decibel unloaded reference voltage, 0 dBu, is the AC voltage required to produce 1 mW of power across a 600 Ω impedance (approximately 0.7746 VRMS).[2] This awkward unit is a holdover from the early telephone standards, which used 600 Ω sources and loads, and measured dissipated power in decibel-milliwatts (dBm). Modern audio equipment does not use 600 Ω matched loads, hence dBm unloaded (dBu).

The most common nominal level for professional equipment is +4 dBu (by convention, decibel values are written with an explicit sign symbol). For consumer equipment, a convention exists of −10 dBV, originally intended to reduce manufacturing costs.[3] However, consumer equipment may not necessarily follow that convention. For example, a standard CD-player output voltage has emerged of around 2 VRMS, equivalent to +6 dBV. Such higher output levels allow the CD player to bypass a preamp stage.[4]

Expressed in absolute terms, a signal at −10 dBV is equivalent to a sine wave signal with a peak amplitude (VPK) of approximately 0.447 volts, or any general signal at 0.316 volts root mean square (VRMS). A signal at +4 dBu is equivalent to a sine wave signal with a peak amplitude of approximately 1.736 volts, or any general signal at approximately 1.228 VRMS.

Peak-to-peak (sometimes abbreviated as p-p) amplitude (VPP) refers to the total voltage swing of a signal, which is double the peak amplitude of the signal. For instance, a signal with a peak amplitude of ±0.5 V has a p-p amplitude of 1.0 V.

Line levels and their approximate nominal voltage levels
Use Nominal level Nominal level, VRMS Peak amplitude, VPK Peak-to-peak amplitude, VPP
Professional audio +4 dBu 1.228 1.736 3.472
Consumer audio −10 dBV 0.316 0.447 0.894

The line level signal is an alternating current signal without a DC offset, meaning that its voltage varies with respect to signal ground from the peak amplitude (for example +1.5 V) to the equivalent negative voltage (−1.5 V).[5]


A line driver is typically used to drive line-level analog signal outputs.[6] As cables between line output and line input are generally extremely short compared to the audio signal wavelength in the cable, transmission line effects can be disregarded and impedance matching need not be used. Instead, line-level circuits use the impedance bridging principle, in which a low-impedance output drives a high-impedance input. A typical line-out connection has an output impedance from 100 to 600 Ω, with lower values being more common in newer equipment. Line inputs present a much higher impedance, typically 10 kΩ or more.[7]

The two impedances form a voltage divider with a shunt element that is large relative to the size of the series element, which ensures that little of the signal is shunted to ground and that current requirements are minimized. Most of the voltage asserted by the output appears across the input impedance and almost none of the voltage is dropped across the output.[7] The line input acts similarly to a high-impedance voltmeter or oscilloscope input, measuring the voltage asserted by the output while drawing minimal current (and hence minimal power) from the source. The high impedance of the line in the circuit does not load down the output of the source device.

These are voltage signals (as opposed to current signals) and it is the signal information (voltage) that is desired, not power to drive a transducer, such as a speaker or antenna. The actual information that is exchanged between the devices is the variance in voltage; it is this alternating voltage signal that conveys the information, making the current irrelevant.

Line out

            Line-out symbol. PC Guide color   lime green.

Line outputs (line out) usually present a source impedance of 100 to 600 ohms. The voltage can reach 2 volts peak-to-peak with levels referenced to −10 dBV (300 mV) at 10 kΩ. The frequency response of most modern equipment is advertised as at least 20 Hz to 20 kHz, which corresponds to the conventional range of human hearing. Line outputs are intended to drive a load impedance of 10 kΩ, which even at line out's highest voltages only requires a negligible current (well under a milliamp).

Connecting other devices

Connecting a low-impedance load such as a loudspeaker (usually 4 to 8 Ω) to a line out will essentially short circuit the output circuit. Such loads are around 11000 the impedance a line out is designed to drive, so the line out is usually not designed to source the current that would be drawn by a 4 to 8 Ω load at normal line out signal voltages. The result will be very weak sound from the speaker and possibly a damaged line-out circuit.

Headphone outputs and line outputs are sometimes confused. Different make and model headphones have widely varying impedances, from as little as 20 Ω to a few hundred ohms; the lowest of these will have results similar to a speaker, while the highest may work acceptably if the line out impedance is low enough and the headphones are sensitive enough.

Conversely, a headphone output generally has a source impedance of only a few ohms (to provide a bridging connection with 32 Ω headphones) and will easily drive a line input.

For similar reasons, wye-cables (or Y-splitters) should not be used to combine two line-out signals into a single line in. Each line output would be driving the other line output as well as the intended input, again resulting in a much heavier load than designed for. This will result in signal loss and possibly even damage. An active mixer, using for example op-amps, should be used instead.[8] A large resistor in series with each output can be used to safely mix them together, but must be appropriately designed for the load impedance and cable length.

Line in

            Line-in symbol. PC Guide color   light blue.

Line inputs (line in) are designed to accept voltage levels in the range provided by line outputs. It is intended by designers that the line out of one device be connected to the line input of another. Impedances, on the other hand, are deliberately not matched from output to input. The impedance of a line input is typically around 10 kΩ. When driven by a line output's usual low impedance of 100 to 600 ohms, this forms a bridging connection in which most of the voltage generated by the source (the output) is dropped across the load (the input), and minimal current flows due to the load's relatively high impedance.

Although line inputs have a high impedance compared to that of line outputs, they should not be confused with so-called Hi-Z inputs (Z being the symbol for impedance) which have an impedance of 47 kΩ to over 1 MΩ. These Hi-Z or instrument inputs generally have higher gain than a line input. They are designed to be used with, for example, electric guitar pickups and direct input boxes. Some of these sources can provide only minimal voltage and current and the high impedance input is designed to not load them excessively.

Line level in traditional signal paths

Acoustic sounds (such as voices or musical instruments) are often recorded with transducers (microphones and pickups) that produce weak electrical signals. These signals must be amplified to line level, where they are more easily manipulated by other devices such as mixing consoles and tape recorders. Such amplification is performed by a device known as a preamplifier or preamp, which boosts the signal to line level. After manipulation at line level, signals are then typically sent to a power amplifier, where they are amplified to levels that can drive headphones or loudspeakers. These convert the signals back into sounds that can be heard through the air.

Most phonograph cartridges also have a low output level and require a preamp; typically, a home stereo integrated amplifier or receiver will have a special phono input. This input passes the signal through a phono preamp, which applies RIAA equalization to the signal as well as boosting it to line level.

See also


  1. ^ Tangible Tech Audio Basics
  2. ^ Glenn M. Ballou, ed. (1998). Handbook for Sound Engineers: The New Audio Cyclopedia, Second Edition. Focal Press. p. 761. ISBN 0-240-80331-0.
  3. ^ Winer, Ethan (2013). The Audio Expert: Everything You Need to Know About Audio. Focal Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-240-82100-9.
  4. ^ Robert Harley (March 29, 1995). "Quality Lies in the Details". Stereophile. p. 2.
  5. ^ Oscilloscoped measurement for line level signal
  6. ^ Bishop, Owen (2011). Electronics - Circuits and Systems. Routledge. p. 250. ISBN 9781136440434. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
  7. ^ a b Dennis Bohn (May 1996). "Practical Line-Driving Current Requirements". RaneNotes. Rane Corporation. Retrieved 2022-01-12. Practically speaking, electrical engineering transmission line theory does not apply to real world audio lines. ... This paves the way for simple R-C modeling of our audio line.
  8. ^ Dennis Bohn (April 2004). "Why Not Wye?". RaneNotes. Rane Corporation. Retrieved 2012-07-15. Outputs are low impedance and must only be connected to high impedance inputs -- never, never tie two outputs directly together -- never. If you do, then each output tries to drive the very low impedance of the other, forcing both outputs into current-limit and possible damage. As a minimum, severe signal loss results.