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See Tip Ring Sleeve at Wikipedia


1. Sleeve: usually ground
2. Ring: Right-hand channel for stereo signals, negative phase for balanced mono signals, power supply for power-requiring mono signal sources
3. Tip: Left-hand channel for stereo signals, positive phase for balanced mono signals, signal line for unbalanced mono signals
4. Insulating rings
Unbalanced Balanced Stereo
Tip Signal Positive/"Hot" Left channel
Ring Not present Negative/"Cold" Right channel
Sleeve Ground/Return Ground Ground


a nice summary of common cables and a discussion of balanced and unbalanced cables.