cable unbalanced vs balanced

Unbalanced vs. Balanced Audio Connectors and Cables

Audio connectors are found on either end of any audio cable used to transmit signal from one device to another. Various connector types are used in both professional and consumer-grade products, and all connectors can be divided into two main categories: balanced and unbalanced.

Understanding what sets these two connector types is incredibly important, whether you’re an industry professional, a musician, or an audio enthusiast looking to perfect your setup at home. This article will take you through the key points of unbalanced and balanced connectors and how they play a part in your audio system.

The Importance of Quality Cables & Connectors

The impact of an audio cable’s build and components on an audio signal’s quality and performance has always been a hot topic in the industry. An audio cable can range in price from anywhere between a few cents to over a hundred bucks, and knowing what to look for in an audio cable and its connectors can help you save money either A) by avoiding falsely-advertised ‘indestructible’ cables that promise superior sound quality, or B) preventing yourself from purchasing poor-quality cables that won’t last and can degrade your audio signal’s quality.

An audio cable serves two purposes:

  1. To transmit an audio signal between two devices
  2. To reject interference that can add noise to a signal

A high-quality cable will allow your system to perform at its full potential, while a poorly-made cable or a quality cable with bad connectors can introduce unwanted noise into your system and likely won’t last as long as you’d want it to.

What to Look for in Quality Cables

If you’re unsure where to start when purchasing audio cables and connectors, the massive price range can be a little overwhelming and confusing. You’re likely to come across phrases like “oxygen-free copper wiring” and “gold-plated connectors” that scream premium but may not be best suited to your needs: gold plating will reduce resistance but is more subject to wear and tear than nickel plating, so it isn’t the wiser choice for cables that’ll be plugged and unplugged often. Oxygen-free wire can also reduce resistance, but larger-gauge connectors can do a better job, although they don’t sound as fancy.

I recommend rather shifting your focus to looking for epoxy potted or hot glue connectors, which help in securing the inner wiring in place, providing a more durable cable that’ll withstand regular plugging and unplugging, getting tugged on, and being stood on if you can find heat-shrunk plastic sleeves around the inner wiring and terminals – even better.

Also, watch for the look and feel of the cable and connectors. A thicker cable with heavier-duty connectors that can be unscrewed to repair the terminals is ideal. Try to avoid the types that don’t allow the connectors to be removed.

Unbalanced Connectors

Unbalanced cables are based on two conductor wires: a hot wire that carries the audio signal and a ground wire that contacts an insulated wrap. The shielded ground wire assists in isolating the hot lead from unwanted interferences that may cause noise or hum in your audio signal.

Unbalanced cables are typically used for instrument cables and ideally kept shorter than 25 feet since they are more susceptible to noise issues. Unbalanced cables are best used for musical instruments, portable audio devices, and home audio setups.

Balanced Connectors

Balanced audio connectors and cables are commonly used to transmit audio signals over longer distances while reducing the amount of interference and unwanted noise entering the system. Balanced cables and connectors are used mostly in professional environments like recording studios, live sound, and broadcast settings.

The primary difference between balanced and unbalanced cables is the presence of an extra conductor in a balanced cable. A balanced audio cable utilizes a negative (cold) signal wire in addition to the hot (positive) and ground wires, allowing for interference that affects both inner wires to be canceled out.

A balanced audio cable will generally have one of the following connectors on the end:

  1. XLR Connector: Made up of three pins which are shielded in a metal casing that provides additional interference reduction. XLR cables are mostly always balanced.
  2. TRS Connector: TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) connectors also utilize three conductor wires, where the tip carries the positive signal, the ring transmits the negative signal, and the sleeve acts as the ground connection. TRS cables can be unbalanced or balanced, depending on their wiring.
RCA and XLR Connectors

So, Which Connector Type is Better?

Whether you need a balanced or unbalanced cable and connector depends greatly on the application at play and the requirements of your audio system. We recommend considering the following to evaluate your needs and what cable type best suits the purpose:

Noise Resistance: Balanced cables are ideal for situations where some interference could occur. Because of the additional signal wire, balanced cables are better at reducing noise and other interferences.

Distance: Because of their additional signal wire and ability to combat noise in the system, balanced cables are more appropriate where longer cable runs are necessary.

Equipment: For professional or audiophile-grade equipment where high-quality sound and noise resistance are important, balanced cables are recommended. Unbalanced cables are better suited to consumer audio gear such as home stereo systems, headphones, or home theatre equipment.

Cost: Balanced cables will set you back slightly more than unbalanced cables due to their higher-quality components and noise-canceling capabilities.

Below is a table comparing the key differences between balanced and unbalanced audio connectors and cables:

Balanced Audio ConnectorUnbalanced Audio Connector
SignalUses two signal wiresUses one signal wire
GroundUses a third ground wireShares signal wire for ground
Noise ResistanceHighLow
DistanceCan transmit signal over long distancesLimited distance due to signal loss/degradation
Common UsesProfessional audio equipment, live sound, studio recordingConsumer audio equipment, home stereo systems
Unbalanced vs. balanced cables, Note the additional wire in a balanced cable.

Balanced cables are favored for professional applications, where noise resistance, signal quality, and longer cable runs are important, while unbalanced cables are more appropriate for consumer-grade applications, where cost and ease of use are of greater importance.

At the end of the day, the choice between balanced or unbalanced depends greatly on the requirements of your system, what you’re looking to spend, and the quality you’re after.

Matthew Cox - Author
Written by
Matthew Cox

Matthew is an audio engineering graduate with a strong passion for post-production, recording engineering, and audio technology. Matthew is also an experienced musician with over a decade of experience in recording, touring, and performing. Matthew enjoys studying the inner workings of audio equipment and acoustics theory.

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