Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables

Many factors determine the performance of an audio system and the quality of sound it produces. One of the main factors is the cables that the system uses and their connection. The cables can either increase noise or distort the quality of sound of the elements connected to it. This is why using the proper cable is critical if you want to get the quality of sound you desire.

To enjoy excellent sound delivery, you have to understand the signals that are carried by the cables. In this article, we shall discuss the balanced and unbalanced cables. But first, let’s define some important terms you might come across in this article.

Balanced Audio
Unbalanced Cable (Left), Balanced Cable (Right) – From DataPro

Balanced Cables

These cables are also known as symmetrical cables, and they are used for shielding. The cables have three inbuilt conductors, which include a positive, negative and ground conductor. The ground wire is the one that plays the shielding role by surrounding the positive and negative wires, which are also known as signal wires. This ensures that the cable is not interfered with externally. The balanced cable is unique because of the way it makes use of the extra signal wire.

There are two signals that a balanced cable uses: the positive conductors carry an original signal while the negative one has a reversed copy of the signal. The input device flips the polarity of the signals which ultimately negates noise. Balanced cables are responsible for transmitting the sound signal from one spot to another by delivering an unmatchable signal. This makes them efficient in stopping any noise coming from the outside and preserving the signal.

As a result, balanced cables can support longer lines between 15- 30 meters. Examples of balanced cables are the wiring done for microphones, the connection cables found between consoles, and amplifiers signal processors.

Types of Balanced Cables

Quarter-Inch TRS

This is an audio cable whose balancing is professionally done. TRS means tip, ring sleeve and it can send a balanced or unbalanced signal. The tip is a red cable, and it’s also known as a hot end, while the ring is a black cable and the sleeve is the shielding or grounding conductor.

XLR

These cables can send signals to a range of up to 200 feet, and it has the hot signal, cold signal and the ground wire inside pins inside the connector. The cables are primarily used in studios where they use professional microphones and audio equipment.

Buy XLR Female to 1/4 Inch TRS Cable 6 FT, Nylong Braided XLR 3 Pin Female  to 6.35mm TRS Male Balanced Wire Mic Cord (Pure Copper Conductors) Online  in Indonesia. B07S21K4WC
From Cable Matters

How Do Balanced Cables Function?

Since the signal might be interfered with, the balanced cables go through a process to solve the problem. Nevertheless, it can’t do this with one conductor, and therefore it sends the signal in different modes using a separate copper wire. As a result, the original cable is taken and an inverted copy is made, then the signals are sent on different conductors.

Once the cable reaches the other end, one signal is inverted again, and the two are combined, reinforcing each other to cancel any noise that might have been picked along the way. This is a process of balancing signals, and it ensures that there is no noticeable noise.

Nevertheless, it would help if you remembered that for this process to occur, both the receiving and transmitting ends must be equipped for it. If any of the sides lack a balanced connection, you will have to connect it; otherwise, noise won’t be canceled effectively. Conversion of an unbalanced signal into a balanced one requires a direct box or DI Box.

How Balanced Audio Works - Step 1
Opposite polarity signals (From DataPro)

When Should Balanced Cables Be Used?

Unbalanced cables are not accurate enough to filter out noise on long distances. This is why the balanced wires are recommended for longer distances because the grounded wire in them will perfectly protect the signal. This doesn’t limit the balanced cables to longer distances. You can still use them for shorter distances, especially if you want a clear and quality audio signal. However, you must remember that balanced cables are designed to work if the output and input connections support balanced audio.

Audio Cable Shielding

This is a metal shielding that protects the sensitive wires inside an original sound transmitting cable. The shielding prevents any electromagnetic and radio frequencies that could distort the audio you are listening to. Here are three types of shielding.

  • Serve Shielding – This is a shield that is made of a copper wrapping around the original conductor signal. Serve shielding is more flexible, and, unlike braided shielding, it is not so strong against radio frequencies.
  • Braided Shielding – This is a copper shielding done around the wires of original signal conductors. This is a reliable shielding because it offers 50% to 98% wire protection. However, due to the extreme protection against unwanted noise, these cables are overstretched, and therefore they get damaged or break easily. This explains why this type of braiding is used in permanent installations since they don’t require rolling or twisting.
  • Foil Shielding – This shield gives 100% protection, and unlike the other types of shielding, this is a combination of copper and aluminum lines. This metal combination makes foil shielding highly effective. However, at some point, the copper line makes the cable become less flexible. In most cases, foil shielding is primarily applicable in digital audio connections.
IO-A12326-500SP Io Audio Technologies, SHLD FLEX CABLE, 2COND, 23AWG |  Farnell
From Farnell

Unbalanced Cables

This is a connection that uses two conductors: a grounding and a positive conductor. The two conductors are connected on the inside by two wires. It is easier for you to establish a cable that has been made to transmit an unbalanced signal by looking at its connectors. This is because the termination of each wire takes place at the connector. This type of cable doesn’t require any balancing to pass an audio signal directly to a piece of the audio system. This means that there is no manipulation or changing of signal when adjusting it.

How Does An Unbalanced Cable Function? 

The signal wire found inside this cable is at the center and is surrounded by the ground cable. In this case, there are two functions of the ground wire: to carry a portion of the audio signal and to ensure the primary signal wire is shielded from external interference of noise. Also, the grounding wire hinders any frequency interference that would come from radio transmission or TV. Although this wire is effective in its performance, it also functions as an antenna and will at some point pick noise. This is the main con of unbalanced cables. 

As much as much electronic equipment does filter noise at the output, sometimes they fail. In case the equipment is amplified, the noise becomes noticeable, thus distorting the audio. This is why most sound engineers recommend that you use unbalanced cables for short-distance transmissions.

From Aviom

Types of Unbalanced Cables 

TS

This is an abbreviation for tip and sleeve and requires two conductors to function. It resembles the unbalanced cable we have discussed above. The tip is responsible for carrying the signal while the sleeve is for the ground.

RCA Cable

These are analog versions of audio connectors that ensure audio is sent through the right red tip, which is also the right channel. The connector also sends audio through the black tip, which is the left channel.

When To Use Unbalanced Cables

These cables are used in case your equipment has one connection that is not compatible with balanced signals. However, unbalanced cables can merge with either balanced or unbalanced systems. They are versatile, and they don’t need a balanced signal for them to function. Nevertheless, if you insist on a balanced signal, you will require a DI box to change the unbalanced signal to balanced.

Roland RCC-3-2R28 Dual 1/4-inch TS Male to RCA Male Interconnect Cable - 3  foot | Sweetwater
From Roland

How Do I Know If My Cable Is Balanced Or Not?

The main difference between balanced cables and unbalanced is the number of conductors. Balanced cables have three conductors while unbalanced ones have fewer, and this is why they are referred to as the tip, ring, and sleeve. The other way to know the difference is when you are buying the cable. The packaging should clearly state which cable it is.

Benefits of Balanced Audio

Interference Reduction

Great resistance to undesired interference is one of the main benefits of balanced audio. There are two main interferences that could affect a balanced audio: Radiofrequency interference and electromagnetic interference.  In the case of electromagnetic interference, there will be an induction of an equal noise voltage in each wire. If your equipment is being amplified, the amp will measure the voltage difference between the two positive and negative signals, and if the noise is the same in the two lines, it will be rejected. However, this happens in cases where an amplifier is being used.

The other way the noise interference is reduced is by using wire pairs to minimize the space between the conductors. This ensures that any magnetic field that goes through the area induces noise on both lines at equal levels. The amplifier then cancels this induced noise. Nevertheless, if the noise source is close to the cable, its induction will be on one line rather than on the other and might be canceled. The canceling can only take place if both lines have the same amount of noise.

The other way noise is canceled in a balanced audio cable is through the separate shields it boasts. The noise rejection occurs when the shield acts as a signal return wire. This happens mostly in standard home stereos. Therefore, this means that any noise induced into a balanced audio shield will not be instantly directed onto the signal. However, the noise will be induced into a two-conductor system. This also comes in handy in preventing problems associated with the ground loop since the shield is separated from the signal ground.

What is the difference between balanced & unbalanced?
From Aviom

Differential Signaling

The transition of signals mostly takes place over balanced connections by the use of various modes. This means that wires can carry a signal with equal magnitudes and opposite polarity. A good example is the XLR connector which carries the signal with normal polarity using pin two, while the inverted audio version is carried by pin 3.

 However, it is good to note that this format is not mandatory for noise cancellation. Here are some of the benefits that make the differential signaling a significant benefit of balanced audio cable:

  • The maximum output from differential signaling does not change
  • Any noise formed between two amplifiers is canceled
  • Differential signaling can bear any audio equipment that causes the signal to be unbalanced, primarily by shortening pin 2.

How to Choose Audio Cables?

Now that you need quality audio to stream from your audio system, it’s time to step out and purchase a suitable audio cable. However, we understand that choosing the right cable is a challenge to many people. This is why we have developed a buying guide that will help you choose the right unit. 

Types of Cables

  • Patch Cables – These are cables that are used in recording. Their connectivity is diverse and can work for different components. Patch cables are used in short-length connections.
  • Headphone/Earphone cables These cables serve to connect transducers to audio sources such as DAPs, phones and laptops.
  • Instrument cables – This cable serves in scenarios where you need to connect your equipment directly. The cables are usually used to connect systems like guitars, pianos, bass to the amplifier.
  • Microphone Cables – used in the connection of a microphone to a sound source. They are the most common and widely used connection cables.
  • Speaker cables – These cables transmit high voltage, and that’s why they are more extensive than other cables. They connect speakers to an audio system.
From Doctor Mix

Let us now look at how to choose the right cable.

Cable’s Length

Although most cables have a standard length, it would be wise to establish the exact measurement. Doing this is easy because you only need to use a string to measure the distance between your audio system and where you want to connect to. Measuring the distance will reduce the risk of buying a short cable.

Format

This is the second most critical factor to consider before making a cable purchase. Do you want a cable for a digital surround system, stereo or an analog surround system? Stereo is a bit common, more straightforward and affordable. To establish the perfect format, check the code on your sound system. The first number stands for the number of channels, while the second indicates the low-frequency. Ensure you check the code before going to the stores.

Budget

Naturally, you will always get what you can afford, which is why a budget is a factor to consider. Now that there are different types of cables in the market, how much are you willing to spend? Your budget will determine the cable you will get. However, quality and long-lasting cables are highly-priced, but they are the best. Take time to do some market research and get the best for your money.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Which is the best application for balanced cables?

These cables are best used in microphones and speakers because they can cover a long distance, and this helps it resist noise.

2. Which is more expensive – balanced or unbalanced cables?

Balanced cables tend to be more expensive than unbalanced ones. Their maintenance is also high. However, the prices depend on the quality of the material and size.

3. Which is the best cable for a home theatre system?

Balanced cables will give you the uncompromised listening experience you want at home because they prevent noise interference.

4. Can balanced cables be used with unbalanced equipment?

Yes, they can, but you will have an unbalanced audio signal.

Conclusion

We have discussed everything you need to know about balanced and unbalanced audio cables. You now know how these cables work and how to get the best for your sound source. Generally, balanced cables use the common-mode rejection to get rid of any interference. If you use a balanced cable in unbalanced outputs, you will get an unbalanced audio signal. Additionally, unbalanced cables should be short while balanced ones should be longer. Go for a suitable cable and enjoy a quality audio output.

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One thought

  1. All things being equal, using a balanced XLR cable will give you the best performance. If you have a pre/pro or a studio rack with lots of cables (audio, digital, power), using balanced cables will give you the most rejection of EMI from adjacent cables. The are worth the extra cost.

    All that being said, it’s unlikely that using RCA, unbalanced cables are really going to add much if any noise on short runs regardless of the number of cables they are neighboring.

    I would, though, highly recommend using XLR jacks for balanced connections rather than 1/4″ simply because they offer better electrical/surface contact as well as sometimes offering a locking mechanism on the XLR I/O jacks on the equipment.

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