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Balanced vs. Unbalanced: How to Decide Between the 2 Audio Cables

Last updated: 12 months ago
7 min read

Unbalanced connections are susceptible to outside interference, resulting in audible noise. To avoid that, you need to establish a balanced connection.

Learn how both types of connections work and if and when you need a balanced connection.

Audiophile table with lots of headphones
CONTENTS (show more)

    Quick Differences Between Balanced and Unbalanced Audio Cables

    Here’s the overview of the main differences between balanced and unbalanced cables and connections:

    BalancedUnbalanced
    PriceMore expensiveCheaper and widely used
    in consumer products
    CompatibilityMostly for
    professional and
    audiophile use
    Widely compatible
    with consumer products
    Suitable for all cable lengthsYesOnly for cables
    under 10 feet
    Sound qualityExcellent (due to zero
    unwanted noise)
    Great (but not excellent due to noise
    masking microdetails)
    Unwanted noise levelsLow to zeroModerate to distracting
    (depends on how much
    noise is picked by the
    cable)
    Who are these cables for?For professional and
    audiophile use
    For casual
    consumer-level use

    Unbalanced

    • More common and widely compatible (cheaper)
    • Good enough for cables below 3 meters in length
    • Great sound quality (but not excellent as noise can hide micro details)
    • Susceptible to picking up EMI and radio radiation
    • Not advisable for cables over 10ft (3m) in length

    Balanced

    • Free of unwanted noise from EMI and radio radiation
    • Suitable for cables longer than 10ft (3m) in length
    • Excellent sound quality (zero picked up noise)
    • Louder output signal by 3dB between two balanced device or 2x more output voltage in headphones
    • Require pricier equipment that supports a balanced connection
    • Require separate cables (if not provided with headphones)

    Unbalanced Audio Cables

    Unbalanced audio cables cannot cancel out unwanted outside noise that gets caught in the wires.

    Different types of unbalanced cables

    Unbalanced cables are standard in most consumer-level audio equipment, from amplifiers to headphones.

    They come in TS (tip, sleeve) and TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) versions. You recognize unbalanced headphone cables by their connector.

    6.3mm connector
    • TS cable has a 3.5mm or 6.35mm connector with a tip and a sleeve and one black stripe in the middle (that separates the tip and the sleeve from interfering with each other).
    • TRS cable also has a 3.5mm or 6.35mm connector but sports 2 black stripes that separate the tip, ring, and sleeve. It’s often used to enable an unbalanced stereo connection. Note that TRS cable can theoretically make a balanced mono connection, but there are no 3.5mm or 6.35mm connectors to support that.

    The unbalanced audio cable typically found in amplifiers has RCA connectors.

    • RCA cable comes with 2 connectors (commonly in red and white color), each for a separate left/right channel. They have a circular crown with a rod sticking out in the middle.
    RCA connectors
    Higher quality RCA connectors on the left vs. regular RCA connectors on the right.

    Balanced Audio Cables

    Balanced audio cables can eliminate unwanted outside noise caught in the wires.

    Balanced cable illustration

    Different types of balanced cables

    We know 2 different types of balanced connections: mono and stereo.

    The first one is used either for microphones or, similar to RCA, sending each channel separately, while the second one is for connecting headphones directly.

    Furthermore, balanced audio cables have XLR and TRRS wiring.

    For headphones:

    • You would typically see TRRS or TRRRS cable with a 2.5mm or 4.4mm connector. You recognize it by seeing 3 black rings (or even 4) on the connector. Don’t mistake it for the 3.5mm TRRS connector, which uses the extra ring for a microphone.
    4.4mm connector
    • 4-pin XLR and 2x 3-pin XLR headphone cable is also considered balanced, although there’s a catch. More on that later.

    For microphones:

    • A 3-pin XLR cable is a popular solution for professional microphones as they only need a balanced mono signal.

    What is the Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Audio Circuits?

    The main difference between balanced and unbalanced audio circuits is that the balanced ones have an additional (negative) signal conductor.

    How does an unbalanced cable circuit work?

    Unbalanced cable (TS cable for mono connection) has 2 conductors: a signal wire and a ground wire, which also acts as a shield against external radiation. In stereo cables, an additional signal wire is added (and it uses a TRS cable).

    The ground is usually a mesh of metal surrounding the main signal wire, so it has a greater chance of picking up external radiation before it reaches the signal wire.

    While the shielding is more effective than it was 20 years ago, it is still unsuitable for professional applications, which means that unbalanced cables inevitably pick up some noise.

    Keeping the cable short helps reduce the chance of getting audible noise. The longer the cable, the greater the chance of picking up noise you can hear.

    How does a balanced cable circuit work?

    On the other hand, balanced cables use 3 conductors: 2 for positive and 1 for negative signal (one with inverted phase) and ground. The latter can also act as a shield.

    However, unlike unbalanced cables, balanced ones ensure that any noise that slipped through the shield gets canceled out.

    The way they work to eliminate noise is similar to active noise cancellation technology from Bluetooth headphones.

    As mentioned at the beginning, a balanced audio cable has 2 signal conductors.

    1. The same signal is sent through both two signal wires. However, the signal in one wire has its phase inverted. Wires are isolated so they don’t interfere and cancel each other out.
    2. Both wires are twisted so they pick up an equal amount of unwanted EMI radiation noise from nearby power-hungry appliances and radio transmissions.
    3. On the other side of the cable, the previously inverted signal gets inverted again, thus inverting the phase of the picked-up noise.
    4. The result is similar to ANC. Noise from the two wires cancels out (also called “common load rejection”), leaving you with a clean signal.

    What is a true balanced connection?

    A true balanced connection is established when both input and output have a balanced interface—for example, sending audio signals signal from a DAC with a balanced output to an amp with a balanced input.

    In many cases, a balanced connection that goes directly into your headphones isn’t genuinely balanced. More on that later.

    Is It OK to Use Unbalanced Cables?

    It’s perfectly OK to use unbalanced cables as long as you know their disadvantages and use them for nonprofessional use.

    • Unbalanced cables are cheap
    • Widely compatible, most consumer devices support unbalanced connections
    • Well-shielded shorter cables shouldn’t suffer from too much noise
    • Poorly shielded cables can suffer from audible noise
    • Not suitable for professional use
    • Quieter output compared to a balanced connection

    As you know by now, an unbalanced connection suffers from external noise that creeps in the wires through EMI or other kinds of radiation.

    • In professional applications, external noise is unwanted. It ruins the recording of the vocals and instruments. That’s why for professional use, balanced audio connections are standard.
    Female and male XLR connectors
    XLR cables are the most used ones for transmitting balanced signals.

    On the flip side, electric and bass guitar are the only instruments that don’t require a balanced connection.

    • For casual use, unbalanced connections are the most common. Mainly because they’re cheap, and a regular listener doesn’t really benefit from them.

    Also, modern unbalanced cables are more effective against noise. So, unless it is longer than 3 meters (9.8 feet), you shouldn’t hear any distracting noise in the background.

    Remember that the longer the cable, the greater the chance of picking up audible noise.

    Can I use balanced cables on unbalanced outputs?

    Yes, you can use balanced cables on unbalanced outputs, but the result is an unbalanced connection. 

    Also, connectors for balanced cables are usually different from unbalanced ones, so it would be hard to make a mismatch.

    Does Balanced Sound Better Than Unbalanced?

    Yes, a balanced connection does sound better than an unbalanced one simply due to the lack of noise. It doesn’t change or add anything to the sound; it just keeps it clean.

    When you get noise into an unbalanced cable, the more you turn up the volume, the more you hear it. Audible noise can be distracting and can hide microdetails.

    Headphones amp DAC

    In professional applications, that’s unacceptable. It means your recording is ruined, and you need to do a rerun. That’s why it’s safer to use a balanced connection to avoid audible noise and veiling of the microdetails.

    Furthermore, a balanced audio connection is better if you experience audible noise when listening to headphones. Especially if moving the cable away from power-hungry gadgets doesn’t help.

    • Another benefit of a balanced connection is a more efficient circuit. When connecting a device to a device (aka true balanced), the signal can boost up to 3dB.
    • In headphones, the voltage can be twice as high since both drivers run independently and, therefore, more efficiently.

    However, balanced headphones aren’t actually balanced. More on that under the topic below.

    Do balanced cables make a difference for headphones?

    Balanced cables can make a difference for headphones by ensuring louder and more efficient output, which helps with high-impedance headphones.

    However, you must know a few things before buying expensive balanced cables.

    Wiring of the headphones

    Each driver has 2 wires, making a total of 4 per headphone.

    But, to get 3 wires needed for a typical unbalanced connection, negative wires from both drivers are tied together (either inside the headphone or in the connector).

    Looking at the 3.5mm jack, the tip provides a positive signal for one driver and the ring for the other driver, whereas the sleeve takes a negative signal from both drivers.

    On the flip side, balanced cables for headphones use an additional wire inside TRRS cables, so the negatives don’t have to be tied together. That way, you can drive each driver independently.

    However, the result isn’t a true balanced signal with “noise cancellation”. Instead, you gain something called “differential signaling“.

    That is the ability to push up to 2x as much voltage to your headphones compared to an unbalanced connection, making the circuit more efficient and powerful.

    • Be aware: even though some headphone amplifiers come with “balanced” outputs like 4-pin XLR, 2x 3-pin XLR, 2.5mm, or 4.4mm, not all support differential signaling. Before purchasing an amp, seek labels saying “differential amplifier” or “full differential balanced amplifier” or ensure that the output voltage on the balanced output is 2x higher than on the unbalanced one inside specifications.

    What about crosstalk?

    Stereo crosstalk is a phenomenon when a signal bleeds from one channel to the other, hurting the imaging and soundstage.

    Some audiophiles say you get minimal to no crosstalk when using the balanced output on your headphones. However, this is highly debatable, as crosstalk usually occurs before the output (in the amp).

    What kind of headphones can become balanced?

    Headphones that only have one cable running from one (usually left) ear cup, already have wires tied together internally, so they can’t become “balanced” or take the benefit of differential signaling.

    In contrast, headphones with a wired connection on each ear cup can become balanced as the two drivers are wired separately.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Should I use balanced or unbalanced for headphones?

    You should use balanced cables for headphones if they run on high impedance since a balanced headphone connection ensures twice as much voltage. Otherwise, using unbalanced cables for headphones is totally OK; just keep them below 10 feet.

    Is balanced headphone cable better?

    Balanced headphone cables are typically expensive but also very robust. They’re a better solution for headphones with high impedance, but only if their wires come from both ear cups. Otherwise, they can’t use balanced cables.

    When can I use unbalanced cables?

    You can use unbalanced cables for casual use and when listening to headphones. You may also use them for playing and recording electric and bass guitars. Otherwise, for recording other instruments and vocals and transferring analog signals via long cables, it’s better to use balanced cables.

    How important is balanced audio?

    Balanced audio sound is highly important for professional applications, like studio recording and live shows. You don’t want the noise to ruin everything.

    Can I use balanced cables on unbalanced output?

    Yes, you can use balanced cables on unbalanced output, but the result is an unbalanced audio signal.

    Are XLR cables balanced or unbalanced?

    XLR cables can be balanced and unbalanced, depending on how you use them. 3-pin XLR transfers a mono-balanced or stereo-unbalanced signal. For a balanced stereo signal, you use a 4-pin or 5-pin XLR.

    Is XLR to RCA balanced?

    No, XLR to RCA isn’t balanced since RCA establishes an unbalanced connection.

    Conclusion

    Balanced cables exist as a response to a delicate analog signal that quickly picks up unwanted noise. They have become an essential part of the professional environment, as well as for audiophiles who strive for the cleanest, most powerful sound.

    However, you have to differentiate between balanced headphones and true balanced connections. Furthermore, you shouldn’t be afraid to use unbalanced cables for everyday use.

    Hopefully, we didn’t confuse you with all the information, and you now better understand the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables.

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