Balanced-CableI received a great question this week from Simon who asked about balanced vs unbalanced cables. From Kirkenes Norway he writes,

"What's the difference between unbalanced and balanced cables? When do I use balanced and vice versa?"

I'd like to expand a bit on my response to him and answer both of these questions. Let's start by looking at the difference between these 2 types of cables.

I will simplify things just a bit so if you'd like a more in-depth explanation, there is a great post on the Gearslutz forum here.

What's the difference between balanced vs unbalanced cables?

A typical unbalanced cable (like a 1/4 instrument cable) has 2 conductors. The 1st conduction is the audio signal itself and the 2nd is a ground and often a shielding. The main difference comparing balanced vs unbalanced cables is a balanced cable has 1 additional conductor.

The balanced cable will have 1 hot, 1 cold, and a ground/shielding conductor. The signal from both the hot and cold wire is combined, each out of phase with the other. The resulting signal is thus "balanced".

When should I use a balanced cable?

If your connections both in an out are balanced, always try to use a balanced cable. The result will be less chance for interface from outside sources causing unwanted buzzes, static, and hums.

If you're running longer distances a balanced cable is also the preferred option as the signal will be stronger than unbalanced. This means a higher signal to noise ratio. In other words, your audio will be cleaner.

When should I use an unbalanced cable?

Unbalanced cables certainly still have a great value as well. You will need to use an unbalanced cable when your connections don't support balanced. Also many instruments (like guitars) have outputs that only support unbalanced signals. Sometimes you don't have a balanced cable so an unbalanced is your only option.

How do I know if my cable is balanced or not?

Remember that a balanced cable has 1 additional conduct than its unbalanced counterpart. The most popular type of balanced cable is a typical microphone or XLR. Balanced cables can also be 1/4" as well. They are often refereed to as TRS or tip, ring, sleeve. In the image below, all the cables on the left are balanced. The single cable on the right is a typical unbalanced 1/4" cable.

Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables

Please feel free to add your comments or questions to the section below.

    10 replies to "Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables"

    • Ben Cruz

      My 4l line mixer has XLR and 1/4 input but the line out is only 1/4. My subwoofer only has XLR in and out line. My speaker have both. But I’m only getting sound from one speaker. I have to then piggy back from the working speaker to the non working speaker then it works. But this is mono right? What am I doing wrong. Should I use balanced or unbalanced 1/4 wires?

    • Bvirtuoso

      Very informative data should really help a lot of audiophiles.

    • Russ

      What if the opposite is the case? Output of interface is unbalanced and input to monitors is balanced??

      • David

        Hey Russ, in this case you’d need to use an unbalanced cable as the signal send is unbalanced and will not be converted inputting into a balanced jack. In most cases you may not even get a signal from balanced to unbalanced as the connection are typically made this way.

    • Tim

      If I have balanced outputs on my interface but have unbalanced inputs on my monitors, what cable do I use?

      • David

        Great question Tim, bottom line is an unbalanced cable. Typically this is a 1/4″ connection.

        In order to utilize a true low Z or balanced connection, both the in and out must be balanced. In your case it’s simply not balanced and the jacks on your audio interface will output an unbalanced signal with a typical cable connected to your monitors.

    • Marc Lawson

      This is something I have always wondered about. Looks like I need some balanced cables for my monitors too :-) Great article. Thanks, David!

      • David

        Glad to have helped you out Marc, your most welcome!

    • Dan Updegraff

      I should get some balanced cables for my studio monitors. If I just let the cables I have flop on the ground, I get this weird clicking noise when bringing up certain webpages or using my mouse wheel. (I have the cables propped up on some boxes now and the noise is gone, but it’s not an ideal solution. lol)

      • David

        Ha ha, I’ve been there before Dan. Bal do typically make a huge difference for sure.

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