A very common query that people have about cable wires is the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables. For my audio projects, I always buy balanced cables.
A balanced cable utilizes a complex system to connect equipment while keeping the interference noises to a bare minimum. An unbalanced cable has a simple system that just connects two devices and transmits signals, and it does not keep a check on interference noises.
Do you need to buy new cable wires for your recording equipment but you don’t know what to choose?
Buying hardware is puzzling, especially when you are an amateur. Even when you have to buy something as simple and inexpensive as a cable wire, you don’t really know what you are looking for!
In this post, I will break down the topic and explain how balanced and unbalanced cable works, along with some extra info on audio cables. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned audiophile, read on to learn these interesting details about cables.
Check this guide on the best XLR and USB cables for audio recording.
What is a Balanced Cable?
A balanced cable comes with three wires inside the plastic casing. There are two signal wires, and the third one is the ground wire. The two signal wires carry identical sound signals, while the ground wire’s job is to protect the signal wires from external disturbances.
The devices that require a balanced cable consist of a converter, and that is why the two signal wires are needed. The equipment transmits two signals, which are identical but opposite. To simplify it, consider one signal as the original one, and the other one as its mirror image. The mirror image is also called an ‘out of phase’ signal. When the signals reach the receiver, it reverses the ‘out of phase’ signal, and now we have two identical signals. The two matching signals are passed on to the mixer.
If any distortion enters the system, it will be identical in both the signal wires. The distortion gets ‘out of phase’ when the mirror image signal is reversed at the end, thus canceling itself. If you are new to sound recording and what I wrote sounds Greek and Latin to you, just remember that balanced cables have a slightly complicated design that keeps the sound free from distortion.
This quality makes balanced cable useful as long cable wires because longer wires pick up distortion easily. They are used for mic-level signals and line-level signals.
What is an Unbalanced Cable?
Unbalanced cable is less complicated. There are only two wires, one signal wire, and one ground wire. The signal wire carries the audio signal, while the ground wire protects the signal wire from electronic interference (which can come from TV, radios, etc.)
Now this cable is taking the sound signals straight from the origin to the receiver or mixer. There are no manipulations or changes done to the original signal. So there is a big downside that comes with unbalanced cables. Yes, you guessed it right! The signal traveling through the cable can easily get mixed with electronic interference, and the buzz or hum generated would get amplified with the sound.
Balanced or Unbalanced Cables – Which One Do I Need?
- A balanced cable produces a cleaner output. You should always use balanced cables for recording your podcast as you don’t want a humming or buzzing sound in your episodes.
- Balance cables are great for live performances too, as they keep those nasty distortions away. The signal will always be superior to that produced by an unbalanced cable. You might have to compromise on the cable length.
- Unbalanced cables are quite long, which makes them useful for stage performances. You can use it to plug in your electronic guitar and walk around as you play.
- Some connections simply don’t support a balanced output. This also includes musical instruments like the guitar we just talked about! So sometimes, you simply don’t have a choice, and you have to go with an unbalanced cable.
|LyxPro Quad||Canare L-4E6S||Mogami Gold|
|Customer rating||4.7 of 5 stars||4.9 of 5 stars||4.9 of 5 stars|
|Balanced or Unbalanced?||Balanced||Balanced||Balanced|
|Number of conductors||4||4||4|
|Strands per conductor||40||40||n/a|
|check price||check price||check price|
More about Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
Can a Faulty Cable Damage My Equipment?
Using a faulty cable or a wrong cable type spoils the sound quality, and there is a risk of damage to your sound equipment. That’s why it’s important to read the user manuals carefully when you get any new equipment and use the right cable for it.
Here are the common issues that arise when you use the wrong cable-
No sound from the speaker – If you happen to plug in the wrong cable, your speaker will remain mute. Sometimes it does ‘speak’ with a wrong cable but in a distorted manner. There is one catch here- the lack of sound could be due to other reasons. You can try the cable on another speaker to check if it’s a faulty cable or the speaker or the source has some issues.
Humming Sound – If observe a humming sound from your speaker, you need to check if everything is okay with your equipment. You might be using the wrong cable, or your cable has become old and worn out.
No Bass in Music – If you find the bass on your system missing, there might be something up with your cable wire. However, this can also happen due to incorrect equalizer settings.
Common Cable Connectors
- TRS – TRS stands for Tip, Ring, and Sleeve. It resembles the standard 1/4th or 1/8th plug, but there is an additional ring on the shaft. A TRS cable consists of two conductors and a shaft. They are used to connect balanced equipment or to run both left and right mono signals to stereo headphones.
- XLR – It consists of three pins- positive, negative, and ground pin. They are used for carrying balanced line-level signals and mic signals. They have a male and female version. The ground pin of the male cable is longer than the other two pins. So when the male pin and the female pin are connected, the grounding is completed before the connection of signal lines. This system ensures the XLR cable doesn’t pick up external disturbances during insertion and removal.
- TS – A TS cable has a Tip and a Sleeve. They are also called mono cables as they send only one signal. The audio goes through the tip, while the protective ground wire passes through the sleeve. Artists like to use TS cables while performing onstage with their keyboard or guitar due to it’s long length. TS cables are long cables that are unbalanced, so there is always a risk of distortion.
- RCA – RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, who introduced this cable design back in the thirties. They are also called phono connectors, and they are widely used in consumer stereo devices.
- SpeakOn – SpeakOn is the brand name for cable wires manufactured by Neutron. It is mostly used to connect loudspeakers to amplifiers.
- Banana Plug – Banana plugs are wider in the middle, and that’s where they get their name from. Also, Europeans like to call it the 4 mm connector. They are single-wire connectors used in connecting wires of different equipment.
Cable shields are conductors that shield the wire in order to isolate the electromagnetic shields of the conductor. Shields act by reflecting some of the electromagnetic waves interfering with the signal, and also by absorbing and directing the rest of it to the earth. Whatever little is left of the interference reaches the signal, but it barely affects it in any way.
- Serve Shield – Serve shield, also called or spiral shield consists of a wire wrapped spirally around an insulated conductor. Serve shields are very flexible, and they offer great protection from low frequencies. However, often the single strands of the shield separate after prolonged use, and the shield loses its effectiveness. But serve shields don’t cost a lot- you don’t have to think a lot when you have to replace them.
- Foil Shield – A foil shield consists of copper or aluminium with a polyester coating. The coating increases the durability of the foil. It is 100 per cent effective against all kind of frequencies, including very high frequencies. And it’s very cost effective too.
- Braided Shield – A braided shield, also known as a mess shield, consists of a thin wire tightly woven around the conductor. It covers around 75 to 90 per cent of the cable, so sometimes the shield is not very effective at high frequencies. But braided shielding is both flexible and strong, and works great at shielding from low to mid-frequencies.
Of course, a balanced cable gives way better output than an unbalanced one. It is the right choice for a podcaster. But before you set up your equipment, read all the manuals properly. You can use balanced or unbalanced cables with most equipment.
However, balanced cables don’t work with some devices like vintage equipment, basses, guitars, etc. They only work with unbalanced cables. In a nutshell, understand how your equipment works instead of relying on assumptions. That would save you money, and you won’t face glitches when you sit to record.
And do you prefer recording audio with balanced or unbalanced cables?