XLR cables are invaluable for recording audio with microphones or using them for live performances. These cables have certain capabilities that make them ideal for a variety of purposes.
Are XLR cables balanced? Does it even matter?
Most XLR cables are balanced. Although there are some rare XLR cables that are not balanced. This quality matters greatly when it comes to recording audio with microphones, or playing it back through monitors.
Using unbalanced cables can produce all kinds of problems.
Balanced XLR cables are by far the most reliable for keeping unwanted electrical noises at bay, and capturing recordings with the greatest clarity. There are many reasons why it matters that an XLR cable is balanced, and in this comprehensive article you’ll learn everything you need to know on the subject.
Why Do Balanced XLR Cables Matter?
Most XLR cables are balanced. These microphone cables are made up of three components – conductors, shielding, and connectors.
The conductors of a balanced XLR cable contains the wires or cores that are internally installed, and these are responsible for transporting audio signals. The shielding performs the function of protecting the information that is transmitted through the conductors.
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The connectors on balanced XLR cables have three prongs and are used to form the connection at both ends. Without the three mentioned components, an XLR cable would not be balanced, and would therefore not be effective for recording with a microphone. If one of the three isn’t working correctly, the XLR cable will not function.
XLR cables are balanced to make sure that the signal that passes through them does so in the cleanest possible manner. Compared to unbalanced cables, they produce significantly less electronic buzz and other signal interferences.
Microphones are devices that operate at low voltages.
This means that the output needs to be amplified heavily so that the signal can successfully make its way to an interface, a mixer, and speakers. When the signal is sent through an XLR cable into a preamp, this heavy amplification causes any noise issues to also be magnified, resulting in undesirable results.
XLR cables that are balanced provide an easy solution to this problem. But how exactly do they do this? When the signal is generated by the capsule within a microphone, it is sent through a pair of wires within the balanced XLR cable. One of the signals is subjected to an inversion of 180 degrees.
At the receiving end of the cable, there is a device known as a differential input amplifier that re-inverts and combines the two signals. At this point, if there is any interference or unwanted noise present in either signal, it will appear identically in both of the conductors.
Due to the inversion that has taken place, the second signal has been canceled by phase, and the original signal is left intact. When the two signals are re-united, the original signal receives a slight boost in terms of strength. This aspect of a balanced XLR cable helps to compensate for signal strength diminishment that is caused by long cable runs.
For an XLR cable to be balanced, it must be able to complete the above process. If any parts of the cable are damaged or not up to standard, the noise will likely be present and the balanced cable cannot do its job sufficiently.
The Components Of A Balanced XLR Cable
XLR Cables are balanced as a result of some vital components. Usually, an XLR cable will use a stranded conductor, rather than a solid cable. This makes them more malleable, and less prone to wear and tear through constant usage.
Inside the plastic casing of a balanced XLR cable, there are three wires.
Two of these are signal wires, and the other is a ground wire. Without any of these three, the cable would not be balanced. The two signal wires allow an audio signal to pass through, which is an identical duplicate of the original signal.
The ground wire performs the same function as it would in an unbalanced cable. It shields the signal wires from any potential electronic interference. A balanced XLR cable can make use of the two signal wires, thanks to an inbuilt converter.
Balanced XLRs are available with a choice of two connector tips. Firstly, there’s XLR to TRS, which stands for “tip-ring-sleeve”. These connectors are commonly used with headphones or monitors.
The most common type of balanced cable uses both a female and male XLR connector. These are used with the majority of microphones, whether they be condensers, dynamic, or ribbon mics.
Balanced XLRs vs. Unbalanced Cables
To understand why it matters that an XLR cable is balanced, it’s necessary to compare them to unbalanced cables.
An unbalanced cable has two connectors which both have a pair of conductors. These conductors have linked two wires which are installed within the unbalanced cable.
There’s a ground wire and a signal wire. As I previously mentioned, balanced XLR cables have an extra signal wire compared to their unbalanced counterparts.
All XLR cables are balanced, except in a situation where the inner components have been damaged or malfunctioned. Likewise, several types of cables are almost always unbalanced. Differentiating between the two will ensure that you get the best results when recording or using them for live sound purposes. This video explains the differences in detail.
Unbalanced cables can be identified by their connectors. Since each wire must terminate at the connector and have its contact point, unbalanced cables require only two conductors at the end of their connector, as opposed to a balanced XLR which requires three.
TS cables are the most common of the unbalanced variety. These are the jack cables that you would use to connect a guitar to an amplifier. Another popular type of unbalanced cable is RCA, which is commonly used for AV purposes.
In the table below, you can see the main differences between balanced and unbalanced cables:
|Balanced Cables||Unbalanced Cables|
|Consists of 2 signal wires & a ground wire||Consists of a signal wire & ground wire|
|Requires 3 conductors at the connector||Requires 2 conductors at the connector|
|Mainly XLR connectors||Mainly TS Jack or RCA connectors|
|Uses phase cancellation for removing unwanted noise||Prone to producing unwanted noise|
|Ideal for recording with microphones||Ideal for line-level instruments|
Although it may seem logical to wonder why anyone would use an unbalanced cable over a balanced XLR, they are very well equipped to carry out certain purposes.
Unbalanced cables are great at connecting an instrument to an amplifier or direct input. However, due to their sub-par noise suppressing ability, they should not exceed a length of 20 feet. Once an unbalanced cable stretches further than this, noise issues are likely to occur.
- Take a look at my article called “How long can XLR cables be” You can read it here.
Balanced XLR cables, on the other hand, work very efficiently to suppress noise even at huge lengths.
That’s why they are often used on stage, sometimes stretching from the instrument to the sound engineer’s desk, which can be a significant distance. Generally, balanced XLRs have the ability to stretch up to 100 feet before any problems arise.
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It’s possible that a scenario may arise where you need to convert an unbalanced signal to a balanced XLR.
This may be because the PA or mixing desk that you are working with only supports XLR connectors, that are balanced. An electronic instrument can’t be simply plugged into an XLR cable like you can a microphone, so you would need to use another solution.
The solution to converting the unbalanced signal of a guitar, bass or keyboard to be balanced, involves using a device known as a DI box. Sometimes called “direct injection” or “direct input” boxes, these devices are used in both recording and live sound environments.
Take a look at my article on DI boxes here.
They allow you to plug an unbalanced cable into balanced inputs, acting as the middle man between the instrument and a mixer or PA system. The signal enters unbalanced and is then converted into a balanced signal so that an XLR cable can take over and the signal can be sent to the desired sound source.
What are line-level connections?
Line-level connections describe any form of connection that has an unbalanced signal. Guitars, keyboards, basses, and any other electronic instrument all use line-level connections. The signal of the instrument has to be boosted to match the voltage required for line-level outputs.
Do audio interfaces have balanced or unbalanced inputs?
Audio interfaces usually contain a mixture of balanced and unbalanced inputs. Balanced inputs will have 3-pin XLR connectors, while unbalanced inputs which are used predominantly for recording instruments will have TRS jack inputs.
What happens if you use unbalanced cables for your monitors?
If you use unbalanced cables to connect your monitors to a sound source, interface, or mixer, there is likely to be audible interference played through them at all times. This is why using a balanced XLR for your monitors is highly recommended.