Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables: What Are The Key Differences?

If you’re just starting to work with audio devices, you’ll no doubt encounter a dilemma regarding what cable you’ll use. The two common options are balanced cables and unbalanced cables.

There are several key differences to them, and using the right cable can indeed enhance the sound quality. However, which one do you use and when? In this balanced vs. unbalanced cables post, we’ll go over the defining qualities of the two different cables and see what advantages they have.

Overview of Unbalanced Cable

Appearance-wise, when you spot any of the wires, you’ll think they are the same. Their internal construction, however, is quite different, and once you learn about that, you’ll have an easier time spotting the differences in appearance.

Internals of an Unbalanced Cable

All wires have a plastic casing, and for unbalanced cables, beneath the plastic casing are two wires for conduction. One of the wires, usually placed in the center, is the signal wire and the other wire, often wrapped around it.

An unbalanced cable is always characterized by the presence of these two wires which connect to the connector part of the cable.

The signal wire, as the name suggests, carries the bulk of the audio signal. And the ground wire is an essential component in the construction of an unbalanced cable. It is designed to complete the conduction path and also serves as a shield for the bulk of the audio signal.

This wire minimizes the effects of interference on the audio signal.

Unbalanced Cable Connector Types

The two different types of cables make use of different connectors. Spotting and identifying the type of connector might help you identify what cable it is. The two prominent connector types for unbalanced cables are:

Tip Sleeve Connectors

Unbalanced Cable Connector

These are your common connectors. Tip sleeve connectors generally come in sizes of 1/4”. Since unbalanced cables have two conductors, tip sleeve connectors generally have two parts. The first part is the tip, which is protruding out, and the rest of the metal part is known as the sleeve.

RCA Cable Connectors

Unbalanced Cable Connector Types

RCA cables are also very common audio cables. They are also known as phono connectors. You will easily identify them due to their colors, often being either white or red. Even aside from those, they do feature other assortments of colors for other options.

These connectors are known as the male connectors, and their respective sockets are known as female jacks.

Advantages of Unbalanced Cable

Here are the reasons why you should use unbalanced cables.

Used in Instruments

While unbalanced cables tend to have more restrictions, they still find use. Many instruments, especially guitars and such still find a use for many musicians.

Cheaper Option

Another massive draw for unbalanced cable is that they are relatively cheap. In most cases, unbalanced cables are available for half or even lower than their balanced counterparts. As such, they are cheap options to use, and with how well they work with instruments, any beginner could pick it up for their studio.

Disadvantages of Unbalanced Cables

Let’s get to know the drawbacks of unbalanced cables.

Lower Specifications

Unbalanced cables are much earlier variants of audio cables. Balanced cables generally have higher technological specs and make use of better signal carrying and noise reduction methods. Unbalanced cables are somewhat technically inferior to balanced cables.

Length Limitations

While the ground wire serves as a shield, in longer wires, it can cause distortion. At longer lengths, the ground wire serves as an amplifier for the noise instead of a shield against it, causing the main audio signal to be distorted.

Generally, for the best results, you will want your unbalanced cables to be around 10 feet long. Any longer than that and you will begin to notice distortions in your signal.

Uses of an Unbalanced Cable

They aren’t used as often mainly because balanced cables are common. And they are primarily used for various instruments, as stated above. Many guitars make use of these cables. The limitations in length aren’t much of an issue if the stage is set up properly.

Overview of Balanced Cables

Next, we move on to balanced cables. Balanced cables are generally an improvement on unbalanced cables, and if you understand their construction, you’ll be able to easily catch on to the differences in balanced cables.

Internals of a Balanced Cable

Unbalanced cables feature two conductors. Balanced cables, however, feature three conductors. Inside the casing, there are three wires with the extra wire being another signal wire. The ground wire serves a similar process, but the effectiveness of a balanced cable lies in the use of the two signal wires.

Noise Reduction in a Balanced Cable

The signals carried by the two signal wires are mirror opposites of each other. When the signals travel, they pick up noise, which causes distortion. The same distortion occurs in both signals. When the two signals meet, the mirror transformation of one signal is undone.

This transformation will also cause the polarity of the noise or distortion to be reversed. Now the two signals are mixed or added together. Since the noise in the two signals has opposite polarities, they cancel each other out, thus strengthening the signal.

And this noise-canceling ability is what makes balanced cables popular.

Balanced Cable Connector Types

Here are the different types of balanced cable connector types.

Tip Ring Sleeve Connectors

Since balanced cable makes use of three conductors, their typically used connectors are tip ring sleeve connectors, which are an improvement over tip sleeve connectors.

They are similar in design, but to make use of the third wire or conductor, there is an additional part included beneath the sleeve but above the tip. This is called the ring. These are the connectors you will generally see used to connect your headphones to your mobile phone.

XLR Connectors

Balanced Cable

XLR connectors are generally seen used for microphones and speakers. They are circular with three pins. Some variants have a higher number of pins for different roles. They consist of a male and a female jack. The female jack is usually colored blue at the face while the male jack is colored black.

Advantages of a Balanced Cable

In this section, we’ll introduce the 2 primary benefits of using a balanced cable.

Noise Protection

As it has been explained beforehand, we can see that balanced cables have a higher degree of resistance to distortion. They tend to produce clearer sounds and are generally a better pick if the machine supports both balanced and unbalanced cables.

Fewer Limitations on Length

The noise reduction system allows balanced cables to be made longer without the worry of suffering from distortions. So it is much easier to set up a stage and make suitable connections.

Disadvantages of a Balanced Cable

It has only one disadvantage; it’s the price. Let’s find out why.

Price

Due to the comparatively more complex design and machinery involved, a rise in price is inevitable. Balanced cables, especially good ones, do cost quite a bit though they do tend to last a long while provided you are careful with them.

Uses of Balanced Cable

Balanced cables are primarily used for microphones. The cables can be made longer without much interference or distortion, so it works well with microphones.

If the distance from the mixing console is an issue, balanced cables are always the best option. Aside from these, many equalizers and effects units make use of balanced audio inputs and outputs.

Balanced vs Unbalanced Cable: Head to Head Comparison

Now that we’ve seen how the construction and characteristics of both cables, let’s see how they compare to each other.

Sound Quality

We’ve seen the workings of a balanced cable’s noise reduction system. As you can see, this is a great help in enhancing the sound quality of your system. Reducing noise will do wonders for making your audio crisp and clear.

Unbalanced cables can only match the sound quality of balanced cables provided they are of the effective length. If the wires are made too long, they will be prone to interference. Even so, in most cases, balanced cables still produce better sounds and are more receptive.

Setup and Ease of Use

When preparing the stage, you will often need to make use of many cables. Generally, balanced cables offer more freedom of use due to them having no limitations in length.

They aren’t too difficult to fit in and use with audio devices, but they are a bit heavier than unbalanced cables due to making use of one more conductor.

Unbalanced cables do have the issue of performing poorly if they are made long, and this limits the freedom of their use. Unless you don’t have much of a need for long wires, you can opt to use unbalanced cables since they are so easy to fit in.

Price

Balanced cables are much more costly than unbalanced cables and can be a bit expensive to maintain if proper care isn’t taken. They have a wide range of prices, mainly depending on the material quality and size but in most cases exceed the usual prices of unbalanced cables.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article clears up much of the confusion regarding Balanced vs Unbalanced Cable. Before choosing to use one, it is important to check out what type of input and output systems a mixer uses. If the mixer has unbalanced audio, you will be forced to use unbalanced cables, so keep that in mind.