Last Updated on February 27, 2020 by Facundo
Have you ever wondered why there are so many different cable types in audio, and how they work?
In this post I will explain the differences between balanced and unbalanced cables, how they work, and more.
Granted, it will get pretty technical but I think that the concept of how balanced cables work is just fascinating… and you will too once you find out how they actually work.
Plus, using the right cable can have a major impact on what the sound quality is going to be, meaning that you should know when each cable type should be used and how they work.
Let’s get straight into it…
Balanced Cables vs Unbalanced Cables
Balanced cables have three conductors and three wires. Two of those wires carry the signal while one carries the ground.
One of the signal wires gets inverted which allows the cable to completely avoid picking up outside interference.
Unbalanced cables, however, only have two wires; one for the signal and one for the ground which makes them much more susceptible to outside interference and noise.
That’s the shortest explanation I can give, however, there’s much more to it which I’ll get to right now starting with…
Unbalanced Cables; How do they work?
Unbalanced cables only have two conductors and two wires in them; one for the signal and one for the ground.
This is how your typical electric guitar cable is built.
It’s fairly easy to identify unbalanced cables by the number of connectors they have.
For example; a TS guitar cable, which stands for “Tip” and “Sleeve”, only has two conductors, or if you look at an RCA cable, you’ll also only be able to see two.
When taking a look inside the cable you’ll see that the wire that carries the signal is in the center, while the ground wire surrounds it.
Why is this?
The whole point of the ground wire to be surrounding the signal wire is so that it can shield it from outside interference, such as radio waves, transformers, lights, etc. which it does… to some degree.
The thing is that the ground wire itself acts a bit like an antenna, which means that it will be picking up noise along the way… and the longer the cable, the more noise it will pick up.
Unbalanced cables aren’t good for doing long cable runs for this reason, in fact you should be using balanced ones if the cable needs to be more than 10-15 meters long.
This is especially true if it needs to be used in an environment where there’s a lot of lights and other stuff that could cause interference.
But here’s a good question…
Why are unbalanced cables used to connect guitars?
This is because of the signal level that the cable is carrying.
Since the guitar, as well as bass and keyboards, produces a loud signal, all the interference that the cable picks up is barely noticeable.
The sound from the guitar will easily overpower the noise, making it almost impossible to hear, contrary to what would happen with the signal of a microphone.
That’s why mics need balanced cables.
What are the most common types of Unbalanced Cables?
TS Cables: TS, or “Tip-Sleeve” cables are probably the most common unbalanced cables around.
They are typically used by guitar and bass players to connect the guitar to the amp or pedalboard, as well as connecting the pedals on the pedalboard itself.
RCA Cables: RCA cables are typically used to connect devices live VCRs and DVD players to a TV as well as connecting CD players to the stereo receivers.
Balanced Cables; How do they work?
Balanced cables, on the other hand, have three conductors and three wires.
This means that one of those wires is just the ground while the other two are responsible for carrying the audio signals.
Balanced audio cables are much better for doing long cable runs because they are much less susceptible to picking up any noise or interference…
But why is this?
Imagine you’re singing into a microphone which, like most microphones, is connected to an XLR cable.
XLR cables are balanced cables, which is why they have three pins; two for the signal and one for the ground.
Instead of just one “image” of the signal travelling through the cable, you got two identical copies of it… one in each signal wire.
But the trick is that one of those gets inverted, meaning that it’s now out of phase with the other signal, effectively canceling each other out.
This means that if you try to play back both the signals that are travelling through the cable you wouldn’t be able to hear anything…
However, when the signal gets to the other end of the cable the polarity of the signal that was out of phase gets flipped around again, and now both the signals are back in phase.
The cool thing is, and this is why I think that balanced cables are incredible, that any interference that was picked up by the cable will now be cancelled out because of that las polarity flip.
This means that you could virtually run as long of a balanced cable as you’d like without picking up any noise or interference whatsoever and just be left with the original signal.
What are the most common types of balanced cables?
XLR Cables: XLR cables are typically used with microphones for the reasons I just explained, plus they can carry phantom power through pins 2 and 3, which is used to power the circuitry in condenser microphones.
TRS Cables: TRS stands for “Tip” “Ring” and “Sleeve” which are the contact points and are separated by two insulator rings. The sleeve carries the ground in this case.
Now, this is a question that I heard many people ask…
Aren’t balanced cables designed to carry a stereo signal?
One common misconception is that balanced cables are actually used to transmit a stereo signal, which they can do, but’s it’s not ideal.
Why is this?
If you decide to run a stereo signal through them, then the right signal will be sent through one wire and the left one through another.
But in this case, they would end up working like a regular unbalanced cable, which is far from their original purpose.
Two other fairly common questions regarding balanced cables are…
Can you use unbalanced cables with balanced Equipment?
Yes, you can, however you won’t get the benefits that a balanced cable provides since they can’t carry an inverted signal.
This means that the signal will still be carried across the cable to the receiving gear, but the overall noise level might be higher.
Basically, if you’re using balanced gear, try to use a balanced cable.
Can you use a Balanced TRS cable as an unbalanced TS cable?
Unbalanced TS cables should be used with unbalanced inputs and outputs, however, TRS cables can be used as a replacement… but the signal won’t be a balanced one, but rather unbalanced.
This means that again, you won’t be benefitting from running a balanced cable in this case.
Basically, you can use balanced cables with unbalanced gear, which will give you no benefit at all… and you can use unbalanced cables with balanced gear which will work, meaning that the audio signal will reach the other end, but there might be more noise.
Difference in Cost
One of the reasons you might be inclined to choose an unbalanced cable over a balanced one, especially if you need to purchase more than one, is the cost.
Balanced cables cost a lot more than unbalanced cables, sometimes even twice as much, simply because of the added benefit they provide.
However, if you’re out to save money, then unbalanced cables might be your best choice… especially if you’re just using really short ones.
Balanced cables are fantastic and the way they work is really interesting… at least to me.
Try to use the right cable for the right application, otherwise you won’t get the benefit of running a balanced one… like I just mentioned above.
I hope this information was useful…
Have a fantastic day!