Balanced vs. Unbalanced Audio

What's the Difference?

Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio

You all love listening to melodious songs and soulful music. But what often goes unnoticed is the effort that music producers invest in creating a spotless single piece. The images of musicians producing music might give you an idea that it is a fun-loaded task. However, sitting in a comfortable room and experimenting with all the switches isn’t only what music producers do. There’s a lot more going on in a music production setting. The technicalities involved might leave you startled, especially the understanding of balanced vs unbalanced audio.

We are guessing that you are a beginner in music production and you are here to learn about the initial stages. So, let’s start with the basics, that is, the difference between balanced vs unbalanced audio. Probably you were not aware that every audio cable you connect to your setup will create some noise that might disrupt your audio signal. Therefore, it is important to find the right one for you. To do the same, you need to first learn about “balanced” and “unbalanced” audio. 

What Is The Difference Between Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio?

Balanced Audio 

Let’s start with balanced audio. It is basically a way to interconnect audio equipment by using “balanced lines” (transmission via two conductors of the same type having equal impedances along their lengths, to the ground, and to the other circuits). 

The balanced audio cable uses three conductors to carry the audio signal to your equipment. Two conductors send negative signals and the third one sends out positive signals.

How Do Balanced Audio Cables Look and Work?

Unfortunately, you cannot determine if an audio cable delivers balanced audio just by looking at it. However, if you take a sneak peek inside, you will be able to identify. A balanced cable usually has four wires. These include an R+, an R-, an L+, and an L-, along with a shield.

A balanced audio cable typically comprises types of connector tips:

  • Tip-Ring-Sleeve or TRS cable connectors: A simple example would be a headphone jack or a guitar cable. It is generally used and preferred for a “mono-instrument signal” and thus provides a balanced audio. 
Trs cable connectors
Example of a TRS Connector
  • XLR cable connectors: The connectors that you can spot on a microphone are the XLR type. They are generally used for professional purposes as they provide more balanced audio.
XLR Connectors

The biggest advantage of using a balanced audio cable is that the radio frequency does not interrupt the audio signal. This happens because the positive wire and the negative wire pick up the same noise, thus canceling each other’s noise for each stereo channel. Eventually, this removes the Radio Frequency Interference(RFI) and the shield receives a silent hum. The result is a broader soundstage and no disruption in the audio.

Unbalanced Audio

As the name suggests, contrary to balanced audio, the audio received via an unbalanced audio cable passes straight through to the mixer or the receiver, without any manipulation. Thus, the resulting audio signal is known as unbalanced audio.

The unbalanced audio cable has two connectors with individual conductors. Two wires inside the cables connect each of these connectors. One is known as the signal wire and the other is the ground wire.

How Do Unbalanced Audio Cables Look and Work? 

Unlike a balanced audio cable, it is quite easy to spot an unbalanced audio cable. The wires of this type of cable have a separate contact point that terminates at the connector. 

An unbalanced audio cable typically comprises two types of connector tips:

  • A Standard Tip Sleeve of 1/4″ Cable Connector: This one is similar to the Tip-Ring-Sleeve(TRS) connectors of a balanced audio cable. You can even use Standard Tip-Sleeve to connect your guitar to the amplifier. 
  • RCA Cable Connectors: You might be familiar with this one as these were often used to connect various devices to TVs. These connectors have two tips, red and black. 
RCA  Cable Connector
Red and Black RCA Cables

The function of these two wires is easy. The red wire connects to the right audio channel. Whereas, the black one connects to the left channel. You’ll find these connectors on the best HDMI audio extractors too.

If you rip off the outer covering, you will find the ground wire surrounding the signal wire of the cable. Most of the job is done by the ground wire in an unbalanced audio cable. It acts both as a carrier and a shield. The ground wire carries some part of the signal at the same time blocking the ambient noise and also helps in reducing RFI. 

This might raise the question that if an unbalanced audio cable works as a shield, then why is the audio received unbalanced? Well, though the ground wire helps in reducing and blocking the ambient unwanted noise, unfortunately, the unbalanced cable acts as an antenna, picking up the noise to some extent. Therefore, it is preferred to use an unbalanced audio cable of short length as the shorter the length, the lesser the noise.

Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio Signal Quality 

We all love relaxing to the soothing sound of “music” and not “noise”. Thus, we will keep it short and easy for you. The sound quality of a balanced audio is way better than the sound quality of unbalanced audio. Here’s why.

While producing music, the biggest fear of the producer is distortion in their piece. Keeping in mind that though the ground wire of an unbalanced audio cable acts as a shield to the ambient noise, the cable itself acts as an antenna, thus picking up some noise ultimately. Thus, to be on the safe side, you should always go for a balanced audio cable.

It will provide you with a much better signal-to-noise ratio, lower impedance signals, and almost no distortion. Therefore, it is always wise to use a balanced audio cable over an unbalanced one, even though the balanced cables might be a little expensive.

What to Do If You Have an Unbalanced Audio Cable?

As always, we have a little trick up our sleeves for you. If you are stuck with an unbalanced audio cable, you can try to reduce the RFI to some extent as it cannot be avoided totally. 

The trick here is the placement of the cable wires. We would suggest you not to lay down the cables parallelly and if the situation is unavoidable, leave enough space between the wires. 

The most ideal way to arrange your cables to reduce RFI would be to lay them perpendicularly. You should make a single perpendicular crossing of the audio and the power cable to get the most ideal setup.

What is Better, Balanced or Unbalanced Audio?

Becoming a music producer is not a child’s play. You are bound to go through a lot of stress and put in rigorous effort to produce soulful music. Therefore, in this post, we’ve tried to help you understand the balanced vs unbalanced audio comparison; a simple yet crucial part of the process of music production. 

Most beginners use an unbalanced audio cable as it is inexpensive. However, with an unbalanced audio cable, it can be hard to get the quality you desire. Therefore, we would also suggest beginners and professionals to invest in balanced audio cables as they are a significant improvement over the unbalanced ones.

Hope we have been able to help you get started in the process of music production. Share with us the links to some of your amazing creations in the comment section and let us know how we can help you next.

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