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What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables?

Published: Wed February 16, 2005  News Feed

Cables At Dolphin

Balance is defined in terms of the impedance of the two signal conductors with respect to a reference, which is usually ground.  If these impedances are equal and non-zero, the system is balanced.  If the impedances are unequal the system is unbalanced. A signal conductor with a grounded return conductor is, therefore, an unbalanced (sometimes referred to as a single ended) system.


Balanced connections employ three conductors, one for the positive and one for the negative phase of the signal, and one for the ground. This ensures maximum protection against hum and interference. Servo-balanced connections achieve this electronically, whereas galvanically isolated connections rely on a transformer.

Typical Balanced Cable Uses
Cable Use Why Balanced? Short Cables Long Cables
Connecting a microphone to a mixer or audio interface The microphone is a relatively quiet source that needs a lot of amplification. So needs a high Common Mode Rejection Ratio (CMRR) to reduce noise picked up in the cable between the mic and input. Balanced XLR Female to Male is by far the most common choice, but a Female XLR to Balanced 6.35mm Jack might be necessary with older or more compact audio interfaces. XLR Cable 3m
3m XLR M-F
XLR Cable 10m
10m XLR M-F
Connecting an audio interface or mixer to monitors Whoever designed your monitors aimed to keep noise as low as electronically possible, so you should too! Getting an extra 6dB from a balanced connection helps keep you well above the noise floor too. It's not unusual to find a mix of XLR and Jack inputs here, with 6.35mm Jack to Male XLR being the most common.
3m Jack To XLR
3m Jack To XLR
Connecting a keyboard on stage Things are a lot less predictable in a live situation so you really want balanced cables where ever possible to avoid interference. For the keyboardists out there that means taking advantage of any balanced outputs you've got. Balanced Jack To Jack
3m Balanced Jack To Jack
Jack To Jack 6m
6m Balanced Jack To Jack


Unbalanced connections employ two conductors, one for the signal and the other for the ground, and are much more subject to hum and interference than balanced connections. Consumer equipment generally uses unbalanced connections.

Typical Unbalanced Cable Uses
Cable Use Why Unbalanced?
Plugging in a guitar
Guitars, amps, basses and some keyboards/synths were never designed to use balanced connections. Unfortunately they still suffer from interference and noise, especially in long cable runs. That's why it makes sense to buy the best quality cable you can with strong shielding to prevent unwanted signals and noise. On the plus side they come in a fine selection of colours and lengths.

Orange Guitar CableFender Tweed Guitar CableFender Guitar CableFender Coiled Cable

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