What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio cables?
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.
|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.||
3m XLR M-F
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
|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.||
3m Balanced Jack To Jack
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.