Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio

Producing music is not as easy as it seems. It takes more than merely recording the vocals and instruments. The technicalities involved in producing music are startling even for the better of us. The key is to not get overwhelmed and take baby steps at the start. A comprehensive understanding of basics would make your foundation strong and help you produce better music. Knowledge of balanced vs unbalanced audio is a basic but crucial element in the music industry.

In this article, we would address everything there is to know about balanced vs unbalanced audio. The difference between the two and the applications of balanced vs unbalanced audio. Let’s get started.

Balanced Versus Unbalanced Audio- Understanding The Basic

To understand the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio one must know the basics of how sound travels in circuit. The input converts the sound waves into electric signals which travel via cable to the receiver. Receivers interpret the electric signals and convert it back to the sound waves.

When the electrical signal is transient, noise can make its way into the circuit. Where does this noise come from? Most commonly it is from the other electronic devices that are in close proximity to the circuit. The electronics can induce current in the circuit, courtesy of their magnetic field. And this can alter the electric signals which results in a noisy output.

The type of cable used to conduct the electric signals play a significant role in the noise reduction. And it is the construction of cable that tells whether the audio would be balanced or unbalanced.

What is Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio?

The difference between balanced and unbalanced audio is simple and straightforward. Unbalanced audio contains significantly higher noise than balanced audio. It is because the construction of cables used to produce these audios differ from each other. You can check out microphonesgeek for audio and music related guides and reviews.

Balanced Versus Unbalanced Audio-What Makes The Different?

As discussed earlier, it is the cable that decides the balancing of audio. The balanced cable would deliver balanced audio and vice versa. For better understanding we would have to take a look at the construction of balanced vs unbalanced audio cables.

Unbalanced Cable

An audio cable that carries an unbalanced signal uses two wires: a ground and signal. As the name suggests, the signal wire carries the signal while the ground wire is a reference point for the signal. The ground wire also acts as an antenna which picks up unwanted noise along the way.

Noise can come from radio and electrical interference, but it usually comes from power cables around the circuit. And this interference produces a humming sound in the output. Non-LED stage lighting can also contribute to the noise as they also interfere with the audio signal.

The unbalanced cable usually terminates at two different contact points. The connector tips in such cables are:

RCA Cable Connectors

You would be familiar with them if you have used television to play games and watch movies. The connectors have red and black tips that connect with the receiver.

Standard Tip Sleeve of ¼” Cable Connector

Unbalanced cables use STS connectors to connect with the input device of the audio circuit. It resembles the TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) connectors but does not have a third point of contact. You can use STS to connect guitars with your amplifier.

Balanced Cables

Balanced cables are more sophisticated than unbalanced cables and use three wires instead of two. Ground wire is the part of balanced cables as well but it has two signal cables instead of one. These wires carry the copies of the same signals and are referred to as cold (negative) and hot (positive) signals.

The difference between the two signals is the polarity which is reversed as they travel down the cable. The oppositely charged signals cancel each other out. As they reach the end of the cable, their polarity is flipped and the signals have the same phase perfectly in sync with each other.

The interesting part is, if a cable picks up noise in transient the signals would be added in both wires. And the polarity of noise signals remains the same in both wires. So, when the negative signals flip to match positive, the noise gets cancelled. The process is referred to as common mode rejection. As the noise signal is common in both wires it would vanish in the output.

Furthermore, the balanced cable sends two in-phase signals which makes them louder as well. These are about 6-10 dB louder than the signals from unbalanced wires.

The balanced cables terminate at single point and the connectors are:


The XLR connector has three pins inside it, one for ground wire and the others for hot and cold signals. The XLR cable is capable of sending balanced signals as far as 200 feet. Furthermore, there is no restriction on whether it would be attached to an input or output device.

Quarter Inch TRS

TRS stands for tip, ring and sleeve which describes the construction of this connector. The tip sends hot signals, the ring sends cold signals and the sleeve acts as ground wire.

Balanced Versus Unbalanced Audio- The Applications

There is no denying the fact that balanced audio is superior to unbalanced audio. But does that mean unbalanced audio does not have any applications? No, it offers several applications. Although balanced cables would do a better job at them but unbalanced cables cost significantly lower.

Unbalanced cables are effective when used for shorter distances, 10-20 feet. You can use these cables to connect with instruments like guitars and keyboards.

Balanced cables, on the other hand, are capable of sending signals to long distances. You can use these cables on stages where the receiver is far away from the input devices. Be it mics, guitars, drums or keyboard, these cables would help you achieve a noise-free output.

Tips To Improve Audio With Unbalanced Cables

Now that you know “what is balanced vs unbalanced audio”, you must be wondering if there are some ways to improve unbalanced audio. It is only natural as the unbalanced cables cost far less than balanced ones. And as a beginner you do not want that kind of money. So, we have few tricks up in our sleeves that would help in optimizing unbalanced audio for the better.

As discussed earlier in balanced vs unbalanced xlr, the main source of the noise in the audio is because of radio and electromagnetic interference. You can reduce the noise by turning off other electronics in the room.  It would be best if you can place the cable far away from the devices but turning them off is also effective.

The second thing that you can do is to avoid parallel placement of the wires. And if it is unavoidable at least leave some space between the wires.

You can lay them perpendicularly. Make a single perpendicular crossing of power cables and audio cable. It would make an ideal setup.

A Common Misconception-Balanced Vs Unbalanced XLR

Beginners often have a common misconception where they confuse balancing of audios between balancing of stereo channels. The stereo balancing is when audio is split between left and right channel. And unbalanced and balanced audio refers to the polarity of the signals that the cable carries.

Another fact you should be mindful of is that both XLR and TRS cable can carry unbalanced stereo audio to the destination. But they would be more prone to interference in such scenarios.

You must also check your gear and see if it is compatible with balanced cable or not. In case it is not, the balanced cable would give you no benefit. You should check the documentation of the gear if you are not certain. The unbalanced cable, on the other hand, works with the gear that expects balanced audio but it would be susceptible to the interference.

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Final Words- Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio

Knowing the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio is crucial in producing quality audio. It all depends on the cables that you use to produce the signal. The balanced cables provide virtually a noise free output while the unbalanced cables are susceptible to the noise. That said, the balanced cables are costly and are not compatible with every gear.

The unbalanced cables, on the other hand, are cheap and work with pretty much every gear in the studio.

This is all that you need to know about balanced vs unbalanced audio. We hope this article has helped in clearing your confusion around the subject. In case, there is anything that you want to add or ask, let us know in the given section. We would love to respond. Thank you!

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