Balanced vs Unbalanced Audio Cable

Both balanced and unbalanced cables explained

Both unbalanced and balanced cables are essential for most of the work in sound recording because they are very reliable and durable compared to wireless systems. The most common cable is a balanced XLR cable for connecting microphones to external devices and recorders.

What is the difference between a balanced XLR and Unbalanced XLR cable?

The easiest way to understand the difference between a balanced vs unbalanced cable is the signal separation. This separation takes place inside types of cables. Common balanced cable is a kettle lead which has 3 separate cables. One for ground, positive and negative, all doing equal work, making it balanced. An unbalanced cable would only use 2 of these 3 wires inside, usually so the ground and the negative are both down one wire.

Balanced cables mean they are less susceptible to extraneous noise. Their XLR connectors often have a locking mechanism that makes the connections more reliable and more difficult to accidentally unplug. Unbalanced phone, mini and RCA connectors are not hearty and can be easily damaged and dislodged from their inputs. Balanced cables often also include a tight metal mesh wrapper that acts as an electronic shield to protect them from interference. Electricity can generate hum through a broken cable or a damaged connector. It can even arise simply by laying a power cable parallel to an audio cable. The upshot to all this is that hum in a cable can ruin an audio recording.

Unbalanced cables and high impedance accessories are fine when working with very short cable runs. If you just want a cheaper alternative to your onboard camera microphone then you are still best investing a few extra pounds or dollars in a balanced cable and inexpensive microphone rather than an unbalanced cable. I use balanced microphones that also come with shields for keeping out even more interference from any close sources such as lighting cables.

The balanced vs unbalanced cable debate is really simple from my point of view. Better quality of both sound and cable means it will be with you for a long time and if you really can't save up or still want a cheaper option then you will only end up buying again later down the line. Clients demand the highest quality throughout. So don't risk it.

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