In the world of electronic equipment, it can get quite confusing because standards have been changing and evolving over the years and a lot of it is hard to keep with. Additionally, many types of equipment have slightly different demands which means the cables they’re designed to function with also serve different needs.
One example would be a guitar cable and a microphone cable. Anyone who has ever taken a look at both of these cables knows they’re entirely different. A guitar cable is a 1/4″ jack (and I’ve explained before that it’s mono too btw), and a mic is an XLR cable. One is balanced and the other is unbalanced.
Guitar cables are unbalanced unlike microphone XLR cables because they only have one wire and a shield compared to a balanced cable that has 2 wires and a shield. Guitar cables simply don’t need to be balanced, so manufacturers don’t make them this way as it would increase the cost for the consumer.
In other words, a balanced cable has two wires that run alongside each other and one shield, whereas the unbalanced cable has only one wire and one shield. A lot of this sounds like just words on a page, so we’ll offer up some pictures and explanations in a moment.
What Is An Unbalanced Cable?
A quarter-inch guitar cable has one wire which is connected to the tip of the unit while the shield is attached to the sleeve of the plug. This is where the term “TS” comes from.
It means “Tip and Sleeve,” because there is just the main wire as well as the shield, which also means the cable signal is mono.
Explained in another way, the signal travels through the main wire whereas the shield that comes with it acts as a ground to try and minimize noise from the environment.
Unbalanced cables tend to be less sophisticated, but on account of the fact it doesn’t have the extra wire, unbalanced cables are more susceptible to noise and other problems, especially when they start getting longer.
For that reason, guitar cables and other unbalanced cables are typically much shorter.
What Is A Balanced Cable?
A balanced cable is different due to the addition of an extra wire. They are also called TRS, or a “Stereo Cable.”
A balanced quarter-inch cable has a different tip than an unbalanced cable, because rather than having a TS tip to it, (a tip and sleeve), it has a TRS tip, which means “Tip Ring and Sleeve.”
Let’s talk a little bit more about this.
As I just mentioned above, a balanced cable has two wires and a shield, one that connects to the end of the cable, the other to the ring, and then the shield which connects to the sleeve.
TRS cables, like an XLR cable, are stereo signals, which means they have a right and left channel.
A balanced TRS cable has a ground, a positive channel (hot), and then a negative channel (cold). Both channels, or “legs,” carry the same signal but in opposite polarity.
The noise that’s picked up in a balanced cable will travel along both wires, the positive and the negative wire, however, if the destination is balanced, then the receiving device will actually flip the one signal and put the two signals into polarity with each other.
The effect of this is for the two signals to be out of phase with each other, which ends up eliminating the noise. There’s a special term for this, it’s called “Common Mode Rejection.”
To boil down what’s happening here in layman’s terms, a balanced cable has two wires carrying the same signal which end up canceling each other out, however, the noise is the only thing eliminated.
The noise cancellation effect is what makes balanced cables really great for super long cables. XLR cables and TRS cables are used for the sake of sending balanced audio from one end to the other.
They’re typically used for things like microphones, or for connecting to a mixer.
A TS unbalanced cable can be around 25-feet long, but TRS cables, as well as three-prong cables, can be even longer. It’s possible to use a TRS (three-prong cable) for your electric guitar or bass guitar, however, this will cause unwanted noise from your amp.
There is a significant difference between balanced and unbalanced cables, and in the diagram below, you can see what these two types of cables can look like.
In the image above, you can see the comparison between the two cables. The one cable is the classic guitar cable, and it’s unbalanced because of what was explained above, and then there is the headphone jack type of cable, which is balanced.
If you look at the bottom of a 3.5mm auxiliary cable, which is the same cable that’s used for headphones, you’ll notice there are usually two red (or black) lines around it.
There is the tip of the cable, the ring, and then the sleeve.
On the unbalanced cable, there is only the tip and the sleeve, whereas the balanced cable has two black lines on it which shows a tip, the ring, and the sleeve.
Let’s move on to explaining the three most common types of cables in the world of audio, the TRS cable, the XLR cable, and the TS cable.
The TRS cable, as I explained above, means “Tip, Ring, Sleeve,” and it looks like the standard plug you’ll see on headphone cables and other common cables. There are two wires, (or conductors,) plus a ground, or as I called it above, a “Shield.”
These cables are used for connecting balanced equipment to each other as well as running left and right mono signals to a regular pair of headphones, which tend to be stereo.
Additionally, in the image you can see below, I have taken apart a common pair of TRS headphones, in which the red and black wires can be seen as well as the copper ground that comes along with it.
It’s hard to see, but I hope you can make out the three different wire types in the image below:
An XLR cable has within it three connectors, the ground, the negative, as well as the positive, and these are commonly used for sending microphone or balanced-line-level signals in between devices.
Perhaps the most common use of the XLR cable is for connecting microphones to mixers as well as audio interfaces. Moreover, they’re commonly used for connecting outputs to powered speakers.
The TS cable, the guitar cable, which stands for “Tip, Sleeve,” is the 2-conductor cable that’s unbalanced. There is only one ring that separates the tip and sleeve from each other.
People typically use the term “hot” to refer to the tip of the cable, and it’s also what carries the signal, while the shield/ground is what minimizes the noise.
These cables are almost always used for guitars/basses and other line-level instruments.
Why Not Use Balanced Signals For Everything?
At this point, you might be wondering why instrument cables don’t all just come with a balanced cable unit if they’re so much better and are less susceptible to noise?
There are a few reasons why instruments and other units don’t use balanced cables, and it mostly has to do with complexity as well as the cost of doing so.
Creating instruments and other devices that use balanced outputs requires more design components, and the costs of doing so are typically passed on to the people actually making the purchase, in other words, the consumer.
Frankly, there isn’t much demand for them so manufacturers don’t even bother making them in this way.
In the vast majority of cases, the regular TS shielded cable will not be producing enough noise for anyone to hear or care.
Moreover, most individuals will be plugging into a keyboard or some kind of mixer that doesn’t accept balanced signals.
Professional studios and other systems that need the highest quality of equipment use plenty of keyboards and other instruments with unbalanced outputs. In other words, it’s not necessary for every cable to be balanced.
For most circumstances, you can still get professional quality sound without balanced signals.
Balanced cables are the most common and relevant for things like microphones, because the signal of a microphone is typically much lower, which means they’re more susceptible to noise.
Furthermore, when the pre-amplifier increases the signal, the noise will be increased even more, so for that reason, microphone cables are balanced to minimize or completely eliminate this problem altogether.
A lot of this has to do with what’s called the signal-to-noise ratio. A keyboard tens to produce a large output signal, so the signal-to-noise ratio is already sufficient. Any of the additional noise created will be below what most people can hear.
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