Balanced Vs Unbalanced Headphones

When connecting professional audio equipment, the distinction between balanced and unbalanced audio is a crucial one to comprehend. 

Check if your gadgets utilize balanced audio or unbalanced audio. Regarding this topic, we will be discussing balanced vs unbalanced headphones.

Unbalanced Headphones (Cables): What Are They? 

In the debate of balanced vs unbalanced headphones, first of all, you should understand about unbalanced cables used in these headphones.

Single-ended (SE), often known as unbalanced connections, is the most common kind of analog electrical connection, such as the ones between your turntable and amplifier or the wire you use to connect your phone to a speaker. 

This indicates that each audio signal is carried by a single conductor, together with a shield that serves as a reference to the ground and a current return to complete the circuit (one for the left channel and one for the right).

The RCA connector for home audio serves as the standard plug for this kind of connection. In semi-professional applications, particularly for electric musical instruments,

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 you may also see the more durable 1/4-inch tip-sleeve (TS) jacks or the 3.5mm tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) connector, which transmits two unbalanced signals in stereo applications and is sometimes referred to as an “aux” connection.

What are balanced connections?

Now in this debate of balanced vs unbalanced, headphones have a look at Balanced connections are used in professional applications to transmit audio signals across cable lines 

that are frequently much longer than those used for domestic audio and are thus more likely to be subjected to several possible sources of interference.

A minimum of three conductors are used in balanced connections, including one for ground, a matched pair of twisted wires (one for the “hot” signal and one for the “cold” signal), and a connector. 

The connections are more durable (and more expensive), often either XLR connectors or 1/4-inch tip-ring-sleeve (TRS) jacks, because the technology is largely utilized for professional applications like live music performances, recording studios, and movie sets.

Unbalanced Cable Connectors

Some connector types are intrinsically imbalanced, so whenever you see one of them, you know it’s either a single unbalanced input or one-half of a balanced signal. Both TS 14″ jacks and RCA (or phono) connections are unbalanced by default.

TS stands for “tip/sleeve,” which describes the soldered points on the wires. A TS cable will have a 14″ or 3.5mm connection and may be recognized by the presence of a single band close to the tip. 

This band serves to divide the two contact points and is frequently black; however, a transparent band may also be utilized. Instrument cables or modular patch cables are the most typical uses for them.

Many pieces of audio equipment employ RCA connections, sometimes known as phono connectors, due to their historical use with phonograph players. 

A single RCA cable is uncommon because they often come in pairs or, with component video connections, triples. These feature two contact points, just like TS connections. 

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On RCA connections, the contacts are positioned differently than on TS connectors. The shield of an RCA connection surrounds the central pin contact in a circle. 

When two devices are linked, the pin makes contact with the RCA jack of the device, and the shield makes contact with the jack itself.

Balanced Cable Connectors

Sometimes, just by looking at the connections, you can identify which cables are balanced, just like you can with unbalanced cables. The most popular connectors used for balanced connections are TRS and XLR. 

“Tip/Ring/Sleeve” refers to the soldered points on the wires, and TRS stands for them. A TRS cable will have a 14″ or 3.5mm connection and may be recognized by the presence of two bands close to the tip. 

The usage of them for single-cable stereo transmissions is more frequent. A TRS-connected single cable carrying an analog stereo signal is not balanced; it is vital to remember this. Continue reading for more information.

The original signal is often attached to the tip of a balanced application, and the inverted signal is soldered to the ring contact.

Although they can be obtained with four or five connectors in specific applications, XLR cables typically have three pins. Positive, negative, and ground charges will all be carried via the three pins. 

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The majority of professional audio gear employs XLR connectors, which are reliable and include a locking mechanism. 

Pin 2 receives the original, or positive, signal when utilizing a 3-pin XLR, whereas pin 3 receives the inverted signal. The shield contact is located on pin 1 of the XLR connector.

Unbalanced Cables Occur When Balanced Cables:

When it comes to wires, it sounds rather simple, right? The cable is imbalanced if there are only two points of contact; it is balanced if there are three. I guess not quite.

In all actuality, a 2-conductor cable is not a balanced wire. The purpose of the cable is determined by the equipment being used. 

You may create an unbalanced stereo connection by using the same wire to connect a mixer’s stereo headphone output to a headphone amplifier. 

In the second illustration, one conductor carries the mixer’s left output while the other conductor carries its right output. 

This cable is not transmitting a balanced audio signal since the signal traveling down both conductors is not the same.

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Balanced vs unbalanced Headphones: Pros & Cons

Unbalanced cables’ greatest flaw is their propensity to take up noise; as a result, the longer a cable is extended, the more interference it will accumulate, and the more the signal quality will deteriorate.

By using a system that reverses the polarity of any noise produced along its course, balanced audio addresses that problem. 

When at all feasible, balanced audio should be used, although whether or not to do so depends on the devices that are producing the signal, not the cable. 

A device with an unbalanced TS output cannot receive a balanced signal when connected via a balanced TRS cable. A lot of Unbalanced audio is still used by audio devices. 

Why should balance cables be used?

In an effort to lessen noise produced by electromagnetic (EM) and radio frequency (RF) sources such as AC mains, fluorescent lights, motors, and mobile phones, professionals route communications via balanced cables. 

Any one of these can make the conductors of a cable noisy. The objective is noise immunity, to lessen the impact of EMI on the desired audio signal, and to maintain clear, buzz- and hum-free audio. And give good sensational audio. 

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Why would you use a balanced headphone output?

In order to run properly connected headphones, more recent higher-tier headphone amplifiers have begun to provide “balanced” outputs. 

Here, the terminals of the headphone drivers receive identical audio impulses in opposing (positive and negative phase) modes. 

Although differential drive would be a better description than “balanced,” the latter seems to have gained traction.

Typically, headphones are connected to devices using a three-pole connector of the 1/4-inch or 3.5mm TRS variety. 

The two negative terminals of the headphone drivers are joined together at the jack’s sleeve to share the return path to the amplifier since each headphone driver has a positive and negative input terminal, making a total of four. 

Similar to the unbalanced connection mentioned at the beginning of the article, this is referred to as single-ended since only the positive terminal of the connector carries any voltage swing.

A headphone must have two separate conductors for each ear in order to operate with differential or “balanced” driving signals, necessitating a 4-terminal connection and 4-conductor cable. 

There are four standards for balanced headphone connections at the moment:

  • 4.4mm 5 pole jack, also known as “Pentacon,” and 2.5mm 4 pole jack.
  • (2x) 3 pin XLR • 4 pin XLR

A headphone must arrive with one of these connections connected in order to be compatible with a “balanced” amplifier output; otherwise, an adapter is still required. 

If not, if your headphones have a detachable cable and an aftermarket one is available with one of the aforementioned connection types, you’ll be in a better starting position.

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When professional-level audio equipment is being used, two types of cables are kept under consideration balanced and unbalanced. 

But in the debate of balanced vs unbalanced headphones, balanced headphones provide a better audio experience. A balanced cable uses a sophisticated mechanism to connect devices while minimizing interference sounds. 

An imbalanced cable uses a straightforward approach that only connects two devices and transmits signals with no interference noise filtering.


Q: Is balanced or unbalanced audio better?

A: A clearer, louder audio stream without any unwanted sounds will often be provided by the use of balanced audio. 

On the other side, unbalanced audio is more prone to picking up unwanted noise and interference across greater distances.

Q: Can you hear the difference between balanced and unbalanced?

A: Many people are interested in whether or not balanced output hardware actually makes a difference and whether it is feasible to tell the difference between a balanced and unbalanced audio stream

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