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I recently switched to balanced interconnects between the CD/preamp and preamp/amp. I was integrating my preamp with my home theater processor in order to try to get a better mix of music and theater sounds in the same room. With the single ended connects, I had a slight buzzing if you listened real close at the speakers, but after adding the balanced, it was silent. I think my noise problem was mostly caused by all of the equpiment connected to the theater processor and got a bit worse when adding the preamp into the mix. The balanced connections took care of that problem so I noticed an immediate difference. I suppose if you have a relatively clean hi-fi only system to start with, the difference won't be as noticable.
i doubt you can make a valid comparison between balanced and single-ended ic's using products from different manufacturers or even products from the same manufacturer in different ranges. i've used only balanced ic's for years, thinking them to be superior to rca's and appreciating them for their "locked" connections. last november i visited a good friend in rhode island who shares my audio interests. he auditioned an "upgrade" to his ic's running between an accuphase cd-75v and jrdg model 10 amp while i was there. he was lent balanced and single-ended nordost qutrofil pairs as possible replacements for the balanced nordost spm he already owned. i was given the honor of sitting in the sweet spot while he switched the ic's. to my amazement but according to his predictions, the rca terminated quatrofil was clearly superior to the balanced quatrofil and spm in this setup. i've learned a lesson: if you really want to compare ic's, audition BOTH balanced and single-ended pairs before purchase.
Audition both. That's the same thing I have found. It depends on the equipment. In most cases, I there isn't enough difference to say one way or the other. I do remember switching from a 2 Meter SE to 2M Balanced between my pass labs mono amps / pass labs pre made an improvement that was immediately noticeable. On my CD to preamp - it really didn't make a difference. Slightly different sound but not better or worse.
What I have heard from others is that if you have 2 meters + length in your interconnects, or a noisy environment, a balanced will pull ahead of a SE cable. One of my friends who has worked in recording studios says it makes a very large difference in that environment. A downside of balanced cables is that in some cases an audio component will have the balanced circuitry grafted onto a single ended design. The result being that you are going through more electronics, but not getting balanced noise cancellation through the component itself.
Most high end manufacturers will be happy to tell you what they have found works best with their equipment, and what in fact they've designed for. I have a friend with Accuphase equipment who told me that the rep told him that they design for SE and added XLR's because so many people wanted it; a dCS rep told me in a casual conversation at a dealers showroom that dCS is precisely the opposite in its design preference. So does a balanced NBS cable sound better in a dCS hookup than a SE does? I switched back and forth for two hours. The result? There were slight differences, but the only thing I'm sure of is that I'll never listen to that CD again!
As Cornfedboy suggests theres more to it than balanced or not, or which IC sounds good/better? ...Its a matter of how the component you are connecting was engineered to be operated. For example certain designs such as BAT or Sim Audio are fully balanced (circuit) designs that are intended to be operated with balanced connections. When configured in this manner such components can offer much greater resolution. I suspect that the only reason that companies such as these include RCA terminations is because they HAVE to (for the sake of flexibility). ...Then there are other companies who offer components with balanced connection options merely because it is expected - they are high caliber components, and the owner might want to run very long ICs. Meanwhile these same components might have been engineered to sound best running single ended. Like so many other aspects of audio its all so very personal. Frequently compromises are necessary in order that we might own that incredible piece of gear we lust after. ...No matter that it might not be best suited to our system or physical circumstances.
Very interesting dialog. I have been considering this issue now that I have a BAT pre which is a balanced designed with single ended inputs and outputs added for flexibility. I have been using SE since my front end and amp have se only. I like the pre, but would also like to "see" (hear) what its like running balanced. Anyone with any comments on whether this would require changing front end and amp to realize the full benefit of this piece?
I have had mixed results in this arena, depending on the equipment in question. From my Mark Levinson 380 to Mark Levinson 335, balanced sounds best, hands down, no questions asked.
It's about the equipment, not just the cable. Like Awdee said, some equipment like BAT are designed with fully balanced circuits. Balanced won HANDS DOWN when I compared the 2 configs with Audio Magic Spellcaster IIs, which I have in both SE and balanced. Bass was alive, transients snapped, and there was an awesome difference in dynamics. Other equipment without balanced circuits might not exhibit the same improvement with the cable switch.