definition of balanced mode vs. single ended

Hi, doing my research about different preamps and run across balanced mode vs. single ended. What is the difference?
Balanced means both signals float with respect to ground. Single ended means that the negative side of the signal is circuit ground. Balanced usually has better noise rejection and therefore less noise....although the difference in home audio is subtle (in a studio where one is mixing all kinds of signals, with long signal paths, and often applying large gains then balanced circuitry is much preferred)

Why is this called balanced.... the idea is that both signal paths are nearly identical and therefore any stray noise is expected to affect both signal paths in an equal or balanced manner and thus will not affect the signal (difference between both balanced paths both affected by same stray noise = zero)
Both of these refer to interconnections between the pre-amp and the amplifier, and less commonly, between the source (CD player for example) and pre-amp.

Single-ended is, I believe, the same as "unbalanced" -- the usual interconnect method -- the one with standard "RCA" jacks at each end. It has only two conductors, and is not protected against outside electrical interference or "noise". You're already familiar with this one.

Balanced connections are less commonly used, though quite a lot of "high-end" gear supports them. The connectors are large, round 5-pin "DIN" connectors, and have 2 more conductors (counting the shield/ground) than unbalanced connections. These are known as "microphone" connectors because they are used for that purpose in recording studios. Their main claim to fame is that they are protected against electrical interference, and they work well for long runs.

Most agree that balanced connections are the best choice if you must use long interconnects. The verdict on shorter runs is less clear. Some (perhaps most)people prefer unbalanced connections where possible (the electronics to support unbalanced connections are simpler and therefore give a more direct signal path). Some, though, prefer balanced connections everywhere (I would probably be in this latter camp if my sources supported balanced connections -- I'm not able to keep my power and signal cables as well-segregated as I'd like)

For myself, I was relieved to get very good results with homemade balanced interconnects for my 40' run between preamp and apm. I think it's safe to say that the sound difference on my system is minimal between the two types. I followed directions and parts lists posted here, and which I am happy to re-post if you want them.

One issue with balanced connections is that some equipment supports the connection, but the electronics behind it isn't "truly balanced". This is the case with my Classe CP-35 pre-amp, I'm told, but thankfully I don't hear any degradation. I dont' understand the electronics well enough to explain this issue.

For most people, support for balanced connections is not a deciding factor in equipment purchases unless they have unusual cabling requirements.

I suggest you do some searching here on "balanced unbalanced" and you'll find a lot more.
Equipment that is "fully balanced" inside has duplicate amplifiers such that the + & - legs of the circuit are phase-inverted and referenced separately to a common ground. When the inverted phases are summed together at the end of circuit, noise from one side cancels noise from the other (achieving "common mode noise rejection"). This offers greater signal-to-noise ratio relative to a single-ended circuit utilizing one amplifier of comparable quality. The fully balanced circuit with twice the components is of course also more expensive. The cable has three pins & a shield, not five as mentioned by Ehart.
Four conductors (counting the shield and ground) -- isn't that the same as what Dgarretson said? It's true that not all 5 pins on the connector are used.

Great explanations of balanced from dgarretson and shadorne.
As I was reading a article in a audio magazine what was described as being balanced was that both speakers would have equal sound and as where single ended sometimes is unbalanced meaning one speaker is louder than the other. Would anybody like to comment on this?
Both terms can be applied to just the input stage or the entire amplification path. You'll get differing opinions on which is better or adequate.

As already explained, single-ended (unbalanced) typically uses RCA connectors and thus two conductors are necessary. Balanced typically uses XLR connectors (or TRS) and thus three conductors are necessary.

Balanced lines have an inherent advantage over single-ended in that they reject commmon mode noise. You'll see the term CMRR - Common Mode noise Rejection Ratio used in reference to balanced lines.

Pro audio typically uses balanced lines and consumer audio typically uses unbalanced.

There are audio transformers that can convert an unbalanced line to balanced and vice-versa. I run balanced lines throughout my main system and I use an output transformer on my CD player to convert its output to balanced.
I suppose it's possible to carry two balanced channels on a single 5-pin connector, but in audio one usually finds an XLR connector with three pins (hot, cold, ground) plus the barrel. The barrel can be connected to a shield or directly to the ground pin, but typically the barrel is left floating. BTW, I would doubt that a balanced cable makes much difference (even on long runs) when attached to a component that isn't full-balanced. Such components often add a phase-inverter to derive a balanced output. The additional electronics at the balanced output may degrade the sound relative to the RCA outputs. An external XLR/RCA converter plug uses just the hot/ground pins of the XLR junction to derive a single-ended signal for the RCA, discarding the inverted signal on the cold/ground pin side. In this scenario, half the circuitry in your expensive full-balanced component goes to waste.
There is convenience for both applications as well. Most all home audio that uses balanced connections will sound better than when using single-ended, because that is how the equipment was designed.

Pro audio is benefitted greatly by balanced cables because of length of run, and because of the fact that you can connect multiple lines together to get the lenght you need, simply because of the connector style.

All balanced connections I've ever seen have three pins.
S7horton & Bob Reynolds,

There are some quiddities with pseudo-balanced designs that compromise rather than take the "full-balanced" approach. For example, like Bob I also use transformers in my CDP (Sony SCD-1) to create a balanced signal. The stock SCD-1 is a strange beast-- particularly for a statement product-- insofar as it has fully differentially balanced DAC, but converts to single-ended in the analog gain stage, and back again to balanced using an op-amp based module at the XLR output. This is doubtless a compromise to cut costs in the analog stage, while adding additional electronics that degrade sonics. A passive step-up transformer replacing the entire output stage is a big sonic improvement. The output of the secondaries can be considered balanced insofar as the (-) signal is lifted from ground. But I'm not sure I'd called what the transformer does "true-balanced", in that it does not invert signal so as to provide CMMR.
Under the assumption that the balanced inputs and outputs are implemented well, I'll take the advantages of balanced lines over unbalanced whether or not the component's circuit is balanced.

I have read reviews where the distortion measurements were higher from the balanced outputs than the unbalanced outputs. There's no reason for it, just poor implementation.