Does balanced interconnect sound beter than RCA?

I'm in the process of upgrading my system and looking at new/used integraged amps. The amps i am considering are the sim i-5, the plinius 8200 mk 2, perreaux 200ip and the classe cap151. Some have have both balanced and RCA connectors for the CD player and some don't. Can you hear the difference of the Balanced connection versus the RCA connection? It seems that their is a lot of very expensive equipment that does not have balanced connections which would seem to indicate that it doesn't necessarily need to be there. Is it worth getting an amp or cd player that can utilize balanced connections?
I have an all ballanced system so I am not biased when I say that it is absolutly a non issue in most cases. If you have a ballanced piece of equipment, it may sound identical going through the ballanced or single ended/it may sound better going through the single ended and it may sound better through the ballanced just because the single ended connections use cheaper wire than the ballanced!! This is often the case so there is NO WAY to tell unless you listen. And besides many ballanced connections are just turned into single ended on the inside and the unit is not ballanced at all-it just has the connections! You have to have a complete ballanced fully symetrical system for the ballanced to do any good. And then there are still trade-offs where many people would still prefer the same system using the single ended connections. It's a matter of taste.
There's a really good thread in AudioCircle that deals w/ this topic. I really like my friend Dejan Veselinovic's (AKA the Serbian Hope) answer, as it is original and thoughtful. He says RCA usually sounds beter than balanced if the ground is filtered. My current setup happens to use RCA interconnects and a 3KW, 220V/110V ONEAC islolation transformer/filter that has a patented "Virtual Ground" feature that isolates the building's ground from the transformer's. My system is real quiet--spooky quiet.
The answer to your question is perhaps. But you need to perform comparisons in your system to be certain.

I won't pretend to be an expert, but to the best of my knoweldge, a system need not be fully balanced in order to obtain any sonic benefits from using balanced or XLR connections and cables.

In fact, truly balanced components are generally much more expensive and rumor has it that any sonic benefits of truly balanced components are often times negligible at best.

Depending on equipment design, (and without regard for true balance design) there are several potentials where balanced ic's can provide sonic benefits to a given system:

o Balanced connections can sometimes provide a lowered distortion and/or noise floor.

o Balanced connections typically put out approx. 4 volts when compared to the approx. 2 volts from single-ended connections. This doubling of the voltage alone can provide little to much in the way of macro-dynamic swings and more pronounced bass in some to many systems. Thus giving you a little bit or a lot more of that live bite, just like live music.

o Balanced connections, as opposed to single-ended connections, usually allow for much greater cable lengths with little or no signal degradation.

Components need not be fully balanced to take advantage of any of these benefits. The components only need to provide balanced inputs and outputs.

Personally, I wouldn't want to leave home without balanced ic's.

Balanced lines provide imunity to noise pickup, and are of great benefit to pro sound folk who work with a tangle of long wires. Their benefits are mostly irrelevant in the home audio situation.
The higher voltage signal (4 volts vs 2) would tend to help. However, if your preamp has good output voltage capability, (most do) one can crank up the gain in the preamp, and lower the gain in the power amp, and run single-ended lines at higher voltage. I do that.
Here are some FACTS:

Is there a simple explanation of the difference between single-ended and balanced operation?

In this context, the terms "single-ended" and "balanced" describe the type of electrical interface between components: i.e. preamplifiers and power amplifiers. Single-ended interfaces use a "common" conductor (shield, ground or instrument chassis) as a signal return path. Balanced lines, on the other hand, use two dedicated conductors to provide forward and return paths for signal. The ground connection in balanced configurations is accomplished by means of a third, dedicated, ground conductor. Any two components in your system will, most likely, have a measurable voltage difference between their chassis. When a single-ended cable is connected between these two components, this voltage difference will appear along the common conductor (shield) of the interconnect. As a result, the shield will now carry the parasitic ground noise current between the two chassis. Since the shield is directly in the signal path, the voltage drop along the ground conductor will be combined with the signal that the interconnect carries. The result will be added noise and distortion introduced directly into the signal path. In a balanced system, a separate shield or ground conductor will be used to connect the two chassis together, reducing the voltage difference between them. But the voltage drop across the shield will not add to the signal, because this third conductor does not carry the signal. What flows through the balanced interconnect is a clean signal, separated from extraneous ground current and noise. Additional benefits are derived from the fact that balanced circuits are inherently symmetrical. The balanced nature of the internal circuit greatly reduces transient demand on the component power supply, further improving signal integrity and noise immunity.

What makes the balanced interface superior to a single-ended interface?

The superiority of the balanced interface comes from at least four areas:

1. Connector quality. This one is probably the easiest to understand. Balanced XLR connectors use large diameter signal pins. They also are superior to the common RCA in that they provide a positive locking action. They incorporate properly designed strain relief as a feature. In the case of an RCA connector, the signal-carrying ground conductor also works as the strain relief - a situation far removed from ideal. Many of us have experienced broken RCA connectors when subjected to lateral forces - including the weight of some high-end interconnects. The high degree of mechanical and electrical integrity makes balanced XLR connectors the natural choice when signal integrity counts.

2. Balanced interface noise immunity. When discussing different signal interfaces, it is important to evaluate their immunity to various noise sources. One group of these sources is represented by noise currents that flow between different chassis in a system (and between different parts of the same chassis, in fact). We shall call them ground noise sources. The second group includes various external sources that do not have a direct electrical connection to our system, but can affect it through their electromagnetic fields. Items commonly included in this category are various RF sources (radio stations, RF remote control transmitters, etc), magnetic fields (fields commonly found around large power transformers, power lines and home appliances), and electrostatic discharge events. Because of if its three-wire configuration, a balanced interface is substantially more immune to all of the above interference sources. By using balanced interconnects throughout our system, we, therefore, noticeably improve our signal integrity - our music signal is much less affected by extraneous noise.

3. Internal power supply-gain stage interaction. It has been stated thousands of times before that the power supply has an enormous influence over the resulting sound of a product. With this in mind, we can take two different design approaches. One would be to put very high requirements on the power supply and then hope that it is up to the task. A second approach would be to simply minimize the demand on power supply performance from the start. Single-ended circuits put very high demands on the power supply's ability to keep up with signal-induced current fluctuations. Single-ended signals produce changes in gain stage current that must be accomodated in the power supply. Unless the power supply is capable of coping with large and fast current changes, it will constantly fall behind and the resulting sound will be degraded. Balanced circuits interface with their power supply in a "balanced" fashion. There are two gain stage currents present in the balanced circuit at any time. By the very nature of a balanced circuit, when signal appears at the input, these two currents will change in unison. One will increase, and the other one drop by the same amount. The resulting gain stage current change can be made almost infinitesimally small. In the ideal case, the power supply will not see ANY current fluctuation at all, and its job will become quite easy. This reduced demand not only makes power supply design far more efficient, it improves the performance of the power supply substantially.

4. Many of us believe that symmetry is good. Balanced gain stages are inherently symmetrical. Little wonder then that many famous designers reached for balanced circuits long before the word "balanced" was used in high-end audio. As long as forty to fifty years ago, when all stereo components contained nothing but RCA connectors, many now classic designs were already completely balanced internally. To work with the RCA interface (the only one available at the time), one input of the balanced circuit was simply grounded. Why would designers use fully balanced internal circuits with RCA jacks for interfaces? The answer is that, even then, many designers believed in the inherent superiority of balanced designs.

There are also many threads regarding same in the Agon' forum archives.
Buscis2...Lots of interesting ideas there, but I just don't think there is much relevance to home audio equipment.

Your reason #3, relating to power supply demand, does not (IMHO) have much relevance to low level (eg: preamp) circuits, where the power requirements are so small that a very modest capacitor will smooth things out. However, in a power amp there are very real benefits from running the two channels of a stereo amp out of phase. Since most of the stereo signal is common mode (mono) this evens out the draw on the plus and minus supplies. Of course, one speaker wire must be reversed to restore proper phasing at the speakers. Some amps meet their published rms power specs, both channels driven, when the drive is out of phase. This is usually in very small print, if at all.

A balanced line interconnection obviously makes it very easy to accomplish the required polarity inversion of one signal.
El, The relevance of the provided excerpt was more in regards to an overall factual examination of balanced vs. unbalanced interconnection configurations.

I WILL NOT evaluate, recommend, or not recommend, (for other users) the implementation of balanced configuration for home audio use. I WILL try to help in providing said users what I consider to be useful, practical, unbiased (or as unbiased as possible), and hopefully factual information resources. Hopefully, this will allow the others to make more informed evaluations and ultimate decisions in a more intellegent and informed fashion.

Personally? I utilize full balanced configuration. From MY OWN personal evaluation, I feel there are three specific characteristics of balanced configuration that I personally feel are advantageous:

Lack/reduction of any significant impedance level mismatches between components, especially important (I feel), between transport/DA.

Isolating parasitic ground current and accumulated noise from the signal path, elevated RF/EM noise immunity.

I like XLR connectors as they provide a higher degree of protection from conductor exposure to eventually sonically degrading environmental elements.

There may or may not be other advantages/disadvantages re: balanced. But the aforementioned, are the reasons I find balanced superior. Other individuals may not.

I hope that others find this information relevant. Ed.

you have received some really good responses to your post. I would emphasize the importance of having components with fully balanced circuitry to receive the maximum benefit from balanced connectors. Most (or all) of the manufacturers of balanced design components recommend the use of balanced connectors. As Stenho points out, the implementation of a balanced design generally results in more expensive products. With the price competition they face, I doubt the manufacturers of upper end components would use balanced circuitry, if the benefits were negligible. I believe where most of the controversy comes into play is when people use balanced connectors with components that simply offer the convenience of a balanced input, without having a fully balanced design. In these cases, the effect may range from no difference to a degredation of sound due to additional circuitry required to accomodate the balanced inputs/outputs. My system is fully balanced from CD to Amp, and I am very happy with the sound using good balanced connectors. However, there are always exceptions. For example, Conrad Johnson uses all single ended designs and seem to believe the extra cost involved with balanced circuitry is superfluous for home audio.
"For example, Conrad Johnson uses all single ended designs and seem to believe the extra cost involved with balanced circuitry is superfluous for home audio."

What Dejan Veselinovic says makes a LOT of sense. Seems that with a filtered ground single ended connectors will outperform balanced in most instances. It is much cheaper to take care of the ground.
Thanks to all of you for the detailed responses. It appears that having the ability to use both types has value in that many factors may influence the ultimate performance of one versus the other in a given system.
Aside from the interesting technical analysis given above, to my ears there are consistent sonic differences between the two that are neither good nor bad, just different flavors. I have owned SE systems and fully balanced systems. Most relevant for you would be my current setup, which is a Wadia 861 feeding into a Levinson 383 integrated amp. I have compared Cardas Neutral (or Golden) Reference XLR versus RCA interconnects between the CDP and amp (same length = 1.5M). The Wadia and ML both operate fully balanced. So... IMHO:

Generally the XLR offers more 3-dimensionality and "air" around the instruments, especially with more complex recordings. e.g., with symphonies XLR seems to sort out the soundstage better. But on smaller scale music such as a single guitar, the RCA seems to provide better focus and a more realistic size, whereas the XLR can sound a bit "diffuse". Generally, the leading edge of most bass notes seems more noticeable with RCA, yet the XLR can give better tone/harmonic definition in the bass. For most rock and jazz I like the RCA presentation. For classical I like XLR. Of course, like anything in audio, I encounter exceptions, e.g., even though solo piano is a single-instrument, I prefer the XLR elaboration of its 3-D characteristics and harmonics. My preference can also depend upon the recording quality of the CD. I've found that my impressions of XLR v. RCA cable are very similar to those of Jon Scull in his review of the Accuphase DP-75V CDP (Stereophile, July 2000, see on-line review).

But these differences are less than what you will hear between different product lines of CDP's and amps. If you find a SE CDP whose sound you really like, such as Naim or Cary, don't worry about what you are "missing" by not having XLR. If you find one with XLR outputs, be sure it is truely balanced before investing in an amp with XLR inputs (and make sure the amp operates fully balanced!). One important note, as stated above, a balanced system will be preferable if you must run very long cables.
Balanced lines make a big difference in my home system. Without them it hums.
Yes they do. I own an Integra Research RDC-7 pre amp . Its is truly balanced as it was co designed by Balanced Audio Technolgies. I use Classe Equipment, again a truly balnced design to run the Home theater. Its absolutely no contest.

In a second system I own a Classe CDP-10 . It has a truly balnced output. I run it into a Classe CAP-151 integrated, a truly designed balaced input. The results are devasting IMHO.

Their is alot of confusion on this subject as many if not the majority of manuafacturers that Have XLR inputs are not truly balanced inside the machine . They share and are tied together with the single ended circutry inside.They are not truly balanced, despite having XLR inputs. You really have to dig , I mean dig, to find out which components are truly balanced.
When you do , and you take advantage, The results are outstanding.
Balanced circuits and connectors have been the standard in the recording and broadcasting industry for decades. They are noise and RF resistant, with better grounding, and the positive locking connectors are more reliable and easier to use. If you want to demonstrate the superiority of a balanced system, just try a long microphone line with single-ended circuitry and RCA type connectors. Be prepared for hum, frying sounds, and radio stations along with your music!
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND using balanced outputs instead of single-ended RCA's.
In my system, there was much less noise, the hum was eliminated, the imaging and openness was better, and there was much more gain using the XLR's instead of the RCA's.
I was very surprised at the improvements! And, my Parasound HCA 3500 power amp is not a truly balanced amplifier! It has the XLR inputs, but as far as I know they are converted to single-ended inside the amp.
Results may vary with different components and systems, however.
Buscis2 writes:
The relevance of the provided excerpt was more in regards to an overall factual examination of balanced vs. unbalanced interconnection configurations.

Indeed it was an excerpt - from the Balanced Audio Technology web site. One should identify one's sources or one may be accused of plagiarism.

FAQ - balanced operation

Some may find my reply strange. In my experience, balanced interconnects as a group lag behind their RCA equivalents. The majority of manufacurers simply solder on an xlr to their current rca terminated model. Balanced circuits send two signals down the cable. The cable must be designed specifically for use as a balanced cable only. Otherwise sonics will greatly suffer in a high-end system.

That said, when properly engineered. A true differential circuit (4 channels of amplification- ie balanced) has the potential to sound superior in some ways. Most often in audiophile terms. Audible will be the perception of more precise imaging and a larger- more open soundstage. Noise rejection/distortion cancelation results in a lower noise floor- ie more low level detail. Often their is also the perception of less warmth and more "neutrality". I would steer away from balanced tube circuits as they are not precise enough. The effect being phase anomolies and other amusical effects.
Metralla, you are absolutely correct. Normally, I provide the whole link as a "url" (see my other threads). For some reason, it would not work. So I did the old "cut & paste". Although, if memory serves, the actual BAT I.D. is somewhere in that excerpt, hence the reason for me stating it as an "excerpt" .

As I stated, I usually provide a link as they take up less space and allow the inquiry to be researched further.

Regards, Ed.
Balanced operation can sound clearly superior and it does not have to be implemented throughout the system. I use a Krell Kav-300CD with a Harmonic Tech pro-silway 2 XLR into the KRC-3 preamp; but the preamp feeds Musical Fidelity X-A200 powers via Audioquest Python RCAs. The results are wonderful on even the most complex orchestrals. But run the '300CD single-ended into the pre and it sounds rather ordinary! Fully balanced designs like these Krells will usually sound best in XLR mode; but some, like the KRC-3, seem more evenhanded
This is just my experience with equipment I have owned. Yes, balanced does sound better. May I suggest trying the same cable both in balanced and single ended? You could do this through the cable company loan program. Has aleays worked well for me.
Balanced is clearly superior in my system!
If you truely have a balanced system, XLRs usually sound better and if the ICs are longer than 1mm, balanced is the preferred way to go.