Single ended vs xlr balanced

I have switched backwards and forwards (going slightly mad in the process) testing (long run) interconnects.
I know some sound engineers, and they tell me I am probably persuading myself that balanced is better than single ended and THERE IS NO REASON WHY SINGLE ENDED CAN SOUND INFERIOR TO BALANCED. Sorry to use capitals but this seem to be a fair summary of the be all and end all of technical discussion. If I was to guess however, my mind would tend to follow the technical opinion not go against it, surely? In my mind the balanced is a deeper more airy sound, just better presence all round. The technical response is that I am not comparing like with like, as the balanced runs at higher voltages and subsequently higher volume (6db). I had a shock at this news and found out therefore by accident that my Bryston 28bsst2s amps have a switch upping the output from 23 to 29db to compensate. Also did I hear properly that Bryston kit is set up preferring balanced? My processor is a Bryston sp3 so maybe my preferred balanced system  is what I needed anyway. But it is odd that a reputable company like Bryston would have such a policy (if it has foundation) and not stress that on their literature. If my system can be adjusted for speaker levels then volume output is irrelevant - or is it if that higher voltage has some effect?
And don't get me started on aes/ebu vs spdif! The aes to me is noticeably superior for the same reasons as the rca vs xlr debate. Then hdmi vs spdif ... (Time for my medicine ........)
So my question is - forgetting technicalities which can get more and more complicated by the minute  - do other peoples' ears agree with mine?
The manufacturer and dealer both recommended XLR interconnects for my integrated amp and CDP-DAC.
So I experimented with an A-B shoot-out later at home, just as a "WTF...let’s see...".

Yup....there were both right. In my "A" system, the XLRs were the clear winner, far and away.... full stop.


There is no absolute rule as to which will sound better.
It is entirely
(a) system synergy as-a-whole dependent in the first part, and
(b) the equipment and IC (both) build quality dependent.

In my "B" system(s), the comparison of using RCA interconnects versus balanced interconnects showed no audible differences between them; without prejudice to the fact much of my lower tier gear was predisposed to RCAs with RCA designed boards.

Admittedly, the price, and build quality of both the "B" system electronics equipment and the "B" system interconnects themselves was a very large step down from the "A" system gear and the "A" system interconnects.

There is no absolute rule as to which will sound better.
It is entirely
(a) system synergy as-a-whole dependent in the first part, and
(b) the equipment and IC (both) build quality dependent.
I agree completely. 

In general, I would expect that among the most significant variables would be the specific designs of the interface circuits in the components that are being connected (i.e., the stage in each component that drives or receives the signal to or from the cable), and also the internal grounding configuration of each of the components (especially the relation between circuit ground and chassis ground), and also in the case of balanced connections whether the components connect the ground conductor in the cable (XLR pin 1) to chassis or to circuit ground.  Different designs vary in all of those respects.

-- Al

And don’t forget Ralph Karten’s (Atma-Sphere) argument that balanced cables minimize the sonic artifacts of single-ended cables.
Regarding Ralph’s contention that bdp24 referred to, for a full description of what is necessary for that benefit to be realized, as well as for what I consider to be a compelling proof of his contention, see Ralph’s (Atmasphere’s) post near the beginning of this thread. Also see the follow-up questions I presented to him later in the thread, and his response.

-- Al

Not sure if I see any conclusion ... but if I did would it be that balanced if done properly/right kit must be better than unbalanced if done properly/right kit?
It's important to note that pro gear is different than consumer gear. Pro gear usually converts the balanced signal to single-ended immediately, and feeds it's inputs with that, until it's output, when it is again balanced by adding a negative phase op amp stage to drive the (-) pin.

Consumer gear may be fully balanced, meaning you have two sections working in opposition from input to output, the idea being that any crossover effects or distortions will be canceled out. In these cases it may be better. Also, some amplifier inputs I've seen such as from B&O and Hypex are really balanced input only. There's a paper that goes into more detail at the Hypex website on balanced inputs.

There is one big reason why balanced may sound better that your engineer friends aren't thinking about.  Ground loops. Balanced systems don't ground a pin, meaning if there's any ground voltage imbalance between a pre and amp, it won't be part of the signal chain. With an RCA connector it almost always must be. When I worked in pro gear, we had to deal with single ended signals, but always kept the signal ground disassociated from the chassis and safety ground.  Not a lot of consumer gear goes through this much effort.


I should also say, there are mechanisms which MIGHT make balanced sound better. That's different than saying it WILL. :)

The truth is, if you can't hear it, it's just academic. Make your own ears and wallet happy. :)


Yes that is why I asked for  "ear" comments.
I was just wondering WHY maybe I should be wrong by favouring, seriously, balanced!
I can hear it, but can I believe it?
As a  supplementary question - Can a well designed rca cable compensate for ground loop? And why do some rca cables come with a ground thin cable and some do not? Either it is a problem solvable within the cable itself, or it is not? My engineer guy has provided me with an  rca cable he thinks will solve my ground hum issue yet it does not have any separate earth bit added on.
I will be able to see if his cable works in a few days when I am next with my second system.
And I cannot believe in the year 2016 that we have these difficulties!
We could go to the moon 50 years ago but we have earth issues now still (pun intended - ha)
"Not sure if I see any conclusion..."

@tatyana69 , welcome to AudiogoN!
You will find no definitive conclusions here, only a myriad of opinions.
You are neither wrong nor right for favoring balanced interconnects. 

Enjoy the music.
And another thing for my simple brain .. if balanced is the favoured "vehicle" for long runs ..... why are probably 98% of all xlr cable adverts for sale a seemingly average of 1 metre long? I wanted 8-10 metres but are they ubiquitous?
Not at all !
Certain things do not add up.
Can a well designed rca cable compensate for ground loop?
It **might** make a difference in some cases, due to differences in the resistance of the shield or other return conductor, and depending on whether the shield **is** the return conductor, or if the shield is connected only at one end and a separate return conductor is provided within it.

But in general I would expect susceptibility to ground loop issues to be more dependent on the internal grounding configurations of the components that are being connected. And in many cases also on how AC power is distributed to the components (e.g., from a single outlet vs. multiple dedicated lines, etc.), and through what kind of house wiring it is distributed (e.g., within metal conduit, or with Romex, etc.; see this paper).
... if balanced is the favoured "vehicle" for long runs ..... why are probably 98% of all xlr cable adverts for sale a seemingly average of 1 metre long? I wanted 8-10 metres but are they ubiquitous?
Interconnect lengths of 1 meter or thereabouts are of course more often needed in home audio applications than long lengths such as 8 to 10 meters. And since most cable parameters and most cable effects are proportional to length, using a greater length than necessary will generally worsen whatever sonic effects the cable may introduce, as well as increasing the cost of the cable.

I would say that the short answer to most of your questions is simply "it depends." And unfortunately many of the dependencies don’t have much if any predictability.

BTW, you may find this paper to be of interest, although it deals mainly with pro audio applications. I’ll quote two sentences from it:
So why doesn’t everyone do it [the right] way? Because life is messy, some things are hard to change, and there will always be equipment in use that was made before proper grounding practices were in effect.
-- Al

I, like many, use both Balanced and Single ended cables. (not in the same time). I’m sure we all have spools of cable lying around. I switch them in and out every now and again for a change of pace.

My Levinson amplifier requires I use a "U" shaped shorting straps when in Single Ended mode. However, Single Ended input signals are converted to Balanced signals immediately upon being received at the amplifier, and are handled as Balanced signals thereafter. I can detect the difference in the cable manufacturer and a slight change in db. However I cannot assume to claim which type is superior. Mostly I just listen to the music.


Pro grear uses a ground lift switch, which completely disconnects the ground, leaving only the (+) and (-) signals connected. Usually a totally benign or definite improvement.

There’s no way to do this with an RCA cable, except to use the safety ground as your reference point, kind of a scary thing from a noise and quality perspective.

You can do some cute things like using a balanced cable (shield plus 2 conductors) and connect the shield only at the preamp, while the GND conductor gets connected at both ends. This may minimize EMI / RFI noise pick-up, but the ground loop problem remains the same. Another "tricky" thing to do is in a stereo pair only use 1 conductor in total for the ground. For instance, Left has the signal plus ground but right only has the ground. These are just tricky tweaky things that I don't expect would do much good.

One other design trick is to treat the receiving end of an RCA connector as if it were balanced. That is, instead of connecting the shield at the amp end, you insulate it, and either use a transformer or instrumentation buffer.  It's also nice in that some transformers sound really great. :) JR does this to warm up some of his amps.


One more point about using long interconnect cables, such as the 8 to 10 meter length you referred to: If the output impedance of the component driving the cable is on the high side at mid and high frequencies, say something like 500 ohms or more, you would want to make a point of using cables having low capacitance per unit length (say around 60 pf/meter or less). Otherwise the interaction of the output impedance of the component with the capacitance of the total length of the cable may result in a perceivable rolloff of the upper treble, undesirable phase shifts of high frequencies, and the perception of sluggish transients and compromised dynamics, to at least a slight degree if not more.

Component output impedances are usually specifed at a mid frequency such as 1 kHz, but in most cases will not be greatly different than that value at high frequencies.

All of this applies regardless of whether the cables are balanced or unbalanced.

Unfortunately, though, there are many manufacturers who don’t specify the capacitance of their cables. If (as appears to be the case) a component in your system drives an analog line-level signal into a particularly long interconnect cable, such as 8 to 10 meters, and if the component has a highish output impedance as I described above, I would contact the manufacturer if necessary to determine the cable’s capacitance per unit length. If that information cannot be determined from either the manufacturer’s website or by contacting the manufacturer directly, I would look elsewhere in selecting the cable.

-- Al
Call me names. In audiophile applications if done right, both the equipment and cables, RCAs will sound more sophisticated. Balanced might have a little more macho and be a little quiter. Overall, RCAs are better.
So, Tanya, in Lviv RCAs are preferred, in Donetsk Republic - XLRs, and in Kiev they just don't care.
Balanced has always offered better dynamics, superior low level resolution and greater authority, control and presence...easily heard with well designed gear (some of which is getting harder to find these days).  RCA/single ended systems can sound great as well...just less of the aforementioned attributes!

Hello Inna, I am often in Kharkov where music tastes are limited to songs with a one two beat. 
Fascinated by the contrast in views with Dave B, who obviously I agree with. Audiogon forum does not show "signatures" of peoples'kit so I cannot relate your comments to your kit for any correlation, in a pathetic attempt of me searching for clues. In any event I bet anyone describing their kit does not even bother putting down the cable type, xlr or rca, which is a shame. I did in an earlier post mention that Bryston apparently set up  their kit for balanced, so IF that is right (anyone know?) an earlier Audiogoner posting might be relevant that it is kit dependant. That is however again confusing if so, because someone at the kit design end has considered the pros and cons and come up with a decision that one is "better" (oops, I should have said a more agreeable option in their eyes!) on our behalf.
Tanya, you have to listen in each and every case. It may get more complicated: with some recordings you will prefer XLRs, with others RCAs. I used to switch interconnects depending on what I was listening, both RCAs though. 
There is no objectively best.  But if you run very long cables RCAs must be very good or you will lose some signal and get noise.
How did you switch interconnects? Strangely enough I am collaborating on a preamp that will give an xlr/rca switching option for analogue (record deck and dsd dac), and a passthrough to facilitate a digital source/streamer in surround sound (7.1 +)
My Bryston 28bssts have a 6db uplift switch for rca so when the project is completed I just need to pop round the back of the amps and switch to rca/uplift and back again for xlr
Do you have examples of what makes you switch?
I have a simpler system: turntable with phono stage, cassette deck, cd player and integrated amplifier. I did it only with phono stage to amp connection. Again, only RCAs, just different cables. I simply turned the system off and changed interconnects. Both are by Purist Audio, one is almost pure silver conductors, another almost pure copper conductors. With jazz/rock fusion I definitely preferred copper cables, with acoustic guitar both were excellent but had different balance and I usually kept the silver one, with female vocals it very much depended on the recording. They are both excellent cables, silver has more resolution and copper more weight, dynamics and soundstage are about equal. With cd player the copper is much better overall, with Nakamichi deck it is the same as with the turntable/phono, I left the copper one. Also, XLR cables are easier to make sound right, so they should be less expensive for the same quality. Good RCAs have the right to be more expensive. Bryston gravitates towards pro audio and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their gear sounds better with XLRs.
..lots of people say lots of things on these pages, but not much truth/knowledge is displayed.  Balanced circuits are always better if and only if the components are differentially balanced themselves.  What that means is that the component has two completely separate circuits for the +, and one for the - portions of the signal.  You can imagine the cost of such a circuit.  In order to keep the price of the component reasonable, manufacturers put XLR connections on to their components, even though they are single ended...just for bragging rights.  Balanced cables on such circuits have little value.  If you have or are buying components that have differntially balanced circuits, there is a great value to XLR connections.
I of course was talking only about situations when there are no differentially balanced circuits. But even then I would listen given the opportunity. So far I discovered only one thing that you cannot really do by ear, you can try though, and that is aligning the cartridge. I also wouldn't set tracking force by ear because what I may like most might damage the cartridge. So, Tanya, listen as much as you can, some results might be surprising. Trust your ears. And one more thing, unless you already know it. If you buy new or lightly used cables, make sure to let them play for at least couple of hundred hours before judging their performance, pay no attention to how they change within this time interval unless you want to entertain yourself. Some cables require 300 hours of breaking in and power cords often even more.

Just because you have XLR inputs and out puts does not mean your system is truly balanced. A lot of equipment will take a balanced signal and convert it to single and then (some) back out to the Xlr out put. I have found that system that are balanced all way through sound better with XLR cables 
enjoy Pete

This is something to test your rig. I suspect, Kharkov never heard anything like that in either balanced or unbalanced configuration.
Stringreen - if you are correct that the "artificial" balance outputs exist then that is outrageous, playing on consumer ignorance. There should be serious descriptions, like on food, to identify the contents! Name and shame!
I own an amp that is not truly balanced, but does have both XLR and single ended inputs. The manufacturer recommends the XLR inputs. After listening to both using 1m length cables, it was obvious the balanced inputs sounded better by a wide margin. Better dynamics, more lively, more punch - all of which was lost when using the single ended interconnects. Is it possible for cable type to make that much difference when the length is only 1 meter? I suspect it has a lot more to do with the amp specs for the 2 input types. The input impedance/sensitivity of the unbalanced input is 12k Ohms/1.9 volt. Input impedance/sensitivity of the balanced input is 100k Ohms/3.8 volt. My guess would be that system matching between my pre and amp is better when using the balanced inputs because of the input impedance.
Excellent input from Mward. There are certainly many preamps that would not be able to drive 12K with good results, especially many tube preamps, but would be very happy driving 100K (which BTW probably means that 50K is applied to each of the two signals in the balanced signal pair).

In addition, it can be inferred from the fact that the balanced input impedance of the amp is much different than twice its unbalanced input impedance that there are considerable differences in the designs of the balanced and unbalanced input stages. (In contrast, for example, to many amp designs in which the same input stage is used for both balanced and unbalanced inputs, with one of the two input signal lines simply being grounded via a switch or an external jumper when the stage is operated with an unbalanced input signal). So even if the preamp could drive 12K without issue, it is possible that the balanced input stage of the amp simply sounds better than the unbalanced input stage. Even though the amp is not "fully balanced."

-- Al


The input buffers might be making all the difference there. Depends.

@almarg is right, impedance differences on the input are good indicators of the circuit paths not being the same.

I’ve seen some amps whose only claimed to balanced inputs was the XLR plug, but otherwise was completely single ended. However, most pro gear is at least truly balanced inputs, but single internally. That is, they use mirror imaged op amps or a transformer on the input to convert. That can make a lot of difference. The Op Amps can sound better because they work in opposition and cancel errors, the transformer in adding some warmth, and in both cases common-mode noise is greatly reduced, not to mention the ground loop issues previously discussed.

There is also some anecdotal evidence that merely raising the impedance of a input circuit sounds better. Whether it's universally true, or only sounds better for less robust designs is unknown. The math says the differences should be infinitesimally small with most well designed gear.

Sadly the Parasound A23’s I owned were of the former, I believe, and just had convenience plugs. I was unable to tell the difference in using either one. My current amps are XLR only , and truly balanced inputs, so I have no way to compare.


XLR might be better where ambient electrical noise is high, but requires additional circuitry that may reduce transparency.  Terms "Fully balanced" and "Truly balanced" mean something different.  True balancing is achieved by means of the input transformer or instrumentation amp, while Full balancing is achieved by dedicating one amp for each leg of the signal with the speaker connected between outputs.  These amps should not be independent, because even slight difference in gains would greatly reduce common mode noise rejection. Fully balanced amp does not produce even harmonics while still outputting odd harmonics.  I use very short (0.5m) balanced cable.  Short, because negative effects of the cable will increase with its length, as Al stated, and balanced because my class D power amp has only balanced input (mature decision).   My small Rowland 102 utilizes THAT1200 instrumentation amp.  Link below.  Gain setting resistors in such amp reside on the same substrate and are laser trimmed to match -  for stated 90dB rejection, they are matched to 0.0015%.  B&O module inside has already balanced input, as eric_squires mentioned, but input imepedance is only 10k.  External amp increases impedance to 48k also providing (most likely) better common mode rejection.  Transformers are also a good choice but they slightly distort at low frequencies (may not be audible).

Good comments by Erik and Kijanki, as usual.

A clarification to comments a couple of people have made, to the effect that a fully balanced amp requires essentially two separate amps on one chassis, one amp for each polarity of the balanced signal pair. The implication being that twice as many parts are necessary than would be required for a comparable single-ended signal path.

That is one approach to implementation of a fully balanced amp. But another approach, which I suspect is used more frequently, is to use a differential stage, having differential inputs and differential outputs, for each of the active stages in the signal path.

See the section on "differential amplifiers" in this paper at Ralph’s Atma-Sphere site for a simplified schematic representation of a tube-based differential stage, and also for a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of that approach. Note this statement in the disadvantages section:
Differential amplification takes more parts to execute. For a given number of stages of gain, differential amplifiers have about 50% more parts.
-- Al

Though it seems that the answer in the 1st post provided by aka_ca proves correct, I truly enjoyed the education I received via followup. Thanks!
Stringreen is spot on!  It didn't occur to me that someone would be discussing balanced cables who did not use differentially balanced equipment.  I use Krell and MIT kit.
Dave_b, the belief you and Stringreen have expressed (which Stringreen has also expressed in a number of previous threads), while being shared by many audiophiles, and while being true in many cases, is simply incorrect as a general rule.

Depending on the specific designs that are involved, and also in some cases on how AC power is distributed to the system (as I mentioned in one of my posts on 8-28-2016) a balanced interface may provide performance that is better than, worse than, or similar to the performance of a single-ended interface, even if the components involved do not have balanced internal signal paths. Several reasons for that have been cited in the course of this thread. For starters, see the post above by Mward, dated 8-29-2016, and the responses thereto.

-- Al

The only absolute in this hobby is that there are no absolutes.

I’ve been down the balanced road and down the single ended road.
Just as with everything else in life, they all have their positives and negatives.

Wise words, John (Jmcgrogan2).

Best regards,
-- Al
The biggest advantage of balanced cables is that they lock in place. 
The biggest advantage of balanced cables is that they lock in place.
The biggest advantage over ... what? ? You can buy locking RCA connectors, if that's what you want.
I've been using balanced and unbalanced where appropriate for many years, both in my work as a musician and live sound mixer, and as a home audio freakazoid. Balanced live means no loss on long cables, and dead quiet, humless (usually) sound. If hum raises its ugly head you can kill it with appropriate ground lifting. Just make sure you don't kill the musicians. In home use I use XLRs because I CAN here and there (DAC  to preamp, preamp to amp, although my power amp is likely not balanced and a good RCA sounds identical to the balanced cable on that amp…still…the click of an XLR is somehow comforting). Short runs of RCAs work fine and the better the cables the better they seem to sound.

RCA's don't lock in place, they more "squeeze in place" vs. EVERY XLR locks.

I think Parasound is the exception, and they had to go seriously out of their way to find jacks that don't lock. Maybe not in the JC line, but in the lower end Halo parts. :)

Yeah, the fact that XLR doesn't need ground at all to work is one of the superior features. The other one is measured as CM rejetion, or Common Mode.  This is where a  signal is induced from outside. Balanced cables are SUPERB at this compared to single-ended.

In a home would that ever matter?  Very situation dependent.  Still, just to save myself the trouble I always run my subs this way.


RCA's don't lock in place, they more "squeeze in place" vs. EVERY XLR locks.
Yes, every XLR locks in place. However, there is such a thing as a locking RCA connector. They are commonly available and they do not "squeeze in place." They lock as tightly as any XLR.

Sorry, and thanks for contributing that. :)

I'm afraid it's still too early for me and I got into a silly semantic argument. :)

The point was more that you can assume every XLR cable you buy will lock, but it's a specialty thing for RCA connectors.


Boys and Girls,....that's why true balanced circuits cost so much more than single ended.  Check the prices of Ayre, Audio Research, etc. and note that there is reason for their high prices.  The result is clear to hear...  I can turn my preamp on full on phono, and not hear noise, hum with my ear against the speaker.  This makes the silence between the notes clean, with no fill-in of spaces caused from the component.
I have a mix of balanced and single ended interconnects in my system. I chose balanced for the main source/pre/amp as they are "truly" balanced designs. (Ayre, Classe’, Levinson). On the other component I use single ended because it does not offer XLR input/outputs. I discussed this topic at lenth with Paul of Clear Day Cable. We discussed the increased gain, appx 6db. Here is a link he sent me to simplify in my mind what cable will best perform in my system.

I'm using an Aesthetix Calypso Signature Pre and a Sanders Magtech.  Aesthetix recommends balanced and Sanders recommends single-ended.  They both sound the same to me.