I recently ordered some Blue Jeans Cable XLR cables and they sound great and are reasonably priced.
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Balanced (XLR) interconnects are different, just like unbalanced (RCA) interconnects. They're usually more expensive with three wire runs inside instead of two.
The main question to ask yourself, if the run isn't a long one, is:
Are my components completely balanced internally so that they'll benefit from using XLR interconnects?
If they're not, you may be better off buying a better RCA interconnect.
The main question to ask yourself, if the run isn't a long one, is: Are my components completely balanced internally so that they'll benefit from using XLR interconnects?
Not sure what you mean by that. Whether or not the components are differentially balanced throughout their internal signal paths is unrelated to the noise and hum reduction benefits that result from having the interface itself balanced. All that is necessary to realize those benefits is that the output stage of the driving component, and the input stage of the destination component (and the cable in between, of course), are balanced.
Balanced internal topology can provide additional benefits, but its absence does not negate the advantages of having the interface itself balanced.
Balanced is better, true. But if a cheap op-amp is all that is used to create the second leg, the user may indeed be better off (sound-wise) to stick with the RCA out. (this of course, is a "listen for yourself and decide" question.)
I am buying an AR SP-15 which happens to have a Balanced out, and a RCA out, with the inverted leg also available in RCA out. (So soon I will be able to answer this question about op amp invert for myself!)
Give me a couple of weeks and I will post what I can hear!
Here's some opinions I hold. Whether balanced will be better than single ended is totally dependent on the equipment being connected, as some have indicated. I have only come across around a dozen brands where balanced will work better, and that assumes you have one of those brands at both ends of the cable. As a very wild generalisation single ended will most times be better. When balanced is better, it is true that there is less difference between the sound of cables than for single ended cables, but there is still a difference.
Viggen900 -- My system has always had just single-ended interconnects, so I can't offer an opinion on your original question. But what might make sense is to experiment with inexpensive but well made xlr cables, such as those used with pro audio gear, and do some comparative listening with respect to single-ended connection before deciding whether or not to invest in more expensive audiophile-oriented xlr cables.
B&H Photo Video has a nice selection of pro-oriented xlr cables, that are generally well constructed (in my experience using some of them with pro audio gear) but very inexpensive:
Also, on the question of single-ended vs. balanced interfaces, I'd like to add that one circumstance that particularly calls for the use of balanced mode would be if the ac power inputs to the two components are to any degree isolated from one another. Such as by being plugged into separate dedicated ac lines, which is commonly done to prevent cross coupling of digital noise into analog components, or being plugged into isolated outlets on a power conditioner, or because one component is plugged into a power conditioner or surge suppressor and the other (such as a power amp) is not.
While isolating components like that has upsides that are well recognized, it also has the downside of potentially introducing ground offsets between components, which can cause extraneous currents at noise or hum frequencies to flow in interconnect shields. That current would be directly seen as noise or hum by a destination component that is single-ended, but would generally be completely ignored in a balanced interface.
Elizabeth -- Good luck with the nice SP-15 purchase. I don't think you'll find any cheap op amps in there! :)
If both ends of your audio chain(ie: source to pre/pre to amp) are fully balanced/differential in construction: There are obvious gains to be had with regard to noise/RFI/EMI. That's IF your system requires long cables and/or resides in an environment with a lot of hostile interference(like a pro studio or live music venue). If your components are not actually fully balanced, but merely convert from balanced signal to unbalanced(or vice-versa) via an extra summing/dividing circuit: You're subjecting your signal to another processing step that will yield no benefits, and most likely will degrade your sound. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balanced_audio) Mogami makes some decent cables, at reasonable prices, if you want to experiment. (http://www.musiciansfriend.com/navigation?q=mogami+cable&src=3WWRWXYB&ZYXSEM=0) The minimum quality I'd recommend for home audio(YES- There are very obvious and audible differences in balanced cables) would be the Kimber Hero though. (http://www.audioadvisor.com/prodinfo.asp?number=KKHEBAL) They can be found used here on AudioGon. I personally use Kimber's excellent KS-1130's between my BAT VK-D5 and TacT RCS 2.2(both fully balanced) solely for the 3db of signal gain the configuration offers. I don't bother with balanced between the TacT and my TransNova 9505 woofer amp(also fully balanced), because I would gain nothing in that application. Tried it- NO benefit.