I use XLR cables in my studio for everything except tracking instruments. I prefer using cables suited for a situation; however, XLR cables are suited for noise cancelation, and they will sound different in that way from other cables. So here is an article going over XLR cables and their sound.
XLR cables will sound different to other cables (unbalanced cables) due to their specific design that effectively cancels out noise and interference on the audio signal. “Different” is a relative term and ambiguous, so when judging an XLR cable on the quality of sound (better or different), you have to consider other external factors as well like, heat, cold, cable length, and user neglect when comparing them to other cables.
We will look at exactly what an XLR cable is and how exactly the process works in which an XLR cable can effectively cancel out noise and interference, unlike unbalanced cables. We will then look at unbalanced cables and how they would sound because of how they are designed. Lastly, we will discuss if one is better sounding than the other.
What is an XLR cable (balanced cable)
An XLR cable is either an audio or a high-end lighting cable. For lighting, an XLR cable can have up to 7 pins (conductors) in the connector, and it is also termed a DMX cable when referring to a lighting XLR cable.
For the aspects of this article, we will be covering just XLR audio cables, though. An audio XLR cable is best known for the way it looks with a 3 pin connector.
XLR cables are specifically designed with these 3 pins to send and receive the best audio signal possible (well, we haven’t found a better method yet for sending and receiving high-quality audio).
XLR is the best we can do now, so it is the go-to cable for any audio professional, no matter the situation. An XLR cable effectively blocks out any noise and interference. This intern gives us a crystal clear sound. We call XLR cables, balanced cables because of this feature of noise cancelation.
Lets look at how an XLR cable works.
How does an XLR cable work?
The premise of how an XLR cable works is based on the 3 pins we discussed. If we look closely at how the cable is made up, we will find 3 wires within the sheath of the audio cable, and these 3 wires relate to the 3 pins directly (one for each)
I will not go over the detailed ins and outs of an XLR cable and its inner workings. If you would like to know more about XLR cables and how to make or repair your own one, then check out my article – here. We will just discuss the process of how an XLR effectively cancels out noise and interference.
The 3 wires are reserved for 1 wire, being the ground wire, and then the other 2 wires being the audio signal wires. Focusing on the 2 wires that carry the audio signal, we find that both wires have a copy of the same audio signal.
However, one wire is reversed in polarity, so when played along with the original signal in the first wire, the tow signals effectively cancel each other out.
Both signals (one which is reversed in polarity and one signal that is the original signal) run down the 2 wires towards the other end of the cable. Now, any noise and interference can be subjected to the cable as it carries the signal. The noise and interference can bleed and get copied into the audio signal that is traveling to its destination.
What we have now are the 2 wires carrying the audio signal and then the noise as well. However, this is where it gets interesting.
When the 2 audio signals that are also carrying the noise reach the other end of the cable, the wire polarities are switched again. This now effectively cancels out the signal that was carrying the noise, and the signal that was canceled out, comes back into effect.
We now have one crystal clear audio signal because of an XLR cable, and this process of noise cancelation.
Watch ThioJoeTech explain what a balanced audio cable is.
Would this affect the sound of an XLR cable?
As you can see now, an XLR cable will have no noise or interference when you use it. There won’t be any buzzing or humming, crackling or white noise, pops, and hisses. There are actually quite a few forms of noise that an XLR cable helps us out with.
Hence, they will sound almost perfect to our ears compared to other forms of cables that don’t have noise-canceling properties.
We also have to look at what materials are used to make an XLR cable, and as with anything in life, you do get cheaper versions of a product. Now I’m not saying that expensive is always better because it is not. However, when we look in a specialized field such as audio equipment, usually with the price you pay, you get quality material used.
This plays a big factor in sound quality. Perhaps not to our ears but definitely on an underlaying technical way. The materials used to make up a cable should always be high quality, and you should try to get the best quality cables you can so that they can deal with your audio signals properly.
The materials used to make your XLR cable could effective such things such as loss of signal over distance, impedance levels, frequency range boost and cuts, noise, and interference.
What about unbalanced cables
As you would expect, unbalanced cables do not offer noise cancelation such as XLR balanced cables do. There are different terms used for unbalanced cables in the audio industry, and one of them is that unbalanced cables are termed “hot” cables.
This is because the audio signal you send and receive along an unbalanced cable is subject to a lot of noise or interference (well, they can be depending on determining factors).
How do unbalanced cables work?
Unbalanced cables have only 2 wires instead of 3. the most common type of unbalanced cable is the 1/4inch jack cable. Besides using the slang term “hot,” these cables are also termed TS (tip and sleeve) cables.
The 2 wires that a jack cable consists of is that of a ground wire just like in an XLR cable, and then the other wire is the audio signal wire.
Unlike an XLR cable that has 2 copies of the audio signal and then one of the signals, polarity is reversed, a jack cable only carries one direct audio signal from one end to the other. Hence, the wire carrying the audio signal is susceptible to noise and interference.
Other factors can contribute to the noise level on an unbalanced cable, and these factors could include the length of the cable, heat, cold, user neglect, and a few more.
A jack cable is unmistakable because you hear that low buzz sound when you plug in the cable and up the gain to get it to line-level. Unbalanced cables are usually used to plug-in instruments. These instruments can include guitars, bass, keyboards, and more.
Watch CSguitars explain to you the differences between balanced and unbalanced cables.
How do unbalanced cables sound?
As we said, unbalanced cables are susceptible to noise and interference, and then many factors could influence the sound of the audio signal.
Unbalanced cables do not sound bad at all; don’t get me wrong. If you have a quality instrument jack cable, then there is nothing wrong with it. They sound great, and any noise or interference is usually taken out with a gate.
Just be sure to take care of your instrument jack cable (unbalanced cables), and adhere to the correct practices of keeping it in top condition, and you will have a cable that lasts for years.
Do XLR cables sound better than other cables then?
Getting to the burning question. Do XLR cables sound better than other cables, or do they sound different?
Starting with the topic of different, yes, they indeed sound different than unbalanced cables. This, because of what we now know, is because they cancel out any noise or interference, while an unbalanced cable does not.
We now get to the term “better.” Do they sound “better?” This is relative, and in some instances, your ear may be able to detect a difference in tone and sound when using different cables. This could be due to many different characteristics and different materials that the cables are made up of and if those materials have been damaged.
You definitely get high-quality unbalanced cables made of superior materials. You also get XLR cables made of superior materials, and then on the other end of the spectrum, you get cables (both balanced and unbalanced) made with poor quality materials.
You have to consider these factors when saying that one cable is better than the other. I would more likely get a high-quality audio cable that suits the situation you are in rather than preferring one cable to another and trying to implement it into a situation that does not require it to be used in.
We discovered that XLR cables can and do indeed sound different from unbalanced cables. This is because they are designed and made with a specific system that allows the polarity of the XLR cable to be flipped, and then that effectively cancels out the noise when the polarity is flipped back at the receiving end of the cable.
To say that they sound better than other cables is a matter of opinion and is relative to many factors that could be affecting the cable or situation. So always consider that.