A vital component to any home studio is a pair of studio monitor speakers. Your monitors are there to help you hear your music clearly and efficiently so you can master your song effectively.
But what happens if your supposed-to-be crystal clear signal is a buzzing, crackling one instead?
Thankfully, the solution is simple: Try another cable! Using the wrong cable for your studio setup can allow static electricity and other external stimuli to cause interference on the signal coming through your monitor speakers.
Either you are using an unbalanced cable when you should be using a balanced one, or your cable length isn’t in your favor. Now, you may be wondering how to know where you’re going wrong and which type of cable, balanced or unbalanced, you should be using?
Is it better to use unbalanced or balanced cables for studio monitor speakers?
Using a balanced cable is your best option if your speakers can take them. Luckily, most studio monitor speakers can take a balanced cable. Balanced cables are designed to eliminate noise, even at longer cable lengths. A balanced cable can deliver sound with little or even no interference at all thanks to phase cancellation.
The main signal is carried over two conductors with one at a lower amplitude. When the signals reach the speaker, they are joined together and don’t cancel out because of the amplitude difference. Any interference picked up is carried equally on all three conductors and is therefore canceled out when the hot and cold signals are combined.
Balanced cables are also generally better quality and are the best solution for reducing interference.
Keep reading to find out what the difference between an unbalanced and a balanced cable is and when to use a balanced cable instead.
Definition of Terms
Before we get into which cable you need for your monitor speakers, let’s go through a few important definitions to help you make sense of the information.
Studio monitor speakers
A studio monitor speaker is a speaker that produces an audio output with a flat response across all frequencies. Contrasting with standard Hifi speakers that often add their own color to audio through an artificial bass or treble boost to try and make any song played through them sound “better” or more lively.
The problem with this is that if you mix and master a song through a normal speaker, each speaker system has its own variations.
You will end up mixing the song in a way that compensates for that set of speakers. For example, on speakers with a low bass frequency, you will boost the bass on your song until it sounds good, only to get a mix that is too bass-heavy when you play your song on another set of speakers.
Monitor speakers with a flat response allow you to hear your music in a more unfiltered way so that you can mix and master your song to sound good on any speaker.
An RCA connector is a type of electrical connector used to transport video and audio signals. This connector was named after its creators, the Radio Corporation of America, and was designed in the 1930s.
These connectors consist of a round plug with a male connector in the center. They are most commonly found on the back of loudspeakers, or on TVs and Hifi systems to connect audio and visual inputs from another device like a CD player or DVD player for example.
These sockets have a second metal ring a couple of millimeters away and a colored insulator, either plastic or even ceramic, filling the space in between.
The male connectors will often have a matching color insulator with the socket that it belongs with. For example, the audio plugs and sockets will be white or red, and the video socket and plug will be yellow.
Jack connector or TRS plugs
TRS plugs, meaning tip-ring-sleeve, are the plugs that you find at the end of headphone cables, or the plug on the cable that you use to plug a guitar into an amplifier.
These connectors are much more commonly referred to as phone jacks, or jack plugs, which is technically incorrect as a real “jack” is a fixed socket on a piece of equipment where a male plug fits into. Nonetheless, “jack” is still widely used to describe a TRS plug, and won’t necessarily confuse anyone if you use it.
The TRS plug or jack connector is commonly used for audio equipment and comes in three sizes: 2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 6.3mm. These plugs can also come in either mono or stereo.
Stereo variations of TRS plugs are designed to carry a balanced audio signal, where the tip is the left channel, the ring is the right channel, and the sleeve is grounding. There are also balanced mono variations where the tip is carrying hot, the ring is carrying cold, and the sleeve is grounding
XLR connectors are often referred to as cannon connectors. They are designed to either carry a balanced mono signal or an unbalanced stereo signal and are mostly used for audio signals.
The most common XLR connectors have three pins, but there are also two-pin as well as multipin variations. XLR connectors also come in both male and female designs.
The male variation of this connector has an outer metal ring with three, or more, metal pins equally distant from each other. The female XLR connector has an outer metal ring, and a metal socket for each pin to slot perfectly into, while the space between the metal is filled with an insulator.
Definition of a balanced cable
A balanced cable is a cable with three conductors and is designed to carry signals while eliminating noise or interference. The cable does this by using phase cancellation to cancel out the interference.
The three conductors inside the cable are connected to three pins. Pin 1 carries the shield or grounding, pin 2 carries the main audio signal and is referred to as the “hot” signal, and pin 3 carries the same audio signal but at a lower amplitude and is referred to as the “cold” signal.
When the signals reach the output at the monitor speaker, the signal from pin 2 and 3 are combined. Because the signals are at different amplitudes they do not cancel each other out.
However, any noise or interference still reaches the output at the same amplitude over all three pins and is therefore canceled out through phase cancellation, a process where noise cancels out when it is at the exact same frequency and amplitude.
Definition of an unbalanced cable
An unbalanced cable is one with only two conductors and can carry signals well at shorter distances. Unfortunately, when used at longer cable lengths or with the wrong equipment, unbalanced cables pick up noise interference.
The two conductors inside an unbalanced cable are connected to two pins. Pin 1 carries the shield or ground, much like a balanced cable, and pin 2 carries the main audio signal. Because there is only one signal path, an unbalanced cable is more susceptible to picking up interference, especially at longer cable lengths.
The term shielding in the audio world refers to electromagnetic shielding which is the practice of lowering the electromagnetic field in a place by blocking the field with a barrier made by conductive or magnetic materials.
Shielding isolates electrical devices or wires from their surroundings to reduce the interference of radio waves, electromagnetic fields, and electrostatic fields like static electricity.
Generally, manufacturers use a technique where they wrap the ground wire around the signal cable and then covering it with an outer shield of conductive material. This method does reduce interference to a degree, but most of the time interference can still come through.
Reasons to Use Balanced Cables
Both balanced and unbalanced cables can do the job well, but there are some cases when it is better to choose a balanced cable. Let’s go through what those reasons are to help you decide whether or not you should make the switch.
Your connection in and out of your monitor speakers is balanced
Using the right cable for your monitor speakers is important to improving the noise floor of your sound. If your monitor speakers have a balanced input, (most good quality monitors will), you should opt for a balanced cable in order to reduce interference.
You are running your cable over longer distances
When you use a short unbalanced cable you may not notice much interference at all because there is less chance for the cable to pick up the interference. However, over a longer distance, an unbalanced cable can act as an antenna for unwanted frequencies and pick interference from static electricity or even radio transmissions.
Switching to a balanced cable will immediately lower the amount of interference you are experiencing or even cut it out completely. This is thanks to the design of the cable where any interference picked up through the cable cancels itself out when it reaches the monitor speaker.
Your monitors are picking up a lot of noise with an unbalanced cable
Unbalanced cables are prone to picking up a lot of interference in comparison to balanced cables which pick up practically none. If you are hearing a lot of buzzing and humming through your monitor speakers it might be time to try switching to a balanced cable.
If your monitor speakers only take unbalanced cables and you have a big problem with interference, it may be time to look into upgrading your equipment to balanced equipment.
You are looking to upgrade your equipment
If you are using standard HIFI or computer speakers in your studio, not only will there indefinitely be problems in your mix due to the added color of the speakers, but you may also experience a lot more noise floor. Upgrading to studio monitor speakers will allow you to achieve a more clear and accurate mix and allow you to use balanced cables.
A balanced cable is a great upgrade to any studio as they are generally much better quality than unbalanced cables and they don’t allow for signal interference. Although balanced equipment is generally more pricy, the quality is worth the investment.
When choosing between unbalanced and balanced cables, remember that an unbalanced cable can definitely do a great job in many instances, for example recording a loud electric guitar. If your unbalanced cable is serving you well, stick with it!
If you are having any problems with noise and interference a balanced cable is going to be your best friend, and the quality doesn’t hurt either! But at the end of the day, just choose the cable that works best for you.
Do studio monitors need balanced cables?
If your studio monitors have a balanced input (usually XLR or TRS jack) then you should use balanced cables to connect your audio source.
Make sure to check which kind of cable output your interface has and match it with the input on your studio monitors to get the clearest sound. If your audio interface output is balanced and your monitors take a balanced cable, using a balanced cable here is optimal.
What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio outputs?
Balanced audio outputs support three signals, one for the main, or hot, signal, one for the cold signal, and one for grounding. An example of this is an XLR cable output: These have three holes surrounded by an insulator.
Unbalanced audio outputs only support two signal, one for the main signal and the other for grounding. Common types of unbalanced outputs include RCA and mono/TS (tip-sleeve) jack.
Are speaker cables balanced or unbalanced?
More often than not regular speakers use an unbalanced cable. Although unbalanced cables cause more noise, thanks to the amplifier and boosters in the speakers, the signal is amplified while the noise stays roughly the same. This improves the signal to noise ratio so that the interference isn’t as much of a problem.
Can I use balanced cables with unbalanced equipment?
Yes You can use a balanced cable with unbalanced equipment, the unused connector will not carry any signal. For example you could use a TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) jack cable to connect an unbalanced device to an unbalanced input, but only the tip and sleeve connectors would carry signal.