SE vs. balanced

January 4, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

We sometimes form incorrect conclusions based on logical leaps.

For example, just because a balanced interconnect is quieter than a single-ended type doesn’t mean single-ended systems are noisy.

A single-ended system using the standard RCA interconnects can be as quiet as the proverbial mouse. It’s the system many of us have for years been using as our reference standard.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that we in High-End Audio began adding XLR connectors and their supporting circuitry so that we could take advantage of the benefits of balanced audio. (Balanced interconnects were for many decades the exclusive purview of the pro-industry: recording studios, live events)

So, to set the record straight balanced audio is, IMHO, the better way to connect your high-end audio system. It sounds better and is quieter. It offers the ability to separate the source gear from the amplifiers so that we might place the amps next to the speakers and keep the preamp and sources close to the listener.

And yes, balanced audio is quieter.

But that doesn’t mean that single ended systems are noisy.

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38 comments on “SE vs. balanced”

  1. RCA connectors became popular because they were cheap and convenient and were perfectly fine for audio stacks that persisted for decades. The irony is that people then go and spend thousands of dollars on something that is meant to be cheap and convenient.

    Quad implemented their own balanced cabling (Quadlink) in the 1980s and only fairly recently have they replaced Quadlink with XLR plugs. It is high quality but not high-end, and they sold hundreds of thousands of units, if not millions, all balanced. A Quadlink cable costs $20.

    Before using Quad, I had a Primare combination A30.1 amp and 30.2 CD player. I think I bought these in 1999. They are great units, but not high-end, and had balanced connections. I remember getting one of the first Nordost cables (Blue Heaven XLR) to connect them.

    So I don’t know what Paul’s idea of recent is, 40 years?

  2. I have no doubt that PM is correct, however, if the SE (RCA) interconnect is less than 1.25 meters (I use 1m lengths) there’s not a helluvalot of sonic improvement (providing of
    course that the DAC & amplifier is of high quality) in my not so humble opinion…
    especially when it’s mostly Rock ‘n Roll from the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s.
    Having said that though, there might be an audible difference in
    SQ if I had a fully balanced AU$45k home audio system rather
    than the SE AU$17.8k (AU$25k MSRP) rig that I currently own.
    I have to be practical too 😉

    1. My last component system was quite a bit less than AU$17.8k even at MSRP and fully balanced. (Auralic streamer, Audiolab M-DAC+, Hattor pre-amp, Quad QMP monoblocks, Harbeth).

      RCA is an American term. I think most other places they are called phono leads, so the idea of using balanced for phono seems weird. My phono connections remain phono leads, all 1m or less.

      1. Two things to consider:-
        1/ Home audio gear is ridiculously overprice in Australia.
        2/ Did you convert to GBP’s?…AU$17.8k = 9.45k GBP (x 0.53)
        Check the current retail prices of
        a Marantz – ‘SA12 SE’,
        a Musical Fidelity – ‘M6si500’ &
        a matched pair of DeVore Fidelity – ‘Orangutan O/93’
        in your local home audio retail store.

        1. That lot is £13,600 new in the UK. The O/93 is the review price 5 years ago, they are not readily available here. So about the same as Oz. Just add $50,000 for cables.

          1. My flagship 1 metre Furukawa – ‘FA-11S’ that cost me AU$600 back in 1993 still work beautifully.
            And the 1.5mm solid core copper wire (3.6m in total) that I use for loudspeaker wire at AU$0.65/m (1994) gives ridiculously stunning results.

            1. My speaker cables date back to 1980 and there are some very popular ones like QED79 that go back to the 1970s. DNM Solid Core go back to 1984, as do Origin Live Soli-Core.

              Strange that there is tried and trusted stuff that’s been around for decades and FOMO cables with increasingly stupid names that people just lap up.

              My old Mogami XLR sit in a box.
              All eyes on NZ v Bang.

    2. I agree FR. I run mainly 0.5 meter M1000i RCA Monster cables in my system and my system is very quiet. No noise entering my system through my cables. I also have some 1 meter cables and some longer cables I’m not using at the moment. If your components are on a rack they are close enough to run 0.5 meter cables connecting your amplifier and preamplifier, tuner, CD player etc as long as you’re not running from the bottom shelves to the upper shelves in which you would need 1 meter or if you’re running to components not on the main rack like to subwoofers or video components in which your would need 2 meters or longer.

  3. I’m still a little confused by the relative advantages of the balanced approach. According to the manual, my integrated amplifier has XLR inputs with a strictly symmetrical signal up to the power amplifier.

    Given the design of the balanced circuitry, will the single-ended connections sound inferior? Put another way, does this mean that, regardless of the noise-cancelling properties of the balanced connection, the balanced input will sound better than the single-ended one?

  4. Another key factor is the type and accuracy of the balanced interface circuit. This can be a transformer, differential amplifier, etc.

    It’s quite possible that an unbalanced interconnection scheme could have less distortion due to this variable. I’m currently using the Rega-provided unbalanced interconnects between my phono pre and line stage pre and it sounds glorious (better than the balanced interconnect I had been using).

    My 2 cents, YMMV, etc.

    1. I use to sell Neutrik so I’m highly biased but my preference is the XLR matched with a good differential amplifier design.
      Longer cable runs. Common noise voltage is gone. Due to the high gain of a diff amp, things like matched transfer characteristics are critical. Use of constant current and emitter degeneration feedback helps solve thermal and gain mismatches. Personally, I cheat and use op amps.

  5. I just purchased the McKenzie XLR Balance cables for my Stellar Phono Preamp to my Stellar Preamp. They are so much better! They are quieter. I am looking to purchase more soon.

  6. IMO anyone who makes a general statement that balanced (always) sounds better is wrong.
    That is downright misinformation.
    Balanced IS quieter (how much depends on the length of the cable), but don’t confuse that with “better”.
    The sound ITSELF is not necessarily better, only less noisy (which is not unimportant of course).
    Sometimes the opposite is true and RCA sounds better. Depends on the amp.
    And with very short lenghts the noise is (very) negligible.

    1. I can only speak for the sonic differences that I have heard since converting my entire system (except my turntable) to balanced XLR in so many ways. Definitely lowers the noise floor, tonality sounds more natural, soundstage is more realistic and image specificity, well that’s hard to tell because of the low noise floor which brings out so much more sonic information. I think there’s a synergy that causes the image position really stand out because of added detail that I now that I hear now. I can only speak for myself. I say “try it, you’ll like it“… After all you should get a return time period for a full refund and if that’s not possible scratch everything I said because I wouldn’t purchase these cables unless I was assured that I would be satisfied. I had to pay a small fee which in my mind was worth it to get some demo cables and I imediately heard the differences so I made an order and I believe I still would’ve had a 30 or 60 day return.

      1. Just like you a2x024 (if you’re as sensible person) I can’t.
        Because there is no “best sounding” cable.
        There might be a best sounding cable for you and a best sounding cable for me.
        The chances are that both cables are from the same brand (0.001%).
        OR, you think the best sounding canble for your ears is the best sounding cable for all of us.
        If that’s the case, dream on.

        1. Ok, if we’re going to lawyer it, how about this:

          If you (literally, life and death) had to guess, the best sounding cable on Earth to your ears is almost certainly not RCA?

          Can you get on board with that?

          1. The best sounding cables on earth (and anywhere else) are no cables at all.

            Other than speaker cables, for digital audio I’ve not used anything other than CAT6a or fibre optic in the signal path for over 5 years. I’m a member of a large club that is only getting larger and that I expect to dominate consumer audio fairly soon, if it doesn’t already.

      2. Most of the best sounding cables that I have experienced are reviewed and sold in both XLR and SE. I use XLR because all my equipment is balanced. If my equipment were not balanced, I would buy SE because it’s cheaper.

        Using SE with balanced equipment is ill-advised because you only get half the output voltage with SE. I tried a top-rated short SE interconnect between a balanced DAC and my balanced amp (using the amp manufacturer’s SE to XLR adapter) and my amp did not like it at all. There just wasn’t enough ummph in the signal. It forced me to use a preamp to add gain, and I don’t like the slight distortion that the preamp adds, plus with a preamp you have to add another pair of interconnects–more money. One pair of XLR interconnects is cheaper than two pairs of SEs.

        I guess one could argue that SE is better when used with faux-balanced topologies, because in faux-balanced gear XLR outs the pure signal is copied and inverted by a chip, which adds a tad amount of distortion. But then you get an output signal twice the voltage of SE, so there is still some advantage there.

  7. Noise is a term used in electronics that Never has positive benefits to the outcome of the signal being communicated. Here, less is always more! Anyone that would argue the opposite doesn’t understand electronics.

    1. I’m with Champster on this.

      Maybe it would be useful to think about noise like arsenic or lead. How much arsenic or lead would you like me to add to your salad? A tiny amount certainly isn’t going to kill you—you might not even notice it’s there. That salad looks boring, maybe it will even add some flavor… Hopefully, we can all guess the answer: please add none, thank you.

      Regarding scottsol’s comment, I think your beef is with Paul rather than Champster. Champster really just addressed the dimension of noise. Paul took it a step further and said, a balanced connection “sounds better and is quieter”.

      I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but perhaps Champster was making an intentionally narrow statement. I think his notion that noise “never has positive benefits to the outcome of the signal being communicated” is pretty defensible. Maybe that is “parochial” or maybe he just trying to make a basic point.

      In the meantime, it would do you well to flesh out your point a bit. This isn’t Twitter: if you have point worth making, then make it in a way we can understand. Ironically, I think your comment has the heavier reliance on implication.

  8. So many variables to this question.
    Is the system balanced throughout or is it just the interconnects via signal bal/unbal transformers & the SQ of said transformers. Are your power amps symmetrical or single ended? Adding bal/unbal components rarely improves transparency. Length of cables etc.
    As I said too many variables, I’m going for a rest.

  9. Too many generalities in the comments.
    When I was in a band, of course we used balanced cables and connectors. It was just how it was all set up. I never dreamed of converting any XLR connections to a “phono plug”.
    It was all about noise rejection, and connectors that latched.

    PS Is this thread competing for a spot on Audiogon? Let’s all remember to treat each other with respect and decency. ❤️

  10. A respected electronic designer has said that, since balanced circuitry has more components, it therefore actually has more noise than single ended circuitry. This of course has nothing to do with noise that is picked up over long runs of single ended cables, just the inherent noise of the circuitry.
    My own experience with single ended vs balanced is that if you compare at equalized levels, there is not much to choose between them and that the difference varies depending on the components being connected.

    1. Exactly, the difference varies and is system dependent. An XLR in a system with faux-balanced gear won’t sound as good as in a system that is truly balanced from start to finish. Even the way the SE vs XLR terminations are constructed makes a huge difference in their sound.

  11. I do agree that it is an illogical leap from saying balanced connections can be quieter to proclaiming that BC WILL be quieter because SE connections are inherently noisy. I say, why chance it? Why not (if your system allows for it) run as many balanced connections as you can if the need to provide new connections comes to pass. In the audiophile world either type of cable can be cheap or terribly expensive so there’s no “Use this type until you can afford the right ones”. As someone who used to set up PA’s in his youth and run lines 100’s of feet long, it only took you once to discover that you just don’t run very long SE microphone or direct box connections, because it was easy to hear the drop-off of highs and the buzz that always came with the stage light dimmers used at that time. Now, balanced headphone cables are supposed to give you more wattage if your system up to the headphones is balanced and I believe my headphones sound better with a balanced cable because of that – certainly get louder, at least.

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