Why not everything?

October 18, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

In a recent post, I wrote about balanced audio cables and how they work.

Unlike simple RCA cables with their single signal conductor and ground wire, a balanced cable has two signal conductors with opposite polarity signals. The receiving equipment amplifies only the difference between the two opposing signals and ignores anything in common, such as noise or distortion.

Balanced cables are by far the better choice when connecting audio products together.

And if that’s true why do most audio products continue with only single-ended RCA for their interconnection options? Why would manufacturers such as PS Audio, concerned to the point of (sometimes) lunacy about sound quality offer a lesser means of interconnecting equipment?

Old habits die hard.

The need for compatibility often trumps our best intentions.

I am going to wager that 80% of high-end audio systems still rely upon their RCA connectors for their goes-into and goes-out-of.

My guess is that if you asked a cable manufacturer their ratio of sales between XLR and RCA cables that my 80% guestimate would be pretty close to right.

With as much attention to tweaks and perfection in equipment that we as a group lavish upon our systems, you’d think that percentage would be flipped around.

But I suspect you’d be wrong.

Old habits die hard. Even the ones so clearly wrong.

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47 comments on “Why not everything?”

  1. Maybe the reason is that a well constructed $30 pair of RCA cables are perfectly adequate for the vast majority of audio consumers. XLR cables are primarily used for 50m+ long runs in studios, for 1m consumer cables the benefit might only exist at the very high end, if at all, and why would manufacturers go the the expense of including XLR terminals into highly price-sensitive audio components?

    I suspect Paul’s 20% came from Audioquest, a high end manufacturer. Ask the most popular brand over here, QED, been in the cable business 50 years, and it might be more like 2%. Looked them up and QED’s most expensive Signature cable costs the same price as Audioquest’s cheapest Red River cable.

    My last component system was balanced (PS Audio/Hattor/Quad). I used $30 pro Mogami Neglex 2534 cables. They had a great advantage over many consumer cables in being extremely flexible – you can wrap them round your finger. In studios cable management is vital, I suspect consumer cable companies make them thicker and more rigid simply to make them appear worth the higher prices, pretty hopeless for those of us with compact stereo set-ups.

  2. Obviously I can only speak for myself but (& there’s always a ‘but’) I have found that short runs (less than 1.2 metres) of single-ended (RCA) interconnect is sonically on par with the same length using a balanced (XLR) connection.
    Now, the differences in sound quality between balanced & single-ended connections can have a lot to do with how resolving the home audio set-up in question is & also how ‘good’ the hearing of the listener is.
    In my opinion there are three tiers (levels) of home audio set-ups & I refer to them as:
    1/ Hi-Fi
    2/ High-end &
    3/ Ultra high-end
    I don’t believe that there will be a significant sonic difference between true balanced or single ended topology in most Hi-Fi rigs if the connecting cable lengths are kept to around 1 metre.
    However, if the source is a long way away from the pre-amp or if the pre-amp is a long way from the power amps (say, for example,12 meters away) then there is every possibility that there will be a noticeable improvement in sound quality if a ‘true’ balanced (XLR) connection is made on both ends rather than only using a single ended (RCA) connection.
    I can not comment on sonic improvements using true XLR connections made on High-end or Ultra High-end home audio set-ups because I have no experience with A/B ing RCA/XLR cables on such gear, but I suspect that the higher the resolution of the home audio rig, the more benefit one will experience from using high quality XLR’s.

    And here is another audiophile’s view about power conditioners & power plants for use in Home audio set-ups:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBcF7h0odh4

      1. dr g,
        My all-time favourite Wilson’s are the Sasha DAW’s, however, as a model of loudspeaker I don’t think that it has been around for as long as the Porsche 911,
        nor for as long as the current stable of Harbeth’s.
        My observation had more to do with longevity rather than an industrial design & performance basis, however, I understand your corollary.

        1. The only high performance British speaker that’s been around for as long as the Porsche 911 are Tannoy’s. Look, i’m not knocking Harby’s, they’re musical speakers and in-comparison to the Wilson Sasha W/P design, simply more conservative.

          Dave introduced the Wilson Watt in 1986 and the Puppy followed shortly thereafter. The Sasha W/P is a refined and evolutionary extension of the original Watt/Puppy.

          1. Having switched from Harbeth to Wilson, I agree with you on design, Harbeth have 1977 written all over them. Sasha DAW is my favourite sounding of 4 or 5 Wilson I’ve heard, but I love the Sabrina look in my room. Sonically both seem to be in the same ball park, the Wilson are on steroids, the Harbeth were better value, not any more I fear. I had ESL63 in the house in 2018/19. Harbeth have said they represent their target sound, totally maybe, not the transparency and detail.

            1. There’s one other hi-fi phenomena that occurs along with increased timbral fidelity and focused three dimensionality as your system relaxes and your new speaker cables break-in. The system begins to bloom.

              Imagine a lotus blossom, an engaging passage comes along and grabs your attention. Bloom describes an effortless ability of the system to deliver subtle dynamic passages and rich harmonic textures without overloading the room as the apparent soundstage envelopes and appears to float in front of you.

    1. After watching that video from start to finish, the main takeaway is: the benefit of a power conditioner in your system is a matter of taste and system compatibility. Do you like the sound or not? The sound of my two systems benefits from a power conditioner and a regenerator, respectively.

  3. In my opinion, a manufacturer promoting balanced design and cabling should provide 3 (not 1) balanced outputs on his preamp to be able connect main speakers and two low level input subs balanced at all (I understood, as soon as one parallel connection is single ended, no connection uses full advantage of balanced design), and should offer balanced phono input to his phono stage as a first and most meaningful application of balanced connection.

    I might be wrong and happy to be corrected, but I understood, a todays PS Audio setup with all balanced connections at DAC, pre and power amps as well as the single ended Stellar phono, if used with a sub which can’t be connected by high level input, has only one balanced connection working to its intended potential. The one between DAC and preamp. All others are more or less in single ended use, even the one from pre to power amp then is not in full balanced use.

    I’m not against balanced use, having it myself where possible . I just see limited consequence here and there and at the end mostly just one connection really working in full balanced mode.

    1. I’m with Jazznut on this one. If balanced is so much better then that should the primary input and output selections of the BHK pre. In fact one of the reasons the BHK is no longer on my short list of pre’s is it only has one set of balanced mains out because there’s no room due to All The RCA’s.

      When the informal poll was taken during the one and only zoom get together, the overwhelming consensus was to get rid of the balanced all together and add more RCA’s in. I was the lone minority..

      Why have a fully balanced design when most want single ended?

          1. And now, Dear Friends . . .

            ‘Hi-ho Electric Broom, away! Wha-ha-ha-ha-ha!’

            ‘Sounds like the Ranger’s on a bum trip. Howdy Brahmin Charry, this is Gabby, your sacred cowboy. You know, all this reminds me very little of the time my guru sent me to clean up the kharma in Artful Dodge City.’

            Or words to that effect from you know who.

      1. Not to mention that single ended is much less expensive. If all gear were single ended the manufacturer could for the same price point or less use higher quality components because they would not have to duplicate circuitry for balanced design.

        1. There’s an interesting statement from Nelson Pass in an interview, which opens a new perspective we didn’t think about before and probably shouldn’t 😉

          ———-
          Is the balanced topology a must for achieving the best sound?

          “No. It depends on what kind of best sound you are trying to get and sometimes on the power levels that you need. Pass Lab amplifiers have a balanced topology for the most part, and First Watt is mostly single-ended.”
          ———

          https://www.monoandstereo.com/2019/03/exclusive-interview-with-nelson-pass.html

      2. It must be said, that PSA is not alone with that. Hardly any preamp has more than one balanced output. The manufacturers usually recommend balanced connections as well as the use of at least one sub in a decent setup (mostly connected low level for matter of choice reasons or due to lacking availability of high level input), but don’t provide the options to fully realize exactly this. Strange.

        What relativizes this is, that imo the “go-balanced” topic, like a few others, is a true but over-preached one in relation to its relevance for overall sound quality improvement. I think when comparing balanced and single ended constructed world class gear (or lower class gear), there’s no hint, that the balanced topology would mean a breakthrough difference across the board. It’s superior as a concept, period, but if the investment in it is the best option for an absolute sound quality improvement, is at least open for discussion. I guess that’s why balanced as well as single ended designs exist at any price point. I personally assume, balanced makes much sense at least from a certain price level of components on, if followed through.

        1. to me it’s not a matter of PSA alone or not, but rather my individual requirement for my next pre amp.

          so it just narrows down the choices by not having the option of 2 separate pairs of output on the BHK pre. (single ended or balanced)

          There’s just not enough outcry for that yet I guess.

            1. I’m happy with the fully balanced, but really want / need two mains out. That’s my outcry. Have found many pre’s that fit that bill. Not just the one I was hoping might. At this point I’ll take two single ended mains out as a compromise. So on we go 😉

  4. I made a statement yesterday regarding the Goldmund JOB circuit that was incorrect, it should have read “I sometimes think the Goldmund philosophy of a minimalist circuit is the way to fly.” Never too proud to stand corrected.

    Making blanket statements that xlr cables are always superior to their single conductor counterparts is misleading for the fact that there are so many components that incorporate faux balanced circuits.

    I do however agree that balanced cables are by far the better choice when connecting audio products together in a fully balanced circuit. Otherwise the only advantage is the xlr’s locking connector.

    Further, there are many ways to deal with noise rejection in high-end audio systems such as simple star grounding all the way up to the Nordost QRT Star Ground Qbase AC Distribution System.

    Ps is hahax the infamous Andrew J Benjamin?

    1. Yes, it would be stupid to use single ended cables to connect fully balanced components. That is like running an 8-cylinder car on only 4 cylinders.

      The reason I use all XLR cabling is because much of the best sounding audio gear typically comes in fully balanced design. Also balanced provides twice the output voltage of single ended. I once tried to feed my balanced tube amp with a single ended component using the amp manufacturer’s custom RCA to XLR adapter, and there just wasn’t enough oomph.

  5. How many companies making high end audio claim balanced, but don’t follow the AES48 standard. I know audio research doesn’t how many others don’t.

    1. Good morning invalid!
      You’ve made a very good point!
      I reasontly had to do some service work on the inputs of my Jolida JD-1000P all tube power amp.
      When I wasn’t getting sound from it anymore, I have to flip it up side down, and remove the bottom panel to see what was going on with it.
      Granted that it has both RCA and XLR input jacks on it, there was something I saw going on with the XLR jacks that shocked me.
      On each one, pen A on each one, was fused to pen B by jumper wires.
      If you asked me, that is misuse of those XLR jacks.
      I could be wrong about this, butt this is what I truly believe.
      Those XLR jacks were designed to transmit and receive balanced signals.
      But in the case of my Jolida JD-1000P, I can’t get anything threw there, except unbalanced signals.
      I’ve asked this question before, but never got an answer to it.
      Looking at the mane power supply board, the input side of the board is sat up to receive balance signals.
      Should I use a pare of line level transformers to correct that problem?
      Or should I go in another direction to correct that problem?
      Thanks much!

  6. I think the real world difference in loudspeaker based systems in terms of what you actually hear is minimal except in the case of long cable runs. Where I have come around to balanced connections is in headphone audio where using balanced outputs in many current headphone amps gives you access to essentially twice the power output, useful in the case of difficult to drive ‘phones. It’s still not terribly easy, at least here in the UK, to access suitable balanced cables at a decent price and I have found it generally cheaper to buy made to order cables.
    The advent of new types of balanced connections – 2.5mm and 4.4mm pentaconn is, however making it much more convenient to go balanced especially in the field of portable audio like DAPs and dongle DACs.
    In fact the most recent set of iems I bought had a clever adapter which turned an unbalanced 3.5mm cable into either a balanced 2.5 or 4.4mm one. Very convenient.

  7. I am very conflicted on this subject. My preamp is RCA only thus all of my interconnects are RCA. On top of that I have one long run from pramp to power amp where balanced might give better sound, but it would mean giving up my pramp which I really like. Conflicted.

  8. I’ve been saying this for something like 40 years…my biggest issue with RCA jacks is the nature of the connector itself. It relies on a press fit and there’s no mechanical means to keep it from popping out of the jack. This makes it completely unusable for pro applications…putting aside for the moment the considerations of noise and interference using a single-ended connection, can you imagine, say, Robert Plant’s mic connected via an RCA jack at the end? Or rigging up New Order’s live show with RCA connectors? Absurd on the face of it, yet RCA connections are “good enough” for home use.

    I’m surprised the home audio industry didn’t come up with a better single-ended connector a long time ago. Or even go to the 1/4-inch phone jack that has been around since forever and is used by bazillions of musicians worldwide. I’m sure at least one cable manufacturer has thought this through. Hmm, might be a story here…

    1. Frank, WBT makes RCA connectors that can be tightened to the phono jack on the actual equipment. They can be a little awkward in tight densely pack preamps, integrated amps and receivers, but they are worth the extra effort.

      1. Hi Tony, I did not know that. That addresses any concerns about the cables popping out. In fact, now that you mention it, Iconoclast makes speaker cables with banana plug connectors that can be tightened in a similar manner.

        1. WBT make those banana plugs as well. Personally I’ve never had a problem tightening or loosening them. Hope I haven’t spoken too soon, because that’s the way these things usually work 😉

      2. Those connectors can be a blessing or a curse. If you tighten them just a hair too much you may have incredible difficulty removing them. No one ever talks about that aspect of these RCA connectors. They do the job though

    2. I know that Mark Levinson used Camac (Lemo) connectors and they solved the Issue you brought up. The cost differential was huge and I guess that was the mitigating factor. I just switched to True Balanced XLR cables on Friday (not the phono inputs) and there is no doubt to my ear that XLR makes a real positive change. Should’ve done this year‘s ago.

    3. Exactly Frank Doris, for pro gear where you need to lock things down tight, especially for long runs of cable in concert venues where noise pickup is a problem. Still, the jack on that prized Stratocaster, e. g., is for a single ended 1/4 inch plug. At least, the waste indentation on the tip provides some resistance to accidental disconnection.

      If you can afford high end kit for your home stereo, certainly go with the best connectors. Although I personally would put this aspect on a lower tier for consideration if I was in the market (ha…ha…ha…ha). It would not be a make or break priority.

      For we mere mortals soldiering on with semi-vintage home stereos, you use what you have. Not state-of-the-art, but probably 80% – 90% of the way there and immensely enjoyable.

  9. Well in my case, going from music server/DAC to power amp signal is just too high when using balanced cables. RCA at least gives some attenuation – but at what cost?

    1. In my case when I was using a certain high-end ladder DAC with a 60W per channel tube amp, the attentuation of RCA using a certain DAC was too great, so I was forced to use the DAC’s “faux balanced” XLR outs to get double the voltage. In many components that are not truly balanced there is a chip at the output stage that creates an inverted copy of the analogue signal but that adds a little distortion, compared to a true balanced circuit. But you do get a stronger signal using the XLR outs, as you experienced.

  10. Dear Paul,

    I use balanced interconnects because the distance between my line stage pre-amplifier and power amplifiers is fifty feet.

    But it seems to me that you are practicing dogma here in contravention of your previous suggestions to stay open-minded.

    The theoretical (and objective) technical advantage of balanced cables in rejecting common mode noise does not lead ineluctably to the practical (and subjective) view that balanced interconnects sound better than unbalanced interconnects “is clearly wrong.” Some subjectivists believe that balanced cables reduce second harmonic distortion which affects the sound in a deleterious way.

    1. From a community member who just installed XLR interconnects throughout my entire system except for phono, I would disagree with you. There is a marked improvement in every aspect of quality audio reproduction in my system which formally employed many Siltech RCA Interconnects..

  11. The elephant in this room is that before the 1970s, balanced operation usually required transformers which often didn’t sound as good as simply running unbalanced.

  12. Dear stimpy2,

    I am very happy for you!

    I was not reflecting my personal view, and I do not have an independent opinion on the subject, so there is nothing to disagree with.

    As I mentioned, for my 50 foot long interconnect run, I will be using balanced interconnects myself. In addition, the manufacturer of each of my electronic components prefers balanced connections,

    I have experienced friends who prefer the sound of unbalanced interconnects.

    Enjoy the new cabling!

  13. Changing cables is easy enough but it can be expensive, unless you go the pre owned route and then resell if you don’t like. However I was reading about some Audioquest cables the other day and according to the internet there is at least one factory in China that manufactures fakes, so definitely a case of buyer beware.

    Sure I’ve mentioned this before but at the risk of repeating myself. I recently changed the 30ft interconnect from DAC to power amp from single ended to balanced. Because I wanted to try some cable experimentation for myself I didn’t immediately reterminate my silver cables but instead opted for some very well respected Belden cable with balanced connectors. They sounded great, the extra oomph was a welcome bonus and I would have been very happy with them. Naturally I then wondered how my silver cables would sound with balanced connectors so took the plunge. The simple answer is better and I had no desire to switch back to the Belden. A worthwhile and educational experience for me.

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