XLR vs. ¼: Thorough Comparison Between the Two Common Cables

Small things like cables can either make or break your music production. Therefore, it’s very important to know each one of them, their properties and their uses. There are a lot of cables used in audio production with different connectors — XLR, ¼ or 1/8-inch TR or TS plugs, RCA, speakOn, and Banana Plug. But, for this article, the most common cable connectors, the XLR and ¼ cables are thoroughly discussed and compared.

What is XLR?

This is a three-pin connector with positive (hot), negative (cold), and ground. It’s usually used to transmit microphone and other balanced line-level signals. So, in audio production setup or your PA system, you can see  XLRs connecting microphones to mixers and other outputs to powered speakers.

What is 1/4-inch Cable Connector?

There are two types of ¼-inch cable connector, there’s the1/4-inch TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) and the normal ¼-inch (Tip and Sleeve) jack. The former is balanced, while the latter is unbalanced. There’s a great difference between these two, which is further discussed below.

If you look at the ¼-inch TRS and the ¼-inch TS cables, the only difference that they have is the ring. Yes, the TRS has a ring, while the TS does not. You can also see it in the name itself.

TRS connectors have two conductors, plus ground or shield. You can see them in balanced equipment, on the stem of Y cables and for running both left and right mono signals to stereo headphones. These are good for mixer insert jacks where the signal runs in two wires — one sends the signal and it will be back through the other wire.

TS cable connectors, on the other hand, are still a two-conductor cable, but with an unbalanced operation. The tip, usually called “hot” is the carrier of the signal, while the sleeve is where the shield is connected. The insulator ring between the tip and the sleeve separates the two. You can find these cables used in connecting electric guitars to an amp and also known as line-level instrument cables.

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables

In the previous sections, the XLR and the ¼-inch TRS cables are called balanced cables, while the ¼-inch TS cables are called unbalanced. Audio signals come in two types, as well-balanced and unbalanced audio.

Balanced Cables

The audio cable that transmits balanced signals has a signal wire and a ground. The difference between the unbalanced and balanced cables is that the ground wire carries two copies of the same audio — one is positive (hot) and the other is negative (cold).

These two signals traverse down the cable in opposite polarity. Like unbalanced cables, they pickup noise signals along the way. The noise is added to both wires with the same polarity. At the other end of the cable, the cold signal will be flipped to the opposite polarity — both signals are now “in phase” with each other. In the same manner, the noise with the same polarity will become opposite at the end of the cable, therefore, “canceling out” the noise.

Both XLR and the ¼-inch TRS cables behave in this way. So, this means that even when the cable is longer, there’s only minimal noise captured along the way. For XLR, for example, you can still send balanced audio signals up to 200 feet away.

Unbalanced Cables

An audio cable that carries unbalanced signals has two wires: the signal and ground. As the name suggests, the signal wire carries the signal, while the ground is the reference point for the signal. Likewise, the ground or the shield also acts as an antenna that may pick up unwanted noise along the way.

The ¼-inch TS cable is unbalanced, so it is susceptible to unwanted noise using a much longer wire. That is why TS cable is usually used to connect electric guitars to an amp. The ¼-inch cable isn’t reliable for long distances uses because it’ll, capture more noise.

You can also check this YouTube video for more information:

XLR vs. ¼: Uses

Both the XLR and ¼-inch cables are very useful in audio production. Although you have known their properties and how they carry signals, it’s also important to know their real-life applications. You may have seen them on stage, in-studio or even at your simple sound systems at home.

The unbalanced ¼-inch TS jack is the most popular cable which generally connects an electric guitar to an amp. It is used for instrument and line-level connections and to connect speakers to amps, guitar heads to amps.

The balanced ¼-inch TRS cable has the same size as the unbalanced ¼-inch TS cable which is commonly used as a connection to the headphone output. You can find such cable connectors used in keyboards, pianos, guitar amps, recording equipment, mixing desks, PA systems, and hi-fi equipment.

Expert Tricks…

Unbalanced cables are known to capture external noise more, but, it doesn’t mean it can’t be used. If your system needs to utilize the ¼-inch TS, make sure to have a single perpendicular crossing of the audio and power cables. If you run the cables in parallel with the power cables, it will capture more noise in this placement. Enough space is needed between the audio and power cables to discount the noise.

Conclusion

Though balanced cables like the ¼-inch TRS and XLR are mostly preferred, they are still susceptible to noise like the unbalanced cables. They are mainly used for mixers, recording equipment, and PA systems. On the other hand, the 1/4-inch TS unbalanced cable is useful mostly on electric guitars.

If your setup is large enough and needs longer cables, it’s just wise to get balanced cables. However, if your music production system is just small, it’s okay to use the unbalanced cable.

For shorter distance, there’s no significant difference between the XLR and the ¼-inch cables, only for long distances. If you’re in doubt which cable to use, better choose the balanced cables, especially the XLR.

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