Unbalanced Audio Cable: Guide for Types and Uses

Table of Contents

Last Updated on March 20, 2024 by Muisc Pro Editorial Team

When setting up an audio system, the audio and power cables you choose and how they are connected significantly affect the system’s sound quality. Every cable can potentially introduce noise and degrade the sound quality of the connected components. Therefore, selecting the appropriate cable for the task is crucial, starting with understanding the types of signals the cables carry. This discussion will focus on balanced vs unbalanced cables and signals.

Unbalanced Cables


Unbalanced cables are designed to carry audio signals in a simple manner. These cables typically consist of two connectors, each with two conductors, connected internally by a signal wire and a ground wire. You can often identify an unbalanced cable by its connectors, which only require two conductors due to the distinct termination of each wire at the connector. The most familiar unbalanced cables include the standard TS (tip-sleeve) guitar cable and RCA cables used for various audio-visual components.

Internal Structure of Unbalanced Cables

Inside an unbalanced audio cable, the signal wire is usually positioned in the center, surrounded by the ground wire. The ground wire has dual purposes: it partially carries the audio signal and helps shield the signal wire from external noise sources, such as electromagnetic interference from lights, transformers, and radio frequency (RF) interference from TV and radio broadcasts. While this design offers some protection against noise, the ground wire can also act as an antenna, picking up additional noise.

Limitations and Practical Uses of Unbalanced Cables

Unbalanced cables are suitable for certain applications, like connecting a guitar to an amplifier, where the simplicity of the connection is advantageous. However, due to their limited ability to suppress external noise, unbalanced cables are best used with lengths no longer than 15-20 feet (approximately 4-6 meters). This limitation is particularly important in noisy environments or with low-level signals, such as those from keyboards, guitars, MP3 devices, etc.

Types of Unbalanced Cables

  • RCA Cables: RCA cables are a type of unbalanced analog audio connection that transmits stereo audio through a right channel (red tip) and a left channel (white or black tip). Typically, an RCA unbalanced signal should not exceed 25 feet in length to avoid significant signal degradation.
  • Quarter-Inch TS Cables: Quarter-inch TS cables are widely used for unbalanced signals, especially with electric guitars connecting to an amplifier. These cables are characterized by their simple tip-sleeve design.

Balanced Audio Cables


Balanced audio cables represent a step up in quality and capability from their unbalanced counterparts. These cables are engineered to support longer cable runs with significantly reduced interference, making them ideal for professional sound system setups. Understanding the design and application of balanced cables is key to optimizing balanced audio sound quality in various environments.

Characteristics of Balanced Cables and Signals

A balanced audio cable is distinct because they incorporate three conductors within the connector and three wires within the cable itself. This setup includes two signal wires and a separate ground wire. Unlike unbalanced cables, the ground wire in a balanced cable surrounds the signal wires and serves as a shield against interference. However, the unique aspect of balanced cables is the utilization of the two signal wires. These wires carry identical copies of the audio signal, but with reversed polarity. When these reversed signals meet, they cancel each other out, effectively eliminating any noise picked up along the cable run. This principle allows balanced cables to support much longer distances without loss of audio quality—ranging from 50 to 100 feet (15-30 meters), and is particularly advantageous for connecting microphones, consoles, signal processors, and amplifiers in professional audio environments.

Types of Balanced Cables

  • XLR Cables: XLR cables are the standard for balanced audio signals, capable of running up to 200 feet. They feature three connectors: a ground wire, a hot signal, and a cold signal, ensuring a robust and interference-free audio transmission over long distances.
  • Quarter-Inch TRS Cables: The TRS cable, standing for tip, ring, sleeve, is another type of balanced cable used in professional audio settings. It can carry either mono (balanced) or stereo (unbalanced) signals, demonstrating versatility in its application. The structure of the TRS cable supports the balanced signal transmission, contributing to its effectiveness in noise reduction.

Matching Cables to Signal Types

Using balanced or unbalanced cables for the signal type is crucial for maintaining audio sound and integrity. A balanced cable used with an unbalanced signal, or vice versa, fails to utilize the noise cancellation feature inherent in balanced cable design. It’s essential that the audio gear at both ends of the cable supports balanced signals to leverage the noise cancellation benefit fully. Otherwise, the connection will not perform optimally, and the audio signal may be as susceptible to noise as any unbalanced setup.

For longer distances requiring an unbalanced signal transmission, alternatives such as wireless systems or direct (DI) boxes can be considered. These solutions offer ways to maintain audio quality over distance without the inherent limitations of unbalanced cables.


Understanding the differences between balanced and unbalanced audio cables, along with the correct application of each, is fundamental to achieving the best audio performance in any setup. Whether in a recording studio or live sound environment, choosing right between balanced and unbalanced cables is a key step toward ensuring clear, high-quality sound.


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