There are two kinds of analog audio cables: balanced and unbalanced. In this article, we will explain the difference between the two and provide you with some advice on how to choose them.

What is the Difference between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables, anyway?

Balanced cables have two conductor wires and a ground wire, whereas unbalanced only have one conductor and a ground wire. The extra conductor on balanced cables is what makes it possible to significantly reduce noise in an audio signal.

When an audio signal is transmitted along a cable, it naturally picks up noise from interference.
Balanced cables send the original signal through one conductor and the inverted version through the other conductor.
Therefore, when the two signals are combined at the end, the receiving equipment returns the second signal to its original polarity.
The result is that both signals now have the same polarity, whereas the noise on the original signal has an opposite polarity to the noise on the second signal. In conclusion, the result is that the "good" signal is reinforced, while the noises are canceled because they have an opposite polarity.

diagram of an unbalanced line
Unbalanced cables pick up noise on their signal
diagram of a balanced line
Balanced cables eliminate the noise by sending two signals which are reversed in polarity

When should you use balanced cables?

Unbalanced cables are more susceptible to pick up noise on long distances. That is why we recommend to use balanced cables for long distances because they will offer a better protection to the signal.

balanced microphone cable
Sommer Cable Stage 22
Balanced cable with two phase wires and a ground wire

Even if you don't need to travel long distances with your signal, use balanced cables if you want to prevent your signal from buzzing.

Note that balanced cables will only work if both your input and output connections support balanced audio.

When should you use unbalanced cables?

Unbalanced cables are usually used in the case that one of your connections in your equipment isn't compatible with balanced signals. For example, guitars only have unbalanced outputs.

Also, unbalanced cables have the advantage of being compatible both with balanced and unbalanced systems. They will work in every situation and are ideal if you don't need to have a balanced signal. If you really need to balance your signal, you need a DI box. DI boxes convert unbalanced signals to balanced signals.