Can You Hear the Difference? Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables. We get a lot of people asking whether it’s worth investing in a balanced cable. How does a balanced cable work? Is there a discernible difference? If so, how much better does a balanced cable sound? Let’s take a look.
Can You Hear the Difference? Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables
Balanced and Unbalanced Design – Can You Hear the Difference? Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables
An unbalanced cable has only two conductors. One is for the audio signal, and the other is for the ground. If you ripped off an unbalanced cable’s enclosure, you would see only two wires and a ground/shield. A R+ wire and a L+ wire. The ground carries the negative signals while also shielding a bit from radio frequency interference (RFI). The problem is, you’re still left with RFI and hum.
A balanced cable, on the other hand, has three conductors. One conductor for the positive signal phase, one for the negative signal phase and one for the ground. And if you were to look inside a balanced cable’s enclosure, you would find 4 wires and a shield. That is, an R+, R-, L+, L- and a shield. For each stereo channel, the positive wire and the negative wire pick up the same noise, thus cancelling each other’s noise out. Consequently, the balanced set-up removes the RFI, and the shield just gets of remaining hum. The result? Less audible crap. And, apparently, a broader soundstage. Let’s see if this claim holds up.
Equipment Used for the Experiment – Can You Hear the Difference? Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables
I pulled out two FiiO F9 Pro’s, since this in-ear headphone comes with both, balanced and unbalanced cables. I also decided to use the now legendary FiiO Q5 DAC AMP combo, which has a balanced 2.5mm input.
Results – Can You Hear the Difference? Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables
I’m surprised to say that I did indeed hear a difference. It wasn’t huge, but noticeable enough to consider upgrading my own cable. The balanced cable conveyed a tighter, cleaner sound that made the mix from the unbalanced cable seem soft and unrefined in comparison. Hi-hats and cymbals were a lot crisper, and I certainly heard more separation. Listening to live recordings, a grander soundstage was also audible. The audiophiles are right in this case. Better sound, and worth the extra investment.