A common question that gets thrown around in the music industry is whether or not guitar cables are balanced. Electronics can be confusing – even for the best of us. And especially if you’re new to the scene or simply not too familiar with electronic terms, you may wonder: what does it mean for a cable to be balanced or unbalanced?
In this article, I will go over the basics of a balanced and unbalanced cable and some differences between the two types. I will also answer some frequently asked questions.
What is an unbalanced (mono) cable?
An unbalanced cable has just one wire and a shield, making it a “mono” signal. The wire is connected to the tip of the cable and the shield to the sleeve of the plug. This is where the term “TS” comes from, which is short for “tip” and “sleeve.”
The wire serves to send the signal through. And the shield acts as a ground to minimize external electronic interference. In other words, the audio signal is transmitted directly from your equipment to the receiver device without manipulation. An unbalanced cable keeps things simple, but the output can be slightly distorted. Most guitar cables use an unbalanced “mono” connection.
What is a balanced (stereo) cable?
A balanced cable has two wires and a shield, making it a “stereo” signal. One wire connects to the tip, another to the ring, and the shield to the sleeve. A balanced cable features a “TRS” tip, short for tip, ring, and sleeve.
The shield in a balanced cable works the same way as an unbalanced cable to shield the wires from external electronic interference. An audio signal travels through both wires, and while the signals are identical, one is flipped or mirrored. They are also called positive and negative signals. So, when the signals arrive at the receiver device, the negative or flipped signal is flipped back. The two signals then match up, which effectively cancels out any distortion that may have affected the signals.
Differences between unbalanced and balanced cables
Here are some of the main differences between unbalanced and balanced cables.
Of course, the way the noise signal transmits is the first major difference between these two cables. Whereas an unbalanced cable has only one wire, a balanced has two. An unbalanced cable simply transmits the noise through the wire to the receiver. Conversely, a balanced cable will send signals through both wires but with one mirrored. The mirrored audio is switched back, and as the two signals match up, any distortion picked up is canceled.
Since balanced cables can cancel out distortion, another significant difference between unbalanced and balanced cables is the resulting audio. Unwanted electronic noise is more likely to transfer through an unbalanced cable, which can result in distortion. This is a big advantage balanced cables have over unbalanced ones.
Balanced cables use a more complicated technology, so it makes sense that they are also more expensive than a simple unbalanced cable. As a general rule, unbalanced cables are around 50% cheaper than balanced cables.
Make sure to check out my guide on the best guitar cables if you are looking for a new one!
Are guitar cables balanced?
No, guitar cables are not balanced. Although there are some advantages to using TRS cables, these pros are not easily transferred over to the guitar. In other words, there’s really no point in using a balanced cable for a guitar.
The differences between these two cables are so slight that most people won’t miss them, and the guitar is loud enough to cover any distortion an unbalanced cable may pick up. Plus, the price difference between these two cables is quite significant, considering the incredibly slight difference it will make. So, most manufacturers won’t bother making balanced guitar cables.
As a top tip, most distortion in an unbalanced cable are only noticeable in cables more than 20 feet in length. So, the shorter the cable, the less likely you are to hear distortion. In fact, unbalanced cables that are less than 10 feet in length have a stronger signal than balanced cables.
When should you use balanced cables?
You should use balanced cables when looking for a cleaner sound with no distortion – especially when running audio signal distances over 20 feet. However, with that said, balanced cables come in a lot more useful for equipment like microphones than they do for guitars. This is due to two reasons:
- Guitars are generally loud enough to cover up any distortion in the first place.
- Guitars, bass guitars, and most amps have unbalanced connections, so you wouldn’t get the audio advantages you get by using a balanced cable.
Can you use a balanced cable on an unbalanced input port?
While you can do this in theory, using a balanced cable on an unbalanced input port will render the balanced cable unbalanced. In other words, you’ll get no benefits of using a balanced cable. Both ends of the cable must have balanced connections as well.
Can you use an unbalanced cable on a balanced input port?
Yes, you can, but the audio will not be balanced. So, if you want to minimize distortion, use a balanced cable instead.
Should I use balanced or unbalanced cables?
If you have unbalanced equipment, like a guitar, you should use unbalanced cables, as using a balanced one won’t make any difference to the sound – only your wallet. If you have balanced equipment, I recommend using an unbalanced cable for running audio signal distances of less than 10 feet and a balanced cable for any length of more than 10 feet.
How long should an unbalanced cable be?
An unbalanced cable should ideally not exceed 20 feet for minimum audio distortion. However, to get the best sound possible, you really don’t want to use an unbalanced cable longer than 10 feet.
Why do guitar cables go bad?
Guitar cables can go bad for several different reasons, but the main reason comes to improperly wrapping the cable or stepping on the cable during a gig. So, make sure to wrap the cable correctly to prevent it from shorting out before its time.