All this being said, the biggest caveat in talking about balanced versus single ended is because we (here at Moon Audio) get so many requests from people who want adapters for their single-ended cable on their headphone. For instance, because the grounds are tied on a 3.5mm pair of IEMs, someone might want an adapter (female 3.5mm to a balanced 2.5mm) for their Astell & Kern player. What they are doing when they plug the 3.5mm into the adapter is shorting-to-ground the two balanced channels, which essentially shorts the two amplifier circuits to ground. This can damage the amplifier. Of course, there are 3rd party retailers online that create these products without warning their customers of the damage they are potentially causing to their hardware. They just want to make a profit and have no concern for the well-being of the customer. In this case, if the digital audio player gets damaged, Astell &Kern will not cover the repair or replacement costs due to using a 3rd party unsupported adapter.
As Drew mentioned previously in his article, you cannot convert a single-ended connection to a balanced connection as there is no way to untie these grounds. PLEASE do not risk damaging your gear by doing this.
For example, If you use an adapter cable from a female1/4" or 1/8" headphone jack to a balanced 4 pin XLR and connect this to a Balanced amp you are essentially shorting to ground 2 legs of the circuit making the amp single ended. This can also potentially damage your balanced amp depending on the design. I can't tell you how many times we have been asked to make such an adapter and we explain the situation and then are told how this adapter can be purchased on Amazon. Why are companies selling it? One word. Greed. I would highly recommend not using these. A very common adapter cable used for this is with the Astell & Kern 2.5mm TRRS balanced output. Astell & Kern has explicitly stated this will damage their DAPs. Don't do it, it's not worth it.
You can convert a balanced connection back to single ended. This is not a problem at all as long as your main headphone cable is balanced, then you can add an adapter cable. For example, we make adapters that convert the Astell & Kern balanced 2.5mm plug to a 3.5mm plug for use with your phone or another device that only has a 3.5mm or 1/8" jack. All our adapter cables can be found HERE.
You'll then be able to go from balanced to single ended without worrying about damaging your hardware since the grounds are already tied on the single-ended design.
So, is balanced audio always better? There are numerous factors that determine what signal path is going to sound better, but the big takeaway is that it's a misnomer that balanced will always sound better than single-ended. Research and test the products you are considering. If it’s a true-balanced signal path, then yes, it will always sound better than a single-ended design. If not, find out what circuit design the product utilizes, how it works with your existing gear, impedance, everything – because every unit in your signal path should be compatible and optimized to make your music sound the absolute best that it can.
There are always going to be exceptions, but don't pigeonhole yourself into getting one product over another just because it's balanced. In the end, it might not actually be the right product for you and your set up. It could even cost you a lot more money than you need to spend.
If you have any questions about singled-ended vs balanced connections, gear, compatibility, etc., feel free to get in touch with us via the Contact Us form! Happy listening!