Diving Deeper into the Issues of Balanced vs. Single-Ended Connections
"Is balanced audio better than single ended?"
I can't tell you the number of times we get this question on a weekly basis. It's a great question actually, but most of the time people are simply misinformed on what can be a fairly complicated topic. Have no fear. Moon Audio is here!
Quick Answer: It depends.
- The idea that balanced audio is better than single-ended audio is a myth.
- The term "balanced" can refer to cables, signal path and circuitry of amps.
- It's important to know that balanced cables work better in some scenarios and single-ended cables in others.
- Headphones cannot be balanced because they are just speakers, but the connection to a balanced or single-ended amplifier can make all the difference (though it depends on the amplifier and the headphones!).
- Balanced adapters are always a bad idea for single-ended cables because they can damage your gear.
Read on to find out more about the whys and hows on balanced versus single-ended audio!
Guess what? In some cases, single-ended sounds better than balanced and in other cases balanced sounds better than single-ended. We've created a new article to help walk you through the steps to help you determine if balanced or single ended solutions are best for you. Check it out here:
Q: Is balanced audio better than single-ended?
A: Not necessarily. Regarding audio cables, there are several differences, but balanced lines are always going to be more resistant to noise due to what is called common-mode rejection. This is the process where balanced cables that have dual-polarity lines end up phasing each other out and canceling any noise that is in the signal. However, noise resistance isn’t the only thing to consider. Depending on the scenario, single-ended cables may be better suited for shorter lengths, low-gain signals like instruments, environments with power isolation (shielded or away from your cables), or budget considerations.
Regarding circuitry and design, a "true" balanced circuit (being balanced from input to output) will always sound better than a single-ended circuit. Pseudo-balanced circuits (using operational amplifiers or transformers to achieve a balanced output from a single-ended source) will not necessarily sound better than a single-ended circuit. There are many factors to consider, but there are exceptions to the rule where single-ended circuits/amps do sound better than a balanced circuit.
Q: Are balanced audio cables better?
A: Not necessarily. It really depends on the application. Balanced cables are more resistant to external noise or interference due to their capacity for common-mode rejection, as answered in the previous question. Common-mode rejection allows for balanced cables to have less noise in the signal path. This is more noticeable in headphones as opposed to speakers due to the proximity of the source to the ears. Some people like having noise in the signal, for instance, when listening to an analog source like a turntable.
In referring to headphones, it more so depends on the headphone amplifier that it is connected to, rather than the cable itself. See the next question for more information.
But in some applications, single-ended cables might be better, and a more economical option compared to balanced cable solutions. Other than the examples provided in the first question above, check out the “Are Balanced Audio Cables Better?” section for more comprehensive information.
Q: Are balanced headphones better?
A: Not necessarily. A common misconception many people have is that balanced headphones are somehow “better.” But what they are really asking is this: is a balanced headphone amp or a single-ended headphone amp better? Headphones can't be balanced - but their connections can. Ultimately there is no absolute answer: it depends on your existing gear, the circuitry, compatibility, and many other factors.
There are cases where single-ended amps sound better than balanced ones. It just depends on your personal system and what is right for you. Check out the “Headphone Amplifiers” section for more information. Factors like impedance rating and the quality of the cable matter more than if you have a balanced or single-ended connector on your headphones. You can also create custom cable solutions to make your headphones compatible (balanced or single-ended) with certain hardware but doing so does not make the headphones themselves “balanced” or “single-ended.”
Your Go-To Audiophile Resource
Have any high-end audio questions? We want to be your one-stop-shop for all your audiophile needs. Cables are oftentimes an overlooked consideration in audio systems, and we want your music to sound the absolute best it can. So, we hope this comprehensive guide to finding the right type of cable for your system will help you make your quest for the right cable or components a little easier. You can check out the page here:
The article covers a lot of different topics:
- Is Balanced Audio Better than Single Ended?
- Are Balanced Cables Better?
- Common-Mode Rejection
- Cable & Connector Types
- Are Balanced Headphones Better?
- Operational Amplifiers Versus Transformers
- Differential Amplifiers
- Headphone Amplifiers
- Balanced Adapters - Caution
- and much more!
Hopefully, this will be a useful resource for you. Are you looking for a new headphone amp? New cables for your headphones? Not sure about a single ended amp or a balanced one? We have some recommendations included as well.
Are there any other topics you would like us to talk about specifically? Let us know in the comments below or find us on social media. We're always working on new articles and adding to our site; so, what better way to figure out what to work on next than to have our valued audiophile customers (you!) let us know!
Again, if you have any questions about balanced and/or single-ended audio, check out the following resources:
If you have any additional questions, please leave a comment below. Happy listening!