How to Choose: Balanced versus Unbalanced Audio

Diving Deeper into the Issues of Balanced and 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.

Yeah, I know that sounds like the most disappointing lead-up to a really underwhelming superhero. But the fact remains that there are a lot of details to think about: determining what kind of "balance" you are wanting (i.e. cables, amp, headphones), the circuitry/signal path of the amp, how a piece of equipment fits into your overall system, headphone or IEM impedance, A/B testing units cable length, headphone compatibility, connector type, etc. There are many things to consider before asking a very vague question like: "is balanced audio better than single ended." Guess what? In some cases single ended sounds better than balanced and in other cases balanced sounds better than single ended. Why do people think balanced audio is superior? How does balanced audio even work? What applications are better for balanced and for single-ended?

This page is to help walk you through the steps to help you determine if balanced or single ended solutions are best for you.

Riff Notes

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 all the whys and hows on balanced versus single-ended audio.

This guide is divided into the following sections (click to skip to that section):


Part 1:

Intro: Balanced Audio - Multiple Approaches
The term "balanced" can vary by meaning. Lean about the various references to "balanced" in the world of audio.
Is Balanced Audio Better Than Single-Ended?

A general overview of the differences between balanced and single-ended audio. What does balanced mean and is it really better than single-ended audio?

Part 2:

Are Balanced Cables Better?
Why do most people think balanced cables are better?
Common-Mode Rejection
Learn how balanced cables are able to be more noise resistant than single-ended cables.
Cable & Connector Types
How to tell if your cable is balanced or unbalanced. Learn more about the many different connector types for each cable and what they are used for.
Cable Placement
Simple tips on how to get the cleanest sound out of your cables - often this has a lot to do with where you place them.
The Right Cable for the Right System
Knowing what cable type is right for your system.

Part 3:

Are Balanced Headphones Better?
Can you have balanced headphones? How amps affect the signal of the headphones.
Operational Amplifiers Versus Transformers
How balanced signal paths are designed and the comparisons of using different components.
The Differential Amplifier
What is a differential anmplifier and how does it help with a balanced signal?
Headphone Amplifiers
What does an amplifier do for headphones? Some suggestions based on balanced and single-ended headphone amplifiers.
Which Connections Should I Use?
Should I get a balanced or single-ended amp? What connections do my headphones have? Are they compatible?

Part 4:

Balanced Adapters - Caution
A word of warning about using balanced adapters for single-ended headphones: don't use one.
The Takaway - Final Thoughts
Conclusion and thoughts about how best to choose if balanced or single-ended solutions are right for you.

Balanced Audio: Multiple Approaches

The term “balanced” can mean a number of things in the world of audio. From cables, circuitry and signal path, amp design, connections, and more, the differences between balanced and single-ended design become increasingly important to understand due to their application, the overall impact on the audio of your system, and ultimately the impact on your wallet.

Typically, in the context of cables or circuitry, there are two types: balanced and unbalanced. For the purposes of our discussion, from here on out we will refer to the term “unbalanced” as “single-ended.” This is because, in a balanced connection, you have a positive and negative (polarity) and a ground line. In single-ended connections you only have a single (polarity) and a ground line; hence the term “single-ended.”

Cables are only part of the equation, however. We also need to consider what the cables are being plugged into. Circuit design has a tremendous impact on the sound of your system as well. We'll get into these various types of balanced and single-ended connections throughout the page, so hopefully, we can answer any questions you might have!

Moon Audio Balanced Adapter

Is Balanced Audio Better than Single Ended?

There is an article that our CEO and Founder Drew Baird wrote a couple of years ago titled "Single Ended vs. Balanced Connection." A great intro on this very issue; Drew introduced us to some history, popular gear and various connection types. Many people have contacted us to say thank you for clarifying what can be a complicated issue. If you just have time for a quick read, we suggest checking that article out. Link below. Here, we'll be going into a little more detail about circuit design, cables, etc.

Single-Ended vs Balanced Connection

Single Ended vs. Balanced Connections is a hot topic of discussion these days. Many people believe balanced means better, but this is not necessarily true. Just because a headphone amp is balanced does not mean that another headphone amplifier that is single ended can't sound better. In order to explain the benefits of both types of amplifier connections, we will start with a bit of hi-fi audio history.

Bricasti M3H

Everyone wants their music to sound the absolute best it can. I don't think that's necessarily a surprise. But the conversation about balanced versus single-ended is about this very issue. Does balanced audio sound better than single-ended audio? Or vice-versa? As stated previously, it's not a yes or no question. There's a lot we'll go over to better understand how balanced and single-ended audio work. The next few pages are designed to be as comprehensive as possible to cover all the different aspects of cables, amp design and signal paths, and more. We need to understand how these things work in order to ultimately figure out what is going to be best for your personal situation because we want your audio to sound the absolute best it can.

Let's get into more specifics when it comes to covering balanced or single-ended connections: starting with cables.

NEXT: Are Balanced Audio Cables Better?