Balanced Cables Explained for Beginner Audiophiles
So you bought your first serious-sounding headphone or IEM, and now you are in the process of improving the sound quality from your entire setup. You are well and truly an audiophile in the journey of improving your audio quality, and one of the things you have got to ask yourself is if you should upgrade the cables that came with your IEM or your headphone to balanced cables. Now this is a common question that we get all the time, and people want to understand what balance cables even do and what difference they make to the sound quality. Now there are a lot of people who have strong opinions on the subject, and there is a lot of information out there on the internet. I'm going to try and give you my perspective in very laymanʼs, non-technical language so that anybody out there can understand everything they need to know about balanced cables in this simple video.
Hi guys this is Raghav here from Headphone Zone. So you've bought your first serious sounding headphone or IEM and now you're in the process of improving the sound quality from your entire setup. You're well and truly an audiophile in the journey of improving your sound quality and one of the things that you've got to ask yourself is if you should upgrade the cables that came along with your IEM or your headphone to balanced cables. Now this is a very common question that we get all the time and a lot of people want to understand what do balance cables even do and what difference do they make to the sound quality? Now there are a lot of people who have very strong opinions on the subject and there's a lot of information out there on the internet I'm going to try and give you my perspective in very laymanʼs, non-technical language so that anybody out there can understand everything they need to know about balanced cables in this simple video.
Simply put, a balanced cable allows you to listen to music on your headphones through the balanced output of a balanced amplifier. Now balanced amplifiers are amplifiers which are similar to regular amplifiers but have one simple difference in which that they give you two outputs for the left and the right channel. In doing so it's almost like you've got two amplifiers doing the job of one, where the left and the right channel is given a dedicated amplifier and a dedicated DAC. Now for you to be able to plug into the balanced output of the amplifier you're going to need a balanced cable and a balance cable is different from an unbalanced cable in a couple of different ways. The first is typically unbalanced cables are a 3.5 mm connector or a 6.35 mm or what we call a quarter inch connector. Balanced cables don't use these connectors. It's very easy to get confused, so people have dedicated connectors specifically meant for balanced connections - a 2.5 mm a 4.4 mm or a 4 pin XLR are the three common balanced connectors. So balanced amplifiers will always give you an output in either of these three 2.5 mm, 4.4 mm, and 4 pin XLR and balance cables will always feature one of these three connectors so that you make sure that you don't make the mistake of plugging it into an unbalanced output on the amplifier. Now a balanced cable has two separate connections going to the left and the right and there are two wires for each. So there is a positive and a negative for the left, there's a positive and negative for the right which is why a balance connector typically will have four points that go into the headphone amplifier. Unbalanced just have three, you have a left and a right and you have a ground which is shared between the left and the right so you'll typically find that one way of thinking about an unbalanced cable is that the cable carries the information about what the speaker should do to the left and the right and that information is carried via one cable and one connector. A balanced cable has two per side so you'll find that not only are you telling the speaker what to push but you're also telling it what to pull on the other side. It's almost like having double the amount of power for each ear because you have two amplifiers doing the job of one. Now I think what's important to know is that different headphones respond differently to a balanced cable and a balanced amplifier. They have a different effect on different kinds of headphones and IEMs. Some of them they make a huge difference because there are speakers and drivers that benefit from the additional power that a balanced amplifier gives you and some of them don't seem to make as much of a difference but a general rule of thumb I would say that there are two things that happen - first as soon as you swap out the cables for a balanced cable and plug it into the balanced output of an amplifier, the first thing you'll hear is that the volume just about doubles and that's because of course you've increased the amount of output power by having two amplifier circuits doing the job for the left and the right channel, so it sounds a lot louder. The first thing I tend to do is just turn down the volume by approximately half. Now the additional power that you're giving these speakers, the first thing you're going to notice is that the bass sometimes can sound a lot fuller and a lot tighter and this is generally as a result of the drivers getting that little extra oomph that little extra power so that they sound more intentful. It's not just playing the bass, it's playing the bass with precision and I really like that effect especially on IEMs where a balanced cable can just add a little bit more of you know detail, a little bit more resolution to the music you're listening to and it's not the cable alone that does that, it's the ability to use the balanced output on the amplifier that makes that effect. The second thing that you're going to also notice alongside that is sometimes on full-size headphones at least that the Sound Stage can sound a little bit wider and this is usually as a result of the elimination of crosstalk. Crosstalk is a problem that you will see on unbalanced cables. What happens is that because the ground is being shared between the left and right channel there's a little bit of disturbance and distortion that sometimes can get in the signal, but this is stuff that you will not hear on a regular basis it's only when you eliminate that crosstalk by switching to a balanced cable. Do you even realise that it was there in the music to begin with and now the soundstage can sound so much cleaner and as a result sometimes a little wider. So I really like using balance cables along with full sized headphones especially on amplifiers which are quite nice and have a powerful balanced output because left and right just sounds so much more separated. Now balanced cables especially expensive ones can come in a variety of different different cable types and materials. You'll find that there are copper cables that sometimes can sound a little bit warm, so on you know bright headphones it just balances out. You'll also find that there are silver cables which can sound very detailed and analytical on on very very dark or warm sounding headphones, they tend to balance them out. People like to mix and match materials to kind of get the optimum tuning for their setup perfected and I don't really think that there is any limit to how much you can go deep with cables. One thing that a lot of people who swear by them there are others who tend to be a little bit more skeptical on what very expensive cables can do. Now that's a topic for another video, for another time but hopefully with this you can kind of get to the point where you understand what balance cables can do and my rule of thumb is usually a very simple one. If you're using a DAC and an Amp which has a balanced output, I almost always recommend getting yourself some sort of a balanced cable to take advantage of the balanced output on that amplifier only and only because to not use it is to use a very small portion of that amplifiers capability and not bring out the full potential when you've plugged your headphones in. If you've paid for it and you're using a nice balanced amplifier, the cable is a relatively small price to pay to be able to unlock the full potential of that, so I highly recommend that you consider getting yourself a balanced DAC and Amp and a balance cable to use it.