Interconnect Cable: Balanced w XLR plugs vs. unbalanced w RCA plugs

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Wind Chaser

Okay, if you have the option of using either balanced or unbalanced cables and you’re wondering which sounds better … or if you count yourself among those who believe that the difference between any two given cables is not that substantial, then this comparison is for you!

Last fall I bought mono-block amplifiers with the idea of placing them in close proximity to my speakers. This arrangement requires long interconnects (ICs). My 30” ZU ICs are nowhere near long enough, so I ordered a 12’ pair of Belden 8402 Balanced Cables with High Clarity G&H  XLR Connecters. People seem to like this cable; it’s supposed to be a very high value cable that out performs cables costing considerably more… and it’s relatively inexpensive! Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that appeals to me. Besides I have a fully balanced system, so using balanced cables makes good sense, right?




About that same time I was hearing great things about TEO liquid cables; you heard right, liquid cables. TEO doesn’t use wire or put wire in their cables. Unfortunately TEO’s balanced cables are very expensive, so I settled for a 2 meter pair of their unbalanced cables instead. They still cost about 4x more than the Belden cables, but what the hell, my curiosity was piqued and they come with a money back satisfaction guarantee, so why not?




I wasn’t sure which cable would offer the most musical satisfaction; good arguments could be made for both and frankly that’s why I decided to buy both of them. I should also point out that my amps only have one input – and it’s XLR. As much as I love my mono-blocks, this limitation is something of disappointment that I have come to terms with. As a work around I use an RCA to XLR adapter. This adapter is a 2” thick chunk of metal that fits between the end of the cable and the back of the amp.



Yikes! That can’t be good. What effect will these adapters have on the sound?




Now in order to compare two competing cables or components, you have to start somewhere; you need baseline, a point of reference. Having overhauled my system with a new DAC, new amplification, new speakers, and new cables all within a few months of each other, I needed time to settle into the sound of this new system in order to have a meaningful baseline. If you don’t know what your system sounds like; you are less likely to appreciate or even recognize the differences of any given change.

Having two unique options for interconnect cabling I decided to start with the unbalanced cables. I listened to them exclusively for about six weeks; this gave me enough time to be well acquainted with the sound of these cables in the system. Over the course of those six weeks I listened to variety of music repetitiously, especially selected cuts from side 2 of the Beatles White Album. At the end of the six week period, I removed the unbalanced cables and plugged in the Belden balanced cables.
 
What happened next?

OMG! WTF? It was immediately apparent that something was wrong … very wrong. Only a few seconds in and I shut the system down. How can something as simple as changing an interconnect cable make a good system sound like complete and utter shit? It was as if my DAC had been replaced with a grossly inferior DAC. I kid you not; the system that had given me so much joy over the previous six weeks suddenly morphed into an auditory train wreck. The difference between these two cables is off the charts. So without further delay I returned to my baseline.

Now to be perfectly honest, in addition to switching interconnects, I had to make one other relatively “minor adjustment” to compensate for the difference in length between the two ICs. Because the unbalanced cables are about half the length of the balanced cables, I had to supplement the shorter ICs with a 6’ pair of speaker cables in order to reach the speaker terminals. With the longer ICs, I used high quality 8” jumpers instead. On the surface this difference if anything should work in favor of the balanced cables, especially since the jumpers and speaker cables are made by the same manufacturer. Had all things been equal, I wonder how much better the unbalanced cables might have been were they not handicapped by the RCA to XLR adapters and the longer speaker cables?

OTOH, I also wondered if moving the amps so close to the speakers could have been a detriment to the amps performance and thus skewed the result. The reason being is I use isolation platforms under my speakers…



oops - I forgot to take a picture with the amps on the platforms.




Placing the amps on these platforms exposed them to vibration, which I suspect could have possibly worked against the balanced cables. For that reason I decided I would try doing a second comparison at a later date using the same speaker cables. In the meantime, having no use for the 8” jumpers I sent them back for a refund.

After another 6 weeks had passed I decided it was time to give the balanced cables a second shot. This time the same speaker cables would be employed for both ICs. I determined to keep the balanced cables in place at least one week before switching back to the unbalanced cables.

How did it go?   

It was a tough week; I didn’t do as much listening as I had planned because my system didn’t sound right. Compared to the unbalanced TEO cables, the Belden balance cables sound tonally emasculated, lacking body, texture and tone; they are steely, harsh, incomplete, lacking presence. The net result is emotionally devoid and disengaging. It’s like the difference between eating fresh bread and eating stale bread. The difference is immediately apparent. I never imagined that cables could sound so different, but what I discovered here is that cables can literally make or break your system. Lousy cables are like thieves; they strip a system of its virtue and bring it to its knees; they distort and contort the integrity of what’s given to them and make what could be an enjoyable experience comparatively intolerable.

In conclusion:

Don’t underestimate the impact cables have on your system.

•   Cables can and do sound vastly different.
•   Balanced cables are NOT inherently better than unbalanced cables.
•   Upgrading ICs can be every bit as effective as a major component upgrade.
•   Inferior cables seriously impair the performance of your system.

The associated gear used in this test:

•   Nuprime DAC-10
•   DAC Maraschino King Cherry mono-blocks amplifiers
•   Spatial M3 Turbo S open baffle loudspeakers
•   Cerious Technologies Graphene Extreme Speaker Cables



PingPing

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Yep, although (IM) noise is the killer for unbalanced ICs but if the (IM) noise is controlled by the components electronics then theoretically unbalanced ICs can and should sound better than balanced ICs, although probably not if the length is more than 10m and maybe even 5m. 

It appears that balanced can over filter out even order (2nd) harmonics and the tighter the balanced filtering electronics the more 2nd order harmonics that are filtered out.

The best mixing desks, in the world, are unbalanced even though they may have balanced mic leads, etc, running to them.   

Early B.

You were comparing crappy ICs to much higher quality ICs and, as expected, the higher quality ICs sounded much better. If you were comparing a pair of balanced Teos vs. unbalanced Teos, the differences would be subtle, at best. However, some amps sound better on their balanced inputs, even with adapters, but that has nothing to do with the brand of cables. 

Wind Chaser

Actually, the Belden 8402 is highly regarded cable and supposed to outperform cables costing hundreds of dollars more. You can read more about these specific Belden cables and what many AC members think about them here...

http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=144415.0

Mr Peabody

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I agree with much of your conclusions, your exercise was good for showing you heard a difference in cables.  However, regarding XLR to RCA, as pointed out, it's not apples to apples unless using same brand and series.  Even if the Belden is highly thought of by some.  You also have to consider who is promoting the Belden, its it the cheap crowd who wouldn't spend money on a good cable or someone who actually owns a quality brand and thinks Belden is a comparative good value.


Wind Chaser

However, regarding XLR to RCA, as pointed out, it's not apples to apples unless using same brand and series.

Very true.


Quote
Even if the Belden is highly thought of by some.  You also have to consider who is promoting the Belden, its it the cheap crowd who wouldn't spend money on a good cable...

Yeah, unfortunately there are plenty of people doing that, content in their skepticism and blissfully ignorant of how much better their system could sound.


Quote
...or someone who actually owns a quality brand and thinks Belden is a comparative good value.

A quality brand should entail quality high performance products; however if their products doesn't perform as such, it's no wonder they are so impressed with genuinely crappy cables.
« Last Edit: 8 Feb 2018, 01:28 am by Wind Chaser »

jk@home

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Actually, the Belden 8402 is highly regarded cable and supposed to outperform cables costing hundreds of dollars more. You can read more about these specific Belden cables and what many AC members think about them here...

http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=144415.0

Yeah I tried the unbalanced and balanced 8402, ended up with similar results. Got better results with Mogami 2549 and Neutrik XLRs. Must be a synergy thing. I do think those G&H connectors might be a step up from the regular Neutrik, due to the fancy materials they promote . I'm actually in the process of moving my W4S mono blocks from the rack to behind the speaker stands. So this time will try the G&H XLRs on the Mogami.

Have heard the Gotham balanced cables are good too. I bought some Gotham shielded power cord to make the new power cords to the amps, appears to be quality wire.

DaveC113

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I agree with much of your conclusions, your exercise was good for showing you heard a difference in cables.  However, regarding XLR to RCA, as pointed out, it's not apples to apples unless using same brand and series.  Even if the Belden is highly thought of by some.  You also have to consider who is promoting the Belden, its it the cheap crowd who wouldn't spend money on a good cable or someone who actually owns a quality brand and thinks Belden is a comparative good value.

Not only this, but gear is designed to be primarily balanced or single ended. It is problematic to mix the two if you want best results, as there is no great way to convert between the two formats. The best way is to use very expensive transformers, and obviously this is almost never done inside a component. Usually, it is done in a far inferior way, often using very inexpensive opamps. So in this case the balanced signal is derived from a SE signal but it won't be of the same quality because it's gone through a bunch of cheap parts to arrive at it's current balanced state.

These days often the opposite issue is the case, many DACs are primarily balanced units and the XLR outs sound better. Some spend big $ on trafo based converters, some go with completely balanced systems. But the one thing you can be sure of is comparing RCA to XLR outs in such a device is absolutely not comparing cables, or comparing formats in an "apples to apples" kind of comparison. Because of what I've described you really can't do a totally fair and balanced comparison. Or, the best way would be to use a very high quality trafo to convert.

As far as the difference in cables, well yes... IC cables in particular are critical to the performance of a system. I've seen the Belden thread and all the others that think it's possible to buy a $5 cable and $5 plugs and achieve similar results to folks who have spent decades of their life experimenting with cables without much budgetary constraints. I find it interesting that those folks won't pay any attention to these folks, myself included, and the truth is any of those cables could be easily beaten with a simple twisted pair of UPOCC copper that costs about $3/ft to build.   

Letitroll98

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Nice post Dave, thanks for the info.  You're correct there's very little consensus between the two camps, they're more tribal than empirical so there's no convincing anybody.  I very much appreciate the tone of our members on this topic, I won't call anyone out but many members here offer good, sound advice from their perspective and avoid the name calling and derogatory attacks so common on other sites.  This is about the only place on the web that you can have a civil cable debate that doesn't need to be binned after the first page.

poseidonsvoice

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The best way is to use very expensive transformers, and obviously this is almost never done inside a component. Usually, it is done in a far inferior way, often using very inexpensive opamps. So in this case the balanced signal is derived from a SE signal but it won't be of the same quality because it's gone through a bunch of cheap parts to arrive at it's current balanced state.

Dave,

Implementation is what counts.

In my experience, the THAT1200, THAT1646 and a few other TI operational amplifiers are sonically transparent - and I have done these comparisons against some lofty transformers, such as Lundahl cobalt amorphous core, etc.... Excellent implementation and design from Neurochrome and AMB. These include:

  • Neurochrome THAT Receiver
  • Neurochrome THAT Driver
  • AMB Alpha 24
  • Weiss OP

One should not generalize just based on cost. But I do agree, most 'commercial' designs use inferior design for the conversion of balanced to unbalanced. DIY'ers have an advantage in that we do not have to subscribe to commercial cost minimizing measures. High quality measurements can reveal these differences and it takes the ability to make these measurements (properly) to design these products!

Best,
Anand.

Wind Chaser

Not only this, but gear is designed to be primarily balanced or single ended. It is problematic to mix the two if you want best results, as there is no great way to convert between the two formats...

...one thing you can be sure of is comparing RCA to XLR outs in such a device is absolutely not comparing cables, or comparing formats in an "apples to apples" kind of comparison. Because of what I've described you really can't do a totally fair and balanced comparison...

Okay, assuming that is true, considering how unfair the conditions were stacked against the unbalanced TEO cables, it makes them all the more remarkable. I have a fully balanced system, which as you suggest would be very much advantageous to the balanced cables, and yet the unbalanced TEO's sounded superior to balanced Belden cables in the context of a fully balanced system.

DaveC113

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Dave,

Implementation is what counts.

In my experience, the THAT1200, THAT1646 and a few other TI operational amplifiers are sonically transparent - and I have done these comparisons against some lofty transformers, such as Lundahl cobalt amorphous core, etc.... Excellent implementation and design from Neurochrome and AMB. These include:

  • Neurochrome THAT Receiver
  • Neurochrome THAT Driver
  • AMB Alpha 24
  • Weiss OP

One should not generalize just based on cost. But I do agree, most 'commercial' designs use inferior design for the conversion of balanced to unbalanced. DIY'ers have an advantage in that we do not have to subscribe to commercial cost minimizing measures. High quality measurements can reveal these differences and it takes the ability to make these measurements (properly) to design these products!

Best,
Anand.

Ha, I've made the point implementation is what counts dozens of times... I'm not stuck on one particular design philosophy, and while what you are saying is true it's tangential to the point I'm trying to make.

What I bolded was the point. Generally, a component is either designed to be balanced or single ended and sounds best that way despite the fact it may have both XLR and RCA jacks. So, comparisons between RCA and XLR cables are generally not an apples to apples comparison, and probably depends on other factors besides the cable type.

DaveC113

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Okay, assuming that is true, considering how unfair the conditions were stacked against the unbalanced TEO cables, it makes them all the more remarkable. I have a fully balanced system, which as you suggest would be very much advantageous to the balanced cables, and yet the unbalanced TEO's sounded superior to balanced Belden cables in the context of a fully balanced system.

Yes, in your case the difference in cables is far greater than the difference in SE vs BAL outputs.

My post wasn't directed at you in particular, it's just pointing out a direct comparison of RCA vs XLR cables is problematic. If you had used the same kind of cable for the test you may have come to the conclusion that XLR is best but in a system using SE components you might find exactly the opposite.

I am happy that another person has experienced the value of good cables. In a high end system (assuming all component choices are between high-performing components) I'd go so far as to say they can be more important than component choices. Especially IC cables. There is no way to get back the loss of resolution a great majority of IC cables produce.


Wind Chaser

In a high end system (assuming all component choices are between high-performing components) I'd go so far as to say they can be more important than component choices. Especially IC cables. There is no way to get back the loss of resolution a great majority of IC cables produce.

Yes, that is exactly what I took away from this comparison, IC's are every bit as important as the components they connect. I'd like to explore balanced cables again in the future. The only problem is truly high performance cables of the balanced variety are going to be very costly - especially 12' lengths. IIRC, TEO quoted me a price that was pushing 20K. That's why I went with their single ended cables instead...

Speedskater

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If 'IM' distortion is Intermodulation Distortion, then the cable itself does not cause it. But poorly designed interconnect output and input stages may cause Intermodulation Distortion.

The newer THAT Corp. chips are the best balanced input and output stages available and they are inexpensive.

poseidonsvoice

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Generally, a component is either designed to be balanced or single ended and sounds best that way despite the fact it may have both XLR and RCA jacks. So, comparisons between RCA and XLR cables are generally not an apples to apples comparison, and probably depends on other factors besides the cable type.

Ok, I see what you mean now. I agree with the above.

Best,
Anand.

OzarkTom

I tried all balance, but in my system, the Burson cable+ pro with buffer sounded much better.

Letitroll98

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Dave, I refer you to the posting guidelines for industry participants, quoted here are the relevant paragraphs:

"For those areas that you have access to, you are welcome to participate in topics that are unrelated to your products. Please note that the Posting Guidelines always apply.

With regard to your own products, you are not permitted to discuss product availability, pricing, future product features, or anything related to your business activities."


http://www.audiocircle.com/index.php?action=about;area=industry-participant

Okay, we're back now.
« Last Edit: 21 Feb 2018, 04:34 pm by Letitroll98 »

AmpDesigner333

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....

I wasn’t sure which cable would offer the most musical satisfaction; good arguments could be made for both and frankly that’s why I decided to buy both of them. I should also point out that my amps only have one input – and it’s XLR. As much as I love my mono-blocks, this limitation is something of disappointment that I have come to terms with. As a work around I use an RCA to XLR adapter. This adapter is a 2” thick chunk of metal that fits between the end of the cable and the back of the amp.



Yikes! That can’t be good. What effect will these adapters have on the sound?



....

The associated gear used in this test:

•   Nuprime DAC-10
•   DAC Maraschino King Cherry mono-blocks amplifiers
•   Spatial M3 Turbo S open baffle loudspeakers
•   Cerious Technologies Graphene Extreme Speaker Cables

Regarding the XLR adapters that we include with our amps....  We have measured (THD+N, IMD, SNR, frequency response, etc.) identical performance with the adapter vs direct connection from the test equipment cable to the PCB.  There should be no signal degradation due to these adapters.  However, a balanced connection is always preferred IMHO.  The reason being common mode noise rejection.  Thanks.

Bob Stark

Windchaser,

I have 2 friends that each brought over very good sounding latest craze ICs from Teo, JW, and High Fidelity to have me listen to in my system.  I also have the Cerious Technologies graphene Extreme SCs and jumpers.  Ny system consists of VMPS RM40 BCSE speakers, Nuforce Ref 9 V3 SE mono amps with TDSS level 3 upgrades, TRL DUDE preamp, Modwright 5400 Signature Truth, heavily modded Lenco TT with Trans-Fi Terminator arm and Benz Micro Ruby 3.  I use the Whest 3.0 RDT SE phono pre.  I used very good sounding Darwin Ascension Plus ICs or Amadi Maddie Signatures.  All the power cables were Wywires Juice II, Dynamic Design Spirit II, Core Power CPT-150's, and Mojo Enigma.

We listened to my system for about 45 minutes to get a baseline of the sound.  They had each heard the system several times in the past.  One liked it very much and the other was not too impressed in the past.  It sounded very detailed, dynamic, transparent as usual.  We then put in the GC Teo cables from the CD to preamp location.  What we heard surprised all 3 of us.  The sound lost nothing of importance, BUT...gained instantly an organic and more full texture of live instruments along with considerable beauty of the sounds at times.  It was the missing link to my system and it caused me to buy 2 pairs of Teo's immediately.  We tried the JW Reference next and liked the fast leading edges to the sound with the Teo still in it's place.  The High Fidelity HF-1 with the magnets just made the original sound prior to the Teo's more so--detail dominated, but not much organic texture.  For the first time, Scott actually liked the sound of my system.  I loved the new sound.

When I got the Teo's, I tried to use both of them at the same time after considerable break in with the second one going from the preamp to the amp.  It was too much of a good thing and the sound we heard that day was not quite as pleasing--too smooth.  So, I used it going from my Whest phono to the preamp.  My buddy's JW Reference stayed at the preamp to amp position and I later bought his IC to use there.  The Teo made the same very noticeable and nice change to my analog section as it did in the digital.  There is a great difference between even very good cables and their use in a PARTICULAR system.  My friend Bob, liked the HF-1's in his and didn't care so much for the Teo's.  He liked the JW's in-between the two.  Cables can make a BIG difference for the better or too much of a good thing gone bad--it just depends on the rest of the system.  I doubt one cable can be THE answer to every system out there as the best sounding.  Teo now makes a couple much better sounding ICs that use the same technology.  I'm sure that they sound better than what I have now and yet are still similar sounding to the GCs in character, but I don't feel the need to change as my system now sounds incredible in all ways at this point.  I may change my mind if Scott brings over his latest Teo cable--the Ultra.   Anyone who can't hear the sounds of cables in ICs has a low resolving system or ears that are fading.  All my ICs use RCAs FYI.  All the ICs I now use have KLEI connectors on them.