XLR cables are extremely popular in the music recording scene, but how do they really impact the sound quality? Does using XLR cables really make a difference in the sound quality you get?
Here’s a short answer for you:
XLR cables make a difference in sound quality when recording mic-level signals, especially for long runs when compared to unbalanced cables. An XLR cable transmits a balanced mono signal, resulting in a cleaner sound with electronic interference eliminated. However, for instrument-level, line-level, and speaker-level signals, you may not notice a huge difference, except across very long distances with lots of electronic interference.
Ready for more details about how XLR cables make a difference in sound quality? Read on!
Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables
In terms of sound quality, the biggest difference in using an XLR cable over other cables is it being able to transmit balanced audio signals. Using a balanced cable, we can get cleaner audio without electronic interference.
The most common XLR cable is the 3-pin XLR (XLR3), and it will be the XLR type we discuss throughout this article. The 3 pins are:
When we use an XLR cable for transmitting a balanced mono signal, the exact same signal is passed through wire 2 and 3, but one of the two has its polarity reversed. That way, at the end of the transmission we can sum the difference between the 2 signals to eliminate any electronic interference we may get during transmission.
For short distances, it may not be noticeable, but for long cables, the noise may get very noticeable. On another note, we use XLR cables for most professional microphones, and because the mic-level signal we transmit is very low in volume, electronic interference can introduce huge problems.
If you happen to use an XLR cable for instrument-level, line-level, or speaker-level signals, you may not notice any difference in sound quality at all. That is because the signal being transmitted is of high enough volume that little electronic interference would not affect the signal by a significant amount. In that case, using an unbalanced cable like the 1/4″ TS guitar cable is perfectly fine.
XLR Cables vs 1/4″ TRS Cables
So if the main advantage of using an XLR cable is to transmit balanced signals, what is the difference between a balanced XLR cable and a balanced 1/4″ TRS cable?
In terms of wiring and function, there is no difference at all. The only difference is the connector used.
Note that we’re talking about the TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) cable, not the similar-looking TS (Tip-Sleeve) cable. The TRS cable is typically used to transmit a balanced mono signal or an unbalanced stereo signal. On the other hand, the TS cable is commonly used for guitars and is used to transmit unbalanced mono signals.
In terms of sound quality, there is no difference between using an XLR cable and a 1/4″ TRS cable for transmitting a balanced mono signal, because they both have 3 wires: ground, positive and negative. So we can use either of them to eliminate electronic interference.
With that said, when should you use an XLR cable over a TRS cable? Well, another strength of the XLR cable is the ability to supply phantom power to our microphones. Many microphones including most condenser microphones require power to operate correctly. Hence, by using an XLR cable we can not only transmit audio signals but also supply the microphone with the necessary electricity.
A 1/4″ TRS cable on the other hand cannot safely provide phantom power, because during connecting and disconnecting the cable, the circuit will be shorted due to the linear arrangement of the connector. This makes it very risky and may damage your equipment. The XLR cable, on the other hand, has all 3 pins separated in such a way that they never touch. This makes it perfect for supplying phantom power.
However, that does not mean an XLR cable is always better than a 1/4″ TRS cable. For example, on a patchbay the 1/4″ TRS cable is the superior choice due to the size of the connector. Due to the amount of space we save simply by using a 1/4″ TRS cable over an XLR cable, it’s a no-brainer.
Cheap vs Expensive XLR Cables
Contrary to common belief, expensive XLR cables may not provide a better sound quality when comparing to cheaper cables. As long as the XLR cable is properly shielded, and it’s not falling apart, the sound quality you get from a cheap XLR cable should be the same as an expensive one.
However, a more expensive XLR cable can have several advantages:
- More durable. Expensive XLR cables can last you longer without breaking.
- Looks better. Higher-end XLR cables often look premium and feel extremely sturdy.
- Trustworthy brand. Branded XLR cables may have better warranty and repair services.
When choosing an XLR cable, if getting optimal sound quality is your main goal, you don’t need a premium XLR cable. Although I don’t recommend buying unbranded cables, you also don’t need premium branded XLR cables. For example, Amazon Basics and Hosa will do just fine!
With that said, if you don’t mind spending a little more for the durability, looks and brand name premium XLR cables provide to you, by all means, go for it!
I personally have a mixed collection of XLR cables. Some are cheap and some are high-end cables. I usually use the cheap XLR cables on microphones in the studio, which usually don’t move much at all. And when I need to perform live or set up sessions for other musicians, I would go for the more expensive, branded cables. That way, I can save a few bucks while extending my XLR cables’ lifespan.
The most important thing in retaining the sound quality of the XLR cable is to not break it. Cheaper XLR cables may have connectors that aren’t particularly durable, so extra care is needed when using them.
Roll XLR cables up correctly and store them safely at a cool, dry place. Like any other electrical cable, keep them away from wet and damp places. When using the cables, do not exert too much force by pulling or crushing with a heavy load. These may damage the cable’s shielding and/or connectors.