- what are balanced and unbalanced headphones?
- can you hear any difference between them?
- what cables and equipment are needed for balanced headphones?
Headset technology has come a long way in recent years.
Sure, your basic earbud headphones haven’t changed much since they were first released. And a lot of people love the way those headphones sound, but they also love the portability and convenience they offer.
It wasn’t until 1999, when headphone manufacturers started messing with the balance of audio signals, that things really took off. This technology, which uses balanced unit amplification, has changed the way premium-level headphones sound over the last 20 years.
In this article, we discuss the differences between balanced and unbalanced headphones and cables. you’ll learn how this can affect the quality of sound you get from your headphones, whether or not you can actually hear the difference, and much more.
balanced vs unbalanced headphones (which is better?)
When we talk about the difference between balanced and unbalanced headphones and audio signals, we’re really talking about the difference between two specific types of cables (full guide here) used to transmit audio on this hardware type.
It really comes down to the type of cables (and the number of cables) you are using in these cable configurations.
In a nutshell, unbalanced audio cables traditionally just use two different cables in their audio signal setup.
You have a ground wire (a wire that protects you from electrical surges, fires, etc.) and then you have a signal wire, the wire that transmits the audio signal to your headphones, which helps produce the sound you hear in both ears.
The problem with this setup, of course, is that unbalanced audio cables, with only one signal cable, will inevitably generate a lot of additional interference as the signal moves through that cable towards the headphone settings.
all that extra interference will degrade the overall quality of the audio, although the extent of the degradation can be mitigated in a couple of different ways.
Balanced cables use a three-wire configuration. it has that same single ground wire installed for safety, but it also has two separate signal wires.
These signal cables carry the audio signal to the headphone compartments, and since you’re setting up a dual signal here, it eliminates a lot of the extra interference that would have hindered your listening experience.
Doesn’t seem like much of a difference (an extra cable, really), but the physics behind this kind of setup changes everything.
Before your audio signal is transmitted through your balanced cable system, a built-in transformer actually reverses the polarity of the signal on each cable.
this means that the “positive” signal of your audio goes to one cable while an exact duplicate of that signal, but the other way around, making it “negative”, goes to a different cable. the positive lead is called the hot lead, the negative lead is called the cold lead.
both cables will still get a little bit of interference (about the same amount as a single unbalanced cable), but because the polarities of the signals reverse and then reverse when they hit your headphones, the signal from audio comes out very clear as the interference becomes negative.
This simple little tweak cleans up your audio in a huge way.
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frequently asked questions
can you hear the difference between balanced and unbalanced headphones?
Many people wonder whether or not it is possible to hear the difference between a balanced and unbalanced audio signal, and whether balanced output hardware really makes a difference.
To tell the truth, it does. Most people are going to hear a big difference between a signal sent through an unbalanced audio cable and a signal sent through a balanced one.
At the same time, the difference between the audio you hear over balanced connections versus unbalanced cables will also come down to a variety of other factors.
One thing, your own hearing abilities are going to have a big impact on the difference a balanced and unbalanced connection makes. if your ears are very sensitive or your hearing is excellent, then yes, you will notice the difference between balanced connections and unbalanced cables almost immediately.
The quality of your audio source will also have a big impact on the type of audio signals you receive in your headphones.
If you’re playing tracks that have undergone lossy compression (eg, converted/downgraded to mp3), the detailed nuances that balanced signals produce will be more difficult to detect.
does balanced audio sound better?
Balanced connections and balanced audio signals will unequivocally transmit a stronger, clearer signal with much less interference. that’s a fact.
In a studio setup, you definitely want all of your audio cables balanced top to bottom to eliminate as much interference as humanly possible. interference in the world of professional audio is a capital sin and must be reduced at all costs. Of course, you need to make sure all your equipment supports balanced connections first, or you’ll be wasting your time.
It becomes even more critical on stages like live concerts, where there are many cables strewn around the venue, introducing interference to every instrument and microphone.
That said, if you’re not a producer, musician, or anyone working in pro audio, and all you’re looking for is a good-sounding pair of headphones to get you running in the morning, bombing might not be the way to go. need to look for expensive balanced headphones.
Are balanced headphones really a better option?
Now that we’ve talked a bit more about the importance of balanced signals (as well as some of their drawbacks), it’s time to decide if balanced headphones are really the best choice for premium sound quality strong>or if you can get away with unbalanced setups.
For starters, just know that a balanced signal will be able to provide much more power at a much faster response time.
Some in the music production world have done some research on how much more power balanced versus unbalanced headphones deliver, and the general consensus is that you get about four times the power delivery > when the same supply voltage is used.
Right off the bat that sounds like a big deal, unless of course you’re using an amp.
In a vacuum, balanced headphones are definitely more powerful, but on a live stage, especially when plugged into a studio setting, the odds are pretty good that your headphones have a working amp.
That amplification (especially when it comes from a differential amplifier) will have a huge impact on the audio connection. the balanced signal is going to be pure and clean, but the two cables are going to have quite a bit of interference and the overall sound quality may not increase as much as you’d expect. away.
On the other hand, there are some sound engineers who absolutely won’t touch a pair of headphones unless they have balanced cables.
These professionals believe that a balanced amplifier offers a much improved overall audio experience due to the way balanced cables and double the speed of response of the amplifier voltage.
this has a lot to do with the overall speed of the amp you’re using, although again in “real world” situations it’s so questionable about what a difference it’s going to make to the sound you actually hear.
When you get to the bottom of it, there’s no real question as to whether or not balanced headphones are a better choice for those who need top-notch audio quality and crystal clarity.
if you’re in the music production industry, if you’re a musician who records your own music, or if you want to hear music in the purest possible form, with as little interference as possible. be – then balanced headphones are the only way to go.
Those looking for headphones for more casual listening can get away with wireless options that have almost no sway at all, as well as unbalanced wired headphones that are “decent” in real-world situations.
choice of balanced headphones depending on the types of signal cable connection
yes, you want to spend money on a balanced amp and balanced cables.
yes, you want to spend money on high quality balanced headphones from a company like sennheiser, especially if sound quality is absolutely essential. the balanced connection you get from headphones from a company like this will always be top notch.
At the same time, however, you should also look at the type of connections your headphones have to your audio source. this is often overlooked and makes many people happy with the fully balanced headphones they buy through no fault of their own.
Believe it or not, that simple little 3.5mm headphone jack makes a world of difference when it comes to choosing the right channel to get the right sound and produce the kind of quality you’re looking for.
It’s actually quite easy to tell if the new headphones you bought have a balanced connector just by looking at them!
The ts (tip and sleeve) and trs (tip, ring, sleeve) headphone connections are easy to spot simply by the physical nature of the connection itself; all of them are unbalanced connections.
Those who are interested in balanced headphones with balanced headphone jacks will want to take a closer look at the four-pin xlr connections. these are slightly more advanced connections than you’ll find on higher-end audio gear (like sennheiser options, for example) and let you know right away that they’re part of a balanced audio setup.
Typically, consumer portable balanced headphones eschew xlr connections, opting instead for trrs (tip, ring, ring, sleeve) connections.
Like the unbalanced options we mentioned a moment ago, the main difference here is that you get an additional ring on these connections, which produces the balance you need to eliminate any potential balance issues. ground connection.
Focus on the connector when shopping for a new pair of headphones and you’ll never have to worry about audio quality being affected by a component you (like so many others) may have overlooked.
All in all, as long as you focus on the details listed above, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting high-quality headphones that sound great no matter what you’re listening to. a!
(If you’re just starting out in audio and don’t need high-end balanced headphones, you can check out our guide to the 5 best studio headphones under $200.)