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What are balanced and unbalanced headphones?
Can you hear any differences between them?
What cables and equipment are needed for balanced headphones?
Headphone technology has come a long way in just the last few years.
Sure, your basic earbud headphones haven’t changed all that much since they first rolled out. And plenty of people love the way those headphones sound – but really love the portability and the convenience that they offer, too.
It wasn’t until 1999 when headphone manufacturers started to play around with balancing audio signals that things really took off. This technology – using balanced drive amplification, has changed the way that premium level headphones sound over the last 20 years.
In this article, we go over the differences between balanced vs unbalanced headphones and cables. You’ll learn how this can impact the quality of sound you’re getting out of your headphones, whether or not you can really hear the difference, and much more.
Balanced vs Unbalanced Headphones (Which Are Better?)
When we are talking about the difference between balanced and unbalanced headphones and audio signals, we are really talking about the difference between two specific types of cables (full guide here) used to transmit audio in this type of hardware.
It really all comes down to the kind of wires (and the number of wires) you’re using in these cable setups.
Simply put, unbalanced audio cables traditionally only use two different wires in their audio signals set up.
You have a ground wire (a wire that protects you from electrical overloads, fires, etc.) and then you have a signal wire – the wire that transmits the audio signal to your headphones, helping to produce the sound that you hear in both ears.
The trouble with this setup, of course, is that unbalanced audio cables – with just one signal wire– are going to inevitably carry a lot of extra interference as the signal moves through that cable to the headphone set up.
All of that extra interference is going to degrade the overall audio quality, though the extent of the degradation can be mitigated in a couple of different ways.
Balanced cables use a three-wire setup. You have that same singular ground wire installed for safety but then you have two separate signal wires as well.
These signal wires carry the audio signal to the headphone compartments, and because you are running a dual signal set up here you eliminate a lot of the extra interference that would have cluttered up your listening experience.
It doesn’t seem like that much of a difference – one extra wire, really – but the physics behind this kind of setup changes absolutely everything.
Before your audio signal is transmitted through your balanced cable system a built-in transformer actually reverses the polarity of the signal in each wire.
This means that the “positive” signal of your audio goes into one wire while an exact duplicate of that signal – but reversed, making it “negative” – runs into a different wire. The positive wire is called the hotwire, the negative wire is called the cold wire.
Both of these wires are still going to pick up a little bit of interference (about the same amount as a single, unbalanced cable would) – but because the polarities of the signals are reversed, and then reversed back when they hit your headphones, the audio signal comes out crystal clear as interference is turned negative.
This one simple little adjustment cleans up your audio in a huge way.
Can You Hear the Difference Between Balanced vs Unbalanced Headphones?
A lot of people wonder whether or not it’s possible to hear the difference between a balanced and unbalanced audio signal, and whether or not balanced output hardware really makes a difference.
Truth be told, it does. Most people are going to hear a major difference between a signal sent over an unbalanced audio cable and a signal sent over a balanced one.
At the same time, the difference between the audio that you hear over balanced connections versus unbalanced cables is going to come down to a variety of other factors as well.
One thing, your own hearing capabilities are going to have a huge impact on how much of a difference a balanced and unbalanced connection makes. If your ears are really sensitive or your hearing is top-notch, then yes you are going to notice the difference between balanced connections and unbalanced cables almost right away.
The quality of your audio source is also going to have a huge impact on the kind of audio signals you’re getting into your headphones.
If you are playing tracks that have undergone lossy compression (e.g. converted/degraded to MP3), the detailed nuances that balanced signals produce will become harder to detect.
Does Balanced Audio Sound Better?
Balanced connections and balanced audio signals are unequivocally going to carry a clearer, stronger signal with a lot less interference. That’s a fact.
In a studio setup, you definitely want ALL of your audio cables to be balanced from top to bottom to eliminate as much interference as humanly possible. Interference in the professional audio world is a cardinal sin and should be reduced at all costs. Of course, you should make sure all your gear supports balanced connections first or you are wasting your time.
Quarter inch TRS Stereo Cable, designed to connect pro audio gear and DJ equipment such as studio monitors, mixers, amplifiers, and similar devices with balanced phone jacks. It may also be used as a stereo interconnect.
It becomes even more mission-critical in settings such as live gigs, where there are loads of cables sprawled across the venue, introducing interference into every instrument and mic.
That being said, if you aren’t a producer, musician, or anyone who works in professional audio, and all you’re looking for are a pair of good sounding headphones that’ll get you through your morning jog, shelling out for expensive balanced headphones might not be necessary.
Are Balanced Headphones Really a Better Option?
Now that we have talked a little bit more about the importance of balanced signals (as well as some of their drawbacks), it’s time to decide whether or not balanced headphones really are the better option for top-tier sound quality or if you can get away with unbalanced setups.
For starters, just know that a balanced signal is going to be able to provide a lot more power in a much faster response time.
Some in the music production world have done a little bit of research into just how much more power balanced vs unbalanced headphones provide, and the general consensus is you get a delivery of about four times the power when using the same power supply voltage.
Right out of the gate that sounds like a huge deal, unless of course you are using an amplifier.
In a vacuum, balanced headphones definitely are more powerful – but in a live setting, especially when hooked up in a studio environment, the odds are pretty good that your headphones are going to have an amplifier running to them.
That amplification (especially when it’s coming from a differential amplifier) is going to have a huge impact on the audio connection. The balanced signal is going to be pure and crisp, but the two wires are going to be running some pretty significant amounts of interference and the overall sound quality might not jump up as much as you expect it to right away.
On the flip side of things, you have some sound engineers that absolutely will not touch a pair of headphones unless they are running balanced cables.
These professionals believe that a balanced amplifier drive delivers a much improved overall audio experience because of the way that the balanced cables and double the slew rate of the amplification voltage.
This has a lot to do with the overall speed of the amplifier that you are running, though again in “real world” situations it’s so questionable about how much of a difference it’s going to make on the sound that you actually hear.
When you get right down to it, there’s no real question about whether or not balanced headphones are a better option for those that need top-tier audio quality and crystalline clarity.
If you’re in the music production industry, if you are a musician recording your own music, or if you want to listen to music in the purest form possible – with as little interference as can be – then balanced headphones are the only way to go.
Those looking for headphones to do more casual listening can get away with wireless options that have next to no balancing whatsoever as well as unbalanced wired headphones that are “decent” in real-world situations.
Choosing Balanced Headphones Based on Signal Wire Connection Types
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 out of a company like this one will always be top-tier.
At the same time, though, you need to look at the type of connections that your headphones have with your audio source as well. This is often overlooked and result in a lot of people being happy with the fully balanced headphones that they purchase through absolutely no fault of those headphones at all.
Believe it or not, that little unassuming 3.5mm headphone jack makes a huge difference when it comes to the right channel getting the right sound and producing the kind of quality you are after.
Really it’s pretty easy to tell if your new headphone purchase has a balanced connector just by looking at it!
Those that are interested in balanced headphones with balanced headphone connectors are going to want to look closer at four-pin XLR connections. These are slightly more advanced connections that you’ll find on high-end audio equipment (like Sennheiser options, for example) and let you know straight away that they are part of a balanced audio setup.
Portable, consumer-grade balanced headphones usually steer clear of XLR connections, instead opting for TRRS (Tip, Ring, Ring, Sleeve) connections.
Similar to the unbalanced options we mentioned a moment ago, the major difference here is that you get an extra ring on these connections – producing the balance you need to eliminate any potential grounding issues.
Focus on the connector when buying a new pair of headphones and you’ll never have to worry about audio quality getting tanked by a component you (like so many others) may have overlooked.
All in all, as long as you zero in on the details included above you shouldn’t have any trouble whatsoever getting your hands on high-quality headphones that sound fantastic no matter what you are listening to!