In every music studio, cables are as necessary as the gear itself. When connecting your monitors to an audio interface, you can use balanced (stereo) or unbalanced (mono) cables. But one type is far better than the other.
Balanced cables are better for studio monitors. Because of how they’re built, they can reduce unnecessary noise in your signal. This low buzzing sound is typical of unbalanced cables and can interfere with your monitoring process.
In this article, I’ll explain how audio cables work, the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables, and why you should always choose balanced cables for your studio monitors.
Table of Contents
- Understanding How Audio Cables Work With Studio Monitors
- The Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
- Using Balanced Cables for Studio Monitors
- Final Thoughts on Mono or Stereo Cables for Studio Monitors
Understanding How Audio Cables Work With Studio Monitors
There are a variety of audio cables used in a recording studio.
They come in different shapes and designs; some are exclusively made for special equipment. Today, I’ll focus on the cables specifically used for studio monitors.
An audio cable designed for studio monitors contains several wires inside it. First, it has a conductive wire, typically made of copper. This wire moves the audio signal through the cable.
The other wire inside the cable is the ground wire. Its job is to earth the electrical current so there are no electric shocks or fire outbreaks in the event of a short circuit.
All electric cables are known to produce an electromagnetic field around them. Every electromagnetic induces a current, meaning if two cables are close to each other, they will create a current in each other. This current interferes with the quality of the signal in the cable.
Add more cables and sound equipment in the studio, and this effect multiplies. This is probably why you’ve noticed a low buzzing sound of around 60 Hz when you plug in a particular cable.
Now, to reduce this inference, manufacturers shield the cable. This involves wrapping braided wires or metal foil around the conductive wire and sending the shielding to the ground.
However, shielding is not enough to completely eliminate electrical interference. This is where balanced cables come in.
The Difference Between Balanced and Unbalanced Cables
If you’re new to the nuances of working with recording equipment, the many different types of cables and equipment can feel daunting. Let’s review the difference between balanced (stereo) and unbalanced (mono) cables.
Mono Cables Transmit Unmanipulated Signals
The cables are called “unbalanced” because they transmit a signal without making any changes to it.
In the case of studio monitor cables, the signal moves from the DAW through the audio interface and to your monitors without being manipulated.
Unbalanced cables contain a single conductive wire with shielding around them. Although the shielding is grounded, it also acts as a return path for the signal. This means that any interference that might occur in the cable will leak into your audio path, especially if you’re using longer cables.
Unbalanced cables are fine for transmitting signals in non-stereo equipment, such as connecting a guitar to an amp. Even then, things can get slightly distorted if the cable exceeds 20 feet (6.1 meters).
The longer the cable, the more prone it is to picking up humming noise interference from surrounding equipment, transformers, and power sockets.
All the cables are capable of picking up external noise signals. You can reduce this noise interference by placing your unbalanced cables far from other equipment signals. In addition, ensure that there is a wide space between them and power cables in the studios.
You can quickly identify an unbalanced cable by its type of connectors. Usually, they have a TS sleeve (tip and sleeve) without a ring. Others have RCA cable connectors which are typically black and red. They can be seen in turn tables and vintage sound equipment.
Stereo Cables Utilize Two Conductive Wires
Balanced cables, on the other hand, contain two conductive wires that move the signal.
They include grounded shielding around them, except it is not part of the signal path this time.
The two wires are wrapped tightly around each other, with one wire carrying a “hot” signal and another containing a “cold” signal. The cold signal is, however, inverted. Once it reaches your monitor, it is reinverted and added to your hot signal.
If there’s any interference in the balanced signal, it will affect both the signals in pretty much the same way. When the inversion occurs, the noise will change phase and get canceled out. This is how a balanced cable solves the problem of interference and gives you a cleaner sound.
Balanced cables have a TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) connector. These are the ones you should look out for when choosing cables for your monitors. The tip is for the hot signal, the ring for the cold signal, and the sleeve for the ground.
External Line Return (XLR) cables, normally used on microphones, are also balanced cables.
Using Balanced Cables for Studio Monitors
It’s common to assume that a balanced cable will produce a balanced output.
This is not necessarily true because your studio monitors are independent of each other. When connected to your computer, each monitor receives a mono signal. When coupled together, this is how you get the stereo output.
There are a few other factors to keep in mind before committing to a setup that uses balanced cables.
Ensure Balanced Cables Are Compatible With Your Monitors
Before choosing balanced cables for your studio monitor, check to see if your equipment supports them. On your monitors, you should have an input for these cables at the back.
A lot of home studio owners connect their monitors to their DAW via an audio interface.
At the back of most audio interfaces, there will be a quarter-inch output where a balanced cable will go in.
Consider Price When Choosing Cables
The second factor you should consider when getting a balanced cable is price.
The price of balanced cables varies widely from low-end to mid-range to high-end cables. The price differences are due to the materials used and, to some extent, marketing campaigns.
Briefly put, the type of conductive material mainly used determines the price of a cable. The cheap cables typically use copper, while the more expensive ones may use silver conductors. There is a difference in the quality of audio signal transmission between these two metals, albeit negligible.
Also, the metal used on the connectors might determine the price tag on a cable. Gold tip connectors are more expensive because they withstand corrosion better. Although, it’s safe to say that silver connectors offer outstanding performance too.
Final Thoughts on Mono or Stereo Cables for Studio Monitors
Mono or unbalanced studio monitor cables have their place in a recording studio, but it’s not behind your monitors.
If you want a clean sound out of your monitors, go for balanced cables. They are better built for reducing unnecessary noise that might be picked up from other audio equipment in your studio.
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