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Determining the difference between the wide array of cables in the audio industry can be quite confusing, especially if you are new to the field. Fortunately for you, there are plenty of resources to help you along the way. But, it is always a good idea to start with the basics like knowing if a stereo cable is balanced or not.
A stereo cable is not balanced because its wiring is aimed for left/right channels + ground as opposed to mono, balanced wiring that is structured as a positive/negative signal + ground. A balanced TRS cable is a mono cable. To achieve a “balanced” stereo cable, you would need two balanced mono cables combined under the same sleeve.
The structuring of these cables has to do with the effective transmission of audio or analog signals through the cable wiring.
Creating a balanced signal (with dual polarity) is key to reducing the noise interference that is common with unbalanced cables. This can all seem a bit overwhelming for someone who is new to the audio industry. So, let’s take a look at the different terminology broken down to create a more clear understanding of how (stereo) cables work.
What is the Difference Between Mono and Stereo?
To get started on the breakdown of several concepts in regards to audio cables, it is important to review a few of the basic components. These will, hopefully, help you to more clearly understand the wiring inside of the cables you are working with.
With that knowledge, you can bolster a better use of the wide range of cables that you will work within your home or professional audio work.
While a mono cable uses one audio channel to record and transmit an audio signal, a stereo cable uses two channels for transmitting audio from input/output source. These differences are important in how they affect the overall sound quality and functionality of the equipment they are used for.
In some instances, you will be able to use a stereo cable to transmit signals into an unbalanced receiver (mono jack). However, it is important to recognize the differences in how and when to use these. Importantly, you should notice that there are mono and stereo cables as well as jacks.
When you think of mono (whether in terms of cable or jack), remember that the root meaning of the singular context has to do with the number of channels that audio is transmitted on. In contrast, stereo (cables or jacks) refers to two audio channels used for the same type of transmission.
While a mono cable will use positive, negative, and ground wiring, a stereo (unbalanced) cable will use a left/right audio channels + ground (transmitting signals to multiple audio channels simultaneously as opposed to transmitting to just one channel).
On the other hand, the difference in a mono jack and stereo jack has to do with the number of prongs that can be found. Mono jacks have two prongs (ground + power) while stereo jacks have three prongs (ground + power + power switching). In using these, you will find that the main noticeable difference will obviously be the sound that the appropriate cabling enables.
Keep in mind that it is important to use the right types of cables when working with your various input/output equipment. Using the wrong setup will not only inhibit the desired creation of sound that you are aiming to achieve, but it can also yield negative (and harmful) effects on your sound equipment.
How Do You Know if a Stereo Cable is Balanced or Unbalanced?
So you are looking to make sure that you have the appropriate cables for your audio production or recording purposes. But, you might be wondering if the cable balance is something that you can know just by looking at the exterior of your cable.
While those who are familiar in the industry will recognize different types of cables and what they are used for, is this possible for you?
Distinguishing a balanced vs. unbalanced cable can be done in two ways. Interiorly, a balanced cable has 2 wires for signal transmission + 1 ground wire while an unbalanced cable has 1 signal + 1 ground wire. Exteriorly, the balanced cable has 3 contact points (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) where the unbalanced cable has 2 contact points (Tip, Sleeve).
The more that you work with cables, the more easily you will get the hang of understanding how the different cables work with your equipment. Importantly, you should note that the difference in the balanced status of the cables ultimately has to do with the audio signal that is transmitted.
If there are two wires transmitting the same signal but through dual polarity (which flips the signal and cancels out the additional noise produced), then you are working with a balanced cable.
It is important to note that you can use balanced cables with unbalanced jacks, but because of the unbalanced status of the jack that you are using, the signal will remain unbalanced (even though the cable you are using is balanced).
Though the signal that is transmitted in the balanced cable is transmitted through two signals, the unbalanced jack is only able to receive one of these signals. Doing this will not harm your equipment, but you will only be able to benefit from the singular signal transmission allowed by the unbalanced jack.
What is the Difference Between TRS and TS Cables?
At this point, we have referenced the contact points that are used by balanced and unbalanced cables and how these differ.
But, knowing how this works technologically does not always imply that you will know how to distinguish between these types of cables when purchasing them for your various sound needs. So, it is important to continue reviewing the differences.
The difference between TRS and TS cables has to do with the number of contact points on the cable. While the TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) has 3 contact points, the TS (tip, sleeve) only has 2. The ring is what allows the signal balancing effect as it allows for the dual polarity (+/-) in the signal transmission.
You will be able to see these differences on the physical composition of the tip of the cable. When you look closely at a TRS cable, you will see that it has the additional contact point (the ring) that comes between the tip and the sleeve. Contrarily, the TS cable will only have the tip and the sleeve.
Though these look similar, the very small physical component that has been added to the TRS cable makes a very large difference in the cable’s functionality.
The “R” is what connects with the negative wiring which is what allows for the signal to “flip”. This is what cancels out the additional noise that is created (and not processed) on unbalanced signals.
Where the TRS wiring is as follows: T (tip) = positive wiring, R (ring) = negative wiring, and S (sleeve) = ground wiring, the TS cable eliminates the R, and thus eliminates the contact point for negative wire signaling.
If you can picture the wire transmission as a wave traveling in one direction, and then another signal traveling in the opposite direction, then you can understand how dual polarity works.
The flipping of these signals cancels out the noise that is produced between the two. In a balanced TRS cable, you will achieve the desired effect achieving noise reduction.
This will obviously depend on the equipment that you use, too. The cable is just one component of your entire sound system. You will have the inputs and outputs as you work with various speakers in your sound system as well as the equipment that you plan to stream sound from (TVs, guitars, your favorite record player, etc.).
Are Balanced and Stereo the Same Thing?
With many different terms used to describe varying audio equipment, you could become confused and begin to associate the terms together. To distinguish between these can become difficult. Some people assume that balanced and stereo are interchangeable concepts, but this is not true.
“Balanced” refers to the dual polarity of signal transmission allowing for positive and negative wiring and noise reduction through a third contact point on the cable. “Stereo” refers to the multiple channels that the signal transmission is sent to- left or right channels as opposed to a singular (mono) channel.
While you can find products advertised as “balanced” stereo cables, these are not authentically “balanced” in the same way. Instead of having one cable that transmits positive and negative signals, you will have two mono cables transmitting these signals under the same sleeve to achieve the balanced signal propelling to multiple channels.
Hopefully, the ability to distinguish between the basic components of cabling and its associated audio components can help you to know which products you will need to use for your unique sound and audio needs.
However, if you are ever confused and need the advice of a professional, there is no shame in asking for help. It is better to ask questions and use the right equipment than to accidentally damage your new sound system.