Balanced vs Unbalanced Headphones: A Basic Guide

What must you look for when you are buying a new headphone? Great audio and comfort, right? 

Well, the audio part is a bit tricky, so that’s what we are dealing with in detail here. 

There are two types of audio signals in terms of their tendency to pick up interference in transmission: balanced and unbalanced audio. 

And the type of audio signal carried in a headphone depends on the cable it uses. So, it can be easily distinguished. 

Let’s see each in detail, shall we?

Unbalanced Headphone: What’s it about?

As you know, the sound is transmitted through the headphone’s cable as electrical signals. An unbalanced headphone cable has two parts–a live wire/signal wire, and a ground wire. 

The signal wire carries the sound. The ground acts as a reference point to this signal. 

But it also attracts lots of background interference from nearby electrical signals. 

So, if you have live wires humming nearby, that will be caught as interference by the headphone’s ground wire. 

Thus, when the sound reaches the headphone, it is also carrying this interference. 

The end result is, the sound is muddied down. 

Balanced Headphone: How Does it Counteract Interference?

On the other hand, a balanced headphone cable has three parts: a ground wire and two signal wires. 

The two signal wires carry opposite copies of the audio signal. These are called hot and cold signals. 

While the hot signal is the original audio, the cold is its reversed electric signal. 

When conducting through the cable, the balanced cable also picks up nearby interference. But the difference is this:

When the cold signal reaches the headphone, it reverses itself again. This means that any interference picked up along the way is also reversed. 

But the hot signal remains the same and carries the original interferences. 

Thus, the interference signals cancel each other out at the end. This gives crystal clear audio, much better than unbalanced headphones. 

Examples of Balanced and Unbalanced Cables in Headphones

The easiest way to distinguish between balanced and unbalanced headphones is to look at their connectors. Let’s see each of those. 

  • Balanced Headphones: These come with 3 pin XLR connectors or quarter-inch TRS jacks. 

In XLR, you can clearly see 3 male pins for hot and cold signals and ground. TRS headphones jacks have a tip, ring and sleeve where the tip and ring connect the signal wires and the sleeve acts as the ground wire. 

  • Unbalanced Headphones: These come with either RCA cables or TS cables.

RCA cables have right and left connectors, usually red and white in color. TS connectors have just the tip and the sleeve. 

Final Verdict

In comparing balanced vs unbalanced headphones, the former is generally preferred since it offers the clearest audio. There are a couple of things to note here. 

Headphones are not necessarily balanced or unbalanced. Its audio cables are. Also, if you are connecting over large distances, a balanced audio cable is always best. 

Having said that, an unbalanced headphone may not be the worst thing to have. If you aren’t a live performer who is constantly around a lot of interference, the clarity difference might not even be that noticeable. 

But if you have to choose, always try to pick a balanced headphone, because we live in an increasingly electrically charged world. 

Vitaly Fedorov

Vitaly Fedorov is a seasoned audio technician and writer. After spending ten years in a studio team, I have decided to spread my knowledge to people in this domain. On this site, I work for headphone fixing or repair issues, that you’re thinking about fixing. Click on any article on my site and read the complete answer about that issue. I am excited to read your feedback.

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