Monitor speakers are one of the key components of any home recording studio. They allow you to accurately listen back to the masterpieces you’ve created and tweak till you have that perfect sound. But most monitor speakers come with a variety of inputs and not only that but there are a variety of different cable types that to choose from. This leaves many people asking: “Should I use balanced or unbalanced cables for my monitor speakers?”
For monitor speakers, it is preferential to use balanced cables if you have the correct inputs in your speakers and audio interface. Balanced cables provide a signal that reduces unwanted noise giving you a sound with less interference which is important when monitoring.
In this article, I will do my best to explain the difference between these cable types and why people opt for one type over the other for monitor speakers. I will then cover a few extra questions and at the end of the article I will test out a few options with my speakers before making a final cable recommendation.
How do audio cables work?
A cable is one of the most common pieces of equipment in a home music studio. There are various types (which I will come onto) but they all consist of multiple wires concealed within an outer casing.
The wires serve different functions. The first is a ‘conduction’ or ‘signal’ wire, this is a conductive metal such as copper which is responsible for carrying the audio signal from one component to another. The second is called the ground wire which provides a connection to the earth and prevents electric shock or unwanted fires breaking out.
The transmission of sound along these wires is not perfect due to a variety of factors and this can have implications on the sound coming from your speakers.
Shielding: It’s all about reducing noise interference
You want the sound emitting from your monitor speakers to be as clean as possible. When you are trying to accurately listen and critique the music you have created, the last thing you want is unwanted humming or buzzing sounds which can be distracting and annoying.
The problem is that a modern home studio is full of electrical equipment. Although not obvious most of the time, electrical equipment such as wall sockets emit a sound. In the USA this is a hum around 60hz (and other harmonics) which is equivalent to the alternating current coming from the wall socket.
An audio cable can pick up these unwanted frequencies and thus you may hear them coming from your monitor speakers.
To get around this, manufacturers will try various methods to shield the signal cable. This usually involves the ground wire wrapping around it and then an outer shielding material such as wire braiding, conductive plastic or metal foil.
These techniques work to some degree and definitely help reduce interference but they are never perfect, some interference pretty much always still manages to get through.
So to get around this the balanced cable was created which uses a clever technique to virtually eliminate unwanted noise.
What is Meant by Balanced and Unbalanced?
These terms may feel quite strange to you, they don’t really sound like words that should be associated with musical equipment. I’ll be honest, I used to just ignore them, buy whichever one I saw first and hope it worked. But one day my monitor speakers began to make a buzzing noise. I had to set about trying to figure out what the problem was and one thought was perhaps it is the cable type causing the issue.
Unbalanced cables will simply consist of a single conductor/ signal wire and a ground wire. Apart from any shielding, there is no way to prevent unwanted noise from ending up being emitted from your monitor speakers.
If you only have unbalanced cables the trick is to keep them as short as possible. This reduces the number of wires that can pick up any unwanted sounds from the surrounding environment. This is known as the signal to noise ratio.
Balanced cables use a clever trick to overcome the problem of unwanted noise. It has a second signal wire. In this scenario signal wire 1 is referred to as ‘hot’ and signal wire 2 is referred to as ‘cold’. Within the cable, these two wires are wrapped tightly together so that any noise interference is received equally by them both.
As can be seen in my crude stick man drawing below, the hot wire produces one audio waveform and the cold wire produces the same waveform but inverted (i.e a mirror image). This means when the two signals are combined they effectively cancel each other out due to a phenomenon known as ‘phase cancellation’.
The important part of this technique is that although the two audio signals are inverted the unwanted noise interference is entering both hot and cold wires equally along its length (as shown by the little triangles on the drawing that represent ‘noise’) so the interference is not inverted, it is identical on both wires.
When the signal reaches the end of the cable something known as a ‘differential amplifier’ flips just the cold signal and overlays it back over the hot signal. The cold and hot signals should now be identical because only one has been inverted and because the noise interference was the same on both cables once one is flipped they now cancel one another out.
This means that any of the unwanted noise that you would get in an unbalanced cable is silenced as the sound wave emerges from your monitor speakers. This is why the cables are referred to as ‘balanced’. Very clever stuff!
How do I know if my cables are balanced or unbalanced?
The easiest way to check this is when you are buying the cable. The packaging or specification online should make this clear. If you already own the cables there are a couple of factors that you should look for to identify whether you have a balanced or unbalanced cable.
External Line Return (XLR) cables or microphone cables as they are often known as due to being most commonly used with microphones are balanced cables. If you have a ¼ inch jack make sure it has two bands on it rather than just one, this is known as a Tip, Ring, Sleeve (TRS) connection and means it can send a balanced signal.
If there is only one band then that is known as a TS cable as shown below. This type of cable can only send an unbalanced signal and is meant for use with a guitar to amp connection and other instruments that can’t support a balanced connection.
Which cable type is the best option for monitor speakers?
Most monitor speakers work independently of one another, they each have their own inputs and outputs and each has their own power source. The fact they have a power source makes them ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’.
As they work independently of one another, you can send ‘mono’ signals to each one separately which as a pair (left and right speaker) form a stereo output. This is different from a pair of headphones, for example, which has just one ‘stereo’ cable.
Assuming the above is true and you have two separate speakers which are independent of one another the next step is to take a look at the backs of them. You should notice you have a variety of different options on the back as seen in the pic below of my Yamaha HS7 speaker.
If you don’t have these inputs, or your speakers aren’t individually powered, there is a chance they are ‘passive’ speakers. This will mean they will only be able to receive unbalanced signals, which you know now will probably lead to some unwanted noise interference. In this case, you will either have to put up with that noise or buy some better speakers. I would definitely recommend the latter as a good long term investment. Trying to mix music on speakers which are really intended just to listen to music for enjoyment will lead to all sorts of issues. For more information on why I wrote this detailed article and for my latest recommendations of monitor speakers check out this article.
The second thing to check is what king of outputs you have on your audio interface. In a home studio setup, this is the standard way to connect your computer/laptop or other instruments to the speakers. The audio interface connects, usually via USB, to your laptop. It converts any digital signals coming from your laptop back into audio signals and then sends these down the cables to your speakers. If you look on the back of your audio interface you will see a few options.
In the photo below of my Scarlett Focusrite 2i4 audio interface, a very popular interface in many home music studios, you can see I have the option of ¼ inch speaker outputs on the very right which are handily labeled ‘balanced’. But I don’t have the option of an XLR connection here.
To connect, I’m looking for a balanced ¼ inch cable. The TRS type cable mentioned earlier in the article. TRS stands for Tip, Ring, Sleeve. The tip carries the ‘hot’ signal, the ring carries the cold and the sleeve is the ground. For this reason, it is capable of carrying a balanced mono signal.
Note: a TRS cable can carry a stereo signal but it will be unbalanced as the hot and cold wires must carry one signal each.
In this case, the output can support balanced cables which is great as you now know from my earlier explanation that this will reduce the likelihood of any unwanted noise interference. If on the back of your interface or in it’s manual you notice the words ‘unbalanced’ then this means that unfortunately, you don’t have the option of using balanced. In this case, keep the cables as short as you can to minimize the distance over which unwanted interference can be picked up by the cables.
How much should I spend on my monitor speaker cables?
In these modern times where we have access to products from all over the world, often delivered to us the next day with the simple click of a mouse. This is great as we can get hold of pretty much anything we want, but it also means we are often overwhelmed by choice. Sometimes a difference in price genuinely reflects a measurable difference in quality, but more often than not the relationship between price and quality is not exact.
So when it comes to buying cables, is there really any difference between the cheap options and the premium options?
In general, balanced cables tend to be priced slightly higher than unbalanced, simply due to them having slightly fewer parts.
The difference usually comes in the quality of the conductor and shielding.
A more expensive cable will have a more expensive conductor material. Whereas a cheap option may use copper, a more expensive model might use much more expensive metals such as silver.
As with the conductor wire the connectors may also contain more expensive metals to help provide a better connection and to extend the lifespan of the cable. You may see some TRS cables labeled as having ‘gold tips’.
How to connect a laptop to monitor speakers without an audio interface
Well, my first recommendation would be to buy one. I would say, after my laptop, my audio interface is the most used and maybe most important item in my home studio. It allows you to do so much more and improves recording quality for under $100 in many cases.
But if you insist on not buying one then you can still make it work.
You will notice your laptop or computer will only have one ‘headphone’ output. This is a stereo output, meaning it can send different signals to your left or right speaker. This is different from the two separate mono outputs seen on the audio interface above which sends two different mono signals to either the left or right speaker separately.
You can output to your two monitor speakers by using something known as a Y cable. This has a ⅛th inch stereo headphone jack at one end which then splits into two separate ¼ inch mono jacks. This will work fine but it is only possible to send an unbalanced signal this way. So if you have to do this try and keep the cable length short and minimize the amount of other electronic equipment you have hanging around the studio.
I bought some readily available cables from Amazon to do a test and see which cables perform best in my home studio. All the cables I bought were reasonably priced and should be affordable to all.
In my studio, I have two Yamaha HS7 monitor speakers which will be connected to my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface.
Option 1 – Unbalanced instrument cables
The first cable I tested was a shielded ‘low noise’ instrument cable. As is standard with instrument cables, it is unbalanced. You can verify this by looking at the jack in the picture above. You can see there is only one band, making this simply a TS connection rather than a TRS connection.
The cable is fairly short at around 3m but when plugged in you can definitely hear a definite annoying hum and buzz from all the other electrics I have in the studio.
Option 2 – Balanced ¼ inch to ¼ inch
My second option was a balanced TRS to TRS cable. I went for the 7ft option but there are a variety of length options to choose from click here to have a look for yourself.
Plugged in and speaker turned on I was greeted with virtual silence! I checked the speaker by playing something to check it was actually turned on and it sounded great, a huge improvement on the unbalanced TS instrument cable.
Option 3 – Balanced ¼ inch to XLR
The final option is the ¼ inch TRS to Male XLR. I bought this one from Amazon.
In the case of my monitor speakers, I needed a Male end XLR. Unlike TRS cables there are two types of XLR connection, male and female. Make sure you check your speaker’s input carefully prior to ordering to check yours also requires a male connection.
The same as with option 2 this balanced cable was virtually silent when plugged in and when I played some test tracks trough the monitors it sounded great.
So the balanced cables are definitely worth getting for your home studio. But the connection type is just a matter of personal preference. I think I’m going to stick to the TRS to TRS cables because I like how they are easier to get out from the back of the speakers. The XLR connection is more secure, but that means it can be a pain to disconnect when required.