RCA vs XLR

If you don’t have noise, balanced won’t be a help, really. But, VPI does allow a BALANCED BOX to be added to some of their products.

I use ICONOCLAST UPOCC 1x4 RCA cables and have zero noise issues with the ground design used in the RCA cable.

Noise INCLUDES the input end, too. RCA is far simpler and thus less prone to coloration. But, if the input side also adds a jump in DCR, it can ADD noise to the RCA system that the cable isn’t…it’s all going to add up.

The RCA are smaller and plenty flexible even in the ICONOCLAST Teflon design. Don’t use XLR modified as RCA or the benefits of a good RCA aren’t going to be heard, the basis in each design is very different as I
tried to convey earlier.

Both systems can be pretty good if you use the right cables. XLR in short lengths won’t be impacted much by common to differential noise conversion over a shorter reach. Then again, the benefits of noise reduction aren’t there.

The big XLR advantage is a stronger signal, and that’s not to be trifled with when using a low output device since better S/N ratio can provide a seriously good bump in “blackness”. This is what is really happening with the change to XLR.

The better XLR signal level is what you are after using XLR, especially if you have NOISE already. It is the right step to mitigate the problem.

I use a Pass Labs XP-25, so the RCA is perfectly fine in my system so “better” isn’t really better at the noise level I experience with RCA (can’t hear it eight inches from the speaker).

Best,
Galen Gareis

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My brother just ordered the Jensen so we’ll know soon the difference in sound between the ZBIT and Jensen. He will use the Jensen on his Digital system. His analog sounds way better than his digital so he will use the better, which probably be the ZBIT on the analog. His Mac Mini even with the Matrix 2 and all the tweaks, is not even close to his analog, so that is the main system. He is waiting for a good server, maybe the upcoming Octave.

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We seem to be trying to lump the sound onto just the cable. That’s not going to work, or even come close to “universally” saying this cable or that cable type is better. There is simply no winner in that war and here is why;

  • I touched on how the CABLE itself works. It’s just the physics.
  • The I/O stages are as significant as the amp or pre amp you use. Sometimes more so.
  • Balanced can be true balanced all the way through, with no ground reference and isolated “hots”, with JUST the potential between each of the two wires. Less electronics at the input stage but twice the electronics past the input.
  • Balanced can go into a differential amp and be converted to single ended circuit. More electronics at the input stage.
  • Unbalanced can go straight into the input stage with no electronics and, less electronics past the input stage, which is usually just a resistor.

Circuits can be DESIGNED as balanced or unbalanced, and the cable that best meets the basic circuit design will work the best. If you use a true unbalanced circuit, use and RCA. If it is truly balanced, use an XLR.

Both balanced and unbalanced types can “convert” the input to the fundamental circuit design with some trade-off in performance. The input that isn’t matching the actual circuit past the input stage is more of a “convenience” to the end user than the ideal cable to use. Using an XLR with PIN 2 hot to PIN 1 ground isn’t really an ideal top performance RCA cable, it just gets close to acting like and RCA cable. Likewise an RCA into a transformer or differential amp isn’t as good as an output stage that is already true balances onto the right cable.

Check you equipment and see what it’s native circuit design is/are. Best is to MATCH the output to the input. True balanced into true balanced. Unbalanced into unbalanced. Both circuits can be very good done right…and biased for their intended cicuit topology.

Sometimes we have a single ended preamp feeding a true balanced amp. Not the “ideal” match, really. Here we need to experiment some. Which side needs more help? Don’t know. USUALLY it is the active output stage, over a resistive input stage as that’s where the signal gets distorted and once it’s messed up, it stays that way.

BOTH sides being matched, with good cable of course, can sound terrific. But to universally say you are missing something not using balanced isn’t true, and is missing something in the claim of one cable over another. Same the opposite way around, many unbalanced systems are really good. More information is needed to define “better” than to say XLR is always better. It isn’t.

Each circuit topology will be designed for a biased set of parameters; great ground plane consistency or true balanced input with ground isolated polarities and no input op amp conversion. Those circuit design differences force a cable design bias as well. It can’t be any other way.

Galen Gareis

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Galen
Thanks for your “master classes” on cable design.
I’ve been curious about my setup (all Iconoclast cables), which is balanced into my XP-30 preamp and RCA out to my SE only amp. Is there any issue with this arrangement? I don’t hear any deficit but I’m curious if I should be all RCA.
Ron

i assume all PS Audio equipment is properly balanced. If so, should I even consider using RCA cables? I am using the DSD dac in to the BHK 300s.

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The XP-30 is a true balanced design, and why the RCA has to use a shorting PIN jumper used with RCA (to remove the negative voltage channel). You can do this two ways…
-) if you use a XLR to the amp and the SE amp has a cheater arrangement (steals PIN 2 to PIN 1) this negates the XLR’s function to a single ended arrangement. Here it is better to use an RCA as that’s how the signal is being “moved” down the wire.

-)Some units are balanced out only, and if you go very far it is better it is better to use a differential amp stage at the amp, and convert the signal to SE at that point so the signal is “moved” from A to B properly and with minimal noise.

-) If the SE amp has a true differential input circuit inside, that converts the balanced input to a single ended input use an XLR from the true balanced preamp. This will keep noise out up to the difference amplifier in the amps front end. It is rare that single ended amps have the proper balanced input option that is then taken SE from there into the amp past the input stage.

-) if you have a single end only preamp to a balanced only input amp, convert the single end at the send end to XLR with a differential amp. Thus, send the signal the longer distance over XLR.

If you are using a true singe ended amp, yes, use a true RCA cable to get the best possible noise performance going to your amp from the XP-30. If the amp is balanced internally, you’d want to use the balanced out.

If you use a XLR to a single ended amp with a cheater input circuit, the XLR cable will not work as well as a true RCA and is exactly WHY I won’t wire an XLR as and RCA. Use the right cable so it works at it’s peak design potential.

Most better / worse than issues are simply a mismatch in the proper cable’s between each component. I use BOTH RCA and XLR as appropriate and there are indeed appropriate uses.

Best,
Galen Gareis

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Yes, PS Audio is balanced. I’ve had issues with hum/buzzing using RCA into the BHK’s and ZERO issues with the proper balanced cable runs as far as 35 feet. These amps are sensitive to the proper cables.

Best,
Galen Gareis

Thanks Galen. The amp is an XA25 and I’m pretty sure it’s not internally balanced.
Your cables work perfectly with the transparency of the preamp and amp.

I’m all clear on the synergy of maintaining a balanced (or unbalanced) connection from source to cable to pre (or amp), so no need to rehash that. I’m still a little stuck on the phono cartridge as the “source” though. I did a quick search, and surprisingly, one of the first links was to a Paul’s Daily Post from 2016! He talks specifically about the phono cartridge being balanced and, the shocker, the input of the NPC is balanced even though it uses an RCA connector! I’m sure I read this, but I sure don’t remember it. I still have the NPC, but the Stellar Phono sounds much better. I did search the owners manual for both the NPC and Stellar Phono and neither one mentions the input is balanced. So … Now the $64,000 questions is … does the Stellar Phono have a balanced input? Paul or Darren, what say you?

Same issues. Cartridges are indeed balanced by nature but converted to single end 99.9% of the time. But, the balanced conversions will ONLY help if the headamp is a truly balanced circuit, and not a single end circuit. So you are correct, you need to see if the input is a BALANCED circuit with XLR’s wired treu balanced with the RCA being a cheater plug input (PIN 2 is the center pin of the RCA and PIN 1 is the ground). If it is a single end circuit by design, keep the phono leads unbalanced and use RCAs.

Best,
Galen Gareis

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My brother told me how much better the Decware made his analog system sound so I went over to check it out myself. We were listening when the doorbell rang. I didn’t even hear it since we were playing quite loud on a drum passage. My brother faintly heard it and answered. It was the mailman and he said he was ringing the bell for a long time and asked if we were playing the drums in the house. The delivery was the Jensen my brother ordered. Oh boy, now we can compare it to the Decware, but wait, they send the wrong Jensen. It was RCA in and XLR out, the opposite of what he ordered. Shoot!!! He has to send it back. Anyway, at least I heard what the Decware is doing in my brother’s setup. In a word astounding!!! I don’t know how the Decware can change the sound so much even though we were adding a box and another cable in the process. , but the clarity and presence and detail was much more pronounced with the Decware. Of course he had to turn down the level to mach the RCA.
Now I understand why he wanted to buy another one for his digital.We also try it on the digital side and same results. Now he is thinking about returning the Jensen and just get another Decware instead, even if it does cost a little more. Why compromise because of cost.

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I’m glad you got to experience that. The Decware ZBIT really is a wonderful product. . . . I imagine it is better than the Jensen unit, but have never compared them. I agree that it would be a great thing to have another ZBIT from Decware. The only drawback is. . . a long wait for it to be built. I have only seen one go up for sale used in the last 18 months. . . and luckily I bought it for my other system. . . .:wink:

Whatever you do, don’t let him try the Decware ZROCK2. Because he’ll have to have two of those as well!

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“And as @owlsalum mentioned, just because a component has XLR inputs/outputs, does not mean that it is truly balanced (fully differential).” = No, I talked to Primare about my Primare A34.2’s on how to use/bi-amp them and they said that I should bridge my two Primare A34.2’s and run each amp to its own loudspeaker since they became fully balanced then like their bigger A60 power-amp so there are differences in how things get “balanced”.

My understanding is that XLR was designed for longer runs, especially in pro audio situations. Thus with shorter runs, maybe up to a couple of meters or so, the idea that XLR is better is not true. In fact, a number of top quality audio companies will tell you that their unbalanced ouputs are just as good as the balanced ones with their gear, and some say RCA is in fact better. My hunch is that the higher output voltage of some balanced circuits vs. unbalanced has led to the belief that they are better in general.

Maybe it depends on which brand is your component. But I know for sure I can hear the Advantages of XLR in the Esoteric C-02 preamp and the Esoteric A-02 power amp. Using a 1 meter WW Platinum Eclipse 8 RCA and a 1 meter WW Platinum Eclipse 8 XLR connected at the same time since Esoteric has both RCA and XLR outputs on preamp and power amp, it was easy to switch between the two with the flip of the switch on the back of the power amp. The volume does not change between these outputs so volume is the same RCA or XLR. But definitely XLR has more resolution and better sounding. My brother heard it too since it was his RCA cable I borrowed to do this shootout.
Maybe another brand might not have the same result depending on their design, but some brands do take advantage in designing true balance in their products and you can hear it, ands it’s not just not lowering of noise.
We can hear this difference between the DS and preamp also. We did adjust the volume because of the difference of 6db, but it doesn’t matter. Even when we turn up the RCA with a little more volume than XLR, the XLR still sound clearer.
Like I said, not in all components does XLR sounds better, but some do without a doubt. Once you hear it, you cannot go back.

XLR is better over any distance because it negates signal interferance and noise on the line. So yes, even at short distances, balanced will give a purer signal even if it’s minute interference that can’t be heard, it will still be there on RCA.

If an RCA Connector sounds better than an XLR on the same piece of equipment, it’s because the XLR isn’t truly balanced.

So long as the signal path is truly balanced which you would expect the buyer to know before purchase, then there is no argument. It’s just basic electronics.

In the same way that you would assume that people wouldn’t use analogue connectors for a digital source.

I am not sure the foundation of this statement, but it is not factual. See @rower30 posts further up the thread.

With regard to my experience, I have a truly balanced (full differential) chain and this is not the case in my system. My monoblocks have both unbalanced and balanced inputs. The balanced inputs use high quality Jensen transformers and are therefore truly balanced. WIth my photon (non-metallic) interconnects where noise is abolished and not transmitted on the cable (even with unbalanced), I prefer RCA which has no transformers in the signal path.

This all said, I run balanced out from my DS DAC to my pre-amp due to the low voltage of the unbalanced outputs. From my pre-amp to amps, I run RCA (unbalanced) where voltage is not an issue.

Lampi and Lampi dac users say the unbalanced is just as good as the balanced (and two tubes cheaper). I just have unbalanced ones, so can’t tell the difference. If you read Supratek developer Mick Maloney’s blog, he finds his dac’s unbalanced outs better than his balanced ones, though he provides both for the same price. OTOH, with the DSD going directly to balanced active speakers I found the balanced outs were a little better, although it was hard to get the output exactly the same. Going via an unbalanced tube preamp to the speakers, I’ve got no complaints about the RCA outputs. So I guess it depends.

I have used Mick’s preamp with both outputs and don’t find a difference in sound quality in my applications.

Good to hear, because I’ll be needing the balanced outs for my main speakers