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‘Unbalanced is Best'? a comparison of balanced and unbalanced

Discussion in 'audio' started by duckworp, Jun 29, 2018.

  1. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    I was pleasantly surprised to read an article entitled Unbalanced Is Best in this quarter's Hi-Fi Critic magazine (the excellent subscription-only print magazine). The writer, Harvey Lovegrove, describes an A/B blind test he did: he compared a fully balanced XLR and an unbalanced RCA interconnect. The results come out clearly in favour of the unbalanced single-ended (RCA) input.

    I say I am ‘pleasantly surprised’ as I have had a similar experience to the writer, but kept quiet as no one quite believed me. I have a Vitus amp and DAC/CD player with fully balanced XLR inputs/outputs as well as traditional RCA connections. After much listening to RCA interconnects I had on demo I ended up choosing the excellent Townshend F1 Fractal interconnect. However, as I have a fully balanced XLR output/input I presumed that the XLR option would be best, but before committing to buy the XLR I demoed the XLR version of the cable and directly compared the sound to the RCA interconnect. In the A/B (not blind) comparison I found the balanced XLR interconnect was not sounding nearly as good as the single-ended RCA. I told Sue from Townshend about my experience, but she was not surprised - I understand Max Townshend maintains RCA does generally provide a better sound than XLR, and this is exactly what I heard. Obviously I purchased the RCA version of the Townshend F1 Fractal interconnect.

    Harvey Lovegrove, a recording professional and journalist writing in HiFi Critic, found exactly the same thing, through A/B blind testing from fully balanced Ayon DAC outputs into D-Sonic Monoblock fully balanced inputs. It surprised him too, but after talking to engineers he post-rationalises and gives complicated engineering explanations for the findings (to be fair it is only complicated as I am no electronics engineer).

    He concludes that a fully balanced system can serve you well if you have things like nasty high-powered lighting systems, massive transformers and dimmer rigs in amongst your system, which is common in the Live environment but not so much in your lounge. So in the domestic environment he maintains you should keep it simple with single-ended inputs.

    His A/B tests completely bear this out: the RCA was better than the XLR version of the same cable.

    The fact that Townshend suggested the RCA would be better than the XLR balanced, the fact that was exactly what I heard, and the fact that Hi-Fi Critic in a blind test reported exactly the same, these things lead me to a conclusion: perhaps my own experience of preferring the sound from the rca interconnect over the balanced XLR interconnect is not so crazy after all.

    Maybe, just maybe, sometimes unbalanced really is best.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2018
  2. Mike Reed

    Mike Reed pfm Member

    What an interesting revelation, if that's what it is. Balanced versus unbalanced controversy has been around for yonks, and Vitus is hardly run of the mill kit with which to make this discovery. You don't say if you arrived at this conclusion by listening just to speakers or with headphones (which can be more analytical) as well. Furthermore, which sources did you use, or was it restricted to one only?

    My valved power amplification has RCA only, but another, almost identical version, has balanced only. A friend swapped his RCA version out for the (newer) balanced version as his (and also my) same make top-of-the-line valved pre. has both balanced and unbalanced.

    The perceived differences in the cables are the shielding and the terminations; the latter in XLR (Cannon) form are generally considered a better connection. However, there are some pretty good (and expensive) RCA plugs around nowadays. here are those who've maintained that balanced cabling comes into its own on long runs (as in studio use, generally), presumably because of the shielding effect.

    Think I'll stick to RCAs, not least as all my kit (4 sources) has them.
  3. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

    I'll stick with Balanced XLR as all my equipment provides no option.

    I think you will find that various engineers of note will argue that Balanced is best, Bruno Putzeys of Hypex, Ki three and former chief engineer of Philips.

    John Westlake of Audiolab MDAC.

    Though the implementation of Balanced designs do vary.

    If you have a system in a room with no transformers and no RFI you are very lucky, my system has 15 transformers in it.

    Van Damme starquad cable and Neutric connectors cost peanuts because the whole of the pro music industry uses it, though as audiophiles we wish to cling to the belief that we know better than they because we are professional listeners. We can hear it and we are prepared to pay a massive premium for that priveledge.

    Even within balanced cables there are differences. Shame this test did not include an RCA lead.

  4. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    B&W 804D speakers. Source was only CD from the Vitus CD player.
  5. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

    Perhaps you ask Max to qualify his findings, or post them in this debate.

    Though as he charges £ 1000/Meter for either version of his Fractal cable maybe not.
    Does Max sell many interconnects to the pro audio community ?

    £ 26 pair for Van Damme here
  6. Folkman

    Folkman pfm Member

    Ok now im no electrical engineer , but with balanced systems you have the extra balancing circuit/transformers in the equipment. Therefore surely you are not only comparing cables but circuits as well.

    In the past Ive always found rca preferable over balanced between my Rega Isis and Osiris. That even applied comparing Chord Music rca to Chord Music balanced. Then I found a certain balanced XLR that was better than anything used before , so that is what I now use.
  7. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    I don't know Max, but when I was talking to Sue about demoing the XLR she said that she would be very surprised if it sounded better.
  8. awkwardbydesign

    awkwardbydesign Officially Awesome

    Or, alternatively, they use it because it is cheap!
  9. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

    Maybe when you are selling £ 1K cables you just tell the customer what they wish to hear ?
  10. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

    If you want cheap, as in rubbish you buy a 50p RCA cable
  11. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    But the XLR and the RCA were both Townshend cables, both the same cable. The XLR is actually more expensive.
  12. radamel

    radamel Music Fiend

    I have a Mytek DAC and a GamuT integrated.

    Both have balanced and unbalanced connections.

    I asked my HiFi dealer (who is also a friend of mine) if I should replace my RCA interconnects with XLR.

    He told me that he preferred unbalanced.

    When we tried to compare both options, we found out that the Mytek balanced connection is too hot for the GamuT.
    Instead of putting the -6db gain jumpers, we simply thought that as the unbalanced connection worked so well there was no point in properly testing the balanced connection.

    IMO it sounds great with the unbalanced connection and I avoided having to replace the cable.
  13. awkwardbydesign

    awkwardbydesign Officially Awesome

  14. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

  15. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    Please note mister dog, I'm not posting about the merits or not of high-end expensive cables, I am just posting about a comparison of identical xlr and rca using the same cable, reporting mine and Hi-Fi critics findings. Please don't turn this into another thread arguing about the value or not of spending on cables.
    MikeMA and radamel like this.
  16. cooky1257

    cooky1257 pfm Member

    How many listeners were on the auditioning panel?
  17. misterdog

    misterdog Not the canine kind

    So you tested these cables on one make of kit, maybe the designer was not implementing dual differential design correctly.

    I'm only trying to protect people from hearsay and marketing foo.

    Though when Sue says one thing and Max says something else, much popcorn is going to be required for this thread.
  18. radamel

    radamel Music Fiend

    Yes, some people seem to get a little jittery when cables that are not cheap are mentioned. Clearly that should not be the focus of this interesting thread IMO.

    I also point out that in my case deciding for unbalanced actually prevented me from spending more money.
  19. radamel

    radamel Music Fiend

    Do you think that people want your protection?
  20. duckworp

    duckworp pfm Member

    I am afraid I don’t understand your point, I think perhaps you misunderstood me. I had two cables, an xlr and an rca, both identical Townshend cables. Sue said to me that Max thinks the rca will sound better. The rca sounded better. That is the story. There is nothing that one said or another said, that is it.

    If it helps, imagine I had been testing Maplin xlr vs Maplin rca and found the same result. The point of this thread was to simply highlight an experience I had regarding comparing rca and xlr, which a writer for Hi-Fi critic also had. That is it.

    Your attitude of jumping down my throat in an attempt to 'protect people from marketing foo' is not making any sense here. On a debate about the merits of power cords I might expect such, but I think you have missed the point. I’ve been around on Pink Fish for years and recently posted a few times but the aggressive attitude of many members makes me question why I bother.

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