Choosing Cables for Your Audio System, Part III
RCA vs XLR
First off, whether you are using RCA or XLR cables in your system, inferior interconnect cabling can be the downfall of any system’s performance potential. It does not matter how capable your components are. It’s my thought that if we are not doing all we can to optimize our treasured hi-fi system’s performance, what is the point of owning a high-fidelity audio system?
That said, let us get back to the subject at hand. Some components do not allow for a choice between connecting components with XLR’s or RCA’s, and only have single ended (RCA) or only balanced (XLR) inputs and / or outputs. But some components do feature both connector types, and then we are faced with options, so let’s get right down to it.
XLRs are called balanced connections, and have 3 pins while RCA’s are unbalanced, or single ended, and have 1 pin. But what is the real difference between these two types of cables? A primary benefit of balanced XLR cables is the ability to transmit audio signals over longer lengths or runs, without signal loss, or interference from noise. Balanced cables can have a lower signal to noise ratio as well, and so theoretically can produce a more noise free signal, particularly in set-ups that call for longer cable runs.
To summarize, a balanced XLR interconnect can have some sonic benefits over unbalanced. With components that have both options, it can be wise to choose XLR connections over RCA. One factor to consider, however -- Is the internal circuit design of the component in question (wiring, etc.) also balanced? Did the designer simply add an XLR sockets to an unbalanced internal design? This can be done, so caveat emptor!
Fully shielded, balanced cables, with minimal interference from the cable, an XLR can potentially do more to ensure that an audio signal is transmitted with little to no loss on its journey to the speakers, potentially unaffected. It is also worth mentioning that a cable configured with an RCA at one end and an XLR on the other will not produce a balanced signal and any XLR vs RCA debate is nullified.
XLR connectors are typically seen on balanced cables, but ¼” (6.3mm) headphone style TRS plugs can also be used. You see this perhaps with more pro-sound equipment, as the recording industry uses balanced connections virtually exclusively, due to balanced cables and component’s inherent advantages with noise. The audible results can be less hum., buzz, or other noise related phenomena.
Still, XLR’s vs RCA’s can be an engaging debate among audiophiles. I have talked with more than a few hobbyists over the years who have preferred the sound of their component’s RCA connections to its XLR connections. Audio Art Cable has also shipped many 9m-11m single ended interconnect runs to clients over our 15 years, always with customer feedback being positive on the results. Our interconnect models are also all shielded designs, which help eliminate noise with RCA as well as XLR cables.
And of course, you can always find hobbyists who believe a balanced vs. unbalanced interconnect discussion is no more than perpetuating a myth. Either cable type, they will say, results in the same amount of interference or other distortions. It’s also thought XLR will deliver the signal with a higher amplitude, but not with subjectively better fidelity.
So, at the end of this discussion, I will leave you with this thought. Following recommended guidelines in the high-performance home audio arena, is never a bad idea. I have had the pleasure over the last year to enjoy the amazing performance virtues of a PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC / Preamp, and the matching S300 stereo amplifier. These components have both RCA and XLR inputs and outputs, and the XLR options sounded decidedly better to my ears in many ways and were also PS’ recommended connections in the owner’s manuals. I am sure this is a case and a result of these two component’s internal circuits and wiring design being “fully balanced”.
I am also planning to transition to a Dayen’s Ecstasy III integrated amplifier in this system over the next few days. The Ecstasy III features single ended RCA inputs and outputs exclusively. Am I concerned I will lose any performance potential by this factor? No. Am I thinking the Dayen’s integrated will sound different than the PS Audio stack? Absolutely. Different how? I will find out. This is the joy of the audio journey.
Ultimately your decisions, as they always are in our audio pursuits, are left up to you, and your resulting interpretations. The next time you might visit a recording studio or a live music event, look and see which connector types musicians and sound engineers use, and judge for yourself.
One brand vs mix and match looms
At last I have an easier topic to cover. When considering cables for your system, a single brand for the entire system is always best, and it should always be Audio Art Cable.
I am joking of course! 😊
This topic does, however, present a few interesting points of view. I tend to look at this in much the same manner as mixing and matching component brands for a system. There are several high-performance audio brands out there, particularly in the area of amplification products, digital devices, and on occasion turntable brands such as Rega that do offer whole system solutions to the audiophile marketplace. In a way, this makes it easy on the consumer:
- The components have been designed to perform optimally together, and…
- If you like the general sonic character of an one component due to the “house sound” of that brand, having a matching set of components will generally get you more of the same, sonically, and potentially maximize the potential of the individual components involved, and….
- An audio rack displaying 2, 3, or 4 components from the same manufacturer can make for a striking visual presentation, and often the cosmetics of a component can be a big part of what attracts us when buying.
All of this said, some of the most memorable listening experiences I have had were in front of a system with various brands involved, pieced together thoughtfully by a hobbyist who found a mixed bag of electronics that simply played well together. In fact, more often than not, this is what we find in a hobbyist’s system.
Which leads us back to audio cables. I have found if the sonic character of an interconnect or speaker cable that is auditioned leads to a greater sense of satisfaction because your system comes alive, and you are hearing your favorite recordings in a brand new way, it makes perfect sense to try a second cable from that company’s line-up. You are likely to enhancing the same sense of enjoyment you received with the first cable and further boost your overall performance with “more of the same” sonic revelations. Typically, a cable manufacturer’s bulk wires will not only be extruded in the same factory, using the same raw materials, sourced from the same mines or factories, but they will also share core design elements such as shielding and dielectric materials. This is true for our Statement Series Cables, which are all sourced from the same extrusion factory, and the rest of our line-up, which is all sourced from a second production plant.
As with component choices, this tactic can also simplify finding cables that allow your system to perform at its best, which sometimes can seem to be a daunting task, given the concept of swapping cables in and out, trying to comprehend which minute differences subjectively work best with your system, and to your personal taste.
OR, as with component choices, you may find the proverbial mixed bag of audio cable brands that synergize nicely and simply play well together.
As with all purchasing decisions, acquiring knowledge through information on a manufacturer’s website, as well as reading consumer reviews, and trade publication reviews is a key place to start, in order to feel you are in control, and are making informed decisions. Have fun with the process, and Audio Art has a return policy in place if a cable choice turns out to not be what you want.
Keep everything You-Centric!
As daunting as the pursuit of choosing quality, high-performance audio cables for your system may seem at the start, and it can even more so once you have been immersed in the endless plethora of choices and information to be had, you have but one person to satisfy in the process, and with the results….YOU!
We can get caught up in all the chatter going on all around us. Opinions from so many sources can make us feel less certain about the paths we might choose. It is the same with our hobby of listening to music through a hi-end audio system. We may rely on the ears and the perceptions of others who may have more experience, or more knowledge. But ultimately, when it is you, perhaps your spouse or partner, and your system alone together in the night, the only opinion that matters is yours! If you are pleased with what you hear, sit back and enjoy it. Try not to get caught up in the never-ending mantra of “how can I make my system sound better?”, once you have reached a point where everything is sounding good. Spin your favorite music and enjoy it!
At least for a while. Because the itch to upgrade, tweak, improve, fiddle, try new stuff, new cables, another component will show up! I believe it is a healthy, albeit sometimes maddening, part of the hobby. There is nothing wrong with exploring new frontiers in this, or any other pursuit, because there is always more, better, or different to be had and to be experienced. You decide.
Don’t take things too seriously in this hobby, relax and enjoy! It is our music, our nice audio components, and carefully chosen high-performance cables to connect everything up. It is what YOU deserve.