Posted on Fri, 01 Jul, 2016
Posted by Raven

Interior quality cabling can be the downfall of any system. It doesn’t matter how good the hi-fi separates are, if the cables aren’t up to a high standard the sound quality will suffer. And if the sound isn’t as good as possible, I have to ask: what’s the point of a hi-fi system in the first place?

As with everything else hi-fi related, the devil lurks in the detail, and there’s no such thing as ‘too deep’. This extends to the type of interconnects you use, which makes for a very potent question:

Is there a difference between XLR and RCA interconnects?


Let’s start from the top. XLR cables look like this:

And RCA cables look like this:

XLR cables are usually balanced (3 pin) and RCA cables are unbalanced (1 pin).

The main benefit of balanced cables is their ability to transfer sound signals over much longer runs/distances without signal loss, or interference. All cables of various styles and lengths are generally made with copper and act much like an antenna and unbalanced cables can be more prone to picking up errant interference compared to balanced cables. Balanced cables have a very low signal to noise ratio which helps over longer cable lengths.

Balanced interconnects generally do have some sonic benefits over unbalanced cables. In equipment where you have both options, it’s wise to choose XLR over RCA. However its vital that the internal electronics (cabling etc.) are also balanced, and not simply an XLR connection on unbalanced everything-else. That’s where the aforementioned balanced cable comes in. Fully shielded, with minimal interference from the cable, the XLR will ensure that signal makes its way to the speakers unaffected. RCA cables however cannot guarantee the same thing. It’s also worth noting that having an RCA connector at one end of the cable and an XLR on the other will unbalance the signal, and render the whole thing moot, and there can be voltage differences between RCA and XLR connections so we don’t usually recommend connecting one to the other without checking if this is a suitable connection first.

You usually see balanced cables with XLR connectors. One pin called the “hot pin” carries the signal, another pin carries the signal inverted and the other pin is the earth. At the other end of a balanced connection, the noise common to the signal on the hot and cold pins is cancelled out.


The result? Less hum. Less buzz. Less undesirable stuff. We have anecdotally found XLRs to be a little more durable too.

There are, of course, those who believe that sonic differences between balanced and unbalanced interconnects are a myth, and they both result in the same amount of interference. Others say that XLR will certainly make the signal ‘stronger’, but not necessarily better. Such has to ultimately be left up to interpretation, but the next time you’re at a studio or a live music event, see which connectors the musicians and techs use, and most likely it’ll be XLRs.

With most hi-fi separates, good RCA interconnects will sound fantastic and because in most cases the cable runs are much shorter, the differences between the RCA and XLR connection will be less significant than on longer runs. Also, hi-fi separates usually have to be reasonably high end for them to have RCA and XLR options, but if your equipment does offer both RCA and XLR connections, XLR interconnects are usually worth choosing as an alternative over the RCA. After all, we think any incremental improvement we can make to our system to enjoy the very best possible sound quality is worth it and brings us one step closer to the music.

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One thought on “XLR vs. RCA interconnects: is there a difference?”

  1. Vivek Sood says:

    Will it make a difference if I use 3.5 MM to XLR and then connect it instead of using 3.5 mm to RCA?

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