Wiring and cable management isn’t just about putting cable clips on your cables and color-coding them for your convenience so that everything is neatly stacked into place without you ending up with spaghetti wires or octopus connections. The specifics of your wire configuration also depend on the devices you’re connecting and the overall wiring requirements. In particular, audio cabling requires two basic analog cables known as the RCA cable and XLR cable.
You have to properly use one or the other depending on your specific applications. Regardless, here’s what you need to know when it comes to RCA vs. XLR Cable.
Comparing XLR and RCA Connections with Each Other
Most consumers assume that if your equipment sports both RCA and XLR connections, XLR offers a higher-quality connection with the better sound. However, this depends on a case-by-case basis. To wit:
- Balanced Signal: XLR is what you depend on for balanced signals. The hot pin is the signal carrier. The cold pin carries an inverted signal or mirror image of the audio information. The third pin is responsible for ground (also known as the earth pin). Any noise produced by the cold and hot pins is canceled out as they go through the receiving equipment thanks to how XLR is designed. A balanced XLR signal or connection is ideal for very long runs of cable and for carrying the microphone-created small voltage signal.
- The Stadium and Studio Favorite: Balanced connections that make use of XLR are mainly for long, long runs involving thousands of feet of cable. Because of how balanced they are, you’re less likely to fear attenuation the longer the distance between devices and connection. XLR is excellent for long audio cables used in stadiums or concerts, to be more specific. XLR is also used in recording studios where noise is a huge issue, so XLR can serve as the noise cancellation connection.
- Hi-Fi Systems are the Domains of the Imbalanced Signal: An imbalanced signal made by the single-pin RCA connection is imbalanced because it lacks the extra pins for inverted signal and ground. This naturally results in more susceptibility to noise and attenuation the longer the cable runs become. However, in a hi-fi or high-fidelity system where the longest connection can only run for about a meter or about 3 feet, there’s no need for the advantages of a balanced XLR connection. Ditto when the signal is up to 4 volts instead of lower.
- Sound Quality Maintenance Only Requires RCA: Sound quality is the priority of hi-fi systems. Noise isn’t as much of an issue with an ordinary hi-fi consumer speaker setup versus a concert venue or a recording booth, so RCA will do and the XLR wiring becomes redundant. There are systems available wherein XLR sounds better than RCA due to their balanced connection nature, but curiously enough the opposite can also be true. There are also systems where RCA sounds better instead. XLR isn’t the default superior connection in Hi-Fi systems.
RCA to XLR and XLR to RCA Connections
You can connect equipment with only RCA sockets to equipment with only XLR sockets. While it’s preferable to use an RCA to XLR or XLR to RCA adapter/converter for the job, you can also connect the signal from the center pin of your RCA plug to the XLR’s hot pin. Connect the ground to the ground pin as well. You can also produce XLR to RCA connections using the same technique.
- Higher Voltage Signal Risk: Connections using the XLR standard often have a higher voltage signal when compared to RCA. To be more specific, an RCA connection usually carries 2 volts while XLR can go up to 4 volts. If, for example, you wanted to connect a CD player’s XLR connection to an amp with RCA, you might risk overdriving the RCA input on the amplifier altogether. This gives you a fatiguing, harsh sound because you can’t control the volume on 4-volt signals.
- Converters Are The Way to Go: Like with anything else cross-platform, it’s best to err on the side of caution and use an adapter or converter for the job. You can technically do an RCA to XLR or XLR to RCA connection, but the fidelity is lost. Additionally, just because you have an XLR connection, it doesn’t necessarily equal a balanced signal. Some manufacturers use the format to carry a stereo signal, with one pin for the left speaker and another pin for the right speaker while the third is ground.
- Try Both Connections and Judge for Yourself: If you have a system with both RCA and XLR connections, it’s okay to experiment with the cables to see which suits your ears better. Go with a better-sounding connection with fewer noise issues. Don’t be afraid to mix and match connections best suited for your needs and your ears. Your dealer can also recommend to you which cable connection is superior for their specific equipment. When it doubt, call the dealer for more info.
Applications of XLR and RCA Connections
Let’s take a closer look at how XLR and RCA differ from each other in terms of their usage and applications so that you can identify which circumstances they’re best used.
- Home Theatre Setup: For your home theater sound system setup, the first requirement will have to be a high-end TV for your display. It’s preferred that you get some with a QLED or OLED panel. From there, go RCA all the way or convert any XLR only devices you might have with an appropriate RCA to XLR adapter.
Because television sets don’t usually have the best stereos or speakers for the best cinematic experience, you can use your RCAs (or HDMI cable, to be honest) for surround sound. RCA can connect up to 8 audio channels, in fact. This makes your movie nights more pleasurable because every nuance of sound, from footfalls to whispers as well as musical stings is clearly heard on 8-channel RCA.
- Audio Editing: When editing audio, you want to listen to it in stereo in order to appreciate its nuances (versus mono where the sound comes in one speaker). RCA is used in this scenario since most headphones have an RCA connector capable of dealing with audio output in stereo. XLR in this instance is overkill since RCA is enough to make your audio edits possible.
You’re also required to get a computer that has RCA ports for the left and right stereo channels. If you’re able to listen to the sound with accuracy then you should in turn be able to make precise edits on it for audio cloud songs, music videos, or YouTube uploads.
- Recording Studio: Balanced audio is required for recording the highest quality sound possible. The sound mixer in this instance has audio originating from a microphone through an XLR cable instead of an RCA one. This in turn offers an audio transfer that’s clear and with most of the noise canceled.
Therefore, the output is purer and higher in quality, which is perfect for a master recording. This recording can be consumed in the mass market through vinyl records (yes, those still exist), CDs, and music streaming services. XLR has always been the connection standard of choice for recording studios since its inception and availability.
- Podcast Studio: Podcast is the new hotness currently in the 21st Century or in the 2010s to the 2020s. It’s quite popular when it comes to Internet content, with even celebrities like Joe Rogan and Bobby Lee getting into the fray along with the original podcasters Good Mythical Morning and the like. It’s a low budget, you can do it 2-3 hours every day, or make it episodic so that your site has daily content for your regular revenue streaming.
Anyone can have a podcast but you need decent equipment. Again, superior-quality noiseless balanced audio is a must. Therefore, your microphones should make use of XLR cables while also having a pop filter over it for good measure. This ensures topnotch audio that requires less editing when push comes to shove.
- Live Performance: The audio needs to be crisp, clear, and interference/noise-free when doing any live performance. This could include a quiet poetry reading, an amateur night at the club, a karaoke sing-along bar, a standup comedy show, and a rock concert. As such, you need XLR cables to make that connection with high-quality speakers. XLR is the best for long cable runs.
The longer an audio cable is, the more noise and attenuation are risked. To make sure that your live performance has excellent audio that captures the singer’s or speaker’s every utterance, it’s of the utmost importance to deliver the best sound experience with the correct XLR connection. Only the oldest of setups still use RCA cables for live performance sound.
RCA and XLR mostly have technical differences in terms of physical structuring. As far as the consumer is concerned, their main point of comparison all boils down to what they’re going to be used for.
The RCA cable has a corresponding connector with one pin on it, which is in contrast to the XLR cable connector that instead of sports three pins. RCA is what’s used to pass unbalanced audio while XLR is the standard for passing balanced audio. XLR connectors also sport a latch on them to allowing locking the connection in place, reminiscent of the screws found in VGA connections to prevent accidental disconnections. RCA doesn’t have such a fastener or clasp.
- “XLR vs RCA Sound Quality Explained by Andrew the Audio Design Engineer“, YouTube.com, January 31, 2019
- “XLR vs RCA: Difference is in the Use“, SF Cable, November 5, 2019
- “XLR vs RCA – which is best?“, The Chord Company U.K., Retrieved October 2, 2020