The whole point of a sound system is to relish the enthralling experience of the audio, whether it’s music, a comedy album, or a podcast. Nothing wrecks the stereo vibe and the musicality of your room quite like a compromised sound system that has less-than-perfect sound quality. This is especially true if you’ve been hearing sound at high-fidelity speakers, only to go from stereo sound to mono sound for whatever reason.
Microphones are a particularly important part of ensuring sound quality, particularly if you’re into karaoke or if you need high-fidelity sound from your recording studio. In the realm of the audio enhancer, the most prevalent equipment tend to use either the XLR or jack cables. With that said, which is better: XLR vs Jack?
Things You Need to Know About XLR Cables
To enjoy audio optimally, you should get an XLR cable. It offers a balanced signal setup that reduces noise and makes sound clean for even a large audience to hear on live concert speakers and the like. TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) connectors are themselves balanced and give XLR a run for their money in terms of cost-effectiveness.
- XLR Applications: This cable type is commonly utilized in all radio studios and recording studios. They’re also present in concerts and live stage shows. They’re mainly preferred because they’re balanced signal cables that are capable of being lengthened beyond 25 feet, which is perfect for setups involving large crowds, huge stadiums, and big coliseums.
- Three-Wire Balancing System: Balanced sound quality is achieved through XLR because of its use of three channels—negative, positive, and ground. The two channels can be used for unbalanced stereo signals (no noise cancellation), balanced mono signals (with Common Mode Rejection), and the headphone with microphone setup (the ground can be used for the mic signal). It also has a locking connector for good measure.
- The Balanced Signal Advantage: XLR has an advantage over jack because it delivers a balanced signal. This is less susceptible to noise due to Common Mode Rejection, which delivers the signal in the wire’s two polarized legs. When the noise happens, the signal switches the polarity of the left and right leg where the signal is much clearer, leading to a clean, noiseless sound. The high range of audio also benefits from the extra length possible from XLR.
Things to Know About Jack Cables
Jack plugs or cables have decent affordability but aren’t the valid quality alternative to XLR. Many customers have shifted to XLR or TRS cable use as they become more prominent and available for mass consumption, but jack cables remain relevant.
- The Simplicity of the Original Jack Cable: When talking about a jack cable or jack plug, it could mean a host of things. The simplest jack plug, the ¼” inch one, was originally the phone jack used for manual telephone exchanges that had operators redirecting your call wherever. It’s a simple metal-tipped plug you push into a hole, typically carrying unbalanced audio.
- The Evolution of the Jack Plug to Consumer Electronics: Several phone plug configurations were then made with various tip profiles and some accommodating 5 or more conductors to boot. Of these many variations, only the two-conductor version using the rounded tip became compatible between different devices and cable makers. This was the design adopted for use in loudspeakers, headphones, electric guitars, microphones, and other audio devices.
- Jack Cables Going from TS to TRS: From the rounded tip variation of the jack plug emerged the Tip Sleeve (TS) cable with a tip and sleeve connector and the Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS) cable with the tip, ring, and sleeve connector. There were 2.5 mm (1⁄10 in) and 3.5 mm (⅛ in) TS plugs that mostly carried mono sound. TRS, meanwhile, has 3.5 mm (⅛ in) and 6.35 mm (¼ in) stereo sounds. You can even go all the way with the Tip Ring Ring Sleeve (TRRS) cable if you want four-channel signals for the L/R stereo, the microphone, and video signals.
You may also like: XLR vs. TRS: What’s The Deal with Them and Balanced Cable Connections?
Which One Is Better?
If you’re talking about the jack plug or jack cable that isn’t TRS but is instead TS or similar with mono sound, then XLR beats that jack cable type by default. Those jack cables have unbalanced connections, which are susceptible to noise and electromagnetic interference. If you’re using a high-level instrument, it’s best to go for XLR. However, if you’re talking about TRS jack cables, TRS can serve as a valid balanced signal alternative to XLR.
- Where The Debate Really Is: The debate really is all about TRS vs. XLR since TS vs. XLR isn’t that much of a debate. The TS cable is mono and unbalanced while XLR is balanced and grounded. It’s even a little more balanced and a little more durable than its TRS jack plug counterpart. TRS cables are worth giving a shot if you wish to enjoy music along with your headphones versus having to deal with a large concert crowd.
- Unbalanced Sound Quality Degradation Concerns: With a TS jack plug or cable, the sound isn’t only mono. If you’re using a low-level signal like a microphone, there’s significant sound quality degradation when using an unbalanced signal from a TS plug. You can use guitars for TS because it’s a high-signal type of instrument. There’s no appreciable sound degradation with a guitar plugged with a jack cable versus an XLR.
- The XLR Short Circuit Prevention: Even though the balanced TRS jack plug or cable is more affordable or even cost-effective to use than XLR, XLR still outdoes it in terms of grounding the hot tip when plugged in. TRS will tend to short out and risk blowing out your fancy ribbon microphone with a preamp when you have phantom power turned on while it’s plugged in. XLR doesn’t have shorts with careless insertion or sudden removal while the device is plugged in.
In a Nutshell
When it comes to XLR vs Jack, here’s the lowdown. XLR offers a more balanced connection with its two polarized legs and ground while a jack is used for a more unbalanced connection with its two-channel ground and signal. Electromagnetic interference and noise can end up ruining your signal from an unbalanced connection, such as the hum you get when plugging your guitar into an amplifier. It’s not an issue for a high-signal type of instrument like a guitar. However, low-level signals like a microphone could have significant sound quality downgrades if you use a jack instead of a balanced XLR connection.
- “XLR vs. 1/4″ Jack“, HomeRecording.com, February 9, 2006
- “What is the difference between XLR and JACK out?“, StackExchange.com, November 11, 2014
- Ixir-Njava, “Which One Is Better for You, Jack or XLR? Essential Things to Know“, ArtstoGrow.org, May 11, 2019
- “Phone Connector (Audio)“, Wikipedia, November 5, 2020