As far as audio is concerned, the most common cable connectors include TRS and XLR for balanced connections. There are also other types of audio connectors for unbalanced connections known as banana plugs, SpeakON, RCA, and TS. With that said, what’s the difference between an unbalanced and balanced connection? Also, as far as XLR vs TRS is concerned, they’re both balanced connection types that have little to no difference save for TRS being more balanced and robust than XLR.
However, let’s delve deeper into the differences between XLR and TRS, shall we? We’ll first cover the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables, then what XLR and TRS are, and how the two compare to one another.
Balanced versus Unbalanced Cables
A balanced electrical signal uses three wires to work, which are the negative leg, the positive leg, and the ground. The two legs carry the same signal. However, their polarity is opposite to one another, hence one being positive and the other being negative. The noise that can be picked up from the cable will typically be unto those two legs.
If the destination is balanced, the device receiving the signals will flip or overturn one signal and put the twin signals back into polarity with one another. This is known as “Common Mode Rejection” and this noise-canceling technique works to eliminate noise issues because the noise tends to up out of phase of sorts. TRS and XLR cables are utilized for transmission of balanced audio from one balanced device to another balanced device.
Meanwhile, unbalanced cables are less complicated but also more prone to noise. Because they’re unbalanced, you should keep their connections as short as possible for under 25 feet because the longer the run of the cable the more likely attenuation and noise will happen. Shorter cables reduce risk for noise potential from the signal to the device.
What Is XLR?
Let’s now talk about the two balanced cable types prior to comparing them to one another. Electronically, they’re the same but connector-wise, they differ.
- XLR Definition: XLR cables have 3-pin connectors. The 3 pins include the ground, negative, and positive. They’re utilized for the transmission of balanced line-level signals and microphone signals. Audio-wise, you’ll typically see XLR cable connections for microphones to mixers as well as connecting a multitude of outputs to speakers and whatnot.
XLR is considered the sturdier connection that can take more abuse than the more sensitive TRS. It also has a more limited scope of application, leading to safer usage and less risk for mistaken connections. It also prevents accidental disconnections because it’s a locking connector.
What Is TRS?
- TRS Definition: TRS is the acronym for “Tip, Ring, Sleeve”. It appears like a standard ¼ inch and ⅛ inch plug. However, on its shaft it sports an extra ring, hence its name. A TRS cable has a ground (shield) and two conductors, which falls in line with the two-leg plus ground model.
They typically link balanced equipment as well as running right and left mono signals to stereo headphones. They’re also found on Y cable stems. They’ve even utilized for mixer insert jacks wherein the signal is delivered via one wire then returns to another wire.
Balanced Audio XLR vs. TRS? Which Is Better?
Again, XLR and TRS follow the same balanced connection principle but with different “ends” or connectors. XLR uses pins while TRS uses a tip, ring, and sleeve system.
- TRS Is More Compact and Has a Lower Profile: Many people prefer TRS because it’s used in most 48-point patch bays. They’re also quite easy to connect when push comes to shove. Some users hate them because of their trickiness when being soldered. Most of the time, XLR cables are latched as well. Still, TRS are more low profile and common with patchbay usage because you can have more connectors in the same space.
- Phantom Power Is The Main Issue: Phantom power is DC electric power that goes through your microphone cables in order to make the device work. They contain active circuitry and electronics. This means you can short wires out with phantom power. They’re useful though as a power source for active direct boxes and microphones of the condenser variety. Phantom power can cause TRS shorts but it’s less likely with XLR.
- XLR Connectors Less Likely to Short Out: XLR connectors don’t short out during connection. TRS can short out and you risk blowing out your fancy ribbon microphone with a preamp when you have phantom power turned on while TRS is plugged in. XLR can be safer to use in such a scenario, especially if you leave phantom on (which isn’t advised anyway, but it’s something you should consider).
- How Does XLR Prevent Short Circuits? XLR is capable of grounding the hot tip when it’s plugged in. TRS can’t do that. Otherwise, they both use the same 3-conductor balanced cords format. Aside from that, TRS can also short signal wires to the ground or one another when plugged in, which causes pops in your audio. XLR doesn’t have shorts while being removed or inserted. It also has a locking connector to prevent sudden removal or disconnections.
- TRS Is More Affordable and Ubiquitous: Although XLR is more robust, tougher, and less susceptible to shorts, TRS is a more widespread cable connector type because it’s so cheap. You’re likelier to avail of a TRS for balanced single channel, stereo, mono, and high-level speaker connections. This ubiquitous nature is the reason why it creates a higher risk of incorrect linkages though. XLR has a more limited application, which is balanced line-level audio.
The Bottom Line
It’s our hope that this guide has enlightened you when it comes to shopping for the right balanced audio cables for your needs. If you’re a novice regarding XLR, TRS, and other audio cable types, this article should hopefully give you a basic grasp of them and how they affect the sound.
There are quite a number of online cable shopping services you can depend on from the eCommerce front, starting from Amazon.com and eBay.com to other specialty websites that specialize in A/V cable sales. Just remember that TRS and XLR are basically the same balanced audio cable formatted in different ways connector-wise, with TRS edging out XLR in terms of balancing and robustness but otherwise they’re the same cable.
- “Functional difference between XLR and TRS connectors?“, Ars Technica, May 11, 2011
- “Balanced XLR vs. TRS?“, GearSlutz.com, June 22, 2011
- “Cable Buying Guide“, SweetWater.com, Retrieved November 3, 2020