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post #1 of 39 Old 06-19-2014, 12:31 PM - Thread Starter
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Is balanced audio worth it?

Is it worth getting balanced equipment for stereo systems and headphones? Just for listening to music.
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post #2 of 39 Old 06-19-2014, 12:37 PM
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Originally Posted by Nada190 View Post
Is it worth getting balanced equipment for stereo systems and headphones? Just for listening to music.
Please define "balanced"
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post #3 of 39 Old 06-19-2014, 01:14 PM
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Originally Posted by Nada190 View Post
Is it worth getting balanced equipment for stereo systems and headphones? Just for listening to music.
Probably not. Balanced wiring is useful for long runs, which is why professional studios and commercial venues use that method. But for the typical wire lengths connecting a CD player to a receiver etc, it's not necessary. It certainly won't sound any better, if that's what you're asking.

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post #4 of 39 Old 06-19-2014, 01:30 PM
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Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Probably not. Balanced wiring is useful for long runs, which is why professional studios and commercial venues use that method. But for the typical wire lengths connecting a CD player to a receiver etc, it's not necessary. It certainly won't sound any better, if that's what you're asking.

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Wow Ethan, everybody gets to see you and I disagree. Must be a millennial event! ;-)

Over short distances balanced I/O can be advantageous at least measurably because it helps with minor grounding problems as well as major grounding problems. For example I found out that if you hook a CD player to an integrated amp via an unbalanced cable there will often be some residual hum about 100 dB down or so. If both devices support balanced connections and you use a balanced cable, the hum will be reduced an additional 20 or more dB if the equipment is good enough so that the difference isn't masked by other noise in the system.

Now we circle back to where you are right. Hearing the difference in noise between 100 dB down and 120 dB down, takes very unusual circumstances so you are right -it certainly won't sound any better. And if you make the mistake of playing a digital recording, its built in noise from the original recording venue will wash the difference out, even measurably.

However if you have a very high performance digital source such as a SACD player you are usually fooling yourself if you connect it via an unbalanced cable. The advantage you get with a balanced cable is unlikely to be audible but it can be measurable.

Sorry you said anything, right? ;-)
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post #5 of 39 Old 06-19-2014, 01:48 PM
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My core 2ch system:

Equitech balanced power for everything
Benchmark balanced DAC - headphone output is not balanced, though
Krell KCT balanced preamp
Krell mcx balanced amplifier

I'm more than happy with it, want to go that far?

When you see balanced connectors, whether or not there are balanced (differential) signal paths through the equipment is another question. That's part of what inflates the price, as there are two of everything along the way. Some equipment allows the connection of balanced cables, but effectively discards one leg of the signal.

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post #6 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 10:21 AM
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post
Wow Ethan, everybody gets to see you and I disagree. Must be a millennial event! ;-)

Over short distances balanced I/O can be advantageous at least measurably because it helps with minor grounding problems as well as major grounding problems. For example I found out that if you hook a CD player to an integrated amp via an unbalanced cable there will often be some residual hum about 100 dB down or so. If both devices support balanced connections and you use a balanced cable, the hum will be reduced an additional 20 or more dB if the equipment is good enough so that the difference isn't masked by other noise in the system.

Now we circle back to where you are right. Hearing the difference in noise between 100 dB down and 120 dB down, takes very unusual circumstances so you are right -it certainly won't sound any better. And if you make the mistake of playing a digital recording, its built in noise from the original recording venue will wash the difference out, even measurably.

However if you have a very high performance digital source such as a SACD player you are usually fooling yourself if you connect it via an unbalanced cable. The advantage you get with a balanced cable is unlikely to be audible but it can be measurable.

Sorry you said anything, right? ;-)
I agree. 99% of home systems do not require balanced connections. Even the ultra high end stuff. But if you want the absolute lowest noise floor, you want a balanced audio system.

Also IMO, a high quality headphone system is another good candidate for balanced connections as the noise floor is quite audible with good headphones.

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post #7 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 10:24 AM
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Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
My core 2ch system:
Some equipment allows the connection of balanced cables, but effectively discards one leg of the signal.
A lot of low end pro gear does that. I guess in a typical small bar gig you can get away with it!

And I have seen some very expensive HiFi gear that does this too. But then what do you expect from some of these snake oil vendors

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post #8 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 11:13 AM
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post
The advantage you get with a balanced cable is unlikely to be audible but it can be measurable.
Sure, though "can" is a key word. As you said, "the original recording venue will wash the difference out" which is true. Usually when audiophile types suggest balanced wiring, they claim the low end becomes more full and the sound stage widens, ad nauseum. So that's the main myth I wanted to dispel, even though the OP didn't say that.

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post #9 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 01:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Glimmie View Post
I agree. 99% of home systems do not require balanced connections. Even the ultra high end stuff. But if you want the absolute lowest noise floor, you want a balanced audio system.

Also IMO, a high quality headphone system is another good candidate for balanced connections as the noise floor is quite audible with good headphones.
Those are good points. With my stereo system, completely differentially balanced from source to pre to power amp (i.e. not just "XLR" added on to SE like many are these days), the sonic impression is of music coming out of complete blackness. Like the colors on a quality BD on a top-notch calibrated/etc. plasma. It is something you notice and never forget once experienced, and you will always compare everything else to that...you can't unhear/unsee it (unfortunately for wallet).

And I'm talking through speakers there. It's even more obvious with Stax 'stats. That's what I use to listen to things to see how they're supposed to sound, or at least to hear what was recorded as best I can (I happen to not like wearing phones much).

It would be unfortunate to compare run-of-the-mill "pro" balanced gear with decent hifi balanced gear. This could be where some get their impression. Also be wary of balanced ins/outs on what are single-ended designs: the only use for these (slightly, inherently) sonics-degrading designs are to provide more noise immunity for long interconnect runs. This is what almost all pre-pros use, and just about all other A/V-oriented gear too. In that case for short to regular-length runs, it would be better to not use the balanced connections.
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post #10 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 02:03 PM
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Originally Posted by cfraser View Post
It would be unfortunate to compare run-of-the-mill "pro" balanced gear with decent hifi balanced gear.
Yes, you might get the idea that the high end hifi gear is often vastly overpriced and underperforming.

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Also be wary of balanced ins/outs on what are single-ended designs: the only use for these (slightly, inherently) sonics-degrading designs are to provide more noise immunity for long interconnect runs.
In fact most of the performance enhancement associated with balanced interconnection accrues at the input and with the cable with two signal conductors. Use both properly, and you get over 90% of the technical benefit.

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This is what almost all pre-pros use, and just about all other A/V-oriented gear too. In that case for short to regular-length runs, it would be better to not use the balanced connections.
Specific examples?

Good op amps have become so affordable that almost all of the balanced I/O I see on modern gear is truely balanced at both ends of the cable. 15 years ago not so much.

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post #11 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 11:35 PM
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Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
When you see balanced connectors, whether or not there are balanced (differential) signal paths through the equipment is another question. That's part of what inflates the price, as there are two of everything along the way. Some equipment allows the connection of balanced cables, but effectively discards one leg of the signal.
Only some truly balanced equipment "has two of everything" which is the so called "fully balanced" topology - notably brands like BAT. Noise is actually passed all the way through the component along with the added complexity and component count (decreasing reliability).

A better design is a differential input circuit that subtracts the two components of the balanced signal and discards the noise right at the input of each component - duplicate mirror image circuitry is not needed.

Probably controversial, but this article makes the case quite well (at least for me) - give it a quick read:

http://www.bryston.com/PDF/newslette...etter_V3_1.pdf

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post #12 of 39 Old 06-20-2014, 11:52 PM
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Originally Posted by Nada190 View Post
Is it worth getting balanced equipment for stereo systems and headphones? Just for listening to music.
This is a really loaded question that is going to bring up arguments of DBTs (Double Blind Listening Tests) and other measurements to prove that there really is a difference.

As Arny said, there is often an advantage with a lower noise floor. I can pause playback, turn the volume all the way up, and put my ear right to the speaker and hear no noise - not so with single ended RCA connections with my same gear - so the difference is measurable but is it really audible in real world listening? Maybe, maybe not.

I use balanced connections from source to amp because I believe it is the best possible and because i always wanted to, not because there was a night / day difference in the sound.

I would love to try the balanced connection of headphones to see if I could hear the difference - go demo for yourself!

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post #13 of 39 Old 06-21-2014, 02:31 AM
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Originally Posted by mtn-tech View Post
I would love to try the balanced connection of headphones to see if I could hear the difference - go demo for yourself!
I always struggle a bit with the phrase "balanced connection of headphones"
If I look at the wiring, instead of L/R/ common ground, "balanced" is having separated wires for the ground.
Identical to connecting speakers to an amp.
Nothing balanced about it.
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post #14 of 39 Old 06-21-2014, 03:42 AM
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Originally Posted by mtn-tech View Post

I would love to try the balanced connection of headphones to see if I could hear the difference - go demo for yourself!
There is at least one situation where you can listen to headphones playing digital media without balanced interconnections, or in fact any interconnections at all. Listen via a digital player that has a headphone jack.

One such player is the now-obsolete Sansa Fuze. Find its sequel - probably under $50.

The issue of balanced versus unbalanced interconnections is only relevant when there are interconnections. ;-)

Most AVRs for example include networked digital music players.

Some HTIB AVRs include BD players.
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post #15 of 39 Old 06-21-2014, 11:34 AM
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Originally Posted by Roseval View Post
I always struggle a bit with the phrase "balanced connection of headphones"
If I look at the wiring, instead of L/R/ common ground, "balanced" is having separated wires for the ground.
Identical to connecting speakers to an amp.
Nothing balanced about it.
The genuine balanced headphone amps put a differential voltage on the +/- wires going to each driver in the headphone, with 4 separate wires, typically terminated to a pair of xlr type connectors.

Same thing as the output of the balanced amplifiers I have going to my speakers - both leads are hot, but opposite in polarity. Neither wire is at ground potential.





Here's a little discussion of the topic from TI - http://www.ti.com/lit/an/sloa054d/sloa054d.pdf

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post #16 of 39 Old 06-21-2014, 08:34 PM
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Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
The genuine balanced headphone amps put a differential voltage on the +/- wires going to each driver in the headphone, with 4 separate wires, typically terminated to a pair of xlr type connectors.
Sounds like a true balanced / differential connection to me with one signal going positive and the other going negative - exactly what I would expect. I would assume that the ground is NOT shared with either signal and that it is a true ground shield. Maybe I used the wrong terminology when I mentioned trying "balanced connection of headphones" and others corrected me?

Ray, I see balanced headphone amplifiers for sale, but I've never been able to find any headphones sold with balanced connections - can you give me an example of some balanced headphones? What model are your headphones?

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post #17 of 39 Old 06-21-2014, 08:45 PM
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Originally Posted by arnyk View Post
There is at least one situation where you can listen to headphones playing digital media without balanced interconnections, or in fact any interconnections at all. Listen via a digital player that has a headphone jack.

One such player is the now-obsolete Sansa Fuze. Find its sequel - probably under $50.
There are a million digital music players with headphone jacks - I assume you mention the Sanza Fuse because it can play lossless digital audio (FLAC) files? I have a portable that can play FLAC files but my best sounding component with a headphone jack is my Oppo Blu-ray player.

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post #18 of 39 Old 06-22-2014, 01:38 AM
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Originally Posted by mtn-tech View Post
Ray, I see balanced headphone amplifiers for sale, but I've never been able to find any headphones sold with balanced connections - can you give me an example of some balanced headphones? What model are your headphones?
Balanced cables tend to be an aftermarket add-on. You need to find/make a cable with the right connector for both your phones and your amplifier.

Sennheiser HD600/650 would be a common example.

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post #19 of 39 Old 06-22-2014, 04:11 AM
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Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
Balanced cables tend to be an aftermarket add-on. You need to find/make a cable with the right connector for both your phones and your amplifier.

Sennheiser HD600/650 would be a common example.
As long as they are used with a conventionally wired pair of headphones, it is all pretty futile.
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post #20 of 39 Old 06-22-2014, 08:54 AM
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"Conventionally wired headphone" - is that 3 wires - left, right ground, permanently attached to one point of the headset, with the ground and hot lead routed through the headband to the other driver?

The HD600/650 has detachable cable, with a pair of connectors for each driver. There is nothing unique about these, just a handy example, other brands often seem to do the same in their upscale models.

The stock cable on the HD650 (which I have) is a 4 wire cable, Left/ground Right/ground terminated to a 3 connector 1/4" TRS plug for connection to an unbalanced amplifier or typical 3 wire headphone jack.

Aftermarket cables are available - 2 wires from the amplifier to each driver - terminated to an appropriate connector at the amplifier side to permit differential voltage to be applied to each driver in the headphone, should you choose to go that route.

I'm sure you know all this already.

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post #21 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 01:25 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
"Conventionally wired headphone" - is that 3 wires - left, right ground, permanently attached to one point of the headset, with the ground and hot lead routed through the headband to the other driver?

The HD600/650 has detachable cable, with a pair of connectors for each driver. There is nothing unique about these, just a handy example, other brands often seem to do the same in their upscale models.

The stock cable on the HD650 (which I have) is a 4 wire cable, Left/ground Right/ground terminated to a 3 connector 1/4" TRS plug for connection to an unbalanced amplifier or typical 3 wire headphone jack.

Aftermarket cables are available - 2 wires from the amplifier to each driver - terminated to an appropriate connector at the amplifier side to permit differential voltage to be applied to each driver in the headphone, should you choose to go that route.

I'm sure you know all this already.
not really electrically different AFAIK. Just a different way to create the same connections. Like (well, sorta like) biwiring speakers. certainly not balanced. that requires two "positive" leads per channel, in opposing polarities, so that they can be combined with one in reversed phase, which will cancel any noise induced in the cable run. Other than increasing the level onaccounta the doubled voltage from having two leads per channel, that's all balanced wiring does. AfAIK, all it can do. Other perceived effects are, AIUI, placebo-related. while the noise cancellation is the same in concept as a humbucking guitar pickup, it lacks the added factors (typically, at least, two magnetic senors on each string for a given pickup) that cause humbuckers to sound so different from single coil guitar pickups.
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post #22 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 03:44 PM
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not really electrically different AFAIK.
Just a different way to create the same connections. Like (well, sorta like) biwiring speakers.
It is electrically different, and no, it's not sorta like biwiring speakers.

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certainly not balanced.
What I described is "balanced". Both leads to each earpiece are driven, with opposing polarity, and at half the amplitude of the unbalanced connection.

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Originally Posted by JHAz View Post
that requires two "positive" leads per channel, in opposing polarities, so that they can be combined with one in reversed phase, which will cancel any noise induced in the cable run.
That paraphrases what I described, though I didn't mention noise.

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Other than increasing the level onaccounta the doubled voltage from having two leads per channel, that's all balanced wiring does. AfAIK, all it can do.
Voltage is not doubled. For the same volume at the ear, the peak voltage swing is halved on each of the two balanced leads. In combination, the voltage potential across the voice coil/stepup transformer of the headphones is the same as in the unbalanced wiring/amplification setup.

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Other perceived effects are, AIUI, placebo-related.
I didn't assign any perceptual effects. I know better than to get into that around here now. This is a hardware description.

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while the noise cancellation is the same in concept as a humbucking guitar pickup, it lacks the added factors (typically, at least, two magnetic senors on each string for a given pickup) that cause humbuckers to sound so different from single coil guitar pickups.
What does that have to do with headphones?

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post #23 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 04:07 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RayDunzl View Post
It is electrically different, and no, it's not sorta like biwiring speakers.



What I described is "balanced". Both leads to each earpiece are driven, with opposing polarity, and at half the amplitude of the unbalanced connection.



That paraphrases what I described, though I didn't mention noise.



Voltage is not doubled. For the same volume at the ear, the peak voltage swing is halved on each of the two balanced leads. In combination, the voltage potential across the voice coil/stepup transformer of the headphones is the same as in the unbalanced wiring/amplification setup.



I didn't assign any perceptual effects. I know better than to get into that around here now. This is a hardware description.



What does that have to do with headphones?
Sorty to overload you with an asidr. . I shall endeavor not to bo so dang difficult in the future. . If each side of the phones hss two conductors as you sais, one must carry the ground or you have a short circuit and silence. . If you meant something different than what you said, well I will apologize that my mind reading skills are very lame.
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post #24 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 05:36 PM
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Take a look at the drawing again:



The ground that is shown (and is optional as far as the cable is concerned) is attached to the shield (if it exists).

It is not part of the signal path. It provides a reference potential ( 0v ) and is a sink for noise picked up in the shield.

You don't need ground to cause a current flow in the headphone drivers, just a difference in potential voltage, which the two leads provide, across the voice coil of the driver.

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post #25 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 06:03 PM
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Note while any actual "balanced" topology should offer some measure of common-mode noise rejection, some psuedo-differential designs do not, at least not at both ends.

Noise-wise the signal doubles (2x) but noise only increases by sqrt(2) (i.e. 1.414x) but in practice I have found noise higher (lower SNR) on some balanced designs. Somewhat depends upon the circuit implementation... If not using fully-differential, noise is not cancelled in the chain and ends up being a little higher.

I have gone to a bridged drive on soe headphones to get more output to them. The wires from the two sides of the particular headset were paired down to the plug, so I was able to remove the stock plug and replace it with two stereo plugs, same as RayDunzl's schematic shows. I later switched to shielded twinlead to keep the shield to the drivers but did not notice any difference in sound quality by the change, just wanted shielding for live events.

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post #26 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 07:53 PM
 
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Originally Posted by Nada190 View Post
Is it worth getting balanced equipment for stereo systems and headphones? Just for listening to music.
I assume by now, you have realized that the answer depends on many variables, but predominantly on the nature of the topology and the quality of the engineering and components used within the circuitry. There is no question that differential topologies are superior to all others in reducing noise components. To more directly answer your question; using such as noted above, will not in anyway produce lessor results to that of an unbalanced design, but will potentially offer a superior sonic outcome.


I have cheekily stated on many occasions that 'the music exists in the divide between the signal and the noise'! The greater the divide, the greater the potential, the potential therefore resides in the engineering of the entire signal chain. Gaining access to higher quality music reproduction is more often than not; very difficult. Some might say that's where the fun is, others tend to settle for mediocre sound.


Enjoy your pursuit!
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post #27 of 39 Old 06-23-2014, 08:26 PM
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Greater amounts of "AC hum" (120 Hz components) experienced in unbalanced equipment vis-a-vis "balanced" connections are not necessarily related to the common-mode rejection of the balanced arrangement.

They are, more often, the result of minute ground-loop currents that are magnetically induced by the power supply in the (metal) chassis that produce minute AC-line-frequency voltage differentials between the input (RCA) ground (shell) connections and the analog signal ground located at the "ground" pin of the signal amplifying/processing module/circuit. True, "balancing" the signal can render this ground loop somewhat moot; in the unbalanced case, it can also be minimized by separating the signal input grounds from the power supply (chassis) ground.

The common-mode rejection feature of balanced operation is more significant when used in a more current-mode (lower impedance) input configuration where a higher proportion (Ohm's law) of the signal is current instead of voltage, since the magnetically-opposed (and therefore cancelling) properties of twisted-pair signal flow can be better exploited.
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post #28 of 39 Old 06-24-2014, 11:37 AM
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^^^ Good point. Balanced connections do not automatically break a ground loop. They may make it easier to break the loop but even that is not a given.

"After silence, that which best expresses the inexpressible, is music" - Aldous Huxley
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post #29 of 39 Old 06-24-2014, 01:13 PM
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I don't even use the ground connection...connecting the grounds of two individually grounded pieces of gear, differentially-balanced connected, should be unnecessary. If well-designed...try it and see, luckily XLRs are easy to work with. Leave the shield grounded at one end though (usually source end), if you have a shield.
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post #30 of 39 Old 06-25-2014, 07:45 AM
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Although I think this subject has been adequately covered, and the answer seems to be that balanced audio is not worth it. I thought this brief anecdote might be interesting.

A number of years ago, a small manufacturer of audio gear, Frank Van Alstine, built a completely balanced audio system. It required a four-channel DAC and audio circuit set, a four-channel preamp, and a four-channel power amp (or two stereo power amps) maintaining balanced operation from input to output, summing the signal at the speakers. In theory, this canceled all common mode distortion in the system, and could provide audibly superior musical operation, depending upon how much distortion was originally there to cancel. Of course it also essentially doubled the cost of the audio system.

Although this was an experiment, it had positive results. It produced an additional 3 dB in dynamic range. The audible improvement in this fully balanced system alerted him that there must be distortion from components in the audio chain that he hadn’t addressed.

This sent him on a serious effort to discover remaining weak links in the audio gear he produces and fix them at a reasonable cost, if possible. When these improved components were tried again in a fully balanced system, they resulted in only minimal improvements. The whole exercise was helpful in identifying where potential improvements might produce audible results.

An interesting question comes out of all this. Why are there never balanced interconnects coming from a phonograph? Phono cartridges put out the lowest voltage signal found in home audio, about 5 mV for a moving magnet cartridge, and they are the most prone to interference. If they don't require balanced connections, why do some people want to pay extra for balanced connections between a preamp and amp where much higher signal voltages are involved? Was it never done years ago because no one thought balanced connections were needed in home audio, or is there something inherent in these pickups that prevent using that design?
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