Balanced Vs. Unbalanced Headphones: Complete Beginner’s Guide 2021

The quality of the headphones nowadays isn’t the same as they were even a few years ago. The technology is constantly developing and simultaneously, improving the overall experience of using headphones. In light of that, this article brings you a complete guide on balanced vs. unbalanced headphones.

Balanced and unbalanced headphones are comparatively a new addition to headphone technology. They basically refer to the slight changes in their cable system that tweaks the overall performance. For instance – balanced headphones are significantly resistant against interferences while the unbalanced ones are much less complicated and affordable.

However, that’s not all that goes into their constituents and performance level. Let’s have a detailed look into the related concepts to develop a better idea about such headphones.


Unbalanced Headphones & Connections

Balanced Vs. Unbalanced Headphones: Complete Beginner’s Guide 2021
UnBalanced cables explained the image from ASK.AUDIO.

Before finding out about unbalanced connections, you need to have a little idea about line-level connections first. Line-level connections are practically established connections between compatible devices.

In a mutual connection between a source and a receiver, you will usually find both input and output. But sometimes, you’ll find that it’s output only. Line-level connections, on the other hand, work both ways.

The difference lies only in the fact that different plug set-ups are required to set them apart. And that’s one of the reasons why their concept is also applied to balanced and unbalanced connectivity.

Depending on the usage of a certain type of plug or connector, your connectivity can either be balanced or unbalanced. For instance – an unbalanced connection only works with plugs like the ⅛” and RCA set-ups.

Let’s approach this from a much simpler point of view. So, every headphone or audio cable comes with certain audio signals, right? Well, with unbalanced cables, only two different wires are needed to establish the connection.

They are systematically identified by ground wire and signal wire respectively. The signal wire here’s the main deal since it directly transmits the audio output to both your ears.

The ground wire, on the other hand, is there for damage control. As in, it’s the protective wire that guards the signal wire against any external damage. It also resists electric overload to a certain limit and thus, prevents the wire from catching in a fire.

Now the ‘unbalanced’ term comes from the existence of only one signal wire. In case you didn’t notice already, this one signal wire is responsible for transmitting the sound to both cables. So, during the separation, the sound faces a lot more hurdles and interferences.

And due to that, it’s pretty hard to distribute the signal evenly. That’s why, while you have such headphones on, you sometimes hear more in one ear than the other. And as the interferences go over the limit, the overall sound quality goes even further down.


Shortcomings Of Unbalanced Headphones

Here is a brief overview of the specific shortcomings of unbalanced headphones:

Audio Degradation

Back when we used to listen to radios, do you remember the sudden static sound while changing channels? That’s a prime example of what unwanted interference sounds like. Whenever there’s a bad network, it’s really hard to get the appropriate signals in time.

And when there’s a clear interruption in the passageway of such signals, you hear those static sounds. The same applies to headphones as well. It happens to all types of headphones. However, it’s a much constant occurrence with unbalanced headphones, to say the least.

The reason has already been explained above. Since a signal wire has to do all the work, it isn’t much effective at blocking incoming interferences. So, that ends up leading to the annoying hums in your ears.

And let’s face it. It gets real annoying real fast when you hear such static noise while listening to your favorite songs. Sometimes stray capacitance from the leaking set-up can increase the interferences by ten-fold. Needless to say, that’s even more infuriating.

CrossTalk

In simple terms, crosstalk happens when several (at least two) audio channels or signals overlap each other. It’s like those teenage detective movies where someone ‘accidentally’ hears the evil plans of the villain on the radio. Just because the signals got overlapped.

In technical terms, this is known as coupling. Coupling occurs due to unwanted signal leakage between different audio channels. It’s actually quite common in modern headsets.

But since the interferences aren’t often clear enough, your ears don’t pick it up easily. However, when the leakage is just too high, you’ll start to experience significant audible issues. There are ways to diminish the effects but it’s still pretty annoying when it happens.


Balanced Headphones & Connections

Balanced Vs. Unbalanced Headphones: Complete Beginner’s Guide 2021
Balanced cables explained image from ASK.AUDIO.

Needless to say, the very existence of ‘unbalanced’ connectivity directly implies the existence of ‘balanced’ connectivity as well. Well, at least most people subconsciously interpret the concept like that.

Whereas, balanced connectivity actually became a reality to overcome the definite shortcomings of unbalanced headphones. That’s right. Proper research on the true balanced headsets was carried on much later. In fact, the technology is still developing as of now.

While researching, the main goal was to remove or reduce the limitations caused by the excessive interferences in unbalanced headphones. It all came down to the fact that unbalanced connections featured only one signal wire.

And that single signal wire simply isn’t enough to tackle down all the interferences on its own. So, to counteract that problem, balanced connections feature two signal phases instead of one. Per-channel, that is.

Both these phases directly relate to the ground phase and transmit the signals accordingly. As a result, there’s rarely any overlap and it’s transmitted both efficiently and effortlessly.

Basically, the signal from the source is equally divided into two separate signals. As in, these signals are identical in both magnitude and direction. And that’s why there are no differences in their noise voltages either.

In technical terms, this equality is roughly indicated as impedance.

Such a state creates an internal interference termed as RFI or, Radio Frequency Interference. So, whenever any external interference tries to disturb this equilibrium, the internal RFI tends to just cancel it out.

Fascinating, right? And what’s even more impressive is that balanced connections don’t require any more wires than the unbalanced ones. Instead of a ground wire, balanced connections come with two signal wires where one of them is the mirror signal of the other.

Getting too complicated at this point? Well, let’s not go into all the complex mathematical stuff right away then. All you need to know is that there are two equal signals. And one’s a mirror phase of the other i.e. inverted.

This inverted signal gives rise to the common-mode noise effect. An effect that can actively generate Radio Frequency Interference in between cables. And this RFI cancels out incoming interferences, thus producing much clearer and uninterrupted sound signals.


Shortcomings Of Balanced Headphones

Even though balanced connections seem really great after that little explanation, they too, have their flaws. Here’s a brief overview of some of the impending shortcomings of true balanced headphones:

Audio Quality Fluctuations

At a first glance, it may seem like balanced headphones probably give off the best audio quality out there. And while that’s not entirely false, there are some exceptions as well.

For instance – they are indeed great for driving out external interferences. But since the source signal directly splits down into two equal phases, the impedance doubles down too. And that can sometimes amplify the sound way too much and cause fluctuations in the audio quality.

Affordability Issues

Since balanced headphones have a lot more complex set-up procedures going on, they definitely do not come cheap. They may not cost an arm and a leg yet but still, the price can seem quite high at times. Especially, for something as simple as headphones.

However, the situation is improving significantly as the technology is developing continuously. Hopefully, that day isn’t far away when you’ll get to buy great quality balanced headphones at an affordable price range.

Complicated Connectivity

Well, the idea behind balanced headphones is a lot more complicated and sciency than it seems. As a result, lots of people find it quite hard to configure when something goes wrong.

Even slight changes in the circuit system can generate significant degradation in audio quality. And when that happens, especially in a premium quality appliance, it becomes a liability.

Then you have no choice but to seek out the help of the professionals Which’s pretty time-consuming. In some cases, you have to go for a certain monetary compensation as well. Needless to say, how frustrating it is when that ends up happening.


Balanced vs. Unbalanced Headphones: What’s The Difference?

Balanced Vs. Unbalanced Headphones

So far, we have talked a lot about the concept and tried our best to explain it properly. But to catch on to the actual differences, let’s do a little math, shall we?

Don’t worry. We will try to carry the equation out as simply as possible. But first, let’s get some stuff right.

Signal: S

Noise: N

Conductors: C1 (Unbalanced)

C2 (Balanced)

Now, for unbalanced connection, when in equilibrium,

C1 = S, i.e. the conductor phase is similar to that of the signal. As a result, the signal ends up traveling along the single conductor only.

C2 = 0, as there’s only one signal wire i.e. conductor

After the addition of noise,

C1 = S + N

C2 = 0

So, all the noise ends up clustering on the first conductor only and backs the signal up. And since there’s only one conductor, you can’t transmit the signal proportionally either. Eventually, all the inferences cause continuous disturbances as they have nowhere to go.

On the other hand, for a balanced connection,

C1 = S/2 (the normal phase along the first conductor)

C2 = -S/2 (the inverted phase along the second conductor)

And after the addition of noise,

C1 = S/2 + N

C2 = -S/2 + N

As you can see, like the signal, the noise too achieves equal distribution.

Now, if we were to combine both of them to get the end result,

C1 – C2 = (S/2 + N) – (-S/2 + N)

= 2S/2 + N – N

= S

So, after all that, all the inferences cancel out on each other. Just because the initial signals were in opposite phases of each other. By the end, you get only the plain inference-free loud and clear signal i.e. audio output.

And that’s the main and mathematical difference between balanced and unbalanced headphones. The additional interferences just add to the existing signal in an unbalanced connection. Whereas, in balanced connections, the interference’s ultimately canceled in the final output.


Can You Hear The Differences Between Balanced and Unbalanced Headphones?

Well, technically both yes and no. You can sometimes physically hear the differences between balanced and unbalanced headphones. However, it’s not a common occurrence. Our ears can’t easily pick up the slight changes in signals around us.

But then again, it’s hard to miss the harsh static noise when the connection gets stable. Even then, it’s hard to tell apart from balanced to unbalanced. Because balanced headphones too, have certain limitations and can contribute to such annoyances from time to time.

Here are some factors that determine whether you’ll get to hear the differences or not:

Hearing Strength

Some people have a keen sense of hearing that transcends beyond the average range. For instance – even though humans can hear up to 20000 Hz, many of us stop as 15-16000 only.

So, if you have a heightened sense of hearing, you might pick up on the differences. In fact, you’ll catch on to them right away as they are significantly different before the experienced ears.

Hardware Quality

Well, good hearing isn’t going to help if the audio quality itself, is not good at all. You can only nitpick when you have crystal clear audio going on around you.

So, the quality of both the source and receiver matters. Again, the quality of the audio file itself is an important factor as well. Continuous processing, compression, etc. will degrade the file’s quality significantly. So, keep that in mind too before trying to seek out the differences.


Conclusion

So, balanced vs. unbalanced headphones, what’s their deal after all? Turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than you may initially think. Quite fascinating to think that just a few tweaks in wire connections can change the overall performance by so much.

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