Mar 14, 201813413 views

[Ongoing] Balanced Audio Gear

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BALANCED AUDIO GEAR There are many ways to achieve professional-grade audio quality and utilizing balanced gear is one of them. We’re kicking off this discussion to debate and examine the merits of a balanced setup versus others, and to help clear up any confusion with the subject.
ASK QUESTIONS • How does balanced audio work? • What’s the difference between balanced and left/right channels? • Which qualities make for good balanced cables?
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Kevin Burke, ViperGeek, and 24 others

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I'm going to offer up my own personal view on the situation as well as my experience. I personally don't believe a balanced connection is inherently better in and of itself over singled-ended. I do however think that gear that includes a balanced topology has certain advantages given ones situation.

My signal chain(s):
Laptop>Teac UD-501>Denon 2808>Emotiva XPA-100's>Emotiva ERT 8.3 (Single-ended)
Laptop>Teac UD-501>Cayin IHA-6>Elex/HE500 (Fully Balanced)
Laptop>Teac UD-501>Gustard H10>more headphones than I would care to list (Partially Balanced)

My DAC sits in the rack with the rest of my AV gear for the stereo/HT, I use the singled ended outputs into the receiver's 5.1 analog inputs and it acts as a pre-amp to my amps (1 each for L/R) again via RCA cables. The cables are all 2 meters or less for this chain. My headphone amps sit on a table at the end of my couch, around 15 ft 'as the cable runs' from the DAC and past power outlets. I use the balanced XLR output in this instance. The UD-501 & Cayin are both fully balanced designs and the UD offers a dual-mono configuration down to the transformers. The Cayin has some apparent advantages when being run balanced. It's OI drops from 10ohms to .3, and it goes from 2ish watts to 7 watts. I have tried the single ended output into the Cayin as I wanted to try various SE only headphones with it (no splitting/summing circuit).

SE vs Balanced effects with my headphone gear:

1) Balanced is more flexible with the .3 ohm output. I have a lot of pairs I would like to use with this thing (Cayin). That 10 ohm OI of SE out (120ohm on the 2nd SE output) will impact the frequency response of several of them.

2) The balanced run has a blacker background and greater soundstage size by a shade on the Cayin, more than likely a byproduct of reduced noise and crosstalk. On the Gustard it just gives it a slightly blacker ground.

3) Knowing my HE500's are getting more than enough wattage and should I ever decide to pickup a used HE-6, will not have to resort to re-purposing a speaker amp.

Additional Comments:

My prior DAC included a pre-amp, although not the best digital implementation it still sounded decent controlling the volume. That DAC was a balanced differential design and my XPA-100's accept XLR and/or RCA. I couldn't tell a difference on the monoblock/tower chain as the run is short and each amp only handles one channel from separate cables. I am personally a big fan of dual-mono configurations as you can see from my choice of gear. To me they give benefits to soundstage, imaging and low-level listening enjoyment. Since many of the balanced gear designs are dual-mono I think the benefits from that design philosophy get lumped in with "Balanced is great man!!"
Balanced audio connections do not use the signal/power ground as one of the two wires required to convey a single (say left channel or right channel) audio signal. Instead each of the two balanced wires for a channel carries the same waveform but 180 degrees out of phase (phase inverted) with respect to the other, each waveform being of nominally equal amplitude. The main potential advantage is that the ground (0V) connection of the equipment is not carrying an audio input (or output) signal.
There is no inherent reason for balanced inputs to work better other than superior common mode interference rejection and the avoidance of ground loops. Neither possible problem is normally a major factor for domestic audio at line levels. If the amplifier is truly balanced throughout it is possible that signal current in the ground path will be reduced slightly, to the benefit of distortion but again this should not be an issue in well-designed equipment. A truly balanced throughout amplifier may generate a more complex distortion characteristic because it essentially contains two separate amplifier circuits, one handling the in-phase signal and the other the out-of-phase signal. Again, hopefully not a real issue.
A true balanced output stage will be able, potentially, to deliver twice the voltage swing and four times the power into a given load, for the same DC voltage used to supply the amplifier. A balanced headphone amplifier with a balanced headphone lead will reduce ground wire intermodulation of the channels, though only very slightly unless the lead, whether within the amp or the external lead, is of very poor quality, and carries the left and right channel grounds for a significant length.
The number of AC power transformers in a piece of equipment is entirely unrelated to whether the equipment is balanced in signal operation. Some equipment uses audio balancing input transformers to convert from balanced to unbalanced or vice-versa. These are normally very small and shielded magnetically and electrically.
A stereo DAC requires a minimum of 2 DAC circuits. A balanced stereo DAC requires a minimum of 4 DAC circuits. Many DAC chips contain more than one actual DAC circuit. The number of DAC chips is not a direct indicator of balanced or unbalanced operation.
Balanced is better not because of common mode noise rejection (the reason often given) but because a truly balanced topology driving a balanced signal has better performance. Voltage amplification swings between - and +, and in balanced topology each amp circuit only needs to push - and + for one channel; this also means component matching is more critical but assuming its engineered right balanced will always be better.

Truly balanced means the amp topology is balanced, not that a single-ended signal gets split. One amp circuit for each channel. The downside is that single-ended outputs are degraded because the balanced signal has to be combined in some manner.

Balanced in DACs means something a little different -- still one line-level amp circuit for each channel but also one DAC chip for each channel (full differential balanced). DAC chips have better performance and noise specs when used in a balanced configuration.

The best: full differential / true balanced DAC -> XLR -> true balanced amp -> balanced headphones.

Quick visual guide: If an amp has more than one AC transformer it will be true balanced. If it has one transformer but the literature says its balanced, try to find assurance that it is true balanced (ie, there are secondary wingdings used off the single transformer which is a substitute for having two of them). DACs will often have two transformers but the second one is normally not used for balanced operation you'll have to find assurances in literature but if you can see more than one DAC chip than it's probably balanced.
Rumor has it that massdrop has a matching balanced dac in the works for the thx aaa amplifier?

Is there any truth to this?
Are the Questsyle lineup of dac/amps fully balanced? I'm very interested in the CMA400i
I mainly use iems and portable dac/dap with a portable amp
Several months ago i bought ibasso PB3 amp with 2.5 balanced out along with the usual 3.5 single ended...
Till now using several hybrid or exclusively balanced armature iems i cannot detect any audible difference between balanced out and single end out..
That is using PB3s 2.5 balanced out with expensive iems above the 300$ price range...
I'm not fully convinced the benefit of going balanced isn't just because the balanced gear is better built and costs more.

All of those comparisons I see are not comparing the same gear or the same circuit. Has anyone ever done a comparison using the same balanced output using a single ended adapter for the single ended test?

But then again, even if the only benefit of going balanced is because manufacturers puts better circuit behind the balanced output, does that really matter in practice?

At the end of the day, it just costs too damn much going balanced so count me out.
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What do you consider to be the less-obvious benefits of balanced output?

My first contribution to this thread offered some things to listen for in order to determine whether the gear you are using is delivering everything to your likeing.

I completely agree with you that there are many fine single ended devices. I think there are many whose component list and build quality are state-of-the-art. I am most often listening through SE because of where I am and what I may have with me at the time. I listen to music at work and the setup there is SE. When I come home, I listen through a balanced connection.
Like you, I listen to music at work with a single ended setup, and balanced at home. I can speak for two headphones like this, the ZMF Blackwood and ZMF Ori.

The SE setup is just a Chord Hugo 2 (though I've tried this with a Schiit Lyr 3 with excellent NOS tubes, zero improvement), the balanced setup is Chord Hugo 2 + Mjolnir Audio Pure BiPolar (this amp converts SE signal into balanced using Nelson Pass's "Super Symmetry" input). I have also used the Audeze LCD-4 with a Hugo 2 + Schiit Lyr 3, and Hugo 2 + Pure BiPolar but that's just unfair considering the Pure BiPolar is in a completely different class than the Lyr 3.

So the audible improvements with the ZMF headphones are: fuller bass, harder hitting bass, considerably better layering/instrument separation, far more transparent and overall cleaner treble but this isn't just because it's balanced.

A really interesting test though would be if I were to compare the Pure BiPolar amp to a really good single ended amp like a Bottlehead Mainline or an excellent SET speaker amp repurposed for headphones. But that's not gonna happen.
Hey folks. We have a winner of the Massdrop x HIFIMAN HE4XX Planar Magnetic Headphones. Congrats to rantng! The giveaway has concluded, but if you have any questions (or answers), keep them coming. Thanks y'all.
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You will always be special to me if it's any consolation. ¯\_😍_/¯
You wouldn’t be the first to say so ;- )
I am in on the Sennheisser HD6xx drop. This is the first set of headphones that I have ever ordered. Ever. And I am 62 years old. I am very glad to have discovered Massdrop! So, I am a newborn, newbie, neophyte of the first order. I have plenty of questions while I search for a DAC and amp as I await delivery on the HD6xx in August. Please help with my first questions. What is the difference between balanced and left right channel amps? Would either enhance the hd6xx sound experience?
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I was hoping to find a good quality, once-and-done dac/amp combo or stack that's not too pricey, so that I can spend the rest of my budget on a few different headphones. Tke Jot with multibit would be at my limit for spending on a combo or stack.
It would certainly be difficult to find a more versatile rig to serve as the heart of your system at that price point.
My two cents on the Van Damme Audio balanced HD 6XX Cables

Not total crap, but pretty close to it.
Bought the blue one with the balanced connector upgrade to pair with a Schitt Jotunheim. First off, I hear no difference between the stock single-ended Sennheiser cable and the balanced Van Damme cable--zip, nada, nothing. If there is a measurable difference of some kind that my analog ears can't hear, I still claim that difference isn't worth $70.
Next point: I have the same problem described by others, the terminations on the "R" and "L" connections were done fast and sloppy--there is a noticeable gap between the heat shrink and the plug, revealing exposed conductor. Additionally, the connectors are too difficult to connect to the headphones. Evidently there is a polarity requirement (makes sense) but there is no visual indicator to guide you as you attempt to plug them in. Assuming you figure out the direction, in my case there is an annoying twist to the right channel cable (in other words, the two sides weren't lying flat and parallel when the heat shrink was applied at the spilt). I suppose the can be "worked" out, but for the price, I would have expected better.
Another point: the connectors do not fit securely; there is no perceivable "click", no way to know you've made a positive connection--and half the time I didn't--the connector just slipped out of the headphone. By contrast, the stock Sennheiser connectors have directional indicators, and plug right in smoothly and securely--first time, every time. Not sure why the Van Damme connectors can't do the same thing?
Last point: the cable is long and heavy--as in very heavy. The weight is similar to those outdoor extension cables you might use for a leaf blower. That may be a "feature" for some, but it's uncomfortable lying across your body/neck/shoulders and exerts a lot of downward force on those feeble connectors I mentioned above. By the way, it's worth adding that I have no issues with the other end of the cable, the male XLR connects easily and securely to the corresponding connector on the Jot--no problem there.
So, closing thoughts: as to the Snake Oil qualities associated with balanced cables, I'll leave that determination for another day (but I will say, to my eye (ear), the emperor is clearly butt-naked). In terms of overall value, I'd say save your money. Seventy bucks isn't the end of the world, but I'd rather have spent it on better source material, where the sound quality (and value) are much easier to hear.
What they show in the drop (above) and what we got (below)
I've not modded my gear and here's what I have with which to mess around:

HiFiMan HE-560
HiFiMan HE-400
MrSpeakers Alpha Prime
Sennheiser SD-6XX

Each pair of these cans have a short cable adapter that terminates with a mini 3-PIN XLR. I have a set of WyWire RED headphone cables that terminate at the HP end with the mini-XLR. This cable could plug directly into several of the Audeze headphones with an adapter.

I also have a pair of Audeze iSine 20 and I contacted Audeze to get a balanced cable from them. The response from them is that balanced-out has to be done correctly and most of the time it only provides an increase in volume. I was also told to go elsewhere to get a cable, so I did. ( Plussound Apollonian+ Series Custom Cable for In-Ear Monitors)

The other end of this HP cable is a Nuetrik locking 4-pin XLR. This plugs directly into any system with a 4-pin XLR balanced out. I have a Geek Pulse Xfinity in my system, that I have been enjoying very much. I think it is comparable to any Schiit or Hugo that I've listened to at CanJams

I have adapters for this side of the cable. I can plug into a single-ended 3.5mm TRS jack, a balanced 3.5mm TRRS jack and into the two 3.5mm TRS jacks on a Pono Player (that can be combined for balanced playback).

This is what I have noticed with the balanced output, and it does vary from recording to recording. I think that I appreciate it more on the better recordings. If you have something like that was recorded well to begin with and you have it in an higher resolution, that can be an additional bonus. As someone else has pointed out, one's hearing has a lot to do with perception. Another contributor made a valid point that none of this really matters :-). I've noticed this at times with the Geek Pulse, the Pono Player, and the recently acquired Astell&Kern AK240.

For me, something is worth it if I am enjoying the same music more than I did before.

1) There is an increase in volume Audeze once told me that is about 3 - 6dB

2) There is an increase in the width of the sound-stage. Listen for the perceived space in between instruments. If there is space between their "images", you're more likely to hear each instrument more clearly. I find that this is more noticeable with my HifiMan's (open-back) than it is with the Mr. Speakers (closed)

3) Sometimes these images are in 3-D. See if there is any difference in the height of instrument or if it appears to be closer or farther than others

4) The source of the lower notes, bass guitar, kick drum, etc., might appear to originate from a point, instead of an area. In many listening experiences, I notice that the bass can sometimes overwhelm the rest of the instruments. In other times, it can appear to be in a specific location on the stage. I have found that balanced output can tighten up the base.

5) If the track listened to is primarily vocal, I've noticed that the timbre of the voice can change, where the mid-range comes forward more and the overall sound comes down a bit from the upper range. The voice sounds more fuller, more rich. I think I'm simply receiving more of the original voice.

I do think that there is limited return for the additional expense and that a lot of folks can dig their music without additional expense. I noticed that a lot of posters are basically asking if it worth the prices to do this. That tells me that there are a lot of music lovers that are basically not content with what they're hearing. If you can budget for it, I'd say that you should do it. If buying better equipment puts a strain on your wallet, don't sweat it. You're still going to dig your music!

I've been fortunate enough to treat this like a hobby and try different experiences. If I were to do a complete rewind with regard to my personal EDC audio, I'd settle on the AK240 for a DAP and the AudioQuest DragonFly RED connected to my iPhone7 for streaming music. It would be nice if it had balanced output :-)
Agree completely with your comments on headphones sounding better and the type of differences with balanced connection. Using HD600 ,hifiman 4xx even in ear shure 846 with balanced connectors there is more 3D feeling, more bass dynamics, even if I account for loudness levels changing. I used other balanced amps before but now as you using geek pulse xfi.
Ok so.... Balanced is great and all giving all the power and no noise but you have to mod most headphone cables for it to work. Or buy one. There goes all use for balanced unless youre at home. While your normal 1/8 jack works with everything and is universal though with the drawback of more noise
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------So I just tried my friends modded akg k7xx 4 pin mini xlr headphone compared it to my stock k7xx and well.... I was disappointing even with a jounteim (I can't spell it). There was no noise on either even if balanced provides basically 0. Though the sound was maybe a little better but no where close to some of the HYPE that people gave balanced. I will say though that headphones and IEMS all seem to get some level of improvement using balanced . Some will benefit more than others. I don't think the k7xx was the right headphone for this test but balanced is fun to mess with if you have the money.
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I see. My mistake!
My mistake. Now I see it looking into it. You're right!