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Audio Cables and Wiring

Audio Cables and Wiring

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Published by Joshua Dylan Polcek
FAQ Audio Cables and Wiring
FAQ Audio Cables and Wiring

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Published by: Joshua Dylan Polcek on Oct 26, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Frequently Asked Questions
QWhat is the difference between balanced and unbalanced cable? QAre all screened cables much the same, or are some better than others? QCan I use the same kind of screened cable for both mic and line signals? QCan I use an unbalanced signal with a phantom-powered mic input? QWhat's the best way to connect unbalanced signal sources to balanced inputs?QCan I use any phono cable for S/PDIF signals? QWhat's the best way to connect a balanced source to an unbalanced input? QDoes it matter if mains cables run close to signal cables? QHow long can audio cables be before the signal quality suffers? QI've read a lot about specialist hi-fi speaker cable. Is this really necessary or can I use any twin-corecable? Q How do I wire an insert 'Y' lead?
 All tangled up when it comes to audioleads? Here are the answers to the mostcommon queries on the subject from
What is the difference between balancedand unbalanced cable?
 All audio signal cable is screened, whichmeans that an outer conductor wraps aroundthe other conductor(s) to shield them fromelectromagnetic interference. The outer screen, which may be made of wire braid,metal foil or conductive plastic, is usually connected to ground so that any induced currents(due to interference) flow directly to ground rather than being allowed to modulate the audiosignal. However, screening isn't a perfect solution, which is why balancing was invented.
In an unbalanced cable, there's a single inner core that carries the signal while the outer screen also doubles as the signal return path. Any interference that results in inducedcurrents flowing through the screen conductor will cause these currents to be added to thewanted signal, so some interference problems are still possible, especially with long cablelengths or where there are nearby sources of strong interference. Though it's not oftenrealised, screened cable offers very little protection against induced hum, as the cable isactually acting like a single-turn transformer, coupling energy from other mains conductorsand transformers in the vicinity.
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In a balanced cable, thereare two inner conductors,often known as hot and cold.The screen is grounded, asbefore, but this time thescreen is not part of thesignal path. More importantly,balanced equipment isdesigned so that its hot andcold outputs carry the samesignal but with the cold signalphase inverted with respectto the hot signal. At thereceiving end, the balancedinput stage re-inverts the coldsignal and adds it to the hotsignal, thus restoring theoriginal signal. The clever part is that any interferencethat makes it through thescreen is likely to havevirtually the same influenceon the hot and the coldconductors (as they are inmore or less the sameplace). As a phase reversal isimplemented at the input of the receiving piece of equipment, any interferencecommon to both conductorswill cancel out. Theeffectiveness of this systemdepends, amongst other things, on how well balancedthe hot and cold arms of thecircuitry are at either end of the cable. Mic amps oftenhave a specification for common mode rejection,which is a measure of howeffectively the circuitry rejectsinterference that is commonto both hot and cold inputs.
 A further type of cable knownas Star Quad was developedto further improve theimmunity to interference, andthis works by having twopairs of internal cables wiredin parallel, but spaced(actually woven or plaited) sothat any interference induceddue to the cable cores not
For the long cable runs used inlive rigs, it is not uncommon to findStar Quad cable in use. This is ascreened cable with four individualinternal conductors, two of whichare used for each of the elementsof the balanced signal.
The red cable above is for unbalanced signals, and has twoconductors: the wire screen andthe single core. The yellow cableis for balanced signals, andtherefore requires two centralcores in addition to its screen.
 A simple helically-wound wirescreen (as in the yellow cable) isfine for general-purpose audiocabling, but a braided wire screen(as in the black cable) will tend togive less handling noise withdelicate mic signals.
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occupying exactly the sameposition in space is largelycancelled out. Star Quadseems to be used mainly inlive sound applications wherelong cable runs arecommonplace, but it isdemonstrably more effectivethan conventional balancedcable.
Are all screenedcables much the same, orare some better thanothers?
Foil or braid screened cablestend to be good from ascreening point of view,whereas the type of cablethat uses a bunch of unbraided wires wrappedaround the outside is lesseffective, especially if thecable is bent in such a wayas to open a space in thescreen. Another popular typeuses a conductive plasticscreen where a metal wireruns alongside the screen topermit connection. Over shortdistances at line level, mosttypes of screening areadequately effective, thougha woven metal screen or afoil screen is likely to be moreeffective than a conductiveplastic or wrapped wirescreen.
Microphone cable choice isparticularly important, assome cables can generateelectrical noise when movedor bent. A woven screencable designed specificallyfor use with microphonesprobably offers the mosteffective screening, coupledwith low handling noise, butconductive plastic is also aneffective solution for thecable lengths used in atypical small studio.
Other screening options includefoil (brown cable) and conductiveplastic (green cable), both of which have a drain wire for soldering to your choice of connector. Some cables evencombine different shielding typesfor improved performance -- for example, the light blue cable usesboth braided wire and foil screensto protect important AES-EBUdigital signals.
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