XLR vs. TRS: Which Is the Best Choice for Recording?
by Alex. Last Updated On July 15th, 2022.
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In creating music, recordings, or doing podcasts it is always at the top of the producer’s priority to create crisp, clear, detailed, and audible audio. Tons of factors can directly affect the quality of sound you produce, but perhaps the most crucial element of them all is the audio input and outputs.
And this is why choosing the best type of audio cable to use is crucial. There are only two options, TRS and XLR cables, and most people prefer the latter.
While there is no apparent difference in sound quality, XLR cables are better because of their sturdiness and compatibility. And since XLR cables are less likely to be removed from the audio equipment, they are less likely to cause damage in the recording job.
In this article, we will go over XLR vs. TRS cables and their uses, differences, similarities, and which one is the better of the two.
Let’s get right into it.
Table of Contents
What are TRS cables?
It’s most likely that you have already seen a TRS audio cable or somewhat a similar structure to them because TRS cables look a lot like your 1/4″ headphone jack which also has the iconic tip, ring, and sleeve.
TRS means tip, ring, and sleeves. These connectors are used with a 1/4″ plug, which can be used for typical audio devices such as amplifier mix stations, audio recording systems, and processing devices. Because of this, TRS cables are also referred to as ¼-inch cables.
Like XLR cables, the TRS connection consists of three different contacts, sending signals using conductive and ground wires. Alternatively, a TRS connection uses the ground and audio signal contact as separate direct plugs instead of connecting the pins.
What is the purpose of TRS cables?
TRS cables are primarily used to connect balanced line level equipment. They are also generally used in musical instruments such as electronic guitars or analog synths.
Unlike TR cables for connection to speakers and audio interfaces, TRS cables feature highly balanced connectors optimized for recording. TRS cables are thin, and they are also fragile. Occasionally touching something will make a TRS cable move, and the recording can be shattered.
Pros of TRS cables
Unlike XLR cables, which can only send audio inputs in one direction, TRS cables can send signals in both directions; this means they can connect to audio equipment that can receive audio signals and is also capable of sending audio signals.
Another is that TRS connectors are far cheaper than XLR cables, so TRS cables are an excellent choice for a beginner’s home recording studio. You can easily purchase a TRS cable for as low as $8 on Amazon.
A TRS connector is also the top choice for most musicians that play musical instruments such as the electric guitar, synthesizers, and keyboards.
Cons of TRS cables
The biggest downside for most TRS cables is that they are pretty flimsy and easily get disconnected. Since they were often engineered to be easily plugged in and out, they get loose over time, leading to technical problems.
Additionally, since TRS cables are built with a non-separate wire like the XLR cables, it results in slightly poorer audio quality and detail, even though it is grounded.
What is the best TRS cable available?
The Hosa MHE-110 3.5mm is one of the best TRS cables available on the market as this relatively sturdy cable has an overall cable length of 10 feet which is the sweet spot for most home studios.
Another great choice is the Pro Co PARKER15, this $58.99 has a four-star rating on Sweetwater and is available on 15 and 20-foot length cables.
What are XLR cables?
XLR is an abbreviation of External Line Return, and it is a connector built by James H. Cannon in the ’90s. XLR cables have become synonymous with microphone cables are they are used in most microphones and other audio equipment such as 5-channel amplifiers and speakers.
The XLR connector is designed to send electrical signals from devices in the same direction. Audio industries and audio engineers often employ microphones to transmit audio signals that are electrical energy between devices. Mixing devices such as audio devices use a connector XLR to transmit signals.
XLR cables have two types, male and female XLR cables. They either have three pins or three holes that allow for three contact points; this feature will enable producers to create a balanced connection.
In an XLR cable, one carries a ground connection. The left carries the hot signal, while the right has the cold signal; this provides radio frequency and electromagnetic resistance, resulting in better sound quality.
What is the purpose of XLR cables?
XLR cables are used in most microphones and is considered the best possible option for recording because it provides the highest sound quality and durability. Despite commercially available USB mic (which is sometimes used with Xbox One) or connector mics, practically any professional condenser microphone is connected to XLR.
XLR cables provide significant protection as they can remain connected for an extended period without damage. The cable is perfectly stable, allowing you to stay there and never leave their spot, ensuring accidental recordings. Because of this, XLR cables are most preferred in professional studios.
Pros of XLR cables
Perhaps the most significant advantage of XLR cables over TRS cables is that XLR connectors are robust and will not easily budge with slight movements. XLR cables tend to stay firm even when tripped over, which is necessary for most audio studios.
Since XLR cables have a ground wire signal path, it allows for a more balanced signal that results in much better sound quality, free from noise and sound interference from outside signals.
Another advantage of XLR cables is that they do not need to be connected to a power source to operate because they can still work with Phantom power. Also, XLR cables are reliable and durable as they do not get damaged easily.
Cons of XLR cables
A downside to XLR cable-type equipment is that you would need both the female and male port for it to function.
Also, XLR cables tend to be more expensive than TRS cables, and while there may be cheap ones on the internet, they tend to be made of poor-quality materials and break easily. You can find mid-ranged priced XLR cables on Amazon for $25.
What is the best XLR cable available?
If you are looking for the best mid-ranged XLR cable, then the Mogami Silver might be the one for you. Not only does Mogami produce high-quality wires, but their experience in the industry has garnered them a worldwide presence since their inception in the 1970s. Mogami is referred to as the “Cable of the Pros.”
However, if you want to go all-in for some top-of-the-line XLR cables, then the Mogami Gold Stage might be a good choice; this $89.95 cable is available in 20, 30, and 50-foot lengths and is highly rated on Amazon with 4.8 stars from over 800 people worldwide.
What is the difference between XLR and TRS cables?
The sound quality of XLR/TRS cable can be very similar for average music listeners due to both providing balanced connections, but XLR cables tend to produce sound that has better quality, detail, and resolution for music professionals who can spot these minute differences due to XLR cables being balanced and having great protection against interferences.
In audio engineering, cables are considered balanced if they have two and three contact points in common use. The main difference in unbalanced connections has been in that they are only carrying a positive (or hot) and a negative (or cold) signal, which include the ground wiring— while balanced connections contain three conductors—a positive signal, a negative signal, and a grounded signal.
Basic similarities of TRS and XLR cables
Functionality-wise, these two cables serve the same purpose, but adding to this, here are some similarities between the two cable types.
First is that they are both analog cables. Analog cables produce a signal representing physical measurements, whereas digital signals are created through digital modulation. Because of this, both XLR and TRS cables are more immune to being deteriorated by noise during the recording sessions, and they are more prone to inaccurate readings when compared to digital cables.
Another similarity between the two is that they both have three contact points. Each point is responsible for a positive, negative, and ground signal, which balances the entire connection; this balanced cable will allow for better recordings to help prevent noise interferences.
Reasons to choose XLR over TRS cables.
Since you now know the difference between XLR and TRS cables, you might ask which one is better? That ultimately depends on what you plan on doing with these cables.
If you want to perform musical instruments on stage, then a TRS cable is more helpful because of its length and compatibility.
But most professional studios prefer XLR cables over a TRS cable connection because of their durability and ability to filter out much of the noise and radio frequencies. It also has a more secure ability to connect equipment and a balanced audio signal, and they have better sound quality, as expressed by sound engineers.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between balanced and unbalanced cables?
For ordinary people like you and me, spotting differences between balanced and unbalanced cables might be confusing without using tons of technical jargon, but here is an overview of their differences.
An unbalanced audio cable comprises two main parts, a ground wire, and a signal. The former acts as the one who delivers audio frequencies, while the latter acts as a reference point and also serves as a shield from outside interferences. And while it does an excellent job of preventing slight hums from street lights and transformers, they also act as an antenna that, ironically, produces noise.
While a balanced cable is made with the same components, they have a slight advantage due to its extra signal wire allowing them to carry both hot and cold signals, which carries the same audio signals but in reversed polarity, which means any noise produced can be canceled out, this is called common-mode rejection.
Balanced audio cables are typically better for longer cable lengths as it provides better protection from outside interference, but unbalanced stereo connections can be a good choice for studios under 10 feet in length as they are cheaper and more accessible.
What makes a good cable?
To help you filter out the plethora of cables flooding the market, take a look at things that should be on your mind when buying cables.
Good impact absorption
Cables will likely be tripped over by or get tugged a lot of times, especially in small studio-type spaces, so you would want a cable with good impact absorption that can easily take these occasional tugs without being damaged.
Of course, you would want to prevent as much external noise from completely ruining your audio recording, and that is why you should look for cables with excellent interference shielding.
There are three types of shielding currently, specifically the serve, braided, and foil shielding, but their objectives are, all the same, to improve your overall sound recording quality.
The cable length would entirely depend on the working area you have available, so before buying a brand new cable, it’s best first to determine the dimensions of your studio.
But suppose you have forgotten about this part. In that case, it’s generally advised to purchase a shorter cable because it prevents the line from more outside interference. It has a shorter travel time than very long cables, which are more susceptible to picking up noise.
High strand count
For most cables, it’s always best to choose one that has a higher strand count. A higher strand count will allow the cord to be more robust and flexible and generally have a longer life than low strand count cables.
Knowing the different types of audio connectors is truly a significant factor when producing and recording audio. While both XLR cable and TRS cables serve the same purpose, their little nuances result in a more substantial effect on the overall audio quality being produced.
And while ordinary people can’t appreciate these minor differences, they are a huge deal breaker to sound engineers and most professional studios, and it’s great to learn more about their contrasts and when producers can utilize their differences to make better recordings.