XLR vs TRS (Which Cables are Better for Recording?)

XLR cables are better for recording due to their sturdiness and microphone compatibility, while TRS cables are relatively fragile and incompatible with most studio microphones. There is no noticeable difference in sound quality between the two, but XLR cables are the industry standard because they’re less likely to cause damage during recording.

When an XLR cable is connected to a recording input, its sturdiness will prevent it from shaking or tilting. On the other hand, TRS cables can be flimsy and accidentally disconnected. This can cause a professional recording to be damaged, as any movement in the TRS cable will likely produce unwanted sound artifacts such as clicks and ground noise. For this reason, XLR cables are considered to be the safer option, especially in a studio environment.

What’s the purpose of XLR cables?

XLR cables are most commonly used for microphones, and they’re considered to be the best available option for recording due to their optimal sound quality and sturdiness. While there are commercially-available USB and jack-cable microphones, virtually every professional studio microphone is connected via XLR.

Audio engineers find XLR cables very useful because they can be plugged in for an indefinite amount of time without being subjected to significant damage. In other words, XLR cables are perfect for sitting there without ever leaving their place, hence ensuring accident-proof recording.

Other uses

XLR usability is not limited to microphones, since professional studio equipment can also come with XLR connections. Some instruments also feature this option. In a studio environment, XLR cables are a must-have, and they’re absolutely indispensable for recording.

What’s the purpose of TRS cables?

TRS cables are most commonly used for recording instruments such as electric guitars and analog synthesizers. Audio engineers should always have TRS cables around to be able to record any sound source that’s not compatible with XLR cables. Unlike TR cables, which can be used (for instance) for connecting speakers to an audio interface, TRS cables offer top-quality balanced connectors that are optimized for recording.

The downside of TRS cables is that they can be flimsy. A little accidental touch is all that’s needed for a TRS cable to move and for a recording to be potentially ruined. Since they’re prone to accidents, TRS cables are often deemed to be the second-best option for recording audio in a professional studio environment.

Do producers need TRS cables?

In electronic music, TRS cables are most commonly used for plugging electric instruments into audio interfaces. This way, producers can capture clean signals from electric instruments and process them in the box. It’s a great way to get a clean sound while using a virtual amp or distortion pedal effect on traditional basses and guitars.

What are the similarities between XLR and TRS cables?

XLR and TRS cables are very similar in sound quality because they both offer balanced connections. In audio engineering, a cable is considered unbalanced if it has two points of contact and balanced if it has three points of contact. Both XLR and TRS cables come with three points of contact.

The main difference is that unbalanced connections only carry two conductors—a positive (or hot) signal and a negative (or cold) signal that also includes the ground wire—whereas balanced connections carry three conductors—a positive signal, a negative signal, and a separate signal for the ground wire. In both cases, the ground wire is used to protect signals from potential electromagnetic interference.

XLR and TRS cables are most commonly used for recording stereo signals, even though XLR cables can also transmit balanced mono audio signals.

How do I know if a cable is balanced or unbalanced?

To know if an audio cable is balanced or unbalanced, it’s necessary to analyze its points of contact. This is very easy with XLR cables, since they have three metal pins on one end and three little sockets on the other. TRS cables can be harder to spot, as they’re easily confused with TR cables, which are unbalanced.

To distinguish between a TR and a TRS cable, it’s necessary to look for the extra ring that can be found at the end of any TRS cable. TR stands for Tip and Sleeve (two points of contact), while TRS stands for Tip, Ring, and Sleeve (three points of contact). The only difference between TR and TRS cables is that the latter features two black lines instead of one—this additional black line stands for the extra conductor in the TRS cable, which allows for the emission of a balanced audio signal.

Can XLR cables carry a stereo signal?

XLR cables can carry a stereo signal, but most audio engineers opt to use them for recording in mono. They do so because stereo XLR recordings are unbalanced, while mono XLR recordings are balanced. This can make a difference in the sound quality of the end product.

Since XLR cables are most commonly used for recording vocals or sounds captured by a microphone, there’s no real downside in recording them in mono. On the other hand, TRS cables can be very useful for capturing balanced stereo signals of audio sources that have significant stereo information. Analog synthesizers make for the perfect example: some patches use stereo effects such as ping-pong delay or tremolo, and these wouldn’t sound as good if they were recorded in mono.

What’s the best cable for a home-studio audio interface?

XLR and TRS cables are indispensable to any home studio, even though XLR cables should be an audio engineer’s first choice for recording vocals. However, most home-studio audio interfaces support both types of cables due to their XLR/TRS combo audio socket.

The XLR/TRS combo audio socket is an industry standard that comes with the vast majority of audio interfaces, from Scarlett Focusrite to Audient iD. These audio sockets support both XLR and TRS cables, which means they can be used for recording mics and instruments alike.

For this reason, an affordable audio interface, an XLR cable, one or two TRS cables, and a microphone should be enough for any aspiring audio engineer to build a fully-functional home studio.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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