The XLR cable can seem intimidating.
And we get it. It does look different from the usual cables that we see. But don’t worry!
We’re here to simplify everything there is to know about what is XLR cable and why you should have it.
The Big Picture: What Does XLR Mean?
The abbreviation XLR on some of your cables stands for External Line Return.
This type of ELECTRICAL CONNECTOR is found primarily in professional audio, video, and stage lighting equipment.
However, XLR could also stand for the following:
- X – X Connector
- L – Locking Connector
- R – Rubber Boot
The R component has evolved into an unnecessary feature in modern cables now.
Despite this, the function and design of XLR cables remain the same.
Regarding design, there are also different VERSIONS OF XLR CABLES depending on the number of pins: from 3 to 7.
This article will focus on the XLR3 simply because the three-pin style is the most commonly used by the public.
So What is XLR Cable: What’s In It For You?
The XLR connector is the standard for high-quality audio inputs.
It’s SO SIMPLE to use because of its highly robust system. This is helpful, especially if you’re just a casual listener and user.
The XLR cable works by sending a balanced signal that helps ISOLATE noise.
To help you understand this better, let’s briefly discuss what balance means under the context of audio signals:
Balanced audio cables have THREE WIRES that serve as conductors:
- Negative Wires
- Positive Wires
- Ground Wires
A balanced system involves the audio signal carried by the positive AND negative wires.
The catch? They do so with opposite polarities.
This means that UNWANTED NOISE from external electrical interference sources is reduced.
The resulting audio signal from balanced cables is BEST FOR AUDIO APPLICATIONS near other devices over a long distance.
Unbalanced audio cables have TWO WIRES that serve as conductors:
- Signal Carrier Wires
- Ground Wires
Compared to balanced cables, these are LESS EXPENSIVE.
You should also expect to experience more noise interference because of NEARBY electronic devices.
This is why unbalanced audio cables are better for audio applications that require shorter cables.
Let’s Take A Closer Look: What Are XLR Connectors?
The simple answer: XLR cables are BALANCED CABLES with a different type of connector.
That said, you can expect to see CIRCULAR CONNECTORS with three pins:
You should now notice that they are similar to Tip Ring Sleeve (TRS) cables, which look like the standard jack cables.
This setup allows the XLR connectors to be compatible with A LOT of devices functioning as the following:
- Audio Device
- Lighting Control
- Low-Voltage Power Supplies
So if there’s anything that you should know, it’s that XLR connectors are VERSATILE.
Learning the Basics: What Should You Know?
There are TWO COMMON TYPES of three-pin XLR connectors:
- Male XLR is attached to the device emitting the signal (example: microphone cable)
- Female XLR is attached to the device receiving the signal (example: mic inputs on a mixing desk)
The female connector is also commonly designed to connect with the earth pin.
Now to figure out which pin is the ground signal on an XLR pinout:
- Pin on the Left Side when facing a male connector
- Hole on the Right Side when facing a female connector
Ensuring the appropriateness of your connections guarantees the quality of your balanced XLR cables.
This means that the sound will contain LESS UNWANTED NOISE from outside interference.
Other than that, there are a couple more things that you should look out for:
- Audio Interface or Mixer. A good audio interface allows your computer to see your input balanced microphone.
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Know which audio applications are compatible with your devices so you can capture your audio recordings.
Your XLR cable is generally a GREAT connector for any type of application.
Learning the Mechanism: How Do XLR Cables Work?
Do you remember your three-pin XLR cable?
Well, you NEED to understand that the XLR cable delivers THREE TYPES OF AUDIO SIGNAL when two balanced devices are connected:
- Positive Audio Signal
- Negative Audio Signal
- Ground Signal
The POSITIVE and NEGATIVE audio signals are identical.
The only catch is that the signals flow in opposite directions.
Now, if electrical interference enters the system, this is what generally happens:
- The unwanted noise enters both ends of the positive audio signal and negative audio signal
- Either of the two audio signals is INVERTED once the noise reaches any of the balanced devices
- The inverted noise combines with the original noise signals
You will eventually be left with what is essentially just the original audio signal.
A balanced signal will only work if BOTH DEVICES on the ends of the XLR cables are also balanced.
An UNBALANCED signal chain will otherwise be produced.
Can XLR Cables Be Used for Condenser Microphones?
A condenser microphone requires greater external power.
And yes, your XLR connector can be used for it as phantom power.
This phantom power works the same way by applying DIRECT CURRENT through the signal lines of the balanced audio signal cables.
Balancing Cable Connections: Why Is It Important?
Having balanced audio for the connection of your audio equipment allows for longer reach of wirings with a REDUCED RISK of external noise due to interference.
This is because a BALANCED AUDIO SIGNAL ensures that the audio signal is isolated and NOT in contact with other surfaces.
The system then effectively eliminates the different types of noise in an audio signal chain:
Ground Loop Noise
You should notice this as irregular buzzing sounds or a low hum.
This occurs when your audio signal takes DIFFERENT PATHS from your pro audio gear to the amplifier.
Often this will be observed when computers are involved due to the different ground connection paths your audio cable can take.
Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) is interchangeably termed RFI (Radio Frequency Interference).
This disturbance also manifests as buzzing sounds or a low hum.
It may even be possible to hear radio signals from a nearby audio device!
This effect is mainly due to MAGNETIC FIELDS that disrupt the current passing onto your unbalanced cables.
Crosstalk is a TYPE OF INTERFERENCE that occurs when the electromagnetic fields of one audio signal affect another in a nearby electrical circuit.
This often happens when your wire and CLR cables end up tangled with one another.
All instances can only be solved by isolating the wires of your signal chain.
Yes, both the negative audio signal and the positive audio signal.
Only then can you have a balanced cable for the connection of your electronic devices.
Why Not Just Use A USB Microphone?
Your USB microphones come with their pros and cons.
Of course, the PRIMARY ADVANTAGE is that it works!
However, this brings forth its primary disadvantage: you can only use one at a time.
Let’s briefly look at the different aspects of their usage, shall we?
Winner: USB Mics
- USB Mics do NOT need any additional equipment, making them easier to set up
- XLR Mics require a couple more equipment to work: mixer, field recorder, or audio interface
Winner: XLR Mics
- USB Mics can only be connected and recorded to a single output device
- XLR Mics have XLR connectors that can be connected to any other equipment with a port for XLR cables
Winner: XLR Mics
- USB Mics offer fewer options to rig your audio setup for BETTER recording quality
- XLR Mics are flexible enough to connect to more ADVANCED equipment to amplify the original audio signal and control line-level signals better
It’s quite clear from this comparison that microphones with a pin XLR cable offer better control for a balanced signal.
The XLR mic is simply more appropriate for professional recording sessions.
Can You Connect XLR Cables to a Computer?
Yes, you can.
You’re worried about your PCs NOT having ports for your XLR connector, right?
Well, there are TWO WAYS for you to achieve a successful connection:
USB Audio Interface
This is the most preferred option for most microphones because it offers VERSATILITY OF AUDIO CONFIGURATIONS.
You can think of it as having a mini studio connected to your computer.
Connect the XLR plugs as an input to the audio interface, and plug the system back to your PC!
Using the USB Audio Interface is a ROBUST AND RELIABLE solution for your needs.
XLR Cable to USB Cable
This is a quick modification of your peripherals to settle the compatibility of your ports.
But while the cheaper option, it is LESS VERSATILE due to these reasons:
- Less gains for dynamic microphones
- Limited configurations for quality of the audio devices
This is why it’s generally better for simpler handheld dynamic microphones.
Regardless, it’s still an EASY way to plug an XLR microphone into the USB input of your computer.
XLR cables are a must-have if you’re serious about recording your audio.
The connection provided by the XLR cable produces a balanced sound that is IDEAL for any recording.
Just make sure to always go back to the BASICS of the XLR cable:
- They are balanced cables with a CIRCULAR CONNECTOR
- The ground signal depends on the male connector and female connectors
- They can function as phantom power
You can not go wrong with having some XLR connectors by your side.
Do you have any more questions? Any suggestions on the brand of XLR cables you might need? Let us know in the comments below.