The two commonly used audio ports or connectors are the XLR and 1/4 inch. Veteran audio engineers use both and are well-versed in their distinction. However, for beginners, the rationale for choosing one over the other is not yet clear.
People easily associate the term XLR with microphone cables, while the 1/4 inch with the typical guitar cables. Well, guess what? It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In this article, let’s thoroughly discuss these audio accessories, compare XLR vs 1/4, and check the reasons for choosing one over the other.
What is XLR?
In 1990, Kenneth Cannon invented the XLR to standardize the cables used for amplifiers, speakers, microphones, and other audio equipment.
The XLR connector is an electrical connector predominantly used in professional video, audio, and lighting equipment. The acronym stands for External Line Return. Its primary purpose is to act as a conduit for large electrical currents stably.
We usually encounter 3 pins inside an XLR connector, as we can find in microphones. However, this is just the minimum because other XLR varieties have 4, 5, 6, and 7 pins. The number of pins depends on its application.
This three-pin version is the most common type of XLR used in the industry to achieve balanced audio signals. They are typically found in professional microphones but are also found in amplifiers, mixers, and soundboards.
The four-pin XLR is used in intercom headsets, wherein two pins are used for the headphone signal, while the other two are used for the microphone signal. They are also used for DC power connections in film and video equipment, stage lighting, and pyrotechnic equipment.
These connectors are specially used for DMX512 digital lighting effects. Its other applications include stereo microphones and stereo intercom headsets.
The six-pin XLR’s are employed in stage lighting control and dual intercom systems. They can also be found in professional stereo headsets with balanced microphones.
Seven-pin connectors connect tube condenser mics to power supplies. Today, they are also used for the remote controls of fog machines like that of Le Maitre and Ultratec.
The XLR has become a reliable connector in today’s audio devices like speakers, amplifiers, mixers, microphones, and recording equipment.
What is a 1/4 inch Connector?
1/4-inch connectors are super familiar in the audio world, both professionally and personally. If you hear someone say “quarter-inch” or “6.35mm”, they are the same. So the next time you go to a shop, you won’t be confused anymore if they are selling it in mm.
Expert Tip: We use 1/4-inch connectors in virtually any audio equipment such as amplifiers, preamps, consoles, receivers, audio interfaces, and instruments like keyboards, guitars, and synthesizers.
Like the XLR, the 1/4-inch connector also has a male and female variant. The female connectors are the ones embedded in the audio equipment or instrument, while the male ones are plugged in it.
There are two types of 1/4-connectors: Tip-Sleeve (TS) and Tip-Ring-Sleeve (TRS).
A TS connector is divided into two parts: the tip and the sleeve. The tip refers to the connector’s tip. The sleeve starts from the black line down.
The Tip is responsible for carrying the audio signal while the Sleeve is on the ground. Hence, inside the TS cables also are two cables for carrying the audio signal and ground. Unfortunately, these connectors are considered unbalanced.
This connector is more or less the same as the TS connector, except for the ring between the tip and sleeve. Inside TRS cables are three wires – one for ground, one for left or hot, and one for right or cold. Its tip and ring carry the hot and cold (or left and right) signals, while the sleeve acts as the ground.
Now that we’ve done an elaborate description of the two connectors, it’s time to draw a quick comparison between the two. Since the 1/4-inch connector has two variants (TS & TRS), we will also do a quick matchup between the XLR and each of the two.
Before touching on their differences, let’s take a look at what they have in common.
- They both use analog cables. Unlike digital cables that use binary codes to transmit information, analog cables use electricity to do it. This allows the real-time transmission of signals.
- They can make an analog cable balanced. The XLR & the TRS cable are uninfluenced by sound interference.
The major difference between the two is the audio signal balance. As mentioned earlier, XRS connectors are balanced while the TS connectors are unbalanced.
Expert Tip: Unbalanced cables tend to pick up noise and signals from radios and antennas around them. So if you use a long TS cable, you’ll notice that there’s unwanted noise added to your signal, disrupting its flow.
In addition, TS cables can only carry mono signals because only one wire is useable to deliver the signal. The other wire is for the ground. This is the reason why the quarter-inch TS cables work great for guitars because they are mono instruments.
or XLR cables and connectors however, the audio signal is balanced. You get to enjoy a lengthy XLR cable because you won’t have to worry about signal interference. Technically, the noise still permeates through the wire but they get filtered out at the end of the cable, resulting in a clean audio signal!
The TRS has essentially the same design as the TS but it is balanced – same with the XLR. In short, both the XLR and 1/4-inch connectors or cables can deliver clean audio signals. Both XLR and TRS cables can transfer stereo signals, considering that their two wires can carry the left and right channels of the stereo signal.
While yes, both produce impeccable audio quality, there are still reasons why it’s better to choose XLR over a 1/4-inch.
1. Phantom Power
Unlike conventional microphones, condenser microphones require a higher amount of power, usually 48 volts, to function. Therefore, power must pass through an audio cable that is stable and balanced – XLR to the rescue!
2. Preamps Access
Microphones produce quiet mic-level signals, which need to be boosted. Most audio equipment like mixers and audio interfaces have preamps build into their XLR connectors. The only way to tap the power of the preamp is the use of XLR cables.
3. Lock-in Mechanism
Accidents or mishaps could happen on or off the stage such as tripping on wires. As a countermeasure, the XLR can prevent a sudden pull-out through its locking mechanism.
4. For Studio Setup
Having a music or recording studio means you’re staying in a place for a long time and no frequent plugging out of wires or connections. Because of the XLR’s sturdy design, you can be confident of a secure connection.
5. Daisy-Chain Connection
If you’re looking to create a long XLR cable, you can combine several XLR cables and make a daisy-chain connection. Just make sure to plug the male XLR connector the female XLR connector of the next cable, and so on until you achieve your desired length.
This is something the 1/4-inch cable cannot do efficiently. Yes, you can still try to connect TRS cables but it will not be as stable as the XLR daisy chain.
You can opt for the 1/4-inch for the following reasons:
XLR connectors or cables are slightly higher than the 1/4-inch. This could be negligible in small quantities but if you purchase large quantities, you can save significantly.
2. Universally used for instruments
Some new models of keyboards or synthesizers already have XLR connectors but the majority of instruments are still using the 1-4-inch.
3. Used for patch cables
If you’re using more than guitar pedal effects, you need patch cables to route one pedal to the other. The 1/4-inch connectors are the perfect choice for this situation. Even a TS cable will work as smooth as a TRS because patch cables are typically short in length, meaning there’s little to no noise interference.
The Wire Counts!
Many audio enthusiasts put greater investment on connectors and neglect the quality of the cable. To guide you in choosing a high-quality cable, check on the following characteristics:
Your cable will go through a great ordeal whether in the studio or on the grand stage. Other people won’t mind stepping on it, so make sure that it can withstand weighty objects.
The strand count matters. The more strands the cable has, the stronger and more flexible it will be.
The connectors are usually coated to enhance electrical conductivity. The usual coatings are silver and gold.
Well, there you have it. Now that we’ve examined each audio connector and weighed up its pros and cons, it’s time to pick one. Determine first what you will use it for. If you’re using it for phantom-powered microphones or audio equipment connections, opt for the balanced XLR or TRS quarter-inch. If you’re using it for instruments or patch cables, you may use the TS quarter-inch.