Audio quality is important. Whether you’re producing professional music, playing a live performance, or making the most of your home hi-fi system for leisure, the quality of the audio signal can make or break the entire experience. You can buy high-end audio equipment to help there, but if the cables that connect each individual piece of hardware aren’t also high-quality, the integrity of your audio signal is going to suffer, so picking the right high-quality cable for the job is incredibly important.
Two cables often considered for a variety of jobs are RCA and XLR cables. Although sometimes used interchangeably, they are best suited to different roles, and come with unique features that means you need to pick the right one for the task you’re setting it, lest your audio quality suffer.
If you’re weighing up these two popular cable standards for connecting your audio equipment together, here’s everything you need to know about XLR and RCA cables.
XLR and RCA: What are they?
XLR cables are typically used in professional settings for audio, video, and stage lighting equipment. They commonly have three pins, but can have up to 10 in some cases, and have been around in one guise or another since the 1950s. The most common three-pin variant of XLR cables are used in almost all professional-grade microphones and have been common in some commercial speaker and subwoofer designs in the past. They also see use in some PA systems.
The three-pin design offers a balanced connection, thanks to its combination of positive and negative internal wiring, alongside a ground wire. Although they can be used for high-voltage power delivery, they are primarily used for digital audio transmission and do not handle video signals.
To that end, XLR cables are typically used to handle vocals, instruments, music, and sound effects. As a balanced cable, they offer strong shielding against crosstalk and noise, protecting the integrity of the audio signal; something that is of incredible importance when dealing with professional recording, mixing, and performances.
Another reason XLR cables are a firm favorite in professional settings is that they have a robust connector which can withstand the rigours of regular use. On top of that, it fits snugly in the socket and has a button that must be pushed to remove the cable. That sort of quality-of-life feature is incredibly useful in public performances and when recording live audio.
Available in a range of lengths, XLR cables are also convertible and adaptable, leading to XLR to TRS converters, and XLR to RCA cables, among others.
RCA cables, sometimes referred to as Phono connectors, are also used in audio and video data transmission, but have a much more consumer-slant than XLR. They’ve been around even longer, having first been introduced in the 1930s, but where they began their life in radio-phonograph consoles, they have more recently been used to connect devices like games consoles, DVD players, and older camcorders to TVs and monitors to deliver composite and component video signals, as well as audio.
RCA connections are found on many professional audio devices, too, including mixers. This can be useful for connecting commercial devices to mixers for audio sampling. RCA cables are also commonly used in professional settings where the cable run is short, or when sound quality isn’t as important.
RCA cables are a single pin design, with a grounding ring at the base, and have an iconic color coding: yellow red and white for composite, and green blue and red for component. They are, by their lack of positive and negative wiring, entirely unbalanced.
With that in mind, when being used to handle professional audio, RCA cables are most commonly used to deliver only music, leaving XLR cables to handle vocals and instrument transmission. RCA cables are known to generate a buzzing sound through attached speakers when plugging them in due to the fact that the inner signal connection happens before the ground.
RCA cables don’t have any kind of retention mechanism on the port, making them quick and easy to plug and unplug, but that does bring with it a greater risk of accidental removal. They’re easy to convert to other standards though, with many RCA adapters, and converter cables – like RCA to Aux.
Advantages of XLR over RCA
XLR connectors are a professional cable standard, so find more use in professional settings than RCA. They are a higher quality cable and deliver a balanced signal, making them far less susceptible to signal noise, attenuation, and crosstalk. If you connect a balanced device to a balanced device using an unbalanced cable, like RCA, the signal will be unbalanced and therefore is likely to be affected. It might not be unrecognizable when it arrives at the secondary device, but you cannot guarantee it’s quality like you can with a balanced cable design, like XLR.
Professional devices will typically offer XLR and it’s important to use XLR on both ends. A cable that is an XLR to RCA converter, for example, will only offer an unbalanced signal, even when using XLR on one end.
A true XLR cable with XLR connectors on both ends should offer a clean, and secure connection with little external noise or crosstalk. They can do this over longer distances too, up to 50ft in some cases, thanks to the internal protections. Where an RCA cable may begin to show the effects of signal noise or crosstalk over a relatively short distance, that’s not the case with XLR.
XLR cables are also incredibly robust. They’re big, with chunky pins and a metallic ring shield which further protects the internal wiring and the integrity of the XLR plug at each end of the cable. This makes them well suited to situations where you may be repeatedly plugging and unplugging different devices.
This combination of cable quality and a balanced connection to protect audio signal integrity makes XLR cables best suited for use in PA systems, with recording and broadcasting equipment, and when connecting compatible instruments to music mixing hardware. They’re also great for connecting powered speakers to mixers for live performances.
Advantages of RCA over XLR
RCA cables are unbalanced, so do not offer the same level of audio integrity protection as XLR cables, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their advantages and don’t have their uses.
For starters, RCA cables are much cheaper than XLR cables, often costing around half as much for a comparable length cable. This can make them much better suited in situations where budget is more of a concern than signal quality – especially if the connection is likely to be just a few feet long, where signal loss is less likely to occur.
RCA cables are also more versatile, in that they can handle video transmission too, and are found on a wider range of consumer electronic devices. You’ll find it particularly difficult to hook up an old games console to your TV using XLR cables alone, even if technically the XLR cable would be a higher quality cable to use. RCA cables, on the other hand, are commonly supported on a wide range of devices, making them a far better choice – even if more modern alternatives like HDMI and DisplayPort are more capable and versatile again.
RCA cables are also a single cable solution whether you’re transmitting mono or stereo sound. If you wanted to transmit a stereo signal with XLR, you’d need two cables, but RCA cables can manage that with a single cable. This can be a useful feature if you want to minimize the amount of cabling you’re using.
For many consumer devices too, RCA cables are going to be the more common connector type than XLR. That means that in most instances if you’re connecting personal devices to speakers or other commercial hardware, RCA cables are going to be your best (and probably only) option.
XLR vs RCA: Final Thoughts
Knowing how to choose between an XLR and RCA cable is important, because in some cases it can mean the difference between a high-quality sound and a poor quality one. However, in most cases that won’t be a problem, especially if you’re working with devices and technology that is any level below professional.
For home stereo systems, games consoles, DVD players, and old camcorders, RCA cables are going to work just fine and you often won’t even have XLR as an option. On the ones you do, RCA cables over short distances are unlikely to degrade a signal by any appreciable amount, and they’ll be cheaper than the XLR alternative, too.
There are instances, though, where XLR is easily preferential to RCA. When it comes to professional audio work, connecting instruments and microphones, XLR is the better choice. When the integrity of the audio signal is paramount, a balanced XLR cable will protect it. RCA cables won’t necessarily lead to terrible quality loss, especially if they’re short, but it’s not worth taking the risk if the audio is important.
That goes for live performances, too, where a longer cable can give a performer much more freedom to move around the stage. Since longer cables have a greater potential for signal loss, the protection offered by XLR cables ensures that you won’t lose any audio quality whilst still giving the musician plenty of range while performing.