RCA vs XLR and Balanced vs Unbalanced

Newbee needs some help understanding the benefits (if any) of using RCA vs XLR connections and using a balanced vs unbalanced components. What are the benefits of using balanced components (DAC > pre-amp >  amp)?   Does balanced sound better for some reason?    It is my understanding that to take advantage of a balanced system, you need to use XLR cables. Correct?  RCA cables will negate the benefits of a balanced system?  For example, if I have a set of cables that are terminated with XLRs on the DAC end and RCAs on the pre-amp end.  If I have a balanced DAC should I be using a balanced pre-amp? A balanced amp? As my line of questioning indicates, I have no understanding of how a balanced system works and why it is preferable to a non-balanced system. Any guidance will be greatly appreciated. Cheers.
If you a long run and potential noise problem XLRs really help. If you don't have EMI RFI noise issues, RCAs and the length of the run work just fine. One thing is for sure XLRs have a better secure connection.
The exception is locking RCAs.

Most XLRs are louder too. 3 or 6 db something like that.

BTW not all balanced systems are created equal.. They can have XLR plugs and cable but not be balanced.. There are a FEW tube amps that way..

Someone will chime in with all the tech stuff. 

Noise is the issue and are you happy with what you already have? 

XLR are made for professional use where wire runs can be a hundred meters and there could easily be a hundred of them, on equipment being moved around a lot, connected and disconnected. All the features of XLR are made with professional use in mind. Connecting XLR for example the pins are designed to contact ground before signal thus avoiding the pop and noise of RCA.

The vast majority of audiophiles think professional must be better, that 20 ft is "long" and so on. If you want to buy into that you might at least want to consider how much of what you are paying for in XLR is features like locking mechanisms you will never need.

That is just the XLR wire part. Balanced means different things. In the vast majority of cases XLR connections are put there for convenience, for those who have XLR because they bought into that whole thing. But there is no balanced circuit. For the simple reason, a balanced circuit is two circuits that are then compared on the idea any distortion will be different, we will design the circuit to remove the difference, and wala everything is better.

Big drawback with this being quality in audio rules over all. Easiest way to make something better is improve the quality of the individual parts. Balanced circuits require twice the parts, so what do you suppose that does to parts quality? Right.

This is tough to do, but if you can find a fully balanced component with both RCA and XLR and identical RCA and XLR interconnects, so what is truly being compared is balanced/unbalanced, then you can hear for yourself what I am talking about. I did this once and that is how I know the above explanation is correct. You pay a big premium for things you simply do not need, and gain precious little for your hard-earned audiophile dollar.

The simple fact is that balanced cables (only in a true balancdd system) are easier the build for high fidelity. Otherwise the cable must jump through expensive hoops to get the return (outer) line to equal the performance of the inner. Ray Kimber and Mike Morrow have figured how to do it economically. OR pay up.
Just find truly balanced hardware. There is plenty of it around. Or just go integrated. But NONE of them have the features I desire.
@atmasphere is the oracle on this topic. If you’re not aware of Ralph Karsten (@atmasphere), he designs and builds Atma-Sphere balanced preamplifiers and amplifiers:


9,836 posts

03-22-2013 9:05am

A good reason to go balanced is the advantage of being able to run really long interconnects, so you can place the amps close to the speakers and avoid sonic degradation on account of the speaker cables.

The balanced line system was created to get rid of interconnect cable colorations. It works really well! However in order for that to happen, The preamp must support the balanced line standards (which have been in place for decades).

Most high end audio balanced preamps do not support the standard! As a result with such preamps you will encounter variable results as far as interconnects are concerned.

Here is the standard:

1) pins are: pin 1 ground, pin 2 and 3 are signal.
2) Ground is ignored- the signal occurs only between pin 2 and 3 (this is where most high end audio preamps have a problem- as soon as there are signal currents in the shield of the cable, the construction of the cable becomes critical).
3) the cable will be a twisted pair for the signal with a shield (tied to pin one only)
4) the output of the preamp should be capable of driving a low impedance load (2000 ohms or less) without loss of voltage, without increase in distortion and without loss of bass (this is the other big area where high end audio preamps have a problem, and also results in cable sensitivity). 

Note: this does not mean that the output impedance of the preamp is this value, it means that it can *drive* this value. If there is a question, both the 1KHz output impedance and the 20Hz output impedance should be well below 300 ohms!

The actual standard is 600 ohms and you will have a lot of manufacturers of balanced products tell you that since the amps being driven have a much higher input impedance, that this does not matter. Such is incorrect if you want cable immunity! It is the higher impedance nature of single-ended preamps and amps that spawned the interconnect cable industry. Such is not needed for balanced as long as the standards are used.

Now some people want proof of this sort of thing- after all what I am saying here is that the interconnect should not have an audible quality in the system. So here is the proof. The first manufacturer of high end cables was FMI in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Robert Fulton, the proprietor, created the first cables in which in was claimed that they made an improvement when installed in a system. That was the late 1970s. 

However in the late 1950s, the record labels were turning out recordings that are revered to this day (the better your system gets, the better these recordings sound). In many cases the microphone signal had to go over 200 feet to get to the input of the tape recorder- how did they do that without an exotic cable? The answer is the low impedance balanced line system.

So- if you want that same cable immunity that the recording and broadcast industry has enjoyed for the last 60 years, then your preamp should support the same standard. This takes the cable out of the system equation, and also its cost. 

BTW, phono cartridges are a balanced source and should enjoy the same cable immunity if set up properly. If you have ever wondered why the phono system has that extra ground wire that no other single-ended source seems to have, that is why- its actually a balanced source that is being treated as if it is single-ended, but you have to do something with that ground...

Many amps and preamps just have opamps to "pseudo" give balanced inputs and outputs, when their actual circuit topology is single ended, and then your far better off using the rca input and outputs as you then bypass the "opamps".
And if your using <3mts or less interconnects, rca is just as good as balanced.
Over say >3mt balance can get quieter the longer you go.

Cheers George
some nitwits here hate it when i say it and say it again -- ’the search bar above is your friend’

too all noobs -- once again -- ’’ the search bar above is your friend’’

@tvad shows it to be so true again - here is another from just a few months back... https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/all-things-being-equal-hypothetical-which-do-you-prefer-xlr-o...

and so ends this public service announcement...
The primary determinant of which will sound better is how the equipment is designed (balanced or not… as MC and others have noted), The manufacturers might tell you which is better… but the reality is the difference… particularly if your equipment is <$2K per box is not likely to be big. I would guess, that it would be more cost effective to stick with single ended RCA) until your individual components cost more than $5K. Mine are closer to $20K each and my upgrading to XLR was not real noticeable although this is what the manufacturer recommends.
i agree that ayre and arc stuff always seem sound noticeably better running balanced...
Thank you all for your input. I am getting a better idea of the what I need and do not need to consider in my decision making process. I am running a Musica Pristina A Cappella III  connected via I2S to Denafrips Pontus that is connected to W4S STI1000 V2 using XLRs to Cornwall IVs. In this set-up I also rotate in a Fisher 500C that is connected to Pontus with hybrid XLR-RCA cable. The components are located on a rack between the speakers that are approximately 8-9 feet apart.  I'd like to transition to a Decware mono set-up with a true balanced pre-amp (TBD/suggestions?) where I can locate the monos next to the speakers  and move the rack to a side wall.  Moving components to a side wall will necessitate a run of approximately 12' to for right channel mono and 18' to left channel mono.  That is why I am inquiring into balanced vs XLR and balanced vs unbalance.  Any suggestions for an preamp ($3K ballpark) that would work with this set-up or any other thoughts on this set-up are appreciated. 
As already answered above home distances are nowhere near long enough to justify XLR. I will go out on a limb right now and say all the info you will get on this will focus on technical jargon and totally miss the big picture. Which is, as also previously stated, quality matters in audio more than anything else. You can spend a fortune on high end components and then ruin it all by using long runs that cause you to cheap out on wire. Quality wire is so much more important than any technical considerations, but you can flail and flounder many years and never figure this out. It happens. I have seen it.

If you are forced by the layout of your living arrangements and traffic flow that is one thing. But if you are using long runs hoping to gain more in having things off to the side, forget it. Not happening. You will cheap out on wire, and this will cost you ten times what you hope to gain.

XLR vs RCA does not even factor into it. 

Thank you Millercarbon. So having thing to the side is not that crucial. Better to keep components between speakers with short runs of high quality wire. 
@bgchz, before you decide where to locate your components, buy and read Jim Smith’s “Get Better Sound”. He has a section on this topic.

Jim Smith’s profession is setting up and consulting on residential and commercial high end audio rooms and recording studios. He’s received several best-sound-of-show awards.

Check it out.