Do I Need to Use XLR Cables in my Home Studio?

There is a lot of thought and work that goes into building a home studio. The first big hurdle is the equipment. What microphone do I get? Do I need an analog soundboard? Or do I go with a digital one? Where am I going to set this equipment up? Do I need to renovate my space?

Often there is one piece that the excited, budding producer or engineer overlooks, and that’s the cables! They may not seem important, but they play a crucial role in the end sound quality.

When I first set up my home studio I was more than a little confused about which kinds of cables I’d need to connect things up. XLR cables are notably more expensive than standard cables and I wondered if I could get away with not using them.

So do I need XLR cables for my own home studio? Yes you do! You undoubtedly have a signal chain that carries analogue signals. As analogue signals are susceptible to interference you will need XLR cables for your Monitors, Microphones, Mixers and USB Audio Interface, in order to keep noise levels to a minimum. An XLR cable is most useful when carrying an analog signal that can be affected by radio frequency and noise interference.

Typical 3-Pin XLR Cable - Male and Female Connector

Figure 1: Typical 3-Pin XLR Cable - Male and Female Connector

XLR cables are great for long distance transfer of audio information and can lead to better quality sound. But if you are building a studio for more straightforward recordings and are not dealing with multiple mics and an actual recording room, they may not be necessary in every situation.

There are a few factors to consider when deciding whether an XLR cable is necessary or not.

Here are a few:

  • The amount of space you have available
  • The studio system you are installing
  • Your recording needs
  • Your budget

Hopefully, with the information provided here, you will feel better equipped to make the right decision for you and your studio's needs.

Balanced and Unbalanced Cables

There are several types of audio cables to choose from, but they can generally be separated into balanced or unbalanced transmission types.

An unbalanced cable has only two wires (one positive and one negative) and a ground shield (there is no signal inversion carried out). A balanced transmission cable is the classic looking microphone cable that has three pins or three holes at one end (see Figure 1). These are the most commonly used in professional and home studios. Most of us know what a headphone jack is, but the XLR cable is often something new to us.

So, the question arises, do you need to use XLR cables in your home studio? By looking at what XLR cables are, their function, and what to look for when buying your cables, we will answer this question. Let’s start with the basics!

What is an XLR Cable?

So, first off what is an XLR cable? XLR cables are used in professional recording and are analog cables that deliver a balanced signal. By utilising a balanced signal you can get less noise and electrical interference showing up in the final audio. These cables are usually used when you are dealing with carrying audio signals distances greater than 25 feet but can be used anytime you are looking to reduce noise in your signal chain.

An XLR cable usually has a three-pin connector at one or both ends. The XLR cable carries a positive, negative, and ground audio signal. The two signals, positive and negative, are the same signal with one inverted. Having one signal inverted means that as any noise picked up, is picked up by both signals, and when it reaches the ground and the inverted signal is inverted back, the noise virtually disappears. Hence the better audio quality when using XLR cables.


How an XLR Cable Reduces Noise

Figure 2: How an XLR Cable Reduces Noise

Looking at Figure 2A, and just for now, let’s say there is no external noise, the output will be exactly equal to the input. What goes in comes back out.

However, this is the real world, and noise is picked up by the wire. Figure 2B shows the actual output is the input with the additional noise.

With an XLR cable, the input signal is split down two wires (the red and blue wires in Figure 2C). The external noise picked up by the two wires is almost identical, and therefore, the output in Figure 2C is IN1 + noise + IN2 + noise, which is the same output as 2B.

In Figure 2D, IN2 is an inverted signal of IN1. OUT1 is equal to IN1 plus noise. However, OUT2 when re-inverted is the original signal, but the noise is an inverted copy of the noise from OUT1. The noise from OUT1 and OUT2 virtually cancel each other out, and just the original audio signal remains.


What to Look for in Your XLR Cables

Okay, so now you know what an XLR cable is and how it works, how do you pick which cable is the best one for your studio needs? Regardless of whether you decide to go with the XLR cable or some other style for your home studio, there are a few factors that play a crucial role in making a reliable cable.

Price

As you look at the cables you intend to put in your home studio you will notice a wide range of price tags. As most of our budgets are tight we are always looking for the cheapest options. However, “cheap” can mean that there is a chance you will need to replace them from wear and tear more often and that could cost you more money in the long run. You also do not want to blow all of your budget on cables, so trying to find a middle ground between price and quality is definitely something to consider.

Construction

Strand Count

Each of your cables is made of strands of copper situated inside the extruded plastic and rubber insulation, and the higher the strand count, the more flexible and sturdier the cable. So, trying to get a cable that meets your budget but has the highest strand count is one way to ensure your cables last.

Connector Conductivity

Optimizing the electrical conductivity is done by coating the connectors with a highly conductive metal usually silver or gold. Each of these options has its pluses and minuses. Silver is more conductive than gold but tends to tarnish quickly. This means that to maintain that conductivity, you will need to clean your connectors regularly. Whereas gold doesn’t tarnish as quickly, but it is less conductive and tends to make the cables more expensive.

Cable Lay (Twist Configuration)

When you are looking for a suitable cable for your home studio, you need to pay attention to the lay. This is a term that is basically used to describe the length and number of twists of the copper conductors. The shorter the lay, the better the noise reduction and flexibility, but it also means a higher price tag too!

Shielding

There are several types of shielding, and each has its own specific advantages it brings to your audio quality. Here is a quick breakdown of each:

  • Braided: This style of shielding is made up of braided copper and offers durability and strength. It uses copper, which is superconductive, so this style of shielding offers great hi-frequency and RFI protection. This is the standard shielding used in higher end cables.
  • Spiral Wrapping (Serve): This style of shielding uses flat strands that are twisted in one direction. Although not as efficient at shielding this style does offer more flexibility than Braided. Spiral Wrapping shielding is most common in mid range gear.
  • Foil: This shielding combines wrapping made of foil and copper wire. Foil shielding is not as durable as Braided or Spiral Wrapped. However, you will often find it in permanent installs. If you go with a budget cable, this is likely the style of shielding you will get.

Why Should I Use XLR Cables in My Home Studio?

Now you have an idea what to look for when buying your XLR cables, are they really necessary for home studio use?

As XLR cables are balanced cables, that makes them perfect for home studio recordings. They are often used to connect mics to audio interfaces or preamps especially when dealing with distance. So, if your recording (mixing) desk is a distance from the source, then using XLR cables is highly recommended.

By using XLR cables, you will be ensuring excellent quality sound and also the ability to use the equipment’s phantom power to its optimal capability.

Now, if you are dealing with a small home studio where you will not be recording sources from a microphone that is any big distance away (such as podcasting or streaming), then you may get away without using XLR.

So ... on that note ... below are a few of the other styles of cables to consider.

XLR Cable Suggestions

There are so many choices and styles of XLR and cables in general on the market that it may seem daunting to try to figure out which one is the best. We have looked and picked two that may be good for those of you looking to build up your home studio.

Here are some XLR cables that you may want to check out:

1. Hosa XLR-115

This is a professional cable that uses some high-grade materials to ensure the best quality. Also, not too unreasonably priced the Hosa XLR-115 is an excellent choice for any home studio. Here are the features as well as some pros and cons for you to figure into your decision:

Features:

  • 25 feet length (but available in lengths from 3 feet to 100 feet)
  • Conductors that are crafted in oxygen-free copper (20AWG)
  • Shielding crafted from OFC and braided for durability and flexibility
  • Connectors that are plated in silver for better conductivity

Pros:

  • Quality for a budget price
  • Designed to last a long time
  • Budget price tag

Cons:

  • Some issues with cable stiffness

2. Planet Waves Classic Series

This a great choice if you are looking for an XLR cable on a budget. Designed with a lot of great features, this model from Planet Waves could be the answer to your problem of which XLR to go with. Here are the features as well as some pros and cons to help you make your decision:

Features:

  • Reliable Nickel-plated brass connectors
  • High corrosion resistance
  • Robust design with two-year warranty

Pros:

  • Durable build
  • Ability to be used in multiple situations
  • Price

Cons:

  • None of note for a home studio owner

There are many other models available that may suit your needs but before you get to diving into the wide selection check out the quick guide below. It will help you get a better idea of what to look for.

Alternative Cables Choices

You will want to weigh all your options before making the decision on what cable system to go with. Maybe you just have no need for an XLR cable, in which case there are several choices. We have broken them down into analog and digital so that you have a better understanding of which cable will work for your needs.

Knowing the difference of functionality between the two styles of cables first will help you really understand which will work for you and your home studio equipment. Analog cables use electricity to drive the information through the wires to your input recording source, whereas digital uses binary code to do the same thing. If you are using an external microphone source into a mixing board for example, this is most likely analog.


Let’s continue the cables theme a little bit more ... below are a few easy to understand descriptions of some common cables.

Analog

RCA Phono

These are the cables you often see when you are setting up your home sound system (usually red, white and sometimes yellow connectors). This is an unbalanced cable and is best over short distances to avoid any unwanted hum or noise.

TRS

TRS stands for tip-ring-sleeve and can be balanced or unbalanced. TRS is most often seen on a typical headphone jack. It is also used on some small personal mics like clip-mics and Lavaliers.


Digital

MIDI

These cables are most often found as the connection between the gear and your digital recording device. Used on things like digital or electronic instruments (like an electric drum kit) these cables come with a connector that has 5 pins.

USB

This is the typical way to connect to most digital products. It usually comes in either 2.0 or 3.0 versions. With this style of cable, you may also find MIDI transferable styles as well. This will be a cable that has a MIDI connection at one end and a USB on the other. There are also adapters available as well.

MIDI Mate 16 Channel MIDI to USB I/O Connector

Figure 3: 'MIDI Mate' 16 Channel MIDI to USB I/O Connector


Related Questions

What cable should I use for my home studio monitors? The connections to your monitors are the last part of your signal chain and are susceptible to noise and hum. Depending on where the monitors are connected from will determine the exact cable needed, but in all cases, you will need a balanced cable. Usually, the connection into the monitor itself (found on the back of the monitor) is a three-pin female XLR, but the connection into the monitor controller will either be a three-pin male XLR or ¼ inch male TRS type. Also, check the length of the cable (for example my setup requires 2 x 2m long cables as the monitors are 1.2m apart). Make sure you buy two identical cables - the same brand, the same model and the same length.


What is the difference between an XLR microphone cable and an XLR speaker cable? Generally, there is no difference between the two. Male to female XLR cables are all the same and can be interchanged or daisy-chained. The only difference is how you use them. Also, a microphone cable will usually be longer than the speaker cable as the vocalist or instrument will usually be further away than the monitors. The three-pin configuration comes with a keyed slot so that connections cannot be incorrectly made. Just be careful as some studio microphones (such as my RODE NTK) have additional pins to connect to an external power supply and therefore won’t be compatible with the standard XLR at the power supply end.


Can I join XLR cables together? You can join as many XLR cables together as you want, but it is advisable to replace a run of short cables with one longer one. For example, replace 5 x 1m cables with 1 x 5m cable is each male to female connection will introduce a small amount of quality deterioration. Additionally, if you are daisy chaining XLR cables to connect monitors, it is highly recommended to change, for example, 2 x 1m cables to 1 x 2m cable (just remember to use the same brand and model).


Why are XLR cables called “XLR”? What does “XLR” stand for? While the exact origin of XLR is still a contended issue, there are a few definitions which are assumed to be “correct.” One lesser-known definition is that the “X” stands for ground, the “L” stands for lead or left, and the “R” stands for return or right. The L or R, in this case, refers to the inverting nature of one of the split channels and is probably an easy way to remember the function of the XLR cable. The more well-known definitions of XLR are X Latching Resilient Rubber, or “Extra Long Run.” In the 1960s audio component manufacturer ITT Canon developed a series of audio connectors which included: “Type P”, “Type VA”, “Type X”, “Type XL”, “Type XLR”, and later “Type XLP”, which lead to some to believe that XLR was probably just a nominal code.