Your Questions: Are RCA Or TRS Cables Best For Connecting My DJ Controller?

Balanced TRS cables are perfect for connecting your controller to speakers, but how necessary are they?

Balanced TRS cables are perfect for connecting your controller to speakers, but how necessary are they?

Digital DJ Tips forum reader Jahitty writes: "I was wondering how best to connect my M-Audio AV-40 Powered Speakers monitors to my set-up. I have a Reloop Digital Jockey 3 with a high quality sound card. What I'm curious about is whether I should connect using the balanced TRS or RCA connections. Which is better?"

Digital DJ Tips says:

Really, it doesn't make any difference. Balanced is better over longer distances (say 20ft or more) but for the short distance between your DJ controller and your desktop speakers, the RCA connections should be fine. One thing to note is that unless you specifically buy balanced TRS cables, you wouldn't get the advantage of balanced audio anyway using the balanced TRS outs. Non-balanced cables (TS, mono) look similar but confer none of the benefits.

You can tell if a cable is definitely not balanced, because when you look at the shiny metal part of it, it only has one black ring near the tip, and not two. (Such cables will still usually work, though.)

How do you connect your DJ controller to your amp or speakers? Ever had issues with TRs or RCA cables? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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  1. I don't use a controller I have a DVS setup with a mixer. But, when the option is available, I use XLR whenever because it's a locking connector as opposed to RCA or 1/4". So many times cables have been yanked out by some drunk person crashing through my table.

    • Stavros says:

      Never had the chance to use xlr with a mixer but from my experience with microphones the signal is always stronger/louder with xlr plus they re harder to pull out, important when singers get carried away lol

    • I prefer cables beeing yanked out than gear flying all over the place.
      As far as MCs are concerned, find a solid pole (table leg if it's heavy enough) and wrap the cable around it once or twice.

      • GRiNSER says:

        Well said man, much better to have yanked out cables than flying gear :)

      • To prevent your cables being yanked out or your gear flying all over the place make sure you bring a roll of gaffer-tape. Not only will it prevent your gear flying around, it will also prevent guests from tripping over your cables.

  2. Balanced cables will ALWAYS be a better choice.

    Granted we're talking bedroom DJing here, the price difference isn't that much more to get the better cables.

    Do a quick google search of the pros of balanced cables vs the cons of unbalanced and you'll be able to make the obvious choice all on your own.

    • Not true, in my opinion. If so, every CD, record deck and other source would have balanced outs. For short distances, it's my experience that it really doesn't matter.

      • I agree with Phil. On the other hand, if you have some poorly-shielded industrial-grade devices near your setup, you could benefit from switching to balanced (or digital of that an option). I guess scanner-lights could fall in that category but I'd expect them to be properly RF shielded.

      • I can't really see where what I'm saying isn't true. I'm not talking preferentially or even situationally.

        Balanced cables are better than unbalanced, just as shoes are better than just socks, gold is better than tin, or patek phillipe is better than timex (lol).

        Shoes do a better job at protecting your feet, gold is more valuable than tin, patek phillipe is a better made watch and does a better job at telling time (lol), balanced cables do a better job at carrying an audio signal.

        The only "real" benefit to unbalanced cables would be small cost and less complication. However, this doesn't make what i've said untrue. Balanced cables are still BETTER cables.

      • also, I assume the reason cd players and record decks don't all have balanced outs is a) cost and b) connectivity issues. RCA being somewhat universal, doesn't mean it's a better connection.

        • No, but it does mean nobody complains about it because it doesn't in practice matter. This site is for working DJs who want answers and solutions, so the theory is always trumped by the practice for us. My argument would be that if the very best DJ mixers in the world only have RCA ins for CDs and turntables, that tells you something: that for those short distances, RCAs are fine. For mixer to PA/amp (or indeed any other situation where longer distances are covered), balanced is better when the distances increases.

      • I see it like this. If you have to buy new gear, it's not worth it, but if you have the choice to go for either one, go for balanced.

  3. DJ Forced Hand says:

    I don't think you can really tell the difference between RCA or regular 1/4" stereo cables (TS) for home and/or club usage because of the lossy nature of DJ hardware, the condition of the amplified speakers and lack of EQing in most clubs. The point being here is that there's nothing wrong with using any of the above-listed connectors as long as you're happy with the results.

  4. Will Marshall says:

    One thing to note is that unless you specifically buy balanced TRS cables, you wouldn’t get the advantage of balanced audio anyway using the balanced TRS outs. Non-balanced cables look similar but confer none of the benefits.

    As far as I know, TRS cables are always balanced. Not all TRS sockets transmit a balanced signal, but you can use the same cable for either an unbalanced stereo signal or a balanced mono signal.

    Are you thinking of TS cables, which can be used to send an unbalanced mono signal from a balanced output?

    You might want to double-check and maybe amend the article, bro. It'll confuse people otherwise :)

  5. Jon Hersom says:
  6. Dj fedi says:

    If you're doing bedroom stuff RCA's are fine if I'm going through a big club system I go with the balanced cables

  7. Lets look at the difference. In unbalanced (RCA and TS) the shield carries audio. So any interference (any elctro mag radiation)) is picked up. Cables cannot be over 3 meters long as they then start to suffer High Frequency loss.
    In balanced (TRS and XLR) the shield carries no audio, the inner cores are phase reversed so any interference that hits the shield is drained to earth and any that hits the inner cores is phase cancelled. There is no HF loss so the cables can be much longer.
    The downside to using TRS is that there is no universal convention on how it is wired although tip is usually hot ring is cold and sleeve is shield. However some manufacturers wire the tip and ring opposite. XLR doesn't suffer this convention as it is always wired as 1shield 2 hot 3 cold.
    Having said all that the choice is easy and I see it as .. if the distance from mixer to amp is over 3 Meters then balanced. If under three meters and no interference then go unbalanced.

    • I should add something to this, you can make an unbalanced connection balanced by the use of a DI box.
      ( for more info)

    • Agree completely, and thanks for going into the detailed version of why!

    • Fedy,
      "shield carries the signal" is a bit off. The core wire carries the signal but shield is the reference point.
      I know that once you apply interference to the wires there is no difference whether it's the shield or core but let's not give people the wrong info (since you went into so much details).
      BTW, anyone who does not know how balanced connection works, I must urge you to google and find a nice explanation (fairies, images, unicorns and all) since once you get it, there is that great "WOW" feeling. Not to mention that you will actually know what is the point of balanced.

  8. My advice is if you can afford them buy nice long balanced TRS, longer than you need for home because they may come in handy if and when you get out and about DJing... If you can't afford them shorter RCA's will sound no worse at home so go for that. That was my logic when I purchased some recently :)

  9. I think that the best mobile connection is the RCA but not for the quality of the transmission itself, but for the durability of the contacts!
    In TRS/TS connections the female connector will be the one who will loose perfomance and it's the more difficult to replace because it's mounted INTO the device!
    In RCA connections, the male connector is the weak point that is easy to replace using just another cable!

  10. Jonathan says:

    phil can I ask where you are from? Are you from Cheshire ? Can't help but think I've met you before, but can't place you? Cheers

  11. I used to use RCAs from my Mixer to my powered monitors (barely a metre away from the mixer) there was always a hum. I changed to XLR and hum disappeared .
    RCA - Unbalanced
    XLR - Balanced
    So I ll go with Balanced all day everyday.

  12. I used to use RCAs from my Mixer to my powered monitors (barely a metre away from the mixer) there was always a hum. I changed to XLR and hum disappeared .
    RCA - Unbalanced
    XLR - Balanced
    So I ll go with Balanced all day everyday.

  13. DJ Vintage says:

    Cabling can be a neverending source of discussion. Go talk to some recording studio techies about it :-). And, by the way, there actually IS audible difference between cables (diameter of the wires, connector quality, etx.) in THAT environment.

    In typical DJ environments there will usually be a lot of interference. Especially lighting equipment (dimmer packs at the top of the list) can induce a lot of unwanted noise into the signal. If you are only going short distances, like CD-player to mixer it won't matter much really.

    When there is no balanced input or output that is the end of the story. And as Phil pointed out, most if not all mixers, cd-players, controllers, etx. have unbalanced RCA connectors, so that is what you use. This is all relatively low level signal over short distances (say up to 6 ft).

    Now on the OUTPUT side of things it becomes another matter. Most serious mixers WILL have XLR (if there is enough room on the back) or at least balanced TSR outputs. This is for a reason. Output signals suffer worse from interference and often output cables will have to run longer distances. Like to your powered speakers if you are a mobile jock.

    If all you need to do is hook your controller up to the housemixer which sits in the booth with you, RCA will (usually) do the trick. If there is balanced available, I would always use that, even for short hauls within the booth. Even if it doesn't improve things, it surely won't harm you!

    If you go beyond the 6 ft mentioned earlier, there really is no substitute for balanced (TSR or XLR doesn't make a difference, apart from the locking feature of XLR). Your signal can travel as far as 300+ ft and still come out crisp and without any unwanted noise picked up along the way.

    One tip: If you use RCA cable, get professional grade stuff. Not because of the gold plated contacts, but because of the thickness and sturdiness and mechanical stability of the connection. Don't be using the thin thingies that came in the box with your equipment. That is home audio grade and will do the trick if you plug it in once and never touch it again. The relentless bending (especially close to the connector) that our cables have to endure on the road WILL eventually lead to breaks.

    To summarize:
    1) input signal to the mixer: RCA is fine, use professional grade cables with solid (preferably metal) connectors) and try to run 6 ft or less.
    2) output signal from the mixer: You have a choice ... balanced (TRS or XLR), balanced or balanced. Cable quality applies here too. Get the good stuff with good connectors (Neutrik being the defacto standard). Get the cables that feel rubbery, not plasticy.

    And a final word of advice:
    Treat your cables with care. They'll last forever!

    • Brian Jones says:

      DJ Vintage hits all the points IMO.

      For the record, I've heard that the proper conversion tool to use if you need to convert unbalanced to balanced is an isolation transformer. ART makes a good quality, moderately priced version called the DTI. Whirlwind and ProCo also make these devices.

      A DI or Direct Box usually will work, but it isn't the best tool for the job. A DI is used to convert an instrument output to line level balanced.

  14. Doug May says:

    The right tool for the job is important. If you are anywhere near an electrical device that "leaks" RF signal you need to be balanced. The most common thiing that I've encountered are older TV's and neon lights. The buzz can kill the sound! It's just easier to use balanced cables for the peace of mind. At one club I do the cash registers (ancient models on secondary bars) would send a buzz everytime something was rung up. No issues whatsoever since going balanced.

  15. hello, im finally trying to record using audacity and it requires me to connect a TRS to dual RCA cable from my mixer (djm400) to my laptop but once i plug it in i get massive feedback from my speakers (QSC K10). Why does it happen?

  16. Michael Boiger says:

    Here is what balanced cables are technically about, and why it may be useful to utilize zhem.
    While unbalanced cables like RCA or mono 6,3mm jacks only contain two wires per channel (one for the signal and one for ground), balanced cables (3-pin XLR or 3-pole 6,3mm jacks) contain three wires per channel (signal +, signal - and ground). The difference for balanced signal routing is that with balanced cables, the same signal (signal+) is at the same time tramsitted a second time, but inverse. Look at a waveform of one of your tracks very close (open it up and zoom in in audacity for example), and you will see that the waveform line oscillates below and above a zero line. This is representative for the voltage that runs in your audio cables when you play music through them. Now if you look at unbalanced (2-pin cables), the "zero line" in your audio file is similar to the ground pole, and its voltage level will always remain 0V. The signal (the oscillating line in your audio file) on the other hand is transferred in the second pole of the unbalanced cable (for RCA connector, the ground is the outer ring and the signal is the inner pin). This is the way your mixer / amplifier etc. will recieve the information about the sound to process it. The ground pin is absolutely necessary because only if the "zero level" is available as electrical information, the "receiver" device can distinguish the waveform from it.

    Now if you use balanced cables, the signal will be copied in the "sending" device (like your CDJ, controller etc.) but the copy will be exactly the inverted signal (so if signal+ is at 2,3V above the zero line, signal- will be exactly -2,3V below the zero line. What the "receiving" device of a balanced signal does is to process the difference of both signal+ and signal-, which is 4,6V in this example, against "zero level". This alone won't have any positive effects, BUT: Let's say you have a pretty long cable that conquers a whole room. There may be dozens of mobile phones, WLAN devices, laptop power supplys etc. All of those devices operate at electrical frequencies that partly cover those frequencies transferred in your audio cable, which indeed ALWAYS acts like a FM antenna. So if a distortion will enter your audio cable, the noise will be added to your audio signal, it will be amplified and you will hear it in your audio speakers. Everyone will know the clicking noise of a phone nearby an amplifier. Now if you use balanced wires, the signal will be added to both the signal+ and signal- lines. But, as told before, the "receiver" device (i.e. the amplifier) first builds the DIFFERENCE of signal+ and signal- before amplifying. If the disturbing signal has been added to both of those lines, in the end it will completely vanish. If the level in your unbalanced cable was 2,3V and the noise signal is 0,5V, you will get 2,8V in the end. BUT If you used a balanced cable, without the noise you would have ((2,3V-(-2,3V)) = 4,6V, and with the noise you would have (2,8V-(-1,8V)) = 4,6V. (Remember that a positive 0,5V distortion signal will add positively on the -2,3V; so -2,3V+0,5V becomes -1,8V.) So distortion from outside won't affect your audio signal using balanced cables.

    Extra tip: If you use a balanced XLR to RCA adapter, you guessed it, the GND pole of XLR will be connected to the GND pole of RCA, and the SIGNAL+ pole of the XLR will be connected to the SIGNAL pole of the RCA. The SIGNAL- pole will be left out. That means that using such adapters, you may experience some differences in volume.

    Extra tip 2: You may have wondered why the volume will remain constant if you switch between balanced and unbalanced cables, even if the final peak level is 4,6V for balanced and only 2,3V for unbalanced cables. This is because the receiving devices will cut the balanced level into half before amplifying it, restoring the original 2,3V value.

    Lessons learned.

    Lessons learned.

    • Michael Boiger says:

      Sorry for the second post, there are some more important things that came to my mind just after finishing my post:

      Q: If balanced audio is so much better, then why the manufacturers don't use it to connect devices like the CDJ or controllers to mixers?
      A: RCA is cheaper, it is etablished in the audio market for dozens of years. It is robust and doesn't take much space. No electronics for generating the inverted signal is needed -> cheaper. Furthermore, wires on your desk (for example from CDJ to DJM or from your synthesizer to your audio interface) are short, not more than 0,5m commonly. According to radio theory, the frequencies a cable can absorb depend on its length. The longer a cable is, the more low frequencies it can absorb. If you use a short cable, the minimum absorbation frequency is still so high that it is above the range a human can hear. You don't really need balanced signal transmission on your DJ desk or in your studio at home! (mostly!) On the other hand if you connect your mixer with a 15m cable from the one corner of the room to the amplifer at the other one, your cable WILL absorb frequencies low enough so you'll hear them!

      Q: What is a shielded cable doing better than an unshielded one?
      A: The "shield" is a layer around the wires in a cable that will absorb most of the incoming distortion frequency. It prevents noise from reaching the signal lines. Depending on the number of protective layers and the electrical circuits working in the background, shielding can be useless or extremely useful. Look at the price and you'll know why.

      Q: Why is the distortion signal not added to the ground line?
      A: The ground line is always at 0V, because both the electronic circuits of receiver and transmitter will actively add or remove electrons to keep exactly this level. If this does not work properly (because of bad wiring etc.), the ground level will not be 0V any more, which results in the commonly known "ground hum". If such a thing would happen in your laptop or phone device, it would stop working immediately. That's why those devices are so very sensitive.

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