Balanced VS Single Ended

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Report by Björn Törnroth
Date: 08.12.2006
Copyright © Björn Törnroth 2006

SYSTEM

Filter: Isotek MiniSub GII
CD: Bladelius Freja
Amp: Primare I30
Speakers: Dunlavy SC-III
Subwoofer: REL Strata III
Interconnects: Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval
Speaker cables: Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8
Mains cables: LAT AC-2, Russ Andrews The Reference

Let me just blurt it out: Yes, I heard differences. And yes, balanced was better. Mainly the detail was better integrated into the whole, acoustics were more easily discerned and there was greater midband resolution and treble precision. But we're really talking subtle differences here. So there. Now you can decide if you're insterested enough to read on.

Introduction

Once in a while I've read about the benefits of balanced connections. I've never given it any thought, since I've never owned gear with balanced outputs - until now. I've had my CD player connected to my amp with single ended interconnects, since that's what I had. When the opportunity arose to get a second set of the same interconnects with balanced connectors second hand, I saw no reason not to buy them. I thought that I had nothing to lose. I needed a second set anyway for my phono preamp, and at least my CD-player shouldn't sound any worse. Once I had the means to easily test identical cables as single ended vs balanced, I couldn't resist...

My preconceptions were that the balanced connection would sound slightly superior, if there would be any difference at all. I've gathered that my amplifier, the Primare I30, is practically impartial whether you run single ended or balanced, but that my CD player, the Bladelius Freja, prefers to run balanced. Needless to say, my results must only - if at all - be held valid for my particular gear.

Setup

Both the Bladelius Freja and the Primare I30 are, as I have understood it, genuinely balanced constructions. Both have single ended and balanced connectors. They should therefore be ideal components for testing. I have two 1m sets of Analysis Plus's magnificient interconnect Solo Crystal Oval, one single ended set with Analysis Plus's own locking RCA's, and one balanced set with Neutrik's excellent XLR's. Both are well run in. I plugged in both sets between the Freja and the I30.

Calibration was done with a 1000 Hz test tone measured at listening position with an AZ 8922 Digital Sound Level Meter. The balanced connection was exactly 4 dB higher than the single ended one. Since the I30 volume control is in 1 dB steps it meant 4 clicks for identical levels. However, since I expected the balanced connection to be the superior one, I decided to give it a -1 dB handicap. (I have this principle of always letting expected hifi upgrades work uphill. If they still manage to convince me I know it's not psychoacustics playing me up.)

Methodology

Ok, "methodology" is a tad too a grand word for what I did, but I thought it only fair to be explicit, since we're talking subtle here, and because my method of comparison differed from my usual method, which is to simply install any upgrade in an offhand fashion and expect miracles. This time I was prepared for subtleties. With both interconnects installed, I simply listened for a piece of music for a couple of minutes, paused, switched inputs and adjusted volume, and replayed the music from start. Fairly quick A-B comparison, then. Probably because it was so easy. Sorry. I would switch back and forth several times as I homed in on different aspects.

Music was more classical than usual, since I find it easier to discern subtle stuff with acoustical music recorded in a natural venue. Lute, piano and strings, some '50 jazz and finally Nick Caves sad growling and Cardigans's ethereal whispering. No electronic music and death metal this time. (I have at a later date verified my results with well recorded rock music. Now that I know what to listen for it's easy to hear the differences regardless of musical material.)

Results

I think it's most straightforward to report my impressions in roughly chronological order. Some things struck me immediately while others emerged with prolongued listening. I'm reporting the difference when switching from single ended to balanced.

Conclusion

All this boils down to a more natural, easy and musical sound when running balanced. There was greater palpability and presence. My system sounded more effortless and muscular. More transparent.

What can I say? Yaa-hoo! I feel I got a subtle yet important upgrade for free.

As I stated at the beginning, the differences were subtle. Nevertheless I would put up quite a fight if someone would try to take away those balanced interconnects. As so often in this odd hobby of ours, the subtle can sometimes be profound. Besides, it can't be insignificant, since I now feel that wonderful anticipatory urge to hear all my CD's anew - now balanced!

Björn Törnroth
bjorn.tornroth.net
bjorn at tornroth dot net