When it comes to cables, you will find a lot of variety with different connectors to serve various purposes. One of the most popular cables that has gained popularity in the audio industry and is being used widely is the XLR cable. XLR cables are essential for numerous reasons. So, in this article, you will learn about what is an XLR cable used for. What components does it have? The advantages and disadvantages of using XLR cables, how to pick the right cable for your needs, and a few ways to fix your XLR cables if some issues occur.
Table of Contents
When Did XLR Cables become Popular?
Before knowing what is an XLR cable used for, let’s overview how it came into existence and what made these cables popular in the world of sound even today.
The full form of XLR is “eXternal Line Return.” It was created by James H. Cannon, who was an electrical engineer from the 1950s era. Cannon’s main idea behind the invention of XLR cables and connectors was to build a rugged and reliable connection for troops and military aircraft. That is why, if you look at the early XLR connectors, they had a latch mechanism and a circular design to make sure the connection was secure and strong, allowing the army personnel to use it in rough environments.
However, as technology progressed, the use of XLR cables changed from military applications to professional audio devices. The durable and powerful XLR cables’ design made them ideal for sound engineers who needed stable connections to cater to various situations.
Even today, XLR cables play a vital role in professional sound production despite being surrounded by other cable and connector types, such as USB. It is because the XLR cables are known for their exceptional performance, making them imperative for several reasons. As a matter of fact, XLR cables are still industry-standard as they provide a balanced signal transmission. This trait reduces interference, allowing users to enjoy noise-free, crisp sound.
Likewise, XLR cables are known for their longevity. They have a strong construction with a locking mechanism to avert accidental disconnections for smooth signal flow. Furthermore, XLR cables are adaptable and can be used with a broad range of audio equipment. That is why they are not only a great pick for microphones but also for speakers, amps, and mixers.
Types of XLR Cables
XLR cables have different types. However, the most common and widely used ones are 3-pin and 7-pin. These cables are necessary components in audio production for various professional applications.
3-Pin XLR Cable
The 3-pin XLR is a standard selection in the audio industry, as it is compatible with most professional microphones. 3-pin XLR cables are very flexible in terms of usability and are often used for mic-to-speaker/amp/mixer/audio interface connections. It is also important to know that 3-pin cables are capable of transmitting phantom power for your condenser microphone. It means +48V DC phantom power is sent via pin numbers 2 and 3, and they adjust composedly with the audio signals without fostering interference.
In every XLR cable, you will find three particular contact points, which functions differently, for instance:
- Pin 1: Used for the ground wire to surround and protect signal wires
- Pin 2: Used for the negative signal
- Pin 3: Used for the positive signal
This ordering ensures that all your audio signals remain clean and balanced during transmission. That is why they are also called balanced cables since they are best at getting rid of noise and unwanted interference. These cables have these features because they carry audio signals with opposite polarities on positive and negative wires (pin 2 and pin 3).
So, when these signals come in contact with equipment, the polarity is combined and flipped, transmitting original audio signals without noise. However, keep in mind that your mic or instrument has balanced inputs to ensure the noise-cancellation feature works. Contrarily, unbalanced cables do not possess these capabilities and cannot overcome interference.
7-Pin XLR Cable
7-pin cables are typically utilized for condenser microphones. Usually, 7-pin cables have two wires for transmitting the audio signals for DC voltage, heater circuit, and shielding. 7-pin XLR cables are also very useful, but compared to 3-pin, these cables are less likely to be preferred. Similarly, XLR cables are available in 4 pins, 5 pins, and 6 pins, but 3-pin XLR cables are mostly used for connection.
Components of XLR Cables
Before you know what is an XLR cable used for, it is necessary that you learn about its components so you can use it effectively. These cables are comprised of several key parts that ensure the transmission of clean audio signals.
One of the most noticeable components of an XLR cable is its 3-pin connector. These connectors are generally constructed using metal to offer shielding and durability against unwanted noises and signal interference.
Around the inner wiring, the XLR cables have a conductive material shield typically made of aluminum mesh or copper. This shield acts as a fence against electromagnetic interference from the external environment. As a result, the shield ensures high-quality signals.
Inside the XLR cable, you will find 2x inner conductors. One has a positive wire, and the other has a negative wire. These conductors are mostly made of copper. However, if you have high-quality and expensive XLR cables, they usually have conductors made of silver. Nevertheless, copper conductors are still widely preferred due to their inexpensiveness.
There are insulation materials in the cable that separate conductors from each other to prevent signal interference and electrical contact. These insulation materials are made of polyethylene, rubber, or PVC, depending on dielectric properties.
One of the core features of an XLR cable is how the conductors are finely twisted together. These twists reduce electromagnetic interference and crosstalk. The tighter and more compact the twist, the better the XLR cable works at diminishing interference.
The outermost XLR cable’s layer is called the jacket. It’s made of flexible material, such as rubber. The main purpose of a jacket is to protect all the inner components from environmental and physical damage. It is easy to identify a jacket because it comes in different colors.
g. Strain Relief
Some XLR cables have a strain relief mechanism near the connector’s end. It saves the internal wires from damage due to tugging or bending. Moreover, the strain relief ensures that the XLR cables remain in good shape for long-lasting performance.
8 Common Uses of XLR Cables
Now that you have all the important information, it is time to know what is an XLR cable used for. Here are the 8 uses of these cables.
1. Microphone Connectivity
One of the most familiar uses of an XLR cable is a microphone connection with audio mixers, interfaces, and other equipment. These cables are best for this purpose, as they offer balanced connectivity and reduce noise and interference in longer-length cables. This is extremely essential in professional sound recording and live audio performances.
2. Musical Instruments
XLR cables are mostly found in musical instruments, especially keyboards and synthesizers. Since XLR cables provide balanced signals, the sounds of the instrument remain interference-free and clear.
Often, amplifiers also feature XLR inputs and outputs. So, using an XLR cable for connecting musical instruments or sound systems helps maintain the strength of signals and reduce noise during audio signal amplification.
4. Audio Mixers
Audio mixers are necessary tools in both studio recording and live sound. XLR cables are ideal for connecting various sound sources to the mixer’s channels. This permits strong control of audio signals.
5. Studio Monitors
Studio monitors provide the original sound of the recorded tracks and instruments and, therefore, are in high demand in the music production field because they allow accurate mixing and mastering. This is because these cables permit musicians and audio engineers to monitor their sound recordings with accuracy and high fidelity.
6. Public Address Systems
XLR cables are also used in public address systems (PA systems) for live conferences, performances, and events. They connect PA microphones with speakers to make sure the sound reaches the audience in excellent quality.
7. DMX and Stage Lighting
Apart from audio equipment, a 5-pin XLR cable is widely used to control Digital Multiplex (DMX) lights. These cables transfer robust signals to manage heavy lighting setups, like special effects and stage lights.
8. Intercom Systems
Only a few people know that XLR cables are also used in wired intercom systems, especially when it comes to communication between multiple teams. XLR intercoms are preferred in large events, theaters, and broadcasting scenarios. The reason for using XLR cables is the same – having a reliable connection through a balanced signal for clear communication.
Pros of Using XLR Cables
Since now you have the complete information about what is an XLR cable used for, let’s learn the benefits of using these cables.
XLR cables are well-constructed. They have sturdy connectors that can bear rough handling compared to other cables. The strong build of XLR connectors ensures they can resist repeated plugging and unplugging. Therefore, these cables are perfect for studio and on-stage performances where musical equipment is frequently set up. This durability factor also saves your cost, as XLR cables don’t need to be replaced continuously.
b. Expanded Usability
XLR cables are used in many situations related to audio. It supports mixers, amplifiers, microphones, instruments, and a broad range of different audio devices. This flexibility ensures that you can use these cables in a variety of audio setups, as they are compatible with almost all sound equipment. Besides, XLR cables can be found in several lengths, allowing you to find the right size according to your needs.
c. Noise Rejection
One of the most important advantages of using XLR cables is their amazing noise rejection traits. XLR are balanced cables that help reject noise and interference, producing more reliable and clean audio signals. This is important in several audio applications, including live sound setups and sound recording studios, where noise can diminish the audio quality.
d. Shielding to Cut Interference
Since shielding is a significant component of XLR cables, it prevents radio-frequency interference (RFI) and electromagnetic interference (EMI) by blocking them. As a result, it enhances your audio quality.
e. Supports Phantom Power
Phantom power lets you power different audio tools using the same cable that transmits audio signals. XLR is one of those cables that can carry phantom power, which is necessary for certain preamplifiers and microphones. They are suitable for delivering both audio and power without losing the quality.
Cons of Using XLR Cables
While learning about what is an XLR cable used for, you get to know a lot of benefits. But there are also some disadvantages you should expect from these cables, such as:
a. One Cable One Channel
A single XLR cable can only be used to assign a single channel. You cannot use one cable to connect multiple channels. That means if you need to connect 10 channels, you will have to arrange 10 XLR cables.
b. Limited Size
XLR cables come in limited length since they are made for covering shorter distances. You can find these cables in 3ft, 6ft, 25ft, 50ft, and 100ft. Beyond these lengths, you will start receiving signal problems.
c. Bulky Design
XLR cables are heavy and thick compared to other cables. Due to this bulkiness, these cables may not be convenient in terms of portability. However, despite this fact, musicians and engineers use them as they provide optimal performance.
XLR cables are a bit more costly than other cable types. So, if you want your entire audio setup based on these cables, get ready to pay some extra price.
How to Fix Issues with XLR Cables for Smooth Usability
Since XLR cables are expensive, you may be unable to purchase new ones every time it is causing problems. So, here are a few tricks to fix XLR cables for the best use.
Fix 1: Not Receiving Phantom Power in XLR Cable
If you have connected an XLR cable to a microphone, but it is not getting the phantom power, the connectors may have become loose. So, tighten those connectors and try connecting them again. You should also check that the mixer or audio interface sends phantom power signals to your XLR cable because sometimes the issues also occur with audio equipment.
Fix 2: Buzzing Sound in XLR Cables
If you are hearing humming or buzzing sounds after connecting your audio device through an XLR cable, this can be a grounding problem. Inspect that the XLR cable’s ground wire is properly connected, and make sure that all your music equipment has a common ground.
Fix 3: Signal Loss
If you are experiencing signal loss in your audio, it is highly possible that your cables are damaged from the middle or the edges of the connectors. In this scenario, you must replace the cable to connect securely.
XLR cables were invented in the 1950s and are still widely popular. From military to audio equipment, these cables have proven their mettle every time. XLR cables have a special connector with 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 pins. However, the most utilized one is the 3-pin XLR cable. Moreover, these cables are comprised of different parts, including connector, shield, conductors, insulation, twisting, jacket, and strain relief. Besides, XLR cables are used for various reasons ranging from microphone and instrument connectivity to intercom systems and DMX lighting. They provide a great number of benefits, including noise rejection and durability.
Q1. What is the purpose of XLR cables?
XLR cables deliver balanced signals throughout long distances without outside interference and unwanted noise.
Q2. What is the difference between an XLR and a Jack cable?
The main difference between an XLR and a jack cable is that jack cables transmit unbalanced signals.
Q3. Is XLR the same as speaker cable?
Normal speakers have different types of connections and cables compared to XLR.
Q4. Does XLR cable improve sound quality?
XLR cables do not specifically improve sound quality, but they transmit unbroken and unbalanced audio signals, contributing to enhanced audio.
Q5. What are two types of XLR?
3-pin and 7-pin are two famous XLR cable types.