In many cases, your audio device such as a media player may have XLR output but your pre-amp, amp or sub only has RCA inputs. In that case, can you wire your XLR connector to RCA connectors but how do you do it?
Wiring XLR to RCA connectors will work in most cases however it is not always recommended, especially if you have another option. This is because you will lose the benefits of using XLR since XLR to RCA will convert a balanced audio signal into an unbalanced signal. You won’t damage any equipment, but there is no benefit going XLR to RCA, so don’t do that unless you have to.
If you decide to wire an XLR to RCA connectors, we will explain how to do so below.
What Is The Difference Between XLR and RCA?
To explain the differences between XLR and RCA, you must first understand the differences between balanced and unbalanced audio.
What is Unbalanced Audio?
Unbalanced audio refers to the audio carried by an audio cable that uses two wires: a signal and a ground.
The signal wires carry the audio signal, of course. On the other hand, the ground wire acts as a reference point for the signal and also acts as an antenna, picking up unwanted noise (from electrical and radio interferences) and doing away with it.
However, some of this noise is often gets picked up by the signal cables. Since noise as a signal is sent along the cable, they’re best used for short distances,
Unbalanced audio is therefore what will be found in the most home stereo systems. The typical connector for unbalanced audio is normally either RCA, 1/4″ TS (Tip, Sleeve), 1/8″ TS or TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) connectors.
RCA Audio Cables
As mentioned, RCA audio cables are unbalanced analog audio connections. These cables send stereo audio over the right channel (red tip) and left channel (white or black tip).
Since they carry unbalanced audio, they typically don’t run more than 25 feet.
What is Balanced Audio?
Balanced audio is similar to unbalanced audio except for one addition. Balanced audio has a ground wire and a signal wire which carries two copies of the same incoming audio signal sometimes referred to as a “hot” (positive) and “cold” (negative) signal.
This also means any noise in the signal is canceled out. Once the signal reaches its destination, the polarities are flipped so that both signals are “in phase”.
This also means that the combined signals are louder than unbalanced signals. XLR and TRS are common balanced audio cables.
XLR Audio Cables
XLR stands for “External Line Return”. XLR cables use three male pins inside the connector and can send balanced audio signals up to 200 feet. These connectors are three wires called, X (ground), L (left, hot), and R (right, cold):
Pin 1: Shield (G)
Pin 2: Hot (L)
Pin 3: Cold (R)
There are currently several different types of XLR cables available with a variety of additional pins (XLR3 – XLR7).
However, we are discussing the XLR3 or the three-pin cable because it is the most common. There are both male and female XLR connectors.
How To Wire XLR To RCA
There are two ways to go about connecting XLR to RCA. You can convert a single XLR connector to a single RCA connector or you may convert a single XLR connector to two RCA connectors for stereo signals.
Below, we explain both types of connections. Befoe you make its connection however, remember you can simply go out and buy one at your local audio shop or on Amazon, like the Monoprice XLR Male to RCA Male Cable.
How To Convert XLR To One RCA Cable
In this case, we will be connecting a 3-pin XLR to one RCA. This is the same wiring that you would use if you were connecting an XLR to a 1/4″ (jack) plug.
You can do this in two ways as shown in the figure above. Here are the step by step explanations:
Method 1: Connect pin 1 and pin 3 to the RCA sleeve and pin 2 to the RCA tip. however, you need to be careful about this setup because you will very likely create a ground loop.
This would lead to noise and an audible hum. This is because pin 1 and pin 3 are different cables with differing resistances but you are connecting them together at the RCA sleeve. This is actually a very common problem. The smarter approach is to ground pin 3 as described below.
Method 2: Connect the positive and shield of the XLR together. You can do this at the XLR end or at the RCA end. You do this by soldering a link between pins 1 and 3 (shield and negative) of the XLR.
This is a better approach than trying to solder the shield and negative wire to the sleeve contact of the RCA. The whole point here is grounding pin 3 to prevent noise and ground loops.
Other than that, grounding pin 3 doesn’t accomplish anything and there is also a danger in doing this because grounding this pin means that you will create the risk that the circuit or device providing that output signal will misbehave.
You may even end up damaging it if it’s not designed properly as a result of the excessive amount of current that will be drawn due to the short circuit.
How To Convert XLR To Tow RCA Cables
Here’s how you do that:
- Start by wiring pin 2 of the XLR to the tip of one RCA plug, and pin 3 of the XLR to the RCA tip of the other RCA plug.
- Connect pin 1 of the XLR to the sleeve of both RCA plugs.
XLR vs RCA: Advantages and Disadvantages
XLR vs RCA comes down to balanced vs unbalanced audio. As mentioned before, XLR enables you to carry balanced audio, unlike RCA which can only carry unbalanced audio.
XLR is often used by audio pros to carry high fidelity audio because a balanced XLR cable has three major advantages over an unbalanced RCA cable.
Advantages of Balanced XLR Cables:
- Noise Free: We mentioned above that because XLR cables are balanced and better grounded, the cables are relatively noise-free or carry less nice than RCA.
- Cable Length: Because RCA cables tend to pick up and transmits noise (which can cause a hum in from your system), manufacturers limit the length of these cables to under 10 meters. Over this length, the signal is significantly attenuated by noise. On the other hand, XLR cables can be as long as a few hundred feet.
- Cable Strength: XLR cables are manufactured to be stronger than RCA cables. They do not get damaged as easily as RCA cables. This is because XLR cables are normally used with sound systems in larger theaters, concerts, and more. People will step on them, things will fall on them on more. This is why they are thicker ans made of better materials.
Advantages of Unbalanced RCA Cables
Regardless of the many advantages of XLR over RCA, the fact is that unbalanced RCA cables do have a few advantages over XRL:
- Simplicity: Unbalanced RCA cables are simple and much less complicated than balanced cables such as XLR.
- Cost: RCA cables are much less expensive. This is why they are readily available in most retail stores and many manufacturers include them with their devices.
Why Use XLR Instead of RCA?
However, it is important to realize that if the signal leaving your receiver is unbalanced, using an RCA to XLR cable will not be of any advantage.
Once you use a cable with a balanced connector on one end and an unbalanced connector on the other end, the final signal will always be unbalanced, whether it is XLR to RCA or RCA to XLR.
In other words, as soon as you make an unbalanced connection at one end of a wire, the entire thing becomes unbalanced.
If you want to keep the benefits of using balanced audio while using an XLR to RCA connector, you need to use a Balanced/Unbalanced Line Level Converter.
Balanced/Unbalanced Line Level Converters
If you are using XLR to RCA connectors but wish to keep the benefits of balanced audio, then you will need a balanced/unbalanced line level converter.
Let’s take an example. Let’s say you want to connect your mic with XLR connectors to a professional camcorder.
In this case, you will need a balanced/unbalanced line level converter or an XLR adapter that will convert the unbalanced output to balanced lines, so that you can have a long XLR cable.
Wiring XLR to RCA connectors is a rather simple process. However, you need to be careful because if not done properly, you can cause considerable noise and hum within your system.
Moreover, XLR to RCA provides no benefit but removes the advantage of balanced audio and so if you do not have to do it, it is best to avoid doing so.