It seems like something hugely niche, thinking about the cable that runs from your turntable to the amplifier. In general, you just use the supplied cord. Yet more and more brands are stating that it pays to do this, even in the higher segment. And they don’t mean that you have to exchange the standard cable for a more expensive thing from a better-known cable brand. Among other project – the world’s largest maker of turntables, also as an OEM supplier for third parties – is calling for a switch to a balanced cable. But what does it mean to connect your record player in a balanced way?
Most turntables are connected to the amplifier or phono preamplifier with a supplied cinch or RCA cable, with an additional thin grounding cable dangling from it. This is an unbalanced cable. Balanced cables are often a pair of separate cables with three-pin XLR plugs, although you will sometimes see one cable with a four- or five-pin XLR. Such an XLR plug has a female and male variant and clicks into place.
The main advantage of a balanced cable is that interference picked up along the way is eliminated. This is possible because with a balanced cable, the audio signal is simultaneously transmitted twice: once normal and once with reversed polarity. When it arrives in the amplifier, it can subtract the noise created in the cable from the audio signal. This way you end up with the original signal, minus the interference.
Admittedly, there is a lot of discussion about the usefulness of balanced connections. In pro audio it is stated that it has added value especially at lengths of five meters or more. But, say record player builders, because the signal from a record player is very sensitive to interference due to its very low voltage (1 mV), a balanced connection does make sense with a turntable. Even if that cable is only a meter long.
What do you need?
There’s nothing to stop you from mounting an MM cartridge on a turntable that is connected in a balanced way. However, an MC cartridge is the better choice, because only then will you have a truly balanced signal from the source. That’s because of how such a cartridge is constructed. A Moving Coil element is really different from a Moving Magnet cartridge.
Your record player must of course also have a balanced output. That’s usually a couple of large XLR outputs or one mini XLR output. Finally, the amplifier must also have balanced XLR inputs. You often talk about a more expensive device, because you rarely come across balanced inputs in the budget segment. Which is not illogical, since these inputs only make sense if the underlying amplifier design can do something useful with them.
An interim solution is to work with a balanced phono preamplifier, which then hangs unbalanced from the amplifier. This is also the solution if, for example, you have active speakers (although some also have XLR inputs) or if you want to connect the record player to a wireless speaker. That last step with an unbalanced cable makes this solution seem less useful, but it isn’t. The big advantage of a balanced connection is the cable between record player and (pre)amplifier. The signal originating from a phono preamplifier is amplified and therefore less susceptible to interference.
One of the most crucial parts of a turntable is the cartridge or cartridge. This is also popularly referred to as the ‘needle’, although the cartridge also includes the whole around it and the mechanical inside. There are two types of cartridges: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). The difference between the two types is how the movement of the needle is converted into an electrical signal. This happens inside the cartridge. With a Moving Coil cartridge, the movement of the needle itself generates electricity by moving in a coil. MM also uses a magnet. On the outside, MM and MC cartridges look the same and you can usually use both types on any turntable – although you should always check that, especially with cheaper models.
Moving coil cartridges are slightly more complex internally, or more difficult to manufacture. It makes MC cartridges more expensive. You quickly lose 250-300 euros for an entry-level model, while a budget MM can start at less than 100 euros. For a bit more quality, however, you have to spend more with both types. The majority of record players under 1,000 – 1,200 euros that come with an element, therefore, come with an MM cartridge. In addition, most MC cartridges have a very low signal level compared to MM, which makes them more sensitive to noise and places higher demands on the phono amplifier. This means that most integrated amplifiers with a phono input are only compatible with MM cartridges. Separate phono preamps with an MC section are also more expensive. Incidentally, there are new high output MC cartridges that do fit on MM stages. So why go to so much trouble so that you can use an MC cartridge? The main advantage of MC is that these types of cartridges weigh less and pick up a wider frequency response. Many music lovers therefore find them to sound more detailed and more open.
How much is it?
Until recently, if you wanted a turntable with a balanced output, you had to look at the real high-end. And so did the rest of the rendering chain. You also had to spend more money for the corresponding phono preamplifier or an integrated amplifier with MC-ready phono input. That is gradually changing, although the lower limit for a suitable turntable still remains above 1,000 euros. What options do you have, in addition to high-end devices? TEAC launched the balanced TN-5BB-M/B in 2020, a device that stands out because of the use of washi paper as a matte and a base that combines an artificial marble with a black lacquer layer. The German Thorens is also a big believer; including the new TD 1500 and the EISA award-winning TD 1600 is equipped with XLR outputs. Pro-ject then launched the X8, a higher-ranking turntable – but has also hinted that it will bring balanced outputs to “an unprecedented low price point”. That has now become reality with the launch of the X1 B and X2 B, two remakes of existing turntables that are now equipped with an additional XLR output. So you can still choose which connection you want. The X2 B is also equipped with an Ortofon Quintet Red MC cartridge as standard, which pushes the price towards 1,600 euros. Interestingly, Pro-ject states that many of its existing turntables, also from cheaper lines, are wired internally in such a way that you can also get a balanced connection with an RCA cable if you use a suitable phono preamplifier. However, that’s something we need to investigate further!