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XLR vs 1/4 Inch – Which is Better?

Only those in the music recording industry know how important it is to have the right cables in place to ensure the best sound reproduction. Most ‘normies’ don’t get involved in such nuances. But when you work and operate in a professional recording studio environment, everything needs to be perfect. Getting the right audio ports and jacks is just as important as how the vocals are delivered.

A discussion about using either XLR or 1/4 inch TSR connections might not seem a big deal to most people, but to audio aficionados and professionals, it’s fraternizing over these little things that make all the difference. If you use mixing desks, guitars, audio interfaces, keyboards, or some other instruments and gear, you’ll need at least one of these options, if not both. 

So let’s find out which one suits your needs or if it doesn’t matter either way in my comprehensive comparison of XLR vs 1/4 Inch.

XLR vs 1/4 Inch


Are There Differences Between XLR and 1/4 Inch Connectors?

Yes and no! If you picked them up and held them in your hands, they are noticeably different in design, but in terms of sound quality, they are very similar. They can both deliver stereo sound signals in a balanced manner, but most people opt for the XLR connectors instead of the 1/4 ones for a number of reasons. 

We are going to have to delve deep to find out the advantages and disadvantages of using these jack connectors so you can understand what works better for you. You might have to choose one over the other, so it only makes sense to know more about both connector styles.

What Are XLR Connectors?

XLR is essentially shorthand for ‘eXternal Line Return.’ James H. Cannon invented the XLR connection back in the 1950s, which is why they are sometimes referred to as Cannon Connectors. They were designed specifically to transfer electrical currents from device to device. Transferring audio signals, which are essentially electrical signals, in an audio space is what makes this type of connector so popular. 

XLR connectors are mainly used to transfer signals in a recording studio setting between devices like mixing consoles, speakers, microphones, musical instruments, amps, and other devices and interfaces. They are used for pretty much anything that can send or receive audio signals. Many people see XLR connectors as microphone cables/jacks because they have been used in this capacity for many years. 

Are they only used in audio?

No, XLR connectors have other uses that are not only limited to audio. For example, they are used by professional lighting technicians to connect lighting equipment. They might not be so common in a lighting situation, but they can and have been used in this way in the past. 

Inside the XLR cable, there are three wires that are made up of the Left or Hot (L), the Right or Cold (R), and the Ground (X). Electrical currents are carried by the R and L, Hot and Cold wires, with the ground being exactly what it sounds like. This configuration setup is what makes this XLR connector balanced.

Are there two types of XLR connectors?

Yes, there are two XLR connector types. You might know these as Male and Female XLR connectors. There are three pins in the Male connector and three pinholes in the Female connector. The Male sends the audio signals and electrical current, while the Female receives them. A good example of this at work would be that a microphone has male connectors to send signals from it. 

If you check out your mixing console, they have AUX Outputs that use XLR male connectors that send out the signals via the mixer. Alternatively, if you check out your mixer’s input options, they use XLR female connection types to receive those audio signals. It’s pretty simple when you think of it this way, so don’t get carried away with too many complicities. 

So, let’s now move on to 1/4 connector types to find out if and why they are different.

What are 1/4 Inch TRS Connectors?

As you’ve probably released, 1/4 stands for one-quarter inch. These types of 1/4 connectors are used by both consumer and professional audio equipment. Some might say that they are the most used connector type, although the XLR is usually seen as the most popular audio connector. It looks like a standard jack for all intents and purposes, but it’s not that simple. They are interchangeable with 6.35mm connectors because they are equivalent to 1/4 jacks. So if you are buying 1/4 connectors and you can’t find any, you should look for the 6.35mm options because they are the same.

Mixing desks, powerful amplifiers, audio interfaces, preamps, DACs, and receivers all use 1/4 connectors, as do musical instruments such as electric guitars, synths, keyboards, and digital pianos. It’s more commonly known as a standard jack connection or as a headphone jack that is used by most manufacturers. 

The configuration is similar to the XLRs because it has both Male 1/4 inch and Female 1/4 inch connections. The female part is used to connect to your audio equipment, while the male is the one plugged into it. 

For those not in the know, 1/4 inch connectors come in the form of either TS or TRS, so let’s find out more about them.

TS Connector Types

TS connectors are technically called ‘Tip-Sleeve.’ This essentially breaks down as the shiny metallic Tip part of the connector, and the Sleeve is the black ring on the Tip. It’s the tip part of this 1/4 connector that carries the actual electrical current/audio signal, while the sleeve part is essentially the ground. 

So in effect, there are only two wires in a TS 1/4-inch connector, one of which is the positive that carries the signal, and another wire for the ground. This makes this type of connection an unbalanced cable, but I will talk more about that later on.

TRS Connector Types

The name of this connector is an abbreviation for Tip-Ring-Sleeve, hence TRS. As before, the metallic part is the Tip, and the Sleeve is again the first black line on the Tip, but this time we have a Ring, which is the second black line of the Tip.

There are three wires in this TRS connector type when compared to the TS type. These three wires are the Right or Cold, the Left or Hot, and the ground. It’s the Ring and Tip parts that carry the Cold and Hot signals, while the sleeve performs the ground part. These TRS 1/4-inch connectors are known as balanced cables.

XLR vs 1/4 Inch – Comparing 1/4 Inch and XLR Connection Types

XLR Over

Now you understand more about the two 1/4 inch types (TS and TRS) and XLR connectors, it’s time to compare them to find out their advantages and disadvantages. At this time, it’s important to reiterate that XLR and 1/4 TRS connectors are both balanced and stereo, while the 1/4 TS connectors are unbalanced and mono.

1/4 TS vs XLR Connectors

We are going to delve more into the meaning of balanced and unbalanced connectors, and there are major differences between the two that you need to understand. 

One major disadvantage of using 1/4 TS connectors is that they are unbalanced cables that can pick up all manner of noises and interference from nearby antennas and other audio sources like radios, and that’s not a good thing. You will find that you get unwanted noise when you use 1/4 TS connectors that have cables about 15 to 20 feet long that really can reduce and negatively affect the audio quality.

These 1/4 TS connectors can only handle mono signals, which essentially means you get one wire that can only deliver one signal as the second wire is the ground. This type of cable is ideally used with mono instruments like electric guitars. 

XLR cables, on the other hand, are balanced connectors that can distribute audio signals with no noise when using any cable length. For sure, they pick up some noise, but it generally gets filtered out when it gets to the other end of the cable, so it’s a very clean and clear signal. And because they are stereo connectors, there is a left and right wire that individually carries those signals. 

1/4 Inch TRS vs XLR Connectors

As both the XLR and 1/4 Inch TRS connectors are stereo, there are no noticeable differences in audio and signal quality. These are both balanced cable types that ensure there will not be any noises that negatively affect your audio signals. Because they both carry stereo signals, they have two wires that are dedicated to the left and right stereo channels, as expected. 

The only difference you will get between the two is the connector itself. You can physically see the differences by looking at them next to each other. But the truth is that the TRS 1/4 inch connectors and the XLR ones both pretty much do the same job delivering signals in a noise-free manner.

XLR vs 1/4 Inch – Why Should I Choose XLR Over 1/4 Inch Connectors?

In the majority of circumstances, it might be best to choose XLR connectors over 1/4-inch varieties. That simple statement might not tell the full story, but here are the main reasons why you should choose XLR over 1/4.

1 You Can Send Phantom Power

Anyone who needs external power for a mic will tell you that you can get phantom power when using an XLR connector. The vast majority of condenser mics need phantom power of up to 48v just to function, and that is where XLR comes into its own. 

Phantom power needs to be distributed to the condenser microphone via audio cables so it can work properly. So if you are using an Audio-Technica AT2020 Mic or an AKG Pro Audio P220 Mic, or another similar condenser mic model, you need to use XLR connectors, or you will be in trouble.

2 Perfect for Microphones

If you use lots of microphones in a studio or live band setting, nothing can beat XLR connectors. They are and have been, for a long time, the standard connection for microphones. This is largely because mics deliver audio signals that are very quiet, known as mic-level signals. These types of signals need to be boosted and amplified by a preamp, so they are loud enough to use.

Mixing consoles and audio interfaces all have preamp functions with XLR connections for this very reason. Recording studio manufacturers know the importance of giving you mic preamp access, and you can boost those mic signals by using an XLR cable. 

3 XLRs have Locking Mechanisms 

Female XLR connectors usually have locking mechanisms that can prevent possible accidents when you pull out cables. This can happen when someone accidentally trips on the cable in your studio, but that issue is fixed when using XLR with locking features. So you can use these XLR cables to ensure that your studio is a safer place to avoid any potential mishaps and that your cables, and therefore, your signals, stay in place.

4 Multiple Daisy-Chaining of XLR Cables 

When in a recording studio, or more commonly, a live music setting, sometimes your cables are not long enough. You don’t get these issues with XLR cables because you can daisy-chain them together to produce almost any length of cable. You can use shorter cables to make longer cables, and you can’t beat that kind of versatility. 

Plug the male connector into a female connector, and you have a daisy chain that results in one majorly long cable that fits your needs. You simply can’t do that sort of thing with 1/4-inch types because they both have the same male connector ends. Always bear that in mind when you are buying cables for your studio or live band because it can save you time and money.

Why Should I Buy 1/4 Inch Connectors Over XLR?

Connectors Over XLR

Although it usually makes sense to buy XLR connectors in most scenarios, there are a couple of benefits of choosing 1/4-inch connectors over XLR. Here they are:

1 You’re on a Budget

The truth is that 1/4-inch connectors are way cheaper than XLR types. It’s just that simple, and if you are on a tight budget, they might be the best option. But if you do opt to go with this option, I highly recommend that you buy TRS type 1/4 inch versions, not TS ones. That’s because TRS models give you almost the same stereo sound quality as XLR for a fraction of the price. 

2 Ideally Suited for Live Instruments

If you guys use lots of live instruments, you might want to opt for 1/4-inch connectors. They are standard connector types for a number of musical instruments, such as keyboards, synths, electric guitars, bass guitars, and digital pianos.

For sure, you’ll find that lots of newer instruments are made to use with XLR connectors, but the vast majority of older instruments out there still use 1/4-inch connectors. So that’s a very important thing to consider if you are a musician who uses those types of instruments. 

3 Perfect for Patching 

Because these 1/4-inch connectors are essentially standard jacks, they are perfect to use as pedal patch cables. Both TRS and TS 1/4 inch cables work the same for this purpose. And because this only needs shorter patching cables, these are ideal for eliminating the noise that you might get with longer cables. 

So if you are looking for a cheaper solution when it comes to patching cables, you can opt to buy the shorter TS 1/4 inch cables. In all honesty, that’s the only time I would recommend buying TS 1/4-inch connectors. 

Need Some Quality Microphones to Connect your XLRs to?

Then, don’t miss our comprehensive reviews of the Best XLR Microphones, the Best Microphones for Recording Rap Vocals, the Best Live Vocal Mics, the Best Condenser Microphones, the Best Microphones for Recording Electric Guitar, the Best Microphones For Recording Vocals, and the Best Dynamic Microphones on the market right now.

You may also like our detailed reviews of the Best Microphone Preamps, the Best Multitrack Recorder, the Best Audio Interface, the Best Low Latency Audio Interface, the Best Portable Audio Recorders, the Best Audio Mixers, and the Best Studio Headphones for Home Recording you can buy in 2023.

XLR vs 1/4 Inch – Should I Buy XLR or 1/4 Inch Connectors?

We’ve finally come to the end, and to be fair, it wasn’t too complicated. The solutions are quite simple to analyze. In most cases, you should opt to buy XLR connectors because they offer the best audio signal quality with no unwanted noise. Also, they can be locked into place as well as be as long as you want by daisy-chaining them via their XLR female and male connectors. 

XLR and TRS 1/4-inch connectors pretty much do the same job in terms of stereo audio signal current transfer, although the TRS types are much cheaper. TS 1/4 inch models, on the other hand, only transfer mono signals with one wire which can be an issue with unwanted noise. However, the TS 1/4 inch is perfect for musical instruments. 

I would personally go for XLR connectors for any connection that accepts them because they offer the best audio quality and versatility.

Whichever you choose, enjoy your connecting!

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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