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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
March 2006

A Question of Balanced

Audiophiles are not a unique group of enthusiasts when it comes to purchasing add-ons that enhance the performance of the products they've purchased. Car people are certainly as zealous, although they are offset by others like me, who view a car as simply a mode of transportation. A high school friend of mine chided me, explaining that his car "goes 0 to 50 in about seven seconds," while mine would take "at least 15." "I guess I'll get there eight seconds after you," I responded with a smile. Zealots are so easy, and so much fun, to tease.

The efficacy of balanced circuitry and connection in audio equipment can't be considered an accessory or tweak. First, a balanced circuit is integral to a product's function, and, second, its use can improve the sound of an audio system in ways that cleaning solutions and cables, for instance, cannot. The list of companies that tout balanced circuits is distinguished: Audio Research, Ayre Acoustics, Atma-Sphere, Esoteric, Krell, VTL and Mark Levinson. There is no guessing as to where Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) stands on the issue.

In theory, balanced circuits have some impressive advantages, the sum of which is lowering noise, which is never a bad thing where the reproduction of music is concerned. The FAQ on BAT's website lists and explains all of the benefits. In practice, using fully balanced equipment via its XLR inputs and outputs results in better sound. "Better" varies from product to product, but as I point out in my review of Esoteric's X-01 Limited CD/SACD player, "greater clarity and smoothness along with improved delineation of instruments" are byproducts of the Esoteric player's balanced outputs. Not every component with XLR inputs and outputs is truly balanced, however, so simply using balanced connections will not necessarily effect sonic gains. It's a matter of the circuit, not simply the cables.

I can't say that I'm a charter believer of going balanced. I've come around slowly, as I have owned many unbalanced products that sounded wonderful. But in these days of digital maturity, balanced circuits have their greatest potency with source components, especially CD, SACD and universal players. I cringe when I read about audiophiles doing shootouts of top-drawer balanced digital products through their single-ended outputs. Audio Research's CD3 Mk II and Reference CD7, Ayre's C-5xe, every one of Esoteric's players, and the Mark Levinson No.390S all sound their best used balanced. Whether they sound better than Zanden Audio's unbalanced Model 5000 Signature DAC when connected to the Model 2000 Premium transport, for instance, is a matter of preference, but there is no debate as far as I'm concerned that the balanced products I've mentioned simply sound their best when used to their greatest capabilities -- meaning used balanced.

Why isn't every product balanced? Some companies, Conrad-Johnson and Convergent Audio Technology among them, simply believe that balanced circuits offer no discernible advantages to offset the additional cost of producing them. Because so many of the parts of a balanced product are duplicated, they are more costly -- and more difficult -- to build than unbalanced products. I won't question the judgment of Bill Conrad, Lew Johnson and Ken Stevens, all of whom make terrific-sounding products and know far more about designing audio equipment than I ever will. However, I would still love to hear their products in truly balanced and single ended iterations, so I could make the call myself.

Audiophiles often give lip service to the concept of fidelity, hearing recordings with the least amount of noise and distortion possible. But with balanced digital components especially, we can all gain better sound. My pal's cherished eight seconds seem doubly inconsequential in comparison.

...Marc Mickelson

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