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DAC to Amplifier Connection: RCA vs. XLR

When setting up a high-fidelity audio system, the choice of cables can be as crucial as the selection of the components themselves. This article aims to shed light on a common dilemma faced by audiophiles and sound engineers alike: whether to use an RCA to RCA cable or an XLR to RCA cable for connecting a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) to a power amplifier.

Understanding RCA and XLR Connections

Before diving into the comparison, it’s essential to understand what RCA and XLR connections are. RCA connectors are a type of electrical connector commonly used to carry audio and video signals. They are known for their simplicity and are widely used in consumer audio equipment. On the other hand, XLR connectors are typically used in professional audio and video electronics for balanced audio signals, offering better protection against noise and interference.

RCA to RCA Connections: Simplicity and Compatibility

RCA to RCA cables are often favored in home audio systems due to their widespread compatibility and ease of use. These cables are suitable for unbalanced audio signals and are generally more affordable. They are a straightforward choice for systems where both the DAC and amplifier have RCA connectors.

XLR to RCA Connections: Superior Noise Rejection

XLR to RCA cables are used when one wishes to connect a balanced output, like that from a professional-grade DAC, to an unbalanced input, like a typical consumer-grade amplifier. The primary advantage of using XLR connectors is their ability to reject electromagnetic interference, making them ideal for setups in environments with high levels of noise or for longer cable runs.

User Experience and Expert Opinions

  1. RME Audio Forum Discussion: In a discussion on the RME Audio Forum, users debated the merits of using RCA vs. XLR outputs from an ADI-2 DAC FS to a power amp. The consensus was that both outputs deliver the same quality, as they use a similar circuit. However, the XLR output has an advantage regarding ground loop related hum and sometimes even computer noise that enters a system via the USB connection. The RCA’s advantage in a HiFi environment is its 6 dB lower level, which can lead to a better level match if the power amp doesn’t have input level controls. Source: RME Audio Forum
  2. Head-Fi Forum Discussion: On the Head-Fi forum, users discussed the connection of a DAC to an integrated amplifier for driving floor speakers. While specific details about RCA vs. XLR connections were not provided, such forums often highlight the importance of considering the specific characteristics of the equipment being used. Source: Head-Fi Forum
  3. dCS Community Discussion: In a discussion on the dCS Community forum, it was advised to use balanced XLR wherever possible for connecting a DAC to an amplifier. The balanced output uses complex class-A stages, which give noticeably better sound quality than the much simpler unbalanced output stages. However, if connecting to an unbalanced input, it’s recommended to use the unbalanced outputs. Source: dCS Community

The decision between using an RCA to RCA cable or an XLR to RCA cable for connecting a DAC to a power amplifier is not one-size-fits-all. It depends on various factors, including the type of equipment, the listening environment, and the specific needs of the audio system. By understanding the strengths and limitations of each connection type, audiophiles can make an informed decision to ensure the best possible sound quality from their audio systems.

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