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XLR vs. DMX: What’s the Difference?

XLR vs. DMX: What’s the Difference?

There are certainly a number of cables that serve different functions but look similar or use the same connector types. For instance, 1/4 in patch cables and instrument cables, or 3.5 mm patch cables and stereo AUX cables that you would use to connect your phone to a speaker.

Perhaps a few of the more easily confused cable types are XLR and DMX. Both have the standard 3-pin configuration and similar builds, and maybe, in some cases, the connector is exactly the same on both. But, go beyond the connector and you have two cables with fundamentally different purposes.

What is an XLR Cable?

XLR cables are what’s most often used for analog functions such as microphones and interconnects. Analog has a much lower impedance requirement so cables don’t have to be rated, but usually the impedance is between 45 and 75 ohms. The most common XLR configurations are 3-pin and 5-pin, although some proprietary 4-pin XLR cables exist for certain audio equipment like intercoms.

What is DMX?

DMX refers to the lighting protocol DMX512, which is a type of digital communication. The DMX standard was created in 1986 using existing XLR connectors to adapt to products already on the market without any proprietary connection. It also introduced a 5-pin format with the intention of expanding its functions with the additional pins, however that is very infrequent so nearly every 5-pin DMX cable only has 3 soldered connection points with 2 unused pins. This makes 5-to-3 pin and 3-to-5 pin DMX conversions direct and simple depending on the equipment you’re using.

What is a DMX Cable?

DMX cables are what we use for lighting. The cables’ purpose isn’t about carrying an audio signal, it’s carrying information or data that will communicate changes between lights and the source. The impedance required for this is 110 ohms. They also come in 5-pin configurations, and can be converted from 3-pin to 5-pin or 5-pin to 3-pin using our DMX adapters.

DMX vs. XLR Cables

Given how similar XLR and DMX cables appear, a common question is “can they be used interchangeably?” In some circumstances, you might be able to, but it’s not suggested.

XLR for DMX Applications

An analog XLR cable is not rated at 110 ohms, which is based on the cable’s construction; so, transferring data may experience some interruptions, such as strobing or flickering lights since the cable can’t transfer the necessary voltage. This won’t damage your lighting equipment, but is simply signal degradation that can cause inconsistencies and frustration. XLR cables can also have a more rugged build, so the cable diameter may be larger, making it less discrete, more bulky, and heavier than necessary. For these reasons it’s not recommended to use analog XLR cables for DMX and lighting equipment.

Hosa DMX cables are available in three configurations:

DMX for XLR Applications

On the flipside, you could theoretically use a DMX cable as a microphone cable. However, the cables aren’t built with the same shielding, so noise interference might become an issue. Likewise, its build-quality isn’t meant to be as rugged, so where an analog XLR cable might stand up to the many abuses they expect to receive in a gigging environment, a DMX cable isn’t constructed for that purpose and may not last nearly as long. DMX cables are much more expensive because of the construction required to meet the 110 ohm standard. In some cases, DMX cables would also have a smaller copper conductor than analog XLR cables, and that may have an effect on the resulting sound.

Common Hosa analog XLR cables include:

Conclusion

The bottom line is, always use the appropriate cable for the appropriate application. If you’re doing lighting, invest in some DMX cables to make sure the voltage is uninterrupted. If you need to go out from an interface to a pair of monitors, invest in some XLR interconnects, and, of course, use a dedicated microphone cable for all mic and performance functions.

Recommended Hosa DMX and XLR Cables

Everybody has different needs and different budgets to work with, and Hosa provides a wide array of solutions to fit any budget. If you want the most noiseless, transparent microphone cable, we highly suggest our Edge Series microphone cable. If you need an XLR cable between analog devices carrying line-level, we always recommend our Pro Series interconnects. For lighting purposes, we offer 3-pin DMX512 and 5-pin DMX512, as well as adapters and terminators.

- Dylan
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