If you’ve never worked in the world of lighting, DMX and XLR cables can be confusing at first, especially if you come from an audio background. But don’t worry. We’ve got answers to all your questions.
There are several 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.
Two of the most commonly confused-for-each-other cables are XLR and DMX cables. In this FAQ, we’ll cover some of the basic differences to help you tell them apart.
Feel free to click on the table of contents below to find the answer you’re looking for.
- XLR vs. DMX: What’s the Difference?
- What is DMX?
- What is a DMX Cable?
- What are the Features to Look for in a DMX Cable?
- What is an XLR Cable?
- Can You Use an XLR Cable Instead of a DMX Cable?
XLR vs. DMX: What’s the Difference?
Both often have the standard 3-pin configuration and similar builds, and maybe, in some cases, the connector is the same on both. But go beyond the connector, and you have two cables with fundamentally different purposes.
Generally, DMX cables are used for lighting, while XLR cables are used for analog audio. This video explains more.
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 cable’s purpose isn’t to carry an audio signal. Instead, it carries information or data that will communicate changes between light and its source. The impedance required for this is 110 ohms.
DMX cables 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.
What are Some Features to Look for in a DMX Cable?
When looking for a DMX cable, you’ll first want to make sure it’s rated at 110 ohms. Then you should make sure it’s flexible and sturdy, preferably built with braided shielding and solid connectors. Don’t forget to check the lighting equipment you’re using to see if you require 3-pin or 5-pin XLR, or if you require a DMX adapter on one end to change between them.
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. 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.
Can You Use an XLR Cable Instead of a DMX Cable?
The short answer is yes, technically, but only in some cases. In general, it’s not advised.
DMX has a higher impedance than XLR. An XLR cable uses a different signal than DMX is built to handle. There are some instances where you can use them interchangeably, but again, it’s not advised or recommended.
Here are some of the complications you can expect if you try to use XLR for DMX and DMX for XLR.
The 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. This means you might get strobing or flickering lights since the cable can’t transfer the necessary voltage. This won’t damage your lighting equipment, but this signal degradation causes inconsistencies in your lighting presentation and ultimately leads to frustration and a bad show.
XLR cables can also have a more rugged build, so the cable diameter may be larger, making it less discrete, bulkier, and heavier than necessary. For these reasons it’s not recommended to use analog XLR cables for DMX and lighting equipment.
DMX for XLR Applications
On the flip side, 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, DMX cable build quality isn’t meant to be as rugged as XLR. XLR cables are built to transfer sound and they’re used on microphones that get tossed around and stepped on all the time. They’re built to withstand the beating of a gigging environment.
DMX cables on the other hand aren’t constructed for that purpose and may not last nearly as long. DMX cables are also 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 influence the resulting sound.
As always, it’s best to 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 range of solutions to fit them. If you need a high quality 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