At first glance, XLR and DMX cables look very similar, and most people are surprised to learn that they aren’t interchangeable.
As an audio and lighting professional, choosing the right cable and connector is crucial to ensure a seamless setup. This post will dive into the differences between XLR and DMX cables and the factors you should consider when deciding which one to use.
Quick Answer: XLR and DMX cables use the same connector but the actual cables have a different impedance. It’s possible to use a DMX cable for audio, but you should never use an XLR cable for lighting. In large productions XLR cables will use a 3-pin connector and DMX will use a 5-pin connector to avoid any confusion between both cables.
XLR Connectors vs XLR Cables
Before we get into the difference between XLR cables and DMX cables, we need to clarify that the term XLR is a bit of a catchall and can mean several things.
- XLR Connector – Used at the end of the cable. XLR connectors are used on XLR cable and DMX cable.
- XLR Cable – This is the spec of the cable itself. XLR cable is used for transmitting analog audio from one end of the cable to the other.
What Is An XLR Cable?
An XLR cable is designed to transmit a balanced analog audio signal. The signal can vary between -60db and +4dB and requires high-quality shielding to ensure that the signal can travel up to 1000ft (300m) without noise or interference.
XLR cables are built to take a beating on stage and in the studio; the cables can be thick and stiff compared to DMX cables because of the added protection.
XLR cables have an impedance between 45-75 ohms.
XLR cables will typically have a 3-pin XLR connector attached to either end. In rare cases, you will see a 5-pin XLR connector used to transmit a stereo signal and a 4-pin XLR connector used for various intercom systems.
- Connector: 3-pin XLR, 5-pin XLR, 4-pin XLR
- Signal Type: Analog
- Impedance: 45-75 ohms
- Shielding: High
- Distance (theoretical): 1000′ (300m)
What is a DMX Cable?
A DMX cable is designed to transmit a digital signal to control lighting. Each DMX cable can carry up to 512 channels of lighting. Each channel can have a value between 0 and 255. There is a ton of data traveling over a DMX cable.
Theoretically, a DMX cable should be able to run up to 3281′ (1000m).
In our experience, DMX cable is a lot more temperamental, and we would never run a DMX cable longer than 150′ for practical purposes. We recommend using an ethernet-based technology (sACN, Art-Net, etc.) for long-distance, multi-universe DMX runs.
DMX cables have a strict spec that requires 110 ohms of impedance. This allows the signal to run efficiently from the controller to each lighting fixture. If you use an XLR spec of 45-75 ohms for a DMX signal, you will notice your lighting acting erratically (flickering, unresponsive, etc.). You should never use an XLR spec cable for lighting.
DMX cables use a 3-pin XLR connector for less expensive equipment and 5-pin XLR connectors for high-end, professional equipment.
- Connector: 3-pin XLR, 5-pin XLR
- Signal Type: Digital
- Impedance: 110 ohms
- Shielding: Medium
- Distance (theoretical): 3,281′ (1000m)
Related: How To Program DMX Lights
How Do Events Keep The XLR And DMX Cables Separate?
There are established best practices on large-scale events to keep the audio and lighting cables separate.
On large-scale events, all audio cables use 3-pin XLR connectors, and all lighting cables use 5-pin XLR connectors.
At front-of-house (where the audio and lighting consoles are), the genders of the XLR cables are reversed from one another. Audio mixing consoles will have 3-pin female XLR connectors, and lighting consoles will have 5-pin male XLR connectors.
On the stage, all microphones will have 3-pin male XLR connectors, and all lighting fixtures will have 5-pin female XLR connectors.
Some large rental houses like Christie Lights will color their cables green and purple to keep everything separate as well.
This allows the audio and lighting teams to stay separate and avoid mixing up their cables.
Can you use an XLR Cable for lighting?
You should never use an XLR cable for lighting.
XLR Cable has a 45-75 ohm impedance and is unsuitable for running a digital DMX signal.
If you use an XLR audio cable for lighting, you will notice that your lighting acts erratic and is unresponsive to input from the lighting controller.
Can you use a DMX Cable for audio?
You can use a 3-pin DMX cable for audio if you’re in a pinch.
If you plan on doing this, you should be aware that the shielding isn’t as good as an XLR cable so you may get static or interference in your audio.
It’s also important to remember that DMX cables aren’t built to be swinging from a microphone on stage. They’re not as rugged as an XLR cable.
DMX vs XLR Cable FAQ
XLR cable has an impedance between 45-75 ohms.
DMX cable has an impedance of 110 ohms.
Although DMX cables and XLR cables use the same type of connector, the cables are very different. You can use a DMX cable for audio, but you should never use an XLR cable for lighting.
DMX cables are different from XLR cables that you use for a microphone. Despite having the same connector, the cables have a different impedance. You should never use a mic cable for lighting, but it’s possible to use a DMX cable for audio if you’re in a pinch.
The theoretical limit of a DMX cable is 3,281 ft (1000m). That being said, it’s more efficient to use an ethernet-based technology (sACN, ArtNet, etc.) if you’re planning on running more than a single universe.
The theoretical limit of an XLR cable is 1000′ (300m) without audio degradation.
XLR VS DMX Cable Topics
- 0:00 – Introduction
- 0:48 – Pricing & Specs
- 1:04 – XLR Connector vs Cable
- 1:30 – XLR Connector
- 3:00 – Difference Between XLR & DMX Cable
- 3:30 – XLR Cable Overview
- 4:59 – DMX Cable Overview
- 6:56 – Can I Use XLR Cable for Lighting?
- 8:27 – Can I Use DMX Cable for Audio?
- 9:15 – Keeping Cables Organized At Events
- 10:25 – Final Thoughts