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<br>Some Thoughts on <p>Acoustical and Electrical Polarity</p>




Some Thoughts on

Acoustical and Electrical Polarity


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This commentary is taken from an old Steve Hoffman Forum post of mine.

Clark Johnson and Steve Hoffman are dead right about absolute polarity: The note that hits a microphone is a positive wavefront; the speaker driver should move forward when it plays that note. If it doesn't, it may not sound wrong, but it will certainly sound more right when it does, so changing the leads to both speakers will tell you pretty quickly what's what.

SH [Steve Hoffman] points out a problem with multi-tracked and multi-miked recordings, which is that some things might get better and some things might get worse, so how does one know which is right?

The answer is one I owe to my good friend Robert Pincus, who for close to fifteen years has been playgrading and helping me evaluate recordings as part of my record business (Better Records.) He discovered that virtually every copy of RCA LSO 6006 "Belafonte at Carnagie Hall" is in reverse absolute phase. I would guess that 90+% of all audiophiles playing the record don't know that, but they could certainly learn a thing or two by reversing their speaker leads next time they play it, because the difference is quite extraordinary.

The album -- which every record collecting audiophile on the planet can easily obtain a copy of, as they are common as dirt -- starts out with loud applause, a brass fanfare, a drum roll, and then Belafonte starts to sing. When you play the record back on an acoustically polarized system, meaning correct polarity, the applause is a little thin and bright, the brass is a bit thin and bright and fairly forward, and when Belafonte starts to sing he's a bit oversize, and the orchestra does not sound nearly as far behind him as the picture on the album jacket would lead you to believe.

Well, there's no reason that the album shouldn't actually sound that way. It may simply be the result of how it was miked, mixed, mastered and pressed. And people seem to love it this way, as it has been on the TAS Superdisc List for as long as I can remember (probably from the very beginning), with no mention of polarity problems that I can recall. Practically every stereo store in the world has one on hand for demonstration purposes, so how wrong can it be?

Maybe not wrong, more like "less right". When you reverse polarity, a number of extraordinary changes take place. The applause now sounds less like a recording of applause -- we used to say poor reproduction of applause has the sound of sizzling bacon in a frying pan -- and more like lots of people clapping their hands. The brass instruments become much more full bodied, while still maintaining their leading edges, the "bite" so to speak. And most amazing of all, when Belafonte steps up to the mike, his head is now human sized. His voice sounds smoother and fuller, with less annoying zip at the top. And the orchestra is twenty feet behind him, just like the picture.

That's the first minute or so of the record. Everything from that point on is better too of course, but you only have to do the test for one minute to know whether you are in or out, and there's no mistaking which is which. If the album gets worse when you switch the polarity, you were reversed to begin with. Correct the problem and play some records with massed strings or close-miked brass; you'll realize that the glare and distortion and brightness -- the kind of sound that SH hates more than anything -- was a playback problem, not a software problem.

For those of you who are CD only, I know of only one disc that is mastered out of polarity, another "find" of Robert Pincus. In fact he was even responsible for having it produced. Cisco, the company he works for, took my recommendation for a Three Blind Mice title to do on gold CD: TBM 8010 Shoji Yokouchi Trio "Greensleeves", a wonderful guitar - organ recording somewhat in the style of Wes Montgomery. I heard the version they did, and it sounded just fine to me.

Then one day Robert told me that it sounded even better reversed (he has two sets of headphones, one correct, one reversed, so that he can check the polarity of a recording almost instantaneously), and sure enough the guitar sounded sweeter, with less emphasis on the picking of the string and more of the trailing harmonics, and the organ sound now was wider and deeper and just bigger, filling up the whole studio. The low notes went lower and were even more solid. It wasn't night and day, but it was noticeably better. Since it's such a good album, and gets very little exposure, I can recommend it to anyone who likes jazz and thinks Japanese players can't swing. Not many do, I'll admit, but Yokouchi sure does. And you can check your polarity with it too.

Clark Johnson likes to promote the idea that much of what's wrong with audio reproduction is polarity-related. This is nonsense. It's a factor, one of far too many to count. To imply otherwise is the worst kind of reductionism. It is true that some speakers reverse phase from driver to driver, as some crossovers reverse phase as part of their design. All things being equal this is not a good thing.

Now a quick word about electrical polarity. This is crucial to good sound. Every piece of electronics sounds better plugged into the wall one way rather than another. Get some cheaters at the hardware store so that the "polarized" plug can be reversed into the wall and start switching one component at a time, unplugging anything that is not required to make the system work.

Wrong electrical polarity most often results in a more diffuse, spacious, leaner sound. Many audiophiles confuse this with good sound, especially those that listen exclusively to classical music, where is can make the soundstage wider and taller and more vague, which is not necessarily a bad thing on some recordings. But if you put on a nice vocal and you don't get a rock solid, correctly sized singer with a chest, then try reversing the plugs in the wall one at a time until you do.

And the cheater can also be used to determine if the three prong plug (hot, neutral and ground) is itself causing a problem. Most systems don't like that ground plug connected. It's all equipment dependent of course, but I have heard some amazing improvements brought about by simply cheating the grounds in a system. Like everything else to do with audio, only experimenting will provide clues to the answers. And I use "clues" advisedly. As things change over time -- your equipment, your hearing, your environment -- you may find that the results of earlier experiments are no longer valid. Steve would say "that way lies madness". And he's right. This whole hobby can be the most infuriating and frustrating thing in the world. (It may not be an excuse for my occasional bad disposition, but it sure doesn't help!)

Unfortunately there is no alternative to dealing with these issues, and hundreds more like them. Reality is reality. Your ears can be fooled, of course, but most of the time they're conveying accurate information. If the brain doesn't understand why some thing or another should make a difference in the sound, the ear cannot be bullied into not hearing it. The brain has to reconcile itself to the ear, not the other way around. Most audiophiles are in denial about at least some issues in audio. Who can blame them? But if you want your stereo to improve, the best tool you have at your disposal is an open mind.

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