Updated November 9, 2016 by The Polarity Project
Whether live or reproduced music consists of a series of compressions and rarefaction of air that are the sound waves we hear. Reproduced music is in absolute polarity when its compressions and rarefactions are in sync with the compressions and rarefactions of the original performance. Much of music’s sound waves consists of compressions and rarefactions that are asymmetrical. Scientific research has determined that below approximately 5 kHz most people hear compressions differently than rarefactions which means that for most listeners music that’s played inverted sounds different than when played non-inverted (in absolute polarity). All tracks on approximately 92% of compact discs (CDs) play in inverted polarity on approximately 92% of compact disc players (CD players or servers that they’ve been ripped to) which means polarity mistakes aren’t random. The converse of that is that approximately only 8% of CD players play all tracks on approximately 92% of CDs in non-inverted polarity (absolute polarity). I suggest it’s a reasonable inference that the audio industry’s polarity determinations of digital components are inconsistent, because they may depend on who’s making the measurements. The deleterious effects of inverted polarity to sonics and musicality are the same whether it’s due to inverting components or inverted media. Although the polarity of components may be reported in reviews, the polarity of the media used in the reviews is never mentioned even though media polarity is variable and the exact same tracks are sometimes recorded in opposite relative polarity on different CD labels. Thus it seems that reviews of components are more about the musicality of hearing media in absolute polarity than the fidelity of components! Playing music in inverted polarity rather than in absolute polarity (aka absolute phase) makes the sound brighter, harsher, more congested, less 3-dimentional sounding, and in general less musically and emotionally involving. It also makes the evaluation of the fidelity and musicality of media and components more difficult, and could be one of the main reasons that analog media, which is mostly in polarity, is judged by many music-loving audiophiles to be musically superior to digital media. How to play most if not all digital media in absolute polarity is explained. Summing up in music-lover terms, 100% of listeners whose systems play CDs in absolute polarity when the polarity of the CDs are the same as the polarity of the CD player (the system’s net analog polarity is non-inverting) are hearing their CDs play inverted approximately 92% of the time and therefore aren’t able to enjoy the maximum potential emotional involvement with the music they love. Due to the on going nature of the research, you may check for the date of the latest revision to this monograph about polarity. High-Res discs and downloads aren’t exempt from polarity problems, but because I haven’t tested a sufficiently large sample, I don’t know what percentage are inverted.
You may use the list of some compact discs (CDs) below to set an audio system’s polarity to playback most compact discs in absolute polarity. As stated above, if you know the polarity of any track on compact disc, all its other tracks will be in the same relative polarity except for possible compact discs that are compilations of tracks from more than one label or possibly test discs.
In my experience the major labels are more likely to have CDs of both polarities but they tend to be predominantly one polarity and the list includes some of the CDs that are not in a label’s usual polarity. When the relative polarity of all the tracks on a label’s CD sampler is the same, it’s usually indicative of the label’s polarity for all its discs, because the sampler is probably representative of many of the label’s offerings. It may appear that the polarity of some labels CDs is random, e.g. Verve is an example of an umbrella label that has sub-labels that may have different relative polarities but each sub-label’s CDs are usually the same relative polarity. Therefore, each sub-label is listed as if it’s a totally separate label. If the CD isn’t silver (aluminum), e.g. gold it will be noted.
I’ve heard other labels with reissued CDs that have the left and right channels reversed relative to the vinyl record. Some stereo microphone and multi-microphone feed CD reissues have one or more feeds remixed into different channels. I’ve never heard a reissued CD even on a different label than the original CD that has its polarity different from the original CD.
The polarity designations are as stated only if the majority of CD manufactures are making CDs in correct polarity (N), but if the opposite is true, then the polarity designations should be reversed (R) but the relative polarities of the listings won’t change. Until it know whether it’s the CDs that are being made inverted or the CD players that are being made inverted as described in 30 Years of Digital and the 92% Solution, we won’t know what the actual polarity of the media is but only that an N designated CD will play in polarity on approximately 92% of CD players and an R designated CD will inverted on approximately 92% of CD players. You may read about how the 92% figure was determined at 30 Years of Digital and the 92% Solution . You may determine if a CD player is one of the 92% that plays most CDs inverted, by playing CDs to hear which polarity which the vast majority playback in. That assumes that you know that the rest the playback chain doesn’t invert polarity, but even you don’t know the net polarity of the rest of the system, at least you’ll know how to play most CDs in absolute polarity.
Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” (W/S) recordings are a special case because at both live and recorded performances Phil Spector wanted the lead vocalists and instrumentalists to be in absolute polarity (N), spotlighted in bas relief against a 2-dimensional wall of sound he created by having everything else heard in inverted polarity (R).
I’ve discerned the polarity of thousands of CDs but don’t think it’s useful to list them all. I can only determine the polarity of CDs by listening. I tried to list specific CDs and CD labels that are of particular interest to music-loving audiophiles. Because as the Perfect Polarity Pundit in reality I’m not always perfect, the list is subject to revision, so please feel free to suggest corrections and additions.
I listen to CDs on a player with a volume control and remote control digital domain polarity switch connected directly to a non-inverting power amplifier over a minimum phase speaker system of my own design. I discern polarity by deciding which polarity sounds more like live music. For SACDs, DVDs, internet downloads, and vinyl records I add a preamplifier with a remote control polarity switch. And for vinyl records I use a linear tracking turntable with a strain gauge cartridge. It also seems to me that some internet hi-res downloads are inverted.
For information on the sonic effects of polarity you may read A Speculation on Perception of Detail by clicking on the link: Polarity Think piece: A Speculation Regarding Perception of Detail. Given the relatively high proportion of audiophile CD labels that are polarity inverted including those labels with non inverted vinyl record counterparts, one might speculate that a major reason for the preference that many music-loving audiophiles for the presentation and musicality of vinyl records is that they’re comparing them to inverted CDs.
Anyone who’s interested in a free listening session sharing some of their favorite music/my favorite music/using my CD player’s remote control polarity switch to hear polarity differences for themselves, please email:firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888-588-9542 toll free 7-days a week from 9AM to 11:45PM Pacific time and I’ll do my best to accommodate you. And you may email corrections or additions for “The List” to email@example.com.
Because approximately 92% of compact discs (CDs) play inverted on approximately 92% of compact disc players (CDPs) one can set the polarity of a playback system to be correct approximately 92% of the time. There are several ways a system can playback in absolute polarity 100% of the time. A digital domain polarity switch of a CDPs or DACs or CD transport are the highest fidelity ways to toggle the playback polarity of digital media. The least convenient way to change a system’s polarity is probably is to reverse the hot and ground connections of all of a system’s speaker wires, either at the amplifier end of the wires or speaker end, but not both, because that would reverse the change of changing the wires’ connection at one end only. I recommend you try both ways to find out which if either sounds best. Changing a system’s playback polarity with a polarity switch on a preamplifier or on an integrated amplifier, or on an amplifier in the analog domain will also have the same basic effect. If a component has a balanced XLR output, there are adaptors that will reverse polarity and if the rest of the system following the XLR output isn’t balanced there are also XLR to single ended adaptors that opens up the possibility of switching polarity to more systems. Whichever way polarity is changed, it’s way, way, way better fidelity wise and musically than inverted polarity playback. So far at least, the only way to discern polarity of music is by listening, but it’s really true that little bit of practice with media of known polarity makes perfect.
Absolute polarity playback is better musically than inverted polarity playback in just about every aspect. But more specifically, absolute polarity playback relative to inverted polarity playback sounds, more purposeful, more rounded and convex rather than more hollowed out and concave, sounds fuller with more body, more organic/analog sounding, is less wooden/papery, less dry/more liquid, isn’t overly brittle, reedy, less hard/ragged/splashy/bright or overly detailed sounding, has more accurate timbre, is less congested, is more delineated/focused/holographic, has greater dynamics with better pace and rhythm, more virtual soundstage depth, and much better recovery of the ambience of the recording venue that facilitates the ability to suspend one’s belief that they aren’t experiencing a live performance. The better the recording, regardless of the microphone technique, from mono, to stereo, or multi-microphones, the easier it will be to discern polarity. The only exceptions are the Phil Spector “Wall-of-Sound” and “Reverse-Wall of Sound” recordings with artistic choices intentionally included mixed polarity, which allows listener’s to choose playback in the polarities intended or the opposite. The higher fidelity a playback system is in all respects, especially the flatter its phase response and group delay, the easier it will be to discern polarity over that system.
The benefits to be gained by playing a CD in polarity to improve a system’s fidelity and musicality largely depends upon whether the system satisfies the criteria described below. If the playback system doesn’t meet the criteria described below, it’s probably not worth taking the polarity of the system or media into account and you should probably ignore the entire issue of playback polarity altogether. But if you’ve read this far and also read my monograph, Polarity Think Piece: A Speculation Regarding Perception of Detail, you may feel that listening to music in absolute polarity in order to make the closest possible emotional connection to the music is important enough to make sure that your playback system meets the criteria set described below.
Regardless of which polarity the music is being played in, there are some necessary but not sufficient conditions that speakers or headphones must meet before changing polarity makes sense. All headphone or speakers drivers must have their drivers move in the same direction for an electrical signal of a given polarity whose frequency is in the speaker’s passband which is just another way of saying that the speakers and headphones are at least minimally phase-coherent [polarity consistent PC)]. Single driver headphones and speakers are at least polarity consistent because there aren’t any other drivers for them to be out of phase with. Systems with multiple drivers may be PC consistent if their crossovers are first order (6db/octive) or forth-order (24db/octave) crossovers or (n times 24 db/octave) that have all their drivers connected in the same electrical polarity. But second-order, (12 db/octave) crossovers require that drivers in contiguous frequency ranges be connected in opposite electrical polarity and are therefore not PC. The electrical polarity connection of drivers of other crossovers slopes in the analog (Gaussian domain) may or may not be PC depending upon the particular implementation. And digital crossovers with or without DSP can be designed to be PC. If a system’s speakers or headphones aren’t PC, the effect of absolute polarity or polarity switching changes is arbitrarily determined and inconsistent with the polarity of live music and recorded media because changing polarity 180 degrees only changes which drivers are in and out of polarity and which frequencies are in or out of polarity. And of course there’s no correlation between non-PC polarity and the polarity of recorded or live music. If I had non-PC headphones or speakers, I’d replace them in order to hear the benefits for fidelity and musicality of playback in absolute polarity.
Updated March 10, 2015
When a CD is made in normal (absolute) polarity (N), a non-inverting playback system will play the CD such that its compressions and rarefactions are in sync with the live performance. When a CD plays inverted, the compressions and rarefactions of a non-inverting playback system will be exactly out of sync with the live performance.
N = Normal Polarity for approximately 92% of CD players, R = Reversed Polarity for approximately 92% of CD players, BP = Both Polarity CDs, W/S = Wall of Sound, S/W = Reversed polarity Wall of Sound, MT = Tracks with different relative polarity, i.e. some N and some R tracks, MP = Mixed polarity on one or more tracks. MN = Mostly Normal Polarity, MR = Mostly Inverted Polarity. Usually reissue labels such as Mobile Fidelity don’t change the polarity of the original CDs so their polarities are dependent upon the polarity of the label of the original compact discs. I only list the polarity of the CD layer on Hybrid SACDs, but I expect the SACD layer’s polarity is the same as its CD layer. A “The” at the beginning of a label name will be omitted for the purpose of alphabetizing but shown in parenthesis after the label name, e.g. (The). To save verbiage and for clarity, hereafter I’ll refer to approximately 92% of CD players or DACs that play all tracks on approximately 92% of CDs in inverted polarity as an N-player or N-DAC, and the approximately 8% of CD players or DACs that play all tracks on approximately 92% of CDs in polarity (absolute polarity) as an R-player or R-DAC, in order for the CD player polarity designations to agree with the CD polarity designations. Because the actual polarity (as apposed to relative polarity) of analog components such as speakers, headphones, and electronic components with analog inputs can be determined their actual polarity will be designated as N for non-inverting and R for inverting, i.e. the same plus underscoring.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed on this website are the opinions of the author and therefore their value and truth should be determined by the readers for themselves.
George S. Louis, Esq, CEO, Digital Systems & Solutions, President San Diego Audio Society (SDAS), Perfect Polarity Pundit Chief Polaritiy Buster of the Polarity Police, Phone: 619-401-9876, 888-588-9542 toll free, Email: AudioGeorge@AudioGeorge.com, Website: http://audiogeorge.com
Copyright © 2014 George S. Louis