Invert Polarity in Digital Domain

Just curious if anybody has heard any differences with CD players which have the option to invert absolute polarity in the digital domain.

I have the Levinson 390S and I hear a clearer (especially voices!), albeit narrower soundstage with polarity setting to normal (interestingly, the player powers up to polarity=invert as the default). This holds true over a wide variety of discs, and for all types of music. The inverted absolute polarity setting is often more involving, though. My preamp and amp do not invert polarity.

I do not hear any differences at all by inverting polarity on the preamp (in the analog domain), by the way.

Thanks for any input.
This is an area of real complexity, and unless you're really obsessive (like me, on occasion), I wouldn't recommend going there. It can drive you nuts. First of all you need really polarity-coherent speakers to hear consistent effects. My Gallo Reference 3s, unfortunately, fit that bill. Before I got them, I listened to the switched-polarity tracks on test CDs and couldn't hear a bit of difference. Now I can. Swell.

Roughly half the records and CDs out there were recorded in "normal" polarity and the other half in "inverted" polarity. Some labels are consistent -- DG, Mercury Living Presence, Riverside, and RCA tend to be inverted, while Philips, Columbia, Atlantic, and ECM tend to be normal. These are just examples.

Some discs have individual tracks in different polarity. One Richard Thompson LP has him "normal" and the back-up instruments "inverted," so I can pop him out or recede him into the mix depending on how I have things switched. I switch at the speaker inputs, using banana plugs, and yes it's a cumbersome pain in the butt.

Unlike you, I hear differences in the analog domain just as clearly as in the digital.
Thanks for posting some of the labels and their general polarity settings (as you have experienced it)! I need to test that.

My speakers are B&W 802 Nautilus, and I am not sure if they are "polarity-coherent." For example, the well-known audiophile war horse, Holly Cole's "Don't Smoke in Bed," has the piano either a little muddy, but bass and voice nicely defined (Polarity=normal), or, piano prominent and clear, but bass and voice recessed (Polarity=inverted).

On the DG Pollini: Chopin "Etudes, Preludes, Polonaises," I hear more piano texture with polarity inverted, and more sheen at the top end with polarity setting to normal.

What setting do you usually leave it on?
An issue of FI had once published a list of labels which invert polarity and those that did not. It was extensive and comprehensive, but contained on only one page. I had a copy but lost it. Does anyone know where to get either a copy of the issue it was in or the list itself?
It was also in Ultimate Audio (article by Lars Fredell). I'll try to find it and post the specifics.
Here are most of the ones posted in Ultimate Audio (Summer 2000 issue):

Normal or "0" polarity: A&M, Acoustic Disc, Atlantic, AudioQuest, Blue Note, Caprice, Chandos, Chesky, Chess, Columbia, Concord, DMP, Elektra, Geffen, GRP, Harmonia Mundi, Hungaraton, Hyperian, JVCXCRD, Klavier, Liberty, Manhattan, MusicMasters, Nonesuch, Novus, Opus 3, Orfeo, Philips, Polydor, Pope Music, Reference, Reprise, Sheffield, Supraphon, Verve, Wilson. ECM also belongs in this list, IMO.

Inverted or "180" polarity: Analogue Productions, ASV, BIS, Capitol, Cypress, Delos, Deutsche Gramophone, Discovery, EMI, Epic, Impulse, L'Oiseau-Lyre, London, MCA, Mercury, Motown, Nimbus, Pangaea, Polar, Private Music, Riverside, Ryko, Shanachie, Sony, Telarc, Teldec, Vanguard, Virgin, Vox, Warner Brothers, WEA. I would presume that English Decca/Argo belong in this list.

There are obviously many omissions. My experience generally agrees with these listings, at least in cases where I've tested and compared. IME, the most dramatic examples are on the DG (Deutsche Gramophone) label and particularly -- for no discernible reason -- with reel-to-reel tapes. Some of these are virtully unlistenable to me played with "0" polarity, yet quite decent in "180" polarity. YMMV, to put it mildly.
Thanks, Dopogue.

This is very helpful!!!

P.S. I think I know why I don't hear any differences by switching the preamp's polarity (I have the VTL 5.5): It's a phase reversal (according to the manual), and so might not be a true polarity inversion. I thought the two were the same, but apparently not.
You should be getting a true polarity inversion through your VTL (despite the semantic polarity/phase confusion). What are your speakers? I recently heard Magnepan 3.6 and 20.1 speakers in a store demo where BOTH the (Levinson) CD player and preamp enabled polarity (phase) switching via their remotes, and couldn't hear a bit of difference switching either unit. The speakers must be really polarity-coherent to enable you to hear these effects consistently. Good luck, Dave
Speakers are B&W 802 Nautilus (old style, not with the Diamond tweeters).
Sorry, can't help (don't know the speakers). My understanding is that the simpler the crossover, the better. And the drivers in the speakers must all be connected + to + (many aren't, intentionally). Dave
Try the Phase chart from SRA-Extremely helpful!
The SRA list derives from the same source as mine. I just left off the labels I'd never heard of :-)
Dear Hgabert,

I've copied a pasted the first two articles that I've written regarding the importance of absolute polarity.

Best regards,

George S. Louis, Perfect Polarity Pundit™

The Absolute Reality of Absolute Polarity

Here’s the first part of what I’ve been promising to reveal regarding the Absolute Reality of absolute polarity. Once you setup your system to play any track on any commercial stamped CD in absolute polarity your system will play all tracks on all commercial stamped CDs, DVDs, DVD audio discs, SACDs, and probably DSDs or any other laser read media in absolute polarity. I and my music loving audiophile friends have heard that to be the case on thousand of tracks that were mostly CD tracks as well as hundreds of tracks on every other type of disc we tried with the same conclusion. There a few exceptions such as the Stereophile Test CD STPH-002-2 that has all its tracks after track number 8, a musical polarity test track, in the wrong polarity. There are some other test discs that may also be recorded incorrectly. In addition there are some rock music CDs that also have certain polarity anomalies such as the lead vocalist(s) and/or instrumentalist(s) being recorded in a different relative polarity than the rest of the musicians in order that they might stand out against a wall of sound but even those recordings are consistent and we’ve always preferred them played in the same polarity as every other disc.

I believe that one reason that some music lovers prefer vinyl records to their digital versions is that most of the time when they hear CDs, they’re playing out of absolute polarity. Here’s a quote from my think piece A Speculation Regarding Perception of Detail, “How much tweaking and component swapping in our systems are only musically misinformed attempts to correct for music played out of absolute polarity that in Absolute Reality are bound to fail the test of high-fidelity? Does this suggest that the conclusions of some prior listening tests should be reevaluated and repeated with music that we know for sure is played in absolute polarity? I definitely think so, and that should include recordings as well, but each of you may answer that question for yourselves.”

So if you use a phase coherent minimum phase speaker system or single driver headphones and non-inverting playback electronics that you should be able to verify those results. If you believe you’ve found any discs that don’t conform to that standard please let me and the rest of the music loving world know so that we may test them for ourselves. These conclusion are completely contrary to what you’ve been led to believe by some in the audio industry who claim that absolute polarity is a random or that recorded media has no inherent polarity. It’s my opinion and that of many of my music loving audiophile friends that once you’ve become accustom to hearing music in absolute polarity it’s addicting and you’ll never want to hear music inverted except when testing for polarity.

The second part of the Absolute Reality of Absolute Polarity is the explanation of why at least 95% and probably closer to 99% of laser read media playback components such as CD players including those in cars invert music. Many manufacturers have different model CD players with different output polarities which is definitely a mistake and which incidentally isn’t correlated with their prices and with multiple outputs such as fixed, variable, and headphone may also have their outputs in different relative polarities which would also be a mistake. The reasons for that are more difficult to explain and will follow in due course. I will be describing the Electronic Industry Association (EIA) microphone standards RS-112-A that were promulgated in October 1979, the CD Red Book, the CBS CD-1 Test CD that’s the digital music industry’s standard since 1980, and the Audio Engineering Society (AES) standard AES26-2001: AES recommended practice for professional audio Conservation of the polarity of audio signals (Revision of AES26-1995), printing date October 11, 2004. Whether or not a CD player, any laser read media player, components, and speakers are inverting are objective facts that can be scientifically verified that don’t depend upon subjective opinions of a disc’s playback relative polarity to that impressed upon the disc.

When the lies and various intrigues of the 23 years since the inception of CDs are revealed for in all their ugly truths it won’t seem so surprising that the Absolute Reality of laser read media all being made in one polarity to be enjoyed by all those who will listen took that long to be revealed. There’s been a lot of great music hiding in plain hearing right under our collective ears if only we’d been hearing it in absolute polarity. Life is short and music is infinite so go listen and enjoy!

George S. Louis
Perfect Polarity Pundit™ Chief Polarity Buster of the Polarity Police™ who knows he right because his alter ego Father Audio Music Messiah™ is on his side who’s brought you the Second Coming of CDs.

A Speculation Regarding Perception of Detail

I’ve observed that if an audio system sounds good, no single component of that system can be all that bad nor can the polarity of the recording be played inverted from the live performance.

I have come to this conclusion because I haven’t been able to compensate for a bad component without causing some egregious sonic and musical tradeoffs. On the other hand, if a system really sounds awful it may only be a single component or the inverted polarity of the recording that’s causing the problem. For example, simple as it may seem, a single component could degrade the sound if its power cord is plugged into the wall outlet in less than the best sounding orientation.

A great sounding system is the result of its creator’s choice of components and musical judgment. The only true basis for their judgment is an understanding of music and a memory of unamplified acoustic instruments and voices in a reasonable acoustic venue and heard from an aesthetically correct distance.

I believe that every choice one makes in the design of an audio system involves tradeoffs, and the only question is which tradeoffs each of us finds acceptable. Around fifteen years ago, when I first became interested in the audibility and importance of absolute polarity, the speaker system that I’d created some ten years earlier and used for all my serious testing and musical enjoyment had second-order 12 dB Linkwitz-Riley crossovers. Despite its many advantages it also had one major disadvantage; it wasn’t phase coherent. Without phase coherence it was impossible for me to discern polarity or to hear music purely in or out of absolute polarity because that crossover requires some of its drivers to always play in opposite relative polarities to each other. As a result that speaker system was inconsistent with the single absolute polarity of live music. I listened to each separate driver connected first in one polarity and then the other. It wasn’t all that easy in the beginning to hear the differences, especially with my sealed back electrostatic tweeters. But since they crossed over at a relatively low 1.6 kHz I eventually decided that they, as well as all the other drivers, sounded better connected in absolute polarity. And next, with all the drivers playing in absolute polarity, I determined that I greatly preferred hearing music in absolute polarity. And from that day to this, I only find music played in absolute polarity to be truly emotionally satisfying and believe that the single most important sonic and musical aspect of a properly connected audio system is its ability to reproduce the polarity of live music.

Audio systems must at the very least satisfy the following three requirements to be suitable for rendering polarity judgments. 1. The playback polarity of the source is heard in the same polarity as the original recorded source. 2. The system is phase coherent and preferably minimum phase. In the analog domain the only classic crossover networks that permit a speaker to preserve the phase-polarity of the input signal are 6 dB first-order Butterworth. If you’re not sure about your speaker system, you may use single driver headphones. 3. The system’s frequency response deviates no more than +/- 3 dB from flat between 50 and 8 kHz which is an example of an application of the rule of 400 as defined in the first edition of the Audio Cyclopedia.

The gist of my speculation regarding the perception of detail and polarity is as follows: When one watches film, video or computer monitors the pictures are not seen as a series of separate still images and thank goodness! It’s because the frames change or refresh fast enough, typically 24, 30 or 60 plus times per second respectively. The actual flash rate may be up to120 frames per second, depending upon the medium, which causes our eye-brain’s persistence of vision to merge one still frame of a picture into the next.

Similarly, in audio, active noise-canceling headphones illustrate the ear-brain’s persistence of hearing with regard to high frequencies. The way that active noise-canceling headphones work is by picking up ambient noise with built-in microphones and then generating a signal that’s exactly out of phase to the ambient noise that, at least in principle, should cancel it completely. The specifications of active noise-canceling headphones indicate that they cancel bass frequencies much more effectively than high frequencies. And perhaps that’s true to some extent, but much of the reduction in their apparent effectiveness at higher frequencies may be the result of our ear-brain’s persistence of hearing that merges the rapidly alternating relative phase of high frequencies into one sound that has no apparent phase/polarity. Thus two tweeters playing high frequencies out of relative phase aren’t heard as canceling each other. Perhaps, this phenomena could be considered a corollary of the Fletcher-Munson effect whose curves describe the reduction of our ear’s sensitivity at both frequency extremes. Well wouldn’t it be great if noise-canceling headphones canceled the high frequencies as well as the bass frequencies? I’d surely like that and I bet you would too. So from Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, Cassius speaking, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars [equipment], but in ourselves…”

In my experience it’s exceptionally difficult if not impossible to determine solely by ear the phase of a tweeter’s electrical connection because the phase of the high frequency signal reverses too rapidly for our ear-brain to get a fix on it. In other words, when the highpass frequency of a tweeter is raised it eventually becomes so high that it exceeds our ear-brain’s ability to distinguish the phase of its electrical connection, and its rapid phase reversals merges both phases into a single sonic impression that’s without a discernable phase. For example, when two tweeters are playing a 10 kHz signal, if your head is a mere 3/10ths of an inch (a quarter wavelength) closer to one tweeter than the other, the signal from one tweeter arrives at your ears 180 degrees out of phase with the signal from the other tweeter. Although theoretically they should cancel each other perfectly, I believe most listeners will still hear the 10 kHz signal at full volume.

Before I state the conclusion of my theory you need to know something about the use of test equipment to determine polarity. The measurements of spectral content, frequency balance, dynamic range, distortion made on components playing music are the same regardless of the polarity of its playback. Were it otherwise, I wouldn’t have written this think piece about how music played out of absolute polarity affects our perception of detail. According to “The Wood Effect” many listeners can detect the polarity of asymmetrical musical signals even though test equipment and computer programs can’t. Therefore it shouldn’t seem so contrary to common sense, scientific analysis or the least bit mysterious that measurements frequently don’t correlate well with subjective listening tests. But on the other hand, perhaps some measurements will be more relevant to the way we hear when equipment is played in absolute polarity!

Now it follows, although the cutoff threshold may vary among individual listeners, as the sound’s frequency increases, above some point all listeners will perceive the music’s high frequencies as equally loud regardless of their actual polarity. But when music is heard out of absolute polarity, the midrange, bass, and even the high frequencies below some frequency, all tend to sound somewhat recessed, rather dry, and bleached out. Thus psycho-acoustically against a background of a sucked out and a papery dry sounding midrange, and a sucked out dry sounding bass, the high frequencies are heard in bold relief and sound a bit harsh, which also makes the bass and mid-range seem more detailed with faster transients, although they are not. And that can make the bass sound as if its attacks are quicker because what’s heard as the leading edge of its transients are really the sound of its harmonics which are actually reproduced by the mid-range and tweeter not the woofer. The result gives the impression of a greatly degraded stereo image that’s rather two-dimensional with a soundstage that’s vaguely focused and somewhat confused. But those effects are really only psychoacoustic artifacts of the music being played out of absolute polarity and not how acoustic instruments and voices sound live!

Here are some other examples of how the psychoacoustics of audio affects our perceptions, which sometimes seems counter intuitive, but nevertheless may resonate with some listeners. I believe when you add a subwoofer to a system it doesn’t necessarily sound as if you’ve added more bass, but more often than not, it sounds as if the highs have been reduced. Similarly, add a super tweeter to a system and it may sound as if there’s less bass not more highs. And if you turn off the bass/mid-bass altogether or reduce your mid-range, the sound seems more detailed when it’s not.

Music played out of phase coherence or out of absolute polarity may cause some listeners to wrongly attribute the low fidelity unpleasant sound to solid state devices or the digital process in general. This causes some listeners to prefer what they think is the more tuneful, full bodied, and rounded sound that they associate with tube equipment or vinyl records which they believe sounds more like a live performance, when in point of fact, all they really need to hear is music played in absolute polarity. High-fidelity equipment, tube or solid state, shouldn’t impose a sonic character of its own on the musical signal; its only tasks are to amplify the signal without distortion and control the speakers! How much tweaking and component swapping in our systems are only musically misinformed attempts to correct for music played out of absolute polarity that in Absolute Reality are bound to fail the test of high-fidelity? Does this suggest that the conclusions of some prior listening tests should be reevaluated and repeated with music that we know for sure is played in absolute polarity? I definitely think so, and that should include recordings as well, but each of you may answer that question for yourselves.

The Louis Objective Test of the Audibility of Relative Polarity

Someone, other than the test subject, compiles a 72-minute test CD-R or CD of 72 one-minute music tracks as follows: The first track will be a one-minute excerpt from a CD, record or tape recording of a two microphone stereo recording selected for its musical value but without regard to its actual polarity. The second track will be the same one-minute excerpt as the first track, but it will be recorded in the same polarity as the first track or in the opposite relative polarity to the first track as determined by the toss of a coin, heads the same and tails in the opposite polarity. The same procedure is followed for tracks 3 and 4 with different music and repeated again until 36 pairs of identical music tracks have been recorded to the CD for a total of 72-minutes. The person making the disc memorializes the polarity of each of the even numbered tracks relative to its odd numbered counterpart, and thus he has created a test CD for The Louis Objective Test of the Audibility of Relative Polarity. The playback system should use single driver headphones or at least a speaker system with consistent polarity, i.e. all drivers move in the same relative phase to each other. The actual polarity of any track or the playback system doesn’t affect the validity of the test because it’s only a test of the audibility of relative polarity not absolute polarity. A test of a person’s ability to discern the actual polarity isn’t necessary if they can’t pass the relative polarity test. However, test subjects who prove they discern absolute polarity would obviously pass a relative polarity test.

There’s also The Louis Objective Test of the Audibility of Absolute Polarity, but unlike the test for relative polarity one must know the polarity of the recordings that comprise the compilation test disc. I know how to establish the polarity of recordings, but since I’m not ready just yet to explain how that’s accomplished the more difficult test for the ability to discern actual polarity will have to wait just a little while longer.

The standard way to scientifically compare component A against component B is by double blind ABX testing. In order to make ABX testing a bit easier I’ve added non-X that allows the test subject to hear non-X but only knowing that it’s non-X. When the purpose of the test is to find whether component A or B is preferred, I have a more direct protocol. Component A and component B are played alternately double blind first one and then the other as many times as needed to state a preference. Then the sequence is repeated with the order of A and B chosen at random for the next set of alternating comparisons. The protocol is repeated until the results are statistically significant. This single test will determine directly both the test subject’s ability to distinguish A from B as well as preference.

Best regards,

George, Perfect Polarity Pundit™ Copyright 2006 All rights reserved by George S. Louis
I was afraid George would find this thread.
Hi George, this sounds very interesting, and thanks for the post. However, I'm confused: are you saying that there is one absolute polarity for all (or nearly all) digital media, and that the above label lists are bogus? This is, if you have speakers with 6 dB first-order Butterworth crossovers, and if your entire chain is polarity-consistent, if I understand you correctly.

I did experience some truth to the label list posted by Dopogue (even without my speakers exhibiting the 6 dB first-order Butterworth crossover, or so I believe). For example, on my system, most Deutsche Grammophone discs sound correct in inverted mode, whereas Philips Classical sound mostly better in normal mode!

This is based on some extensive comparisons over the last two weeks, all with classical music, and mostly chamber music (that's where I hear any polarity-based differences the easiest).
Based on your "I hear it when its done by the CD player but not when its done by the preamp," I believe your observations may be purely psychological manifestations. Either that or the phase invert button on your preamp is nonfunctional. Phase invert or phase reversal should both do the same thing, and doing it twice is like not doing it at all.

So, it shouldn't matter one iota whether polarity is inverted by the recording engineer that did your CD, your DAC, your amp, your preamp, or by reversing the speaker wires on your speakers.

Either you have established absolute polarity or you are reversed. Either the black wire connects to the red terminal and the red wire connects to the black terminal, or vice-versa. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but there is no halfway ground here...
My Wadia did this, And Yes it was always better on all recordings I had, I really don't know why, but in regular it would sound more direct and even compressed, in Invert it always added a little air depth, and bass was more Wooly and room filling, maybe it was a gimmick, kinda a Tube effect or how vinyl is superior in those aspects. I think I read somewhere my current Dac is just built with the inverted engaged and no choice is on it to change that so who knows, but I could be wrong. And I looked into it once before and saw some stuff on studio recordings and how large majorities of them are recorded out of phase or inverted whatever so again who knows, this industry seems impossible to nail down a definitive standard in all this stuff, and then you get to many cooks in the kitchen on top of it.
Edesilva: Could very well be that the phase invert button on my pre-amp is dysfunctional, as it does make a popping sound when I engage it. Who knows?

Undertow: Yes, "direct/non-inverted" can sound more direct and even compressed, but it depends on the label. E.g., most of my Philips Classical now sound wonderful in non-inverted/direct mode.

I'm really grateful for all the comments from everybody, I feel I can now enjoy my music again (and I know why!).