Graham's Blog Archive

Cable Polarity?

Posted by Graham
November 11th, 2012

Cable polarity always gets a mixed reception – some strongly disagree that swapping cable direction can make any difference to the music – then there are others who say they’ve witnessed a difference.

Originally I was highly skeptical about cable direction and its effect on the music, but having witnessed how interconnects and even speaker cables produce different results when plugged one way round or the other, I have to conclude it does make a difference. I know some of you will instantly laugh out loud at what I just said and I may have lost all credibility with you for that, but please read a little further – I don’t want to force my opinions on anybody.

At this moment in time I have absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest how this phenomenon exists, but in blind listening tests without any hint of suggestive persuasion from me, the two people I work with have also noticed the difference.

Subjective Testing

I’ve played a lot of different music from a number of different sources into a few amplifiers/headphone amplifiers using two different pairs of loudspeakers and several headphones so I think I probably covered all the bases equipment wise.

Two tracks demonstrate the effect well: Genesis / Los Endos, from Trick of the Tale, and Fleetwood Mac / Tusk. This music may not suit everybody’s tastes but serves to demonstrate.

On Los Endos after the largely quiet introduction the percussion comes in with considerable syncopation, Bongo drums kick in and there’s a strong electric bass line. Building onto which there’s the keyboards and then the whole thing is reinforced by floor toms. It builds to a crescendo whilst the complete image is sucked to centre stage, and then bursts back out to stereo again.

That’s with cables one way round. Reversing the cables the sense of timing is gone, the bass line is “plodding” as if it cannot keep up (but obviously does – it just sounds that way). The various high frequency percussive sounds are out of context image wise, and the stereo image goes nowhere at all.

Leaving the cables “reversed” on Tusk the image is scattered like it would be if the speakers were to be wired out of phase. The initial drumming sounds more boxy than it usually sounds, the vocal harmonising sounds very congested, and the beginning of the electric guitar which is quite fuzzed at first sounds more distorted. The crazy drumming section sounds like it’s on another record playing out of sync, and the words “real savage life” are almost indistinguishable.

Reversing them back, the whole track simply “works”.

Does It Happen Every Time?

This has been tried off LP via my phono stages and off computer from other sources, both via my prototype USB streamer and via my prototype DAC by coaxial connection from a decent sound card.

Signals have been inverted and non-inverted (absolute phase) without any observed change from the above.

The test has been tried on both our CuSat50 cables and our new speaker cables which are completely different to each other in construction. However, some cables don’t sound right whichever way round we try.

Conclusion

So what’s the conclusion? Why does this happen? My answer – I have absolutely no idea – not a clue! People have suggested it’s the crystalline structure of the wires, well maybe, but I’m not convinced it’s that. Neither am I convinced about deep freezing (cryogenics).

However, I have been reading about insulation properties and how charging and polarization can exist in polymers due to the interface between insulation layers of different compositions.

I hope one day to be able to offer a proper scientific explanation but for now we can only listen to every cable and mark them for the direction which we think brings the best results.