You’ve probably seen at least one movie or TV show where a bomb must get diffused. One brave soul goes toward the device, chooses the red wire, and clips it.
In most stories, that high-pressure scene becomes a climax that lets you walk away from the experience feeling like you had a good time.
When you enter the world of speaker polarity, you’ll need to do something else with that red wire. Most equipment setups require you to connect the positive terminal from the amp to the same one on the speaker.
That means the red wires connect the positive terminals, while the black ones serve the negative side.
If you reverse it by having the positive terminal on the amplifier connected to the speaker’s negative one, you’ll almost always experience an adverse performance.
How to Test Speaker Polarity and Does Speaker Polarity Matter?
You can test speaker polarity by touching a 9-volt battery to the speaker’s terminals. If you see the cone move out and then in, you have the correct polarity. When the movement is inward first instead of outward, you’ll need to swap the wires around on the battery before testing again.
It’s not unusual to have the speaker wires get crossed when connecting an amplifier to your system. If they’re not correctly labeled for polarity, you can easily connect the positive to the negative or vice-versa.
When that situation occurs, you’re causing the speaker to be out of phase. Although it doesn’t always cause problems, you typically hear a few audio oddities when listening to songs, TV audio, or movies through your home entertainment center.
If you’re encountering any of the following issues, it is likely due to an inadvertent wire crossing between your amplifier and speaker.
■ What Happens If My Speaker Wires Get Crossed?
|Zero Bass Response:||• The bass response from your speakers gets reduced 99.9% of the time when your equipment is out of phase. |
• This problem occurs because the lower frequencies rely on air pressurization around the unit to perform.
• Since the cone moves inward instead of outward, the softer tones lose their impact and attack.
|Poor Audio Imaging:||• When a speaker pair can project audible representations of instruments in front of you, the result is called “audio imaging.” |
• If the equipment isn’t wired correctly, the polarity problem creates sonic disorganization.
• You’ll have the mid-range in the tweeter and the bass, causing the stereo information to collapse.
|Vague Highs:||• The higher frequencies in the audio become esoteric with a polarity issue, causing them to lose their focus. |
• The best way to describe the impact is that they become airy, as if you expanded the stage where the music is playing.
• All drivers receive performance impacts due to the miswiring, creating thinner sounds with less depth.
|Audio Cancelation:||• When two speakers work together in the same area, one that is in-phase will compete for the same frequencies as the unit that wasn’t wired correctly. |
• Although the music still sends the information, you won’t hear the bass because the sound waves cancel each other out.
• This error is often seen during automotive installations, but it can also occur in home entertainment centers.
The good news is that an inverted polarity created by incorrect wiring will not damage your amplifier or speakers. Although some myths are published online that suggest you can injure the cone or blow out the electronics, the voltages are not different in the situation.
Your speakers receive the same power whether they’re correctly wired or in an inverted installation.
The worst thing that will happen to your audio system is a lack of acoustical prowess. That’s why it is better to stick with the standard wiring configuration.
What Are the Different Ways to Test Speaker Polarity?
Although the effects of an inverted polarity are not usually noticeable if the speakers all have the same wiring, it is a best practice to have each unit wired individually when connecting it to the amplifier.
That process takes a little longer, but it also ensures more accuracy. You’ll have the time it takes to connect the wires to the appropriate terminals.
It’s also much easier to have labels or colored wires to ensure that your polarity is correct. If you keep the red with the positive and black with the negative, you’ll follow the standard setup for most home entertainment systems.
Suppose you’ve run into a situation where you’re unsure of what wires connect to the terminals because they’re unlabeled, run through a wall, or contained within a conduit. In that case, it helps to test the connections before finalizing them.
■ The 9V Battery Methodology
If you have a 9-volt battery at home, you have a fast, low-cost way to test if your speaker polarity is correct.
Once you have the battery available, you’ll want to ensure that the speaker’s wires are accessible. They’ll need to have a small portion of the protective coating removed to expose the bare components beneath.
After you have all of those elements together, follow these steps to test the speaker polarity.
- Place one of the speaker wires on the positive terminal of the 9-volt battery.
- Set the other wire on the negative terminal of the battery.
- Once both wires are connected, you’ll start to see movement from the speaker cone. Please pay close attention to the way that it moves. If the first move is outward (toward you), you’ve got the positive terminal connected to the same one on the speaker. If it moves inward first, then you have reversed the polarity.
- The center motion from the cone is only slight. If you missed the initial movement, disconnect the wires and start again from the beginning.
■ The Multimeter Methodology
If you have a multimeter at home, you can use it as a current source when the equipment gets set at a low ohms range.
That means you can set the tool at the lowest range it produces to measure the speaker’s ohms.
When you make the connections, you’ll see the movement occur in the same way that happens if you’re using the 9-volt battery for this process.
You’ll need to compare two or more speakers to ensure that you don’t have a phase problem with your setup. As long as the cones move inward or outward, you’ll know how the wiring setup is for the equipment.
The one exception to that rule when using a multimeter is if you have a piezoelectric speaker. Either the battery in your tool won’t be strong enough to get the reading that you need, or the product is enclosed so that you can’t see its movement.
If you decide that this option is the best choice since a multimeter is a versatile tool to use at home, the Klein Tools MM600 HVAC unit is an excellent choice.
It measures up to 1000V AC or DC with a CAT IV 600V and CAT III 1000V safety rating. It’s built to withstand drops from over six feet while standing up to the daily wear and tear of frequent use.
■ The Speaker Tester Methodology
You can find several tools available for sale online that can help you safely test your speaker’s polarity. Although several cheap models are available, the PAC TL-PTG2 Tone Generator and Speaker Polarity Tester is an excellent investment to consider.
The PAC tester delivers an output range of up to 9v at a variable 13 to 10 kHz tone. It includes the 9V speaker popper for testing cone movement, along with alligator clips and RCA for a secure connection.
If you forget to turn the tester off after checking speaker polarities, the device initiates an auto-shutoff to extend your battery life. The rotary control knobs make it easy to control your tone or level adjustments, while its small size ensures that you can hold onto it without much difficulty.
Once you have the PAC tester or a similar product, you can follow these steps to see if your speakers are wired correctly.
- Connect the tester using the gator clips that come with it, the RCA connection, or whatever style is included with your product.
- Turn the unit on so that you can obtain a reading.
- The knobs turn the frequencies to what your speaker’s primary responsibilities are for broadcasting. Lower tones work better for subwoofers, while the higher range is for seeing if your tweeters are operating correctly. For the PAC tester, the left knob is the one that controls this element.
- On the bottom right is the speaker test button. You’ll use this option to see if the positive and negative terminals are inverted or attached correctly. The cone should move so that you can see how the movement initiates.
Although the PAC TL-PTG2 Tone Generator and Speaker Polarity Tester would be better with a formal on-off switch, it gets the job done so that you know your connections are solid.
■ The Smartphone Polarity Testing Methodology
Is your sound system already wired? Can you pass an audio signal from the input to the output? If you answered in the affirmative for both questions, that means you can use a smartphone app to test your speaker’s polarity.
Several excellent apps are available through Google Play or the Apple App Store. The best options connect the audio output from your mobile device to your system’s input.
Once you’ve secured the connection, place your smartphone’s mic in front of the speaker that you want to check. The app will send a positive impulse through the system, allowing you to see if the polarity is correct or inverted.
After you check for cone movement, you can determine if it is necessary to rewire some or all of your audio systems.
■ The Online Testing Methodology
If you don’t want to download an app for your polarity testing needs, you can load up a website or online tool to your mobile device to accomplish the same goal.
When you use an online resource, you’ll want to ensure that you have three variations of in-phase and out-of-phase test files to use.
- You’ll need a “rumble” sound for the bass frequencies that test whether everything is wired correctly.
- A 75 Hz tone ensures that you can handle the higher levels of the lower sounds.
- With a guitar variation, you’ll get to hear if the musical instrument performs as it should with your current wiring scheme.
Although the focus is on speakers, it’s still important to think about relative polarity when wearing earbuds, earphones, or headphones. Most of these items get correctly wired at the factory, but the cheaper brands don’t always successfully deliver on their promises.
If you play the test files using your headphones, you should hear a clear and focused sound. When the audio sounds off (because the speakers are far enough away to avoid cancelation), you might need to have them rewired so that you have the correct polarity.
Does It Really Matter How I Connect My Polarity?
The only problem you’ll encounter with an audio system is if you have more than one speaker connected with different polarities.
If you have one with the standard setup (positive to positive) and another with an inverted connection (positive to negative), the sine waves cancel each other out.
Why does that happen? It’s because the sound waves won’t interact the same way with your system. After all, one cone moves inward while the other goes outward. That’s how you get them to be out of phase.
For everything else, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of having the recording studio’s equipment matching what your setup ends up becoming.
Is there any way to tell that the microphone diaphragm at the studio was pushed inward from the positive portion of a sound wave? Even if there are positive numbers in the recording, that doesn’t mean you’ll get the same waveform result out of your amp.
About half of all recordings have the possibility of being recorded in a reversed phase, which means it doesn’t matter if you hook up the speakers using the standard method or the inverted one.
The primary issue you’ll want to focus on with your wiring is to ensure you don’t have both polarities included in your setup. That issue is especially problematic for speakers contained within the same cabinet.
Final Thoughts About Speaker Polarity
If you’re wondering if speaker polarity matters, it does – but it doesn’t at the same time. For me, I’ve always found that the standard setup works the best because of how modern music streams.
Even though a recording studio might have an inverted setup, the difference between a complete standard wiring scheme or one that uses the reverse is virtually undetectable.
Unless you’re trying to create a Dolby Atmos experience with high-end speakers that use the most comprehensive frequency range possible, the average person won’t detect the difference.
Since everyone has personal listening preferences to consider, here’s what I’d recommend. First, hook up everything using the standard method (positive to positive) to see if you like how the audio sounds.
Then use the reverse methodology (positive to negative) on all of your speakers to see if that makes the audio sound better.
After you’ve compared the two sequences, stick with the one you prefer.
The only thing you don’t want to do is create an out-of-phase problem. You won’t like the results, and it’ll cause extra work to fix.