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Out of Phase

A phrase used to characterize two or more signals whose phase relationship with each other is such that when one is at its positive peak the other is at (or near) its negative peak. This is also commonly referred to as being 180 degrees out of phase.

Phase is a relative value that is measured in degrees (like angles). 90 degrees out of phase is more out of phase than 80 degrees, but less than 100 degrees. 180 degrees out of phase is completely backwards, which is characterized by one signal’s highest peak correlating with another’s most negative peak. Most signals are not entirely in phase with each other, and it’s just as rare for them to be perfectly (180 degrees) out of phase. But people generally say “out of phase” to mean approximately 180 degrees out of phase. People also frequently say “out of phase” when the more technically correct term to use would be “polarity reversed.” Phase implies a time delay, where one signal lags behind another one to some degree. Polarity refers to one signal being “backwards” from another. An example of this would be the “phase” switch on many mic preamps and mixing boards. Generally all this switch does is reverse pins two and three on the XLR connector entering the preamp, thereby reversing the “polarity” of the signal. There is no time delay of the signal. Nevertheless this is often referred to as “out of phase.” A similar thing happens when you reverse the polarity of the speaker leads to one speaker in a two-speaker setup. That speaker is now operating with the opposite polarity of the other. No time delay was introduced, yet we often refer to this as “out of phase.” This confusion occurs because when viewed on a display like an oscilloscope waveforms that are 180 degrees out of phase with each other will not look any different than two that are polarity reversed. Sonically the difference is generally pretty minute as well. So for all practical purposes the two terms can be used interchangeably.

While it is technically true that any two signals not 100% in phase with each other could be referred to by the somewhat generic phrase, “out of phase,” we generally don’t use that terminology until the signals approach a 180 degree phase relationship with each other.

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