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December 9, 2004 12:01 AM

Broken: Stereo hookups (FIX included)

Dave Collins writes:

Whenever I hooked up speakers on my old stereo, I faced a dilemma in hooking up the Left and Right speaker wires:

L   R

Hm. Do they mean 'Left/Right' from where I'm hooking it up, so the left speaker is on my left, or do they mean 'Left/Right' while facing the stereo when in use, so the left speaker is currently on my right?

But my new Panasonic stereo receiver is not broken - how refreshing. It's actually cleverly designed.

They've set it up like this:

R   L

Ah! They have rendered the ambiguity moot. The only way the hookup makes any sense now is for each speaker to connect its closest corresponding terminal. Thus the speaker on my left will hook up to the terminal on the left, (which is labelled R, which indicates they mean: 'Right side from the POV of the front of the stereo').

How usable.


L means "the speaker to your left when you are sitting in front of the stereo listening to it". I never thought that was unclear. *shrug*

Posted by: Jacques Troux at December 9, 2004 02:17 AM


Posted by: dusoft at December 9, 2004 06:03 AM

But it does make sense to position the sockets so that the wires don't cross, it makes it obvious what's correct.

Posted by: Reed at December 9, 2004 08:33 AM

Also, it's great to see a post on this is broken about a simple but real usability problem, and it's solution.

Posted by: Reed at December 9, 2004 08:47 AM

In the world of stereo, left and right don't really mean directions---they refer to channels. "Everyone knows" that the people who mixed the audio expect the left channel to be positioned toward the listeners left ear, and vice versa.

A clear design might read "to left speaker" instead of just "L".

A much more interesting case is MIDI---the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Most MIDI devices (like electric pianos) have a MIDI OUT and a MIDI IN port. So if you want to connect your keyboard to a computer so you can play things on the keyboard and record them on a computer, you have to run a cable from the keyboard's MIDI OUT port to the PC's MIDI IN port. Note that while this makes sense descriptively, in practice lots of people just connect like descriptions to like descriptions (as you do with stereos) and have problems.

Posted by: Robby Slaughter at December 9, 2004 08:51 AM

A better case of breakage is the way the lettering on the backs of some consumer electonics is commonly black raised letters on a black background. So when you are peeking around the back in even moderate lighting conditions, you can't tell which spigot is which. It's usually the case with cheaper equipment, but a friend has a $1200 Denon bookshelf system that suffers from this.

Posted by: Citizen Of Trantor at December 9, 2004 11:21 AM

On older stereos, instead of having ports marked as Line-in, Line-out, they were REC and PLAY. I could never remember which were which and in relation to what.

Posted by: Rob at December 9, 2004 11:42 AM

R means the RED plug and L means the one left over.

Posted by: Bluie at December 9, 2004 12:28 PM


Posted by: dovy at December 9, 2004 02:27 PM

Some excellent points here, especially where attempts have been made to fix the problem. Color coding is a definite plus where the standard is used (red and white, and you don't have to worry which is R and which is L as long as you match the colors), but I've seen folks get confused when faced with red and black, red and green, or even solid line and dashed line on the cables.

Robby Slaughter points out a major mapping problem: How do you designate whether a connection system is like to like or dissimilar. A/V systems are difficult for many people because they MIX the two: Red to red and white to white is a like to like match, whereas each output goes to an input is a dissimilar match--it won't work to go out to out and in to in, as many people try to do.

Posted by: Erich at December 9, 2004 02:30 PM

I had a similar problem years ago when cooking ranges had burners labeled, "Left Front," "Right Rear," and so on. Front and rear were from the range's perspective, as the front burners were nearest the oven door. But left and right were from my perspective as I faced the range. Thankfully, newer ranges are labeled with pictograms, which are much more intuitive.

Posted by: Alan Selk at December 9, 2004 03:02 PM

My speakers say Left and Right, and are vertically placed. That makes it easier, and no crossing wires. Also, it also has the red and black coloring. It's about 10+ years old.

I guess they don't make 'em like they used to...

Posted by: never mind that at December 9, 2004 07:13 PM

My soundcard, Creative's Soundblaster Audigy, has a golden steel plate instead of the usual silvery steel visible in the back of my PC, where the inputs and sound outputs are accessed. Normally soundcard ports are color-coded-- green is speaker-out, red is microphone, etc. In my case, there whole thing is chromed a golden color, and no colors on the ports. There are tiny icons, but they're etched into the shiny plate and look quite similar to one another (a tiny arrow pointing into a series of consecutive circles, indicating input, looks a helluva lot like the same icon with the arrow pointing out). Either way, you can only see them if you're in even illumination, the kind of light that is never ever found behind a computer unless you take the thing up on your desk and turn it around. I dread every time I have to plug something in, much less try to diagnose, say, whether my microphone is working or not, as I did last week.

Posted by: LAN3 at December 9, 2004 08:41 PM

I may expose myself as audio-illiterate here, but what does it really matter if you plug the left speaker into the right channel and vice versa? Any stereo effect will still be present, just inverted.

Posted by: Brian at December 10, 2004 10:24 AM

Brian: If you have your DVD/VCR/TV hooked up to your stereo, it makes a huge difference. If something on video is happening to one side of the screen and the sound comes out on the other side, it just ain't right.

Also, reverse wiring would make the seldom-used balance adjustment work backwards.

Posted by: Tug at December 10, 2004 11:21 AM

_@_v - on a similar vein - i often make up custom patch cords and for no good reason you can get red and black rca plugs but no white or yellow (for video) ones - in case you need to make up or repair a connection cord.

Posted by: she-snailie_@_v at December 11, 2004 02:12 AM

Huh. Comments are a little eyebrow-raising...

"L means "the speaker to your left when you are sitting in front of the stereo listening to it". I never thought that was unclear. *shrug*"

Textbook usability error #1: "everybody else sees things the same way I do"

"In the world of stereo, left and right don't really mean directions---they refer to channels. "Everyone knows" that the people who mixed the audio expect the left channel to be positioned toward the listeners left ear, and vice versa."

Textbook usability error #2: "users are industry experts"

"A clear design might read to 'left speaker' instead of just 'L'."

Textbook usability error #3: Make an arbitrary change that leaves it just as broken as before.

(Actually, this one isn't a usability problem at all, no professional would make such a mistake. This is a mistake specifically reserved for non-usability people who *think* they can design interactive systems.)

(Wow, this post came across as really arrogant eh?)

Here, I'll take a shot at myself:

Textbook USER error: Did you RTFM*???

*(read the effin' manual)

Posted by: DaveC426913 at December 11, 2004 12:25 PM

I didn't mean to imply that everyday users of stereos are industry experts. An interesting question though, would be to find out if people know anything about the definition of the word "stereo", beyond that thing which plays music.

If they don't (which I am now thinking is probably the case), then I am defintely wrong in that most people know that there is a left and a right speaker.

Brian's comment is nice though, because the system does not stop working (unlike MIDI) if you plug in the speakers backwards. Sure, as Tug points out, movies may seem strange, but you will still hear the audio.

I like the vertical stacking idea. But of couse, I would prefer all speakers to be wireless. ;-)

Posted by: Robby Slaughter at December 12, 2004 08:17 AM

It is possible to think too much, and get yourself caught in a recursive loop. My dog is obviously thinking way too much when she turns round and round and round before lying down.

Posted by: E C Hoelzer at December 17, 2004 03:41 PM

It just goes to matter how obvious something may be, somebody will get it wrong.....

Posted by: Please Stop Me at December 30, 2004 09:17 PM

What's worse is people sharing "surround sound test" MP3 files on file sharing networks. The only way those can POSSIBLY work is as a 6-channel WAVE file. This really IS broken -- as broken as claiming to have a 6-wheel-drive motorcycle.

Posted by: somebody at January 16, 2005 03:37 PM

I have speaker wires hooked up to a box that is then supposed to be connected to the receiver. The only problem is, is that i can only get one speaker to work when I plug it in. I don't know what to do with the + or -. Someone help please!

Posted by: Samo at March 31, 2005 07:41 PM

Please Help. i was connecting a bazooka tube dirrectly to my rear speakers. I was trying to pull the plug off the bottom of the speaker to connect the subwoofer wire to the speaker. The wires that connect inside the rear speaker ripped off. How do i reconnect them so i get sound out of the speaker?


Posted by: dave at March 23, 2006 10:03 PM

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