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Moving Overseas: Voltages and Format Conversions

by September 19, 2010
Step up to Step Down

Step up to Step Down

Audioholics.com has readers from all over the world. Often we report on devices and releases that are country specific. If an amp or processor is made for the US market, can it be taken to the UK or Australia? What about speakers, Blu-ray players, or even games systems and games? If you buy a game or a movie in another country, will it play on your machine? What about your home country games/movies on a player bought in another country? We're here to straighten all this out for you.


Let's start easy – power. Mains power (the power from the wall) has a frequency (denoted in hertz (Hz)) and a voltage (V). Generally power has a frequency of either 50 or 60Hz and a voltage of somewhere between 100V and 240V. Every piece of electronic equipment you own that has a plug will say, somewhere on it, what types of power it will accept. If it says 50/60Hz, 100-240v, you can simply buy an adapter and plug it into a wall just about anywhere in the world. Often, however, it won't. At that point, a step up or step down transformer is in order.

A step up/down transformer will convert the voltage into whatever you want (usually they only do one type of conversion so you'll have to make sure you buy the right one for your gear). This takes care of half of the problem but not all of it. The frequency, generally, isn't changed. This means that if your gear says 60Hz only and you've moved to a country whose power runs at 50Hz, you've got a problem.

But how big of one? It's only frequency? How bad can it be?

Well, that sort of depends. The transformers in each piece of equipment will vary on how tolerant they are of frequency. Some will operate for years without a problem, others will last seconds before overheating and dying. The only way to know for sure is to contact the manufacturer (or plug it in and hope). Generally speaking, however, if something isn't rated for the frequency of the local power, at best you'll reduce the life of the device by running it hot, at worst it'll smoke, spark, flame and create an electrocution hazard. Is there a solution? Yes, and you may already have it.

Power conditioners like the APC H15 are used to stabilize incoming power. They are very flexible when it comes to frequency but not so for voltages (well, they are but only within 15% or so of their prime voltage). While a freestanding transformer which converts voltage and frequency would be very expensive, a transformer which only does voltage isn't. Paired with a device like the APC H15, and you've got an easy way to run your sensitive home theater gear plus surge protection and multiple outlets to boot.

Content (DVD's/Blu-rays/games)

cdYou may have heard of the term “region encoding” before. What this does is essential tie the disc to a specific area of the world or “region.” You can usually look on the back cover of the disc and find the region to which it was encoded. There are region-free discs as well. With Blu-ray, if you see a graphic on the back of the box with the letters A,B,and C, that's a region free disc (it'll play with any player). For DVDs there are six regions plus a zero region which equates to region free. Again you can check the back of your disc boxes.

Games are a bit of different story. I'll leave older game systems alone since they aren't really making any new games for them anyhow. For Playstation 3 owners, you're in luck. Sony, in an unexpected move for the DRM-loving company, has all their games region free. That means if you own a PS3, you can buy a game in any country and it will work on your Playstation. Xbox 360 owners are in a different situation. There are three different regions, NTSC-J (Japan), NTSC-U (USA and Canada), and PAL (Europe and Australia). But just because your disc says NTSC doesn't mean it won't play on a PAL console (or vise versa). On top of that, games sold in some countries won't work on other consoles ever though they have the same markings. The only way to know for sure it to search the Internet. The Wii is similar to the Xbox 360 with the same three regions. All first party games on the Wii are region locked though third-party games may not be. Again, the Internet is your friend in this case.

Players (DVD/Blu-ray/Game Consoles)

consolesAs you might expect, many DVD and Blu-ray players and all game consoles are region encoded. While the PS3 has a region for purposes of Blu-ray and DVD playback, the games are all region free. The Xbox 360 is region encoded for DVD playback and the Wii can't play DVDs at all. While there are quite a few region free DVD players out there, Blu-ray players are much more rare. Most of the solutions tend to be hacks and workarounds though there standalone units are starting to be released.

While you'll want to check out what power your imported DVD player requires, a second thing to consider is NTSC to PAL (and back again) conversion. While a player may be region free, that doesn't always mean that it can handle both PAL and NTSC discs. Some players have built in converters (like all the Oppo's on the market) but most don't.

Home Theater Gear (Receivers/Processors/Amps/TVs)

umc1The most obvious problem with importing home theater gear is power. What you'll find is the Pro Audio gear and gear from smaller manufacturers tends to be more likely to accept a wider range of power. When someone like Denon or Yamaha makes a receiver, they can tailor it for a specific country. When an Internet Direct manufacturer makes an amp or processor, they tend to have to be more magnanimous about their power requirements. We've seen Pro and Internet gear with anything from a switch on the back to a reversible fuse box which changes the power requirements. The thing to remember about devices with large power draws like amps and receivers is that you'll either want to ensure compatibility with the mains power or have an transformer well above the max draw of the unit. This is to ensure that instantaneous spikes in power draw (like when you first turn on a receiver or amp and the speakers thump) don't blow fuses or reduce your transformer to a smoking pile of molten metal.

There are two additional issues to consider. The first one goes back to power. If you have a piece of gear that has a clock on it (like an alarm clock or DVD/VCR) and you are connecting it up to power with a different frequency, the clock may no longer work properly. While this is not always the case, many times the clock in such devices are regulated by the power frequency. So if you have a clock that is expecting 60Hz power and you take it to a 50Hz country, it'll run slow.

Second is your TV. While it may accept any sort of power, the TV standards differ from country to country. While in the US TV signals display 60 frames per second, in the UK and Australia (as well as others) it is 50 frames per second. Also, they use different tuners in different countries. You can usually check the display specs as it will specify what formats it is compatible with. This is one area where a projector is a good choice. Most projectors (like many high dollar items) can accept any sort of power and are compatible with just about every major video format. So if you are looking to import or export a display, make sure it is compatible with not only the power but the video format.

Gadgets and Computers

ipadOut of all the things you might import, gadgets and computers tend to be the easiest. While you may not understand the instructions, they tend to have power supplies that are compatible with a variety of types of power (not always the case but often it is). Just about any device that has a “power brick” (like most laptops) will be 100-240v, 50/60Hz. If you're not sure about your particular device, you can often email the company or even do an image search online for the particular power supply (very helpful for computers).

We've known of many people that have imported everything from computers to MP3 players to cell phones from overseas successfully. The problem you'll run into, of course, is a lack of warranty or technical support. But if a gadget catches your eye and you absolutely can't wait for it to be released in your home country, a few minutes of research will let you know if importing it will be as easy as buying an adapt or or if you'd be throwing your money away.


Importing gear from other countries or taking your gear out of your home country requires a bit of patience and research on your part. It'll take a bit of time to figure out what will work with a plug adapter and what will require a transformer of some sort. You'll have to decide if importing the gear is worth the time and expense. If you move out of the county, you're going to find that a lot of what you have will work with little expense on your part. You may find that it is simply cheaper to sell what you have before you leave and re-buy it in the new country. Regardless, paying attention to the power required and a few other tidbits and you won't be throwing your money away on a piece of gear that won't work in your country.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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