I can describe it in a non-technical way. If you reverse the wires on one of your front speakers, the two speakers will be out of phase. That is, one speaker cone will be moving forward while the other moves backwards. The phase adjustment allows you to set the sub so the sound waves are in phase with your other speakers. Here is a page that describes an easy method to properly set the phase: http://www.tubeaudio.com/page15.html
Hope that helps. Sorry if it isn't the best explanation.
Use a sound pressure level meter, the proper phase setting on the speaker will give you the most sound pressure level at the seating position. Set up the sound pressure level meter at the seating position and choose a reference spl such as 85 dB, put in a test disc such as Avia or Digital Video Essentials or just run tones from the receiver if you don't have a test disk or are lazy like me. Once you get your tone check the spl meter while adjusting the phase. The proper phase will give you the most spl as measured by the meter.
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