How do you judge your system's neutrality?



Here’s an answer I’ve been kicking around: Your system is becoming more neutral whenever you change a system element (component, cable, room treatment, etc.) and you get the following results:

(1) Individual pieces of music sound more unique.
(2) Your music collection sounds more diverse.

This theory occurred to me one day when I changed amps and noticed that the timbres of instruments were suddenly more distinct from one another. With the old amp, all instruments seemed to have a common harmonic element (the signature of the amp?!). With the new amp, individual instrument timbres sounded more unique and the range of instrument timbres sounded more diverse. I went on to notice that whole songs (and even whole albums) sounded more unique, and that my music collection, taken as a whole, sounded more diverse.

That led me to the following idea: If, after changing a system element, (1) individual pieces of music sound more unique, and (2) your music collection sounds more diverse, then your system is contributing less of its own signature to the music. And less signature means more neutral.

Thoughts?

P.S. This is only a way of judging the relative neutrality of a system. Judging the absolute neutrality of a system is a philosophical question for another day.

P.P.S. I don’t believe a system’s signature can be reduced to zero. But it doesn’t follow from that that differences in neutrality do not exist.

P.P.P.S. I’m not suggesting that neutrality is the most important goal in building an audio system, but in my experience, the changes that have resulted in greater neutrality (using the standard above) have also been the changes that resulted in more musical enjoyment.
bryoncunningham
This is correct. A system that makes different recordings sound more distinct from eachother is more neutral than one that imposes its own sugar coated coloration on everything.
Just because I am in a contrary mood tonight, I can't resist pointing out that this goes against any reasonable definition of the word neutral (making things sound more distinct from each other, I mean). I have always thought that this is the silliest of the many silly terms batted around to describe sound. Someone should really come up with a better term for that phenomena.
I don't think it's a silly term when applied in this way. I suppose you could think of alternate silly terms -- clean, unobtrusive, honest, flat. Neutrality in this application isn't referring to making things sound more distinct, but that things sound more distinct because of the lack of signature (neutrality) of the component(s) producing them.
This is an excellent topic to throw around Byron. For me, it is absolutely essential that Neutrality be defined a certain way. How does one know that what they are hearing, is not influenced by any coloration? You have to know what the intended original piece sounds like. The way I started was using equipment that was noted in the industry for representing true unadulterated signals. Studio equipment. Specifically speakers. As my experience increased with time, familiarity with recordings became a standardized way to help interpret any subjective additions to the way these original recordings were engineered to sound. Discerning neutrality takes a while to figure out. There is no formula. It's almost like research, in that you need to learn how to rule out variables that influence the contolled conditions. A lot of study is required in reading, listening, trial and error,and communication with every source available to you to help you achieve this level of realization. Many individuals have only the experiences of others in making their own conclusions as to this and that . And thats OK. But, there has to be a WANTING to understand for oneself how these different equipment, technologies could play a role in defining the original intended source. How an engineer takes "NEUTRALITY" and makes it into wonderful sounding music is THE key to high-end audio. Not by the addition of coloration. Sure, a well extended lower frequency response may sound nice, or a rolled off sugnature may help "tame" the upper frequency curves, but is that what the music is supposed to sound like?

I think the term defines itself. Does a piece add to or subtract from what a particular sound indeed sounds like?

I don’t think even the Swiss are completely neutral.

Bring into the room a guitar, symbols, clarinet, sax or trombone. Play ‘em. Then play your solo music pieces. That should help you determine how neutral your system is…. How close to the actual natural sound of the instrument is another thing. I suppose too you can use tuning forks or similar things with known specific tones… if you have those items on hand in well recorded formats.

But I feel transparency a more apt term when someone aims at trying to convey the influence of a piece of equipment. Often though I feel the two words are interposed…. But shouldn’t be. After all, they’re spelled differently so they should have disassociated indications.

I’ve often wondered too, who wrote the audio terminology dictionary, where’s it at, and just who read it?

I personally don’t believe as is said so often, exact neutrality or absolute transparency exists in audio equipment on the whole, and is rather mere perceptions of those auditioners or previewers who attempt to tell another as to it’s performance in words only.

It’s very much like explaining an orgasm.

How was that for you? Well, It was very nice but I felt it a touch too much towards the cool side of neutral honey.

Usually another response follows, like, ‘What the hell does that mean?’

BTW I’d not recommend articulating such an experience to your significant other as such, if asked. She had no idea what I had just said. I had no idea why I even said it.

Suffice it to say I’ve never had a bad one but some have been better than others.

For my own money, I’ll determine my version of warm, neutral, and transparent as close to what I perceive the popular philosophies on them to be and my own exp with different devices. I really can’t see how one can go about it otherwise as we can’t all hear everything as it ‘was’ heard which promulgated the pursuant articles, notes, threads, or casual conversations like these. So instead of saying I’m neutral on the topic, I’ll say “I’m Swiss.”

Perhaps we should all quantify our mention of those terms too, by saying, a thing is ‘as’ neutral or as transparent as I’ve had the opportunity to experience in this or that regard. Pinning those words down to being absolutes is well intended I’m sure, but off the mark a good bit.

Truth be told, if the aim of a systems sound is to be as natural or as lifelike as one may manage, those words take care of themselves eventually. If it is to be merely satisfying to it’s owner, they remain quite arbitrary terms.
Thanks for the responses so far. One point of clarification. My original post was not intended to conceptually define 'neutral,' as one or two people suggested. It was intended to operationalize the term 'neutral.' This is not merely semantic, as I hope you will see...

DEFINING 'NEUTRAL'
The 2nd definition of 'neutral' in my desktop dictionary is: "having no strongly marked or positive characteristics or features." It is in this sense that the word is used, perhaps somewhat metaphorically, to describe a component that is free from coloration (another metaphor). So, a conceptual definition of 'neutral' for audio might be something like, 'free from coloration.'

Of course, no component is completely free from coloration, and some are more colored than others, which raises the question, relevant to audiophiles: HOW DO I KNOW if I'm choosing components that are less colored? In some cases it is obvious, but in many cases it is not (think: cables). In cases where it is not obvious, answering the question "HOW DO I KNOW which of these components is more neutral?" requires you to operationalize the term 'neutral,' which brings us to...

OPERATIONALIZING THE TERM 'NEUTRAL'
Operationalizing a term is a matter of identifying some observable conditions that reliably indicate the presence of a characteristic and determine its value (i.e. how much of it is there is). Blindjim was proposing a way to operationalize the term 'neutral' when he wrote:

"Bring into the room a guitar, symbols, clarinet, sax or trombone. Play ‘em. Then play your solo music pieces. That should help you determine how neutral your system is…"

I think that is a great way to operationalize the term 'neutral,' and it would be a highly informative test for any audio system. However, since it's not very feasible for many audiophiles, I proposed a more actionable way to operationalize the term 'neutral,' in terms of (1) the sonic uniqueness of individual pieces of music; and (2) the sonic diversity your collection of music.

I will be the first to admit that I am a bit of a terminological fetishist, but I don't think this topic is merely mental masturbation, for the following reason: These kinds of terms refer to the concepts that help us understand what we are hearing and why, and that is an essential step to choosing audio components that result in long term fulfillment. As I mentioned in the final postscript of my original post, the changes in my audio system that have resulted in greater neutrality (operationalized the way I proposed) are the very same changes that resulted in more musical enjoyment.
Neutrality by definition is 'without difference'.
By it's unwillingness to be pulled into conflict while still holding a morally superior position.

Alternately, by comparison to other systems using the same source material.
"My original post was intended... to operationalize the term 'neutral.'"

"Neutrality by definition is 'without difference'."

"...by comparison to other systems using the same source material." (Emphasize "same source")

Apart from the usual judgments regarding faithfulness to source, if neutrality is defined as a lack of difference, then neutrality requires that analog and digital sources converge. Otherwise we would have separate definitions of neutrality. Elimination of differences between analog & digital sources does not of itself prove neutrality. However, elimination of differences between the two may be considered a reasonable condition for neutrality.

To "operationalize" neutrality(at least regarding selection of source equipment), one should listen closely for differences between the formats and strive through upgrades toward convergence.
since all components are inaccurate, one cannot achieve perfections. coloration will always be present. perhspas a better term to use is a flat frequency response. get a spectral analyzer, pink or white noise and measure deviations from a flat frequency response. such an approach is objective. the other ideas are completely subjective and since perception differs, there will be disagreement. stick to objective terms which can be measured when dealing with accuracy, neutrality and transparency.

i must admit i am in the subjective camp. if i like the sound or if it doesn't drive me out of the room i'm happy. subjective analysis is a highly personal endeavor and meaningful to one listener.
how about thinking of the lower amount of distotion in the system from source through speakers the better it will be true to the material on the cd -record tape etc--neutrality is very hard to concieve of in this medium where each component adds or subtracts from the source material--another thing to be defined :)
Fascinating posts, guys, deserving of a more serious response. I agree with blindjim that transparency is a much better term for what we are talking about here. Music is not, and never should be "neutral." As a professional musician, the term has always been hilarious to me when applied in this context. No musician wants to sound "neutral," that's for sure!

And Vandermeulen, no good engineer would start from some strange idea of "neutral," either. One of the reasons recording studios are so dead is because then the engineer can make the recording sound however he wants easier ("coloration?"). No real performing space is "neutral" - the room's acoustics always have a huge effect on the musician's sounds (natural coloration, if you will). If an orchestra is on tour, for instance, playing the same piece several nights in several different venues, there are constant adjustments made to account for the different acoustics. This is one problem with the concept of "the absolute sound." Which hall is supposed to be the example of this? There are a great many different answers to your final question - what is the music supposed to sound like? No two engineers or musicians will agree exactly, nor should they.

So to get back to the OP's point, then, I don't believe that "neutrality" should be a reference point. The reference point should be what you want the music to sound like, which for most of us is as close to "live" as we can get (and this will take the sort of study that Vandermeulen was talking about, to decide what you think it should sound like). I agree with blindjim, there is no such thing as "absolute neutrality" or transparency in a piece of audio equipment - there is always going to be some designer bias, whether he/she is even conscious of it or not - the equipment will sound how the designer wants it to.
Because concensus will be difficult to achive with many ways audiophilia can be understood, explained, etc, the only true way is with experience. Period. Experience will help you define you own dictionary. Then, each one's dictionary will in some ways resemble others, or differ. Someone who has had more opportunities to listen to different equipment will have a more defined sense of neutrality. As with everything else in life, experience is more important in attaining an understanding than a carefully sculpted word. After all, does life imitate art (human creativity)? Or does art imitate life?
"the strange idea of "neutral"

Neutrality is about balance-- the notion of nothing more and nothing less, nothing added and nothing substracted. In this sense neutrality is more descriptive and useful than transparency.

"all components are inaccurate... I must admit I am in the subjective camp..."

This position is at least consistent.

"there is always going to be some designer bias"

Unfortunately the idea of designer bias is more commonly rooted in cost constraints than designer bias.

"a better term to use is a flat frequency response"

Ignores correct pitch & timbre, the hallmark of a high-end system.

"No real performing space is "neutral"...the room's acoustics always have a huge effect on the musician's sounds...The reference point should be what you want the music to sound like."

Does the room in which the playback system resides really affect sonics as much as the original recording space? IMO not true of any high-performance system-- particularly at lower volumes.
Learsfool wrote:
"Music is not, and never should be "neutral." As a professional musician, the term has always been hilarious to me when applied in this context. No musician wants to sound "neutral," that's for sure!"

The term 'neutral' is not a description of the music. It is a description of the playback system and its components.

And:
"...no good engineer would start from some strange idea of "neutral," either. One of the reasons recording studios are so dead is because then the engineer can make the recording sound however he wants easier"

I think you are talking here about the engineers who record and rerecord (i.e. mix) music, and I quite agree with you about that. However, there are certainly engineers who think about neutrality, namely, the engineers who built the recording studio! In fact, neutrality is an essential consideration in any recording system. Otherwise, the mixes recorded on that system will not "translate" to other playback environments.

And:
"I agree with blindjim, there is no such thing as 'absolute neutrality'"

Agreed. I said this in my original post. However, it does not follow from the fact that there is no absolute neutrality that there are no differences in neutrality among systems and components.

And:
"I don't believe that "neutrality" should be a reference point. The reference point should be what you want the music to sound like, which for most of us is as close to "live" as we can get."

Isn't the way to make your system sound as close to the "live" event as possible by building a system with the least coloration? In other words, building the most neutral possible system?
While this discussion is interesting, I think it is getting a bit off track. If I may presume to reinterpret Bryon's question, I don't think he cares whether the word is "neutrality" or "transparency" or "coloration" or how, exactly, one defines the terms. Rather, if you replace a component in your system there are three possible outcomes: 1) system-induced coloration is increased, 2) system-induced coloration is decreased, or 3) system-induced coloration doesn't change. I think Bryon's question is: How do you tell which outcome you achieved? (Bryon, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.)

I think in the real world, Bryon's definition is workable. (There is, obviously, the theoretical possibility of a system that makes instruments and music all sound very different, but is also incredibly, incredibly wrong. But I think we can ignore that possibility in the high-end audio world where we're already within an epsilon of the truth.)

Experience is another good answer. If you know what something really sounds like, you should be able to judge the differences which a fair degree of competence. But that requires a fairly specific kind of experience and a very special recording about which you know a great deal. That's not really practical for most of us. And there's always the possibility that the system works well in one area, and not another.

I don't have a better answer than the OP's, but I'd like to know: if I change a component, I may like the result, but is there a way to know if I'm hearing the music better, or just my system?
IMHO, a systems resolution, i.e. its ability to resolve and present all of the information in the recording in a balanced manner, linear if you will, combined with an overall tone that pleases you is all that counts.

There is no recorded performance that will ever sound like a live event involving acoustic instruments in an appropriate space. You can't record it the way it would be heard live, which BTW would be totally dependent on your physical location in the room/hall, etc. The music in the front rows, back of the hall, and in the balconies are all totally different in perspective as well as tonal balance. And, even if you could, there is no equipment available which could recreate it accurately. We are severly limited in our ability to recreate the speed and dynamics involved in live performances. That is a given and will be readily apparent to anyone familar with acoustic instruments played in live space.

So what are we left with? 'Resolution' so we can hear all that it in the pits and grooves' and tonality that pleases our ears and expectations. Personally I have a hard time understanding the meaning of 'neutrality' in the context of an audio systems recreation of music' as the term is foreign to the process. No audio system can ever be anymore neutral than we as listeners can ever be truly objective.

I put myself to sleep............:-)
“If, after changing a system element, (1) individual pieces of music sound more unique, and (2) your music collection sounds more diverse, then your system is contributing less of its own signature to the music. And less signature means more neutral.”

Not necessarily!

System Neutrality may not be the cause to it’s improved level of detail and musical uniqueness. Other factors may be involved.

Example:
If one were to wear yellow glasses while skiing during an overcast day, visual improvement in the snow's light and dark shadow detail would apparent. Those same glasses on a bright day would not be beneficial.

The improvements in your system may have actually increased the level of contrast above and beyond the original instruments of the musician.

This brings up another important point. If the music through your new system truly sounded better and this fact was agreed upon by fellow Audiophiles (with similar likes and dislikes); why does it matter that it does not sound like the original recording. ‘The absolute Sound –system Neutral.’ We don't even know if the original recording actually sounded like the performer. Was it enhanced by the engineer to compensate for the recording deficiencies or those of the musician?

The end product is for your enjoyment. If rose colored glasses and Woody Allen's Orgasmatron would heighten my experience, then it would and should be part of my listening routine.

Sound Improvement beats Neutrality
I won't call my system neutral. I'll say it's somewhere in the middle of the road. Being that the shape of my ears are different than yours, and that they don't protrude from my noggin much, you may find my system bright, since I need a little more top-end to make it sound correct to me. If I cup my hands behind my ears, it sounds bright. But since most of the music flows past me, I don't notice it being bright. So is my system bright, or is it middle of the road? Someone who's ears protrude would say bright. I say neutral. Who's correct? We both are.
So far, the majority of posters seem to be Subjectivists with regard to system neutrality. That is to say, they believe (1) that there is no real distinction between a more or less neutral system, or (2) if there is a distinction, it is not one that is particularly valuable to audiophiles.

Are there any Objectivists out there?
Nice posts again, guys! Vandermeulen, you make my main point much more simply than I did - everyone must decide for themselves through experience what they want their system to sound like.

However, I must repeat that there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Any piece of audio equipment is going to contribute some "coloration." By way of explanation, let me go back to the recording studio example. These are almost always rooms that are almost completely dead. This is not because the engineer is trying to emulate some sort of absolute neutrality, as someone suggested. In fact, it is for the completely opposite reason - so the engineer can play with the recording and make it sound exactly how he wants it to via instrument placement, miking, mixing, and almost always the addition of digital effects that do not actually exist in the music being recorded. In other words, the engineer is eliminating what he calls "room noise" as much as possible and putting his own "coloration" onto the recording. And every single engineer will have a completely different idea of what this ideal "coloration" is, just as every acoustician will have a different idea of what an ideal concert hall should sound like.

Same thing with designers of audio equipment. They all have a very specific idea of the sound they are looking for when they start out, otherwise what the heck is the point?! They are trying to create something that sounds like their ideal, and every one of them will have a slightly different conception of it. This is what creates "system-induced coloration," as someone put it.

So in the end, Cbw723 is correct, I think - it doesn't really matter exactly how one defines these terms, as everyone is going to have a slightly different conception of them, and their own set of preferences. One can only decide what one's own ideal is for a piece of equipment (and how it matches up with other pieces of equipment in the system, of course) by experience. Someone who listens to almost entirely electronically-produced music is almost certainly going to have a very different opinion about all types of equipment to someone who listens almost exclusively to acoustic instruments, for instance. As for the question "is there a way to know if I'm hearing the music better, or just my system," I reply that again there are no absolutes here. Even assuming you are referencing live music (which not all audiophiles do - some of them, for various reasons, do not want their systems to sound anything like live music), there are many different types of venues and sounds, so your ideal may be very different from mine. That's another reason why there are so many different types of audio equipment out there - there are many different tastes, and no one of them is inherently right or wrong. It depends on what your sonic priorities are, and only you can determine that, through experience listening to different types of equipment and systems, always referencing this to your ideal of what live music should sound like, realizing that your system can never really recreate this.

Speaking of trying to recreate the live event, I should add, Byron, that no, I don't agree that the "least amount of coloration" will result in the closest thing to live music, necessarily - in fact, many (though of course not all) systems I have heard described as neutral actually sounded lifeless, without any sense of space, color, ambience, etc. - nothing like live music. My point is that just as all live music is "colored", so is all reproduced music - one must choose the type of "coloration" one wants in one's system. If any ten audiophiles assemble a system that they consider very close to whatever their conception of "neutrality" is, I guarantee you will have ten completely different sounding systems.
Byron, Isn't that sort of an oxymoron, an 'objective' audiophile. What would you like him to be objective about?

The is almost an artform exercise and is almost totally, from cradle to grave, based on someones opinions about the best manner to record the music, the miking/mixing, the putting on a recording medium, the design of the hardware, most especially the speakers, as well as the sensitivities of the audiophile in thier selection, matching, and room selection and set up.

What is there to be objective about - everything in the chain, including the end users, is based on someone's personal decisions in what they liked best and thought conveyed the music the best for their audience. Some times they succeeded, sometimes they failed. But they were never objective in any sense that I can understand. There was no science. It still all boiled down to how they valued what they heard. Pretty subjective I think.............
Here is what I have gained from everyone's input:

Neutrality is a difficult ideology to wrap one's brain around, and most likely will remain that way. Because of this, experience plays a very important role in attaining one's own ideologies of defining neutrality. One ultimate realization is that the recording environment, specifically concerning the engineer's own summation of what sounds "right", will always remain subjective and a mystery to the person contemplating these notions from their listening chair. As far as the designer of high end equipment, cost factor will be a variable that can/will determine the end results, but only to a certain degree.

A new "fad" will gain noteriety after Abucktwoeighty's findings on ear geology. I predict plastic surgions will see a rise in audiophile related "tweaks", where cheaper vs. more expensive ear tweaking operations will lead to many arguements over why a 50,000 dollar ear operation can resolve more than a 10,000 dollar ear operation. Abucktwoeighty...thanks for the horror.
Learsfool - Excellent post. I don't think we are much closer to agreeing with each other, but I definitely understand and appreciate your point of view better now.

Your observations about recordings being colored is well taken. I have spent time in mixing stages and I know how much "coloration" is added to a typical recording. Neutrality is not a virtue in the recording studio. It is a virtue in the playback system. By having a playback system that is as neutral as possible, you will be closest to hearing WHAT WAS HEARD IN THE RECORDING STUDIO, and therefore you will be closest to hearing the INTENTIONS OF THE ARTIST (and the intentions of the recording engineer, and the studio executive, and the studio executive's five year old child...but that is a lamentation for another day). The point is that what makes for good recording (namely, coloration) and what makes for good playback (namely, neutrality) are different, and often opposite.

Learsfool wrote:
"However, I must repeat that there is no such thing as absolute neutrality."

I agree with this, if it means: No component or system is perfectly neutral. I disagree with this, if it means: There is nothing against which we can measure the neutrality of a component or system. Which brings me to...

Newbee - I wasn't suggesting that audiophiles should be "objective." An Objectivist is not someone who is objective. An Objectivist is someone who believes that there is such a thing as truth. An Objectivist, with respect to sonic neutrality, therefore, is a person who believes that components and systems can be evaluated as to their "truthfulness." Sometimes you hear that expressed in terms of "what is on the recording." Other times you hear that expressed in terms of the real-world event that the recording captured. I would express it in terms of what was heard in the recording studio when the artist and engineer leaned back in their chairs and said, "We're done. Let's take a listen." Of course, we can't compare our systems to what they heard without a time machine, but I don't think that means we must abandon the idea of neutrality (now: truthfulness) in a playback system. It means we must find other ways to determine the neutrality of a playback system, which is precisely why, I believe, we need to operationalize the term 'neutrality.' That was the goal in my original post.

To put another one of my cards on the table: I am an Objectivist, in the sense above, with respect to sonic neutrality. That is to say, I believe that some components and systems reproduce recordings more truthfully than others.

As to the doubt, expressed by several posters, that neutrality is a vital consideration in assembling a satisfying music system, I am actually somewhat agnostic. In my (admittedly limited) experiences, the changes to my system that resulted in greater neutrality (now: truthfulness) were the same changes that resulted in more musical enjoyment for me. But I am open to the idea that this was just an accident of my personal upgrade history.
Newbee, there's a lot to be objective about. In GET BETTER SOUND, Jim Smith makes a case (tip #171) that the "personal taste" argument is flawed. He argues that if there were perfect speakers, almost everyone would prefer them. In fact, his whole book is dedicated to getting the system out of the way so you can get closer to the "live" sound of your music.

I don't even understand the subjectivist argument. I can imagine listening to a specific piece of music and thinking "they should have mixed the percussion higher" or "that should have been a cello not a bass" or "they should have upped the tempo there." But I can't imagine saying "all music should have more X," where "X" is some factor imposed by the playback system (except, of course, where X = "fidelity to the source"). What would it be that you'd want your system to add (that isn't in the source) to everything you listen to? Bass? Treble? Harmonics? Rap lyrics? It's all distortion that might make some music sound better to you, but other music will certainly sound worse.

And this is, I think, the source of Bryon's observation in the original post. When you remove a bit of system distortion, different things sound more different because a common element has been removed from everything you hear.
"When you remove a bit of system distortion, different things sound more different because a common element has been removed from everything you hear."

Exactly my experience through hundreds of internal modifications to components. I'm in the camp of the Objectivists-- except for slight reservations about where the truth lies in LF. A few recent speaker designs like Emerald Physics and Bamberg use Class D digitally EQ'd bass amps to deliver a qualitatively different kind of LF extension and control. This is all fairly new, and I feel more subjectivity judging the shifting paradigm for neutrality in LF than in other areas of FR.
Hi Byron - I must make an observation here. You posted that you want to hear as close as possible to what is heard in the recording studio. My point about the actual recording studios is that you would NEVER want to do this. Recording studios are not designed for listening to music - they are extremely dead, with none of the reverberance or other positive sound characteristics of an actual live music venue. They sound terrible, actually, and it is quite difficult to play in them. Everyone is isolated from everyone else, using click-tracks to stay together - there is much less connection between the performers than normal. Often every single performer is on a separate track, if it is a small group. As I said before, this is all done by design, so that the recording engineer can design the sound to his own specifications - they have complete control, and you are at their mercy as to what you are going to end up sounding like. There is almost nothing "real" about a recording studio. Some of the most famous artists, whether pop or classical, will of course have some measure of control if they wish it, but most often the studio execs have the control. As an orchestral musician, I certainly have no input as to what I end up sounding like (though most orchestras making a symphonic recording do not record in recording studios, of course, but in a real live venue - I am speaking of say an orchestra put together to record a jingle for a TV commercial, etc.). The orchestral players that record for all the movie and television studios (both Hollywood and London and anywhere else), for instance, have no control over their own sounds, either, and I can tell you that they are quite often very dissatisfied with the results when they see the film in the theaters or the episode on TV. Even young and up and coming wannabe pop stars usually have no control over what they sound like, either - their sound is designed by the record label execs. If you heard them without the mikes and the mixing boards, which are of course always present when they perform live as well, the vast majority of them would be unrecognizable. I think even some of the most knowledgeable audiophiles would be shocked and horrified if they realized just how their favorite rock and pop singers sound "for real." There is almost no "truth," as you call it, to anything that comes out of a recording studio, in the vast majority of cases, as opposed to something recorded in a live venue. If the producers want it to sound like a live venue, they will record in one.
Cbw (& Byron), I have never taken any exception to the point that as you remove distortion artifacts from your system the more easily you will hear all of the information in the pits and grooves. Byron has discovered this as he has improved the quality of the stuff in his room he has been appreciating the differences and his ability to discern them. Removing distortion enhances the sense of resolution.

Assuming that the collective manufacturers had the ability to make distortion free equipment and audiophiles exhausted all of the possibles in system/room set up, one could clearly state that he had a truly "Neutral" system. A perfect world. You would only need one set of speakers, one amp, one source, varing only by the nature of the acoustic. You could do this with a computer I think. Life would be so easy.

But in my view 'neutrality' really doesn't and cannot exist because it is a term like life or death, neutrality is an absolute thing. There is no room for equivication. It is either neutral or it isn't. Like being pregnant! No halfway measures.

But we can talk about distortion in its many forms in the various components, acoustic venues, and equipment set up, which influence our hearing experience. When I go to a symphony I want to sit in the center of the main floor about 6 to 10 rows back in most classic halls. I get loads of detail, imaging, and dynamic's. You've got to sit there an listen to Mahler! This is the sound, tonally speaking, I want in my home. Is it neutral? Compared to what. Sitting in the lower balcony? Sitting in the upper balconies or the back of the main floor. No it is not more neutral, it is different and it is live, i.e. real.

Apart from getting all of the resolution you can get from assembling components and setting up you system in your room there isn't much you can do to establish a system that is really neutral. The sound you hear is still the collective sound of all of the components, speakers, and room acoustics. What makes you assess the resulting sound as neutral is nothing more that the free use of your imagination. I would suggest that 'natural' would be a move achievable goal in the real world.

FWIW.
Bryoncunningham, I just want to say welcome to Audiogon. It's great to see a thoughtful and articulate contributor.
Learsfool wrote:
"You posted that you want to hear as close as possible to what is heard in the recording studio. My point about the actual recording studios is that you would NEVER want to do this. Recording studios are not designed for listening to music - they are extremely dead, with none of the reverberance or other positive sound characteristics of an actual live music venue."

Yes, I am aware that recording studios are extremely dead, having spent some time in them (not as the artist, but as the recording engineer. No, I do not do this for a living).

My point was not that I want to hear what it sounded like in the acoustically dead studio recording room with the musician. Nor do I want to hear what it sounded like in the control booth, recording that musician. I want to hear what it sounded like in the mastering stage/suite/room, when the music is fully mixed (i.e., level adjusted, channel placed, EQ'd, reverbed, etc.).

I know that, often, the artists themselves have little say over what they sound like (hence my joke about the studio executive's child having "notes" for the recording engineer). This is true of rock and pop music more than any other genre, but I have no doubt that similarly depressing realities affect many other types of recordings. But these facts about the recording industry do not mean we cannot strive to build an audio system that faithfully reproduces, to the extent that is possible, what was heard IN THE FINAL MIX.

Newbee wrote:
"But in my view 'neutrality' really doesn't and cannot exist because it is a term like life or death, neutrality is an absolute thing. There is no room for equivication. It is either neutral or it isn't. Like being pregnant! No halfway measures."

I have a hard time understanding this point of view. 'Neutrality,' in the way we've been discussing it, is a way of talking about freedom from coloration. Is that really an all or nothing thing? Can we not agree that, however different our systems may sound from one another, they are all less colored than a boombox? And isn't admitting those kinds of comparisons an acknowledgement that neutrality is a matter of degree? I believe that neutrality is a continuum, like virtually ever other measure of quality in audio, whether objective or subjective.
Tvad - Thank you for welcoming me. This is, indeed, the first thread I have created, though I have been lurking on Audiogon for some time. I've read many of your posts, and always found them informative.
It's clear to me what Byroncunningham is using as a baseline as his goal for neutrality or truthfulness, as he put it.

It seems to be essentially what's been defined as the Absolute Sound. Whether it's attainable is open to debate, as we can all see here.

My best memories of recorded music enjoyment are from before I delved into high end audio. My speakers and electronics were not transparent, but my toes tapped more often.

I'm headed back in that direction, but with high end equipment. It'll be interesting to hear how the new system satisfies.
please explain how flat frequency response is inconsistent with accuracy of timbre and pitch.
MrTennis - your are right that flat frequency response is essential. However that does not reflect the time domain or transient behavior of a speaker/system. For example, resonance of underdamped speaker drivers or amp/speaker systems can also play a huge role in adding coloration to the sound. Modern underdamped speakers (high Q designs with ceramic or metal drivers that ring like a bell) tend to mask much of the detail because of the resonant behaviour of these designs. The waterfall plots on many of these modern systems do not compare at all well to a 1957 Quad Panel...
Again, great posts everyone! I have to agree with Newbee overall, especially his line "What makes you assess the resulting sound as neutral is nothing more than the free use of your imagination." I also agree that "natural" would be a better term. I don't believe that there is any such thing as freedom from what we are calling "coloration" in an audio component or system. I also don't believe that this is necessarily a bad thing. I don't believe that all of what we call distortions are necessarily bad, either (nor that it is possible for there to be zero distortion in an audio component or system). Live music has plenty of both of these elements. If it didn't, it would sound, well, unnatural.
It never ceases to tickle me how such ambiguous and subjective terms can become so widely articulated when brought into the audioland context.

Of course by now, any member here must not only have their own quite music with which to audition but the latest edition of an unabridged dictionary. Dealers would be well advised to make a display of some right next to the cash register.

Adjacent to the encyclopedias & dictionaries, there should be titles such as “Everything you’ve always wanted to know about audio and how to speak it. ” or “The audio speak to English Translator” or “Is what you are hearing what was meant to be heard and would you like it if you did?”

On a more practical note, another title I feel would sell better perhaps, might be, “How To Wind Up With Great Sound and Keep Your Checking Account & Sanity in Tact” The forward of this book would say, “Pay no attention to the other books for sale here… see? You’ve saved $100 already, doesn’t that make you feel better?”

Or something like them…

As importantly as is knowing something of the build of recording studios for their dead acoustic, and the engineer whose hand is on the various kknobs & sliders, is the intended audience for the music being recorded.

A prominent maker of high end cables, formerly a studio musician himself, told me he’s personally seen board ops, engineers, etc., mix their end products for the sort of more commonly used methods the intended audience is likely to replay the music on. A single car speaker. A boom box. Mass fi audio or HT theater, or All in a box, clubs or bars, discos, an or all in one wonders where cost is more than an issue systems.

The short answer of how to affix or determine neutraility is merely by the use of your own ears, which immediately taints the result, and your own ears experience with a multitude of products. To better fill out the experience pallet, one should also gain some exp with recordings, recording venues, room acoustics voices of the singers, various instruments, strings, reeds, mouthpieces, and so on.

If one doesn’t have a solid beginning foundation for the sounds of certain instruments, how then does one go about contriving a system to reproduce them? There’s a whole bunch of instruments. It kills me when some article indicates with a given piece, they can hear if it’s a this or a that… well, some liner notes will tell you that too.

I want to know if they were wearing a wrist watch…. And which kind? They probably were, but I’d venture they were LCDs.

Naturally, this is IF and only IF, neutrality means a lot to you or is your ultimate goal in building your room, and system. Other factors too interplay as importantly. Power & resonance too are further considerations.

I feel at times, when I am visited upon by a fleeting, yet quite sane moment of clarity, a lot like this current instance, I think to myself, : “So freaking’ what!!”

Should I become entangled into aspiring to at best an illusive or unachievable goal in most practical applications, OR…. Should I follow a more pragmatic and attainable end? This end being that which finds my knees bobbing and the corners of my mouth turned up routinely?

I say this as the result of experience. My own. It has to do with priorities and realities.

As laudable as it is for any one of us to so aspire. To fill out a rig which captivates the body and mind I have to say it’s not that remote a thing to do. It does cost money though, perhaps not as much as some are able to spend but it do need dough to make it do what it do, as mr. Charles was so fond of saying. Further it’ll take a modicum of common sense and good judgment. Niether does it have to adhere rigorously to the vices of neutrality nor to those of sheer transparency.

Even negligees shouldn’t be totally transparent. Sometimes they are at their best in the light of total darkness.

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a completely flat, entirely neutral, or definitely transparent system, and I’m not terribly sure I would either want to or for that matter, actually own one. In the case of my own current preffs, ‘vacuum tube power trains’ many can justifiably argue with such a philosophy, neither neutrality nor transparency can ultimately be achieved if spending is handcuffed at all.

What’s a boy to do then?

I aim in each buy to find those things that are faithful, honest, organic, complimentary to the rig, and within my means as is possible…. Mostly. I’m OK today with mostly. Especially when I see such accounts of components which have such high a price tag affixed to them as to make them other worlkly appliances, and merely ‘”the stuff that dreams are made of’”, as one noir actor is remembered for to this day.

The capacity for ‘reason’ and ‘accomodation’ or ‘compromise’ steer the majority, so maybe, just maybe, we can only aim to acquire a portion of a thing, than the thing itself. I intend nothing derisive by discounting aloud these precepts, but aim only to submit the contrast from the practical to that of the grandiose.

I’ll by my own nature still try to clutch the audio nut creedo of “no compromise” in the one hand, but perhaps heed more the voice of that hand resting upon my wallet, while coming to grips with their differences. If when in this endeavor, my accomplishment, or handiwork makes me want to turn on my gear more often, and makes me abhor turning it off, and in the intervening time I am involved and happy, I’ll not take issue with anyone else who finds my outfit straying from neutral, or less than transparent, regardless my feelings, or it’s subjective nearness to them both.

As for the actual disposition of whether or not a newly integrated thing has become subtractive or additive to the sound, I’m pretty sure you’ll know. Past that summation, who cares?

It is after all, your verdict that matters most. Don’t sweat the petty stuff, and give it your best shot, that’s all anyone dcan do anyhow. The only times I’ve been disappointed were those times I listened to someone else’s ideas, and not my own ears.
Here is one phenomena that I've experienced:

Preamp in or out of the system - most preamps, except the very best in the world tend to "homogenize" the sound IME, even the ones that I have modded. This causes the turntable, CD player and computer to all sound very similar. Because this is not jitter or frequency response, I believe the difference is added compression. This is the inability of the preamp to reproduce accurately the transient excursions in the music. The preamp has changed the dynamic response.

When the preamp is effectively eliminated, the different sources tend to sound much different from each other.

Also, tracks that previiously were not very interesting to listen to are now compelling.

I believe this is one of the major problems with analog audio equipment.

This is what I call the liveness factor.

Neutrality usually refers to an evenhandedness from top to bottom, which can certainly be changed with frequency response. Hoever, most high-end gear has excellent frequency response, so the explanation for this is likely transient response, not frequency response.

Audioengr

you had me worried there for a minute... I thought my preamp wasn't any good and I needed a better one, quick.

Thankfully as you alluded, each source thru mine sounds OK, good, better, or best, as the case maybe.... yet any source once attached is improved noticeably.

I'll settle for that 'standard'.
Audioengr - Most of recordings have some form of compression and some are really bad. Wouldn't they sound better with an amp that expands dynamics (instead of being neutral). What about soundstaging? Is deeper and wider better than more accurate positioning. Could it be too deep or too wide? How do we know what studio intended?

Warm tube amps sound wonderful on guitar or voice bot not so good on instruments with complex harmonic structure like percussion or piano? What if I don't listen to piano?

One can measure identical frequency response of two components with very different sound (tube vs. SS). What you compare it to. How do you measure it. In my opinion measurements can offer some clues but I would not use them to buy a system. If I cannot trust measurements then it comes to my or other people opinion - and that is highly subjective. It might depend on many factors including age. Would "neutral" system sound the same to young Hindu and old Latino?

I'm not even sure if being neutral is a virtue. What if system has its own wonderful personality. What's wrong with that? Are we trying to find best tasting or most neutral wine?
Kijanki writes:
"Would "neutral" system sound the same to young Hindu and old Latino?"

No, it would sound different to every person that listened to it, but that's not the point. The point is whether or not it recreates their version of reality, and only a neutral system could do that for everyone. If each person listens to a guitar, each person hears something different. But if the goal is to make a recording sound, as much as possible, like the source, neutrality seems important in achieving it.

"Are we trying to find best tasting or most neutral wine?"

In our case, "wine" is the music, and our systems are the glass you drink it from. Do you want a glass that flavors all of your wine?
In our case, "wine" is the music, and our systems are the glass you drink it from. Do you want a glass that flavors all of your wine?
Cbw723 (Answers)
That's a very descriptive analogy.
"But if the goal is to make a recording sound, as much as possible, like the source, neutrality seems important in achieving it."

No - Neutrality does not achieve that because the goal of recording is to sound good on average cheap system or boom-box hence introduced compression.

Grand piano has dynamics reaching 96dB but is never recorded like that because most of people wouldn't be able to hear it and would complain about buzzing speakers.

Guitar sound, that you mentioned, is defined by Presence, Projection, Separation, Sustain and Tone. All of it can be manipulated in (sonically dead) studio. It has nothing to do with absolute objective reality but more with the way recording guy sees it. This reality can vary so much from one recording engineer to another that some classical guitarists like Julian Bream come to studio, wherever they record, with their own recording engineer.

Well - I'm my own playback engineer and I choose the sound I like.
Recently, I had a dilemma that nearly every audiophile faces, and that I believe demonstrates the importance of judging a component’s neutrality:

I was comparing two pairs of analog interconnects in my system. Both interconnects were from highly regarded manufacturers. Both had considerable sonic virtues, and very few flaws. But they didn’t have the same virtues and flaws. Interconnect A had spectacular detail, but was a touch thin harmonically. Interconnect B was harmonically perfect, but was less detailed than interconnect A. This situation left me with the following questions:

(1) Was cable A preserving detail while subtracting harmonics?
(2) Was cable B subtracting detail while preserving harmonics?

Or could it be more complicated…

(3) Was cable A adding “perceived” detail by, for example, acting as a high pass filter?
(4) Could cable B somehow be adding false harmonics?

And so on.

Similar questions could be asked, of course, about cd players, amps, speakers, etc., and about other sonic characteristics like dynamics, soundstaging, and so on.

I believe that audiophiles ask themselves these kinds of questions – about what a component adds, subtracts, modifies – all the time. When they do, they are implicitly asking themselves about the NEUTRALITY of the components under consideration. That is because many additions, subtractions, and modifications to a signal are DEVIATIONS FROM NEUTRALITY. Here neutrality need not be defined so elusively as “the absolute sound” or “what is on the source” or “what the recording engineer heard” but simply: The signal fed to the component’s input. Under this definition of ‘neutrality,’ many (perhaps most) of the alterations to the input signal are deviations from neutrality.

My point here is NOT that every alteration to the input signal is a deviation from neutrality. The addition of gain, for example, might not be considered a deviation from neutrality. My point is that MANY of the alterations to the input signal constitute deviations from neutrality. An uncontroversial example might be: Intermodulation distortion.

If we, as audiophiles, don’t ask questions about how neutral a component is (in the sense above), then we will very likely face a frustrating upgrade path. Without having some hypothesis, however fallible, about how each component adds to, subtracts from, or otherwise modifies the signal fed to it, then efforts to improve the sound of the system by replacing components will be stabs in the dark.

And if you’re lucky enough to assemble a system that sounds good to you without asking questions about how each component alters the signal (i.e. deviates from neutrality), then you have probably found a set of components with complementary colorations. There are at least two problems with this approach: (1) Those complementary colorations accumulate, diminishing the system’s transparency; and (2) The system runs the risk of being a house of cards. That is to say, when a component is replaced, it must be replaced with one that alters the signal IN THE SAME WAY, or the results will be unpredictable, and probably disappointing. And how would you know what new component to choose if you did not ask how the old component altered the signal (i.e. deviated from neutrality) in the first place? I think this illustrates that trying to judge a component's neutrality is not just important, but virtually unavoidable.
(1) Was cable A preserving detail while subtracting harmonics?
(2) Was cable B subtracting detail while preserving harmonics?

Or could it be more complicated…

(3) Was cable A adding “perceived” detail by, for example, acting as a high pass filter?
(4) Could cable B somehow be adding false harmonics?

And so on.

Without going into details, the basic engineering design philosophy of neutral equipment is such that the interconnect should not matter. Effort is made to design equipment (at both ends) that will remain unaffected by slight differences in wires. Therefore, if you have an audible difference then you have a problem with neutrality of the equipment. (assuming ordinary wires and not an IC that contains a filter network)
When you are asked whether you like a particular recording, do you ever say, with great approval, "It was neutral!" Didn't think so. I usually bless favorite recordings with adjectives like "beautiful" or "exciting." The elevation of "neutral" in audiophile discussions is odd.

I have recently been wrestling with this issue and just made what will probably a permanent preamp and DAC change away from "neutrality" to what is admittedly a more colored, but more attractive sound. Very educational for me in establishing my persoal preferences.

Bryon - Thanks for another interesting post.
Bryon, I don't know why your use of the word 'neutrality' bugs me so, but it does and I hope you will forgive my deviation from neutrality and sort of reiterate what I said in my last post.

I have a bit of a challenge for you. How will you know when what you are hearing from a component is true neutrality to the source, or if not, how much it deviates from true neutrality, if not by hearing it thru a collection of components previously assembled by you. Consider that perhaps none of the components previously assembled by you are in fact neutral but just complimentary and happen to meet your expectations of what you think neutrality sounds like, and the new component introduced is just synergistic with these other components.

IMHO, when it is all said and done, if we care at all, we all have systems consisting of complimentary components reproducing our software in a manner in which we believe it was originally set down, or, god forbid, a manner in which we found great pleasure. There is no evil in using colored components, especially if you conclude as I think you must, that there is no such thing as an uncolored component. Its just a matter of degrees and sensitivities. Recall that my 'god' is resolution, something far more achievable and observable.

You asked how I could question your views on neutrality in a post subsequent to my last post. I hope you have now, after reading this and rereading my previous post(s) come to an understanding of what I disagree with you about and why.
How will you know when what you are hearing from a component is true neutrality to the source

Good question.

They have the same problem in pro audio. Sound engineers are constantly concerned with how the mix translates to other (often inferior) systems like cars and radio.

Here is a suggestion: If you want to hear Telarc recordings as close to how they intended (as neutral as possible) then you can find out what gear they use and use the same. It still won't be totally neutral unless you acoustically treat your listening environment to a high standard but at least you will be closer to hearing what they hear and what they intended you to hear or as "neutral" as possible...
Jult52 wrote:
"When you are asked whether you like a particular recording, do you ever say, with great approval, 'It was neutral!' Didn't think so."

I agree with this, as I said in an earlier post. Again, neutrality is not a virtue of music or of recording. It is a virtue of a playback system.

Newbee wrote:
"Consider that perhaps none of the components previously assembled by you are in fact neutral but just complimentary and happen to meet your expectations of what you think neutrality sounds like, and the new component introduced is just synergistic with these other components."

I have considered this. In fact, it is the motivation for the title of this thread, "How do you judge your system's neutrality?" In my original post, I proposed one possible way of judging a system's neutrality.

Newbee wrote:
"I have a bit of a challenge for you. How will you know when what you are hearing from a component is true neutrality to the source, or if not, how much it deviates from true neutrality, if not by hearing it thru a collection of components previously assembled by you."

It is, of course, impossible to hear a component individually. We can only hear it in the context of a system. Because of this inescapable fact, there is always a potential fallacy when we hear a characteristic of an audio system and then attribute that characteristic to an individual component. A system might sound bright. Is it the speakers? Is it the cd player? Is it an impedance matching issue? If we get this wrong, we’ve made the Fallacy of Division, i.e., the misattribution of a system characteristic to one of the system’s components. But the danger of making this mistake does not mean we shouldn’t try to understand a system in terms of the contribution of its components.

As audiophiles, we are constantly confronted with situations that require us to make educated guesses about how to attribute system characteristics to individual components. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes the system characteristic cannot be reduced to a single component, but only to the interaction of two (or more) components. But we have no choice but to try understand the contribution of each system element. That is an implicit assumption every time we upgrade a component. In our efforts to improve a system’s performance, we try to identify which component is the weak link and replace it with a stronger one. Because of this, the attempt to reduce system characteristics to component characteristics is unavoidable. It is fallible. But it is what we have.

Newbee wrote:
"You asked how I could question your views on neutrality in a post subsequent to my last post."

Newbee - My questions in response to you last post were not designed to ask how you could question my views on neutrality. I am happy for you to question my views on neutrality. That is the fun of these threads! My questions were just a rhetorical device, in an attempt to make the point that neutrality is not an all or nothing thing. If I gave the impression that I am not open to you questioning my point of view, I apologize. I have been enjoying this thread a great deal, precisely because we don't all agree with each other.
Bryon, you say that 'neutrality is not an all or nothing thing'. We disagree!

At the risk of being redundant, neutrality is the end result of combining many components of sound, including absolute resolution and perfect frequency response. Rather than refer to 'neutrality' I think it is more productive to refer to its components, if for no other reason than it helps folks achieve their goals. Using the term neutrality as a goal is, for me, no different that using the phrase absolute sound, i.e. live music (thanks to Harry Pearson). It is unachievable and serves no really worthwhile purpose other than to put consumers on an endless (and expensive) pursuit (goal) of the achieving the impossible.

It works well for folks with commercial interests though. Nothing better in fact. How would you ever be able to sell stuff without having pretention to moving one closer to the goal of live sounds or neutrality. And, somehow, I sense from a lot of posts in these pages that folks who don't buy into these goals as having great value to them are gently (or not so by some self absorbed, self proclaimed sound experts) treated as audio's leapers.

Someone mentioned in this or another post that in his pursuit of some form of audio perfection he had lost his ability to just get involved with and enjoy the music as he had experienced in the past with lesser equipment and different interests. His experience is not unique. In fact there is a long lived thread "How do I get off this carousel" or something like that. Many folks, myself included, have at some point, become so absorbed with counting the trees we can no longer see the forest. When we sit down in the listening chair we are more focused on the 'sounds' and get sucked into questioned ourselves about how we could improve the sound, i.e. how can I get better depth of image, how can I get a higher image, how can I get better bass, ad infinitum. At one point I realized I was so sbsorbed when I found I was actually enjoying the MUSIC more when I was listening to it from a nearby room (my office) and couldn't hear all of those highly prised 'audiophile' attributes such as imaging etc.

Anyway, that's what I really think, I think.
Newbee wrote:
"Using the term neutrality as a goal is, for me, no different that using the phrase absolute sound, i.e. live music (thanks to Harry Pearson). It is unachievable and serves no really purpose other than to put consumers on an endless (and expensive) pursuit (goal) of the achieving the impossible. It works well for folks with commercial interests though."

I have no commercial interests of any kind in the audio industry. I don't even know anyone who has a commercial interest in the audio industry.

In addition, I don't see how treating neutrality as a virtue in an audio system is any more likely to lead to equipment addiction than treating resolution, transparency, dynamics, imaging, etc. as a virtue. Any one of these characteristics can be fetishized, if a person is so inclined. I do not believe that I have fetishized neutrality in this thread. In fact, in my original post, I wrote:

"I’m not suggesting that neutrality is the most important goal in building an audio system..."

In a subsequent post, I wrote:

"As to the doubt, expressed by several posters, that neutrality is a vital consideration in assembling a satisfying music system, I am actually somewhat agnostic."

As I believe is obvious from these comments, I do not think that neutrality is of paramount important, of exclusive importance, or of essential importance. In my view, it is simply one goal among many. That is the view I have expressed throughout this thread. To suggest otherwise is to make a straw man of me.