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Neutrality-neutral sound.

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by audiogama, Jul 7, 2018.
  1. audiogama
    There is no such thing as a neutral sound in reproduced sound and I am afraid there is no such thing as neutral sound in produced music either. I read a lot of reviews because I simply like to read reviews to see how other peoples perceive the sound of different audio gear and to see how they try to put into words what they hear. A lot of peoples use the word NEUTRAL to describe something they hear, neutral sound, neutral earphones-headphone, etc. Let's see, we have pianist X and piano Y playing in a studio/recording room which is dumped and we get a warm sound, then the same player with the same piano is performing into a concert hall and we get a different sound signature, let say a bit more "open" sound, then, the same player is playing on a stage on a free, open, venue, and we get another sound signature. Ok, which one is the neutral sound!? Things get more complicated when we talk about the reproduced sound. First of all, the reproduced sound suffers from different kind of distortions, time (jitter) distortions of the digital domain, DAC, phase (which is also a time distortion on analog level) distortions introduced by the speaker's filters and other analog filters (also cables), harmonic distortions made by class A and AB amplifiers, intermodulation distortions made by class AB amplifiers, etc, etc. All these distortions make the sound non-neutral. Even the cables produce distortions. Above all of this, the electric devices, active and passive, generate their own noise so that they kinda have their own sound signature. I don't go here on detail about distortions and noise. So, considering all of the above we can conclude that there is no such thing as neutral sound. But, when you perceive a cleaner and clearer sound and the right rhythmic drive, with a balanced tonal signature, you may perceive this as a neutral sound, but remember, is not neutral.
  2. gregorio
    As a general principle, I agree with you. However, there are some points to consider:

    1. Generally I would assume that consumers are talking only about "neutral" in terms of reproduction. How "neutral" is the reproduction relative to the released master. This eliminates everything before the recording is distributed, although admittedly some audiophiles don't seem to fully realise or appreciate this.

    2. Some of the distortions you mention do not affect "neutrality" because they are inaudible, for example; jitter, cables and usually (though not always) amps.

    3. There is no specific/absolute definition of "neutral", it is somewhat of a vague term and can therefore have somewhat different meanings. For instance, "neutral" to most sound engineers doesn't mean perfect accuracy or fidelity. So it doesn't mean "no difference" rather, it implies there is a difference but not a difference which results in any particular gain or loss. "Neutral" is therefore a subjective term rather than an objective one.

  3. ScareDe2
    Neutral means the same as the sound from the monitor speakers of the person who made the final mix. With that definition, there can only be one frequency response. The harman target is an approximation of what our ears measure in front of a good speaker in a good room. That is where the debate is today.

    But most people use neutral as a term to describe a good balance, with no region emphasized. I don't have any objection to that.
  4. gregorio
    What does "fidelity" mean then?

  5. pinnahertz
    1. Not exactly, since we really have only a rough idea of what response existed in the monitor speakers and the room they are in.

    2. Hardly.

    3. The Harman curve is a result of a study listener preference, not the response of our ears in front of a good speaker system in a good room. The resulting curve bears no resemblance to human hearing response at all. The key elements to the Harmon curve are its smooth downward slope with rising frequency. The study concluded that excursions from that curve were less preferable. The curves compared in the study were the result of various room EQ systems, and were ranked in order of preference with the Harman curve being the most preferred. Unfortunate, it a way, but likely correct regardless of the rather blaring bias.

    4. Agreed with that, but I'll add that the reference "curve" that everyone has and uses is life around them, and not necessarily music. We live in a world were, over the long term average, the stimulation we receive does not include kind of artificial emphasis or de-emphasis of frequencies by a fixed "curve", such as that found in many speaker/room combinations. Hence, the need for such a target curve. When a speaker/room applies a fixed emphasis to a frequency group (upper mids, for example), it's applied to everything that speaker reproduces, which moves listener impressions away from neutral, because these kinds of fixed response changes do not otherwise exist in the world around us.
  6. pinnahertz
    It is not possible for the tonality of a system to emphasize individual instruments. While an instruments basic range may fall into a response variation, the response variations are applied to the entire signal equally, so unless it's a solo instrument with very narrow-band characteristics, what you say is not possible.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2018
  7. Redcarmoose
    Even farther down the road of perfect balance is guitar tone. Studying guitars helped me become less perfectionist about headphones and amps.

    I mean, you do have better balanced guitars, but some guitars are perfect simply being tenor guitars, some are perfect at being baritone guitars. Each has it’s place in music.

    Now of course with headphones we are trying to replicate a recording as true to life as possible. And the recording was attempting a balance of sorts, or a factual representation of music being played. But in the end I figure it’s all about musicality?

    I’m actually more focused now on detail representation and tone. Some headphones are actually made with not trying to perfectly represent every instrument exactly. As maybe when you try to do that, that maybe other stuff starts to get lossed? So if 97% is correct and the musicality is there all is well. It’s simply up to the listener to hear and know that, maybe it’s close, but not every response is going to be 100% accurate.

    Once you start to buy in to this concept, you can start to relax and enjoy things for what they are. The endless chase which costs thousands, looking for some famous treasure is not there. It doesn’t exist.

    9 years ago a put a bucket-load of money into an analytic system, a system where you could hear the musicians move in their chairs and breath. At the end of the day, it meant going through stacks of CDs because it showed how every CD was recorded different and had issues. It had nothing to do with enjoying music, but was a microscope system for hearing it all. It may have been very close to flat, but I hated it.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2018
  8. Brooko Contributor
    Before we go much further, it would be good to define context of where the term neutral is used, because as was pointed out, it is a subjective term - but can be used objectively depending no how it is used (ie what context). If we look at the actual definition of the word - then we can get a clearer idea of how people are using it:
    "neutral" => having no strongly marked or positive characteristics or features

    When we take this meaning, then it can be easily extrapolated to frequency response - which is where I think you'll find most reviewers are using it. I know when I am reviewing, I will often talk about a device in terms of neutrality - but another way of putting it would be "less coloured". And its a term people easily understand. You have a headphone like the Sony XB300 which is a very bassy and warm headphone. You have another - the HD600 - which is a lot closer to neutrality. So a reviewer comparing the two may say that one is more neutral (in terms of frequency response). This to me is perfectly valid.

    I find your examples a bit confusing though. When you are talking about the piano for example - you are describing the combination of instrument and venue. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone on this site talk about the reproduction of music on an instrument in terms of neutrality (ie review the performance). And in terms of context, I doubt anyone would use the term "neutral" to describe it. If one was comparing two speakers reproduction - then they should use the same recording anyway - otherwise there are too many variables. So I fail to see how your example holds. To me it would be perfectly valid comparing two speakers with same source and chain etc and describing one as more neutral than the other (especially if one had a lot of colouration).

    As to your second example (distortion etc), again I find it to be a poor example. What you are talking about is fidelity - not neutrality. But if a device (DAP, amp etc) was tonally warm (through added harmonic distortion, or uneven frequency response), again in context I find it absolutely reasonable to describe one device as more or less neutral - as long as the context is correct. Saying a device IS neutral would be incorrect, unless you establish the baseline for neutrality.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2018
  9. pinnahertz
    True with every instrument, each individual has its character which may be better for certain purposes. However, the goal in recording/reproducing is not to alter that.
    If a reproducing system provides an accurate representation of the goal of the recording, how is "musicality" separate from that?
    We define "detail" and "tone" as response variations. Headphones an speakers may intentionally emphasize some frequencies and de-emphasize others to create "detail" or "tone", but those fall outside of general preference of listeners. The Harman headphone curve study showed this. Their resulting curve showed only emphasis required for headphones because of the nature of that acoustic system, and no preference for frequency-emphasized "tone".
    Well, my daily-driver ear-buds are under $50, and are both "musical" and "neutral". So I guess, at least in my case, my "endless" had an end.
  10. Whitigir
    There is no “impossibility” because it is another form of perfection, and again, perfection does not exist. Fact is that equipment can emphasize every section of the spectrum, and as long as the instrument fit within it, it get emphasized.
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2018
  11. pinnahertz
    But your definition of "perfection" is also then imperfect, which then means it can exist!
  12. Whitigir
    Nope! Perfection just can not exist. Perfection is a form of absolute, and impossibility is an absolute, so it is not existed
  13. castleofargh Contributor
    neutral can mean a lot of things, like so many terms used in audio in a subjective way. when we look for an idea of somehow objective neutral(flat frequency response), it becomes like a notion of fidelity and absolutely needs a clearly defined reference to mean anything.
    if your reference is the perfect interpretation of a piece of music, we're in trouble ^_^.
    but if the reference is instead the frequency response the master engineer had at his sit, already we have something concrete to look for, so long as we can know about that specific response. then we can try to come close on our own system.
    another easy reference for neutral could be the digital signal. if the output of whatever gear is offering an electrically flat response to a sine sweep, we can call it neutral IMO. it doesn't work for headphones though.
    some people will simply call neutral anything that feels well "balanced" to them(what we read in most reviews). given that most of the time they have no idea what the original signal was sounding like, this is really a subjective and unreliable notion. even more so when people have different hearing and ears creating resonances at slightly different frequencies. so the notion of subjectivity is double in that context.

    all in all I sort of agree with you, except that if you're going to give examples of what changes the concept of neutral, you should go for speaker+room, headphones, and human heads long before looking at irrelevant stuff like cables or jitter which will tend to affect a signal many magnitudes below what a living room will do. or like I did, change the reference, so the all concept has to change with it.

    when I see people talking about how they know and play an instrument so they can tell when it sounds natural, neutral, balanced, or simply real, I feel that they're completely missing the all recording/mixing/mastering process. if an instrument is EQed down so that another one can be better perceived in that range, are we supposed to look for gears that will make that EQed instrument sound like it's not EQed? don't get me wrong, I completely share the feelings as a listener. I try some system and suddenly that one classical piece has the violin sounding just like I remember it live. that's great of course, but it's not the performance I saw, the mic wasn't were I was sited, some mic recorded that in mono which has nothing to do with my head getting the sound live, then mixing and mastering to unmask some instruments, and do whatever it is they think is good. yet here I am listening to the CD on that sound system and thinking "that's the real sound of the violin! it sounds neutral!". it's funny(and kind of cool at times) how I can readily assume I know what it's supposed to sound like despite how I don't really have a clue. the pattern machine just clicks and we think we're there.
  14. Brooko Contributor
    I get what you're saying - but don't you actually meant "it sounds natural" as in "life-like"

    In the context of what you described - neutral would be the wrong term.
  15. Whitigir
    Even each type of instruments with different physical build, it will carry different sound performed. Life-like can not exist in reproduced music. Because it seems the Op is trying to say just that.

    It can not be reproduced perfectly just as it can not be recorded perfectly. Even real instruments sound different on a given day and you as an artist , will have to tune dial it to your preferences

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