You read it all the time, “this was the most neutral amplifier we’ve ever heard.” We hear this all the time, “I’m looking for a neutral preamplifier, amplifier, whatever.” We call BS on neutral as well as the ability to hear and judge neutral. Nothing in an audio system is neutral. Not your room, not your flooring, not your ceiling, not your walls, not your furniture, not your speakers, not your electronics, and so on. When a reviewer says, “I only heard the recording itself,” really? Unless, they were in the studio and know firsthand how it sounded or sounds in the original studio from the master recording with uncanny auditory memory, their only reference for any given recoding is fact colored, not neutral. Additionally, studio sound (i.e. recordings) are infamous for being anything but (for a lack of a better term) “audiophile” quality. So, if we call the studio sound the reference point of neutral, but it doesn’t typically qualify as audiophile, why then is neutral good?
If the Holy Grail for say an amplifier was to be perfectly neutral and manufacturer “X” created a truly neutral amplifier which exhibits no sonic signature whatsoever, then frankly there would be no need for any other amplifiers. Assuming we also had truly neutral sources, preamplifiers, speakers, and rooms, then by the “theory of neutral,” we’d have the perfect system, right? One audio system for all human kind. Sound exciting? Ah, NO! Speaking of sound, how would such a system sound? All you’d have to do is ask yourself about the quality of your recordings and the acoustical properties of your room, speaker placement, etc. Some recordings would sound fair, fewer excellent, and most probably so so. That certainly doesn’t sound like the goal of most folks in building or adding to an audio system. Often the goal of the audiophile/music lover is to make their recordings sound as good as possible. Neutral doesn’t guarantee that and certainly doesn’t aspire to that. It’s only as good as the recording. If we can agree that the quality of recordings as a whole are inconsistent at best, then so will be your audio system, if neutral is your end game.
All audio products have a character, a flavor of their own. More bass, less bass, bright, smooth, balanced, warm, punchy, bloomy, tight, loose, open, boxy, airy, confined, exciting, polite, and on and on and on. This character is called color and it’s NOT a bad thing. It’s actually the very thing that attracts you to a specific product. Based on your personal taste, other components in your system and your room, you decide which product sounds best by your criteria and which has synergy with the rest of your system. This synergy is the balance of color from one product to another as well as the other electrical properties of those components. Do some components “get out of the way” better than others? Certainly, but we dare say because it’s neutral. More likely due to “transparency,” “soundstage,” “openness,” and other characteristics of a given product. Whether you buy a Cary Audio product or a Pass Labs product, you buy it for the way it sounds, not for the way it doesn’t sound, within reason.
Most reputable audio manufacturers labor over the “voicing” of a product. The voicing is the sonic characteristics it’s given and ultimately the emotional qualities the product conveys on playback. Invariably tweaked to give it “balance,” a little bit more of this or a little bit less of that until we feel it’s the best it can be given the product parameters. Voicing equates to the color any given product is designed to convey along with its sense of “balance.” Additionally, balance does not make a product neutral per se, nor does “natural-ness.” It still has a character, or color, unto its own. Perhaps the term color is misconstrued as too much of this or that, which we can all agree too much (or too little) of most things are not good. Just as neutral is often misconstrued as a reference point by which audio products should be judged.
We’d caution those wishing for a neutral audio system to be careful of what you wish for. You may not like what you find. After all, life is much more interesting in color.
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