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KIH #42 – Stuck in neutral?

Hifi has a nasty n-word that’s not racist but just as troublesome: neutrality. What is it? That’d be the issue, right there. Nobody knows. Pure spring water ought to be a decent enough example of something uncontaminated and pure. Except even there mineral content, trace elements and such will vary to have an impact on taste no matter how small. To know the one and only taste of pure water—Aqua Absolute–we’d need a golden sample. But now questions arise. Should that sample have no minerals and trace elements at all? If it should have them, how much of each, precisely? If not, doesn’t it become distilled water? If so, have you tasted distilled aqua? Does it compare to pure spring water? Hasn’t some immeasurable vitality evaporated?

These thoughts arose during a recent review of Colin North’s class D monos. They use stock nCore 500 modulator and nCore 1200 switch-mode power supply boards. Then they’re seasoned up with Colin’s own input buffer running hot-swappable (socketed) discrete opamps and fixed discrete regulators which are promoted as an upgrade from the stock Hypex buffer. I described their sound as one of crystalline clarity, with dry textures and taut damping. I also called them neutral as far as such things can be ascertained. Amongst others, a strong pointer toward neutrality was how unusually easy flavour shifts from any upstream injection tracked. Making a little change in ancillaries translated with real obviousness. If something’s “smack in the middle”—what hifi neutrality should probably mean—any push to dislodge it even subtly will be apparent. There’s no backtracking involved. One doesn’t have to proceed from deep tropical triode humidity to mild class A Mosfet warmth to very minor 6922 tinge, then move through zero to arrive at slightly cool before progressively getting more arctic. One can get to slightly cool or 6922 textures in one small step.

Never mind that we can’t define the true north of neutral by ear. Would we embrace it if we could? It’s well-known that most people prefer an at-the-ear (in-room) frequency response that’s linear but slightly tilted up in the bass, hence slightly down in the treble like a teeter-totter stuck to ground on the tweeter end. Perfectly horizontal would be flat and text-book neutral. Except that’s not what most people consider to sound right. To define what neutral is, we’d really have to start off with understanding how the human ear/brain works, exactly; then assess how an individual’s hearing differs to account for biological uniqueness where no two snowflakes are alike, never mind two human beings. Research is being done on this but it’s probably fair to call it still in its infancy. Once matured, we’d need a full suite of measurements to help us verify that we’re on target. Even if we had that, we’d still need to fix the severe nonlinearities our room acoustics impose on the sound to hit our now clearly defined neutrality goal.

What if we didn’t like neutral? The reason I come back to this is that with our most ‘neutral’ gear in series, source to speakers via cables, the nCore amps sounded stark – like Robb Stark’s obsession with “winter is coming”. It didn’t take much to flavour to taste. Still, without it, something was amiss. Words to describe that amisstress would be aloof, cold, stripped bare and somehow flat despite being amazingly detailed and transparent. Be it adding a 6DJ8 in the DAC, a 12AT/AU7 combo in the preamp, PCM → DSD resampling in the source… it all was obvious like one drop or many, of colour into a glass of water. To varying degrees, these drops undermined my unease of listening in neutral gear without emotional traction. The ideal final configuration would certainly have been different from listener to listener. The point is, I doubt any experienced auditioner would have gone for the most ‘neutral’ component chain at my disposal. I know I didn’t.

Is it the case that we all have an internal barometer—set either biologically, through cultural conditioning, audiophile training or other factors—by which we recognize our correct sound? In EQ terms, that’d be our personal target response curve. Harman’s research, now applied to headphones as well, suggests good overlap between their test subjects. It’d be interesting to know however whether their people were culled from a broad enough cultural diversity to include listeners from different countries and races who speak completely different languages. Speaker manufacturers in particular know of cultural preferences whereby they tune their product slightly different for, say the German market over the Chinese, the Japanese over the American.

Such speaker voicing suggests global patterns which make the concept of neutral more a matter of rightly balanced sound according to an individual’s biological + cultural target response curve. Should we imagine that their combination results in anything resembling ruler flat? Should neutral mean uncoloured? What if absence of all colouration bores us to tears? What if we need/want a particular kind or dosage of colouration? What if neutrality and our personal target response don’t overlap? What good would asking someone else’s advice be then? Wouldn’t it really be up to us to discover what best suited our biology and cultural conditioning? And… doesn’t even biology change with age? It’s well known that HF hearing declines. Listening too loud damages sensitivity. Even cultural conditioning needn’t be fixed. What if we relocate to a different country, get exposed to their music, immersed in their language, speech patterns, vocal pitch and general approach to life? Should we imagine that this would have no effect on our perceptions and related preferences? If you always hated opera for example, living in Italy for 10 years might just have an effect. I think that if we started to look at certain hifi ideologies along such far more fluid lines, the straight and narrow would rather quickly lose its appeal, correctness and relevance…

Written by Srajan Ebaen

Srajan Ebaen

Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to DAR pro bono.

11 Comments

  1. Speaking of cultural differences but in the ocular realm, a Sydney optometrist once told me that many of his Asian clients opted for lenses one or two percent away from fully corrective. They apparently preferred a slight blurring of distant objects.

    • Funny you mention the “ocular realm” in this context, makes me think of this interesting talk by etnographer Tricia Wang. It’s about technology and the western obsession with the idea of objectively representing reality.
      She starts out with an example highlighting differences in weastern/eastern views on art in the 1500s when the west “rediscovered” the linear perspective in painting and wanted to export it to the east. Didn’t really work out.

      Hearing her talk helped me relax this fixation with the neutral when thinking audio-wise. And it consequently eased my struggles and doubts in trying to decide what gear to go for and what sound ideal to strive for.

      The talk can be found here,
      https://videos.theconference.se/tricia-wang-dont-trust-the-truth

    • Yes. Somewhat similarly, photographers are well known to want blurry surroundings to their crisp-focus subject. Is it a good idea to let picture-viewers focus on the background instead? (If such thing was possible?)

  2. Yes, I tend to agree with much of that. Yet are we ignoring the idea of comparing it to the original event when talking about neutrality? We seldom have the opportunity to do that, but the original event usually has some colour to it’s frequency balance — the tone of the brass or wood in the specirfic instruments played, the makeup of the venue. Does our system add more colour on top of that, does it take a neutral stance in reporiducing the same amounf of colour, or in the name of neutrality does it actually subtract from the colour inherent in the original performance? Again, we may not be in a position to comment with any authority unless we are the recording or mastering engineer, or perhaps were at a live event and then heard its recording. Only a few months for the details of the sound to be coloured in our memory!

  3. Precisely why when I give audio advice I am far more interested in the cultural and music references of the person than I am in some ideal of neutrality. I focus on what will connect a person with the music they enjoy.

  4. That’s an excellent example for how “right” or “perfection” (the 100%) needn’t be what someone prefers to end up with. Which then makes 100% or perfection slightly wrong for that person, doesn’t it? Good one, John!

  5. Just like ‘truth’, ‘neutral’ can have different facets.

    In an concert hall, what the performers hear is different from what the audience hear. What you can hear in one row is different from what you hear in another row. But for everyone attending the event, it is a live concert.

  6. If I want to hear something neutral, I’ll listen to something acoustic, and hopefully in the right venue, because even the room can mess with neutrality. We’ve all heard bland performances done right.
    I’ve heard intoxicating sax played under a freeway overpass that made me wish the traffic would never move.
    Neutrality can be like the three rules of real estate: location, location, location. When in Rome,….

  7. “I described their sound as one of crystalline clarity, with dry textures and taut damping. I also called them neutral”

    You see, I would *never* call that sound neutral. There’s your problem right there.

  8. I have always hated the word “neutral.Neutral to what?
    Which guitar is more neutral-a Fender, a Gibson? What acoustic guitar is more neutral,the one with the maple neck or the rosewood fret board.How about a spruce top?
    Does the warmth of a Strad violin stray from neutral ?
    I gave up on this term about the same time I gave up on striving for the absolute sound.
    Nothing is neutral.,You can only compare one sound to another and you like one more than the other. There is no definitive recording or definitive live performance of any voice or any instrument that we can use as the benchmark and compare all else to.

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