The term neutrality is pervasive in the world of audio. We often use the word when describing a component or a system, and most audiophiles agree on the definition: A neutral component or system neither adds nor subtracts from the music it seeks to convey, allowing the signal to flow through unencumbered, faithfully reproducing whatever is in the recording. We’re all looking for that neutral component or system, but does it actually exist? 

In my view it isn’t possible for one to accurately assess neutrality, and even if you could would others agree with your findings? What sounds neutral to one person may not to the next? I believe neutrality is sort of a sliding scale and different for each listener, thus neutrality is a concept that can only be defined in a given system by a given listener.

Let us start at the beginning; the recorded music we look to reproduce. If we are to agree on a common definition of neutrality, we must have a recording that is absolutely faithful to the original event.

The making of a recording is a complex procedure involving a myriad of components, each adding at least a small amount of its own character. The equation is so complex that every single recording ever made differs from the next. No two recordings can offer the exact same reproduction of tone and timbre. Most importantly it is not possible for an audiophile to know if a recording is accurate. Here’s why. 

Recording the event -

  • Microphone – At the very beginning of the signal chain is the microphone. Are you aware that every microphone has a different sonic character? They do. Did you know that recording engineers select certain microphones based on their characters? They do. There is nothing wrong with this, but it clearly does imprint the recording with the personality of that device. There are dozens of microphones to choose from.
  • Placement – I’m sure you’d agree that microphone placement has a dramatic affect on the sound. Is it close miked or is it distant? Are they high above the audience or very close to the performers on stage?
  • Cable – Most audiophiles believe cables sound different. Microphone cables affect the sound too. Do all engineers employ the same cables? No.
  • Mixing console – Most recordings employ multiple microphones, requiring a mixing console to blend them together. As you might imagine, this complex electronic device imparts some measure of its own “flavor.”
  • Venue – I think we’d all agree that every venue has its own sonic signature. Whether it is an orchestra hall, night club, soundstage or studio, each imparts its own personality to music played/recorded there. Further, different seating locations within each of those environments offer dissimilar acoustics and sonic signature.  

Post recording processing -

  • Mixdown – After the recording session, engineers evaluate the recording in a studio, listening for anomalies in need of correction. Sometimes equalization, reverb or limiting is used to make the recording appropriate for transfer to CD or LP. Clearly these manipulations change the sound, taking it further from the original.
  • Mastering – A critical stage is transferring the master tape to either digital or analog mediums. Replay machines, mixing consoles, cables, cutting amplifiers, etc., all play a part in defining the final sound.
  • Presence – Bottom line, unless one was present at the recording and mastering sessions, how can we ever begin to understand how the finished product compares with the original. Simply put, it isn’t possible to use any recording as a benchmark for system accuracy.

Replay -

  • Room – A replay space affects the sound reproduced within and there is no way to eliminate the effect of the room. Size, shape, reflectivity, resonance, listening and speaker position; the list is endless. To take the room out of the equation we’d all have to agree to build exactly the same rooms, from precisely the same materials, furnish it in the same way and agree to place the speakers and listening position the same.
  • Hearing and Listening Preferences – We all hear differently – both from a physiological and a psychological perspective. No two individuals perceive sound exactly the same. Our ability to hear different frequencies at the same level of sensitivity varies widely and is different for each listener. Further, I believe psychological factors come into play. Each of us tend to focus on specific characteristics of the performance that help us to connect to the sprit of the music. While some focus on tonality, others cue in to timbre and still others become immersed in sound space while some queue in on pace or timing.

Can any system ever be a perfect conduit for all these facets? In my opinion, the answer is no. Considering all the variables listed above, I ask; how can we adjudge, and arrive at a universally accepted definition of neutrality? I don’t believe we can, but frankly, I honestly don’t think it matters.  

Too much emphasis is placed on reaching the holy grail of neutrality. The pursuit of technical correctness often obscures more important aims. After all what is the audio hobby all about? What is the goal of reproduced music in the home? As music lovers we seek to bring into our living room the emotion of music, to enjoy and appreciate the connection to the composer’s or songwriter’s intent. What it takes to complete that union differs for each of us, but whatever that specific characteristic is, matters not. The point is that the individual finds it in his system.