The Elusive Pursuit Of Absolute Neutrality

8/29/2014 11:45:21 AM

Understanding What It Means For a HiFi System To Produce Sound That Is As Close As Possible To a Live Performance

Audio Physic Classic 30 Loudspeakers shown in a high-gloss glass custom finish

Audio Physic Classic 30 Loudspeakers shown in a high-gloss glass custom finish

Think about it, the reason why you invest in a high-end audio system is because, unlike the Sultan of Brunei, you cannot afford to hire Michal Buble or Celine Dion or any of your favourite singers or musicians to come to your home and give you a private live performance every time you feel like listening to their music. The high-end audio system is therefore the next best thing you could have, but only if it delivers a performance that is reasonably similar to what a live performance would sound like. So the closer your audio system resembles the live performance, the better it is serving its purpose.

In the world of high-end audio, the term ‘neutrality’ is bandied about a lot. When I speak to my audiophile friends about it, I find that there is general agreement that neutrality is not so different from the game of chess, in that, it is relatively simple to understand, but exponentially more difficult to master.

You will not get too many arguments when you define neutrality as the ability of an audio system to deliver the sound signal from the source without adding, subtracting or modifying the basic nature of the signal in any way. In other words, as the signal moves through the system none of the components should impose their character on it but rather allow it to flow through with all its original characteristics totally intact. This holds true even with interconnects and cables.

One exception to this would be the power amplifier where the original signal is not passed through but rather more powerful copies of the signal are made and it is those copies that are then fed to the speakers. In this case, neutrality would pertain to how well the copies of the signal resemble the original signal in every way except for the fact that it is more powerful.

What complicates the concept of neutrality in the world of audio, from the physiological and psychological point of view, is that we all hear differently. The ability to hear different frequencies at the same level of sensitivity varies significantly from person to person. We also tend to focus on different characteristics of a musical performance to help us evaluate the fidelity and emotional content in the music. Some of us pay more attention to the timbre, others tend to focus on the tonality or the pace, rhythm and timing. What this results in is widely differing opinions. What sounds utterly neutral to one person may sound grossly coloured to someone else. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to arrive at a consensus on which components and which systems are the most neutral.

When evaluating a component or a system for neutrality, it is important to have a good reference in your head. One way to ensure that your mental reference is good enough to judge a system’s neutrality is to attend as many live performances as possible. This will help your brain understand what singing voices and instruments sound like alone and together with other voices and instruments in a live performance. It is even better if you can attend as many pure acoustic performances as possible, because the unplugged nature of these events means that you can hear the voices and instruments without them being run through electronics and transducers which could also alter the original voice and/or the sound of the musical instruments.

Jeff Rowland Design Group’s Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier

Jeff Rowland Design Group’s Continuum S2 Integrated Amplifier

This is why most of the leading reviewers ensure that they feed themselves a steady diet of live performances, which help them retain in their heads a good reference to use and compare to when they evaluate high-end audio components and systems. In fact the better reviewers are long time musicians themselves and play in live performances quite frequently. I, for one, feel very blessed to have had the privilege of playing the piano and the guitar since I was seven years old. To keep my ears fine tuned I always spend some time playing my acoustic piano and acoustic guitar before I begin evaluating any high-end audio component or system. Despite this evident truism, I find it amusing that some of the most opinionated audiophiles I have met, have attended so few live performanc

At the consumer level, we have control over the neutrality of only part of the whole chain that allows us to enjoy our favourite tunes in the comfort of our homes. That part would commence from the software that we use, be it CDs or vinyl records or tapes or digital music files. To examine neutrality in totality, we need to start not from the software but from the real genesis, which is the process of making the recording in the first; they can be counted using the fingers of just one hand.

It is an enlightening experience to attend a recording session to see how it is done. I would highly recommend this to all audiophiles if afforded the opportunity, as it is a revelation of how complicated the recording process really could be. It involves a plethora of components in such complex configurations; it is next to impossible to obtain two takes that sound exactly the same, especially in terms of timbre and tone, even if all the singers and musicians sing and play it exactly the same way in the two takes.

The chain of events begins with the microphone and no one can argue with the fact that each microphone has it own sonic character and there are dozens of different microphones used in recording studios all over the world. In fact, most recording engineers opt for a particular microphone because he or she feels that the character of that particular microphone is better suited for the specific requirements of the recording session at hand.

The next step that influences the recording is the placement of each of the microphones. Depending on what the recording engineer is shooting for, he or she can choose the close miked position or place the microphone well away from the singer or the instrument. In some cases the recording engineer may even choose to have the microphones placed high above the performers or the audience to attain a certain effect or ambience. Placing microphones to capture the performance of a piano is particularly complex. In some cases the microphones are placed just a few inches from where the felt lined hammers strike the strings of the piano while in other cases they can be placed a few feet away from the piano as a whole.

The cables used to transfer the signal from one component to another at the recording venue will also exercise some influence on the ultimate sound that you hear from the recording. Since the amount of cabling used can run into hundreds of feet, not all recording studios can afford to use the most neutral cables which tend to be ultra expensive.

Since most recording sessions utilize multiple microphones, it is necessary to employ a mixing console to blend the various sounds picked up by the different microphones. These consoles are complex devices and run the sound signal through a multitude of circuits to give the recording engineer the maximum amount of control and each of these circuits will also imprint its characteristics on the signal that passes through it. This means that from the time the feeds from the various microphones enter the console to the time the signal is outputted from the console, the nature of the sound will have been modified quite significantly.

When recording at a live concert, we also have to account for the acoustical characteristics of the performance venue. Every venue has its own sound signature, which vary substantially from each other. For example, an auditorium has a sonic character that is totally different to a jazz club, which again, would be a completely different kettle of fish to a church or a stadium

Once the initial recording has been completed, the sound track is then subjected to the post recording processes. The first of these is the mix-down where the sound engineers listen very closely to the recording and rectify anomalies if any are detected. This is also the stage where a recording engineer can apply reverb, equalization or dynamic range limiting to make the recording more amenable for a transfer to particular kind of format like a compact disc or a vinyl record. These manipulations take the overall sound even further from what it was at the original performance.

In today’s world where MP3 and other compressed formats totally dominate the market, many of the younger musicloving consumers choose tracks based on how dynamic they sound. Since music tracks recorded at a louder level erroneously tend to be perceived by untrained ears as having better dynamics, there is pressure on sound engineers to make the music tracks as loud as possible even at the cost of compressing the overall dynamic range of the recording. This may be good for sales but it makes recordings sound a lot more different compared to the original performance and it takes away the goose bump inducing majesty that only music with a great dynamic range can deliver

We then come to the critical process of mastering, where the sound track is transferred from the master tape to the digital or analog format that we buy at the consumer level. Here again, the quality of the replicating machines, the music consoles, the cables used etc., all stamp their own character on the sound that is finally recorded in the chosen format

All the aforementioned processes play a part in determining the quality of the recording and as every audiophile knows, if you start off with a badly recorded music track, even the best audio system in the world will not be able to put enough lipstick on that pig to make it sound good. It is simply a question of garbage in, garbage out!

At the consumer level, the first order of business when trying to determine the neutrality of an audio component or system is to have a great reference in your head as to what a live performance sounds like in person. The next essential requirement is to start off with a few very well recorded music tracks preferably on a vinyl record or a high rez digital music file.

Also important is to ensure that your listening room has decent acoustical properties. This is because most of the sounds you hear, reach your ears after bouncing off one or more of the surfaces in your room. This means that depending on whether most of the reflected sounds are partially or totally reflected, absorbed or diffused, the listening room will allow you to hear the full potential of your audio system or not. It is also important to ensure that the speakers and your listening position are optimally placed.

During the actual listening process, you have to focus on the reference that you have in your head of what a live performance sounds like and then compare that to what you are hearing from your system. The main factors that get in the way of allowing reproduced sound to emulate a live performance are the dynamic range, the air between the different voices and instruments, as well as the reproduction of the leading edges, and the quality of the decay of each sound. The most neutral audio components and systems excel in these departments.

One of my favourite ways to determine the neutrality of an audio component or an audio system, is to keep tabs on what I call the ‘scary real’ moments it delivers. These are moments where certain passages in the music sound so incredibly real, they actually startle you into believing that the sound was actually live rather than reproduced. The more scary real moments that an audio system delivers to my ears, the more neutral the system is, in my books.

The Bel Canto Black music system driving Focal Scala V2 Utopia loudspeakers.

The Bel Canto Black music system driving Focal Scala V2 Utopia loudspeakers.

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