Neutral, coloration, reference, naturalness, and organic
Following the previous post discussing the ‘music lover vs. audiophile’ approach, we move on to some interesting constructs that are highly interconnected. Especially since they are so connected and overlapping, they can be harder to distinguish. In fact, one could argue that neutral = uncolored = reference, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. So I will just explain how I see them, and refer to them in reviews. Like last time, this is more of a personal matter than a truth. But if not anything else, it will at least help to understand what I mean when I use them in my reviews.
Unlike most of the other terms and audiophile terms in general, neutral is an easy term to understand. Yet it’s very difficult to apply, since it’s hard to establish what truly neutral means when it comes to sound for two reasons. The first is that there’s a difference in what a flat line on a frequency graph is, and what neutral really sounds like for us to hear. The second is that our impression of what a neutral sound is, heavily relies on our experience in hearing truly neutral equipment as a baseline, and quite frankly I’ve yet to hear something that I could describe as ‘truly neutral’. So what this means is, that people will base their opinion on what neutral is on the closest thing they’ve heard to neutral. So for some people that might be something bright, and for others something warm. An example would be when the Mojo was first taking the community by storm, and there were a lot of reports of it being ‘neutral’, something I would contend as I find it has a smooth midcentric tonality. But what it comes down to, is that neutral refers to a certain balance between the bass, midrange, and treble, with neither area being over- or underemphasised. Bass shouldn’t be too enhanced or attenuated, and treble should have enough presence without being too prominent. In addition, the general tone should be neither overly warm or bright.
Coloration is where it becomes a bit trickier. Firsthand, it seems to refer to a departure from a truly neutral signature; as in which elements within a presentation are brought to the foreground, the treble (e.g. cymbals), midrange (vocal presentation) or bass. However, I refer to it as the purity of the tone. A treble or midrange tone can be colored by brightness for instance, but the most common way I apply it is to the added thickness of a midrange note. Often, midrange notes are slightly thicker and warmer. This can make the sound more impressive or smoother, and is usually also associated with veil. With greater transparency, a note will also resonate with more purity, although it doesn’t automatically imply it is uncolored as a sound can obviously be transparent but still bright for instance. However, coloration of a midrange note mainly relies on the tonal balance between the lower, centre and upper midrange. If the centre midrange is more forward than the upper midrange, the note will sound warmer and lose some of the sparkle and clarity in the upper midrange. If the upper midrange is more forward, the note will lose its density and warmth. So in sum, I use coloration primarily for referring to the purity of a midrange tone, specifically the lack of an added thickness. What we really want is a linear response within the midrange, with good transparency. An example of uncolored midrange notes would be the Warbler Prelude or Jomo Samba, although it can also apply to a specific aspect within a signaure, such as the 8.2’s upper midrange. A cable example of an uncolored midrange would be the plusSound X8 gold-plated copper.
Technically, one can say that an uncolored sound is a reference sound. That might even be the most accurate description. But based on the communal perception of the term so to speak, my personal interpretation is that reference is more of a specific type of signature; namely, a highly uncolored sound, so no added thickness or warmth to midrange notes as previously discussed, but with a lift in the (lower) treble. Not in favor of a certain sound, but strictly to boost its technical performance; the clarity, note articulation, imaging, and soundstage. So in a way, we can say a reference signature is linked to a technically high performance, or at least that is the intention behind the design. The best example of a reference monitor would be the Jomo Samba, a cable example would be the Labkable Pandora.
If we move even further in this direction, we arrive at an analytical signature; another connected term, which I would explain as an even brighter signature with a heavier emphasis on treble, and clinical precision. However, I would say that reference is linked more to the coloration of notes or (actually) lack thereof, while analytical is more related to a signature with treble emphasis. But this is just personal; these constructs are more interconnected than segregated.
After discussing these more technical and clinical terms, let’s proceed to a more alluring term: naturalness. Natural is a term that sounds close to neutral, both in its pronunciation and meaning. It’s a romantic term, an implicit promise of something that is familiar, soft, and beautiful. In a way it can be seen as the counterpart of analytical and reference to some degree, moving towards the other side of the spectrum when it comes to aspects as warmth. For if a signature is classified as analytical, it can’t be natural – or other way around. The same holds more or less for reference vs natural.
Again, the definition of naturalness is not set in stone. In fact, it’s even more abstract than reference and analytical, which can be more readily applied to a certain signature and frequency response. Generally speaking, there are two different ways I use it. The first is the naturalness of the complete signature or tone. A signature can sound natural due to the right amount of inherent warmth, combined with a certain balance between the upper and center midrange, with enough presence in the upper midrange to give it a lighter sound. An upper midrange dip will make it sound darker, so we want enough presence there. A philosophy for a natural tuning would be the diffused field method, such as the Perfect Seal Deca; a very natural sounding monitor. Another example would be the Lime Ears Aether, which combines a similar tone with a more inherently warm midrange. A cable example would be the special SilverFi cables.
The second is the naturalness of the distinct aspects within the signature – the bass, midrange, and treble. For instance, a bass can sound natural due to its decay and tone, as often associated with dynamic drivers. Cutting segments of the upper- and mid-bass might result in a cleaner stage and tighter defined bass, but it also results in a less warm or ‘natural’ bass tone.
A midrange in turn will sound more natural based on its presence through the bass and centre midrange. For instance, an enhanced mid- or upper-bass will give the signature a warmer and smoother sound. However, this does not mean the midrange itself will be more natural. The naturalness of the midrange and vocal presentation relies on its inherent warmth, and results from the tuning of the specific segments of the centre and upper midrange frequencies. This will return frequently in the review series. Examples of inherently warm or natural midranges are the 8.2 or Zeus for instance, while I’ve also mentioned the Aether.
Finally, we arrive at the hardest part of a signature to tune naturally: the treble. A natural treble should have a slightly warmer tone, to make it sound realistic and more accurately like the actual instruments we hear, which are generally speaking never piercing or bright. It should also have proper definition (or resolution), rather than sounding splashy. So why is it so difficult to create a natural treble tone? Partially because some people or manufacturers value a nice bit of sparkle as it adds liveliness to the music. A nice example would be the NT6pro. A different reason is the way it affects the whole signature. When you have a warmer signature, enhanced bass, or can’t get the treble to extend far enough, a treble peak is the most efficient way of boosting the overall clarity and soundstage. However, this results in a colder or brighter treble, and therefore less natural tone.
But the most important reason is actually a practical concern; the reason so many iems have a 7 KHz peak is due to the inherent properties of the TWFK BA drivers that are used in the majority of (TOTL) iems. So while the 7 KHz peak has advantages like boosting the overall clarity and soundstage, it also results in a less natural tone. But this isn’t so much a tuning choice of the iem manufacturers, as something they simply have to work around. So often, the tuning requires a balance between a certain amount of treble for its effect on the presentation, with the tone of actual treble itself. Generally speaking, the lion’s share of iems will have a treble tone that hovers somewhere between neutral and bright, rather than ‘natural’. An example of natural treble would be the Prelude or 5-Way.
To understand what naturalness really sounds like, let’s take a look at how certain music sounds. When you’re listening to classical music, it’s obvious you’re hearing a display of a collection of instruments. When you’re listening to electronic music on the other hand, as the name suggests, it’s strictly synthetically created music. So the interesting converging point is one of my guilty pleasures: pop music. Pop music consists of a central vocalist supported by sound effects and instruments. But depending on the equipment, you can hear the music in one of two ways. You can either hear the sound engineer turning a knob to mix in the tunes and beats, or you can hear it as a studio recording session of the vocalists with actual instruments. This depends on the naturalness of the presentation, specifically the brightness in the upper midrange and treble tone. The best example of this contrast is between my two players, the LPG and AK380cu. Due to the LPG’s brighter upper midrange, it sounds more exciting, really making melodies jump out. But with the AK, it sounds like the beat is being produced by a drummer, as well as the cymbals. Violins and guitars sound like they’re being played by musicians, rather than a DJ mixing them in. That my friends, is the definition of naturalness.
But again, it this isn’t necessarily an opinion against one or the other, because it both has its advantages depending on the music. Sticking with pop music, I even prefer the LPG’s presentation here. But the construct of naturalness becomes increasingly more important when referring to instrument-based music.
A similar inter-related term to naturalness is ‘organic’. My personal interpretation, and that’s all it really is, would be that organic is characterized by a warm sound, that is also very coherent in its staging and tone. What this basically means is that all the instruments have a more or less similar warmish tone, and really convey that they’re playing together as a band. Organic in this sense means ‘alive’ or ‘human’, as a counterpart to analytic, which is ‘digital’ or ‘clinical’ where tones might be more precise, they are also more segregated and isolated. When compared to the term natural, I would say that organic in a practical sense translates to a warmer sound, while natural doesn’t necessarily have to. For instance, Deca sounds natural, but it isn’t warm. I would personally relate organic to a certain density in the midrange, coherency in the presentation, and warmth in a signature, with an emphasis on a midcentric signature. A natural sound doesn’t necessarily have to be midcentric as it can also be neutral, it just can’t be analytical. Two examples of an organic monitor would be the 8.2 and 5-Way Reference. However, I wouldn’t necessarily use ‘natural’ as a keyword to describe the 8.2’s signature, as I would the Deca or Aether (as in turn I wouldn’t use the term organic for them).
If I were to line up the terms we discussed on a scale of warmth, it would progress from organic, to natural, reference, and analytical; where natural and reference stray slightly off the path of neutral in either direction, and organic and analytical go even further.