When people discuss speakers, one of the first things that immediately come to mind is the way each individual speaker sounds. When I typically describe a box, I use adjectives like brash, forward sounding, harsh, warm or neutral.
Let’s look at neutrality. What exactly does a neutral speaker sound like? Well, to offer a point of comparison, something that’s warm typically contours the upper end. The hornless Bose Panaray 802 is what usually comes to my mind when I’m trying to describe a speaker with gentle (or restrained) highs. In contrast, something that’s forward sounding typically has its midrange pronounced. I usually think of VerTec from JBL as a speaker series with a very pronounced midrange. Some might describe this as in-your-face, while others may describe this as a bite (or as an ice pick to the head, but I digress). Finally, something that’s bright typically has a pronounced or strong high-end. Examples involving Klipsch are usually brought in at this point. Regardless, all these terms are subjective, and everyone usually has their own idea of what type of sound falls in each respective category.
When it comes to neutrality, there’s usually one definition that comes to mind. For me, a truly neutral speaker is one that’s able to accurately reproduce and amplify the source material without any coloration.
Garbage in, garbage out. Talent in, talent out. You get the picture.
As a listener, I personally prefer to own a system that I know will faithfully reproduce the source material, warts and all. With a blank canvas, I should be able to reproduce all forms of music without preference to any specific genre. Any adjustments can be made upstream, and I should be able to get the flavor I want with each song without having to pick a different system.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably know that speakers are imperfect devices, and that all speakers exhibit some form of coloration because of their mechanical nature. The limitations of speakers aside, let’s agree to differentiate manufacturers that strive for a neutral pallet versus those that offer a certain flavor of sound. I obviously prefer neutrality, but there’s certainly value to be had with a system that more closely matches your idea of that perfect sound right out of the box.
Now, when I say that I’m a fan of neutral speakers, that doesn’t automatically mean that I’m obsessed with achieving a flat frequency response. Yes, favoring neutrality typically prioritizes speakers that can achieve a flat frequency response at all levels, but this doesn’t mean that I want all my mixes to be perfectly flat. If I’m playing back recorded material, I want to match what the artist intended as best I can, but when it comes to live mixes, flat doesn’t always mean better. In many cases, flat mixes can sometimes sound dull or uneventful. Instead, the true value in having a neutral system is the ability to have a system that can accommodate any and all genres of music without preference – at least on paper.
Some systems do this better than others.
Going back to the adjectives mentioned above, a rock-box that always exhibits strong mids or highs may be unacceptable in a theater application, where unnoticed amplification is sometimes key. On the other end of a spectrum, a system that exhibits a healthy amount of innate bass that may be perfect for an acoustic group may be too overwhelming for a jazz quartet. With a neutral system, an engineer would be able to control these flavors using processing and effects without resorting to a swap-out of the PA.
As an example, let’s take a look at the Meyer Sound UPA. Asking around, I usually hear the terms dry or sterile when I ask people to describe this box. So why is the UPA so revered if these seemingly negative terms are used to describe it? Because at the end of the day, the box doesn’t really exhibit a sound – and therein lies its value. The UPA is compact, relatively lightweight (ha!), linear and loud. More importantly, the box is consistent enough to be a known quantity in the industry and neutral enough to be used in hundreds of applications. You know what you’re getting when you use a UPA, and you can predict its sonic behavior in many applications. This consistency and predictability allows you to worry less about the PA, and instead focus your time on contouring your mix. In my case, it allows me to just focus on the music without worrying about the speakers when it comes to playing back recorded material. If adjustments are to be made, I can hear them – even the small ones.
What goes in, comes out – only louder.
So what does a neutral speaker sound like? Ideally, a neutral speaker shouldn’t sound like anything.