Defining Our Most Used Terms: Warm and Neutral

In this Hot Topic, we’re exploring the concepts of a “neutral” system and a “warm” system.  These are probably some of the most widely used terms in audiophilia, so they’ve lead to many long-time discussions on our Forum.

Audiogon member, Liquid-Smooth, set to find out which one other members prefer when he posted, “I have 2 sets of speakers with different characteristics (among others I have).  One is neutral while the other one has more warmth to the sound.  I enjoy both on different music, but started wondering what do other members prefer?  What’s “supposed” to be “better”? … if there is such a thing in hi-fi.  Opinions of members here are most interesting and educational for me…”

But before you can answer that question, the community really needs to agree on what these terms even mean.  As Esprits4s said, “This thread is classic.  We can’t even agree on the meaning of ‘warm’ or ‘neutral”… It’s hard to communicate if everything is subjective.”

User, Byroncunningham, took a stab at neutrality by posting, “If, after changing a system element, (1) individual pieces of music sound more unique, and (2) your music collection sounds more diverse, then your system is contributing less of its own signature to the music. And less signature means more neutral.”

However, Kijanki brought up a good point following, “How do you know how it supposed to sound? Sitar from Northern India sounds completely different than sitar from Southern India. How do you know? That’s the problem – by having heard one? Where? In small humid room or big concert hall? What brand of sitar?

I personally don’t believe as is said so often, exact neutrality or absolute transparency exists in audio equipment on the whole, and is rather mere perceptions of those auditioners or previewers who attempt to tell another as to it’s performance in words only,” commented BlindJim.

For a different perspective on neutrality, we turn to Frogman, who wrote, “More proof of the need for a better audiophile vocabulary; one which, if it is to have any real meaning, needs consensus. A good place to start is, ironically, outside the audiophile world – in real world vocabulary. How often do we say something like, ‘Joe Toob is a warm person,’ or ‘John Fett is not a very warm person; he is cold.’ When we say these things, are we referring to anything having to do do with frequency response? Probably not. We are probably referring to whether a person is amiable or not. I think the term warm, in the audio context, is being misused and has more to do with a component’s ability to draw you in, and let you get involved with the music.”


Once we ever do firm up these definitions, what can affect which you prefer?  According to our users below, your room, what type of music, and more can all affect your preference.

Everest_audio: I think I would say that I prefer neutrality, but the sonics of my room can be somewhat cooler, so I prefer warmer components. However, warmer components in a more neutral sounding room might leave me wanting. It’s all about synergy between the components and the room.

Jallen: Neutral for evaluations and vinyl, and warm for long term listening and digital.

Philjolet: I think warm works better with a cheaper rig; Neutral when the hi-fi is very good. I lean toward a gentle golden glow myself…

Peterayer: I presume by the two terms “neutral” and “warm” you refer to tonal balance. If that is the case, I prefer a neutral tonal balance that does not emphasis particular frequencies over others. I think this conveys more accurately what is on the recording and what the engineers intended. It also means that the quality of recordings will vary more. Having written that, in the end, I prefer what sounds most natural and like real voices and instruments. That is usually a neutral system playing very well recorded acoustic music, in my experience. And people may not agree on where the line between neutral and warm lies. I love a great piano or cello concerto on my small scale system. Listening to Led Zeppelin is another matter and makes it a bit more difficult to define neutral and warm tonal balance. But I love that too.

Oregon: I’ll take mine naturally warm.

Muralman1: I need to add something. It has been my experience less is more. My wires can’t be more simple. The DAC lacks a filter chip. The preamp is spartan. Every little change proclaims itself loudly, training me to go simple. The end result spotlights the depth of material gathered onto the lowly CD. Thus my question. How, with all the layers of components can one know if one component addition or change makes a difference on it’s own or is it a lost in complex relationships with the other components?


What’s your take on this debate? Comment below with your best definitions of “warm” and “neutral” and which you prefer!

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