Have you seen the words “warm”, “neutral”, and “bright” thrown around here and there? It’s important to understand the various types of ways we subjectively describes ‘sounds’ in order to grab some headphones or speakers that will best meet your unique needs. Especially if you’ve read some of our music gear reviews, the way we describe the pairs in their ‘sound quality’ sections can sometimes have you scratching your head. Even more so, who are we to ‘judge’ the ‘sound’ of a pair of headphones or speakers? Of course, we have many decades of experience in the music equipment world, but even then, we’re just humans as well. So what do these subjective terms even mean? We’d like to try and operationally define them for you today.
The more you master the terminology when it comes to ‘sounds of headphones’ or ‘sounds of speakers’, the better it is for you in your specific use, as it will optimize your sound environment for whatever you may partaking in. For this reason, it is highly advisable to know the difference that exists between (what we’ve been able to simplify it as) warm, neutral, and bright headphone sounds. Let’s try and talk about a very subjective topic below. And of course, please let us know in the comments if you have any further advice and we’ll add it in, we’re more than open in doing so.
How do these terms about headphones and speakers sound mean?
Some time in the past, you might have heard somebody say, “Wow, these headphones are pretty bright,” or, “These speakers sound quite warm and musical.” You may have also heard a statement such as, “I prefer neutral speakers and headphones in the production of my music.” Or perhaps you have seen all three words used together in the same title! Now, what is the big difference between the three mentioned sounds of audio equipment? This guide is meant to inform you and give you an understanding of what all these terms are about. However, before we learn about any of the terms, let’s highlight what ‘sound frequencies’ are and detail some more information on what the common “highs”, “mids” and “lows” terms mean in regards to the spectrum of sound when listening to audio, or more technically speaking, the frequency response.
- High pitches = treble frequency (4,000 – 20,000 Hz) = soprano, flute, violin, etc.
- Medium pitches = middle of the two frequencies (350 – 4,000 Hz) = viola, alto, oboe, tenor, cello, etc.
- Low pitches = bass frequencies (20-350 Hz) = bass, bass drum, bassoons, baritone, etc.
- Vocals, drums, pianos, or really any instrument that has numerous octaves can span across all three ranges
Without getting too technical, frequencies are measured in regards to oscillations of a sound wave per second, known as a hertz unit. Pretty much all humans are limited to literally detected with our ears from 20 Hz (the lowest) to 20,000 Hz (the highest). Each time you double the frequency, you get higher one octave. For example, most pianos have nearly 7 octaves, from the left side to right side. Humans can hear about 10 octaves, though unfortunately as we get older (I see it happening personally!) we lose some of the highest octave (10,000-20,000).
- Highs – With cymbals and higher pitched vocals, strings, snares, etc. How do they sound? Are they splashy and clean when they need to be? Can you pick them out of the mix easily and when you start to focus on them, hear their own presence in the mix as opposed to just blending in with the rest of the song? Do they sound “high”, or “above” some of the other instruments in the mix (how are we supposed to determine the ‘direction’ of ‘sound’? Well, with more experience you’ll get better at it). If it’s a ride cymbal, do you have a nice and determined “ting” without the hits being all scrunched together? In other words, does it sound like a real cymbal or like a drum stick hitting it? Does the snare “pop”? The higher vocals make your eyes squint?
- Mids – Does a woman’s voice sound rich and pleasant when it should be, or thin or raspy when appropriate? Can you hear the vocal timbre as if she’s invading your brain with sweet nothings? I think you’re ok in the mids then. If she sounds like Rosanne Barr mumbling at you while she’s making quick work of a Duncan Hines Raisin Loaf, you’ve got issues.
- Lows – When that bass gets plucked or that kick drum hit, do you feel the air movement? Do you just hear that immediate string hit, or a low resonant and slight vibration that comes immediately after? When there’s a quick run up in the bass frets, is everything distorted in a straight line, that “one track bass altogether,” or is it just as musical as that lead guitar making it’s way between your ears, up and down, in the mix? Is it a smeared sound that appears to blend over the vocals and lay like a blanket over the performance as a whole, or is it “tight” and punchy, kicking in and out when and where it should?
What does the term “neutral” mean in audio?
Now that we’re aware of the foundation of measuring sound and what each frequency can entail, the following sounds will describe the emphasis (or lack there of) of lows, mids or highs in a specific pair of headphones. First, it is vital to dig deeper into what a ‘neutral sound’ is prior to moving to the other two sounds (“bright” and “warm”) since this is probably the most popular term we’ve seen thrown around, especially in the studio headphones category. Essentially, all music producers, recording artists, mix and master engineers, or audiophiles prefer ‘neutral sounding’ headphones in order to get what can be termed as the ‘purest’ audio possible. The word ‘neutral‘ is literally defined as ”not helping or supporting either side in a conflict” — so by using this applied to ‘sound’, we can simply say that it doesn’t favor the low-end (such as ‘extra bass’ electronics we see sometimes), middle-end or even high-end frequencies and tries to keep them balanced and of course, ‘neutral’ — they’re all present in the mix, in a balanced and distinguishable way. You can only imagine why musicians would prefer this — they want a blank slate and zero embellishments to make sure they’re giving all types of listeners what they want to intend. They leave the ‘preferred sound’ up to the listener, or to their headphones and speakers.
In regards to true and raw ‘neutrality’, a speaker or pair of headphones will be able to produce every single frequency of sound produced across the whole range of the sound spectrum accurately as we spoke about previously. However, this is not something you can easily achieve irrespective of the features of the speakers or headphones at your disposal. With headphones at the end of the day, it means that the difference is non-existent and impossible to achieve, as the different designs in drivers will give varying sounds. To be nit picky, headphones in general aren’t ever able to give us that true ‘neutral’ sound, since most of them have just one driver (some in-ear monitors have multiple drivers, which comes closer to that ‘neutrality’ term). This is why many who make music, mix and master actually prefer studio monitor speakers since their power, driver size and advanced internal builds do a better job at being able to at least try to come across as accurate as possible.
As stated previously, you can get pretty close to a neutral sound with some studio monitors and even home theater systems by using different speakers (more than two, definitely). However, when it comes to headphones, this is almost impossible to attain. The fact is that even the priciest studio headphones of high quality have specific frequencies that they adapt to in regard to sound production. In most cases, production headphones or studio monitors, which are known to be ‘neutral’ based on their clarity, are actually (technically), ‘bright.’ Nevertheless, statistics indicate that most consumers are not likely to go for these types. On top of that, most people just flat out can’t tell the difference.
Technically, with literally any human-made electronic for audio, there is no way a produced sound can be an exact replica of the applied electrical signal used. ‘Neutral’ sound is closely related to neutral frequency response, which can be a little bit confusing. In fact, many can easily confuse it with “flat frequency response.” Flat frequency response is what we can understand as how all frequencies are offered in the equal amplitude over the whole audible-range of the speaker. Are we getting too technical here?
Achieving neutrality is difficult because of a number of bottlenecks, including but not limited to: dynamic range, drivers (size and make), and required power levels, not to mention recording and recording format. The other challenges are reproduction chain, listening level, headphones, and others that fall in this range. But at the end of the day, at least can you try to find a ‘neutral’ audio gear now that you’re familiar with what it means. We hope.
What is “warm” sound in headphones and speakers?
It goes without saying that “warm audio gear” is another trend in the market today. This is because it is highly inclined to the bass frequencies compared to the ‘neutral’ related gear. In the warm sounding gear and headphones in particular, the bass and related frequencies are much more prominent than the higher sounds, which are subdued. These are the kind that sound more comfortable, quite musical, and pleasant. However, these kinds of gear can sound relatively bass-heavy and thumpy, something that may turn off some musicians and of course, engineers. Oh, you too, audiophiles.
It’s because of the quality of warm sound that manufacturers are raking in millions, brand names Beats and Bose in particular. In fact, their soundbars, speaker setups, and other related products have realized substantial increases in sales in the past few years. Don’t blame the brands, however. They’re just making what consumers want. Don’t blame the consumers, either — humans tend to gravitate towards warmer sounds since that ‘feeling’ of (for lack of better terms) ‘comfort’ and ‘richness’ may very well be biological or innately pleasurable to our bodies. Plus, it just sounds better in our opinion while we’re partaking in normal every day activities. This includes exercise, listening to our Bluetooth speaker while we’re cleaning the house or cooking, or traveling, such as bumping music in our car, riding the train or plane.
If you are out there looking for headphones or speakers that sound great, systems with theater quality sound, and vocals that are unmatched in regard to quality, then warm sound headphones or speakers are your best option. It is indisputable that this is the go-to sound whenever you are in the leisure listening stage because it makes your sound as pleasurable as possible. Importantly, ensure that you go for the sound of audio that will best meet your unique needs and not necessarily for the features that the gear contains.
What are headphones and speakers with a “bright” sound?
It is important to note that ‘bright’ is the exact opposite of warm regarding how headphones and speakers sound. If you are thinking of producing high pitched sounds, then you should be thinking of getting bright sound gear. In many cases, you’ll come across words such as ‘crisp,’ ‘sparkle,’ and other related terms used in reviews. They all mean but one thing—the bright sound, or embellished higher ends (snares, higher-pitched vocals or octaves in instruments) specific headphones can give. In most, if not all cases, the quality of this type is determined by how they reveal hisses and the other imperfections in musical recordings. Some love it, some don’t. Companies like Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and Grado are known to have a wide range of products in this category.
For headphones with a ‘bright’ sound, technically the headphones or speakers have a build that are made to have a ‘bass roll-off‘, or slight decrease in the volume of a particular lower-end frequency cap to make sure it doesn’t over power the mix once it enters into a specific range. It is equally important to note that if the headphone is too bright, then listeners will experience ear fatigue. They don’t annoy easily but can be irritating if they are too loud. If the music is poorly mastered, then you can be sure that the end result will be negative.
The fact is that despite the weaknesses of bright speakers and headphones, your music can be crystal clear with the much needed crisp. If you use these gadgets, then you will hear every symbol with desired precision. If not, you can add some tweeter to your range of speaker system set up. These are the kinds that will have a wider feel in regard to soundstage, and they will be easier for brains to localize. It is for this very reason that subwoofers work well no matter where they are placed in any room.