Audio Dictionary: “Warm” vs “Neutral” vs “Bright,” and the role your brain plays in all this
“This headphone is really bright! It’s hurting my ears!”
“Wow, these speakers sound so warm and musical.”
“I only use neutral studio monitors in production.”
Lots of words get thrown around to describe audio gear. Have you ever read a review of headphones or speakers? Then you’ve probably seen the three terms in the title of this article. But what do they really mean? What type of sound do they describe? Well I’m here to tell you, in as non-technical a way as I can, because it’s Tuesday afternoon and why not?
Neutrality is the holy grail of high-end audio listening. Audiophiles chase after neutral equipment with a rabid zeal, in a quest to try and hear the “purest” audio possible.
Unfortunately for those folks, “neutral” doesn’t actually exist.
A truly neutral headphone or speaker would reproduce every frequency of sound across the whole range of hearing in equal measure, with nary a decibel of difference between them. The laws of physics make this pretty tough. Every speaker or headphone driver is going to have its own voicing depending on the design, just as every human voice sounds different.
You can get closer to neutrality with speakers by cheating, and using several different sizes of speaker in the room, like in home theater setups. Each speaker then produces different audio frequencies, focusing on what they’re best at.
Headphones don’t have this luxury. Even the most balanced and expensive headphones out there will still be better at reproducing certain frequencies. Most of the popular “neutral” studio production headphones are actually a little“bright,” and consumers might find them unpleasant.
This is all a bit of a touchy subject in the hardcore audio community. Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity has a phenomenal article about all of this over here, which I recommend if you want to dive deep.
Rather than chase after “true neutral,” I’d recommend that you try a selection of warm and bright headphones or speakers, and figure out which voicing you prefer more.
“Warm” audio gear is the most popular type of gear on the consumer market right now.
Warm sound has a tilt towards the bass frequencies. The bass and vocals are more prominent, and the higher sounds, though present, are quieter and subdued. Warm headphones and speakers tend to sound “comfy,” “musical,” and “pleasant.”
Sometimes warm headphones are profoundly thumpy and bass-heavy. That’s the extreme end of warm. Warm headphones are super popular right now. Beats and Bose make tons of money every year selling warm-sounding audio gear. Home speaker setups, even soundbars without subwoofers, tend to have a warmer quality to them.
Do you want loud bass? Do you want your headphones to have a movie-theatre style of sound to them? Do you want vocals to sound like honey? (I don’t really know what this means but it sounded good to me). Then you want a warm sound. That’s what to look for in reviews.
“Bright” is the opposite of warm. Bright gear is better at reproducing high-pitched sounds. You’ll see phrases in reviews like “Sparkle,” “Crisp,” and “Clarity” used to describe bright gear. Bright headphones are sometimes valued in production for their ability to reveal hisses and other imperfections in recordings.
If a headphone is too bright, it can become fatiguing to listen to after a while. High sounds become annoying quickly, and if they’re too loud, you’ll start to become irritated at your music without really understanding why. Bright headphones are less-forgiving of poorly mastered music than warm ones are. Grado and Beyer Dynamic are known for making very bright headphones, and some people swear by them.
Do you want your music to have a crisp sound? Do you want to hear every symbol hit with complete precision, and every little detail of acoustic instruments? Then you might like a bright headphone, or want to add some tweeters to your speaker setup. Just don’t pierce your eardrums with annoying high sounds. Bright headphones tend to have a wider feel to the soundstage, because high sounds are easier for our brains to localize than low sounds. Incidentally, that’s why it doesn’t matter all that much where you place a subwoofer in a room.
Bonus- V-shaped, and the Brain
Some headphones are “V-shaped.” This means they’re voiced to have strong highs and lows, and not much else. This sort of sound can be immediately pleasing to the brain. We like the thumpy low notes, and the easy-to-locate directionality of the highs. Audiophiles tend to dislike v-shaped sounding gear, because most vocals and instruments sit somewhere in the middle. So voices will sound a little empty and hollow on a v-shaped headphone.
Your brain is really good at adjusting to different styles of sound. You might not notice that your headphones are Warm until you try listening to a Bright headphone, and vice-versa. Your brain will adjust to either signature with more listening, and be more shocked by the change as a result.
No headphone or speaker is perfect for everything. That frustrating truth is what makes this hobby such a rabbit hole. People have personal preferences, and physics make it nigh-impossible for a “True reference neutral” piece of gear to exist. Nicer gear sometimes still has the audio tweaked in some way to sound more warm or more bright, because the engineers thought that sounded nice.
Hopefully this will help you the next time you’re reading a headphone or speaker review. I don’t know why we invented all this complex language to try and describe how things sound, but it’s the best we’ve got. It’s not easy to render emotional responses in words, and as always, the best way to hear the truth is to listen for yourself and hope your retailer has a good return policy. :)