Neutral, transparent, warm

I’m wondering if any of you could help me understand better some terms that are often used in trying to describe the sound of a speaker. And, I guess instead of trying to describe these terms which are themselves a description, can you give me some specific examples. First, is there a difference between “neutral” speaker, and one that is considered “transparent”? Second, is it that a speaker is labeled “warm” if the high frequencies are more rolled off than neutral or transparent speakers. Sorry. Too many questions, but I’d be interested in hearing from some of veteran audiophiles. If you don’t want to address that, then how about this. Let’s confine ourselves to floor standing speakers costing up to $3000. New or used. Give me one or two examples that in your opinion epitomizes “Transparent”, one or  two that are good examples of “neutral”, and a couple that are usually described as being “warm”. Thanks.


I started on this… and lost what I wrote. So let me recommend The Complete Guide to high end audio by Robert Harley. He does a great job of explaining what to look for in a speaker and the trade offs and characteristics to look for.


Also… a good reference:



To me, "neutral" means flat in FR and with very low distortion. A component with nonflat frequency response I'd call "colored."

"Transparent" implies low noise and distortion. A transparent component is not necessarily neutral.

"Warm" implies a little boost in the lower midrange, say the two octaves from 100 Hz to 400 Hz. A warm component is colored, but it could be transparent.

Warm may mean more than one thing… you have to read the word in context. It can mean midrange and bass bloom (fully fleshed out midrange and bass). Or tipped overall tonal balance towards the bass, or attenuated high frequency.

Sound quality can be thin like from a small radio… as sound quality increases the presence of each of the frequencies is increased… in older electronics there was lots of treble and bass and thin unfleshed out midrange. So, a female singer has a thin high pitched voice. But in good warm systems a female voice will have heft and width… be hilly fleshed out. This is mid-range bloom… a great thing… putting the midrange in proper width and volume to treble and bass. This may not mean attenuation or a preponderance of bass.



To me warm and neutral are mutually exclusive. I think that transparent is also difficult to meld with warm. Perhaps a speaker can be both transparent and warm at different frequencies. I will use the Harbeth "house" sound as an example. Warm yes, neutral absolutely not and transparent perhaps but not to my ears. Warm=colored. 

Transparent pertains to the background and image specificy. Black/quiet background with images suspended on space… as opposed to “a wall of sound”..  

So, I find Harbeth to be slightly warm yet very natural/transparent. However I do not find it "Fast". I had Totem and KEF speakers and listened to many B&W's and found them to sound 'Fast" - but can I describe 'Fast" for you? Perhaps Lively is closest. I would suggest listening to as many speakers as you can and you'll eventually find adjectives that work for you.

For instance, I didn't understand a 'grainy' sound said about DAC's until I had heard enough of them and suddenly I heard one that sounded 'grainy". 

I don’t know if it’s still available, but at one time Stereophile offered a little pamphlet containing all the terms used (some coined) by the father of subjective reviewing, J. Gordon Holt.

Neutral and warm refer to frequency balance, transparent does not. Think of transparency like the pane of glass in a window between you and an object on the other side. If the pane of glass is absolutely transparent, removing it will in no way change your perception of the object. If you then install a not-completely transparent pane, the appearance of the object will be effected, to one degree or another. One effect can be the glass changing the color temperature of visual images passing through it. That is analogous to a loudspeaker being cold or warm---not neutral

A way to simulate the effect of transparency and lack thereof is to take a camera with an adjustable focus lens, and alternate between perfectly focused and just slightly out-of-focus. When perfectly focused the lens appears to be invisible---the image "tack sharp"; when slightly de-focused the image of the object becomes softer, a little "diffused" or smeared. In worst cases texture or grain will be added to the surface of the image. Also, the de-focussing can reduce your ability to see depth-of-field (front-to-rear layering, as in a symphony orchestra on a stage), and objects can be smeared together. All these visual terms, concepts, and observances apply equally to the high-fidelity reproduction of music.

If a loudspeaker isn’t perfectly ’neutral" (none are), it will change the "color temperature" of instruments and voices; it will change their inherent timbre. Since all loudspeakers are short of perfectly neutral, hi-fi consumers must pick the coloration they find least objectionable. That’s why loudspeaker preference is so subjective. Many audiophiles---while appreciating the transparency of ESL’s---find them a little "cold". ESL fans find dynamic speakers too warm. It’s been this way for a long time, and probably will for the remainder of our lifetimes.

In the early days of hi-fi (post-WWII and into the 1950’s)---when dynamic loudspeakers were really bad---audiophiles were astonished when they first heard an ESL design (the QUAD ESL hit the market in 1957). I know I was. The ESL’s sounded far, far more transparent than did boxed speakers (this was before Jim Winey in 1970 introduced his Magneplanar loudspeaker, itself a planar-magnetic design). Dynamic loudspeakers have been greatly improved over the past 6-7 decades, but ESL’s still sound more transparent (imo) than almost all box speakers. Magnepans are in the middle, still not as liquidly-transparent (a JGH-coined term) as ESL’s..

And then there are horns and ribbons. ;-)

a speaker i tried for a bit [then put back into their shipping boxes] was a vandy 1Ci, in the oversized demo room of a local dealer, they sounded very 3-dimensional [utterly non-boxy if you kept your head in a vice] and warm yet sufficiently clear, run from a rega amp [which doubtless added to the perceived warmth], utterly non-harsh. but when i tried them in my 14' wide by 14" deep listening room, they sounded obnoxiously bright and forward and shouty while simultaneously veiled [driven by old jvc 130 wpc amp]. a disappointment. was told i needed twice the listening room size and another rega amp to duplicate the dealer's experience. no thank you. enter my gently used set of Thiel cs.5 speakers, about half the size of the vandys. the Thiels combine all 3 [aforementioned] attributes. it is the warmest-sounding of all the other Thiel speakers, the only one that can be driven satisfactorily by non-audiophile non-powerhouse amps and the only one that can be used in a small listening room. these speakers are neutrally transparent and image solidly, while the vandys did not, in the same listening room with same amp driving them. the only other speakers i've heard with my own two ears, did not quite have all three attributes in one package. the maggie tympani IIIs were transparent, neutral, but not a trace of warmth. never harsh, just ease and a cold accuracy and images that floated in the room regardless of listener position. no other speaker i've heard could do all that. back in the 80s i heard KEF 105.2 speakers in a fancy schmancy dealer in DC, they were also transparent, neutral but not warm at all. later that decade i heard the revised Snell class A speakers, in a room slightly too small by about half, they were decidedly warm but not KEF-level transparent and not KEF-level neutral, but i could easily have lived with them. i remember they had a visceral deep bass. 

all this reminiscing aside, transparent to me = being able to hear deep [all the way to the back of the recording venue and all around it, from FFF to PPP and everything in between, hearing in between the notes] into the recording without any haze or hash or resonance getting in the way, IOW low distortion. neutral to me means an announcer's voice sounds like you are in the announcer's booth with him, no shriek or boom or overhang/resonance, just clean accurate sound with the same tonal balance as the real thing. warm to me can mean both a bias towards the lower half of the frequency spectrum esp. below about 2k, but also a lack of strain, an ease, a sheer clear naturalness of sound that ties in with transparency and neutrality.

New Duntech Audio Senators and the new Fink Team Borgs are some of the most transparent box speakers on the market. Very Quad like !

Oh yeah, I forgot some of JGH's other analogies about transparency:

In addition to the term "veiling" (thanks for the reminder emrofsemanon!), he likened lack of transparency to a layer of "scrim" (must be a term from before my time, but I get it) being inserted between listener and source.

A quality important to me in the sound of reproduced music that is closely related to transparency is that of "immediacy"---the images being "palpable", as in "reach out and touch it". Another is "forward" vs. "recessed". I think that may be more a function of frequency response than transparency, but the two are not completely separate.

First, is there a difference between “neutral” speaker, and one that is considered “transparent”?

Yes neutral one is more of tonality (frequency response).
The later can be more of a time domain thing. Or it can be something that is different between speakers. 


To me, "neutral" means flat in FR and with very low distortion. A component with nonflat frequency response I'd call "colored."

Agree… and well put in general.


"Transparent" implies low noise and distortion. A transparent component is not necessarily neutral.

Agree in general… but:
Speakers that have cabinet resonances or port noise, or other driver anomalies reveal themselves more easily.
If the distortion is solely harmonic distortion, and when it the same in both channels, then to me it is more like a colouration than anything else… and not always lacking in transparency.

We either hear the speaker or we do not. However some hard panned music is not easy to listen to if one is accustomed to not hearing the speaker when on better recorded music.


"Warm" implies a little boost in the lower midrange, say the two octaves from 100 Hz to 400 Hz. A warm component is colored, but it could be transparent.

(If bright is the opposite of warm, then it makes it easy for me to step backwards.)


Let’s confine ourselves to floor standing speakers costing up to $3000. New or used. Give me one or two examples that in your opinion epitomizes “Transparent”, one or  two that are good examples of “neutral”, and a couple that are usually described as being “warm”. Thanks.

My experience (in the extensive sense) is mainly limited to Vandersteens, and in particular the 2C.

There are probably others in the used category that are sub 3k$.
And maybe some in the new category.

If the music plays and you hear the speaker, then it make it quick for me to walk away.

The old Spika was pretty good and cheaper.
The old Magnapaners can be transparent.
The old Duntech/Dunlavy can also be amazing on all those fronts.

Well an interesting topic I would also say that Robert Harley s book would be worth a read. Now first and foremost I bought a set of paradigm studio 100 s it was there top of the line in the day stereophile has them rated as class b borderline class a. Well I believed them and bought them. Huge mistake everytime I bought something it got both better and worse. Each time the resolution and transparency went up they got even brighter. In my opinion bright is the last thing you want. I worry thirty years or more latter when you read about some item having sparkle that to me sounds like they are trying to say something is bright in a nice way. So first advice use your ears to pick items not what you have read somewhere. I since figured out why those speakers had such a good review I realized they had lots of full pages ads in the magazine at the time. They were making money from paradigm. So use your ears. Secondly don't be afraid to buy used you can go up the food chain abunch for the same money. If you have a local HiFi shop or more than one go often and listen to what they have setup. Perhaps write down in a little book what the system is including wire source power preamplifier. Don't be afraid to listening to the really high priced systems as well. It takes experience and skill to decide what component is making the sound bad. You can listen to a hundred thousand dollar two channel where something is wrong and a five thousand dollar system that sounds better. Keep in mind that there are a few things at play there people don't buy fifty thousand dollar speakers just to look at when you read that it assumes that anyone with money is stupid that is not the case particularly if the made there fortune themselves. There is likely a mismatch or a setup or a recording problem. That's where your detective brain comes in from experience. Precise speaker setup will increase the transparency and resolution of any stereo vs just dropped down. And I am talking about exactly the same distance from each wall same toe in level side to side front to back and to the other speaker. Stereo is about the difference in timing between the two channels so you want that timing to be correct when you hear it. If it is not you will hear everything with a blur to it. Terrible recordings are just that junk in equals junk out. Early CDs were terrible or some of them were for that. Lol if you find an old MCA John Denver CD you will understand what bright is. If you turn it up and your ears bleed that bright. Lol. There are different styles of systems and one isn't necessarily better than the other. I like to think about it from the point of view of a painting.  Some one may like Rembrandt and another likes Picasso. Both are wonderful painters or were but the art is very different. With your stereo you are painting a sonic picture so make it your choice. It doesn't matter what I think or anyone else do you get enjoyment from it? If so you have hit the ball out of the park. Enjoyment I think is the end goal. After the paradigm speakers I was with a friend of mine we walked into a store and there was a set of kef 103 speaker there he had the guy hook them up I asked him if he thought they were really better lol he told me to let the moths out of my wallet I bought them and brought them home.that was a transformation. I sold the paradigm speakers and it cost me two hundred difference and I moved a long long ways up. I went to a set of Maggie three point threes that I actively biamped that system after a two year setup experience you could walk around the sound field and shake the singers hand it felt that real.  Currently I have a set of neat speakers in a home theater a set of harbeth slh5 on the big system and a set of equation 25 in a secondary system and a set of some phase in the bedroom. The small neat floor standing speakers go the deepest of any set I have ever owned and they are small. The equation speakers have not been made in years they are easy to drive and interesting they are easy enough to drive that they don't load the Mark Levinson monoblocks I have enough and don't sound the best put them on a tube set of monoblocks and they sing beautifully. Also remember that a balanced system is what you want to good of one item will show what is wrong with the other pieces in your system. A really bright cd player will sound brighter as you get better power pre and better speakers and better wire. Wire in many ways is your tone control. Lol to bad you were not closer I would have you over and you could listen to the difference between the systems all day. You may not like any of them but you could decide what you liked and what you don't like.   Regards 


Thanks. I did a search for Gordon Holt’s glossary. Here is some of it:


Printed versions are available from eBay and other locations.



@pascon   all is simple , this is marketing world , meaning good sound , dont keep too much close , the professional audio journalist use  a lot the expression to let folks know the bad product is good  LOL  

I would listen to a lot of speakers and then chose the one that sounds best to you.  It also depends upon the music you listen.  If you like to hear crisp highs like cymbals then choose tweeters that can produce this sound.  If you have some local sound shops listen and talk to them.  If you don't have good local stereo retailers then jump in the car and visit some.  Sound also depends upon the amplifier driving them.  Each has its own sound.  Try to not make a quick decision.  I would listen to the ones you like best for about two hours.  Bear in mind, when listening can you imagine yourself listening to them for hours or do they either lack something or do they cause hearing fatigue.  Sound should be relaxing to your ears, as you are listening to things you like to hear.

If you like to hear crisp highs like cymbals then choose tweeters that can produce this sound. 

Or if the speakers do piano and the human voice, then is also a good sign that they will do everything else well.

bdp24, Nice post explaining terms in easy to understand ways.

These are simply a few opinions after hearing the brands over the years:

Sonus Faber, usually warmer, good resolving power.

B&Ws, Focal, Dynaudio brighter with good resolution.

Golden Ear, more neutral, good resolution.

  Your ears may not agree. Me, I love transparency that is not harsh but rich with tonality. I'd lean to Sonus Faber these days, not B&W (although I own a little pair).




Well piano and the human voice are difficult, to be sure. Harbeth fans always describe how the Harbeth does voice so well and to my ears voices sound colored and too nuanced through these speakers. Having said this I would rather listen to a pair of Harbeths than many of the B & Ws or Focals that I have heard in the past, especially if the software is a bit on the rough sounding side. 

One more observation:

JGH was particularly bothered by and critical of a particular type of coloration, one very common amongst loudspeakers. He even came up with a term for it: "Vowel coloration." He defined and explained the term in one early-70’s Stereophile speaker review I read, and I immediately understood of what he was speaking.

LIstening as much as I do to music containing harmony singing, my first test of a loudspeaker is in its’ ability to reproduce voices "accurately". Hearing voices as much as we do, it’s easy to hear when a speaker is adding coloration to singing voices; most do, to one degree or another. When I hear vowel coloration being added to voices, the speaker doing so is immediately crossed off my list of acceptable choices. I have established a very high bar in that regard.

In 1973-4 I made recordings of my wife and young son speaking, using a nice condenser microphone JGH had reviewed in Stereophile plugged straight into a Revox A77. I also recorded (with a pair of the mics) the Jump Blues/Swing band I was then playing in, both in a rehearsal space and live in a local bar. Upright piano, electric bass and guitar, tenor and baritone saxes, my Gretsch drumset and Paiste 602 cymbals, and male vocals.

Both recordings serve as excellent references when evaluating loudspeakers, better than almost all commercial recordings, most of which have been subjected---to one degree or another---to all kinds of electronic manipulation, rendering the "accuracy" of the recorded sound unknowable. What should they sound like? Who knows?!

One notable exception are the direct-to-disc LP’s on the Sheffield Labs label. Stunning lifelike sound: extremely transparent, with incredible immediacy, dynamics, and lifelike instrumental timbres. Get yourself some, and use them for your loudspeaker evaluations. If a speaker is adding coloration, reducing transparency, or both, you will immediately hear it.