Should a reference speaker be neutral, or just great sounding?

I was thinking about something as I was typing about how I've observed a magazine behave, and it occurred to me that I have a personal bias not everyone may agree to.  Here's what I think:
"To call a speaker a reference product it should at the very least be objectively neutral."

However, as that magazine points out, many great speakers are idiosyncratic ideas about what music should sound like in the home, regardless of being tonally neutral.

Do you agree?  If a speaker is a "reference" product, do you expect it to be neutral, or do you think it has to perform exceptionally well, but not necessarily this way?
Isn't it simply the "reference" to what makes you enjoy listening to music the most? By saying a reference has to be neutral starts getting dangerously close to saying it must also measure best (or at least incredibly well).  Once we take the emotion out of our listening experience we are doomed.  I think it's the Reference to what stirs one's soul - that would be my point of reference.
Reference is something that you make comparisons to, a standard.  So, logically, it can be anything as long as it is constant.

For me, a personal reference should be as neutral as possible but I see no reason why others should not have a different standard, if they choose.
I feel you have monitor speakers which just produce the music in the studio .But Reference should be you.....r go to speakers that give you the highs ,the mids and the lows that make you happy...
Since all tastes are different and all speakers are compromises (due to the tastes of the individual who designed them), I go with the one(s) that sound great to me.

All the best,
Practically reference with this stuff is a pretty useless term though it is good for everyone to know their own personal reference when they hear it otherwise one may flounder chasing unknowns.
It seems that you are having trouble achieving neutral sound Erik Squires. Hopefully you will now concede that the SNR1 arent really reference speakers after all. Neutrality is indeed not easy to achieve. 
Wasn’t it Harman that did a lot of speaker tests where the speakers with the flattest response were picked as the best sounding? No matter if it was professional listeners or Joe off the street.

John Dunlavy interview.
It's like Robert Parker Jr giving a 95 rating to a bottle of red.  The score is calibrated to his own personal palate not some standardized neutral bottle of wine.  When you follow his wine ratings you get to know more about his own personal preferences than necessarily how the wine will be received by 1000 randomized sippers.  Face it, you need to get to know a reviewer over dozens of reviews and often years to understand if his or her musical priorities match with yours and also discover where they differ.  We are measuring an emotional sense of sound and musical pleasure just like a wine reviewer or food critic is trying to score a taste - this cannot be calibrated mechanically.  Just accept the human element.

That's simple. A reference speaker should be Tunable. It would drive me crazy to have a speaker I can't physically adjust to my liking. Why listen to a speaker that one constantly has to blame something else in the system or recording for not sounding good?

Serious audio playback systems are Tunable, the rest...well welcome to the never ending revolving door of HEA. Not me, I'd rather be spending my time enjoying my whole musical collection.

Very strange to see someone having 40 pair of speakers never hitting the nail on the head. That's not a listener, that's a collector. Nothing wrong with a collector if that's what someone wants to be, but there's another way to get the sound you want.


Everyone here can enjoy their swim in the quicksand as they discuss "neutral" and "great".   :)

In terms of room design, neutral sound is the hardest (most expensive) to attain. Alternatively you can go for the "live/detailed" sound or the "warm/organic" sound with much less trouble.

But, AFA speakers go and AFA I'm concerned, neutrality has absolutely Nothing to do with a set of measurements. Neutrality is a subjective perception - nothing more. That's all it is and all it ever was.

A speaker in a room either sounds neutral or it doesn't. It can either be made to sound neutral in the room or it can't.
Reference can be a comparative opinion, imperfect but state-of-the-art, or a calibration standard.  All of it applies to speakers.  Do I want exceptional beauty?  Do I want to enjoy the unenjoyable?  Of course I do.  I want both.  Reference gear should deliver more.  It should especially shine when the recording delivers less.  It's not either/or, it's all that.  IMO
So it sounds as if most here are saying that objective neutrality is not a requirement, but to be a "reference" speaker it should be the epitome of the maker's product line?

Or it can be something you go back to as your personal preference.

I guess I always thought of "reference" as being similar to laboratory grade, like a precision scale or ruler.  Something other speakers should strive for.  Seems most are saying it is just hype, like the words "deluxe" or "premium."
My thoughts on what constitutes a reference are similar to those from @kr4  above.   It is something that is well characterized and whose attributes are not in dispute.  Thinking in simple terms, it is like a graduated ruler, against which one can measure the length of multiple objects with confidence.  Use of a ruler is not context dependent in a practical sense.  I can use it at my desk, in my living room, in my listening room and it works the same.  I can use it in Tennessee and travel to Leipzig and it still works the same.   

I think of "reference" audio equipment and speakers in particular primarily within the context of use by a reviewer.   I don't think of any of my pieces as being references even though when I audition new gear I use my existing equipment as a reference of sorts.  I think more in terms of "destination" pieces.  Those pieces that are so good I will probably never replace them.   I regard my Atma-Sphere M-60 amps are destination pieces.  Possibly my Coincident CSL line stage.  I would be hard pressed to significantly improve on the M-60/CSL pairing.  Future changes to my system will be to source or speakers, or perhaps to cabling or isolation devices. 

Speaker performance is so tied to how well suited it is for the room in which it is used and also to being fed by a well matched amplifier that I just don't know how one really could have a reference speaker in the absolute sense.   A reference should not be context dependent.   What good would a ruler be if it were made of a material that had a high coefficient of thermal expansion?    One that would only give reliable readings in a room where the temperature was rigorously controlled at 20C?  That context dependence is the nature of speakers.  How they perform is so context dependent I just don't think it is possible for them to act as true references. 
When a speaker manufacturer refers to their product as a "reference", I would expect it to mean that all the boxes are checked; the specs are great, the parts and materials are very high grade and the SQ at a level that would satisfy most critical listeners. Neutral in at least the sense that no tonal variation or other negative attribute stands out. Unfortunately, the accompanying price tags often make all this irrelevant to me as I can’t/won’t pay the price of admission.
For the rest of us unwashed masses, we have lived with speakers long enough to become acutely aware of whatever shortcomings we judge them to have and seek to address those issues when it comes time to replace them.
So, if you select your next speakers with your ears and not based specifications, reviews or online advise, your reference is probably whatever speakers you have now.
“I guess I always thought of "reference" as being similar to laboratory grade, like a precision scale”

When we can measure what makes a speaker a good listen, it will be.

A reference is anything you refer to. For words we can refer to a dictionary. You could look it up and see, that is literally the meaning of reference. Nothing about neutrality, objectivity, or anything like that. Your reference could be a Picasso painting of a woman with three boobs and a few other odd body parts. Your reference could be last years iPhone. 

A reference is nothing more than a standard. There's nothing objective about it, not at all. A meter is a reference, defined about as objectively and with as much precision as anything probably ever could be. Yet the meter itself is totally arbitrary. We just decided for convention to make it what it is. 

Same with your speaker reference. Totally arbitrary. Make it what you will.
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Everyone’s “reference” will certainly be different. So many things determine the way we hear. The shape of your head. The size of your head. The shape of your ears. Even the size of your torso affects the way you hear.

Now let’s get into the room you listen in. And the list goes on and on. My reference and yours may be very different. With all these variables, what is neutral? Your neutral,may be tipped up to me. I think,of course,only my opinion,is reference would be what sounds great to your ears. A great topic with many different correct answers.  Now,if a speaker measures flat,do we all hear it the same way? 
One reference I can think of is Greenwich Mean Time.
What single loudspeaker model could aspire to the kind of acceptance that GMT has?
As others say, an individual can establish their own reference if they like, but it pertains only to them.
The rest is advert copywriter gobbledygook.  Along with SE, Signature, etc.

Reference in HEA is fairly generic and weakens the origins of "reference" or "referencing" music, which was started by going from the Live room to the Control room to the Playback room.

I've seen High End Audio try to use musical production terms from the very beginning. Cute but not reality as far as the production of recordings and playing back goes.

As said above, your room is more your reference than your speaker is.


Thank you. I wasn't going to be the one to point that out but you are right, my room is the reference. Especially now with my modded Moabs.
Neutral, no color, Not warm. 
This is  a  great speaker,,, I am about to upgrade my Thor xovers,, with new Mcaps, M resistors , This should make the Thors the best sounding speaker for its size, budget in the world. 
Look fora  YT vid comming soon,,,parts are on order. 
Madisound  will build the new outside the cab xovers. 
Seas Meets Mundorf. 
The WOW factor should be off the charts. 
The caps in there now are the old legendary Hovland Musicaps , Huge yellow 10uf's.  X4 and 8uf's X2. 
Gonna run 10uf Silver Gold ,. each retails for a  wopping $220 each,,got a  pair used off ebay for $230. Just ordered a  pair of Silvergold EVO oil 8uf, as each Millennium take's 18uf capacitors, so 1 Supreme silvergold 10uf + 1 EVO silvergold oil 8.2 uf, the resistors will be Munedorfs Ultra R-Resist Foil. , $17 each. 
YT vid comming, new wires on drivers, taking out the copper flat wire will employ navships silvercopper 20 ga. 
= could be explosive. 
I will finally find out just what potential  the Seas Excel have,, plan to send a  video to Jadis, SEAS, Madisound and Mundorf. 
Just bought a  new mic for my vlog cam. 
Everyone’s “reference” will certainly be different

There is of course some subjectivity in Reference,,
Objectivity also exists when employing world class components. 
Seas Meets Mundorf. 2 world class labs. 
No, Seas meets Mundorf Meets Jadis, 3 world class labs. 
all 3 are truly reference components, 
Not opinion, thats objective facts, read the reviews. 
For a great recording, you want a neutral speaker. Any speaker can sound good, given a recording with complementary flaws. But to have the highest percentage of good listening experiences with audiophile recordings requires a neutral speaker.
 good detail imaging ,soundstaging is essential . the tonal balance the internal voiced Xover network will dictate how nuetral or tonal balance . A lot depends how much $$ you have to spend .
i prefer to buy used save at least 50%+ 
and then rebuild ,or have someone putin top quality xover components 
many companies cheat in this area 
they just put in  Average since you can’t 
see what’s in there .i know by Many years experience,and many speakers.
When I was younger and read Stereophile and Absolute Sound every month, I often felt that when reviewers either listed their equipment as reference or the device they were reviewing was called reference, it meant several things to me; it was out of my price range, it must have some unobtanium sound qualities that only few people get to experience, and the company received some publicity based on the magazine review.

 As I got older, I learned, and as others have stated, it can be either objective or subjective. Who makes the determination if a product is to be called reference? Lately, some audio companies are pushing out their so called reference products at ultra exotic prices. So, perhaps, the audio industry is in some ways pushing reference products from their perspective and people who are interested in absolute state of the art by said company, are buying these products. The reviewers have a new reference product to review. But, when did reviewers start arbitrarily start calling products they reviewed reference? Or, why do reviewers call their system reference when reviewing components? I can easily say I have a reference system too. In fact, I reviewed xyz, and used my reference system consisting of McIntosh MC2301, octave Jubilee reference preamp, Transrotor Apollon TMD turntable, Clearaudio MontBlanc stand, and Shunyata power cables. In my humble opinion reference as used by reviewers indicates a level of experience where differentiations in equipment can easily be identified and extrapolated whereby a review uses the superlatives we often hear describing high end or reference products. 

I give up...too much to ponder. Reference is what anyone wants to call it, therefore, my system is a reference, yours is a reference because after all, you are comparing it to everything else. One last thing, what is the baseline to match the reference statement? Is it technical specifications, sound, build quality, etc.? That seems to me, at least from my foxhole of experiences, the confluence of definitions. 
How do you define neutral?  How do you rally know if what you think is neutral really is neutral?  What exactly is neutral.  What is great sounding?  How do you know if what you are hearing is because of the speaker or another piece of equipment?  Every piece of equipment has an impact on the sound.  So IMO this is just a big waste of time. Who cares as long as you enjoy your system that is what really matters. 
I have always thought that when a reviewer called a speaker neutral it was kind of a back handed complement. They have to say something nice. If a speaker makes me smile and want to listen to music and does not hurt my ears and does not put me to sleep then I like it. 

Hmmm...probably 2 of the words that have spawned more posts, prose, positions, posturing, and downright donneybrooks imho in the relatively short time I've skulted about 'here'.  That is, IF we ignore IC's, speaker cables, equipment choices/pairings, listening spaces and their acoutrements, and whatever else one applauds or takes issue on....

Which just shows to go you that the likelyhood of coming to anything resembling a universally satisfactory acknowledgement of an 'average agreement' will rank with genus homo finally becoming 'wise' as opposed to merely 'smart'....which generally falls short, anyway....

(The 'Second Coming' will likely occur within moments...and will likely be 'self inflicted', because we tend towards 'self fullfilling prophecies'.  We dislike being disappointed.....)

Since this can of worms has been dumped out for yet another rant 'n rave fest for some to enjoy, others to steam over, some to run from, and whatever boats ones' floats in whatever fashion...

REFERENCE = The 'speaker du jour' that excites the senses of the 'cognoscenti'; size, price, feeding requirements be damned.

NEUTRAL = An unattainable laboratory radiator.  Absolutely 'guage block' FLAT, 1 hz>ultrasonic, 1dB>comet impact.  The 'point source' that's Perfect in every way.  Proven by any means and methodlogy concievable, in every combination.

We will never hear nor achieve it.  Get over it.

We're organic beings with a limited lifespan, flawed from Day One.

Likely unable to recognize Perfection even if it announced itself, however subtle or extreme....

I just 'do' what amuses me; likely, y'all do something similar. *s*

At this point....I'm just going 'radio silence', and watch the splatter patterns on the virtual walls....

Have @ it... ;)

Cheers 'n jeers, J

@kennyc....*L*  And that's about as 'neutral' as they get. ;)

Oh, as for 'natural' sounding speakers....

Which is more 'natural';  the songbird in the backyard tree, or a recording of said bird?  This shouldn't be a hard one to answer....
It is always good to remember, or understand, that objectivity arose out of an attempt to emotionally separate from a purely subjective framework context of all possible representations of reality.

That objectivity exists it 'is' via a purely subjective framework, that objectivity is a subset position of subjectivity.

Where objectivity is a lower or more advanced from of this mental position that all reality is subjective, well... I leave it up to you.

The bigger point is, that objectivity does not exist, that it is a conceptual and mental game, a tool, a viewpoint position only... in an entirely subjective existence. Objectivity, if properly weighted, is a logic tool, the same logic that explains to you that reality is inescapably subjective.

the next domino to fall, might be that: Thought process --- is all you've got. Whatever the heck a you is.

No one really knows what any of it is. People who don't practice a fully extended mental discipline might think they've got their 'hands' on something in this whole objectivity game...but really,
i prefer to buy used save at least 50%+

You will hardly ever find SEAS MTM/ 2 way with Excel drivers for sale used. Those are keepers, 
Sure there are K's of speakers used,,,but is our objective a  good cheap price,,, or  should our goal be <superior> sounding. 

We will never hear nor achieve it. Get over it.

No no no, You completely miss my point.
Neutral = the least distortyion/coloring. 
Look B&W are world famous, folks adore B&W, 
My opinions does not count, I really hate all B&W's,. The sound is british and very colored,
Like dark grey, brownish, smoky, hazy,  just way too dense in midrange. which is where 80-90% of our music lies.
Neutarl is The Ideal,, and we seek  as close as we can attain to that goal,, 
Look my new xovers are in the works for the Seas, Lets see what Mundorf does to the Excel. This might be a winning team = higher up Mt Everest. Sure I will not attain that peak,,as i do not have K's of $'s to buy what I know will bring me to that peak,,and thats not my style,, I am not a  materialist, 
Once the xovers  are completed and then its onto the Vishay Zfoil resistors for the Jadis DPL preamp, 
Maybe a  few new resistors for the cayin CD17 Mark1, and I'm done. 
Thats my ideal, and I'd say its a  Class A Reference system, which equals others costing XXXXX as much.
Throwing money at this hobby does not always equate with high fidelity. Lets get that straight now.  and stock components are , nothing more than stock, average parts, In order to raise the bar you have to gut the unit and employ world class parts. 
Upgardes with world class parts,  are critical for superior neutral hi fidelity. 
Your average speaker lab, installs average parts = never will be a  world class speaker.
Lets get that straight now.
This is a great question.  From a purely philosophic perspective, I would agree that you would want a speaker that has a perfectly flat frequency response from 20hz to 20khz and compare deviations in terms of sound profile.  If everyone had this as a baseline and new what this sounded like, reviews would be exponentially more valuable.  

However, even if you found this speaker, it would most likely not behave that way in your room.  Your choice in amplification and source is going to alter its sound profile.  And finally, it may not be to your liking.  Just because something is conceptually ideal, doesn't mean it is your preference.  Additionally, wouldn't use a speaker of that sort to evaluate a 300B SET.  

Philosophically, I get it.  In practice, it might be better to choose a speaker in every BestBuy as your "reference" so that people have a common, mainstream point of comparison.  
I fully agree with audioquest4life response from above. Also, consider what speaker was used in the recording studio(s), especially in the past. I've seen most all studios use Yamaha NS-10 speakers to monitor the mix. IMHO those speakers do not sound great but they translate well. Meaning what you hear on those will closely resemble what you hear on a tabletop radio, home stereo... Those are used for near field monitoring. As for main monitoring in a studio, in the 70's JBL was a mainstay like the 4311's or 4412's. Going further back for main monitors the Altec 9844a was a standard. Today I see lots of big studios using custom made main monitors based on the design of the 9844a. Also, today for near field monitoring I see Genelec speakers most often.

But, we should keep in mind that there is no such thing as flat in audio, never has been. Audio is a continuum of variables. That goes for all three parts of "The Audio Trilogy" Electrical, Mechanical and Acoustical.


“Should a reference speaker be neutral..”

At first glance, I get what the OP was asking. But upon deeper scrutiny, the exercise seems a bit ludicrous. And at some level, it’s like finding a solution to a problem when a problem doesn’t exist.

- The OP is asking for “objective” factors from “subjective” judgements- this doesn’t exist. While some would say linear 20-20khz is a criteria, a tube guy may not care about linearity at all. Does that mean tube guys has no point of references? Of course not. Speakers are imperfect facsimiles of reality.
When evaluating speakers, people have different subjective importance/ranking of bass slam, midrange, transparency, clarity, musicality, detail, extension, etc. Trying to establish a one size fits all....

- Reference can be defined as any point in which other points compare. So technically any comparisons can be said to have a reference. We couldn’t survive without comparison of choices.

- Reference Speaker as defined by an audio reviewer as being the subjectively best speaker he has heard to date. This too has its limitations. Audio reviewers can demo only a small sample of what is available. As such, their “reference speaker” is limited to this small sample. Ever notice that reviewer reference speakers are rarely the same amongst reviewers? If I were to demo $5k speakers to come up with a favorite aka reference, while another demos $100k speakers to come up with his reference, Seems obvious that these two references aren’t really the same.

- For personal audio, what value is having a reference speaker (as defined as an audio reviewer) in the first place? Unless you’re trying to communicate to others like audio reviewers, isn’t our personal speakers simply evaluated by personal preferences? Don’t we subjectively simply say speaker A has this these positive/negative traits, and speaker B has these positive/negative traits...? Seems unlikely that we’d elevate a single pair of speakers to which all others will be compare to.

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I can see we are getting off into discussions like "What do words mean anyway?"  so let me clarify my original intention.

If a vendor calls a particular speaker model "reference quality" does that bring out any specific expectations for you, or is this going to be variable based on who the vendor is?  Like, if you hear of a Focal and B&W "reference" speaker, do you expect them to be close to ideal, or close to the best each brand can deliver?


The last part of your sentence “close to the best of brand can deliver.” But, individually, everyone will have differing thoughts on this. 
As soon as I read the thread title, to me "reference line" is the Companies to end product and as such, should blow me away...literally.....imo.