Color My World

My question is about "color" in sound. I hear audiophiles talk about this all the time. What is "color" in sound? How do you measure it? How do you remedy it? I'm kinda lost with the jargon. Please help me to understand how to tell if there's too much "color" in my system.

Stacey Queens

When talking about sound, "color" refers to the timbre or harmonic spectrum of an audio signal as it passes through one or more devices. For example, if a speaker or other audio device boosts or emphasizes the high frequencies, the sound is said to be "bright." If the high frequencies are de-emphasized, the sound is said to be "dull." If the upper bass and low midrange are emphasized, it is often called "warm." An audio device that does nothing to the timbre of the sound is said to be "uncolored."

The sonic coloration you end up with can arise from the combined effect of several different elements, including the audio gear, room acoustics, and source material—for example, many movie soundtracks are inherently bright. Professional audio equipment is designed to be as uncolored as possible, but many consumer products are designed to be somewhat warm because many people tend to like that sound.

Objectively measuring how a system colors the sound requires fairly expensive equipment and training, so it's not something most folks can do themselves. But most audio enthusiasts learn to identify what warm, bright, dull, etc. sound like, especially after listening to many different systems using recordings they are familiar with.

As for "fixing" a colored system, the most common approach is to use an equalizer (EQ), which is found in virtually all A/V receivers and preamp/processors a well as standalone devices. An equalizer lets you boost or cut different frequency ranges to compensate for coloration introduced by the system, but it's not a cure-all—most consumer EQs are not precise enough to make more than very broad changes to the frequency spectrum. Many A/V receivers and pre/pros include an auto-calibration function that automatically sets the EQ for the particular speakers and room, which often helps to reduce the "color" of the system.

If a room's acoustics are coloring the sound, you can install acoustic treatments, but that's a whole other can of worms best left to a professional acoustician.

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