“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.”
— Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
We’re all in this hobby because we’ve been struck with a sense of wonderment about the nature of sound — the manipulation of which can put us in either the most elating or the most dour of moods. Yet, paradoxically, “hi-fi” is supposed to be a contraction of “high fidelity” — meaning that the equipment we use are supposed to give us the truest response to the original recording, with little to no extra added color.
To do so, a pair of speakers, headphones, or IEMs has to reproduce every single note and transient as faithfully as it possibly can, registering every single decibel of sound at the eardrum in a manner both spatially and temporally accurate. Such is the definition of “neutral”, or flat. The idea is that, by having hi-fi equipment as invisible and transparent as possible, the raw emotion of a musical performance will shine through. However, the very act of using electroacoustic equipment to reproduce sound is unnatural. No matter how real it sounds, it is in its totality a simulation of the real — an artificial milieu that wears the guise of performances past.
Call it distortion in the signal chain during acquisition, production, and reproduction — or whatever, but the fact is that everything injects a little bit of self-interpretation, and those little ‘liberties’ are exactly what give audio reproduction its emotion and definition. To this end, most audio enthusiasts actually shrink at the thought of hearing music “flat”, as “flat” is the antithesis of evocative. No singer would want to be labeled “flat”, nor would any trumpeter, violinist, or drummer ever want to give a performance judged to be “flat” — listeners, at their core, want definition; they want to hear the power of realism, be in the wonderment of excitement, and feel the elation of discovery and re-discovery. They surrender themselves to the acoustics, and only then do they allow the music to fully shine through.