You may have encountered this phrase occasionally in your reading or heard it mentioned between audiophiles and wondered what it means. On the surface it sounds like a bad thing. We audio enthusiasts hold a kind of unspoken regard for the altruistic belief that, if done properly, a playback system can be completely neutral and devoid of any voice of its own, allowing us to hear the unvarnished truth of the recording, whatever it may be. When the recording is very well executed it can be an experience nearly as exhilarating as the live performance, provided the playback system is up to it. When it is not so good it is time to find another recording that is. If the playback system imposes its own voice over the recording, we may initially be unaware and content for a time, but eventually it will become apparent to the discerning ear that the same signature has attached itself to everything we are hearing, and we are left wanting to identify it and clear it out of the way. This is especially true for listeners with a calibrated ear, who expose themselves to the sound of live, unamplified music, such as a symphony orchestra or small jazz club ensemble. Any signature of the playback system can be readily discerned against the standard of such musical performances. Regardless the time required to identify the signature, all audiophiles will eventually discover it and will thereafter be on the prowl for better equipment to eliminate it.

When an amplifier is designed, however ideally thought out and executed it may be, there can be a voice associated with it, imparted by designed circuit behavior or by the components used, or both. If that voice goes unchecked, it will go to market and attach itself to everything the consuming audiophiles are hearing in their listening rooms. Some may be willing to accept this unfortunate situation in principle, accepting it as inevitable and absorbing it as part of the overall tuning of their system, while others never realize it is happening and quietly remain under the constraining influence of their component until they finally happen to replace it. Most of us have experienced the eye-opening surprise when we finally substitute a component that we have thought for years to be perfect, and a veil is lifted in the sound as well as in our thinking thereafter.

If each component in a playback system is regarded, first as an amplifier or speaker, etc., and then as an inevitable system voicing contributor, it is certainly possible to mix and match these expensive tuning elements to achieve a carefully balanced whole that pleases the owner. On the other hand, an amplifier and a speaker, for instance, each having its own voice, seldom completely correct each other because the mechanisms responsible for their respective voices are distinct and non-cancelling by nature. As a result, the semi-cancelling equipment leaves a residue of error that remains untreated. When this problem is proliferated throughout the entire system, the list of residues becomes lengthy and complex, able to mask vital detail from the playback that is innocently deemed to be well balanced.

At Bella Sound  we take a different approach to the problem. It is our concerted belief that an audio component should not have a voice. It should do the thing it is purchased to do and nothing else. Hence, an amplifier should amplify – not voice. An emerging principle states that the fewer the compensated errors within the same system, the greater is the potential of said system to perform at the highest possible level. The best of efforts to build the perfect system will fall short somewhere, and there is a plethora of voicing tweaks out there for sweetening and the like, if after all it is still needed. But Bella Sound  believes it is a process that should be applied at the end of the system design, when every effort to combine neutral and honest components has been made. Among the various tweaks out there for correcting unavoidable voicing errors there are inline signal devices, specialty cables, acoustic room devices, etc. These have their place, but they often end up in a box in the closet after more foundational improvements to the system are made. Truly, one may consider the quality of an audio system to be measured by the shortness of its list of tweaks. The amplifier is too big a purchase to be a tweak one eventually grows tired of and finds himself needing to change. To that end, Bella Sound  takes special efforts to produce very high-performance products that are also remarkably voice-neutral.

How does Bella Sound  know when they have achieved voice neutrality in their amplifier designs? For this we have developed the straight wire A-B comparison apparatus shown simplistically below:

The depicted setup allows us to compare an amplifier with a straight wire. If the amplifier is truly voice-neutral, there should be no discernible difference from a straight wire. This type of experiment has been talked about for years as a sort of Gedankenexperiment; something useful in thought but impractical to execute. But with sufficient care to maintain the same load impedances and gain for both states of the system, the amplifier under test can be isolated and its deviations from a straight wire discovered.

Referring to the diagram above, in the Amplifier Test Mode we can listen to the Bella Sound  product, such as a pair of Hanalei monaural amplifiers, through a very high-resolution headphone amplifier and headphones. In the Straight Wire Mode we can then listen to the straight wire, which has a perfectly neutral “voice”. Note that we are not listening to absolute voice, but only to the comparison between the two states of the above system. The load resistances and the gain (volume) of the headphone amplifier are appropriately set in each mode so that all of the conditions throughout the system are unchanged between the modes, and the only difference between the modes is the presence or absence of the Bella Sound  amplifier. The headphone amplifier and headphones are of sufficient quality to allow very subtle differences to be heard. By this means we are able to carefully and accurately eliminate the voice of our amplifiers entirely. All of our products are checked and voiced so that they pass this test; i.e., they have no discernible voice at all.

One of the more common and important voicing axes is the “sweet-dry” axis. One harkens back to the early days of solid-state audio electronics when much outspoken disapproval for this advent observed that the equipment sounded dry, uninvolving, unnatural, and unpleasant to the ears. Tube equipment was heralded as superior for its sweet, liquid, organic, life-like and unfatiguing presentation. After many decades of technology development, many people are brought to make the same comparisons and draw the same conclusions today. But, in fact, these stated differences are found over and over again, in loud speakers, cables, power conditioners, and every other technology within the playback system. As one moves into the “dry” side of the spectrum there is a sense of heightened resolution and musical information, often entertaining at first, but eventually fatiguing and unbelievable in comparison to live acoustic music. As we move into the “sweet” side of the spectrum we are bathed with loveliness and ease of listening that is luxurious and organic at first, but eventually boring to the cultured ear that senses the absence of energy and dynamics so recognizable in live acoustic music. If to err on this axis is human, it is also unforgivable to audiophiles. At Bella Sound  we pay close attention to this important voicing axis, as to a host of other dimensions in which a component can impart a damaging signature to the music that we expect to sound real. And we don’t consider our work done until we have achieved straight-wire neutrality.

Bella Sound  believes that our philosophy and procedure results in the maximum possible listening enjoyment and satisfaction for our customers, and that it affords the greatest potential tuning latitude for their systems, particularly when the expected outcome is life-like and creditable equivalence to the live performance.