"Musical" vs. "Analytical/Sterile/Clinical" - Meaning of Terms?

“Musicality”, “Sweetness”, “Sterile”, “Clinical” - are terms I hear a whole lot in describing Amps and DACs, and these seem to be very important to people when judging a product. But as someone who has only experienced subjective audible differences in frequency response, driver speed, and clarity / separation, these terms are really confusing to me.

In fact, the moment these words are used in any product review, my decision making process gets muddled. They sound important, but I have no experiential understanding of them and feel like I’m failing to grasp something.

So I’m trying to understand better without dismissing them as BS:

  1. What does it mean for a DAC or Amp to be “musical” vs “clinical”?
  2. What is “added touch of sweetness”?
  3. How do you specifically identify the above? Are there certain sounds in music to listen for?
  4. Assume I have two pieces of level matched equipment that I can test. Can I get a specific song and timestamp recommendations with instructions about what to listen for that will sound “musical” on one and “clinical” on another?
  5. Are there any good resources that go into the theory of psychoacoustics that maybe influences the perception of “musicality”?

Excellent topic. So much of what’s said is subjective (if not all). When many use the term “clinical” I typically understand this as accurate. Isn’t accuracy a good thing? I think that if someone was wanting coloration or distortions they would be opting for tube amplification.


If your philosophical goal is “highest fidelity” sure, if not, then it’ll be down to the individual.


This part is pretty interesting to me. I guess I hold the perspective that the choice in musical presentation rests with the artists and creators of the music. So I want my gear to be as transparent as possible so that I can receive the original. If I want any coloration, I would like to introduce it via choice in headphones or speakers rather than source or amplification gear.

What is the rationale behind having intentionally distorting sources or amps? Again, I’m challenging it with the intention to learn, not to prove some point.


The simple fact that you’re not using an 100% identical replay system to that used in the presentation of the final mix/master to the artists for sign-off/approval, means you’re already hearing something significantly different, and colored, vs. what was the “original”.

EVERY deviation from that adds color.

And “color” is just a fancy word for “distortion”.

Which is just technical way to say “something different to the original”.

And while “transparent” gear will mean you’re not introducing additional noise (with almost all modern gear this is below any reasonable audible threshold while actually playing music at audible levels) or distortion (any introduced by your electronics is dwarfed by your transducers, and even if not requires listening levels in domestic settings that are unsafe before it becomes audible), it only changes HOW you’re differing from the original, not IF.

At which point … since you cannot reproduce “what the artist intended”, a reasonable alternative is to go for “what you like the most”.

It’s a philosophical point. And there are many philosophies, each perfectly valid to their holders.

The biggest issue I see here is why people want conformity here and/or why they care, at all, what other people like/want/prefer.


I usually read clinical/analytical as neutral to treble-heavy. The specifics vary by reviewer, and finding people with a similar ear to your own. In an earlier era (e.g., Grado’s heyday), a strong high end drew attention to details that might otherwise be masked by a mid-focused device (e.g., Bose). If one is accustomed to tubes or older products then a detailed high-end may sound very odd.


I learned long ago, and not to put too fine a point on it, that chasing absolute neutrality and accuracy is a fools errand. For the reasons Torq pointed out above, you’re not getting what the artist intended on an album. You’re getting a packaged, intended for mass consumption, sell as many as we can, mixed, edited, remixed, mastered, approved by label execs product. If you want what the artist intended, go to a concert.

Point # 2 : Tube amps measure poorly, yet they are some of the most sought-after and pleasant sounding pieces of gear in the hobby. Ever wonder why? Distortion.

I don’t want neutrality on Metallica’s Justice For All album. I want emphasized bass, because they mastered it with hardly any at all. I don’t want Louis Armstrong’s trumpet blowing my eardrums out when he belts out a high note. Can you tell me with any honesty that you like the artificial buzzing noise in Imagine Dragon’s Radioactive track when played on an ultra neutral and resolving system?

Sure, EQ is the answer you may say, but it’s not. Not all systems respond well to it, and what’s good for one track is awful for another. Besides, I’d rather sit down, listen, and know what I’m going to hear is pleasant.

System synergy, subjectively measured (aka - actually listening to the damned things) trumps this asr “great measurements and neutrality or die” mentality every day and twice on Sundays.

That’s just my 2 cents.




I don’t see any value in pushing for conformity either. This is a really niche hobby, so focusing on helping each person find THEIR favorite setup for the budget will be most productive and constructive.

Fair enough, I’ll grant that.

I agree on the importance of listening tests, but what’s your feeling on supporting listening tests with some measurements? I tend to be wary of puritan approaches in either direction and find some merit in both approaches.



Do you, if you like it, then why seek out confirmation.

Don’t get me wrong I have and do fall prey to this too, but I do my best to not ultimately care greatly lol…not worth my time, I would rather be listening to music or playing with my daughter, talking with my wife, playing videogames, taking pictures…etc… :nerd_face:

But, on topic, for me I try to use descriptive words that convey what I’m “feeling” the sound is closest to, in terms that people might understand better…but in reality probably just confuse, due to, too many people, using the same descriptive words with differing intent or their perspective/understanding of that descriptive word…aka…it’s just as subjective as the review in which the words are being used lol…no winning in the Audiophile world lol.

Best way is to just straight up call out/ask what they “actually” mean in comments below and hope for an answer, or get to know the reviewer (by reading/watching) to better understand what “they” mean with those words =)

Hopefully I’ve confused and addled you enough to walk away “thinking” you learned something here… :face_with_monocle: :laughing: :sweat_smile:

Seriously though, just ask and I’m sure you will get ten different answers from ten different people…but, hopefully the original writer/reviewer will also answer giving you perspective on “their” understanding of what they were trying to convey…

Oh man, I’m on a confusing, non-answer roll today! high-five. I’m turning into a true audiophile! “Yes!”


That’s getting back to conformity.

Why does it matter to anyone else what he thinks about it?

The only reason to be concerned about the thoughts of others is because you’re (colloquial) either looking to disagree or you’re looking for affirmation.

Figure out what YOU find important, be it subjective, objective, or some blend, and quit worrying about what anyone else thinks, wants or likes, much less why.


I disagree. I’m not asking him to judge his tastes. I’m asking him to find out what his thoughts are on the matter from a perspective of learning. He stated distaste for measurements. I stated that I saw merit in both approaches. I want to learn where his feelings come from so that I may learn a new way of looking at it.

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I’d still ask, why do you want to look at it from a different position, and not just go with what you enjoy?

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Simply because I don’t know yet what all I enjoy. I haven’t had the time in the hobby to be exposed to everything others have spoken about here. So far, I have found from my experience that I like the so called “neutral” and “well measuring” gear.

But if there’s merit to another approach, I want to learn about it to see if I should plan to go to the next CanJam or something. It’s as simple as asking for new music recommendations.


To paraphrase what someone on another forum said (who said it isn’t coming to mind, sorry…):

Have you ever built and mounted a shelf on a wall? Did you use tools to do it? Of course.

Once you put all your china and nick nacks on that shelf, did your tools tell you whether or not it looked good? Did your screwdriver say “that ochre doesn’t clash with that purple at all!” Or “I think plad is a great design choice.”?

Not all that can be measured is important, and not all that is important can be measured.

Measurements are tools.


@Xgatt heed these words…and let the Subjectivity flow through you…harness its dark powers (or light, if that is what you are into, do you beau!)…


Enjoyment is experiential.

You’re not going to find that experience in the narratives of others.


I quite enjoy your stream of consciousness posts. It provides a good peak into your thought processes. :brain::eyes:


Thank you for that perspective. I guess it’s the difference between buying the best performing car and buying the one that you think is coolest.

I’m an engineer by profession, and I am infinitely fascinated by the mechanics of the human mind, heart, and spirit as well. I find it very fulfilling to learn the why behind a person’s choices and preferences, and I appreciate your sharing this with me.

From what I have learned so far, the term “musical” in a review says more about the reviewer’s preference than it does about the product. I can likely glean that it adds some form of coloration that many people find pleasing. And the same people may find the absence of such coloration to be quite boring.

Agreed. But with limited time and resources, it’s also useful to learn about some experiences from others’ perspectives. That way, I will know if I should seek it out or not.


Before anyone else goes there … my reviews are, by definition, narratives .

Typically subjective* ones, at that.

At BEST they’re an attempt to convey my experience with an item in words … but in doing so there’s a rather large assumption; specifically that the reader has already taken the time to listen to gear in common with the reviewer (me, in this case) and determined how what THEY like/think relates to what I like/say.

Absent that, any subjective review is little more than (hopefully) entertaining writing.

*I do take measurements; I just currently choose not to publish them. Excepting FR plots for headphones.