This article was published in 2004 originally.
When I first became interested in this hobby I was, like most aspiring audiophiles, quite enamored of soundstaging and imaging. In a scenario that will probably resonate with many readers, over the ensuing years I spent countless hours positioning and re-positioning speakers, an inch here, a millimeter there, all in the hope of widening and deepening the stage, tightening the image focus, increasing the sense of air around the instruments… you know the routine.
Unexpectedly, two independent and in fact, contradictory circumstances lead me to question the importance of these phenomena. The first took place shortly after my introduction to high-end audio. While becoming acquainted with other audiophiles, I encountered a few individuals who opined that soundstaging was little more than audiophile nonsense, and had little to do with music. In my infinite wisdom (isn’t it funny that the less experienced we are, the more we think we know?) I was sure that they were at best misguided and at worst, completely delusional. After all, how could something that sounded so darn good, and which brought me so much pleasure, not be important? And yet, while I outwardly rejected their point of view, the seed had been planted. Try as I might to clear my mind of these heretical thoughts, I secretly wondered if they weren’t really on to something.
While these doubts were simmering, it seemed as if all around me, soundstaging and imaging were garnering ever-increasing importance. One particularly significant event took place about two years ago at the Stereophile-sponsored Home Entertainment Show in New York City. I was speaking with the sales manager for a well known manufacturer of tube equipment. When I asked him how his company’s new linestage would compare to the unit I was currently (at the time) using, he replied (with appropriate hand gestures) that my soundstage would go from “this” to “THIS.” Curiously, no mention was made of midrange purity, bass tightness, crystalline highs, or dynamics – – – only soundstage width. Odd, to say the least.
Around the same time, I began to realize just how much time I was spending focusing on my system’s soundstage. And it wasn’t just me – – my friends were all doing the same thing. Whereas our discussions used to be about music, or about how a system sounded, it seemed as if the focus had shifted to soundstage depth, layering of instruments, and the perceived distances between the musicians. To my amazement, one friend recently admitted that soundstage was more important to him than tonal accuracy or dynamics. What the heck was going on?
I thus found myself in something of a quandary. On the one hand, I wondered if the rebels were correct – – that soundstage was of no importance. On the other, I was surrounded by those for whom soundstage was of paramount importance. Truth be told, I wasn’t really sure where I stood on the subject, a predicament I was neither used to (being rather opinionated), nor one I particularly cared for. Desperately needing to sort this out I decided it was time for some “agonizing reappraisal” (with apologies to one of my favorite commercials). As will become clear, I have reached the conclusion that while enjoyable, soundstaging and imaging are not critically important to the enjoyment of music, and are the focus of far too much attention. My reasoning is as follows:
Many Live Concerts Have Minimal Soundstaging
Essentially all rock music concerts, and an increasing number of concerts of other musical genres, use amplification. (Classical music remains an important exception.) In such cases, soundstaging is non-existent since the sound which reaches our ears arises not from the instruments (including voices) themselves but rather, from speakers which are located at some distance from the musicians. Accordingly, there is no depth to the soundstage, the width is artificial, and there is virtually no sense of “air” or space around the instruments. Importantly however, rock concerts…rock! They titillate the senses, get the juices flowing, the legs tapping, and the body gyrating; all without a semblance of soundstage.
It is also worth considering Broadway shows, in which the musicians are often located in a pit. While one certainly has a sense of the general area from which the music emanates, it is not possible to ascertain (except visually) the relative placement of the instruments, their expanse, nor the distance between them. And yet, remarkably, the music at such shows is often fantastic.
Even at concerts or shows in which the musicians are on the stage, and in which amplification is not employed, if one turns one’s head sideways the ability to localize the sounds is severely diminished. And yet, the enjoyment of the music continues unabated.
Based on these observations, it appears that the enjoyment of music is not dependent on soundstaging and imaging.
One Rarely Focuses On Soundstaging When Listening To Live Music
Many of us experienced live music long before we heard high-quality audio systems. Think back to those days: Do you recall ever focusing on the soundstage? Admittedly, a large physical stage was (and still is) impressive, but was it something with which you were preoccupied? Did you ever think to yourself, “Wow, the musicians are spread across a stage that is 30 foot wide and 20 feet deep”?; or “Gee, I can close my eyes and tell that the violin is three feet behind the cello, and four feet to its right”?; or “Wow, the bass is seven feet to the left of the piano”? I suspect not. In fact, I daresay that when you were young(er) and closed your eyes at a concert, it was to let the music wash over you and transport you, not to analyze the position of the musicians. I find it interesting that, within my admittedly small sphere of friends and acquaintances, the music lovers who are not audiophiles (that is, not involved with high-end audio equipment) spend very little time (if any) focusing on the spatial aspects of a performance. I will go out on a limb and suggest that if you do so, it is only because of how much emphasis has been placed on such factors vis-a-vis our high-end home systems.
These factors lead me to the following conclusion: One need not focus on soundstaging and imaging, or even be particularly aware of their existence, to enjoy music.
The Soundstaging On Many Recordings Is Artificial
I have often heard the argument that soundstaging and imaging help compensate for the properties of live music which are missing from our home playback systems, things such as visual cues and physical size, and thereby help with the illusion we attempt to create. While I consider these claims to be valid and reasonable, I think the subject warrants closer scrutiny.
It should first be noted that the soundstage present in a sizeable fraction of the recordings we listen to was created by the recording engineer, rather than having been generated naturally. While this does not by necessity negate its value, I feel that it does (or at least, should) temper the enthusiasm with which it is greeted. Moreover, and perhaps of greater importance, is the fact that all too frequently the soundstage is artificial sounding. We’ve all experienced far too many recordings in which the drums are on one side of the stage while the cymbals are on the other; or in which the piano magically spans the entire stage; or in which the singer seems to be ten feet tall. Is this really what we want to focus on?
In addition to the size of their soundstage, many listeners tout the pinpoint imaging which their systems produce. While admittedly an amusing parlor trick, I personally have never experienced a similar phenomenon when listening to live music. (Perhaps other, more experienced listeners have.) I thus submit that irrespective of the extent to which some enjoy this phenomenon, it has little relevance to music.
Focusing On Soundstaging Is An Analytical Endeavor Which Distracts From The True Essence Of Music
Thus far, I have tried to support the position that the soundstaging and imaging associated with high-end audio systems are artifactual, and not critical to musical enjoyment. But I’ve ignored the fact that many audiophiles enjoy these properties. Surely there’s no harm in that, is there? Well, maybe.
I suspect many of us have at times fallen into the trap of “listening to the equipment,” an analytical style of listening which most agree is generally antithetical to the enjoyment of music. I believe that “listening to the soundstage” can be equally insidious. While my own personal experiences are far too limited to allow for any definitive conclusions, I get the impression that individuals who focus heavily on soundstage have a tendency to be overly-analytical listeners. I have heard acquaintances reject otherwise excellent-sounding systems solely on the grounds that they didn’t image well, or didn’t have a deep enough soundstage (the latter probably more a function of speaker placement than design). While these listeners are as entitled to their own likes and dislikes as I am to mine, it is my considered opinion that by placing so much weight on soundstage, they are doing themselves a disfavor. By analogy to missing the forest for the trees, they are missing the music for the soundstage.
I should end by making clear that I am not opposed to soundstaging and imaging, nor do I think that they are some terrible evils to be avoided at all costs. If the truth be told, I too enjoy a deep and wide soundstage, and the ability to (at least roughly) determine the positions of the musicians within that stage. However, I think that these properties receive too much attention in the audiophile community, and that too many listeners are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on them, with the unfortunate consequence of overlooking other elements of the music which I believe are far more important – – things such as tonal quality and dynamics. It took me quite some time to reach this conclusion and having resisted it as best I could, it came as something of a rude-awakening. But importantly, by changing my priorities, I find that I enjoy listening to recorded music far more than I used to. As Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing!
March 10, 2004
I enjoyed reading the article “How Important Is Soundstaging?”, although I think that Dr. Borden is not quite correct.
You cannot compare live performances to recordings because the purpose of the audio system is NOT to reproduce a live performance. It real function is to create a memorable experience in the listener. The main reason why it is NOT possible to reproduce a live recording is that there is a synergy between the players and the audience that cannot exist in a reproduction system.
Your site is very good and informative, keep up the good work.
FYI, please check the review on the STR201 at: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue12/redplanet.htm
Larry Borden’s Response
May 15, 2004
Mr. Marz states that I am not quite correct “because the purpose of the audio system is NOT to reproduce a live performance” but rather, “to create a memorable experience in the listener.”
I will begin by mentioning that I feel this is not a case of either party being correct or not; rather, it is simply one of differing opinions.
That said, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Marz’s explanation. While it is often stated that the purpose of a home system is not the reproduction of the live event, considerable evidence seems to point to the contrary. For example, if we do not wish to reproduce the semblance of a live event, why do recording engineers introduce artificial spatial information, thus emulating the sound of an actual performance? Similarly, why do so many audiophiles enjoy systems (especially those that are horn-based) with “life-like” dynamics? And why do we seek tonal accuracy in our gear, if not to make the reproduced music seem like the real thing? And why are live recordings, especially those with considerable natural room ambiance, so cherished? I could provide additional examples, but I trust I’ve made my point.
It is a sad truth that even the best audio systems fall short of sounding like a live event. However, it is my belief that such should be, and is the goal of all High-Fidelity systems.
I will close by thanking Mr. Marz for his support of DAGOGO, and for sharing his insights.
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