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How Important Is Soundstaging?

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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.

Concluding Remarks

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!

Reader’s Feedback
March 10, 2004

Constantine,

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

Best regards,

Daniel Marz
(858) 395-2286

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.

Larry Borden

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7 Responses to How Important Is Soundstaging?


  1. Michael Graw says:

    Great analysis from Larry. I cannot but fully agree. I have made the same experiences over four decades. Stereo creates individually recognized phantom images – first of all to the mastering eminent. Stereo is based on exact symmetry! However nobody’s pinnae, outer ear channels, HRTFs are symmetrical. Thus the mastering engineer already manipulates the recording to get his individual impression of soundstage which will not necessarily fit each listener. And moreover the perceived sound is defined by the mastering engineer’s equipment, speakers and listening room. However artificial signals for stereo imaging test are most useful to check the quality of the listening room and speakers! With one limitation: if your head and ears do not exactly fit the symmetry requirements of stereo then there will be strange localization effects produced by your trained pattern recognition system that works perfectly with real world sounds and their localization even with the given non-symmetry. Finally it is the quality of time-/phase coherence of your system that allows the recorded music to be perceived as high fidelity music.

    Great listening

    Michael

  2. Robert Ryan says:

    Hello, I agree that soundstaging is not of prime importance but feel it is a vital element in assessing the fidelity of a music system or of a recording.By definition Hi Fi should recreate a sound that replicates,as close as possible,the live experience.In reality it can only reproduce,at it’s best,what the engineers have achieved in the recording process or the format delivering it.When we talk about fidelity it is the fidelity of the recording that determines the limit of reality our systems are able to
    create.If the music sounds ‘wrong’ is it the system or the recording?I have ALWAYS found that any decrease in colouration,increase in resolution and dynamics (not dynamic range) will improve sound staging.I believe that if soundstaging is poor (not due to poor recording) that it is a factor in determining the fidelity of a system.Not the most important aspect but an indicator.
    I listen to mainly classical music and am a regular concert visitor.I know that positional information and depth are in abundance when seated centrally ten to twelve rows back in front of an orchestra.This information allows us to focus our hearing on individual musicians or sections of the orchestra and interplay between them.We use this information constantly in our daily lives whether crossing a road or focussing on a single conversation in a crowded room.Soundstaging is a very important factor in trying to recreate the ‘real’ experience but only one of many. ……………….. Robert

  3. Rorie Shade says:

    I absolutely agree with Mr. Borden’s opinion. I have found that those certain brands of equipment and cables which do a “better” job at creating the largest and deepest soundstage possible, do so at the expense of proper tone and timbre, and diminish the musical qualities of a performance and muddy harmony, melody, and timing, which for this writer brings the experience down from notes and message to bass, midrange, treble and soundstage which have nothing to do with intent and purpose

  4. Angel says:

    As a summary, the question really is then do we really need Stereophonic signal? Or should Monoaural be just enough?

  5. Nick Wild says:

    A systems soundstage is extremely important to me. A poor soundstage means that instruments/ voices appear to be placed upon each other and it is very difficult to individually appreciate them. The soundstage can be an integral part of the artists/ engineers work of art. Just listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on my HD800 headphones and I can tell you that the soundstage is of extreme importance to this album and many hundreds of hours would have been spent on perfecting it by the recording engineers. A good soundstage captures my interest and can keep me entertained as it tries to fool the brain into thinking we are listening to something real. The fact that we all have different ear structure/ wax/ hearing loss due to old age is of no consequence.

  6. There is more to the psychoacoustics of stereo and it contrasts with everyday binaural hearing and why there is more to localization than just source position than is indicated in the above articles and comments. The lack of realistic localization due to the use of the stereo loudspeaker triangle impacts not just mere localization of an instrument or voice but also induces a host of other distortions that tell the brain that the sound field is artificial or in technical terms lacks physiological verisimilitude. One minor example of this is that in normal hearing the reflection pattern from surfaces around you change in directional pattern with the location of a frontal sound source. In stereo, since all sounds originate from plus or minus 30 degrees, the room reflections have a constant directional pattern regardless of where an instrument seems to be in front. When you correct for this, you immediately sense an increase in quality.

    Of course, it is the stereo crosstalk that mostly makes it impossible to achieve a normal binaural soundfield using speakers at 60 degrees. In normal hearing one direct sound ray reaches each ear, but in stereo there are two direct sound rays reaching each ear and this causes both the interaural level and time differences picked up by recording mics or panpotted to be changed in value. This localization distortion causes the brain to be ultra sensitive to other distortions or noises like coughs, or LP ticks and pops.

    It is not the absolute position of an instrument on a stage that is needed, but rather that the localization parameters of any sound stage be binaurally correct. Rationalizing that poor sound staging is not relevant, leads to obsessive tweaking and expense, involving resolution, room correction/treatment (nothing to do with bass in this context however), tube amplifiers, disdain for 3D sound, etc. There are endless AES/NYU/IEEE papers, tutorials, apps, components, and a free book on this subject at http://www.ambiophonics.org

  7. marc mickey says:

    It is interesting to see some responses are like they did not read the article but just jumped in like a forum. I was never thinking soundstage and imaging were more important than the texture and tonality of the reproduced sound but now it is pushed back even further in my priority list when evaluating an equipment. Because the article makes sense.

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