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On Soundstaging

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The Beatnik’s Soundstage

I still remember to this day the first time I heard an audio system that could produce a soundstage where instruments, and even singers, seemed to come from outside the area between the two speakers. It was somewhere around 1978, plus or minus a year, and high-end dealers were springing up everywhere in North Dallas. I don’t remember the name of the dealer, but I went there to hear the Heil Plasma Speakers. Well, I wasn’t very impressed with the way they sounded, although I was rather awed about the cool blue glow of the plasma midrange/tweeter, and the sheer size of the cabinet with its huge woofer. Still, it was not the expensive, impressive, big Heils that day that changed my audio-life.

No, it was a pair of speaker no larger than most shoe boxes from a speaker company I had never heard of: Cizek. Roy Cizek was from quite a musical family and was a well respected engineer who had worked for Acoustic Research, Audio Dynamics, and then for Altec Lansing. Anyway, the speaker I heard that day whose sound did impress me was his Cizek KA-1. It was what we commonly call today a mini-monitor, but back then speakers this small were called bookshelf speakers (truth is the KA-1s were smaller than most bookshelf speakers), because that’s where they were usually placed. The KA-1s were beautifully finished, made of Koa wood with beautiful dovetail joints.

These beautiful, little speakers were also the first speakers I had ever seen or heard that were placed on stands, and positioned way out in the room. Of course, I had seen both the little Rogers and Spendor LS3/5A monitors on stands, but at that time they were always place very near the walls to get the most bass out of them.

According to the dealer, despite the KA-1’s size, Roy Cizek insisted they be placed four to five feet out into the room, and at least three feet from the side walls, and no further apart than eight feet. In his showroom, this put them about six feet from the side walls. He also had me sit much closer to them than I was used to back then, but while the setup seemed different, in no way did it prepare me for what I heard. The little KA-1s produced a sound that was both wider and deeper than the big Heils. They also did something I didn’t know was possible: they produced sound that seemed to come from well outside the speakers. So in my early twenties, I had discovered what would become an audiophile obsession, soundstage, image width, and depth.

What I would not learn for another ten years was that different was not necessarily better. At the time I owned Quad 57s, and they didn’t do any of those things. Never mind the fact that they were much more musical, that they opened the clearest window on a musical soundstage I have ever heard to this day, or the fact that they were much more tonally accurate. I moved the Quads around and pulled them further out, but while I could get a nice soundstage with great depth, I couldn’t get them to produce the same kind of soundstage I had heard from the little KA-1s.

The result was that several years later when I move from Texas back east into a very small house, I sold the Quads, one of my many mistakes in audio, and begin my journey down the road to find the ultimate soundstage. The two best of the great soundstaging speakers, I owned during this search, were the Spica Angelus and the Celestion SL700s. As good as theses two were there was something missing. I found myself spending more and more time sitting around listening for what was outside the speakers or how deep a particular instrument was in the soundfield. I actually remember how I would put the Opus test records on and listen to hear if the flute was far enough back and to the left, and if Eric Bibb was in the right location, or maybe putting on the Weavers and checking to see how they lined up across the stage.

If you think I was the only one like this, you’re wrong. Even a company as revered as Quad brought out a new speaker, the Quad 63, which was designed to do those things the 57s couldn’t. The 63s produced one of the best and most correct soundstages I have ever heard, but still they never sounded as right as the 57s. During this time I begin to read about single-ended amps, and thought I had to try one. Of course, eight watts wouldn’t even begin to work with the Celestion SL700s, so I borrowed a pair of Klipsch Fortes. The little AES SET and the Fortes didn’t produce a very wide or deep soundstage, and the sound was a little boxy; but man oh man you had to hear that midrange, and the dynamics. I was pulled into the music in a way I hadn’t been in years.

In the end, the AES and Fortes didn’t turn out to be a system I could live with for long, but they had taught me the lesson I mentioned above, namely that different was not necessarily better. So, I started down the track of finding a system that was emotionally involving. Along the way I made a discovery about this whole soundstage thing. At first, I just thought you couldn’t have both musically satisfying sound and a soundstage, but then we move to the San Francisco Bay Area and I started getting to hear live music almost weekly.

I really loved going to Yoshi’s and listening to the great jazz artists, and I want you to know when I’m there I rarely, if ever, think about my system. One night though I was there with my wife to hear her favorite singer, Steve Tyrell. We were there for the third time that week (like I said, she really likes him) and by the third show I admit boredom had set in and then it hit me, this is the kind of soundstage I like. Then it hit me again, of course it is: this is live music.

At the time I was listening to a system that was made up of Audio Note’s AN/E SE speakers placed as recommended in the corners, and driven by a little Wavac MD 300B. As I sat down at home and listened I thought that was very much like it at the Yoshi’s. As time has gone by and I have reviewed and paid close attention to many speakers, I have come to better understand the kind of soundstage I think is correct, and I know it’s the kind of soundstage I like. I refer to it now as the “coherent soundstage.”

Coherent Soundstage

What does a “coherent soundstage” sound like? Even though I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area going on ten years, I’m still a southern boy at heart. So, I’ll start by tell you what it doesn’t sound like. It doesn’t sound like voices or instruments floating around in some black space like a modern painting that show strings and notes but no instrument or musicians. It doesn’t sound like those same floating instruments are sometimes outside the speakers and sometimes way back behind the speakers like they’re not even in the same room. Lastly, it doesn’t make every recording sound wide, deep, and cavernous.

A coherent soundstage lets me hear life-size, and occasionally bigger-than-life-size singers and instruments. Let me explain what I mean by sometimes “bigger than life size”. I don’t know why musicians love to walk over and stick their horns or their mouths right into the mic, but they do and it’s part of a live jazz performance. Well, I want to hear that; I want to hear a vocal or a trumpet start soft and small, then swell in volume and size as they reach back and let it go. With a coherent soundstage, I also get to hear the space around, and even within an instrument. I also get to hear the body of the guitar, as well as the floor under the bass, and the sound of the strings inside a piano.

Yes, if the recording is stereo I want the soundstage to be appropriately wide, deep, and tall. Depending on the placement of the speakers, there may or may not be music that come from the area outside the bounds of the speakers. I want to be able to tell where they are in relationship to one another. It’s not as easy as we think when listening to live music to pin point which instruments are where on the stage. Of course it’s easy to tell which ones are on the right and left, but the location of the ones in the middle can get a little muddled even when you’re there. What don’t get muddled in live music are the notes they are playing.

This comes down to the heart of a coherent soundstage. It lets me hear what each and every instrument is doing in it’s own space, but it is always a part of the whole. I’m sitting here right now listening to a Stan Getz mono recording, and it is so easy to distinguish each and every instrument even in mono. There are layers and textures. In no way does it sound like the instruments are all mixed together, but of course with mono it’s not location that allows me to hear them separately; it’s coherency and tonal accuracy, I think. Last night I pulled out that old Opus 3 test record, and yes I could tell how deep and to the right the flute was if I made myself listen for it, but my system now just drew me into the beautiful music and recording of that great Opus 3 LP. I was amazed by how life-size and alive it sounded, and I was in no way distracted by instruments popping out in their own different spaces. It was a beautiful, large band playing in a very good hall.

So yes, I love a good soundstage, but not if it detracts from the music. I want a system that lets me hear a big soundstage when there’s one in the recording, and a small intimate sound when it’s not. Well, I’ll get off my soapbox and graciously say if you don’t agree with me that’s okay, just keep on bopin’ to the music that makes you happy.

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