Imaging & Soundstage

Imaging & Soundstage


If you have an interest in achieving an enjoyable sound in your listening space, then you’ve probably heard of the terms ‘imaging’ and ‘soundstage’ a lot. But what do these terms actually mean and why is there so much conversation around them?

Imaging and soundstage are generally used to define the ability of a system to create a realistic three-dimensional sound space and position individual sounds within that space.

The term soundstage refers to the perceived width, height and depth of the recorded sound played by your system. When you close your eyes and listen to a recording, do your feel that the sound is coming from the points in the room where your speakers are located? Or do you perceive that there is an area with width, height and depth similar to a theatre stage from which all the sound seems to emanate? When properly set up, a system with good soundstaging should sound like the latter. The actual speakers should seem to disappear and be replaced by a three-dimensional spatial arrangement of music sources.

Since your system is creating an illusion of a musical event in front of you, another function of the soundstage is to create the experience of realism or believability. The size of the soundstage created by the system determines its ability reproduce different types of recordings with compelling realism. Systems with a small soundstage may realistically reproduce the ambience of a live performance such as a jazz ensemble at a nightclub, but they may not be capable of conveying the sense of spaciousness needed to convince you that you’ve been transported to a large concert hall where an orchestra is performing.

The term imaging refers to the ability of your system to position stable and specific images of the voices and instruments, including their original sizes and locations within the soundstage. Imaging is a measure of the accuracy with which a system conveys audible information about the size, shape, and acoustical characteristics of the original recording space and the placement of the performers within it.

When you close your eyes, can you tell where each musician was standing when the recording was made? Or do the vocals and instruments come from vague, general areas? With systems that image well, the position of the voices and instruments should be easily identifiable at specific locations and shouldn’t seem to move with variations in frequency or volume.

Some people believe that the soundstage should be perceived to be behind the location of the speakers. This is true for many cases however I have set up and experienced many systems where the front of the perceived image can begin in front of the speakers. In the end whether your image begins in front or behind the front plane of your speakers is much less important than whether your system images coherently in a three-dimensional manner, with everything in its correct place within a fully-fleshed-out realistic soundstage.

Notice that I have mentioned ‘systems’, not ‘speakers’. It is true that of all the components of a music system, the speakers have the greatest impact on imaging and soundstage. However, I believe that it’s a mistake to attribute ALL of this effect to the speakers. The overall sonic picture produced by your system is the net result of the synergy of all the components working together. I have been shocked at the considerable change in imaging and soundstage resulting from changing an amplifier or a set of cables.

Having said that, speakers with radically different dispersion patterns can be expected to create different soundstages as they energize a room in different ways. Is there one speaker design that guarantees better imaging and soundstaging than others? I would have to say, no, there is not. That’s because the room and the speaker interact to form a system that creates the image you hear. Trying to isolate a speaker’s characteristics without taking the room into consideration has no value (unless your listening space happens to be an anechoic chamber).

Important factors in achieving optimum imaging and soundstage performance are aspects like system synergy, speaker location in the room relative to the listening position, speaker toe-in, speaker height & tilting, phase relation between right and left speakers and room acoustics. The most important aspect to setting up your system is understanding your personal preferences. For some audiophiles, image size is most important while for others image specificity trumps image size.

Some Quick Tips

I will share some in-depth tips in future posts but here’s 8 quick tips on improving your imaging and soundstage assuming you are using a pair of dynamic driver speakers and assuming that your room size and shape can accommodate this advice.

Improving Imaging & Soundstage Diagram
  • Speaker placement. Place your speakers so that they form a triangle with the listening position. Ensure that the distance between the listening seat and each speaker is identical.

    • Wall proximity. Move your speakers at least 2-3 feet away from the nearest wall. This will improve clarity and bass response.

    • Speaker separation. Start with around 8 feet of separation between your speakers and then experiment until you find the ideal separation distance. Setting the distance between the speakers is a trade-off between having a wide soundstage and a strong center image. The farther apart the speakers, the wider the soundstage. As the speakers are moved farther apart, however, the center image weakens and can even disappear. If the speakers are too close together, the soundstage narrows and the sound can become ‘muddy’. Speakers placed the optimal distance apart will produce both a strong center image and a wide soundstage. There will likely be a position where the center image snaps into focus, appearing as a stable and almost tangible presence exactly between the speakers.

    • Speaker height. Position your speakers so that the tweeters are at roughly the same height as your ears.

    • Speaker azimuth. This is a measure of the angle of the front plane of the speaker relative to the listener, commonly known as ‘tilt’. Ensure that the tilt angle is identical for both speakers because if there is any difference between the tweeter angles to the listener, the imaging will be adversely affected.

    • Speaker Toe-in. Angle your speakers inward so they’re pointed towards the listener – more specifically, at a point directly behind the listener’s head. Identical toe-in for both speakers is essential to great soundstaging because a speaker’s frequency response changes with toe-in, and imaging is dependent on the identical response from each speaker. Increase or decrease the angle of your speakers a few degrees at a time until you hit that ideal sweet spot. Toe-in will also change the tonal balance (the sound will be brighter with more toe-in). And keep in mind that some speakers are designed for flattest frequency response with no toe-in. These speakers should be positioned according to the manufacturer’s guidance, with no toe-in.

    • Furniture arrangement. Make sure no objects are located between your speakers and your ears (including coffee tables). Strive for symmetry in speaker and furniture arrangement. The goal here is to minimize sound reflections as much as possible.

    • Use a rug. If your listening room has hard floors like tiles or floorboards, install a rug on the floor between the speakers and the listening position.

      So why is imaging and soundstage so important?

      The ability to soundstage and image properly is crucial to making a system listenable for extended periods of time. This is because throughout our normal day-to-day experiences, our brains continuously work to match sounds our ears hear to their sources in our environment. Similarly, when we are listening to music, our brain has to process the sound information our ears are hearing into a sonic picture that feels like we are with the musicians in a location such as a studio or concert hall, enjoying the music in live time.

      When the sounds are disassociated relative to their position and surrounding space due to poor imaging and soundstage, our brains have to work extra hard to try match the sounds to their sources. This can be quite tiring, which leads to listener fatigue. A system is ‘fatiguing’ when you find you can’t listen to it for more than a certain length of time.

      Perhaps the greatest reason that imaging and soundstage is so important was highlighted by an experience we had recently when we were contacted by a gentleman who was a genuine music enthusiast with a significant music collection. He complained that he just wasn’t enjoying his hi-fi system and wanted us to visit him and give him our opinion. The next afternoon, armed with some cool records and some lovely take away food for all, we visited Peter.

      He turned on his system and it was clear that it was not imaging well due to poor speaker placement. We simply re-positioned his speakers and made some other small changes and he virtually jumped out of his chair in delight! His excitement was off the scale. When he bought his system many years ago, the dealer set it up in that way and he just assumed that it was set up optimally so he never tried to move his speakers. But once we got his system imaging correctly, a believable soundstage opened up and he was able to connect with the music. It was literally the difference between not enjoying and full engagement.

      This is the reason that many of us are so invested in this wonderful hobby – because we love music and want to be as emotionally connected to it as possible. We want to lose ourselves in it, feel it through every fiber of our body and be thrilled, immersed, moved and rocked by it. For that to happen, it has to be believable, it has to be convincing.

      What about you?

      Does your system paint a convincing, believable, palpable sonic picture?

      How would you rate your imaging & soundstage?