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Is soundstage actually detrimental to spatial audio?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by silikone, Sep 5, 2019.
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  1. silikone
    So the notion of soundstage being a property of headphones certainly has a lot of substance behind it, and indeed, even untrained ears can anecdotally easily perceive this.
    However, the theory behind is rather confusing to me. Since soundstage seems to be related to the openness of headphones, it would imply that the interaction of the outside world and the user's ear is at least partially responsible for the improved soundstage. Now, this raises a question that I have been struggling to find conclusive answers to: If soundstage is a result of audio waves being "colored" before entering the ear, wouldn't this negatively affect audio that has already been prepared for headphone experiences? As sound being recorded with a dummy head goes through the filtering that our own ears perform, surely any playback not bypassing the human exterior is going to suffer from excessive coloration, since one would unnecessarily combine the HRTF of the recording with the more minimal HRTF/PRTF associated with headphone playback.
    Conversely, with "pure" recordings that haven't undergone any HRTF, e.i. virtually all music, audio will benefit from a layer of extra spaciousness introduced by end-user equipment.
  2. castleofargh Contributor
    not sure everybody here would even agree with what you consider soundstage.
    that's not something I find conclusive. we can see some anecdotal correlation between perceive imaging and open/closed back headphones, but the truth is that some very open headphone do cause us to feel a very crappy and narrow position for the instruments. maybe having as little masking of the ambient noises in the room stops the brain from thinking "there is some weird crap going on with sound right now"? something that can very much happen if we get enough isolation that it feels strange or if we get any form of occlusion effect.
    maybe the headphone sends out enough energy for the room to have the ears get some audible stuff back as room reverb? seems unlikely IMO given the amplitude at which a headphone projects sounds in the room compared to our listening levels.
    but maybe it just happens that most closed back headphones tend to have a different signature and some significant amount of distortions, creating some conflict with the subjective positioning(whatever pattern of sound we do get when we should not or fail to get when we should, anything that will have the brain go "this is not right"?

    considering that a dummy head is only kind of similar to your own head, some amount of "coloration"(different FR, slightly different inter-aural delay) are already present in a binaural record. as most of what creates our subjective impression of a sound source at a given place in space(other than our eyes) are ITD and ILD, the main impact caused by the headphone and our ears is the FR. the headphone isn't going to affect ITD, and as I said I doubt very much that a headphone can have your room generate soundstage(reverb from the music). what does come back to the ear is most likely too low in amplitude for the brain to even care/notice(maybe with some of the speakerphone type of devices where the guy next to you gets as much music as you do, but otherwise I'm not optimistic). the extra distortions from a headphone, whatever ambient noises from the room we're in, are only going to become relevant to us if they reach a certain level. otherwise they're only some types of secondary cues. if the ITD and ILD were right for a listener, I suspect that placement would mostly be perceived correctly, and the ambiance/reverb from the recording room would be enough to give us a "stage". I won't say it would be perfect because we still have limitations in our hearing system and a tendency for the brain to involve sight and show us the actual room we're in, messing up with the imagined room and instruments.
    TronII likes this.
  3. bigshot
    Headphones don't have soundstage because soundstage requires space.
  4. 71 dB
    I believe our hearing can deconstruct the colourizations of sound into subcolourizations that "make sense". So, if there's a dip at 9 kHz for example, our hearing tries to give it the most plausible explanation, for example calling it a reflection from the pinna. This is what I believe and I have no science to back it up. Just telling what I think.

    How much space? Headphones aren't infinitely small.

    Just because YOU can't have spatial sensations with headphones doesn't mean others also can't. I have said many times I get miniature soundstage with headphone unless the spatial information is very f*cked up. While writing this I am listening to Margaret Brouwer's Quintet for Clarinet in A and String Quartet (Naxos 8.559763) and I have a miniature soundstage of about 3 feet in size when using crossfeed level -5 dB which seems quite optimal for this recording.
    Hifiearspeakers likes this.
  5. bigshot
    Soundstage is a flat plane of sound in front of you. How far away from you that plane should be depends on the distance between the speakers. Headphones shoot sound directly into your ears. It isn’t a flat plane in front of you, it’s a straight line through the middle of your head. That might better be called headstage.

    You can use your mind to extrapolate distance from secondary distance cues embedded in the mix of the music, but it isn’t the same as true soundstage, and it has more to do with your mind and the mix than it does the equipment.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2019
  6. 71 dB
    Ultimately it's my mind creating what I hear and what it creates when I listen to headphones is miniature soundstage unless the spatial cues of the recording are so bad my mind can't create soundstages and it's as you say a straight line through the middle of my head . I'm not complaining… …I think for some reason you reject the idea that spatial hearing can be fooled quite a lot and hence you can't experience the headphone soundstage the way I do.
    Hifiearspeakers likes this.
  7. bigshot
    If it's your mind creating it, it doesn't have anything to do with the particular system you are using to reproduce the sound. It's all in the secondary depth cues embedded in the music itself and your brain interpreting them.

    With my system, the soundstage isn't just created in my mind or embedded in the mix. It's created by the positioning of my speakers in the room. Physical space is what creates physical soundstage. I can play a mono recording with very few spatial cues and the room itself will add its own envelope to the sound. You can synthesize some of that with headphones using DSPs, but it isn't the same as true soundstage. Space is the most under-discussed aspect of sound reproduction.

    Soundstage is real.
  8. 71 dB
    Loudspeakers in a room create very different soundstage from headphones, but even the loudspeaker soundstage is physically a diffuse soundfield our spatial hearing is able to make sense of. Loudspeakers + room create a lot of new spatial information (mono recordings being a good example of that) while headphone listening adds very little new spatial information (some pinna reflexions with over the ear gear). The most serious problem with headphones is the lack of crossfeed (most recordings are produced assuming this happens) since the "space" isn't creating it so that's why I use and advocate crossfeed with headphones.

    All sounds regardless of how and where they originated enter our hearing through the ear canal so that all physical multidimensional information about the soundstage is transformed into one-dimension pressure wave inside the ear canal, because it's thin compared to the even the highest frequencies we can hear. All that multidimensional soundstage information gets transformed into one-dimensional signal that moves our ear drums.

    It's not about whether soundstages are real or not. It's about how things matter.
  9. bigshot
    The term soundstage (or "sonic stage") was created by John Culshaw to describe the effect of stereo speakers in a room playing back a recording miked to capture movement across a physical stage. The first recording to be made for soundstage was Decca's Ring of the Nibelung. It's a speaker term that has been appropriated and misused by headphone people.


    Note the stage in the background with a grid of squares taped off on it. This was where the singers stood, and they had blocking notes telling them which squares to stand in when singing a particular bit. When played on speakers, it sounds like an orchestra in a pit with singers acting and moving around the stage. On headphones these recordings sound very good, and it works OK left to right, but there is no feeling of distance in front of you.

    Space alters sound. Soundstage depends on that kind of alteration. It's the illusion of a performance taking place on a stage in front of you. Speaker soundstage blends physical distance cues with secondary distance cues embedded in the recording to create a plane of sound in front of you. When you turn your head, you can locate sound sources in space. Headphones just reproduce secondary distance cues. The sound is inside your head.

    If you've heard a recording with clear soundstage, you'd understand what it is. Few rock recordings employ soundstage. It's more common in opera, classical and jazz recordings.
  10. Hifiearspeakers
    Wrong. Give me my 800S and give me any other brand and/or model and I will pass a double blind test 100/100 times for which headphone has the larger soundstage.
    71 dB likes this.
  11. bigshot
    What about the difference between your headphones and speakers with real soundstage? Soundstage isn't subtle. When speakers are aligned wrong, soundstage falls flat. It's all about the room. I think that headphone users use the term incorrectly because they have never set up a speaker system and tried to get tight soundstage.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
  12. Hifiearspeakers
    There’s no doubt that a well set-up speaker system will yield a larger soundstage than headphones. There’s no argument there. But that doesn’t mean headphones don’t produce soundstage as well, and some, way better than others. That is one aspect of audio that is really easy for me to identify (and I’m sure many others as well), because I’m kind of a soundstage snob. I simply don’t enjoy headphones with a tiny or narrow soundstage. I prefer a larger audio canvas and a more diffuse field vs near field.
    71 dB likes this.
  13. bigshot
    The difference between speakers and headphones isn't size. You can use near field speakers and get a very tight, small soundstage. The difference is that with speakers, the sound is a distance in front of you and when you close your eyes and turn your head, you can pinpoint sound locate objects spread out in front of you in space. That is what soundstage is all about. Headphones can't do that because the sound is all up inside your head, not in front of you. And when you turn your head, headphones turn with you. No fixed sound location.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
  14. Hifiearspeakers
    True, if you turn your head, the headphones move with you so you’re not going to get 7.1 like sound or spatial cues. But certain headphones absolutely can project the sound more in front of you and outside the head. My 800S is a prime example. Many Hifiman models do that as well. And then there are brands, like Focal, that suck at soundstage.

    When I watch Netflix movies using my headphones through my Roku, it sounds and feels like I’m at a theater.
    Last edited: Sep 9, 2019
  15. castleofargh Contributor
    you're talking about different things. if we're going to push a definition of soundstage to anything affecting a perceived position or distance, then a signature is soundstage? I mean a different FR clearly affects where I perceive the instruments. I think your argumentation comes a little short here, because almost anything affects a perceived position in some ways. while a specific room, will bring specific changes beyond placement of the instruments.

    on the other hand, for decades now people have called stuff going on with a headphone "soundstage", so while I tend to agree with bigshot on the logical/historic definition, I'm also fine if we just decide that over time the definition has changed to include headphone stuff. language is like that, if everybody uses a term wrongly, then it isn't wrong anymore. ^_^ with the same idea, I'm fine with people calling cable vibrations heard with headphones and IEMs, "microphonics". I learned the wrong use of that word long before I learned the real one. and if we look on a forum, the "wrong" use is by far the most common, making it IMO, the right use.

    a third option would be to go with headstage. because it carries the idea intuitively, while bringing a well deserved distinction. bigshot convinced me of this a few years back and when I post a message with headstage, my meaning seems to be received just fine.
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