Soundstage. What is it really?
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Pwn3r4Life

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If you've read any of my reviews, you'll notice I dance around the topic of soundstage. I hide from it. This is purely because I feel that it is a word that gets tossed around all too often and carelessly. This is my attempt to define it and understand, through and through, of course with the help of fellow Head-Fiers.
 
Below I have listed and described what I believe to be the sub-points that a headphone (or speaker system) must hit to have a great "soundstage".
 

Openness / Airiness

Often times I hear people reference the HD800's killer soundstage and compare it to the "closed-in" sound of another headphone. While I would agree that the HD800 has a great soundstage, often time, so does the headphone that they are comparing it to, in my opinion. I often find that headphones with more top-end sparkle or splash tend to be hailed as having a better soundstage. Sometimes, they don't, sometimes they do. I find this added openness helps, but it is most definitely not the whole story.
 

Imaging

A headphone with good imaging is a headphone that I want to have. When listening to AC/DC, this means I could point directly to Angus Young hopping around with his guitar. Imaging to me is the precision element of soundstage; it is what defines a headphones ability to place sounds in the soundscape that the headphone creates. Now, in order for a headphone to be able to pinpoint sounds, there must be a large soundscape to begin with.
 

Spacing

The guts of soundstage. How surrounded in sound are you? Width, depth, height, all of it. One could argue that "Spacing" is one in the same as "Imaging", but I do not think so. Many headphones sound expansive and dreamlike but I can't necessarily pinpoint certain details.
 
 
If anyone feels that these categories could be combined, or that I am missing a quintessential category, let me know. I would love to engage with you all and your opinions on this topic.
 
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Here are some of my thoughts. Soundstage is very important to many people, but not me. The reason for this is that all headphones have a tiny soundstage compared to live performances and speakers. The differences between a small and large soundstage in headphones are comparatively insignificant. (And I've heard the HD 800 and HE1000.) Interestingly, my STAX SR-30 has a rather intimate soundstage, yet has some of the best instrument separation I've heard. So there's more to it than just soundstage. Naturally, a larger soundstage allows for better imaging, but doesn't guarantee it. In the end, it's all about emulating an actual physical soundstage. This can be facilitated without altering the mechanical design of the headphones, as demonstrated by devices like the Smyth Realiser A8 virtual surround sound processor, which, for some, is indistinguishable from speakers. But still, having a headphone with a better soundstage will be best suited to this. It should also be noted that the frequency response of a headphone can contribute to (or detract from) the sense of soundstage.
 
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  This can be facilitated without altering the mechanical design of the headphones, as demonstrated by devices like the Smyth Realiser A8 virtual surround sound processor, which, for some, is indistinguishable from speakers. But still, having a headphone with a better soundstage will be best suited to this. It should also be noted that the frequency response of a headphone can contribute to (or detract from) the sense of soundstage.
 
This is probably getting towards an answer like this: soundstage, in headphones, is the ability to deliver a response at the eardrum that corresponds (or aims to correspond) to an acoustic with a relatively large breadth to the sound sources and all the other properties (e.g. reflections) that go along with the venue. For normal stereo tracks, another way to put it would be: how far apart are the two virtual "speakers", and what kind of venue are you putting them in.
 
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Improved soundstage in headphones seems to be a product of a flat frequency response.  Any sense of separation or space is just a psycho-acoustic result of this flat response.  If certain frequencies are being masked more than others, it can detract from the overall sense of positioning and depth.  It is your mind helping you to rationalize what you are perceiving with your senses.  That is what I have deduced from all the information I could find on the subject.
 
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  Improved soundstage in headphones seems to be a product of a flat frequency response.  Any sense of separation or space is just a psycho-acoustic result of this flat response.  If certain frequencies are being masked more than others, it can detract from the overall sense of positioning and depth.  It is your mind helping you to rationalize what you are perceiving with your senses.  That is what I have deduced from all the information I could find on the subject.
 
Probably, but it seems to go both ways, in some cases. I've read about how boosting or reducing certain frequencies can increase the sense of soundstage as well, but I guess it depends.
 
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sonitus mirus

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Probably, but it seems to go both ways, in some cases. I've read about how boosting or reducing certain frequencies can increase the sense of soundstage as well, but I guess it depends.
Sure, I would expect that it would depend on the type of music and the predominant frequencies of the the instruments.   When wearing headphones, I imagine stereo sounds coming from in front of me, but in reality it could just as easily be coming from behind me.  With speakers, the sound is definitely coming from in front.  With headphones, my mind is just interpreting the sound coming from the front rather than behind me, as this is what I expect to hear.
 
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  Sure, I would expect that it would depend on the type of music and the predominant frequencies of the the instruments.   When wearing headphones, I imagine stereo sounds coming from in front of me, but in reality it could just as easily be coming from behind me.  With speakers, the sound is definitely coming from in front.  With headphones, my mind is just interpreting the sound coming from the front rather than behind me, as this is what I expect to hear.
 
That reminds me. At the end of this particular song, there's a part that makes me feel like something is creeping up from behind me. It's done in a subtle way, but puts me on edge every time I listen to it! And with certain headphones, the sense of something behind me, about to grab me, is even stronger. (In case you want to look it up, it's "The Instinct" from the Killer Cuts CD, which is a remix album included with the Super Nintendo game Killer Instinct. lol)
 
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Soundstage is often a term restated as headstage here.

I tend to look at it a little like how some here look at color. Though really this comparison is silly, there are parallels.IMO.

I personally try and just get all soundstage ideas and opinions down to organic entertainment. Yep. Every pair of headphones has a slightly different soundstage.Just like amusing color treatments, soundstage can have a mesmerizing influence on the new headphone buyer.

Still in the end it does not matter just how thrilling it is in the beginning but how musical the headphones are day in and day out. After the initial buzz, during the first week of ownership, it all comes down to the weekly, yearly livability of the headphones. We also can't forget that soundstage synergy is also at play here. Just like cold/warm/dark influences from upstream equipment, amp, source and cables affect the "stage". IMO.



In the end the complete system is the whole package, thus even if soundstage seems to let us hear every detail, how the tone is represented is still more important. That is why you will see the importance of soundstage downplayed above, and on this forum in general. I actually find it to be a combination.


Example

ATH M50 Headphones. They have an "OK" soundstage, but their lack of super detail in the mids and higher mids makes the soundstage they have worth less to me. So we have to look at the whole package. If a system ends up being boring, our job is to try and figure out why and improve system musical synergy.


A) Perfect tone but slim and almost nonexistent soundstage, bad.
B) Huge open as Montana soundstage, crappy unrealistic tone and PRaT, bad.
C) Medium soundstage, pretty good accurate and flat or fun tone representations, good. I can also maybe change out stuff above the headphones themselves in the stream to get an even more musical and pleasurable listening experience?
 
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While they may not use 'soundstage' in the same context as you, the often write about  the stereo illusion of two channel stereo.
 
Siegfried Linkwitz:
http://www.linkwitzlab.com/index.html
 
David Griesinger:
http://www.davidgriesinger.com/
 
Floyd E. Toole
book:
Sound Reproduction
Loudspeakers and Rooms
 
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  While they may not use 'soundstage' in the same context as you, the often write about  the stereo illusion of two channel stereo.
 
Siegfried Linkwitz:
http://www.linkwitzlab.com/index.html
 
David Griesinger:
http://www.davidgriesinger.com/
 
Floyd E. Toole
book:
Sound Reproduction
Loudspeakers and Rooms
 
Nice list of references to which I'd like to add (a specific reference  from Linkwitz who was mentioned above):
 
http://www.linkwitzlab.com/Recording/AS_creation.htm
 
Note: "Acoustic or Acoustical Scene" is the more formal term used as opposed to Soundstage.
 
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  Sure, I would expect that it would depend on the type of music and the predominant frequencies of the the instruments.   When wearing headphones, I imagine stereo sounds coming from in front of me, but in reality it could just as easily be coming from behind me.  With speakers, the sound is definitely coming from in front.  With headphones, my mind is just interpreting the sound coming from the front rather than behind me, as this is what I expect to hear.
But with speakers isn't your mind still interpreting the sound to come from in front of you. Granted, that is actually the case, but either way, why can't headphones trick your ears into making your brain think the sound is coming from a different location? What acoustic properties dictate soundstage? That's what I'm getting at here.
 
Still in the end it does not matter just how thrilling it is in the beginning but how musical the headphones are day in and day out. After the initial buzz, during the first week of ownership, it all comes down to the weekly, yearly livability of the headphones. We also can't forget that soundstage synergy is also at play here. Just like cold/warm/dark influences from upstream equipment, amp, source and cables affect the "stage". IMO.
Agree. I never cared about or really noticed soundstage until recently. Dynamics have always sounded more open to me (boosted treble), but I've tended to prefer planars for their more natural sound IMO. But still, discrediting soundstage doesn't really help us to understand it.
 
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  But with speakers isn't your mind still interpreting the sound to come from in front of you. Granted, that is actually the case, but either way, why can't headphones trick your ears into making your brain think the sound is coming from a different location? What acoustic properties dictate soundstage? That's what I'm getting at here.
 
Angled drivers can help, since the sound is literally coming from in front of you, to an extent. And naturally, larger drivers tend to have a larger soundstage. I also noticed (and this is kinda cliche) that headphones with taller drivers (such as the HIFIMAN HE1000 and Sennheiser HD 650) have a greater sense of height.
 
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speakers have the advantage that the soundstage "stays put" as you move your head - your brain, auditory neural complex has deeply embedded your own head, ears modification of frequency and phase response with varying external sound source angle
 
and your brain expects the sound sources to be modified as your head moves - when they aren't as in normal headphone listening the model your brain is trying build of the external sound sources is confused, soundstage collapses
 
look up hrtf: https://www.google.com/#q=head+response+transfer+function
 
 
and the vast majority of commercial music is mixed for speakers in rooms, relies on room reverberation - up to half the sound power reaching your ears in a room is reflected/delayed/resonance rather than direct on axis sound from speakers
 
again our brains are deeply wired for these additional spatial sound clues - even if most of us don't rely on them to the extent of the blind we still hear the effects of room size, walls, floor, ceiling reflections
 
 
most of us hear normal stereo mixes on headphones as having a soundstage little more than "along a line between our ears" - "Virtualization" can help - from simple crossfeed to simulation, DSP like Dolby Headphone
 
the Smyth SVS Realizer shows that better is possible, that we only need 2 channels of info, headphone are fine - if you process the feed to include the effects of speakers, room, head angle, personal hrtf and the headphone's own response
 
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My $0.02:
When discussing sound stage reproduction of recordings be it either via two/stereo speakers or headphones, first you need to make sure that there was an actual sound stage when the recording happened. Lots of music is pieced together and the sound sources from individual tracks placed on a virtual sound stage to create a "spread".
 
This has nothing to do with a live recording of e.g. Jazz or classic in a club a concert hall. The latter recordings should ideally capture the direct sound and as well all the natural reverb of the room.  The mix of the direct sound in relation to the reflected sound are essential for our brain to process the sound and determine the location of the sound source. The better the total information is captured, the easier it is for our brain to create the illusion that we are listening to the live event with the musicians being at their exact locations during the recording.
 
Some Chesky recordings are exemplary in creating this illusion, even over headphones. The HD800 gives me a realistic image of the recording room and I do not perceive the sound as being on a line between my ears or inside my head.
 
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We might want to add some of J.J. Johnston's ( aka j.j. ) work to the list.
 
http://www.aes-media.org/sections/pnw/ppt/
 
this page has video from a recent meeting:
http://www.aes-media.org/sections/pnw/pnwrecaps/
 
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