Soundstage and Imaging Separates Great from Just OK

High-Performance audio is a particularly fascinating hobby to me. When I listen to music reproduced on MP3 through mid-fi components I often just shake my head in disbelief at the difference. That sonics can be presented in such a disproportionate level across different systems and mediums is something I find remarkable. Because I have such respect and admiration for components with engineering and design excellence, high-end audio products give me a lot to enjoy.

AR-Imaging333.jpgMany of products wind up accomplishing essentially the same sonic level of excellence despite different routes to the end goal. Take the design differences between low powered tubed SET amps and a solid state Class D amp - both have their champions and detractors and both can sound wonderful. Yet their design premises are radically different.

Looking further at our hobby, other amplifiers have some of that same sonic DNA. I find it remarkable that even some entry level high-end amps / CD players or amp / turntable setups are so sonically superior to mid-fi gear. In my world, when you jump to world-class equipment there simply is no comparison. Yes, the cost is substantially more. There is also a certain inevitable logic that when given enough money it's easy to design something that sounds superior. Well, maybe, maybe not...suffice it to say that high performance components sound collectively wonderful because they are designed to do just that. Even cables, those sometimes glorified, sometimes maligned things to connect boxes together have a substantial role in a system's sonics.

All of these things display engineering prowess.

If there were one condition in high-end audio that completely fascinates and mesmerizes me, it would have to be soundstage and imaging. The very notion that speaker placement is so very highly responsible for how a system's imaging may be presented is something I find completely amazing and musically satisfying.

AR-Audio333.jpgJ. Gordon Holt's "The Audio Glossary" defines soundstage as "The physical environment in which a recording is or was made, and it's acoustical properties." Imaging is defined as "The accuracy with which a stereo system re-creates the original sizes and locations of the instruments across the soundstage." Translation: a better and more realistic musical experience.

I've found that a precise, almost hyper-precise imaging enhances my listening enjoyment. And when that precision imaging is unbalanced or removed from the sonic picture, my enjoyment level is summarily reduced. Some few months ago, for instance, I noticed the imaging just didn't sound right. I checked my speaker measurements and found that they were minimally off in more than one direction. After a puzzling time trying to figure out how exactly they got that way, I finally decided to return them to the original dimensions I had previously recorded. I complimented myself on the wisdom of noting the exact measurements to the rear and sidewalls, and to the listening position when I finally had things dialed in. After discovering the speakers had been moved, knowing the original measurements eliminated all the guesswork in restoring sonic bliss.

I find it humorously counterintuitive that such minor differences render such large sonic changes.When I close the blinds covering the nine feet of glass doors right beside my system and high frequencies sound better. Moving a speaker as little as an inch in one direction may make either minor or dramatic changes in how things sound. More remarkable still, such minute adjustments are not consistent with all systems. The end result may easily be a system that sounds wonderful or one that is, to some degree, less so.

Out of pure curiosity, I did an Internet search for "speaker placement." To my astonishment, in all of 0.48 seconds, it delivered 4,230,000 results. Seriously? Is it any wonder that imaging is and remains a much debated, probably much misunderstood aspect of luxury audio? Yet at the same time, for many audiophiles, it is likely one of the defining factors that separates our hobby from mid-fi.

AR-Placement.jpgI also find it completely ridiculous that I persist in being my own worst enemy in regard to imaging. I can be sitting the sweet spot listening in total harmony to music without a care in the word. Then suddenly, I begin to question things, asking myself in some inquisitive fashion, does this sound right? Ceding to common sense brings me back around but the nagging question lingers. That indecision whether a slight move here or there will improve the imaging and hence my musical enjoyment - and wrestling with the temptation to move the speakers and see if an improvement may, or may not be the result. And of course leaving well enough alone because deep down, I just know for sure it's right.

Such temptation and the reluctance to alter what I know to be correct is part of the fun I find in Soundstage and Imaging - and hence my favorite form of indecision.

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