Audiophiles have multiple facets of musical enjoyment available on most any system qualified as "high performance." Maybe the presentation of solid state equipment might be preferred. Conversely, there are those who not only think the sound of tubes magical, but the only reasonable method of listening to music. Of course there is the almost never ending debate between analog and digital. Maybe a very bass heavy presentation might be highly desired, or perhaps the magnificent attack and decay of a cymbal crash might be predominately sought. Certainly, the individual attributes of various speaker technologies may easily emote musical wonderment. For some audiophiles, it might even be all the above.
For my listening purposes, the one aspect of the high end I probably most enjoy is imaging. I take great pleasure and interest in hearing a musical presentation divided and subdivided into the specific placement of instruments on the soundstage. Simply put, I believe precise imaging makes listening more enjoyable.
There are a variety of factors responsible for imaging - not the least of which is the recording. Modern recording techniques are highly evolved and recording engineers can accomplish quite a few sonic achievements with little more than the twist of a knob. Regardless, certain sonic effects are almost certainly intended to deliver some measure of complexity in a song. I have heard countless selections with the drum kit all over the soundstage - maybe the kick drum in the middle, tom toms on the left and cymbal and high hat on the right. Oftentimes they switch positions. I've heard drum rolls start on one side and roll to the other. And given that the last live concert I attended I thought I counted at least five, possibly six mics on the drummer alone makes sense of such a presentation. Yet, when I heard the music live, the drum certainly didn't sound like it was scattered all over the stage. So it is the recording engineer creating effects primarily in the name of one thing - greater musical involvement inherent in the recording.
Another important facet of imaging is speaker placement and room acoustics. I am predominately using GIK Acousticsroom treatments in my audio room. At AXPONA in April, I talked to Glenn Kuras who is the President of GIK. Upon showing him a picture of my audio room, both front and back, he noted I probably had too few panels on one area of the back wall possibly increasing reflections and negatively affecting imaging. This brought up an interesting issue. I had, for several weeks, thought the imaging was ever so slightly more concentrated to the right than the left. As it so happens, the area on the rear wall Glenn pointed out was in a direct line to the left speaker. Hmm, could it be? Upon returning home, I ordered two additional panels, hung them when they arrived, and instantly, the imaging was perfectly balanced between the left and right channels. I'd say this is conclusive proof that the room plays a large part in imaging perfection.
Speaker placement also matters. My first placement in the audio room of my new home purchased nearly two years ago was the basic rule of thirds. My first listen completely told the story - I hated it. The center image sounded like it was two blocks down the street. And so it began, the quest for placement perfection. It took me quite a while mostly because my level of satisfaction kept evolving over time. I'd listen for a month, maybe two or three, and suddenly decide the existing presentation should change. This continued until a few months ago when I finally decided I was finished (for now), and was of course heightened upon the addition of those last two acoustical panels.
So how does one know when the imaging is correct? How can we tell if the presentation is what the recording engineer intended it to be, that the room is not confusing things, that what the listener heard is consistent with the recording? One formidable problem is seldom will the average listener ever really know what the recording engineer heard. As consumers, we were almost certainly not in the studio when the music was recorded. We have no way to know how the recording engineer used the wizardry at their disposal to customize the sound. When we hear that sudden, fleeting percussive sound far to the left of the left speaker, was the musician likewise positioned when the recording was made? Who knows?
I typically use two CD's to check imaging, at least on the digital part of my system. One is a CD called Sheffield Drive. On this CD, there are thirteen different tracks. In the liner notes are specific musical attributes at very specific times. For instance, the liner notes might read, "at the 2:27 minute mark a very loud drum whack will be heard well to the right of the right speaker and a cymbal crash will be heard well to the left of the left speaker." When played, if this presentation is not heard, the listener knows there is a setup discrepancy. Another disc I use is the Nordost System Set Up & Tuning Disc. This disc contains a variety of useful features but most often, I use the LEDR test tonesto verify speaker placement.
There are many ways to enjoy an audio system. None is more or less correct than the other and any can bring hours of musical satisfaction. For me, imaging, and needless to say a highly resolving system reveals the complexity of the recording. I get a real kick out of my eyes darting around the room when I hear a sudden, and impossibly quick transient. I enjoy getting the feeling like maybe, just perhaps, I am listening to the music the first time the musicians played it themselves. There are many ways to enjoy an audiophile system. For me, imaging is most fun.