How to Achieve Great Imaging & Soundstage

Hey 'Goners,

While my primary system is in flux, I'm starting to think about revamping my second system, which employs monitor sized speakers in a small (16x16) living room. I love audible holigraphy!!! My desire is to put together a system that creates great 3D imaging and soundstage. While this thread may use my current setup as an example - its real intent is to get advice for/from all interested agoners about the most important factors required to achieve great imaging and soundstage: speakers, electronics, tweaks, room acoustics...

My current system consists of a Classe CAP-101 integrated attached to Triangle Titus 202 speakers using AQ Slate cables. The CD players vary from an Arcam FMJ CD23 to a Cary CD308, using Kimber PBJ IC's. The room is 16x16 and organized on the diaganol, with the speakers on either side of a loveseat (a necessary 'no-no' due to space constraints). The ceiling is doube-high and tilted down to the rear. I currently don't get much imaging at all, even if I remove the loveseat. The sound is overall good, though a bit bright, and I think the upper-end of the Titus speakers is a bit edgy and unrestrained - probably needs a shift in system synergy. It's a carpeted room with stuffed furniture, but the walls are bare and hard and there is a picture window with a fabric shade.

So what is most important: componentry or setup? While in San Francisco last week I audioned Totem Mani-2 and Model 1 speakers, as well as B&W N805's (all driven by a Rotel CDP, Aragon preamp, and ??? SS amp). The latter two speakers provided very good soundstage and imaging, but the Mani-2 wasn't as good. I note that the N805 appeared to get good imaging partly from its high frequency emphasis, and I was wondering whether the Model 1's achieved good imaging due to their small size. Is small size a big boon towards good imaging??? I'm also wondering how much difference the electronics could have been making. Even though imaging fell short in 1/3 speakers, how much are electronics a necessary key ingrediant?

So the questions I want to pose here are:



I'll be attending CES in January, and will be listening for the best in this realm. But they only show current gear - and older, used components are a resource not to be ignored.

Thanks All.
I believe the ingredients to producing excellent sonics in general (including imaging and soundstaging) consists of six basic ingredients:

1. A certain caliber and quality of equipment
(cost is not a factor but sometimes it helps).
2. The quality of room acoustics.
3. Equipment and especially speaker placement in room.
4. A synergy between components, a synergy between system and room.
5. Quality of recordings listened to.
6. Quality of electrical AC lines. Dedicated lines and circuits, wiring, line conditioners, outlets, powercords, etc..

Numbers 1 thru 5 are paramount to achieving a satisfied answer to your question. Fail at any one of these first 5 and you fall potentially way short of the mark.

Number 6 adds potentially tremendous enhancements and will take you the rest of the way home once items 1 thru 5 have been properly addressed.

I would even go so far as to say that if performing the items listed in number 6 make no sonic difference, then the user most likely has failed at properly addressing one or more of the first 5 items.

Number 6 is the icing on the cake but also a nice mearsuing tool to determine how well you executed items 1 thru 5.

So I'm guessing the hierarchical order to be:
1. equipment, acoustics, placement, synergy, recordings.
2. Clean electrical AC.

Although much depends on what components you're using, I would say number to achieving great soundstaging is placement of the speakers within the room and their relative position to the listening chair.

Personally, I've had great results achieving a lifelike soundstage with ProAc monitors. I also attribute much of what I've accomplished to my Blue Circle tube preamp and Virtual Dynamics cabling.
I think speaker positioning in the room is more important than the equipment. I'd go as far as to say that you're wasting money on expensive equipment if the room layout is not good for imaging. My favourite sites are Cardas:
And audiophysic:
I am absolutely with Gunbei and Sean, speaker placement is paramount in realizing what you are trying to achieve. What is between the speakers will also affect the soundfield dramatically. This should be minimized to the greatest extent possible.

So far as gear goes, it will improve on matters but isn't the first place to start. Treatment requires experimentation to determine what it is you like. Some prefer a deader sound some a liveler sound, it is totally subjective and your tastes will have to guide you there. So far as speakers that image well, well there are quite a few out there.

Always remember that imaging and soundstaging are more artifacts of the recording. It is an audiophile darling but what is more important in the long run is accurate tonal balance and timbral accuracy which leads towards long term enjoyment and minimizing another audiophile bugaboo, listener fatigue.
For great imaging on the cheap look for used Spica Tc-60s or Angelus (which I own). They don't play high SPLs and they're not the most dynamic speaker, but they have fantastic imaging and a very non-fatiguing top end. And they're both <$500 a pair. A true audio bargain.
My experiences with stage & image have varied all over the map; the variables being electronics, cabling & tweaks, the only un-changing components being my speakers & their placement. In other words, I've realized everything from a totally flat presentation to totally holographic, all with the same speakers in their exact same locations.
Stage/image are not my primary objectives when setting up & tweaking a rig, they come as a bonus.
As Tubegroover so adeptly explains:
"accurate tonal balance and timbral accuracy leading toward long term enjoyment and minimized listener fatigue"
are indeed my primary system setup objectives. To that end I've sometimes been a bit disappointed with the resulting stage/image, while at other times the stage has been fantastic but some of the other aforementioned attributes were otherwise lacking. I found that I preferred tonality & ease of listening issues over stage/image; others may lean in the opposite direction. Whatever sound that you prefer is what's right for you, just as my own preferences are of course what's right for me.
Touching upon Pete's 2nd question: the specific setup which gave me such a holographic presentation was (I'll do my best here to remember it) ... relatively modest compared to the system that I'm presently using.
---it was---
ReVox B795 TT + Signet MK10 mc cart
EAD Ultradisc 2000 CDP
Golden Tube SEP-2 pre
McCormack DNA-1 Deluxe amp
Synergistic Research Resolution Reference interconnects & Master Control Center active shielding with Synergistic Reference AC cord
MIT MH750+ speaker cable
classic vintage Belle Klipsch speaks
Chang Lightspeed 3200 + 9900 amp line conditioners
JPS Digital AC (on CDP)
XLO Type 10a AC cord (on pre)
Custom Power Model 11 AC cord (on amp)

That combo was magical regarding stage/image, but was somewhat lacking in tonality & was also much too sibilant.
Well said Tubegroover! Perhaps you read between the lines in my initial post, but some of those speakers I auditioned did leave me concerned about listener fatigue as a trade-off for imaging. Speakers that are midrange dominant and congested are not worth the price of imaging.

Can anyone pinpoint the characteristics of a speaker that makes it image well (size, a specific tonal balance, ???).

Also, even though equipment is a personal taste issue, are there any that really stand out?
Peter, I really didn't want to get into specifics on speakers. I'm not sure if you are unhappy with what you have or whether it is something that could be improved with placement and ancillaries. I am not familiar with the Titus speakers, your room or set-up so any further advice on specific speakers that do what you ask might seem presumptuous on my part. I am using Merlin VSM-M, which I love. They do it all but their presentation may or may not be to your liking. The only speaker system I can imagine replacing them would be a dipole but it won’t be anytime soon.

The point is that FIRST, if you haven't already, is experiment with placement in as many ways as possible within the constraints of the room. Too many people jump around without knowing exactly where the problem lies which might otherwise be remedied by working out the details of placement. As Bob Bundas notes, imaging is a bonus for some and mandatory for others. I really believe that it should come as a bonus and not become a goal in and of itself.

I have both great imaging/soundstaging and tonal balance/timbral accuracy. It is the result of the system and placement, not just the speakers although they are exceptional in this regard. Musical tastes also come into play. I have spent the past 2 years getting this system to where it is based on my listening preferences. This has involved numerous amplifiers, speaker placement, wire changes, room treatments and numerous other tweeks. It is still a work in progress. It takes time and patience. Upgrading gear was made to compliment the speakers once I came to the conclusion that they were staying. I knew that though they were very challenging initially, contrary to what others were saying, it was only because of the room and the ancillaries. The intrinsic character was recognized early on. This you must find out. Are the speakers doing everthing important to you, do they have a characteristic that is irritating is something missing or do they have a fundamental rightness to your ears?

I don’t want to get on a soapbox here but I feel when reading some posts on this site that many involved in this hobby are looking for their system to “sound” a certain way while missing the goal of realizing long term musical satisfaction which can only come by connecting to the artistry of the performance. This is reproduced audio at its best. We will all have different opinions of what that is but a musically involving system should be easily recognizable when heard. Getting to that point involves real effort, luck, trial and error, advice but first and foremost, a GOOD ROOM, IMHO. This site is full of individuals that can guide one trying to achieve this. I am speaking to you with the understanding that you are an audiophile that has first and primarily, a love of music. The audiophile community is divided into two camps, in my view, the sound freaks and those that want to capture the realness of music through an audio system. Just some food for thought.
Audio Physic speakers are known for their soundstaging ability, they disappear completelely when positioned correctly. I bought the Virgo II's largely for their imaging ability. ONly problem is that you have to put them out into the center of the room for them to sound their best, they typically require a dedicated listening room.
Two words: point source. From my listening experiences, the closer a driver comes to initiating sound from a point source, the better the imaging. The more the speakers will disappear.
The second major issue is cabinet size/ difraction/ resonance. A small cabinet will usually have less resonance. A narrow cabinet like Audio Physic is very important.
Third may be tube electronics giving better depth. Something to do with phase shift.
Of course speaker placement, far out from front wall with nothing between them.
This is not a hierarchical approach, but a few tips.
First, choose speakers which image well (ProAc Tablette Reference, ProAc Response 1sc, Arcus Cello, Sonus Faber, Totem, etc.).
Experiment with positions in the middle of the room to avoid colorations from wall reflections. Do not place in front of angled walls; remove obstructions in back of the speakers to avoid wave diffraction.
Use extremely stable, heavy stands, that are coupled well to the floor, and raise the tweeter to ear level. Couple the speaker to the stand using either Blue-Tac, spikes, or Symposium rollerballs.
Take the crossovers out of the cabinet and place them on a dampened support at least a few feet from the speakers themselves.
Make sure the speaker cables are exactly the same length for each side.
(Although this is not really crucial for soundstage, you can experiment with different cable lengths for tweeter and woofer between the crossover and the drivers. The total signal length in the crossover is typically unequal for each. Also, decay times for tweeter are much faster than the woofer. If possible measure this with lab equipment.)
Bi-amp if possible with the same model amplifier. Hopefully the amp has a relatively short and uncomplicated signal. (SET amps, minimalist SS like 47 Labs Gaincard, etc.)
Use relatively simple speaker cables and raise them off the floor, making sure they make no contact with speaker cabinet. I prefer thin single-strand solid-core copper speaker cables directly soldered (with minimum amount of solder) onto the speaker terminals and crossovers.
Upgrade crossover components (capacitors, etc.). If possible, do away with all circuit boards for crossovers, and directly wire crossover components to each other.
Remove speakers and examine damping material in the cabinets, to make sure it is equal in volume and distribution. You can experiment with changing it, if you want.
Tighten the speakers to the cabinet.

I've gone to the extent of creating a "Live End, Dead End" room in order to eliminate early reflections. The early relections are what your auditory system uses as cues for determining the spatial location of a sound source and the room signature can create conflicting messages. If the recorded source is good, the imaging of my system seems very accurate for height, width, and depth. I also tend to prefer a deadish room because it doesn't superimpose a small room signature over the recorded ambience but this approach requires more power for a given perceived loudness.
Slawney, curious you should mention the angled walls at the front of the room.

I just finished reading a technical artical on the Sequerra site that recommends inserting quasi walls of absorbing material angled behind the speakers in rectangular rooms. There was a window between the speakers.

In my own contemporary listening room, the front walls are angled at 15 degrees. Looks just like the picture in the article. From an empirical perspective, My speakers image very very well.
Judit, thanks, angled walls can sometimes improve imaging, given the right room configuration, and speaker-listener placement. In the same sense, exactly parallel walls can also destroy imagining. My remarks on wall/room geometry were too general, and techinical articles and books on room acoustics should always be consulted. There are even computer programs and websites which allow you to determine speaker position after you type in the room dimensions.
I'm also using the live end/dead end approach in my 17' X 24' dedicated room.

As to the point or line source, I feel this is especially critical. It results in a single sweet spot, but that's the price I'm willing to pay for best imaging/soundstage.

I have SoundLab A3s and have found I get the best results by actually toeing them out so that when seated in the sweetspot, my line-of-sight is perpendicular to only the inside one or two panels of the diaphragm (direct line/point source). This eliminates the rather diffuse radiation pattern, while still providing use of the total surface for bass frequency generation.

Peter - I agree with Tubegroover that some audiophiles want a certain sound and others are more into the musical experience. I lean towards the musical experience where the sound is as if I'm in the jazz club or else the performers are in my room. Initially I thought that imaging was the most important factor for the "in-room" experience. As I've progressed on the upgrade path, I realize that sound characteristics such as tonal accuracy, micro-detail, dynamic range, lack of noise, etc. are as important as imaging in the illusion of reality.

While my experience and the quality of my system is not near many of the others on this site, I'd like to give a few examples of what I've found. The addition of a tube pre-amp improved imaging tremendously but seemingly more important was the "black" backgound cause by the absense of noise. Upgrading the amp also improved imaging but seemingly because of tighter bass (I'd read about this but experiencing was something else). Upgrading the cd player added stunning detail (Arcam Alpha 9, similar to your FMJ). All of these increased the brightness to unacceptable levels so I upgraded to NOS tubes which now provide the spaciousness, depth and liquidity. It's been a fun process, with more left to go.

During this whole time I've kept the same speakers and relatively constant speaker positioning. This is not to say that speakers and positioning are unimportant. To the contrary, I like to think that I'm saving the best for last. Speaker positioning will always be limited in this room to due the constraints of reality however I pull them out from the wall and play with placement for serious listening sessions.

I have a few recommendations for you. IMHO, your cd players and speakers should be capable of giving good imaging. Although the Classe amp is well regarded, I'd play with tubes. You can buy a tubed integrated with NOS tubes here on Audiogon and then sell either the Classe or the tubed unit after you've experimented. I think that the tubes will fix the brightness while improving imaging, especially depth. Secondly, pick a time when the wife is away and re-arrange the room. Put the speakers at the one end in positions recommended by Cardas. Drag out pillows and comforters for deadening, if necessary. I think that setting your room up on the diagonal may be your big problem as it goes against all the recommendations.

Hope this helps.
Bi-wiring your speakers (depending on speaker and if they are bi-wireable and cabling) should also enhance Imaging and Soundstaging. At least it did in my case.

Seems to me there is a lot of good info on these responses. Trying to limit the redundancy, I've always found that you can get just about any equipment to image it's best with 2 simple steps:

1) Pull the speakers as far out from the back wall as possible. Make sure that with a tape measure you measure your speakers distance from the sidewalls and backwalls and have equivalent distances as accurately as you can. Try and eliminate any large items between the speakers, even between AND behind the speakers.

2) Make sure to the greatest extent possible you mirror image the left and right sides of the room. If you have a dead sounding left side with couches, tapestries, etc and a bright right side with nothing on the walls or highly reflective surfaces, your imaging will suffer. I'd almost take everything out of the room, then replace one item at a time carefully listening and making a mental note of what you hear. Unfortunately in the real world we do not have perfectly symmetrical rooms, this is reality. Treat disparities aggressively with furniture, room treatments etc. Symmetry is key to immaging IMO