Improving imaging

I'm interested in hearing from the experts the following:

What component, in your opinion, contributes the most to creating a 'discrete' soundstage...

i.e. the 'most important' component/element, etc. that contributes the most to overall imaging. For the purpose of my question I define 'imaging' by being able to ascertain where instruments are located from left to right, front to rear across the overall soundstage. Assume a well mixed/recorded CD 'source' (ala Telarc, etc.).

The reason I ask is I'm not sure if it's my aging ears or my equipment but over time it seems everything is now pretty much 'placed' either primarily on the left or right channel, or 'summed' in the middle. Displacement outside these 3 main locations seems to now be almost to subtle to distinguish from 'left/center/right'. And thus for sure, hearing the tymphanies 'behind' the strings (or the drummer behind the guitar behind the sax) is pretty much non-existant.

I'm not trying to get into 'which brand sounds best', or 'tube vs solid state', etc. kind of debate, just trying to determine if it's my ears or my equipment that is obviously declining and if it's likely my (2 chan) system, which piece should I concentrate on first in order to improve imaging.

thankee in advance!
Mmccoy, if I'm reading you correctly, it sounds as though you believe your system was re-creating the soundstage at one time, but that it's ability to do so has degraded. In my experience, a change like this is the result of changes in room acoustics, an aging phono cartridge (but you say you're using CD as your source), or, more rarely, aging tubes that have become very mismatched in a circuit. Would you say that anything has changed with your equipment or with your listening room (changing furniture can have an impact)?

More generally, I find that the starting point for excellent re-creation of soundstage (both lateral reproduction and layering in depth) are one's speakers, followed by the source equipment (whether analog or digital). Room acoustics are always a factor, but I've found that one can get good lateral placement in most rooms -- its the accurate recreation of depth that is most tricky to obtain consistently.
Ditto, Rushton above. I would add, the electronics' driving power: does the power amp adequately drive yr speakers, does the pre adequately amplify the source sound. *If* this is not a recent phenomenon, as Rushton notes.

Good luck!
I'm not an expert, but quite experienced, and, to answer your question directly, the loudspeakers most contribute to the imaging. But, in truth, system synergy, or lack therof, will kill your soundstage quicker than anything. It is a sad fact of audio that practically any piece of gear can be a soundstage killer in an uncomplimentary system.
I was going to post a similar question since I have noticed some smearing or stretching of sound sources with my system. Mostly it seems to be front to back (if that's possible), but there is some slight lateral smearing which seems to be related to an instrument's frequency. I couldn't do much with room treatments, but according to the posts above, it's probably time to upgrade my entry level speakers. Prety much what I expected, just nice to see it confirmed.
If your system had good stage at one time and now it doesn't, even though you haven't changed audio components or room components, don't overlook the possibilty that one or more of your cables has developed a problem. This problem could range anywhere from speaker wires in which the conductors have oxidized to interconnects that need their connectors cleaned. Get thee to immediately. As a former Cramolin user, which I believe Caig manufactured, I have now become a staunch believer in Caig'sProGold and DeoxIt. In fact, only last night I used them to breathe new life into my system by cleaning the ends on my silver digital cables. This stuff works, and even Boeing and NASA know it.
Excellent point, Dougholdco. A cheap, quick check would be to at least pull-out and push-back-on your interconnects at all connecting points, Mmccoy. That will clean the connections enough to get a sense of whether this is a contributing factor in your situation.
I also vote for speakers - but repositioning can also help. I now have mine towed in at about 30 degrees - mine are about 12' apart. I have KEF Reference 3's that I purchased because I liked the soundstage - they didn't have the lowest frequency response but they sound good and are fairly accurate. I have also listened to Meadowlark speakers and liked what I heard - they are also efficient and reasonable in cost.
I believe some tube amps also present a nice soundstage when working with a good speaker. I like the Cary single-ended (SE) amps but tubes do take some tweaking.
Shop with some CD's you like and trial speakers in your own environment if possible - quality dealers usually will work with you on this basis.
Good luck and good listening!
Yes, I have had imaging problems (mainly a center image that was no longer on center) that were/was remedied by simply reinstalling the cables a second time.
I have noticed when upgrading my modest system images became more distant.
Deeper soundstage, laid back sound. When you see these words used to describe many expensive components, it means small image. The further the stage the smaller the image, and you lose image height and layering (on most recordings).
That's why studio recordings sell and "recorded live" usually do not.
However a lot of audiophiles and reviewers seem to prefer that row "Z" listening position for some reason. Maybe it is more accurate.
I have some SACD's (very pleased overall). On one Santana recording, I think it may be the last track, the vocals are barely audible he is so far back. And Tony Bennet Unplugged-recorded space is verly realistic, but it is though I am in really bad seats! Sounds better in my car.
When I first got my speaker placement and room acoustics working right the sound stage was large and individual "voices" were apparent. I thought this was what I was looking for. Over the past two years I've played with a number of areas of my system, please search "winter lessons" that I posted a while back. I outline a number of "tweaks" that have worked for me.
To give a quick overview, assuming the basic system is adequate (you had imaging once) and your speakers are properly placed, I have found power cords, power conditioning, interconnects, footers and shelving can add up to equal at least a new amp. Today my imaging is simply fantastic. I do not need to "look" for the instrument it's simply there. The stage is wide and deep with complete definition through out. Each "voice has space around the sound, even in congested passages. The difference from when I first felt I had it and today is basically the difference from a mid-fi to hi-end system. There is a huge amount you can do to help bring the best out of the system you have. I recommend experimenting with your system, start where the above posts are starting, make sure your equipment is working well and is capable of what your looking for. Then the real work should start, try stuff, ask a local dealer if you can take things home (power cords, conditioners, footers) and experiment. Be sure the products you try are broken in or you'll have no idea what it's effect on your system was. Search "winter lessons", "shelving" and "Nueance". Redkiwi has written some excellent posts on shelving (above) and must be read. Good-luck and enjoy the music! J.D.
Thank you for the interesting & informative responses. Yes, while some things have remained the same (speakers & amp & interconnects) pretty much everything else has changed (but for the better I'd hoped).

Mainly, I've moved which obviously implies new/different room acoustics. While it is indeed a 'variable change', now it's pretty much a constant (and I'll just have to work around it).

You've confirmed my belief that overall it's the speakers being the most important component. However, these same speakers provided good imaging before so I'm not sure it's them (unless they themselves are/have degraded over the past 5 or so years). I've tweeked/optimized the speaker placement, toe-in, levels, etc. and the best results are speakers that are approx 9 ft apart, with about a 30deg toe-in which focuses them on a 'sweet spot' at ear level about 12' in front. Since imaging has otherwise gone from being present to virtually non-existant makes me think there something else is the 'weak link' in the chain.

I'm going to take a good hard look at my interconnects & cabling. They've just 'sat there', sans any maintenance at all so it's likely they could use a good cleaning or maybe even replacement.

Beyond that, it could very well be that while attempting to upgrade my pre-amp, sources, etc. I may have indeed disrupted my overall 'system synergy'. Now, since overall component synergy is more 'by the grace of the gods' than formulaic, how to rectify.
From the sound of your last description of the sound you get and the fact that you moved, requiring you to reconnect all of your components, you may have the polarity on the speaker cables reversed. Make sure they are connected properly.
I just went through this with my speaker cables. I am thinking of switching to Synergistic Research cabling on the stereo part of my home theater. So, after changing to my rear S.R. cables to see how they sounded on front, I was amazed at the better soundstage and imaging. When I went to put back in my Wireworld Silver Eclipses, I noticed that they were pretty nasty. I cleaned them three months back with Caig Pro Gold and DeoxIt. Well, after cleaning them, the "magic" reappeared. I don't know if it is Atlanta's humidity or what, but I guess I am going to have to increase the interval that I clean my cables. Mmccoy, I would be willing to bet that after a good cleaning you will hear a nice improvement in everything--soundstage, imaging, detail, bass, highs, etc.

Best of luck.

As I've posted under 'OTA cables', I found that the height of my ears relative to the speaker height made a vast difference in imaging. Also forward and back. Try listening while sitting in an adjustable height chair. Your new room acoustics may require a different height.
i tink the room is the most important component. unless someting is physically wrong w/yer system/set-up, the fact that yuve changed this component recently, w/yer consequent results, encourages me in my belief. the *next* most important component is the speaker, imo... while ewe may have tweeked speaker placement, i hope, for yer sake, it's *not* yet optimized. ;~) time to tink outside the box - nearfield listening? more room treatment to cancel 1st-reflection points at sidewalls/floor/ceiling? move speakers further from the wall behind them? move listening spot away from wall behind it?

not knowing more specifics about yer exact room set-up, & speaker brand, it's hard to make specific recommendations, but someting doesn't seem rite - *generally*, best sound will be w/speakers facing straight-ahead, or towed-in only a little. this assumes adequate elimination of 1st-reflections, speakers away from wall behind them, listener away from wall behind him/her... of course, there are always certain speakers that don't conform to this general model.

keep experimenting w/speaker placement in yer gnu room!

good luck, doug s.