Is imaging reality?

I’m thrilled that I finally reached the point in my quest where instruments are spread across my listening field like a virtual “thousand points of light.”  I would never want to go back to the dark ages of mediocre imaging, But as a former classical musician, the thought occurs to me, is this what I hear at a concert, even sitting in the first row?  What we’re hearing is the perspective of where the microphones are placed, generally right on top of the musicians.  So close that directionality is very perceptible, unlike what we hear in the hall. The quality of our systems accurately reproduces this perspective wonderfully. 
But is it this as it is in the real world?
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In my post, I should  have mentioned that I’m mainly talking about the reproduction of an orchestra in a concert hall.
No, nothing that is recorded and reproduced is the same as the real thing. This is even more true, in my opinion, with rock and pop where the result or what you hear is purposefully manipulated in a studio.

But for me that makes no difference whatsoever. If the production quality is good and the SQ is good and the sound stage is pleasing who cares how it got that way? The concept of reality, in that regard, is a false economy.

I'd much rather listen to high production value music that sounds good than a poor recording of what someone deems a 'real' and 'live' performance.

I love attending live performances by the way. Classical and rock and jazz or whatever.
No. Why care?
I think both environments are complimentary like attending a football game and watching a tele of one on a large screen.
I saw Bernstein's Mass live. The TV broadcast was just as great.
Jus not "God damn good"
Sometimes you gotta be there.
No, but just sit back and enjoy it, because what you hear in a symphony hall is not reproducible in any room by any system.
Its hard to be certain what exactly you're talking about. If you mean is imaging reality, as in is it some real thing we are able to hear then the answer is of course yes. Close your eyes, you can tell perfectly well where things are just by sound alone. 

Anything other than that and now you're talking recording technique. Minimalist recording- two microphones, two channels - when recorded and played back properly can recreate imaging really well. The XLO Test CD has a track recorded like this and its uncanny how real this will sound when your system is set up right. 

Other than that most recordings mix in extra tracks that are then used to place instruments where they want them. These kinds of recordings are all over the map in terms of what they are trying to achieve. They are art. Sonic masterpieces. Would you look at a Picasso and say, uh, did that woman really have two of those over there like that? I don't think so. Then again, with Picasso, that would be the least of your problems.
No, what we hear from a good recording on a good system in a well treated room presents as something I've never heard in a concert hall with respect to pinpoint imaging.  I'm not a professional musician, but while I lived in the midwest I attended 20-30 concerts a year in many different venues.  Full scale orchestral, Bach passions, recitals, and chamber music-- pretty much a full spectrum of classical.  Even with string quartets, sitting three to four rows back center hall, if I closed my eyes, I could usually not pull apart the 1st and 2nd violins unless I knew the work well enough to distinguish the parts.   I actually had this discussion with one of the cellists of the Indianapolis orchestra.  He advise me to loose my front row seats and go for 1st row balcony.  His point was that "symphony" implies that the parts are to be heard as a whole (soloists excepted).   My response was that I could stay home and hear that on my very good system.  I came to live performances to experience something I could not experience at home, that being watching him and his colleagues work feverishly to do justice to Herr Beethoven.  I also told him I dearly loved the complex tone of his instrument, which was utterly lost even a dozen rows back.   All of this is OK as far as I am concerned.  If all I listened to at home was large scale orchestral, I might not be too concerned about imaging, but I do listen to other non-classical stuff where the engineer and musicians intended a musicians in the room effect. 
Yet another interesting post!
I concur with a number of previous posters-
Listening to a live concert performance usually doesn't have the focus of instruments that a recording does.
But, listening to a live performance allows a more personal connection with the artist(s), so whatever is lacking in precise imaging is substituted with the thrill of the moment.
It's a simulation.  That's the best we can shoot for.
Lincoln Center,Carnegie Hall,Radio City Music Hall..... If your system can make you think your in the front  at any of these venues you must hff ave one hell of a system  or your dreaming .... I would say dreaming. I have been to concerts  there and the sound was amazing. I do mean I sat close to the stage ,within the first 8 rows .I have been to out door concerts Classical and Rock ,Bway Shows. Alot goes into the recording of live shows ,to me its hit or miss with alot of misses.....
I listen to primarily classical, and primarily orchestral. I also mentioned this in a similar thread:

No, at a live venue, a concert hall, we do not really hear ‘imaging’, but as I stated, I think the difference is, in a concert hall, we also are watching while listening vs only listening to 2 channel without any visual help, and we need/want to make up for not seeing the musicians play, or where we know they are typically located. Thus, for me, listening to orchestral music in my living room, without visual cues, I like to have those imaging cues separating the musicians on the stage as I know they are. In this strange way, it makes it more realistic, both in soundstage width and also more importantly depth. I want that timpani sounding as if is way behind the speakers and at the rear of the stage. Imaging recreates the stage, the room, the hall, etc. when we cannot see it.

The same goes when listening to trio or quartet jazz recordings. I like to hear where each musician is. Or, chamber works, etc. But when I *see* a Jazz trio at a club, it isn’t important. I’m also watching.

Now, it still takes a well recorded album to pull this off well.

And interesting enough, when watching the Berlin Philarmonic live (I have a subscription) through my 5.1 channel HT set-up, everything surrounds me, also not realistic, but all is fine, as I am watching while listening, and it matters little.
When I go to symphonic concerts I prefer halfway back somewhere in the middle-ish. Have sat down front many times and find I like the sound and the view less.

Opera is a little harder to say since in many places the orchestra is in a pit or down very low.

I have never chased after 'realism' in audio, nor in photography, one of my other hobbies (I shoot black and white mostly....and the majority of the real world is not in gray scale). I know those who do, in audio at least, and there is nothing wrong with that. A good recording and a good print need not be 'realistic' for me. They just have to be good.
Have sat down front many times and find I like the sound and the view less.

When seeing an orchestra, ballet, or opera, I prefer the ‘dress circle’ seats. I can see everything from ‘slightly’ above, while also feeling close. And typically sounds wonderful, but in reality, in places like Severance Hall in Cleveland, sounds great wherever you sit. It’s more about the view.
Very interesting and thoughtful responses.
Thank you.
My system images wonderfully, but, more important to me, which my system does extremely well ( with recording variations, of course ), are these characteristics : A sense of power; extreme detail; rich and smooth harmonics and tone; exciting dynamics ( micro and macro ); fast transients, along with natural decay; extended, well defined, deep and full bass; tuneful ( prat ); coherence, everything sounds like it belongs together. I listen to the musicianship....the expressiveness, the passion, the control, of the playing, as individuals, and, as a whole. Once a recording is made, much is lost, starting out with the mic. But, listening to these characteristics I have listed, I enjoy it all. Realistic volume levels makes it that much more enjoyable. If everyone listened, as I do ( I am not alone in how I listen ), putting a system together, would be simpler. Not many systems I have heard, does all of these things well, and I am talking about mega $ stuff. I grew up around, and involved, around live music. I was introduced to horns ( Khorns ), at a very young age. I have heard, and owned, many things. I have developed a sense, of what I like, and what I want. I know, there are better systems than what I own, as I have heard a few. However, understanding, I am listening to recordings, along, with all of my listening experience, allows me to enjoy, fully, my favorite recorded performances. Enjoy !, stay safe, and be well. Always, MrD.
I think speakers that faithfully reproduce orchestral music would be reviewed as "muddy", "smearing", "imprecise", and whatever else. So, the answer to the OP would be "no". At the same time, going to the concert used to be much more pleasant experience than putting a record on.
I would say I have also come to appreciate recorded music that is produced with an intention of how the end user will hear it. Obviously no engineer or producer knows exactly what equipment the end user will have or his listening environment. But there are some bands who maximize those considerations. Steely Dan comes to mind. It is not just the playing of the song that represents the end product. The production and engineering are equally as important and equally well done.

To some Steely Dan sounds overproduced and artificial. I get that, but that's not how I feel about it. No, it does not sound live. No, it does not even sound like they are trying to make it sound like you are there listening to it being played. They make it sound the way they wanted it to sound coming out of your speaker. I like that. And most systems will capture that intent.

And I really dislike it when production and engineering are done matter how well the song was executed by the musicians.
Though it could be said that imaging is only one of many elements a good system must deliver in order to satisfy, there's no denying that it exerts a hell of a pull.  I crave it.
Imaging is essential and timbre naturalness...

The only way i obtain that from my good speakers was by embedding then rightfully mechanically, electrically, and acoustically....

It takes me 2 years of experiments....

Can someone win that S.Q. without any working controls with costly speakers right out of the box? Perhaps.... But these miraculous speakers will cost how many bucks?

A great deal of money......If it is possible.... :)
Some systems are better (more 'accurate' in a strictly subjective sense) than others at imaging, whether that's the gear itself or how well dialed into the room it is, or both, or neither. On the same track, three systems might reveal the bass player standing a couple feet in front of the trumpet player, while the fourth system might show the trumpet player a couple feet in front of the bass player. Never mind the question of which systems might be 'right' or 'wrong', that's a separate issue and is generally unknowable unless we were there or we have a verified picture of the original event. 

About all we can say is that more likely than not, there will be some variation or other in the sound stage, in that sense, imaging is not, strictly speaking, necessarily a direct correlation with reality...but, like everything else in the illusion of sound reproduction - when we say it's good, it can certainly seem to Remind us of our notion of what that original event might've sounded like.
To a certain extent, imaging can take the place of having visual cues.
Like most of the contributors I love to hear the individual instruments or groups of instruments across the soundstage on a well recorded CD. However a well recorded CD will produce sounds from the orchestra that you do not generally hear in the concert hall, whether you want to hear them or not. For example I recently played a bassoon concerto and could hear the intake of breathe from the soloist before he/she began the solo, the click of the keys ( I call them keys but I am sure there is an official term that I can't remember) and the shuffling of the players feet, all sounds you would be unlikely to hear at a live venue unless, perhaps you sat in the front row. Also I have found that, particularly on many jazz piano trio CDs, imaging is very artificial with drums out of one channel, bass out of the other channel and piano in the middle. In reality at a jazz venue the musicians are placed much closer together and the imaging , therefore ,is not as pronounced. So what you hear on a CD will rarely be what you hear at a live venue, whether it be imaging or extraneous sounds.
I enjoy artificial, "made up" soundstaging and stereo effects almost if not equally as much as the real thing.  Out-of-phase insanities, echo chamber overkill, multi-tracked vocalists, horse race pan-potting, etc., etc., are tons of fun.  Sure, sometimes it can be overdone more than a tad, but if it is done with panache it's a pleasure-and-a-half.
Interesting topic.  I have had season tickets to our symphony orchestra for over 10 years.  At times I have closed my eyes and imagined I was listening to a HiFi system playing.  Of course, it sounds like a very good system, but the imaging didn't really stand out for me.

You can read some reviews by John Atkinson at Stereophile. He has made a lot of recordings and usually rembers a lot of how the mics were placed and some of how it sounded and comments on differences or similarities.

Mics are often placed a bit to the front of an orchestra but it differs. I also think that some imaging exists when you listen live also but it may be less clear since you often have larger distances or some suboptimal placing.

For example I recently played a bassoon concerto and could hear the intake of breathe from the soloist before he/she began the solo, the click of the keys ( I call them keys but I am sure there is an official term that I can’t remember) and the shuffling of the players feet, all sounds you would be unlikely to hear at a live venue unless, perhaps you sat in the front row

I love that kind of stuff in a recording. Heck, in most cases you would have to be an orchestra member yourself to hear those things. But I like the immersive quality that type of thing brings, regardless if it is realistic, particularly for an orchestra performance. I have a couple of the Royal Concertgebouw Live box sets, and really like the various ambient sound captured. It provides a feeling/sense of ’being there’.
bkeske, I agree with your comments on Severance Hall.   Not a bad seat in the house in my experience, and the most beautiful venue I've seen by no small margin.  It's been a while, but as I recall there is a fair distance between the front row and stage.  If I am remembering correctly, that could account for a more even distribution throughout the hall.  

Yes, and not only that, but George Szell himself was intrically responsible for creating a ’new’ sound absorption and diffusion system behind and around the stage vs what was originally designed.

Given your name, I assume you live, or used to live, near.
I have a system I really enjoy, especially the imaging and sound stage.

My wife & I flew to Boston to enjoy Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  When we returned home I played her SACD of the same concerto, really good, but not like the live performance.  For one thing, my audio system was missing the "visuals" of seeing how hard it is to play that tune.  And the ambiance of the concert hall wasn't the same at home.  Good, but different than the live performances.
Imaging is about as much reality as movies are reality.  :)
@bkeske, I’ve never lived in Cleveland or the surrounding area. I lived in SW Ohio until I was about 40. Still an avid Ohio sports fan. Thanks for the info about Szell’s involvement in tuning the hall. Szell was a lot more than a great conductor.
This is, IMHO, the central question posed by our collective obsession: "high fidelity." "Fidelity" to what, exactly? To the live performance, in the case of "classical" music (symphonies, chamber music, solo recitals)? That is, to an "original" that was performed on acoustic instruments, and not electrically amplified or mediated? If so, then what an audio system needs to re-create faithfully would seem to be instrumental timbre first of all, and then imaging: the acoustic illusion of a visual space. But, as several posters have already said, that imaging can in fact be far more vivid on a good system than it is live! The "copy" is "better" than the original!

Several posters have noted that the visual cues one has in a live concert need to be augmented at home, where they are strictly speaking absent; thus, an acoustic simulacrum is wanted to take their place. And yet, my wife, a pianist and musicologist, listens to live concerts with her eyes closed, and disdains listening at home to recorded music (admittedly, I don’t understand this, and I’m disappointed she has no interest in audiophilia).

As for excessive detail (bassoonists taking a breath, shuffling their feet, etc.), many of you know about the controversy created by Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings, complete with his audible "vocalizations"; many returned their LPs as defective when they heard those extra-musical sounds.

The philosopher Jean Beaudrillard has advanced a theory of our times that’s relevant here. He has argued that, for us "post-moderns," especially in America, reality is now dominated by "simulacra," by replicas of an unattainable or absent or even mythical and non-existent original. An American who sees Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle for the first time is likely to relate to it as a copy of Disneyland’s Magic Castle, although, of course, that gets things backward. But who’s to say what is "backward"? The presumed original may disappoint compared to its copy; why reject that? In any case, one need not limit this sort of observation to the "post-modern." The Houses of Parliament in London are already simulacra: "Gothic" architecture several centuries too late, and on a scale that no Gothic architect would ever have imagined. Does that make them "fake"?

And what about music that was never "acoustic" to begin with? Rock, most Jazz and all electronic music was created via some of the same technologies that reproduce it at home. Remember when early stereo recordings artificially isolated instruments in one speaker or there other, or played with the "stereo effect" (consider the opening of Hendrix’s "Electric Landyland," just for example). Those electronic manipulations have their own thrill value, surely, which is often not negligible and entirely depend on the kinds of things, like vivid imaging, that only good audio equipment can reproduce.

Listening to music at home is just different than listening to it live. In some respects, of course, a home system does, and should aspire to emulate a close "reproduction" of that "original" performance. But in other ways, what’s possible at home far surpasses what one can get in even the best concert hall.

And finally, I’ve long been convinced that part of our passion as audiophiles has to do with a kind of awed delight that it’s possible to create, in our own homes, something that, in previous centuries, would have required the resources of royalty. To convincingly create the sense of being present to a soundstage on which sits an entire symphony orchestra in one’s living room is, for my money, one of the very best gifts science and technology has given us.
Think of hifi as an abstract form of art. Producers create recordings to sound the way they like. They are never exact representations of reality. However, with good ones, there is more of an abstract reality to reproduce, experience, and enjoy  (including a soundstage and imaging) in your room, in various ways, if the hifi and your ears are up to the task.
Hopefully recordings with be more analogous to Impressionist or Expressionist art, than to fully abstract art!
Sorry for the long post, but I have one more reflection to add. Besides my wife's love of attending live concerts (with eyes closed) and her dislike of listening at home to recordings, we have a close family friend who founded a youth orchestra in our area and teaches children, and sometimes their parents (for instance, me!), to play an instrument. He is, frankly, a rather mediocre musician himself. But he would much rather play music badly than listen to music played well. As far as I can tell, he almost never listens to recordings. 

I'm not sure what my point is in relating this, but it has something to do with the question posed by the OP. If audio systems can actually produce an illusion of acoustic space that is more vivid than what is experienced live, is that a good thing or not? Maybe the answer depends on why you listen to music. In my experience, musicians listen differently than do music lovers--never mind "audiophiles." 

Let me illustrate with an anecdote. A good friend's father founded a major European string quartet (and played first violin), and I visited him at his summer home in Switzerland when I was in grad school. I'd just come from Zagreb, then Yugoslavia, where I'd been very taken with a performance of a string quartet by Stjepan Sulic, a Croatian composer who is not well known. I told my friend's father about it, and promised to find him a recording if I could. "Don't do that," he replied, "just get me the score." How many music lovers do you know who would actually rather see the score of an unfamiliar piece than hear a performance of it? And yet, a performance, of course, is always going to be an "interpretation"; the score is the thing itself. So if we really value the composition, "the music," perhaps we should learn to read music, and to play an instrument. I love wine--so much, in fact, that I've learned to make wine with a few similarly passionate friends. Our wine isn't very good; it's not worth what it costs us to make it. But the experience of doing so augments our appreciation of what we drink.

What I'm trying to say is that "audiophilia" is not the same thing as a love of music. That's pretty obvious, I guess, and is often enough pointed out. But usually, it's pointed out in a judgmental way: "real music lovers" don't obsess over tweaks, etc. etc. I reject that judgment. We value the thrills we get from uncompromising audio reproduction, irrespective of the music reproduced. Some of my favorite and most frequently played LPs and CDs are musically banal, but terrifically well recorded. I'm a little embarrassed by that fact, but I hope honest enough to admit it.
Hey if your happy then ,great....enjoy your system and have another toke....
And remember, plenty of rock and pop recordings are made without the musicians being in the studio at the same time and some musicians play all of the instruments on a given recording. Aldo Nova comes to mind.

In these situations there was never any reality to be true to.
 A recording is an artifact in itself. It exists independent of the performers. The many hands (or ears) involved to produce it create a reality all it’s own.  In multi-miking an orchestra (and other genres as well) the sound engineer creates the imaging he or she likes.
A great performance can be ruined by poor production. And, as has been pointed out here, a mediocre performance can be appreciated for the sound of the artifact itself.
 Alternately, we can greatly enjoy historic recordings with terrible sound quality because the genius of the artist shines through.
Also, as has been pointed out, playback systems vary widely as to character and quality to add to the perception of reality.
@rvpiano......The genius of the artist ( s ). That is it, in a nutshell ! 
I'm with limomangus.  My system sounds wonderful, and even better a little later on Saturday night. 😊
I love Monet and Renoir.  I love to look through art books and those books serve a purpose.  But I remember my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and my first visit to the Chicago Art Institute.   Nothing in any art book could prepare one for what it is like to stand before the originals.  I've got a couple Chinese fine art knock offs of Degas paintings.  They are really pretty skillfully done.  Better than a print in an art book but they aren't originals and I know it. There is a parallel to reproduction of great music.

Listening at home is a different experience than listening to a live performance.  Who is to say that ultra high resolution and pinpoint imaging is "better" than what one hears live?   Is that really what Herr Beethoven had in mind?  

I dearly love Kempe's Strauss.  No one else comes close, in my opinion.  Would I rather stay home and listen to a bad 60's recording of Kempe or go to a mediocre performance at a regional orchestra?   I'll stay home and take my Kempe. 

I remember the first time I heard Janacek's Sinfonnieta live.  I sat right above the orchestra, to the side, where the brass was really in my face. The music is so dear to me and the sound of the brass was so beautiful that it just overwhelmed me.  I sat there fighting back tears.  I'm pretty sure that wasn't the composer's intention.  I've certainly heard better executed performances in recorded music.  But I am quite sure no recording on any system, no mater how good, will ever move me the way that live performance did.

So the live vs recorded works both ways.  Fortunately it's not an either/or choice.    

@mrdecibel : "The genius of the artist ( s ). That is it, in a nutshell ! "

Agree completely. But good engineers and producers are also artists with their own levels of genius.........and lack thereof.
@n80.....agree completely...a good example of a recording I own, such as Tull's Aqualung, ( which has lots of compession, eq., etc. ), was done, allowing me to follow the band, each member individually, and, as a complete whole. Engineers and producers ( especially with their multi-tracking finesse ), are yes, artists. 
Luca and studio are two different intentionalities. 
«  "But Christ is not between the 2 thieves?"  Not at all, from this Bach cd we call that "imaging" my dear...» - Groucho Marx
As I’ve said, I derive much pleasure from hearing an orchestra broken up into its component parts with imaging, even if it isn’t what is heard in a hall.  I imagining it’s exactly what the conductor hears, being right in the midst of the group and dead center.  I can synthesize the components into a unified whole, although I can see where some find this difficult or annoying.

I agree. I’m not sure why anyone would think it annoying ‘hearing’ each group of musicians on the stage as they actually are. I have many mono orchestral recordings, perhaps that is more ‘realistic’ to what you might hear in a hall, and some are recorded really well, almost stereophonic, especially in depth. I can enjoy these mono recordings both recorded and engineered well, but yes, if I had a preference, prefer imaging offered by a stereo recording, and really enjoy the recordings that concentrate on that aspect.
What I *do* find annoying is the decision of many recording engineers to spotlight the soloist in concertos.  Even a piano will not outdo a full orchestral tutti at ff.  By all means ensure that the flute, guitar, harp whatever is not swamped, but don't amp it up excessively.
Unless its the organ in Saint Saens Second. ;-)