Soundstage...How to determine what's right?

Have started upgrading my system and will be trying to optimize the soundstage. A lot of reading has me thinking that I really don't have enough information and experience to get there.
Terms like "congestion, width, depth, and height" have me wondering how much is in the recording and how much is introduced by the system? Are there reference type cd's that people use to determine how their system is progressing? I so, could you help with a list of cuts with info regarding the placement of vocals, instruments and examples that contain material that is not congested?
Thanks for any help.
Stereophile made some useful test cd's over the can still get them.

Opus 3 has some 'test CD's' that fit your description of needs. My favorite has been 'Depth of Image' which I have on LP and CD but I think they are now sold over the internet in a series of CD's. Check them out.

The are, for the most part, cuts from a lot of records made of different types of music, classic, jazz, large bands, solo instruments and voices, small groups etc. They are simply miked and each cut has a description of what you should be able to hear from a well set up system. If you find they don't sound as described, trust me, its your problem. They can create a holographic image. They also stress proper timbre and if a 'recorder' doesn't sound like one (and they are hard to record and playback well) its your problem, etc.

As to what you need in your room to maximize imaging -

1) Speakers that are capable of resolving output especially in the highs, without being inherrently bright. Speakers noted for pin point imaging and phasing are usually best if you want to maximize depth of image.

2) Proper set up, including compensation for room induced acoustical problems, is CRITICAL.

2) Electronics which are reasonably 'open', not dull or bright. Transparent to the source.

3) Good recordings made using simple miking techniques are best for maximum imaging but there are some excellent mult miked recording, which can sound pretty darned good when made by a very skilled recording engineer.

High quality imaging isn't a walk in the park. It takes a lot of work and patience to get it to the stage where it is holographic, as like 'I felt I could walk in amoungst the musicians' type of imaging. Not many people ever get there.

Hope that helps a bit.
Just what I was looking for. Thanks so much for the info. May just start with the opus 3 and see what I can accomplish.
I've found the 'Chesky Records Jazz Sampler and Audiophile Test Compact Disc Vol. 1' a valuable tool with regards to properly setting up my listening environment. It contains tests that will reveal imaging problems, and the depth (or lack of) sound stage in your system/room combination. Are you working with tubed or solid state gear? I won't entertain any arguments in here, but- solid state has been largely found lacking in depth of soundstage until a certain dollar point is achieved(big bucks).
I second the chesky recommendation; It will explain each audiophile term and then give you a example to listen to;this is a very good cd to use for evaluation of your entire system.
I have both CD's mentioned by Rodman and they are good ones!

Additionally another good Chesky CD is: The Ultimate Demonstration Disc: "Guide to Critical Listening". It contains some wonderful music. More importantly however, each musical track was chosen for its ability to convey transparency, midrange purity, imaging etc., and each includes a preface track, verbally defining what you should be listening for/hearing....
More to look at. Thanks again. Looks like a person could spend a fortune just for demo disc. Will have to narrow it down to one or two. Any chance of getting thoughts on the best two or is that to personal a decision?
All solid state. Haven't ventured into tubes though have been tempted. Read so much about the sound of tubes. Afraid that if I slip into that I might not find my way back.
Thanks again,
I have the Chesky Ultimate Demonstration Disc as well as the Sheffield disc. I like the Shieffield disc for its 'walk about' cut, and its 'out of phase' cut but other than that it didn't impress me. It does have 'burn in' tracks some might like to use.

I didn't find the Chesky disc all that useful, especially compared to the Opus 3 disc's, which are much more varied and easier to 'understand'. But I did get the Opus 3's first and was thoroughly familar with them when I got the Chesky. And, I've got to admit that perhaps my system just wasn't up to the level where I could appreciate the benefits of the Chesky, a label I have been more disappointed by than impressed. FWIW - YMMV.
The LEDR demo on the Chesky provides a series of pulses that begin by going UP to help you find ceiling reflections that might be alleviated with absorption. Then OVER which starts 2 feet beyond the left speaker and describes an arc over the center stage and beyond the right speaker, then LATERAL from past the right front of the right speaker and ends at the left rear of the left and vice versa. You can find a more in depth discussion of the test in the December 1989 issue of Stereophile. Another track has Dave Chesky describing where on the stage he has placed his microphones, and a variety of locations on this stage from which he is speaking and striking his tamborine, so you can determine whether your system is recreating the info and/or whether you can hear it. Very easy to understand. The disc is available direct from Chesky for about $16.00, and perhaps for less on Amazon. I have often wished I wasn't so familiar with live music(acoustic and amplified). I'd have saved megabucks over the last 30 years. Yes- The pure musicality of tubes is addictive. Unfortunately the best are always the NOS ones from the 40's through the 60's, and BOY are the prices going up!!
( Just to make it a bit easier: here's the URL for that article in Stereophile. They do a much better job of explaining the LEDR test. That disc also contains a left-right imaging test that extends beyond the speakers which a great many systems can't reproduce.
Thanks again. The link is helpful and the article gives a good intro to the disc. Will start with just one of the disc and see how far I get.
What about congestion? Over the last couple of days I have listened to more music than normal and heard some things that were a bit confusing. On some cd's I could place instruments and vocals front to back easily. Others it seemed that all the sound was on a single plane and from left to right. My guess is this was the recording. Still other disc seemed that all the sound was from one point and it was very difficult to differentiate one instrument location fron another(congestion?). Since it may be recording related are there recommended recordings with a lot of instruments playing at the same time that will serve as a reference? If this is addressed on the already mentioned test disc then which one?
Thanks again. Really appreciate the help.
Congestion is closely linked to a lack of dynamics. Live music is highly dynamic and there are all kind of peaks that stick out and act as cues to the ears about position and detail. Our hearing suffers from an effect called "masking" (a loud sound completely masks other sounds close by in frequency). Careful musical compositions and careful arrangements and careful recording techniques can allow you to hear the most from a recording despite your hearing limitation due to "masking". Of course none of this is much good if your speakers compress the sound or your amplifier clips. Harmonic distortion from tubes can really help bring out detail in a system that is dynamically limited. Essentially there are two ways to increase the perceived strength of a note....loudness/dynamics or by adding harmonics (makes the note sound fuller without making the peak amplitude louder). Recording engineers know this all to well and tubes are often used on vocal microphones and to process drums to get a fat or fuller kick drum sound (the richness of the harmonics increases the audibility without actually making it louder and risking breaking an average speaker). Analog tape compresses dynamics very well too. Anyone who plays an electric guitar knows about tubes and this is why guitar amps use tubes and have such a rich sound.

A very good example of a good recording with no congestion is Grace Jones "Slave to the Rhythm - hot blooded Mix". You can download this from iTunes. Another good example of a live recording is George Benson Weekend in LA "On Broadway". The George Benson recording has quite realistic drums and it will only shine if your system can be cranked and yet still produce the dynamic range in the music....otherwise it will tend to sound a bit thin at lower volume levels (remember a real unamplified drum set plays up to around 115 db SPL - enough to blow up most speakers or drive them to severe distortion - so it is no wonder that most music is heavily compressed for the capability of consumer systems). In the George Benson recording the drum set is close-miked as in funk music...this gives a very dynamic short drum sound that allows you to hear the bass guitar better (less masking)....classic jazz recordings use this technique also so you can hear the double bass whilst Rock tends to bury the bass guitar under a more fuller kick drum sound (rock being the more compressed or "congested" genre).

Another good example of creating a good tube full sound from a kick drum is ACDC "Back in Black" - this is very different from the George Benson recording mentioned above. ACDC Back in Black works extremely well on dynamically limited systems (car, most home stereo) as it has just enough compression to give it a nice punchy sound without stressing most systems.

I expect you can download all three tracks from iTunes and compare...contrary to popular audiophile belief you will not lose too much audio quality from an AAC 128 KBPS file. The tracks will still sound impressive and depending on which recording sounds best you will have an idea of the capability of your system...congested or not!

Anyway - it helps to understand how your hearing works and the recording techniques being used when evaluating a system. A system that consistently brings out new emphasis in one particuar area (compared to other systems) does NOT necessarily make it more resolving and it is NOT necessarily a good thing (no matter how pleasing). Look for clarity or increased distinction BETWEEN recordings....a system that shows greater the differences BETWEEN various recording techniques and instruments is likely a more resolving system. In this sense you are able to distinguish what the system does without being heavily influenced by an individual recording or "test CD", as unfortunately you can almost always find a track/CD that you prefer the sound of on a particular system...even ACDC may sound its best on your crap factory standard car speakers. This is why aiming for the most pleasing sound on a test CD is a bit of a minefield...a wide collection of diverse music is probably best.
Here is a link that which explains what audio engineers do to drums

Is it any wonder that so very few recordings sound realistic and like live music?

If you want something that sounds like live music with excellent soundstage (if your system can handle it - note the warning about drum transients in the link above) then try the Sheffield Labs Drum Track test CD. If you have trouble convincing yourself that there is a real drum kit in the room then your system has "congestion" and the depth of your soudstage will be limited to a more laid back or more distant presentation (not necessarily bad as many people enjoy listening to classical concerts from the first balcony - a less intense or dynamic sound than front row center).
There are a wide variety of mic technics in use by engineers that yield just as many variations in sound stage reproduction. The quality of the pressing or burning is also a factor. I bought a Columbia CD of 'Amused to Death' by Roger Waters based on the effects that were on the one my son has. The sound stage produced on our systems extended solidly from at least 90 degrees to the left or right of our listening positions and many feet back of the speakers. The disc that I bought had none of the sound stage or dynamics that his did(absolutely no depth/everything between the speakers). Same label, same title, same bar code. That much variation between otherwise identical discs(yes- we A/B'd them on both systems). I returned it!! By utilizing a test CD you are using an established "constant" or "standard" that has been measured and your system can be compared to/graded by/adjusted or tweeked according to. How can using any recording of an event that you did not personally attend give you ANY indication AT ALL if your system is faithfully reproducing the original venue? I'm assuming that faithful reproduction of the musical info on your source material is your goal. I tend to trust the experts when I choose a standard, hense my collection of Stereophile/Chesky/Sheffield Labs/etc. test CDs and pressings. Funny thing: how well my system performs with all of them, as well as the recordings I've been personally involved with. The only "minefield" is trying to find labels that are conscientious about their recording/manufacturing processes, and record the jazz and blues I enjoy. Oh- Try 'Dead Can Dance-Into the Labyrinth', recorded 4 track/A/D, in a huge(The Quivvy) church. Huge sound stage/natural reverb effects. Very strange music(new Zealand/Irish flavored).
Rodman99999, This is probably not the time or place for a discussion of recording abberations such as you have described, so I'll keep it short. From what you have discribed the recording with the super wide sound stage had a lot of out of phase info added into the mix. It's just NOT possible for a stereo system to produce sound, on the plane of the speakers, outside the speakers when the sound from both speakers is in phase AND your speakers are set up properly. Thats my story and I'm going to stick with it! :-)
That's exactly how the effect is generated! Carver did that back in the 80's with his "Sonic Hologram Generator" which was an interesting experiment, but otherwise an acoustic nightmare(distroyed any semblance of music). On the CD (Amused To Death) the effects are generated in the digital domain and quite interesting. On the start of one cut a horsedrawn wagon begins clinking and clattering to the left, and over your shoulder and ends it's journey seemingly yards beyond your right speaker. The first cut has a very low level dog barking to the three o'clock of my listening position, which makes it sound like the dog is outside my window in the yard. In 1981 I had a pair of LS3-5A's that I had built with KEF drivers, and all the same OEM British cross-over components as the authentic item, with a few of my own cabinet improvements. My system wasn't nearly as good as what I'm listening to now, but on one of my John Klemmer albums there was a cut with a very pronounced Fender Rhodes solo. It never failed to amuse me when my friends would open the closet door to the right rear of the couch they were seated in, looking for a hidden speaker(or the Rhodes). Don't ask me how that worked. It's not my story or theory. It's fact and personal experience. OH- by the way: Why would a test CD include an imaging test that expects your system to re-create sounds two feet beyond the outside of the speaker's position if it's not possible? Even the 'Max O Man' cut on one of my Fourplay CDs projects someone popping their fingers to the left of my listening position. No fancy phasing, audiophile label or hologram generation. Just a well engineered CD, well tuned system and listening environment. Try those CCa's in your BAT. If the rest of your system/room combination are up to it: you may just find some amazing stuff hidden in your music collection. Of course: if the rest of your system employs tubes: you may have to replace some of those as well. The driver and phase splitter tubes in my SLM-100s are both 6SN7's but I have to use a Sylvania 6SN7W(tall bottle) and a TungSol VT231(black round plate) in each amp to get the sound stage I'm describing(let's not discuss the cost of my cables). None of this has come cheaply, but- it's all very real and brings me that much closer to my ideal: the sounds I hear when I'm mixing the stuff live.
Rodman99999, Note in my test disc recommendation I mentioned the value of the 'out of phase' cut on the Sheffield disc. Unlike other disc's with barking dogs (Ralph on Stereophiles 1st one) used in and out of phase (typically mono signals I believe) this cut is a stereo signal out of phase and a well set up set of speakers can produce sound 'coming from all about the room'. This is so great because you may 'think' that you have already correctly set up your speakers and listening position based on in phase stereo signals (like recorded music). In one set up which sounded just great(!) I thought, when I played the out of phase signals there was a strong shift in the out of phase info to the left wall just forward of the speaker. Moving my chair an inch or so to the right changed the out of phase presentation to equal amounts of sound outside the left and right speakers both behind the plane and in front of the speakers and to a small degree in the area behind the listening position.

That cut as well as the 'walk about' has been very helpful. This may not be a test disc very usable for the original poster but I think it is very helpful if you're really bent on getting the 'best' set up possible.
I believe you may be missing the entire point of my notes thus far. My goal is accurate reproduction of music within the recording venue. The music I am most familiar with is performed on a stage much larger than the 12' between my speakers(except for an occational 3-4 piece chamber ensemble). If that was all the sound stage my system could reproduce, I'd sell it and buy a transistor radio(and another Harley with what was left), then restrict myself to live performances. My room and system are tested, EQ'd, and the subs and mains time aligned by my TacT RCS 2.2X(via FFT) with the reproduction of the original recording venue in mind(not the sound of the music group playing in my listening room). That's the goal, and I'm happy to say that my system delivers as long as the info is on the disc/master tape/record. That's easy for me to verify to my satisfaction, as I do some of my own recordings. Life would be alot easier, and MUCH CHEAPER, had I been a guitar player instead of a sound tech. Then again: I guess 70's American Fender Strats and Genuine Les Pauls aren't all that cheap either, and I'm a picky feller!! Enjoy your sounds.
It's just NOT possible for a stereo system to produce sound, on the plane of the speakers, outside the speakers when the sound from both speakers is in phase AND your speakers are set up properly. (....)
As you've phrased it, s OK:)
Listening within the usual confinements -- i.e. the room -- this can happen. It's an artefact of boundary reflections.

Redman notes:
on one of my John Klemmer albums there was a cut with a very pronounced Fender Rhodes solo. It never failed to amuse me when my friends would open the closet door to the right rear of the couch they were seated in, looking for a hidden speaker(or the Rhodes). Don't ask me how that worked.
Reflections is how that worked, probably. Nice story, btw!

TO my mind, sound-stage is a case of "all that glitters ain't gold". I got outstanding "sound-stage" using a cassette recorder -- i.e., as has been proposed before, "compression is good for sound-stage" or "sound-stage can be proportional".
"Imaging" may be a better word to use.
Well, thanks again.
Shadorne, your explanation of congestion helps a lot. That, along with your examples will give me the direction I was looking for.
Your description on tube miking in order to add harmonics brought up questions. Does the same type effect occur with amplification, processing, etc.? Is this why so many people feel that tubed components sound so much better? It would be very difficult for me to go tubes in my pre and amplifiers due to using them both for 2 channel and h/t. Would there be a significant improvement in 2 channel using a tubed cd player? Funds don't allow the ultra hi end but would like to get a bit closer.
Thanks for taking the time.

Rodman, I really appreciate your effort to share your thoughts, opinions, and experience. I'll have to play a bit and reread this thread several times to grasp all that has been shared.

It's strange and a bit disappointing that there would be such a difference in one disc to another from the same label, etc..

Newbee, once again thanks to you for sharing your thoughts on imaging. You and the others have given me so much to shoot for. Just makes this hobby that much more entertaining.
Hi Scoly1- Check out this URL( for an idea as far as a tubed CD player. It's what I've been using for a few years now. My previous one was a California Audio Labs Alpha/Delta CD player/DAC set-up. Either are still available on the used market(sometimes on this site, sometimes eBay) for considerably less than what's considered SOTA, but will still deliver all the music your system can process. The CAL pieces are no longer supported by anyone unfortunately(the only drawback), though I did find a shop in NY that had replacement LASER transports. Both lend themselves to the adventure of tube-tasting. BAT has a newer VK-D5 iteration that is more costly and is restricted to the tube created by the company. Happy listening!!
One more thing: Be certain to read the reviews on the VK-D5. Especially the comments on soundstage reproduction! Enjoy!
Your description on tube miking in order to add harmonics brought up questions. Does the same type effect occur with amplification, processing, etc.? Is this why so many people feel that tubed components sound so much better? It would be very difficult for me to go tubes in my pre and amplifiers due to using them both for 2 channel and h/t. Would there be a significant improvement in 2 channel using a tubed cd player? Funds don't allow the ultra hi end but would like to get a bit closer.

Yes and No. I will try to stay away from any argument about which is better. Both are good when used CORRECTLY. Good tube designs can sound pretty much identical to good solid state designs when driven below the end of the day it boils down to the way the circuits are implemented and how they are coupled (high impedance ouput transformers often used with tubes will certainly modify the frequency response, for example - is that good or bad - your choice!).

One of the world's top Mastering Engineers, Doug Sax, and founder of Sheffield Labs still uses tubes in his mastering console (built by his brother) - so yes tubes can be used to modify the sound in line level equipment too (and very nicely in a CD player, for example). The main advantage of tubes is that they sound nice when clipping...solid state sounds terrible...and as my drum link above illustrates ...clipping is all to common....even the pop CD's you buy today often have lots of clipped signal on the CD!!! Tubes make a lot of sense for live music or recording live music if you are not sure what levels you may drive the equipment too - like an electric guitar, where musicians always crank it and tubes just sound wonderful when cranked!
The VK looks like something for me to dream about. It'll be a while befor I am able to justify something like that. Do appreciate the link. Good reading.
Once again thanks. The idea of a tubed cd player is an interesting one. Just wish someone I knew had one that I could try in my system. At this time it is just an interesting idea for me but sometimes I fall prey to impulse buying.
Thanks again,
hey Scoly1- If you're still in here, check this out: ( You may be able to pick one of these up used and upgrade it when the funds become available. It would give you a taste of what a tubed source can do for your listening. There are a number of upgrades available. The first thing I would do would be to find a matched pair of Siemens E188cc's to pop in there. That's if I didn't have the money for those wonderful 1960's Siemens CCa's I'm always raving about. Read the Stereophile review(if not all of them).
I think determining what is right in regards to the soundstage height is based upon personal preferences. I would set yor listening position at a height that is about even with the midrange and tweeter elements of your speakers if they are arranged with the midrange in the center and tweeter on top. This will allow you to position the speakers with directional energy of those two drivers and help you pick the depth and how wide you want the soundstage to appear, for example, with no toe in, the stage will be wider, but you may suffer some loss of coherence in instrumental detail. As you toe in, the details become more focused but with some loss of soundstage width. In regards to depth, I find that having the speakers far from the wall behind them allows for a deep soundstage. Of course a lot will depend on your own listening likes and room conditions and equipment. I like the soundstage and depth where I am seeing (when I am closing my eyes and imagining I am at the concert) and hearing the performance as if I am about the 3rd to the 5th row back. For me and in my room this gives me the best sound and coherence. I also have my speakers slightly toed in, just right of the listening position and of course the regular room treatments to tame reflections and echo. I also found that experimenting with treatment directly behind the speakers effect the soundstage and also can make the speakers sound congested if too much is used there. Funny you mention congested, I also experienced that with a needle going bad and no matter what how many times I cleaned it, it was sounding congested, I finally had to retip it and the congestion went away. Just an example of how similar variable symptoms we hear can be way off topic to the cause.

A lot of experiementing will have to take place. I still have the tape marks in my room from previous positions of loudspeaker placement. It will take some time to get it just right. I would suggest listening to various types of music as you experiment and pick out certain attributes, the whack of a kick drum or the vocals of musicians and listen to how your speaker placement effects the soundstage.
Good luck,
Looked at the Njoe. Have been lusting for the 99 for some time now. Looks like the 4000 is a big step up so maybe it will drive the prices down on the 99. Bought an Arcam not that long ago. Should have just waited a bit longer and bought the 99.
Thanks again.

Thanks for the reply. Makes a lot of sense. I have been playing around with positioning and have seen some improvement. Will continue.

Should receive two of the Chesky disc soon. Ordered "The Ultimate Demonstration Disc: "Guide to Critical Listening" and Jazz Sampler. Should give me something to work with. I do have some problems with the room and will be posting questions soon about what I can do to alleviate some of them and still keep my wife happy.
You know, I think the most important clue to a great soundstage is when something is coming from the far left or right it does not sound like it is coming directly from the driver or even the front of the speaker itself. Instead, it should sound disconnected from it, maybe within the speaker itself.
Otherwise, the soundspace just collapses,
and you feel like you are hearing a pair of good radios.
(I've mentioned this before in this space.) Maybe I'm confusing staging with transparency, but I think they are are completely linked.
As an extreme example, try some of the early stereo Beatles albums
(the Capitol sets of Meet the Beatles, etc., or Rubber Soul), and see if you can get a driverless sound. (It's an acid test, as these are basically dual-mono recordings.) This is very difficult in most speakers.