Soundstaging and imaging are audiophile fictions.

Recently I attended two live performances in one week--a folk duo in a small club and a performance of Swan Lake by a Russian ballet company. I was reminded of something I have known for many years but talked myself out of for the sake of audiophilia: there is no such thing as "imaging" in live music! I have been hearing live music since I was a child (dad loved jazz, mom loved classical) and am now in my 50s. I have never, NEVER heard any live music on any scale that has "pinpoint imaging" or a "well resolved soundstage," etc. We should get over this nonsense and stop letting manufacturers and reviewers sell us products with reve reviews/claims for wholly artificial "soundstaging"

I often think we should all go back to mono and get one really fine speaker while focusing on tonality, clarity and dynamics--which ARE real. And think of the money we could save.

I happily await the outraged responses.
Soundstaging and imaging are words used to describe stereo playback systems, not live performances.
This is a valid point.

Especially with amplified music.

Certain unamplified music when done correctly can have a soundstage of sorts.

The thing is that instruments (especially acoustic instruments) radiate music radically differently then speakers project the music at playback.

The thing is that many recording engineers engineer for a soundstage. They figure that we hear in stereo, we have stero playback, why not use the stereo option?

The one thing that a well defined soundstage gives us is the ability to easilly listen to individual instruments. This might be a surreal effect, but can be very seductive.

Many audiophiles may claim they are looking for live sounding music from their system, but ultimately that is IMPOSSIBLE. Physics does not let us record instruments naturally or radiate music naturally or do anything inbetween naturally.

We can try to get as close as we can.

Much of imaging is an artifact of the playback system, but since I cannot have a perfect recreation of musicians playing back in my room I will choose the artifacts and distortions which I find most consonant with the communication of the fabric of the music.
I fully agree with you. What is missing in sound reproduction in the home is the sense of acoustics found in the venues where music is played live. Most folks here firmly believe that this can be achieved with stereo. I think that multi-channels systems are required. I think that the sound emanating from an ensemble playing is a lot more homogeneous than what audiophiles seek to recreate. The only pinpoint imaging is that of solo voices or instruments. Less pinpoint, but also identifiable as localized somewhere in a given portion of the acoustic space, are sections of a large ensemble playing on their own. Generally, however, you don't hear what the mad press and insane audiophiles praise, which are things like being able to identify the second violinist in the string section as being clearly to the side of the first. Such pronouncements by reviewers and audiophiles can only be attributed to hyperbole. I am certain that all the talk about systems providing a more front of the hall or back of the hall listening experience will be heard. I think that any decent seat in a hall usually yields a more homogeneous sound front than what audiophiles crave. So maybe audiophiles are getting away from the absolute sound and into something more like hyper reality.
I don't know about anyone else, but when I go to a symphony, I can tell the first chair violin is coming from the front left side of the orchestra. Etc, Etc. Why is this not desireable to have similar results from your stereo? Isn't that what imaging and soundstage do? Perhaps I am wrong.
Perhaps I have misunderstood imaging as it is commonly used.
For me,if I can follow the melody,the countermelody,and the obbligto third line defining the harmony without the speakers getting in the way,the speakers image well.
There is a tradeoff relationship between pinpoint localization of sound sources ("imaging") on the one hand, and enveloping ambience and rich timbre on the other. This goes for performance venues as well as for home stereo systems. It has to do with the relative energy levels of the direct and reverberant sound fields. Most performance venues naturally generate powerful, diffuse, fairly slowly-decaying reverberant fields. This is the major contributor to the lush sonic texture and rich, delicious ambience of a good concert hall.

Compared to a live performance in an appropriate hall, most home stereo systems generate a relatively weak (and tonally incorrect) reverberant field. This weak reverberant field is conducive to good imaging and clarity, but not to rich timbre and ambience. Loudspeaker radiation patterns play a very significant (but mostly under-appreciated) role in recreating the feel of a live performance... in my opinion.

"Rich timbre" ??? What on earth is that? Jeff, I agree that timbral accuracy, tonal accuracy, clarity and dynamics are what's important. But surely, soundstaging in the sense of depth and general localization are heard in live performances, unless you are so far away from the stage that the stage is a point source. No?

IMO, I feel that your statements are not true! From whatever little I know, "imaging" of speaker defines how balanced the sound volume is from each speaker. If the speakers image well then the soundstage gets re-created more correctly vs. incorrectly w.r.t. the original music event that was recorded. If the singer is in the center in the "live" event (concert or studio), it gets re-created in the center, if the violin is on the left, then that gets re-created on the left, etc, etc *IF* speakers image well. Most recordings assume the listener would have sat in the center of a concert hall or in the center of a studio recording so that instruments are more or less evenly spaced in front. If the speakers do not image well, the soundstage gets skewed to the one having more sound volume. You could consider that you bought a ticket on the left orch. or right orch side but it feels uncomfortable in a home stereo system to have the soundstage skewed left or right.
In a live concert/performance there is pinpoint imaging, of course. Symphonies are prime examples (not Swan Lake as you are watching ballet & the orch. is in the orch pit!) - as TWL mentioned, it is easy to pick-up the location of the soloist, the drums, violins & wind instruments if one closes one's eyes. It is also easy to perceive that the soloist is in front & that the drums are behind. Maybe you have never cared to take note of these things in a live event because you are concentrating more on the music itself. IMO, nothing wrong there at all! Many people like to hear music & couldn't care much about soundstage width & depth or pin-point imaging, etc, etc. You could be such a person perhaps? I'm afraid that all these technical terms do exist in live music. What stereo systems seem to compromise is how the instruments reverberate & decay in the concert hall & how they create a certain ambience. This gap seems definitive - closing with better & better equipment - but still very much there.
What's missing here is that a live performance is also a visual performance. What the hall does not really do, the mind does with the spatial cues from the eyes. Sure the sound may be more homogenous if you close your eyes and convince yourself of it but by using your eyes the "pinpoint" accuracy is evident. I have found that when a recording is good, it allows that visual cue that is reminiscent of the live venue through imagination. I think it is absolutely necessary, especially at the recording stage, to get this right. I recently was given my first SACD demo and wherever in the chain the fault lay it sounded like the hi-hat was 10' away from the floor tom and the bassist about 15' away from the guitarist who was standing exactly where the speaker was. What a mess. When it is done right you can look, with your minds eye, at the bassist where he would be on stage and listen more closely this time. Next time you get caught by the lick on the piano and the eyes physically dart away from the bass.(even when they are shut) It is by this precision that you hear something new each time.
Classical music most definitely has "soundstaging" and the very specific seating of the orchestra reflects that and is used by composers and conductors creatively for effect.
The key words of your statment are "I have never,NEVER heard".I HAVE. The effects you are discussing are created by electromagnetic improprieties in audio equipment. Remove the problems and its a whole new ballgame. I know what live sounds like I play it and my family were perfessionals. Live music has its own set of problems that is why old concert halls were rebuilt many times over. As of this year,I have heard recorded audio better than live, without all the problem you stated and without the problems associated with a live performance.
1st, I like nice location and depth, to the point that my T-hold rounds the corners, and my Cary squares them out, the SS is larger with the T-hold and smaller and more intimate with the Cary. I like it.

2nd, I go to a lot of live music, more than 20/year.

3rd, I heard awesome imaging at the Paul Simon concert, I sat directly behind the mix board, my prefered location, and it was un-real. (As in not real but awesome) I liked it. Keep in mind this was not accoustic but through the very nice sound reinforcement system at Pink Knob.

4th, This is the most important part: the sound you hear on disc vinyl, polycarb what ever is delivered to you, comes from what was heard through at least 2 mikes, spacing???, and usually many more. This is hologated into one phantom image and presented to you through YOUR amps, systems, sound treatements and however you have it set up. (Experience will vary) Is it accurate, absolutely, for a set of mikes, which don't hear like ears. They tend to, by design be directional usually. So no it's not real, but they do make up for some guy coughing, spilling beer on you, walking for a mile or more, cramped seats, and what ever else on puts up with in a venue, and offer up perhaps a bit more audio magic, real or not. If it were real, I would never go to concerts again.

5th and last- -
Per the originators statement, I agree I cannot pick out individual instruments at MOST venues, it does sound hologated and homogenized live, but the dynamics are often supperior, the energy is there, and the events are plain fun. While I find my audio system most satifing, it ain't live and it ain't close, but often times it does sound better. If ya can't get the crowd and all that comes with it I'll take better sound, better image, and no lines at the bathroom and enjoy them both.

regards to all

A very valid point is that made by Stuartbranson: all the senses work together so that, ultimately, there is nothing like the live experience. Most significant is the visual aspect. Another good point IMHO is that the missing ingredient in home reproduction of music is ambiance. The knee-jerk reaction by a lot of audiophiles to multichannel is just that. So you will always have your proponents of obscure forces at work trying to get it right with vinyl, stereo, analog, magic cables of all kinds, vibration dampening devices and a myriad of other cures to non existent problems. The future lies squarely in multichannel systems, properly implemented, playing well recorded/mixed material. People are free to listen to whatever they want and to opine to their heart's delight, including rambling on about the miseries of digital, the shortcomings of Redbook CD reproduction, the battle between SACD and DVD-A as carrying the seeds of multichannel destruction, of Quadraphonics in the 70s, of the analogy with Betamax, of nature and the little tweety birds, I just hope that enough people will be interested in MC audio to make it work.
Sometimes at live performances non visual spatial information/"imaging" can be inescapbly apparent. Quite a few experimental/avant garde compositions rely heavily on this fact. Performers can move to different locations in a recital hall and greatly alter how directional and tonal information is perceived. Sometimes at live performances you will get one big group of sounds that doesn't reveal a focused attack and decay of individual instruments. Most 'goners probably already agree that music doesn't have to have "pinpoint imaging or a well resolved soundstage" to work. If you like it, it's good.
Any animal's ear (including a human's) should have no trouble to very accurately identify the direction and distance of sounds. It's survival.
One thing that hasn't been clearly stated is that for an acoustic performance (e.g., orchestral) the microphones are usually placed closer to the performers than the vast majority of the audience. By being closer to the microphones the relative distances of the individual performers to the microphones is greater thereby emphasizing (exagerating?) the depth and width. My experience at the symphony is width and depth are there but not near as prominent as on recordings. While this is a nice effect, I think getting tonality correct is the real secret to a good audio system.
Tastes great; less filling.

Maryann or Ginger.

Bose 901's
Comparisons to live music are subjective but should be looked at as objectively as possible. Amplified music at a live event usually comes across as mono. Unamplified music has a soundstage depending upon where the listener sits. Sit far enough away from your two channel home speakers and they will be perceived as mono.

Some of the best recordings I have heard are mono. Early audiophiles thought stereo was a gimmic and many of the early stereo pressings supported that notion by the album title.

I enjoy a good stereo image and stage depth but other aspects are more important to me. It's just this man's opinion but I'd rather listen to music that has staying power than continually search for sounds that shows off my system. It's wonderful when everything is right though.
Jeffrey, it is true what you state and sometimes it is not. If you have a hall with much reverb, you will find it hard to pinpoint a particular instrument playing, say in a string quartett if you close your eyes, with eyes open however, your ears, brain will make the particular instrument snap into focus, what a good setup can simulate quite well, interestingly enough even better, if you listen with your eyes closed. The subjective effect is almost the same, if you've set up your rig intelligently, only there are different senses involved.
Pin point imaging, and there I fully agree with you,is something invented by audiophiles who I suspect, have little or no experience with live music. If I meet up with those sharply delineated images (mostly without depth ) in a system, I find it disturbing and it causes listening fatigue as far as my ears are concerned. In a live event the sound will emanate from an instrument in every enlarging circles, it will bloom forth, not from a tiny point in space ,but , say from the wooden body of a guitar which will react to the strings being plugged. This bloom to my mind, a highly complex waveform, epecially with many instruments playing, is heavily emaciated by redbook CD, which instead will deliver "pinpoint" musical inaccuracy. The music does not "breathe". I love stators, because to my ears, they bring the closest aproximation to "bloom", are fast enough to bring forth a fair facsimile of those subtle dynamic and tonal changes, which a chord struck, say on Steinway Grand will propell into its surounding air. So bacically, I agree with Duke's post,no small wonder, the man loves stators as well!
In a small hall or venue where you are seated directly in front of the performing artists playing acoustic instruments with no / minimal amplification, you will develop very distinct imagery and soundstaging. That is, if you close your eyes or put on a blind-fold. Visual cues lower your responses to audible clues. That is, until you remove the visual cues from the picture.

If you are in a larger venue and / or seated further away from the front middle of the performers, you lose soundstaging and imaging due to the effects of spacial information and tonal colouration contributed by the venue itself. While some enjoy these "colourations" i.e. the various sonics presented "front", "mid-hall" or "rear", it is not the same thing that one gets when directly viewing the performers on level playing ground spread out in front of you.

As Duke stated and to contradict Pbb's point of view, one can achieve a good sense of space and simulate the radiation pattern of an acoustic instrument in a room with a single set of speakers and a good recording. The key here is the radiation pattern of the speakers and how they load into the room.

Since acoustic instruments radiate sound in multiple directions at one time, and do so in-phase, you need a speaker that can simulate that effect. Obviously, standard front firing box speakers fail miserably at this due to their focused directionality. Dipole's ( E-stat's, Planar's, etc.. ) can do better since they have a more diffuse pattern and potentially larger radiating surface, but the problem is that half the sound that they produce is out of phase with the other half. Multiple driver systems designed to "spray" sound around ( Bose 901's, Design Acoustics D-12, etc.. ) run into comb filters and time delays.

If such is the case, what would one look for if trying to achieve the goals previously mentioned ? You need a speaker that is relatively omni-directional AND radiates all of the signal in phase in all directions AND is time-coherent. In order to achieve all of the above, it would have to be a point source i.e. the source of all sound eminating from one point. Otherwise, you come right back to having to deal with phase & time delays, comb filters, etc.. that one gets when using multiple drivers covering different or over-lapping frequency ranges with differing radiation patterns.

When you start looking for speakers like this, your market is PHENOMENALLY small. So small in fact, that i don't know of ANY speaker that is currently made that meets all of these criteria. As such, you would have to buy older, used designs if you wanted to experience what i was talking about. There are some current models that come very close to the ideals discussed above ( German Acoustics, Huff , etc.. ) but fall short in several areas mentioned above. This is primarily due to the use of a woofer to supplement the bottom end of an otherwise "full range" omni-directional, point source driver. To top it off, these systems are VERY expensive due to the amount of hand labor / out of ordinary construction required to make such a driver / speaker system.

If you can find a speaker of the nature mentioned above and work to optimize it within the confines of your system and room, all others will pale in comparison in terms of spaciousness, dimensionality and "correct-ness" in terms of preserving an acoustic instruments' natural tonal balance and timbre. This is the very reason that i won't part with some specific speakers that i love dearly, even if they do have their limitations in specific areas ( primarily max spl's and treble extension ). Those that have read more than a few of my posts know what speakers i'm talking about. Sean
Over 70% of the sound, we hear is reflected sound. This is the main reason I have slowly gravitated towards the Mirage OM-5's. After owning a pair of OM-6's I switched to B&W 802's for that Audiophile sound quality. There was something missing after spending 35K on my system. I have now come full circle back to the Mirage Omnipolar system and I could not be happier. Most who hear my system before and after agree, however, you either love them or hate them. Usually people who have a false conception of how sound should be transmitted do not like the way they disappear in the room. I for one, find this to be a major plus.

I'm outraged!

Brad Day
Atlanta, GA
Detlof is correct, if the hall is bad the sound is bad. The original statement is rather silly though. When I listen to live music I can close my eyes and hear where the musicians are and what instrument they are playing. I can't understand the point of this thread. There is no substance to this statement.

My point exactly.

Or, was it

Unclejeff: I'll take answer "C", which is "both of the above" : ) Sean
As has been suggested above, the farther you are from the source the harder it is to pinpoint the location of various instruments. I'm sure the conductor of an orchestra has no problem discerning the 1st violin from the 2nd, although the same person might be challanged from the 25th row. After spending many hours and a small fortune putting together a high-end system, I would argue that we have a right to expect something that in many ways surpasses the live concert experience. I agree with Jeffery that imaging is the minimum that we should expect from a good system, and that "tonality, clarity, and dynamics" are more important objectives, but there's no reason to leave behind the spatial cues provided by stereo to achieve these things.
One point, I can only stress, is a concert is a visual as well as an aural event. We can perceive visual cues much more readily and acutely than aural cues. In a live concert event perhaps 90% of our acuity of senses is devoted to the visual. A critical listener might bring this down to 50%. So when we try to recreate this concert event in our homes, we are much more involved in the aural event (no matter how pretty or impressive our equipment is). Thus the audio manufacturers try to compensate this lack of visual acuity by creating a different set of structure to stimulate our aural acuity. One way to do this is through enlarging the soundstage and creating a strong sense of imaging/focus. Whether it is artificial or not, I personally do not care because this "artificiality" brings me closer to the music, which is all that I am after.
Sean, I find your statement interesting, regarding visual clues lowering our responses to audible clues. I find this to be absolutely true as far as listening to our rigs at home is concerned, not so however listening to live music in a hall, where visual contact gives me at least the illusion to pinpoint the source also aurally better. I cannot say, if this is an individual idiosyncracy of mine or if there are established scientific facts, which would prove me right or wrong.
It is true of course, what you state about dipoles. With clever placement however, the out of phase effect of these speakers cannot only be minimised but actually be used to good advantage. This is true especially, if your preferred software are large classical orchestras, recorded in halls with a fair amount of reverb to them. Here you can use the out of phase part of your presentation to a good end in mimiking the effects of the hall, therewith strengthening the psychological impact the music will have on you. It seems more "real" then in your listening environment, although of course actually less real regarding what is found in the actual mix on the mastertape. I've even gone so far in the pursuit of this effect to place a pair of Quad 63s at right angles to the main body of speakers, which I will blend in very carefully in order to get this "out of phase effect" with recordings which I find too dry, lacking natural reverb. In getting this right, there are other prices to pay of course. We all have to settle for that compromise which brings us the most in musical enjoyment.
By the way, we have a cable station here in Zurich, which sends lots of old Jazz in mono and I listen to a fair amount of classical music on mono lps. Compared to stereo, the soundstage is of course less wide, but the placement of instruments or groups of them in space in well recorded presentations, though not as pronounced as in stereo, is certainly there.....
I've experienced fine staging with mono recordings at home -- which is a less than optimal surrounding for mono (it's a stereo rig after all, with bipole/dipole speaker setting). Not as wide as a good stereo recording, but with identifiable "imaging".

But I'm a bit confused here: stereo is mastering gimmick, no? I mean, sound from acoustic instruments is "mono" isn't it? Stereo is induced through recording & mastering technique?? Hence a good pair of mid-tweets, prominents enough, should give a good "stereo image" shouldn't they -- a la A. Physic.

It's tonality, timbre, pitch, phase, and the like that make our lives difficult, isn't it??? And getting a simulation of high "highs" and reasonable low "lows"... WITH the rest... (what a nightmare).

I must be missing something?
Detlof: My comments apply less to large gatherings of instruments ( orchestra ) than they do to smaller groups.

For one thing, larger groups must be "mashed together", which minimizes separation and makes localization harder to achieve. On top of this, larger groups typically have to play in larger venues, which typically means that one is sitting further away from them due to playing to a larger crowd. As such, the soundfield generated by each instrument becomes more diffuse and harder to localize. Much of this is due to contributions from ambient reflections.

On the other hand, smaller groups of individuals each have their own space in the performing area. If one can sit relatively nearfield in a small venue, the sound can literally engulf the listener while allowing a great ease in terms of localizing where each sound is coming from. One need not rely on ANY visual cues as the direct radiation reaches our ears FAR faster than any of the ambient reflections. While these ambient reflections do contribute to the total perceived sonic presentation, the amplitude is not nearly as intense as that of the signal that has travelled directly towards our ears. By combining both differences in amplitude and a wider variation in primary vs reflected arrival times, localization is therefore far easier to accomplish in such a situation.

PS... Now i remember why i said that your system must resemble "Frankenstien", albeit a far more attractive and enjoyable "monster".

Greg: Stereo was an early attempt at manipulating the signals that current day binaural recordings strive to do better. Obviously, neither are perfect but both can be quite enjoyable : ) Sean
I tend to agree with Shubertmaniac and Detlof: the visual cues in the live music experience are the most significant factor is helping to localize instruments and voices. I also agree with Sean that large ensembles will invariably be squished and squashed sound wise because they simply cannot fit in our listening rooms. That was, in fact, the basis of my initial comment and was not explained too well by me. Stereo can only provide a limited sense of space. Dipoles and flat panels with their particular radiation patterns do help in creating the openness that most people want. Multichannel systems appear to me to be the only solution to making our limited home space appear larger. This I have experienced for a decade by using ambiance synthesis courtesy of a JVC XP 1010 unit. It has been sitting idle for a while, but I may put it back in my system at some point. The contribution of additional speakers providing ambiance should not be dismissed. I am still considering buying the extra equipment to have an MC system that conforms to the ITU standard (which I still find to be overkill BTW) for use with MC SACDs. The differences in set-up between these ITU recommendations and what is required with ambiance synthesis like the JVC are difficult to square up. From experience I know that proper ambiance can be recreated with small speakers, well placed, driven by low powered amps and that the delayed signal is totally unlistenable on its own being severely bandwidth limited. It seems that ambiance synthesis is deader than a door-nail in the marketplace and that the new MC media are the only hope of seeing systems with more than just two channels. Let's hope "audiophiles" will get over their MC prejudices. There is some movement at both TAS and Stereophile in proposing MC sound systems. Oops! Maybe that's the kiss of death!
Your comparing apples and music vs. recorded sound...and I would much rather have a speaker that images well AND has spatial qualities over clarity, dynamics, tone, short..a MUSICAL speaker...and for someone who is moving away from "audiophile tendencies"...your still describing an audiophile (hyper-detail) speaker system! good luck...just try and get something you can live with in YOUR OWN ROOM!
Someone please explain. I do not understand the post. Or I do not understand the terms imaging and soundstaging. eg. Drums cannot be heard rear left, vocals in the middle and trumpet high right? Not even unamplified live?
By the complexity of the responses it is apparent that I am completly lost.
you go jeffrey! tell it like it is....
Last time I attended an orchestra I could clearly hear that the french horns were left of center, and the trombones were right, that the violins were to the left and the cellos were to the right. So naturally I like to hear my hifi do the same.

With amplified rock the point is more valid, but I think with rock music studio and live sounds are almost two different art forms, and that the stereo field is more important in the studio work.

Hey, but if stereo imaging is not important to you then that's your choice, but I don't agree at all that you don't hear a broad and defined soundstage in live music.
I think that imaging and soundstage are sensory illusions but,in this case,I like being fooled!
Reread the original post. My first reading of it must have been pretty cursory. Sorry! Strangely enough the original poster would want to go back to mono and I am suggestion that what is needed is multi-channel. Sound staging and imaging are real illusions. I believe that just about every decent system does the trick. You would have to have a pretty poor system, pretty poorly set up and in a pretty poor room these days to lack a proper measure of these qualities. Where I beg to differ is at the point where audiophiles start making extremely finite distinctions between the prowess of one stereo system over another to (a) provide a soundstage that is wider than the room in which the system sits, (b) provide a layering of instruments that is believed to be very deep when, in fact, it is still only in front of the listener (audiophiles love it when the speakers are far from the walls at the front and sides and that the sound appears to come from a point behind the speakers and fully detached from them) and is heard as though one is peering through a window (the worst systems seem to have us peer through a basement window, whereas the better ones give us a ground floor picture window), (c) provide localization of specific instruments or voices in a large ensemble that, to my ears at least, is not present in a concert hall listening to a large enough ensemble when sitting at a normal distance (the latter point does not mean that instruments and voices cannot be localized in the sound field, merely that so much exaggeration exists among audiophiles when describing certain systems ability to do so that they appear to have reached a point beyond the live listening experience, hence my hyper-reality comment). Many audiophiles approach the whole issue of recreating a three dimensional sound field in which instruments and voices can still be heard with a degree of differentiation in a strictly two channel way, concentrating on preamps, amps, cabling and speakers to transcend the limitations of those two channels. Unless one believes in magic, all of those components will not do it. That is where proper multi-channel systems should come in to add the missing dimension.
Wow, Pbb. Until your last sentence, I was sure you were going to say that multi channelling is just another trick. Good post; I shall have to study it a bit, though.
As I noted elsewhere, TACET DVD-A mastering of classical string quartet performances puts one instrument in each speaker. This is a totally different approach to the usual soundstage objective, and might take some getting used to. However, the "you are there" impact is amazing...and isn't that what the imaging thing is all about? Of course it wouldn't work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra!