The most important factor in soundstage imaging

Everybody wants a system that images well. There are  many discussions here positing equipment changes that will improve imaging. Some people think the magic wand is cables, others are sure it’s the preamp, and the ones that don’t think it’s preamps, think it’s amplifiers. And, of course, speakers are (correctly) mentioned. 

However, the single most important factor in audio stereo imaging, is increasing direct radiation and decreasing reflected radiation, by moving the speakers away from the back wall, and away from the side walls. 
9e7ba07d 49a7 4363 a6bc 1ea80b28ce42Ag insider logo xs@2xphomchick
It’s not that basic .......Your post only picks up one of numerous factors, all equally important or more crucial depending on the bespoke listening arena in size does not fit all.



There are many factors that play into this, but one that is commonly overlooked is simply, the imagination. Some listeners are perfectly content jamming Taylor Swift over their laptop speakers, which can’t possibly provide the deep musical escape that more imaginative listeners seek. If you are reading this article in the first place, it is likely that you crave a more immersive musical experience; that you are willing to overlook the reality of a listening experience wherein sound is being moved across a two-dimensional plane through your ears (this is called the “headstage”), and are capable of giving yourself over to the spoils of the soundstage.


Another major element in the creation of a detailed soundstage is the initial capturing and production of sound. Whether an instrument or group of instruments was recorded via close mic’ing techniques, room mic’ing techniques or a particular blend thereof, can determine what sort of auditory artifacts or ambient cues are left in the final product.

Ambient cues are signs that provide an indication as to where an instrument is located. For example, instruments that are louder in a mix tend to be perceived as being physically closer. Likewise, lack of textural detail, and ambient effects such as reverberation and delay can cause an instrument to seem far away. Volume, panning, tone, mic’ing, performance, and effects all play a part in how an instrument’s “location” is perceived by the listener.

Speaker and amplifier design also play heavily into the creation of a quality soundstage; transformers, driver material and size, crossover components, and preamp and power amp components, dramatically affect the speaker’s ability to accurately reproduce sound. The construction of the cabinet is equally crucial. There are many cabinet designs on the market, each touting their own benefits, and an avid audiophile could likely tell the differences between dipolar speakers, bipolar speakers, open baffles, sealed front-firing cabinet designs, and everything else under the sun.

MULTI-FACETED CUES IN SPEAKER PLACEMENT ( not just what you posted ...)

Lastly, and just as critical of an element as any other, is speaker placement. Different speakers are designed and tuned in different ways and are thus optimized by their relationship with one another and their surrounding environment. The rabbit hole that is finding the “sweet spot” for a given pair of speakers is one that is long, dark, and twisty, but once found gives way to an unparalleled listening experience. Dimensions that will affect the experience are as follows:

  • Distance between the two speakers
  • Distance of the speakers from nearby walls
  • Distance between the speakers and the listener
  • Height of speakers in relation to the ears of the listener
  • Vertical angle of speakers
  • Horizontal angle of speakers

All of these dimensions, as mentioned, will have a noticeable impact on the overall listening experience and should be taken into consideration. Luckily, the process of finding the sweet spot can be fun and educational for those seeking a deeper knowledge of how speakers and their environment interact

In my dedicated listening room, the imaging and soundstage capabilities were created, affected and improved upon by:
1. Room treatment (all four walls, ceiling, floor). Most improvement.
2. Setup (speakers and listening seat positions). 
3. The gear itself.
However, the single most important factor in audio stereo imaging, is increasing direct radiation and decreasing reflected radiation, by moving the speakers away from the back wall, and away from the side walls. 

Thanks for the laugh.   
@steakster : Really? There's just no need. If you have something to say, say it. Otherwise, not helpful.

In my brief experience the largest impact on soundstage is speaker position but my system is already pretty well matched. 

Having said that, 'get them away from the walls' is not what works for my system. The speakers aren't right up against the walls but closer than most conventional wisdom usually recommends. ALL maters....but certainly toe in/out should be experimented with.
Yep, like the others I would add speaker position depending on dispersion pattern of the speakers.

i have found a noisy box to negatively effect the imiging too. A quiet box really helps. 

Gear seem to help from cheap gear to great gear. But very good to great is less so for me. 

What aspect of the gear do you think helps the most? Is it details? Timing? Etc?
Hi phomchick,
It is a wonderful experience to listen to a system that has a holographic image. You are right. Reflected sound particularly the early louder reflections can wreak havoc particularly with point source radiators. This is the largest advantage in using a dipole. Dipoles radiate in a figure 8 pattern with very little radiation to the side. If they are set up as linear arrays then they do not radiate up or down either! There is only one early reflection right behind the speaker. All you need to do is glue some foam acoustic tiles to the wall behind the speaker and you are all set. 
There are other factors that when handled appropriately improve imaging quite a bit. These are phasing, all drivers have to be adjusted so the sound of each driver subs included, arrive at the listeners ear at exactly the same time. The main left and right channels have to have the exact same frequency response curve. The curve does not have to be flat but the channels have to be exactly the same at all frequencies. The only way to achieve this is in the digital domain with dare I say it, room control.
Room control is improving in leaps and bounds. The best I have heard is the Trinnov system. Second is Lyngdorf's system. I'm going to catch it now but a tube phono amp sent through a good ADC (Benchmark!) then through room control will image better. Way better. Magically better. 
OK I'm ducking:-)
I appreciate the op’s post, and agree with the importance of his assessment, but ime, there are many more factors in getting excellent staging and imaging.
Moving them away from the walls usually goes a long way toward improving imaging, especially soundstage depth.

Phomchick wrote: "The single most important factor in audio stereo imaging, is increasing direct radiation and decreasing reflected radiation, by moving the speakers away from the back wall, and away from the side walls."

I would agree that minimizing early reflections is AMONG the most important factors, but I don’t know what is THE most important factor.

Warning: The following is fairly technical, please skip it if you prefer not to read technical explanations.

Very early reflections (within about .68 milliseconds of the direct sound) are arguably the most detrimental to imaging, as they occur before the Precedence Effect kicks in. (Sound travels about 9 inches in .68 milliseconds). These are usually reflections (or diffractions) associated with the front baffle and sometimes associated with the drivers themselves. This brief time interval is within the arrival time difference for off-centerline sounds that arrive first at one ear and then at the other, from which we compute the angle that the sound comes from, which is why they tend to be especially detrimental to precise imaging. The longer the time interval (up to .68 milliseconds) before a sound arrives at the farther ear, the further off-centerline the sound seems to come from. So as we get closer to the .68 millisecond threshold, a correspondingly further-around-to-the-side false localization cue is generated. I believe this is why narrow speakers generally (there are many exceptions) image better than wide ones: Because the cabinet edge diffraction happens earlier within that .68 millisecond window.

Next we have the early reflections off of room boundaries, and the sidewall reflections are probably the most significant. They tend to "broaden" the image size, which many people find subjectively pleasing (according to Toole), but they can also degrade clarity (according to Geddes and Griesinger). These early sidewall reflections also tend to reduce the soundstage depth. Along with the (subjectively more benign) floor and ceiling bounces, the early sidewall reflections tend to superimpose a "small room signature" on the sound, which tends to mask the soundstage on the recording.

Ime relatively late-onset (after about 10 milliseconds) reflections are generally not detrimental to image localization, and can be beneficial by increasing the sense of envelopment and immersion within the soundscape on the recording. I like to intentionally increase the amount of late-onset reverberant energy for this reason: The ear/brain system judges the room size by the time interval between the first-arrival sound and the "center of gravity" of the reflections. By pushing that "center of gravity" further back in time, we reduce the amount of "small room signature" that is super-imposed atop the soundstage on the recording. Incidentally this is what acousticians try to do when designing the control room for a recording studio, so that the engineers can clearly hear the soundstage on the recording without the control room’s signature being super-imposed on top of it.

Imo, ime, ymmv, fwiw, etc.


Well this thread is done, Duke summed it up lol. 

So what about electronics? Why does one solid state amp have a larger sound stage than another solid state amp?
Wow Duke! You absolutely nailed it with regard to speakers!

I can’t add anything to do with speakers just a big thumbs up to your post!

What I can add is this, a little science...

Below 2000 Hz we locate sounds in the horizontal plane by time arrival at each ear. We can also figure out a lot of other info based on distortion off the pinea as well as comb filtering from the floor (locating sound front and back as well as high and low).

Above 2000 Hz, scientists have discovered that we use the relative loudness of sound. Our head is one huge blocking filter to HF sounds. At 30 degrees off axis the sound at 6000 Hz is 10 dB lower in one ear than the other - and this is what we use to calculate location. At higher frequencies the attenuation of the head can be as much at 20 or 30 dB - so we can very accurately figure out where a sound came from by using this method in addition to the other cues below 2000Hz.

Why do I mention this? Because minimum phase filters have become “du jour”. Even the lossy distorting next big thing called MQA uses minimum phase filters because marketing folks are trying to scare people with the INAUDIBLE pre-ringing boogie monster!

Minimum phase filters totally destroy the proper relationship between high frequencies and low frequencies. This is an imaging KILLER!!! High frequencies arrive much too late!!

Use only Linear Phase filters in your DAC if you wish to perfectly preserve imaging!!! (Preserve the maximum pinpoint imaging that was available from the source recording)

The real question is which S.S. amp has the correct soundstage? Some depth and dimension are artifacts that exist in part to the fact that your speakers are set out in your room and also from the room itself. Many recordings with depth actually shouldnt have depth or at least have less depth than is presented. At least this has been my experience.  
Forgot to add that a real enemy of speakers are crossovers which is why single driver speakers, when kept within its frequency comfort zones, are so good. All crossovers are problems, even the best first-order ones. It truly is like polishing a turd.

Passive crossover add quite a lot of phase distortion. However, so can resonance from whizzer cones and the like. So not a black and white thing except that phase distortion from a crosssover can definitely be an imaging issue.

The perfect solution is a phase accurate active speaker from ATC. Active crossovers can maintain phase perfectly - no discontinuities in phase and therefore a minimum of phase distortion.

"Forgot to add that a real enemy of speakers are crossovers which is why single driver speakers, when kept within its frequency comfort zones, are so good. All crossovers are problems, even the best first-order ones. It truly is like polishing a turd."

Just for the record, I disagree.  But I see little point in having my experiences do battle with your experiences.    


Narrow minimum baffle
non resonant cabinet
minimize reflection back thru cone of magnet structure..
pistonic motion of the drivers in the relevant audio band love whizzers with 30% out of phase...( not )
breakup and or ringing far outside of the pass band
tuneable bass so you can fix room nodes, every room has MORE  than one, including the recording studio control room....
treat floor bounce in the critical midrange w tilt and a rug
treat first reflections agressively in the horizontal
natural mix of ramdom diffusion and absorbtion in a well lived in room ( give me a living room over most not all sterile, forest of amolifiers blocking the turntable “ audiophile “ rooms
get the equipmentbrack OFF to the side..
add Labrador  or any other working dog at your feet
good wine
.....have fun
enjoy the music....
Right on, tomic601!!!
@tomcarr.  disappointed YOU did not mention Jim Smiths most excellent book - Get Better Sound.

You turned me on to that :-]

and I thank you....
You guys are great!  I love all the knowledge shared on this site.  We have some seriously smart people here! 

I’ve always pulled my speakers far out from the walls but recently started really trying to tune / treat my room and it has done more for my imaging and soundstage than other one thing by itself.  
Before we get all technical, and deal with speaker design, placement and room treatment, the beginning, for me, is the recording. I have many different copies of the "same" record; some sound flat and lifeless, others have dimension. That's not the sole factor, of course, but for me, it's where it begins. Even with a good system, well set up in a room, a lackluster recording, mastering, etc. will sound very disappointing, particularly when compared to a better copy from a better source, better mastered, etc. All of the other elements in and relating to the system play their part, not necessarily in the order of the chain. Rolling a tube can make a difference in presentation. A phono cartridge change can make a profound difference (as can its set up). 
I don't have a holistic view of the entire picture to present in some logically ordered fashion of priority, but let's not forget the role that the source material plays in this process. 
Breakdown on imaging:

80%: The speakers, you want smooth and well-controller off-axis.

19%: Room placement and treatment

1%: Gear; the only way an amp or whatever can affect imaging is will poor channel balance and channel separation (crosstalk); if you paid over $300 for a stereo power amp and it has poor crosstalk (~30dB), it’s junk. Even the $350 Crown 1502 amp (meant for PA, but some use for subs and speakers) has >55dB or separation at all frequencies, that’s lower than the hearing threshold for THD.

Buy what you can afford.  Choose your room.  Set up system. Put on some primo tunes.  Move speakers around until they sound awesome.  Sit back and enjoy.  Avoid neurotic tendencies.  Oh, have a beer (insert favorite drink here)!!
@tomic601. You're right, I can't believe I forgot that! Shame on me, and thank you for the reminder and kind words. Great to hear someone else is getting the results and satisfaction from that book the way I am. 
@whart :    "Even with a good system, well set up in a room, a lackluster recording, mastering, etc. will sound very disappointing"

Agreed and wonder why this isn't always mentioned first. As I understand it, to have a good sound stage there has to be intention on the part of the engineers/producers. If they don't make that effort and know what they are doing then sound stage will be lacking or if not lacking, a matter of circumstance. And it seems like tweaking a system using a poor recording would be frustrating and counterproductive.

So it seems like the first point of advice would be to start with a good recording. I've got The Who's first album. It is in mono. It is not my sound stage reference recording.
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akg_ca, +1 and Mijostyn +1, then- there's TUBES!
Whenever imaging or soundstage are mentioned, I like to remind people about these resources: The following provide tests, with which one may determine whether their system actually images, or reproduces a soundstage, as recorded. ie: On the Chesky sampler/test CD; David explains in detail, his position on the stage and distance from the mics, as he strikes a tambourine(Depth Test). The LEDR test tells what to expect, if your system performs well, before each segment. The Chesky CD contains a number of tests, in addition to the LEDR. ( and ( The shape of your ears’ pinnae is also a variable, regarding your ability to perceive images/locate sounds. A Stereophile article, that explains the LEDR test:
@n80- I think part of it is the context of the board, which is gear centric. No disrespect intended, since many of the contributors here are well established,knowledgeable, etc.
I was stuck in "audiophile land" for decades, listening to what I now consider to be pablum- sonic wonders with the musical substance of cotton candy. Jumping into record collector world, it’s the opposite- pressings treasured for their rarity, not necessarily their sonics (or even the music).
To me, it’s fun to straddle both worlds and between them, find music i enjoy that sounds good. I geeked enough to build a good system or two over the years, and hung out with the record collectors enough to learn about the deadwax, pressing plants, mastering engineers and labels. But ultimately, it comes down to how it sounds. And that’s where I think the audiophiles and record people sometimes overlap. (The music itself- the performances, the compositions, the playing, is yet another whole layer of stuff- perhaps the most important).  
I’m in a mood, so please don’t read this as snark. It’s meant more as self-criticism, if anything. I can always learn something about both worlds--that’s why I hang out here, on the gear side (and occasionally, somebody mentions an interesting band or album). But, this is a gear centric place, record collecting is about the rarity or obscurity and there’s a whole other world that is about the music itself. It’s a happy thing when all those different strands combine to make magic.
If you've ever taken the time to actually tune in your speakers' placement, you will have gotten to know them very well by then and discovered that symmetric but very precise alignment is necessary to even approach their capability. You have about a 1mm window of tolerance between the two.
However, the single most important factor in audio stereo imaging, is increasing direct radiation and decreasing reflected radiation,

Mostly. Diffraction in between and on the sides can sometimes enhance the experience with more ambiance and more volume in the mid to high frequencies, enhancing the realism.

by moving the speakers away from the back wall, and away from the side walls.

That's an important first step, but it is by no means the only one. Room treatment in all 3 dimensions matter.

It is also true that different speakers work differently in their interaction and reflections, so there's no one ideal treated room. Line sources and horns for instance may work better in bare rooms.
Why do so many people fail to distinguish between imaging and soundstaging?  There are clearly systems and setups that do one well and the other not.
However, the single most important factor in audio stereo imaging, is increasing direct radiation and decreasing reflected radiation,

Those of us with omnis (I own MBLs) may be surprised to hear that, as the addition of the omni pattern makes these things soundstage and image like nothing else.

That said, I do prefer to get closer to my MBLs, mostly because I tend to like the instrumental timbre with more direct sound.
With all due respects, I put many other system attributes before sound staging and imaging, although I appreciate that my system can disappear, soundstage and image with the best of them. Tone, coherence, dynamics, agility ( prat ), detail, are all more significant to me, and a good system should be able to do it all. I hear many systems that sound stage and image well, but lack many of the other characteristics I find important. Most systems I have heard recently have failed, for me, in the dynamics department and the prat department. Just boring and ill defined. 
Can you guys help me understand something about imaging? I’ve tried the roger warmers amused to death cd on the three wishes song the woman speaking sounds like she’s 10’ left of the left speaker on a few speakers I have and on some other quite expensive speakers the image doesn’t throw at all. Makes 
me wonder if covers or phase within the box affects imaging. Out of 5 speakers the 2 most expensive didn’t throw the voice while 1 of those 2 excels at every other aspect of stereo sound stage and imaging. Seriously baffled.
As to the importance of stereo to me I find stereo has the ability to get me involved in the music to a point that I easily overlook other problems the speakers may have.

thanks for the links. I will check them out tonight when I get home. Here at work my airpods failed pretty bad lol. 
@steve59 yes!  Heck, cables reversed, room, placement, CD player or equipment inverting phase etc...

@mrdecibel You nailed it!  I couldn’t agree more...recently switched speakers and Interconnects till I got that “Live” sound back in my room.
 @whart wise indeed and part, a big part of why I initially started making my own recordings....and spending a lot of time w organists, piano players, small acoustic ensemble and chorale groups....TRYING to recreate what you hear in what I call the balanced direct and reverberant space. Amazing and fun and a reference burned into whatever is left of my mind.

So right about gear and music and travelling in both worlds.. join us for more of that in the Music section, What’s On Your Turntable Tonight ? thread....not a lot of dealers there either.....BUT some half crazed all night vinyl spinners...ha
A huge congrats to you Dave! I wanted so much to buy the same pair that you have, I really like the carbon black. I just couldn’t swing it. Not all bad news though since I got a pretty good deal on a pair of DSP8000’s and tbh in this stubborn room I’m probably better off. I would love to come over and hear your system sometime. Will you be inviting the crew?
Any decent box speaker can image’s getting the energy of the music to hit you with believability! I need substance, not ghosts :-)
The most important factor in soundstage imaging - is having 2 ears. Still nothing wrong with mono, sound staging is all in your head anyway. Just get one massive speaker and you have a real massive soundstage. Or buy pairs of wee weak chinless direct radators and they can put up a fake one. I would much prefer 1 large loudspeaker in mono over conventional audiophile offering in stereo. To me this sounds more like real music in a real space than standard audiophile fair.

Johnk, I have 2 huge mono speakers for sale if you’re looking.
Excellent info everyone. I would say that the speakers (and placement) are the most important to imaging and staging and then the room (physical dimensions and treatment) and equipment moving backwards of importance and impact from the speakers. . . Of course none of this happens if the recording isn’t made well at a high bit depth with minimal processing and or brick wall filtered etc.

I am a firm believer that an active set up is the best way to deal with room nodes with multiple subwoofers that can counteract the inevitable issues that arise when playing music full range.

After all that, looking at adding BACCH as the pinnacle cherry on top to my system. Awesome innovation if you haven’t looked it up, applying all the science quoted above!
That BACCH system is fascinating. BUT- $54K is more than my mortgage balance. Glad I’ve been able to successfully apply the pertinent scientific/acoustic methods, mentioned above, for the past few decades. It’ll be interesting, to see how BACCH progresses, if the cost comes down and if it flies. and
There have been many excellent general idioms presented.  But in the end remember that you should trust your ears and you will likely benefit from significant experimentation. 

By way of example, I have now adjusted my current speakers/listening position/sound absorption perhaps 100 times.  Some of these adjustments were mere centimeters.  I ended up placing the speakers on the long wall (which is not the standard recommendation as far as I can tell), with the speakers only 3 feet from the back wall (much closer than I expected), and my listening chair only two feet from its respective back wall (also a little uncouth).  Speakers are 6 feet from side walls so all absorption went directly behind my ears and behind (and between) the speakers.  I also placed a sound absorption panel on the floor in between the speakers and just slightly towards the front which made a noticeable difference in imaging/sound staging, which are two highly coveted qualities to me.  So basically I let the room distance mitigate side wall reflection and reduced back wall reflections with absorptive treatments, effectively increasing the direct/indirect sound ratio.

Play with listener height as well and consider buying a different chair (or sitting on the floor with cushions - tried that too).  Consider everything that is between you and the speakers - including ottomans which make a difference (in my case it had a negative effect).  Move components around as well (I like mine well off to side).  Consider speaker rake (I added a little positive rake with a footer delta from front to back).  There were massive changes in imaging/SS with speaker toe-in which is very speaker/room dependent.  Considering the degree of change, I spent a lot of time on this variable.

All this to say, my system setup looks way different than I expected and sounds better than ever.  Your's may as well if you experiment with placement variances of all components including sound absorption.  Which is why I do not plan on hanging my absorption (which will also make a difference as I will potentially hang it a few feet off the floor) until I graduate to my next (keeper) speaker.  

Have fun with the process and enjoy the music.
OP- you've gotten lots of good info from the above posters to work with. Jim (tomic601) has reminded me to mention to you what he and I both consider an essential guide to get the best possible sound from your system and that is Jim Smith's book Get Better Sound. Best $ you will ever spend to get results you didn't think were possible. Absolutely indispensable, IMO.

I think phomchick and others focusing on speaker placement and sound treatment are right on ..... I've been successful in several different spaces when I've had the flexibility to optimize.  In a living area, not so easy, but usually one can figure out how not to screw it up badly if you know what your are doing.

As to electronics, it seems to come from transparency, and that is mostly a factor in the quality of the passive components and age of the parts.

My 2 cents.
@rodman99999 I plan on adding BACCH for Mac. Check it out on their site. I already have my music server set up on the exact device they spec (Mac Mini 2012 maxed out). It’s a software interface for the cost of one high end component you can get BACCH into your system. Yes the stand alone DSP Processor is pricey. Many spend the price on the software version on cables alone.