Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right . . .

The dichotomy between what is measured and what is heard has resurfaced in recent months. Jon Iverson discussed it in his "As We See It" in our December 2018 issue, and I followed up on the subject in my January 2019 "As We See It." These further thoughts were triggered by an e-mail exchange I had last December with Stereophile's longtime copyeditor, Richard Lehnert.

In a note attached to his edit of Kal Rubinson's review of the Revel F228Be loudspeaker in our February issue (p.87), Richard had written: "Unless you're sitting in, say, one of the first five rows at a classical concert, there's no such thing as 'soundstaging.' At concerts, regardless of the hall or numbers of musicians playing, I always try closing my eyes and listening: What I hear is a large but almost entirely undifferentiated soundfield—sort of an immense glob of 'mono' sound. . . . A pair of speakers that produces 'pinpoint imaging' from an otherwise (apparent) mid-hall perspective—as enjoyable and desirable as that can be, and as much as I, for one, value it and wouldn't want to be without it—can't also be called a pair of speakers that accurately reproduces the illusion of hearing the actual sound in that hall of an actual orchestra from that mid-hall perspective."

I sighed. As much as I have been in awe of Richard's intellect since we began working together in 1986, he was both right and wrong.

Right, in that if you sit farther back than the first few rows at a classical concert you're beyond what is called the "critical distance," which is when the reverberant sound power is equal to the direct sound power. When the reverberant power is greater than the direct power, the result is exactly what Richard described. The ear/brain is actually very good at identifying the location of sound sources (see my 1981 article on stereo imaging, footnote 1), but in Richard's seat in the concert hall, not only does the directional information from each of the orchestral elements subtend a narrower angle than that between the loudspeakers in a typical listening room, it is overwhelmed by the reverberation, hence the "glob."

Wrong, because the point Richard was making regarding "soundstaging" implies that a pair of loudspeakers that smears stereo imaging must be more "accurate," as what they produce more closely resembles the live experience. (To be fair to Richard, he didn't say this, but others have stated it elsewhere.) This argument confuses the properties of the recording with the properties of the speakers. Imaging specificity is a property of the recording—a pair of speakers is accurate when it reproduces the imaging information that's on the recording, regardless of whether the result resembles what someone hears at their preferred seating position in the concert hall. While a pair of speakers with poor imaging might in some circumstances make a recording with an over-close perspective sound more convincing, it's an unpredictable compounding of errors.

I wrote about the circularity of using flawed recordings to judge flawed products 30 years ago (footnote 2). While Stereophile's founder, the late J. Gordon Holt, and I disagreed on many things, this was one of things we didn't argue about. Loudspeakers that smear the recorded spatial information are not accurate reproducers. To say that you can't judge a pair of speakers' imaging or soundstaging ability because such imaging specificity "doesn't exist in real life" is mistaking the role of diagnosis with the listener's preference. If a recording has been miked with a mid-hall perspective—rarer than might be thought—speakers with excellent imaging abilities, such as the Revels Kal reviewed, will still present that perspective more accurately than speakers that don't.

So how do you judge the imaging abilities of a pair of speakers? It's still the listening that is of primary importance—as I wrote 23 years ago, "Without listening, there is no way, for example, of measuring something as universally perceptible as the quality of a stereo soundstage." But the impression the listener gets—that instruments and voices are hanging in space between and behind the loudspeakers—is an illusion, the brain deciding that that must have been what would have been heard at the original event. When you're listening to the hi-fi, your brain does the same things it does with real sound sources: it creates "acoustic models" as a result of the information reaching the ears. These internal models are totally subjective, and can't differentiate the properties of the recording from those of the loudspeakers.

You have to cut through this philosophical confusion by using a recording not of music, where you don't know the provenance, but of an artificial signal such as the dual-mono pink noise I created for Stereophile's Test CDs. This signal should be perceived as an infinitely narrow point of sound at all frequencies midway between the loudspeakers. If that's how it sounds, then by inspection you know absolutely that the information on all recordings will be produced without spatial distortion. If the pink-noise image isn't narrow or consistent with frequency, then, even before you listen to music, you know that the loudspeaker has problems, regardless of your preferences. You're no longer stuck in the middle . . .—John Atkinson



Footnote 1: Originally published in the May and June 1981 issues of Hi-Fi News & Record Review.

Footnote 2: See the last two paragraphs here

COMMENTS
Ortofan's picture

... located beyond the "critical distance", and therefore has become accustomed to (or has come to prefer) the resultant acoustical perspective, would a speaker such as the old Bose 901 or a dipole speaker (such as the planar or electrostatic panel types), whereby there is a relatively higher proportion of reflected sound reaching the listener, be a more appropriate choice?

Kal Rubinson's picture

I think that is a pointless task as it imposes on all music a fixed collection of random local room reflections on all recordings. Rose-colored glasses.

EDIT: In response to some following posts, I must add that I have no objection, in principle, to planar/dipole speakers and there are many other reasons to want them. In fact, large dipoles actually excite fewer room modes than box speakers.

drblank's picture

You stated. "In fact, large dipoles actually excite fewer room modes than box speakers."

Can I ask where you got this information from?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Without a bit of research, I cannot offer a citation now but it is a consequence of the cancellation of output in the plane of the speaker and less interaction with room boundaries. There is some mention of this in Toole's book in Chapter 8.

craigrobertallison@gmail.com's picture

Any speaker that operates as a full range dipole will show a significant reduction in reverberant LF energy because when the front & back bass wave meet at the side of the speaker, there is a cancellation of approx 6 db. But dipoles have requirements of their own.

Glotz's picture

like Magneplanars.. Yes, bass output is cancelled for the most part, but it is the lack of side reflections, and to some extent floor reflections, that allow a less cluttered window, even very close to walls. Acoustic feedback is almost nil, in comparison to box speakers.

AJ's picture

...a fixed collection of random local room reflections on all recordings"

Exactly. There is no "ON/OFF" feature with multi-poles (eg Dipole) or monopoles. Each imposes a "signature' spatially, due precisely to the polar radiation.
James Johnston (JJ) has stated that there are percentages of folks who prefer a more pinpoint vs diffuse type spatial rendition, but I'm not sure what studies he is citing. Guess I could ask ;-).
Regardless, I remain of the opinion that an ideal speaker should do both.

cheers,

AJ Soundfield Audio

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes but doing anything that imposes a spatial signature that is applied regardless of what is on the recording is a problem. That is precisely why I prefer discrete multichannel which imposes the recorded ambiance on the room, rather than the other way around. Stereo is only a half solid.

AJ's picture
Quote:

Yes but doing anything that imposes a spatial signature that is applied regardless of what is on the recording is a problem.

See my reply to JA below. We have zero idea of what the "spatial signature" is on our recordings. Part of the Circle of Confusion.
Recall also we are posting on "Stereophile", as such, talking mainly about stereo constructs.
I am of the opinion one should be free to "distort" the already "distorted" stereophonic construct to whatever one pleases.
That's exactly what everyone I know does! ;-)

Quote:

That is precisely why I prefer discrete multichannel which imposes the recorded ambiance on the room, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I'm aware of your preference. What I'm not aware of, is the scientific evidence to support it being anything other than a preference. In fact, the evidence I know of points elsewhere. For example: https://asa.scitation.org/doi/pdf/10.1121/2.0000515
Many more exist.
I certainly don't disagree that MCH is superior to spatially deprived plane waves stereo. But I think advanced upmixers and speakers with variably indirect radiation capability are more practical for the vast majority of recordings (2ch) and end users...who may not want many "discrete" (again plane wave) speakers festooning their living spaces.
When only 4 are actually required. http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2002STIN...0286499H
http://www.linkwitzlab.com/Links/Optimized-listening-area-Davies.pdf

I suppose that too, is a preference ;-).

AJ's picture

Ooops, double post

ChicagoJEO's picture

Did you mean "Bose-colored glasses"? ;-)

Kal Rubinson's picture

Touché.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Rose-colored glasses .......... Chicken eye-glasses (Wikipedia) :-) .........

"Rose Colored Glasses' ........... John Conlee :-) ........

"Rose Colored Glasses" ......... Kelly Rowland :-) .......

Venere's picture

This appears to be (as so much of our hobby is) a matter of personal preference rather than an absolute sound (ha, sorry). Mr Lehnert clearly stated his preference in the article. Mr. Rubinson appears to have done the same in his comment. So....Mr. Atkinson, when you aren't analyzing or measuring speakers for your day job and just kick back with a nice glass of wine to listen to something light like Mahler's 2nd, do you prefer a point/line source direct radiating speaker with "pinpoint" (artificial?) imaging properties, or the more diffuse and atmospheric sound of a dipole or omnidirectional speaker? Also, if it's not taking this question too far, can you share with us the speakers in your permanent/personal home listening setup if there is such a thing?

RH's picture

I agree with your well-reasoned article JA !

However, I think I'd go a little further in disagreeing with Richard Lehnert on soundstaging.

Frankly, I've long been baffled by the claim made by some number of audiophiles "there is no soundstaging/imaging in live music."

I guess I'd want to say "speak for yourself."

I've long been obsessed with live vs reproduced sound and have made it a habit for many decades to close my eyes when in the presence of acoustic instruments to take a measure of the character of the sound. Whether it's a friend playing an instrument, a jazz trio of street musicians, my son's stage or school band performances, or at the symphony...you name it. So long as it's an acoustic source not a sound system I virtually ALWAYS perceive imaging and sound staging.

Admittedly for orchestras I have a preference for closer seats. I actually like the expanse of sound and the greater individuation of instrumental timbres up closer. But I've sat further back, mid hall, back hall as well. And though, yes, the imaging does become somewhat more diffuse with distance, in no way does it seem to just disappear totally in to an amorphous single blob of sound. I can still with eyes closed point to the string section, the horns, that first violin, a piccolo or what have you. Even from a distance the sound in Ravel's Bolero moves around the stage from instrument to instrument not just via instrumental timbre, but spatially.

I also personally have little patience with "my way or the highway" audiophiles who insist that any spotlighting/close micing/distinct imaging of orchestral music is "just wrong" because "that's not how a symphony really sounds in the hall." Well, as I said, it often does to me - like I said I generally prefer closer seating for more vividness, and I love orchestral instruments closely mic'd (and I also really enjoy many recordings with a more mid to rear hall balance with a lot more hall sound. And if certain mixing/microphone choices enhance the drama - cool. I'm good with all of it).

Your point about the usefulness of the central pink-noise imaging makes sense to me as a touchstone for getting around the problem of variables inherent in recordings.

ok's picture

what else the “pink noise test” or anything similar could possibly imply other than a decent pair –and ear, mind you!– matching; and quite rightly so, since imaging/soundstaging etc are mostly a function of room, space, positioning and all kind of external interferences which have absolutely nothing to do with speaker quality and performance per se. Under the right circumstances any functional pair of speakers can create “the illusion of actual instruments hanging in space” however unnatural these instruments, voices or noises may sound in all other aspects.

doak's picture

You stated: Under the right circumstances any functional pair of speakers can create “the illusion of actual instruments hanging in space”
Please elaborate preferably with specific “circumstances.”

Read more at https://www.stereo phill.com/content/clowns-left-me-jokers-right#5K6PaG0tfjQPSUb9.99

ok's picture

..neither deep understanding of sound waves and psychoacoustics: it’s mostly a matter of trial and error or even pure luck. As I write these words I get an impressive 3D sounstage illusion from some 20$ plastic desktop spheres which aim straight at my ears from less than a meter of distance; lack of real bass and midrange suckout only make the pinpoint impression stronger still; their overall sound reminds me of, well, scratching tin cans on a bathroom floor –but, oh so accurate ones nevertheless ;-}

David_A's picture

I think imaging or the absence thereof is a personal preference and I have no problem with whatever preference anyone cares to have on this. I do think those who prefer the absence of imaging are mistaken if they claim that speakers that image well are doing something wrong. Stereo imaging is built into stereo from the ground up. It's inescapable once you have more than one channel and there are differences between the signal in each channel, and it's something one should expect to be delivered accurately by a speaker setup with a separate speaker for each channel.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your preferences when it comes to imaging, what I've found over the last 15 years after moving to a house where I could finally set up a dedicated listening room for my stereo system, is that the setup which delivers the best results for me when it comes to tonal quality, especially when it comes to getting natural sounding voices, and dynamics, also seems to deliver really good imaging. The imaging has never been a high priority for me but I do enjoy it and I've been surprised at how naturally it seems to come when you get other things right. I probably shouldn't have been surprised since, after all, it is built into stereo from the ground up but I think it indicates that trying to reduce the strength of stereo imaging from a stereo recording is likely to be accompanied by a reduction in the quality of reproduction of other aspects of the sound.

Music without imaging is just as valid a preference as music with it and once you accept that, then I think going mono is not only a valid choice but the best choice. Mono doesn't deliver lower quality reproduction than stereo, it simply delivers a different sort of reproduction to stereo. If what you is the absence of the imaging that is unavoidable with 2 or more channels then 1 channel is the best choice in my view but you're still going to have to pay attention to speaker and listening position placement in order to get the best results. In my view if you don't want imaging then mono isn't a step backwards into the past, it's a step forward into what you want and even though I'm a die-hard stereo fan myself I'd love to see some people exploring mono again. My introduction to high quality reproduction came in the mid '60s, over a decade after stereo was introduced, and it was a high quality mono system. That was the start of my interest in audio and through those rose coloured glasses of memory we all seem to have, I still remember and respect the impression of scale and presence that system delivered on both orchestral recordings and on small group jazz and folk music. I didn't miss stereo imaging with that system. Good mono can be very impressive indeed and I think it's worth seriously pursuing for those who don't want the imaging that is essentially unavoidable once you progress to stereo or multichannel reproduction.

The sound quality we're capable of getting has improved a lot from back in the '60s when I first heard that mono system but stereo vs mono isn't about sound quality, it's about a different aspect of sound. I get better sound quality with my stereo system now than I did 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 50 years ago when I heard that mono system. I think you could get a similar improvement with mono now and I'd love to see those who have no interest in imaging exploring those possibilities. I think a lot of stereo listeners might end up being surprised at just what a good mono setup can deliver and I think a lot of those who don't want the imaging that comes with stereo would be really happy with a good mono setup.

If vinyl can experience a revival of sort then there's no reason mono can't as well.

AJ's picture

"a pair of speakers is accurate when it reproduces the imaging information that's on the recording" - JA

The recording is a electronic sterophonic construct, of which there is no "imaging information" reference...and thus way of confirming "accuracy". The only way to hear it, is to transduce it to audible soundwaves...which in this case are via loudspeakers. Loudspeakers different from the ones used in the studio where the "imaging information" was conceived, positioned differently and in a very different environment, a studio/hall vs ones room.
If that wasn't bad enough, stereo itself is a perceptually limited facsimile of real spaces http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=9136

Preferences for "pinpoint" vs "diffuse" imaging will vary among listeners.
I see no reason NOT to have both.

AJ
Soundfield Audio

ok's picture

..in fact the same goes for any encoded piece of aural or visual information, analog and digital alike, which becomes known to us humans only through certain intermediaries and transducers incidentally chosen between infinite alternatives. In all things audiovisual, as well as in religious matters, there simply can be no demonstratable “faithful to the source” authority or absolute reference, for the "source" never actually shows or speaks for itself.

tonykaz's picture

Imaging seems an Audiophile Construct.

I'm never aware of it when our local String Quartet is playing right smack dab in front of me or when I'm attending our DSO Orchestra.

Preformed Music permeates us with a Dopamine Euphoria that's never based on phasing. ( is my thinking wrong? )

RMAF 2018 Seminar exploring Multi-Channel seemed to further the concept of holographic Imaging being a strange and pointless pursuit for lovers of music to pursue.

Holographic Imaging might very well be another "Unique" aspect of our Audiophile Hobby. It certainly is prevalent feature set amongst our Reviewers since 1980 or so.

With a Clear Conscience, I ignore imaging and go for that "Foot Tapping" high that music induces.

I need the "Mood Altering" quality of recorded Music and I need it to be close-by, where ever I happen to be.

Music is a Bon Vivant ingredient/component of everyday life!

Tony in Michigan

RH's picture

"Imaging seems an Audiophile Construct."

You know that "imaging" is built in to our hearing system, right?
Locating the direction of a sound source in space is why we ended up with two ears.

You are usually experiencing sonic imaging all day long, whether you notice it as such or not.

If you are seeing the source of the sound, visual cues take conscious precedence but the sound is of course mapped via your ear/brain's directivity system to the object you are looking at.

If a stereo system can't reproduce directional cues then it's failing to reproduce a function of what our ears hear in everyday use.

That btw isn't to sell "imaging" per se as a requirement for anyone's enjoyment. Personally I'm a "tone first" guy. If instruments and voices don't have to my ears a correct timbre, all the imaging in the world won't make me want to sit and listen.

But it's another thing to say that imaging is an artificial construct - as if we don't perceive the location of sound sources in real lifeand as if an accurate sound system won't reproduce spatial cues captured by microphones or arranged by a mixer.

tonykaz's picture

I'm not intending to suggest "artificial" but rather "intentional" construct by technical people for the purpose of pleasing an Audiophile segment of Music Consumers that place significant importance on "Instruments suspended in mid-air".

Having Joni Mitchell front & center is a wonderful Magic Trick.

The entire recording chain is synthetic.

Just having recorded Music is technical wizardry.

Debating Audiophile theory with intelligent & informed people like you and JA is a practical reality that digital technology enables.

This whole experience is magic, having your words suspended in front of me as I write is wonderful.

Tony in Michigan

ps. when I was young ( 1940s ) all music was LIVE, today no Recorded Music sounds LIVE.

tonykaz's picture

Two Ears, of course.

Isn't that two ears in Nature, out in the field?, on a Hunting Gathering mission, with dangerous animals ?

People in Modern Civilization get 98% of their data Visually, not thru Ears, Touch, Taste, Smell. ( according to Zeiss Optical )

Buildings, Walls and barriers effectively ( or Affectively? ) enhance the efficiency and quality of a Loudspeaker System, don't they?

Take those same Loudspeakers outside and they go flat, sound rather horrible and terribly inefficient.

Loudspeakers are entirely dependent on the Room to work properly, why aren't Loudspeaker Reviewers emphasizing this critical aspect?

So, our listening room becomes a magical space where Music ( that's been recorded to established and agreed upon Standards, like RedBook ) is transformed from electrical impulses into a hopefully delightful and satisfying reproduction of some Artist's creation.

We Consumers rely on thoughtful, capable, informed, verbose, loquacious Reviewing Staff to guide us thru HighEnd Audio's "House of Mirrors", which should be a rather easy task except for Promoters presenting obsolete media technologies using Gas Lighting on the uninformed & confused public.

Now, it this latest issue of Stereophile, Mr. HR, JC1 and JC2 are displaying a NEW form of Reviewing. It's very dam good!!!!
The little 300B Amp, the Horn Loudspeaker, the Sugden PreAmp.

Stereophile is once again raising the Bar.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I wish Gordon Holt was around to see this.

TJ's picture

It's fair to say that recorded music is a separate reality quite different from the reality of live performance. John's insights are thoughtful and wise, as always. In a longer article there would be other defining factors to consider, eg where the mics hang in space (higher than we would sit), the unnatural sound effects of close mic'ing and more. Lucky us if we can enjoy everything about this separate reality, not get too caught up in the differences, and decide for ourselves what sounds best to us when we listen to music at home.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

where, when the hall is raked, the sound often goes over your head, the bass hasn't had sufficient space to bloom, and the experience sounds incomplete and fragmented because instruments on the far left and far right don't seem to come together into a coherent whole. If you've had that experience, which I have had, please tell me what is incorrect about describing the experience as "sound staging."

BTW, in a good hall, when I'm sitting in a good seat that offers an ideal balance of direct and reflected sound, I always hear French horns and some of the brass as coming from the rear. I often experience certain instruments resonating higher in the space than others. And when instruments play offstage, as they sometimes do in Mahler, they really do sound "in the distance." Yes, the perception of depth is different than through loudspeakers—it's a different kind of soundstaging—but I do not hear an undifferentiated glob.

However, when I sit farther back—I wrote an entire AWSI about sitting in different rows in Davies Symphony Hall during a concert—the sound often seems rather gray and unfocused because of exactly the phenomenon John describes. The reverberant sound overwhelms the direct sound. Audiophiles with listening rooms with major slap echo problems may experience something akin to this.

This is a great piece of writing from JA1.

ok's picture

the soundstage of my stereo system only becomes fully 3-dimensional when my eyes are wide- or semi- open so that I'm able to compare it against my wall, rack, books, television set –anything but absolute darkness. It makes little sense when people close their eyes inside their place or a concert hall in order to test their locating abilities, since they still project any sound perceived against an imaginary but nevertheless well-defined visual soundstage which moreover can be fine-tuned anytime at will.

tonykaz's picture

"Great" might be understatement, I think that he's inspiring HR who just wrote 4,500 brilliant Words about Horn performance.

Now, JA2 is rising up with insights on British Electronics.

Phew, Stereophile is getting so dam good that I'm diving right in as the Mailman hands-over the latest issue with me pondering why it seems late.

Tony in Michigan

ps. just in Port Townsend to support the Tally Ho project.

watchdog005's picture

If the first 5 rows are where the best soundstaging occurs then I want my system and my speakers to reproduce the sound heard in the expensive seats not the cheap seats.

Venere's picture

that's a function of the choice the recording engineer made, and not your system.

Robin Landseadel's picture

When it comes to imaging, nothing beats being in the middle of the orchestra. But it's kinda hard to get that kind of seating, unless you're playing in the band.

JHL's picture

This is a very nice piece, and of a kind needed to keep audio both creative and humanistic in the age of objectivism and the Objectivist's modest toolbox. I say that with some urgency, for objectivist encroachment hinges on circularly expecting that its camp's few metrics play to all valid phenomena, or close enough. The problem certainly isn't the reliable metric, however, it's the conclusions drawn from it that it can't actually address.

While it's not easy parsing the real from the imaginary - the humanly, sensually audible from the "objective" abstract - it's crucial to the audio arts to distinguish between tools and real results, as permanently sensory and perceptual as the latter are and shall remain. There's perhaps no more telling a tributary of real sound than sound stage and imaging (SS&I), to bring this back on topic.

The question isn't solely if SS&I are phenomena inherent to the original performance, but to the stereo playback arrangement, a contrivance incapable of replicating the pickup field's geometry, but one very capable of generating incredible audible pictures nonetheless. Conversely, get a speaker pair really right - something the objectivist toolbox is actually currently backing away from in favor of an obsession with linear dispersion - and it can't help but build a wonderful SS&I. It's simply inherent and inescapable. Ask any reasonably competent high end speaker engineer about the connection between design's complexities and multi-domain behaviors and their real, dimensional sound, assuming he's not firewalled behind trade secrecy, which he almost always is. If he's honest and unless commercially obligated otherwise, he won't condense sound into static device amplitude. He can't.

But this isn't spoken of, as real as it is.

More articles like this please. Fine audio depends on it lest it continue to slide into a "science" involving our small handful of abstract metrics - and that is indeed the current state of the formal method in this field. SS&I happens to be a beachhead. Hold it and watch audio flourish instead of becoming a discipline limited by abstract snapshots, incorrect presumptions, and the commercial pressure of large, monied concerns.

Solarophile's picture

Interesting comment but I find this surprising as if this is "the age of objectivism"! How is that so considering that Stereopphile is the only magazine I know of that really publishes objective testing here in North America.

Look around at society and we see that as a whole we are living in anything but a culture that holds objectivity in high esteem!!!

JHL's picture

I agree - this age may not value the objectively real, such as it may be. Postmodernism commonly replaces reality with an subjective assertion about it and hands that an imprimatur of authority.

Objectivism in audio, however, is commonly the label applied to a veneer of 'scientific' finding, with which the audio Objectivist can assumes a larger and greater truth, even to the point of a conclusive absolute: X must sound acceptable but Y may not. From time to time movements exist to distill the real sound of a component into a few abstract snapshots of its operation as a test device sees it. This doesn't invalidate the test result, but it expects that it be interpreted and analyzed for applicability and universality.

Such abstracts are neither the whole or the perception. In audio, perception of the intangible sound is, in fact, the incongruous, even ironic 'objective' reality. That is the only goal and ultimately it should arbitrate the experience. The 'scientific' aspect is, like it or not, a partial abstraction that generally captures only a portion of all behaviors, and the notion that if it can be measured it absolutely applies is countered by the valid observation that if it can be heard - notably in SS&I - surely it must be measurable.

But SS&I is not measurable. Undoubtedly it's intrinsically bound up in measured or potentially measurable behaviors, somewhere, but neither are all behaviors measurable nor is there a specific SS&I gauge. The only metric is the ear, for all practical purposes, and the same holds true throughout fine audio.

Fortunately Stereophile has it exactly right, and I'd lobby for it not following any trend to condense and standardize measured, abstract, limited device behavior into a predictive rule or metric, any assumption about the sound of the device, and especially any change to the journal's current methods. Instead, continue to acquire comprehensive 'subjective' results - they being the open-minded and objective analysis of the goal of fine audio, which is authenticity and connection to the original recording as the hearer perceives it - and then correlate the abstract data. Measured data is not as predictive as it is an after-effect. It lies downstream from component behavior and as its product at this point cannot predict real sound, if for no other reason than it hasn't captured all audible phenomenona.

Movements to make an envelope of data a conclusive 'science' seem based on the assumption that approximate measured correlation is the equivalent of approximate device causation. It replaces the whole of device science with a narrower, casually-perceptual subjectivity (which will frequently disagree with the acute, experienced listener, say in the vein of a Stereophile) and it suffers a number of logical contradictions, not least of which is that it fails to speak to or for all engineering. Although it'll almost certainly prevail, as a standard it will pressure makers into compliance or have them risk being an outlier. It will be commercialized, as is happening already. However, it cannot speak to all behaviors, conditions, causes, effects, or sound, and it will not speak to all engineering options upstream of the device or listener responses downstream of it, which must remain connected. Real science is unquestionably indispensable and essential; just how and how well it progresses and serves the aim is key.

Stereophile currently has it in the correct order. As objectively as it can be established, the perception is the goal. Attempts to conform the pursuit into a 'scientific' envelope may subjectify it. This doesn't invalidate the real science in the least and hard data remains essential (although more so on the engineering side than the consumer side). It does, however, conclude that according to its definition, science relates to knowledge, and that knowledge is neither complete or especially, wholly predictive.

Articles like this one are important, as is the objectivity of the 'subjective' listener. Audio is to serve the human sensory perception, hopefully not to be converted into a rule beholden to its assumed, approximate correlation to an aspect or range of what is actually limited data.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Binaural recording with headphone listening, may also provide more accurate live recording imaging experience ....... No room issues :-) ........

mememe2's picture

Have a dedicated listening room with acoustic treatment. Imaging and spatial clues come and go according to what has been engineered on the particular recording I am listening to. Whether the sound is holographic or not, the imaging pinpoint or not, does not seem to influence the "Foot Tapping" high that music induces.More often than not I find my foot tapping occurs before I'm aware of it - not after analyzing if the music I'm listening to ticks off the present day audiophile checklists.

avanti1960's picture

all else being equal a speaker's imaging accuracy is most affected by its coherency between the drivers through the crossover frequencies as well as optimal crossover points to minimize beaming (if possible). Nothing worse than hearing musical sounds that wander about when they weren't recorded that way.

Point being- not all speakers are created equal with respect to imaging and the crossover design and application with respect to the drivers and system design plays a huge role.

craigrobertallison@gmail.com's picture

Wow has this hoary topic been kicked around for decades apparently to no consensus point of view.
I'll offer a personal insight from a life in music & hi-fi first. The core concept is this: yes, eyes closed, concert hall localisation is vague. But open the eyes & then your eyes will couple w/ your ears to precisely locate a given instrument or musician. The entire subject of staging & imaging is headed by the fact that when we listen at home, the ability to specifically reconstruct both location& dimension is the neccesary compensation for the absence of eyes & ears working together. I know, there are (too) many layers of discussion but I'll stand on this assertion. BTW, my dear departed friend Siegfried Linkwitz completely mastered this requirement over the years; www.linkwitzlab.com if you want to dig in deep. The loudspeaker designs he left us solve the room interaction problem with only brilliant engineering, instead of a room correction device bringing its' own issues.
Come attend our open house April 27th, hear his legacy & understand that this subject does not need a ton of mumbo-jumbo audiophile musings. Just investigate his work , you'll see that his research & output provide a true education on the subject of speakers, room interaction, & imaging . Best, Craig

Robin Landseadel's picture

I recall a mid-70s DGG/HvK/Berlin Philharmonic Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique with some woodwind panned across the stereo soundstage, sliding left right as if on an electrically motorized skateboard.

jimtavegia's picture

I stopped worrying about imaging as such long ago. I just tried to enjoy the sound and would hope that it might sound like real instruments in space.

Many of JA's recordings gave us the recording info and test discs also revealed much about my sound systems, especially his "walk-around" the church in Sante Fe.

Now that I have been recording myself for about 15 years I now have a much better perspective of how I can make the recordings sound real for my artists. Some are from my studio and some are in smaller college and high school concert halls, but I try and make the recordings sound like what happened in the venue as much as I can.

Once I realizes how difficult recording is I stopped complaining about commercial recordings. I know it is supposed to be their business, but it is so much more difficult that just buying a pair of speakers and making them work in your room.

I also tell folks don't follow my recommendations totally as my hearing is not what your hearing is. Try and find a dealer that allows for a home trial if you are seeking perfection, or something close. Prepare to be dismayed.

ednazarko's picture

I used to play low brass in orchestras. No classical album ever sounded right to me, until I'd stopped playing for quite awhile, because the placement of the instruments was reversed from what I was used to, always sitting back row, near the center. And the strings were always too loud, and the wind instruments too soft. Perspective.

I always thought that the goal of classical album mix was to make it seem like you were on the conductor's podium - with some depth information that you wouldn't get in any of the concert hall seats. Why else are we compelled to get up and conduct?

Kal Rubinson's picture

QUOTE: I always thought that the goal of classical album mix was to make it seem like you were on the conductor's podium - with some depth information that you wouldn't get in any of the concert hall seats.

AFAIK, most are mixed to achieve the perspective somewhere between the front and middle of orchestra floor seats.

QUOTE: Why else are we compelled to get up and conduct?

So we can stand on the conductor's podium. :-)

David_A's picture

Maybe the question shouldn't be for which seat but rather for what purpose?

There's a lot to the experience of a live performance which isn't audible, things like watching the performers, the feel of the audience and the presence of any person you're there with. All contribute to our sense of involvement but they can't be reproduced by the recording. I've always thought of the soundstage and imaging as a way of trying to deliver an increased sense of involvement in the music.

I don't know who it was who tried dismissing the soundstage and imaging by saying something like "I don't want to know where people were on the stage but why they were on the stage". For me that misses the point. I mostly play small group music, usually jazz, and there are a lot of things that annoy me about many recordings, drum sets sperad across the width of my room that would require a drummer with arms 3 metres long if the drums were to be on stage in the way they sound in my room, high notes from a piano coming from the right with the low notes from the left as if I were standing behind the pianist rather than somewhere towards their front right which is where I would be if I were in the audience, and so on but even with those problems I find I really like being able to separate performers in a virtual space because the spatial separation makes it easier for me to concentrate on a particular performer and what they're doing. I don't know if that helps me know why they are on stage but it certainly helps me know and appreciate what they were doing while they were there. I also know that many people don't listen to music in the same way, or listen to the same aspects of a musical performance, that I do.

The soundstage and imaging helps me to become more involved and to better appreciate the things I really appreciate in the music I like. I'm not overly concerned about whether it's accurate or realistic or not provided it helps me to appreciate the music a bit more and most of the time it does, even if it's getting some aspects of physical placement and what I would hear if I were in one seat rather than another seat.

Listening to a recording is a different experience to listening to a live performance. One does not have to mimic the other for it to be successful.

ednazarko's picture

I also played in jazz groups, ranging from 15-20 piece big bands down to smallish (6-8 pieces) combos, and I have the same gripe about drummer with the 9 foot wingspan. I have the same issue with a lot of solo piano or concerto recordings, where the piano extends out to the sides of the speakers.

I've enjoyed a lot of the BlueNote re-releases based on Rudy Van Gelder's recordings. Almost all of them place the musicians in a location, not in a zone. Well done. Since there's so little multi-channel, I can't get the nostalgic sense of being back in a group playing. But a lot of Chesky's binaural recordings, listened to through headphones, DO put me right inside the group. Through speakers, not so much.

kostavox's picture

The only way to have a real reference to live music is to record it. Then you know exactly how it sounded and should sound when reproduced. Here is a short video I created explaining my journey to creating a "reference" library of recordings to help with my design work. Over 300 using Reel to Reel... https://vimeo.com/144719554

Doctor Fine's picture

I refuse to sit in crappy seats at an orchestra concert.
I choose seats in spots where the sound is not muddy.
I was sitting there when a lady sat next to me and after the concert she had heard what I heard...
"Oh my God---that was so CLEAR!" she exclaimed.
"I never heard an orchestra where you could pick out exactly where everyone was sitting. I could "see" the different sections clearly in space and it was like the composition had each section talking to the other!"
Yeah.
There is no such thing as soundstaging.
BS.
HA!

johnnythunder's picture

Real music vs. studio recorded music vs. recorded live music. These are three entirely different animals and to be treated as such. Not unlike real eyesight of an event vs. photography of the same event. One is a sensory experience that is experienced by a person's body; their eyes, ears, soul, whatever. The other is a filtered and a selectively augmented INTERPRETATION of a real sensory experience. We don't experience imaging in real life just like we don't see in extreme shallow depth of field or in exposure adjustments like in film. We don't speak like in literature, Shakespeare or in high-end magazine writing or sit-coms. These things are art - artificial heightened experiences. They are artistic interpretations of how we feel or see or speak. To continually deride the recorded event as not being true to real live music is like complaining that my dad - who was a salesman - was not as dramatic or as eloquent as Willy Loman.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Quote: .....just like we don't see in extreme shallow depth of field or in exposure adjustments like in film...

The reason we do not perceive those is that, as we attend to any visual element, there are almost instantaneous and automatic compensations to adjust focus and luminous flux.

Archimago's picture

A brilliant and eloquent comment about the truth of the matter.

The music and sound of a reproduction will always go thru the filters/abilities of the artist and the "lens" of the skilled artist/producer/audio engineer who wields the technology through which it is captured.

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