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Soundstage, and how much influence can audio equipment have

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#1
First of all, greetings to all fellow members of the ASR forum!

As the title suggests, I am interested in knowing more about soundstage. I believe I understand the basics of the concept. However, I still cannot comprehend how that concept is linked to the technical specifications of both headphones/speakers, audio sources, DACs and amps. I understand that when talking about headphones, closed-backs usually have less soundstage than their open-back counterparts, but how much influence can the driver make?

Is there a positive way to measure soundstage or are reviewers just expressing their opinions on how their feeling of soundstage, e.g., "this DAC/headphone offers a wide and deep soundstage, although that other one is not quite as wide".

I appreciate your input!
 

SIY

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#2
Unless a DAC is severely broken, it will have no effect on soundstage. That's determined entirely by the recording, the loudspeakers, any user-applied equalization/processing, and the room.*

*For the pedants, also assuming that the amplification electronics are not severely broken.
 
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#3
Unless a DAC is severely broken, it will have no effect on soundstage. That's determined entirely by the recording, the loudspeakers, any user-applied equalization/processing, and the room.*

*For the pedants, also assuming that the amplification electronics are not severely broken.
That is what I always assumed. I assume that the impression of soundstage depends on frequency response (and maybe THD, but I have no idea how to interpret THD subjectively). So if I am right, unless the DAC/Amp changes these responses, there should be no influence whatsoever.

This bugs me so much when I read reviews on DAC/Amps and reviewers talk about soundstage...

But how about measurements?
 

SIY

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#4
Distortion would have to be well past the "broken" point to matter. If a DAC significantly changes the frequency response (say, >0.1dB), it's broken.

This bugs me so much when I read reviews on DAC/Amps and reviewers talk about soundstage...
There's a lesson to be learned, which I think you have. :D
 
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#5
Distortion would have to be well past the "broken" point to matter. If a DAC significantly changes the frequency response (say, >0.1dB), it's broken.



There's a lesson to be learned, which I think you have. :D
So what about amplifiers?
 

DonH56

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#7
All IMO.

Component-wise, there's not really much to measure, as the electronics have low enough distortion so as not to matter in the vast majority of cases (unless something is broken, as @SIY said).

I find soundstage and imaging to be fairly tightly coupled. When sounds arrive, how loud, and from what direction, convey a sense of placement in 3D space. When recording, that is largely determined by mic placement and the sound field in the recording space. Delayed/reflected signals are recorded and those convey a sense of the hall (venue, whatever). How late, how loud, and direction all help place the sound in space (i.e. determine the recorded soundstage). You can add things like reverb and shift sounds around during the mixing and mastering process to enhance (or degrade) the natural response, or to add a sense of space to a "dry" recording (e.g. something recorded in a studio rather than a big hall).

At the back end, the dispersion (or radiation) pattern of your speakers and size and treatment of your room have the most significant impact on the soundstage, and for the same reason -- that dictates where the sound comes from, how loud it is, how long the delay, etc. A speaker that does not have good off-axis response changes the reflected energy and changes the perceived soundstage. And a speaker that does not integrate the drivers well will exhibit changes in soundstage and image as pitch goes up and down and so forth.

Of course, the room also plays a big part. In a very dead room like mine all the soundstage information must come from the recording. There are pro and con arguments, of course: the room is not adding anything extra or artificial so is true to the source; but, if the mastering was done in a room that was more "normal", then the mastering engineer is making a recording assuming the room is enhancing the soundstage. In the latter case, I am accurately reproducing what is on the recording, but that is not what the mastering engineer intended when he (or she) did the final cut.

Decades ago when I did a little mixing and mastering for real, the mastering studio was pretty dead but with a number of different speakers so we could ensure the sound was OK on a little home system to a car to an audiophile's system. In most cases we had to pick our compromises based on the target audience; the pop recording that was going to mainly kids in cars was not going to be mastered the same as a classical piece going mainly to older audiophiles with fancy systems and big rooms. These days, I have noticed a lot of mastering rooms are designed to be more like your average family room, and thus the recordings are meant to use the room more so than way back when. Totally my off-the-cuff supposition.

FWIWFM - Don
 
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Fitzcaraldo215

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#9
Right, there are no direct measurements of "soundstage" or "imaging". They are subjective impressions formed at the brain end of our complex ear-brain hearing mechanism. But, we believe that "better" sound that enters our ears provides "better" soundstage and imaging when ultimately processed by our brain. Most traditional audio measurements only deal with the fidelity of the sound that enters our ears. The rest is up to us, subjectively.
 
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#11
Right, there are no direct measurements of "soundstage" or "imaging". They are subjective impressions formed at the brain end of our complex ear-brain hearing mechanism. But, we believe that "better" sound that enters our ears provides "better" soundstage and imaging when ultimately processed by our brain. Most traditional audio measurements only deal with the fidelity of the sound that enters our ears. The rest is up to us, subjectively.
For sure! But for that to happen, we must first hear the "best" sound we can. If a headphone cannot properly reproduce highs or lows as they were recorded we will surely lose some of our ability to process the image in our brains, no?

As said already speakers and room are the critical factors.
They sure are. So what about headphones, the principle is the same, right? I have heard/read lots of people claiming that they "made their headphone's soundstage better" by changing earpads, taking or puttind foam/cotton around the drivers and whatnot.
 

Fitzcaraldo215

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#13
For sure! But for that to happen, we must first hear the "best" sound we can. If a headphone cannot properly reproduce highs or lows as they were recorded we will surely lose some of our ability to process the image in our brains, no?



They sure are. So what about headphones, the principle is the same, right? I have heard/read lots of people claiming that they "made their headphone's soundstage better" by changing earpads, taking or puttind foam/cotton around the drivers and whatnot.
Yes, we want headphones that have good frequency response, low distortion, etc. But, even with all that, headphone imaging is a disaster unless using binaural recordings. Sure, headphones produce an image, but with normal stereo recordings intended for speakers, that image is a spatially distorted replica that insufficiently resembles the recorded performance or the mix intended by the the engineers or artists. I don't doubt that physically modifying headphones changes that distorted image into some other distorted image, which may be subjectively preferable. But, real sounding it ain't.

Some people like that sound and the image or the unnatural effect or they just put up with it. Active processing can alter it and perhaps subjectively improve it. And, there is music there that can be enjoyed in spite of the spatial distortion. But, except for binaural or a Smyth Realizer, etc., it is not an image that plausibly relates to live performance as intended.

So, for most all stereo recordings in all genres, it is the image produced by two speakers in a room that is far more faithfully plausible to live and to engineering and artistic efforts. Assuming a competent system, that stereo image can be affected to be subjectively what you prefer. But, there are no defined, objective standards for exactly what that image should be. Speaker choice, position, toe in/out, the room, etc. can change the image to your heart's content. You get to decide.

Multichannel via speakers is more standardized in layout, but even there, the image is somewhat alterable by speaker choices, setup and the room. And, the image produced by Mch differs, of course, from the stereo image, mainly in terms of an added dimension of space and envelopment beyond just a front soundstage, but plausibly in comparison to our live listening experience with the right recordings.
 
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