It’s the soundstage, stupid…

Two questions I’m often asked: ‘What got you into hi-fi?’ and ‘What got you into music?’.

First one’s easy: over-indulgent grandparents who bought my sister and me an early transistor radio apiece, then Philips cassette recorders – so handy for recording off the radio – and finally briefcase-sized folding record players, so we always had music in our bedrooms even from a very early age.

That led to the salvaging of a jumble sale radiogram into a turntable, a receiver and a pair of speakers, with boxes for them all made in woodwork classes and electronics revived with a total lack of awareness of the lethal voltages in valve amps – and an enthusiasm was born.

So what got me into music? Well, I sang in various choirs from a fairly young age – coming from a churchgoing family, it was kind of the done thing – but it was really school music lessons, and specifically a schools radio programme giving a track by track build-up of The Who’s Pinball Wizard, that really got me hooked.

HRx120_SAfter that, I was easy prey for Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which did exactly the job it was designed for – allowing someone new to orchestral music to make sense of what all the instruments were called, and what they did in terms of tonality and so on.

If I remember, it was accompanied in our lessons not by the original film for which it had been written, but by a film-strip showing what each section of the orchestra looked liked and where it sat. And listening to the music being played through the halfway decent audio system the school had, it was possible to place the instruments in the sound in front of you.

In fact, one of our music teachers used to encourage us to listen to the piece with our eyes closed, and point to where each part of the orchestra was. Hey, it was in the days before video recorders, let alone computers and interactive music technology workshops, so we had to make our own entertainment.

The result of all this is the following:
1) I still love the Young Person’s Guide…, and discovering the Kansas City Symphony reading on Reference Recordings a year or so back was an absolute joy.

2) I can still easily sit through Peter Grimes at any opportunity, always finding something new in the scoring and the performances (the Decca original, conducted by Britten himself, remains my favourite, and I devoured it when it was released in 24-bit/96kHz ‘Studio Master’ form).

And 3) I’m a firm fan of any recording with a lifelike soundstage.

So it is with some annoyance that I notice ‘soundstage’ seems to be the next term to be adopted for derision by those who consider themselves audio objectivists or activists or something. I’m with them when it comes to ‘inky black acoustic backdrops’, ‘veils being lifted’ or ‘windows cleaned’ – such phraseology is a hangover from the distant past of hi-fi reviewerspeak, although I am sure if you Google hard enough you’ll find me just as guilty as some back then. It was established practice, yer honour…

But as I may have mentioned(!) in my Naim SUPERNAIT 2 review, the current sniggering behind the old woodwork shed at anyone daring to mention the concept of ‘soundstaging’ shows that those sniggering don’t just have minimal knowledge of what stereo recording is all about – they also don’t know what they’re missing.

It’s a common fallacy that ‘stereo’ means two-channel, simply because the word has gone into common parlance as referring to a system used for playing music through two speakers. Not so: as even someone who did as appallingly as I at ancient languages knows, ‘stereo’ has precisely nothing to do with two channels. Stereos in Greek simply means ‘firm’ or ‘solid’, and when you bolt it together with ‘phōnē’ (for sound, or voice), it means the creation of the illusion that sound is coming from real locations relative to the listener, just like in real life.

The term dates back to the 1920s, and of course stereophonics don’t have to mean two channels: a quadrophonic or multichannel sound can be stereophonic if done right, and indeed before the adoption of the two-channel system, recordings had been made using a three-channel left/centre/right system, designed to give a more ‘stereos’ effect in front of the listener.

3-ch_stereo

The magic of stereo
Two-channel was what was settled on, not least because while it was relatively easy to do three channels on tape, it was a bit tricky to pack them into the V-shaped groove of an LP. This became even clearer many years later, when attempts were made to do four-channel quadrophonic on LP – however, some of those early three-channel stereo recording, made under the Mercury Living Presence banner, re-emerged in the SACD age, when at last there were channels to spare.

Anyway, in the hands of a skilled recording engineer a two-channel recording, played back through amplification and speakers able to deliver it as cleanly as possible, can do some magical things. It can make a singer or soloist sound like he or she is out in front of the band or orchestra or whatever; it can clearly locate performers or whole orchestra sections not just across the spread of sound between the speakers, but out beyond the speakers to the left and right; and it can appear to knock out the wall behind your speakers, and open up an acoustic much larger than your eyes tell you is possible inside your room.

In saying sound from two speakers can do all this, am I falling for an illusion? Is my brain playing tricks on me? Well, the answer to both questions is ‘yes’ – but then that’s just the illusion stereo is designed to pull off, just as sending successive slightly different images to each eye can create the impression of solid objects looming out of your TV screen at you.

Seemingly solid objects out of thin air, stereoscopy; apparently solid sonic images, stereophony.

What’s more, by setting the speakers up incorrectly, buying speakers with insufficiently controlled dispersion to allow them to image properly, or having electronics of lowered resolution, you’re really missing out by not giving your system the chance to recreate the illusion the recording engineer was trying to achieve .

Speakers with overly warm or smoothed-off treble can suck all the air out of the sound of a recording depriving it of the sense of space the recording engineer was striving for when he or she set the microphones up in that concert-hall or cathedral, while too much bloom and boom in the bass will simply swamp all those subtle acoustic clues being delivered further up the frequency range.

So before you have another good snigger at what you may consider to be some fanciful notion of a magical ‘soundstage’, ask yourself whether you’re actually hearing sound coming from your two speakers – if you are, I’m afraid you’re really doing it wrong.

You’re not listening to stereo, you’re listening to two channels.

It’s only when the speakers seem to ‘vanish’, and the sound is coming from everywhere apart from two wooden boxes of indeterminate ugliness, that you’re starting to get proper stereo imaging – and yes, a soundstage.

And believe you me, the first time you fire up an orchestral recording and hear the entire band spread out in front of you in real ‘close your eyes and you can see them’ stereo, you’re in for a treat.

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2 comments

  1. You left out one important factor, room acoustics. Early reflection is the destroyer of stereo imaging. A properly treated LEDE studio with speakers at the ‘dead’ end of the space should produce a wide, deep soundstage, with no give away as to speaker location. The system I built at basspig.com is one of the better examples with an ability to immerse the listener in a near 360 degree soundfield with the help of Bob Carver’s Sonic Hologram Generator.

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