Think about how when you listen to music on a stereo system. The sound appears to be coming from straight in front of you, rather than from the left and right sides, or when you’re watching a movie in the cinema, and you’ll hear certain sounds behind you, others in front, and others on the sides.
This is soundstage: the art of giving sound (a waveform) a three-dimensional space in your listening environment. Soundstage plays on our ability to localize sound. Our ears and brain are very good at identifying where a sound is coming from and how far away it is. When discussing soundstage in speakers, headphones, and earbuds, generally, a wider soundstage is preferred since this allows for a more immersive listening experience.
Soundstage is difficult to represent with graphics due to its three-dimensional nature, but we’ve created the following graphic to help better understand the effects of a wide soundstage versus a narrow soundstage.
To put it in an easy-to-digest way, a narrow soundstage can be considered a linear sound where a large portion of the instrumentals feel like they’re coming from a single source. A wider soundstage is less lineage in nature, and instead, you hear the instrumentals coming from different locations on both the X and Y axis.
It is also worth noting that it’s also possible to have a pair of headphones that do well in providing a wide left-to-right soundstage but lacks an accurate vertical representation.
Why is soundstage important?
For audiophiles, a good soundstage means it’ll be easier for you to visualize and identify different instruments and their respective nuances rather than hearing everything fired at you and some musical content being buried beneath other sounds.
For film enthusiasts, a good soundstage means your favorite films will quickly become far more immersive since you’ll be able to enjoy sounds and effects from every direction rather than from the two speakers in front of you.
What affects soundstage?
When listening to anything on a pair (or system) of speakers, several physical factors affect the soundstage. Here are some of the most influential aspects:
The distance between the speakers
Placing a left and right pair of speakers very close together will reduce the available soundstage since there is no space between the left and right channels for center-channel information to play and for your imagination to ‘fill the gaps’. This is why listening to music on a single Bluetooth speaker, no matter the volume, is never as exciting and immersive as listening on a stereo speaker pair. This, however, doesn’t mean that an ultra-wide gap between the speakers is good either, as the distance between speakers should be calculated based on your listening position.
Where you sit and listen dramatically affects the soundstage. It should come as no surprise that sitting right in front of the left-channel speaker will cause you to hear mostly left-channel information and give you a pretty poor idea of the three-dimensional soundscape. We have a full guide on the listening position in relation to speaker placement if you want to learn more, but what’s most important is to situate yourself and your speakers in an equilateral triangle formation.
Speaker angles & heights
Ideally, you should be listening with your speaker driver cones at ear level and with the drivers facing your ears, but we know this isn’t always possible. However, if you’re serious about soundstage and quality, it’s something to try. Listening far outside the optimal listening angle can dramatically influence soundstage (and quality)
Several other factors can influence soundstage that occurs during the recording/production and mix processes, such as the acoustic space in a recording that was made, the panning of sounds in the soundscape, and the use of time-based effects.
Speakers vs. Headphones/Earbuds
Practically all of the mixing work for music and film takes place on a pair of speakers (or surround system) where the soundstage is carefully balanced for the ultimate listening experience. When you listen to music on a pair of headphones or earbuds, sound enters your ears more directly, which dramatically affects both soundstage and sound quality, so the following needs to be considered before looking at the soundstage of a pair of cans:
When you listen to music on a stereo system, your right ear doesn’t only hear the right speaker, and your left ear doesn’t only hear the left; this is because we use both ears to localize sounds and determine direction. When you listen to music using headphones, each ear is isolated from the other, removing the crosstalk between the left and right speakers.
Since speakers are usually a few feet to yards from your ears, while headphones are directly against your ears, the space (and what happens within it) between the source and your ears need to be emulated. Since we never listen to music in a completely ‘dead’ acoustic space, we always hear reflections from the items around the room, which we don’t hear when using headphones.
Some headphones are better at placing panned sounds in three-dimensional space than others. The better the stereo imaging, the easier it is for your brain to understand where a sound should be located within the space, leading to a more enjoyable listening experience.
When it comes to getting a great soundstage with headphones, in most cases, you’re going to want to invest in a pair of quality open-back headphones for their improved spatial perspective, crosstalk, and natural frequency responses. That’s not to say that every pair of open-back headphones lends itself to a wide soundstage, but in our list of the best open-back headphones, we do recommend a few models with some of the best soundstage on the market.
Using a headphone amplifier or DAC won’t always improve the soundstage, but if you find that you’re unable to get the same type of wide sound that others experience with your headphone model, it’s possible that your source device may need help driving them adequately. When you power your headphones with a DAC, it’s not uncommon to notice an increase in the perceived soundstage.