This is part of a FAQ series! Please share and comment if you found any of these articles helpful 🙂
- What is Soundstage? (You are here)
- What is Latency?
- What is Timbre?
- What is MIDI?
- What is XLR?
- What is SPL?
- What does Sibilant mean?
- What is the Sennheiser Veil?
- Do Headphones Need to be Burned In?
- How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?
Hey there friend, and Welcome aboard!!
What is Soundstage?
That’s a great question. Before we get into it, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
I’m Here to Help!!
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What I will bring you in this article
Today I’m going to attempt to dissect this question from as many angles as possible.
By the time you’re finished reading, you should have a clear idea of what it is, why it’s important, and some headphones that do the best job of providing it!
With that, let’s get rolling shall we!?
A Brief History
The answer pertains specifically to headphones. But we’re going to start at the origin of it all.
From a young age, we used headphones to listen to music in a lot of circumstances.
they were of sub-par quality or just downright bad.
Convenience over quality was the motto.
Most of the time this meant a cheap set of earbuds or a $20 pair of Sonys.
Not that this was a bad thing, but many of the factory-grade headphones found in drug stores and retail stores back then just weren’t any good.
Over time they broke down in many ways. One ear might go out, you may have dropped them and they broke, or you might have accidentally slept with them the wrong way.
I remember back when I got the Sony Disc-man.
You remember that little device, don’t you?
It came with the world’s worst headphones. The “ear cup” padding (if you can even call it that) tore if you even so much as farted in the wrong direction. I remember scotch-taping those things back together as if my life depended on it.
Of course, Soundstage was the furthest thing from my mind at that point. I was just happy listening to music at summer camp during lunch breaks.
Later on in life, I upgraded to a pair of Sony MDR-V150s.
I remember these as my very first “serious” pair of headphones, long before my first true set of reference cans in the form of the MDR-7506.
If you’ve never tried a pair of 7506s, you’re really missing out.
I remember thinking to myself “Wow, so this is what music is supposed to sound like.”
It was incredible; as if a blanket had been lifted off of the sound and it now had some room to breathe and express itself.
What is Soundstage?
Even as good as the 7506 is, it doesn’t have a great Soundstage.
Why is that?
Well, for one, it’s a closed-back headphone.
Most of the time, a closed-back won’t provide you with a really great 3D image.
It tends to be very “in your head” sounding. You may get fatigued quicker as well.
- Related: Closed back vs. Open back Headphones
With an open back, the opposite is true, and that’s the meat of the question.
The soundstage is simply a headphone’s ability to provide a 3-D, surround sound quality image, as well as an out-of-your-head type of experience.
It’s separating the instruments and vocals in such a way that allows you to place them precisely where they are on stage.
A lot of people make huge claims with regard to headphones and their ability to produce these effects, but in reality, it’s a lot more subtle.
I’m a firm believer that you’re never actually going to feel like the band is in front of you (not literally anyway).
That’s really stretching it. Does it feel more realistic? Absolutely.
But it’s almost like a guy that says the moon is fake, Or that the earth is hollow. I love a good conspiracy theory, but those rabbit holes aren’t ones that I desire to venture down.
This rabbit hole is one that I do like to frequent:
I will say that with certain headphones, that literal “band in front of you” feeling comes kind of close (ish), but even then I think people over-exaggerate it a lot more than they would like to admit.
For instance, I was at a Music Matters show at Audio Advice recently.
A sales rep from Klipsch introduced me to some of their newer speakers. He was really hyping them up a lot, and for good reason: they sounded great!
However, when he said, “It sounds like the band is right in front of you!” I was thinking to myself “I mean, sorta.”
Even with great speakers like that, you have to really concentrate to get even a small moment of that effect.
It’s not some ongoing phenomenon where you feel like you’re there the whole time.
You catch glimpses of it in your head with your eyes closed.
Because let’s be honest,
nothing compares with actually being at a concert. Nothing.
The same is true for headphones. It’s immensely enjoyable but definitely more subtle.
The best way to describe it is that sometimes when you’re listening to music, you experience the illusion that certain sounds are coming from outside of the headphone, rather than being part of the track.
This feeling is nothing close to having an orgasm or achieving a pump at the gym (Arnold says the pump is like cumming), but it’s still really exciting. 😛
In the case of those cheap sets we talked about at the beginning, one thing was always common:
They didn’t produce a Soundstage.
But you didn’t care.
They sounded fine to your ears, and they got the job done regardless of their build quality (or lack thereof).
I believe most people pursue music in some form or fashion throughout their life. It’s sort of a universal thing.
We all love it, love to talk about it, and love to wear our favorite headphones while we’re out and about.
In a world full of negativity, tragedy, and despair, music is something that binds us all together through the ups and downs. It may even make us cry.
Few people really get into the audiophile world, but just your being here tells me that you are very aware of concepts that go beyond just listening to music.
“You know there’s this invention called the television, and on this invention they show shows, right?”
The first quote that came to mind is Jules from Pulp fiction when he ends up talking with Vincent about foot massages and “the holiest of holies” 😉
Frozen in Time
Have you ever been listening to music on headphones while doing something, only to freeze and immediately take them off to make sure the sound wasn’t coming from the outside?
Some people will claim that it’s your mind compensating for the lack of surround sound speakers and therefore having a skewed perception of the music.
That in itself is pretty mind-blowing when you really think about it.
For Gaming, the same can be said for Soundstage and the psychological effects it can have on you.
Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 and doing some experimentation with various types of headphones.
- Related: The Best Headphones for Gaming!
Here are some great headphones that provide the effects we discussed above:
This is a great entry-level headphone that does fantastic for Gaming/Soundstage and is definitely one of the best even despite its meager price tag.
I experienced some of the best “out of my head” types of feelings with this one, to the point of my heart dropping into my stomach a few times.
The Soundstage was so good at one point that I thought there was a ruckus going on outside. “Could you describe the Ruckus sir?” “Sit down Johnson.” “Thank you, sir.” Lol.
It was so realistic that I ripped the headphones off in a panic, thinking that something monumental was happening outside my apartment (like the zombie apocalypse or something).
It was really intense and even downright frightening!
- Learn more: Samson SR850 Review!
This is also one of my top options for Gaming, with similar effects as the 850.
I really like these headphones as a great all-around investment and something that works well with nearly anything you throw at it.
- Learn more: Sennheiser HD 598 Review!
These also have fantastic Soundstage and are perhaps my go-to for all things gaming.
They tend to spread things out incredibly well and provide those out-of-your-head moments very frequently – to the point of it being really uncomfortable.
In other words,
I sometimes have a hard time keeping them on my head because of how realistic everything is.
They’re constantly making me think something’s going on outside which can be very disturbing.
- Learn more: Philips SHP9500 Review!
Good Soundstage also breeds clarity.
Have you ever put on a crappy pair of headphones and couldn’t decipher anything that was going on?
the sound gets all muddied up due to the poor quality of the set.
With a good open-back model that separates sounds well, this is rarely a problem.
Another aspect that goes hand in hand with Soundstage is what’s called Instrument Timbre. What is Timbre?
In many ways, Timbre is almost more important and can be felt to a greater degree than Soundstage.
A headphone that provides great Timbre is actually pretty rare.
Timbre is the character of the instrument and how it sounds in its most natural and realistic state.
It’s the degree to which the headphone portrays the true sound of an instrument as if it were actually in front of you.
It’s what gives the instrument its uniqueness.
When you’ve come across a headphone that provides this, you’ll know.
The music will seem less forced and more organic.
It will have a buttery smooth quality and will also sound much more graceful and effortless.
A great example of a headphone with these qualities is the Focal Utopia.
It’s hands down the best headphone I’ve ever heard and provides everything you could ever want in a sound signature.
- Learn more: Focal Utopia Review
To Recap, Soundstage is all of the following:
- It is the ability to pick out musicians on stage in their exact position.
- It is the ability to discern individually the instruments being played, as well as the notes that are played, how fast they are playing, and every subtle nuance that you would hear if the artist were playing for you one on one.
- Instead of the components of the song all running together resulting in a muddy mess, the song is heard as a cohesive whole that works together to bring you an experience like no other.
- Instead of the music being trapped inside your head, you may feel like you’re sitting in the front row. Sorta. It’s as if the band is playing in front of you, rather than simply listening to them through headphones.
- This is something of an update and goes along with what I mentioned in the video below, but Soundstage isn’t necessarily dependent on how good your headphones are. In other words, even bad headphones can give off the illusion of good Soundstage. Why? Because of the track in question and how it was recorded, mixed, and mastered. More on that concept in the video!
In a nutshell?
It’s like having a 3D Surround sound system in your headphones. Well, not that good, but really great spacing and width nonetheless!
What is Soundstage?
I hope I’ve answered the question in great depth! If you need me to clear something up or just want to drop a comment, please do so in the box below!
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In any event, I would love to hear from you. Until next time…
All the best and God bless,
Can’t decide which headphones to purchase? Interested in a complete buyers guide outlining over 40 of the best options on the market? Click on over to the best audiophile headphones to learn more!!
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I’ve owned the HD 598 for the past couple years and am happy wth them. I used to have a pair of HD 201s and thought they were very nice for the price I paid ($13 incl shipping). Yes, they feel cheap and have little to no bass, but they are super light and comfortable. I often forgot I had them on. I tried the HD 202s and hated them. Super tight and uncomfortable with a very muddy bass.
Best bang for the buck under $50 (in my experience) is the Monoprice 8323, which can occasionally be found on sale for under $20. Order the optional $5.45 pads if you buy a set.
I agree about the comfort factor and lightweight. The 201’s just sounded boring to me I guess. The 202’s I actually liked because they were unique and pretty durable considering the design; it was only one piece with the 2 ear cups attached. I didn’t think the bass was muddy for the most part, but in some instances I think you’re right.
I will have to check out the Monoprice 8323. What do you think about the company as a whole? Do they make any good higher end gear?
I had k702, Philips SHP9500, Fidelio X2, Beyerdynamic DT 770, Shure 1840 and i have HD600 and k712 pro. The only time I pulled off the headphones was with the Fidelio X2 when I heard a sound coming from the outside! This happened 2 years ago.
Wow that’s awesome man! Which out of those did you like the best? And how are the SHP9500’s? I’m thinking of getting a pair since they are so cheap. A lot of people compare them to the HD600 saying that the sound signature is very similar.
In my country they cost 130 euros. That is too much for me so i returned them but for 70 dollars they are the best cans. Maybe also for 130 euros but for + 80 euros i could keep the k712. They sound really nice; the sound is similar to the hd 600. I don’t know how explain it, but they are energetic and vivid. I remember also they have good imaging and sound stage; better than HD 600 but the sound overall is more natural in the hd 600 because it’s higher quality.
Wow nice! What about the K712’s? I love the look and style of them, but the price is a bit steep. Was thinking of trying the K612 first.
After 48 hours of burn in because the k712 arrived 2 years ago i noticed that the bass became heavier, I don’t know if it’s just me. They now remind me the Fidelio X2! The k702 were way more flat with no exciting sound, these are opposite with the same details.
With the shp9500 dire straits was awesome! The 9500 are fantastic with rock for me.
Nice. May have to try out the Fidelio X2 as well. I never had any real desire for the K701’s or 702’s, but the Q701’s are pretty sweet.
The k712 now sound like Fidelio X2 with more bass and more detail. They have only 50 hours of music so I hope they improve more but soundstage is also amazing!!
Sounds good! The K712’s are very tempting as well. Any experience with the HD25’s? If not I would highly recommend them. They are incredibly detailed and punchy. It’s as if a veil has been lifted off of the music. I’m hearing stuff I had never heard before in recordings. It’s awesome!
The problem is that these are on ear and I feel these kind of headphones are uncomfortable.
Yeah but they are more comfortable than most other On-Ear headphones. I do find that my ears need a rest after awhile, but they’re only getting better with time/stretching them out.
ok thanks, however i recommend you the philips shp 9500
Yeah I will probably impulse buy those later today, lol. Great talking to you! Hope we can continue exchanging ideas in the future.
Ok thanks i hope so too
Purchased the SHP9500S yesterday. Did a bit of research and there’s not much difference between the model with the “S” on the end. Because it was 54.99 on New Egg I immediately snatched it up. I will let you know my thoughts when I receive them!
ah ah okay I will wait. Good purchase.
hei Stu, how they sound ??
Haven’t received them yet. Lol it’s been snowing hardcore here in Raleigh, NC and the roads are real icy. I have not gotten a chance to check my mail as I live in an apt. 🙁
I’m sorry. Also here in south Italy the temperature is below zero.
Wow. Stay warm!
Hey Stu how are you ??
have The Philips arrived ??
They have but I haven’t really listened with them a whole lot so far. Been trying out other stuff. I will definitely let you know!
Hey man finally got to really listen to them. My first impression wasn’t good or bad. I kind of had to really keep listening but the sound is really crisp and relaxing. There is a ton of detail in the music. The fit is good, but the cloth kind of threw me off at first, lol. They are kind of big but not heavy so yes very comfortable. I don’t really have to take them off. The only thing that’s disappointed me thus far is the cable. It terminates in a standard 3.5mm jack, but doesn’t have a 1/4″ adapter. I suspect this was why they were a bit cheaper than the regular 9500 (I have the 9500S). I would really have liked to plug them into my amp but oh well. Still love the sound.
Hi just came across your site. Between the m40x, m50x and DT770(80ohm) which do you think has the biggest sound stage…in what order would you put them?
Welcome! I would say the DT770 has a great Soundstage for a closed back. So: DT770, then M50x, then M40x. The M50x also has a very good one for a closed back. I believe the reason the 770 wins is because of those velour pads and deeper cups, which separate your ears from the drivers more. The 770’s are also more comfortable. Hope that helps! Let me know.
Thank you for the interesting article. I suspect that one of the most difficult instruments to convincingly render in the soundstage is a grand piano; one of the most annoying things I find on some recordings is that notes in various registers appear to come from left / right / centre at random (i.e. the piano itself is running around the stage like a 70s guitarist!)., even when I’m sitting at exactly in the middle of my speakers. So what I am wondering is whether you have any insight into the possible causes of this? Is it more likely the DAC (my guess), or amp, or original recording method / technology, or something else (room acoutics?) This issue isn’t limited to older recordings, although I find newer recordings to be better in general. Thanks.
Nice to hear from you again. It may just be the recording itself, as I find headphones (especially audiophile types) tend to portray the music as it is with regard to Staging. Some may help space things out a bit better, but what you describe isn’t something that I believe Headphones or even a DAC would radically alter.
Do you have any specific songs I can listen to in order to delve deeper into this?
Hi Stuart, I’ll have to keep an ear out for a good candidate and let you know. It may well be something that I paid to download or an EAC of a CD, so I’d have to figure out how to send you a copy as a track is typically much larger than the 25 Mb email limit. Of course I can check if the behaviour is the same when played on Apple Music. But, let me see what I can find. It may take a while but I’d certainly be interested in your opinion. I suspect you’re probably right and what I’m hearing is how it was recorded, in which case one would just have imagine the piano legs being capable of walking.
Lol! Keep me posted, Jenna. On a related nonte, I find that tracks I used to think had Great Soundstage was just recorded a certain way and even the cheapest, crappiest set made it sound like the Soundstage was awesome. For example, my crummy Skull Candy Uproar Wireless which I still use in the gym sometimes xD