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This is part 6 in a series on Headphone Specs, Drivers, DACs, Sound, and how all of them relate to each other. There’s a wealth of knowledge in these so don’t hesitate to open some more tabs, bookmark, and share!!
What is Soundstage? That’s a great question. Before we get into it, grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
You’ve come to the right place!!
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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!
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. Often times, they were of a sub-par quality or just downright bad.
Whatever was convenient and cheap is what was used. Most of the time this meant a cheap set of ear buds, or a $20 pair of Sony’s. Not that this was a bad thing, but many of the factory grade headphones found in drug stores and retail stores 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 on 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 headphone. 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 like 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 breaks.
Later on in life I upgraded to a pair of Sony MDR V150’s. Related:Sony MDR V150 Monitor Series Headphones. 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 MDR7506. If you’ve never tried a pair of these, 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.
Even as good as the 7506 is, it doesn’t have 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. Related:Closed back vs. Open back Headphones
With an open back, the opposite is true, and that’s the meat of the question.
Soundstage is simply a headphones ability to provide a 3D, 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 regards 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 flat. 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.
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 phenomena where you feel like you’re there the whole time. You catch glimpses of it in your head with your eyes closed. 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, 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.
Few people really get into the audiophile world, but just you 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 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 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!
The Samson SR850. This is a great entry level headphone that does fantastic for Gaming and is definitely one of the best even despite it’s meager price tag. I experienced some of the best “out of my head” type 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!
The Sennheiser HD598. This is also one of my top options for Gaming, with similar effects as the 850. I really like this headphone as a great all around investment and something that works well with nearly anything you throw at it. Learn more:Sennheiser HD 598 Review!
The Philips SHP9500. A lot of people might tell you this headphone isn’t very good for Gaming, but they’re wrong. This isn’t quite as good as an 850, but it comes darn near close. I get the same sort of sensations with this one, and it’s probably a better all around investment than the 850 given how amazing it is for all types of music. The 850 can get very peaky at times, while the 9500 provides a better overall sound. Learn more:Philips SHP9500 Review!
One thing is for certain, there are many people who have experienced the phenomena of taking off their headphones to make sure the sound wasn’t coming from inside their home.
There are even some closed back headphones that give you a nice taste of this. The Audio Technica ATH M50’s are a good example of a closed back model that has some of these characteristics. A lot of people will claim otherwise, but I remember the moment vividly. Related:Audio Technica ATH M50 Review!
When I first put them on, I was floored to the point of wanting to go back and listen to every song I had ever heard. They really do make you look at music in an entirely different way.
For the first few months, I was constantly taking them off to make sure I wasn’t going crazy. It sounded like the music was really actually coming from outside in a lot of instances.
Open back models (like the ones mentioned above), take this concept even further. I have read reviews from people who claim that they could pick out each individual musician on stage, where they were standing, and specifically each note that they played. Instrument separation and Soundstage go hand in hand in this regard.
Soundstage also breeds clarity.
Have you ever put on a crappy pair of headphones and couldn’t decipher anything that was going on? Often times the sound gets all muddied up due to the poor quality of the set.
With a good closed back model, and especially an open back one, this is rarely a problem. As a general rule, the higher up you go in prestige, the better the sound is going to be.
An example would be: Sennheiser HD 800 > Sennheiser HD 650 > Sennheiser HD 600 > Sennheiser HD 598 > Sennheiser HD 558 > Sennheiser HD 380 > Sennheiser HD 280 > Sennheiser HD 202 > Sennheiser HD 201.
Notice how the numbers go down from 800? May seem obvious, but this is intentional.
The hierarchy is real. Lol.
I can attest to this. The HD 201’s sound utterly atrocious. Well no I shouldn’t say that. They are a good sounding set, but:
They aren’t nearly loud enough
The bass is sorely lacking
The higher in number you go, the better the Soundsage. The HD 800’s to some are the absolute highest echelon pair of cans you will find. Their ability to produce a Soundstage is almost unreal.
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 it’s most natural and realistic state. It’s the degree to which the headphone portrays the true sound of a instrument, as if it were actually in front of you.
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 about it and 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!
Audeze’s LCD line is another great example of headphones that do a fantastic job with both Soundstage and Timbre as well. My current favorite from them is the wonderful LCD-X. Learn more:Audeze LCD X Review!
Anyways, before I get too long winded and type you up a novel..
To recap this post and wind it down, there are some key points to consider when it comes to Soundstage:
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 you simply listening to them through headphones.
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!
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.