Beyond the sides

May 30, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

The soundstage illusion is complex.

Move your speakers far apart, point them towards you, and the soundstage appears like a hologram between them.

Put them closer together, toe them towards your ears only slightly, and now the soundstage extends beyond the outer edges of the speakers.

When we’re setting up a system it’s important to first determine which of these two soundstage models you prefer: stuck between the two speakers or extending beyond them.

Both are valid, both give great results, both work.

But one must choose.

For my systems, I prefer the model where the soundstage extends beyond the speaker’s outer edges. This is a fairly simple setup that places the speakers as far apart as they are from the listener to form an equilateral triangle.

To get the most effective illusion from this method the room typically benefits from diffusion behind the speaker.

What works best in your system?

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26 comments on “Beyond the sides”

  1. I would always prefer the soundstage which the mixing engineer has finally defined and created in his studio. Hopefully when creating the mix he had two absolutely identical loudspeakers in order to get a non-muddled sound from an instrument when the sound wave from the right speaker is superpositioned over the sound wave from the left speaker. 🙂 100 % symmetry is the toughest basic-requirement for stereo!

  2. The recording (mixing engineer) has some say in the end result & I’m not prepared to
    make incremental changes for each CD that I play.
    A 3D holographic soundstage is a lot of fun to experience & definitely a novelty, but for
    me, & my preferred genre of music, it’s not my priority; I value clarity & dynamics more.
    As always, each to their own.

    1. I prefer the soundstage be natural with the best achieved tonal balance. Tonal balance is important to me. I like pin point imaging. If the soundstage is unnatural or extreme 3D it’s fine if that is what the recording engineer intended and I hear that with my speakers. But for most music the soundstage should be natural between the speakers with height and depth and sometimes a bit forward of the speakers. That’s what I hear at a live concert.

      1. A tonal balance that gives a warm character to the sound without sacrificing detail and transparency as opposed to cold, analytical, or etched in character. Sometimes the later is in the recording and that’s ok. I want my speakers to tell the truth.

  3. I prefer both at the same time.

    It’s possible if one pulls speakers quite far from the back wall and sits quite close to them (close mid field). And it’s even more possible using certain active HF canceling. The devices extend the soundstage to where they are placed and make it more airy there. Then there’s holographic, enveloping imaging AND soundstage extended to the sides behind the speakers.

    The only two disadvantages are narrowed sweet spot and little room reflections (as far as this is seen as a disadvantage at all in less optimized rooms).

  4. I have never subscribed to the idea that you should have a dedicated listening room. I have always had my stereo system in the main room of the house. I have never had a house that had a room where I could have a dedicated listening room. I think the advice that Paul gives is great if you have the typical rectangular room ( 14′ x 18′ or 18′ x 24′, etc. ).

    Thus, I have a room that is 28′ x 30′ x 11′ with one quadrant of the room raised about 14″ to make a dining area. My speakers are sealed so there is no port to deal with. They are not near a back wall or the side walls. They are not symmetrically placed with respect to the side walls. The actual speaker / listening position is an isosceles triangle where the base is 9′ ( tweeter to tweeter ) and the sides are 11′ ( tweeter to ear ). The toe-in is adjusted for best image and sound stage. As with all things in audio YMMV.

  5. So after reading todays description of the sound stage choices, I think I’ve got a hybrid of the two. The speakers disappear (as long as I don’t open my eyes or my wife doesn’t throw them out while I’m at work 🙂 )

    In the best case (recording wise) option 2 above presents itself. Otherwise option 1 is way more prevalent. (Both cases refer to my system)

    Very Occasionally a sound jumps out so divorced from the speakers laterally it literally startles me. A cool effect….

    In either case, depth is what I like best..

    Like FR says though, it has to have clarity and dynamics. Like PS says it all starts with the recording.

  6. If the ultimate goal is to simulate a live performance, should not the soundstage replicate the venue in which the music is either played or created by the studio engineers to replicate?

    Therefore a wide sound stage would be appropriate for a symphony in an auditorium, while an narrow soundstage would be correct for a Solo guitar player in a small café.

    1. That depends on the seats you can afford. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and had a seat in the first few rows. Other times I’ve been in the balcony nearly against the back wall.

  7. I use Magnepan speakers and I preferred the “tweeters out” when I set up my system – I find that usually the sound stage is more centered unless the mixing engineer did more extreme panning. When I hear the full symphony orchestra at Boulder’s Chautauqua venue, the soundstage is very, very wide (and the dynamics are amazing) – I hope they open up the venue this year so the public can attend rehearsals…

    1. I use Maggies as well and, honestly, I’ve never come to a strong conclusion which way I prefer. So much that I had to go look to see how they are set now. Tweeters are out, which I think I did when I moved them to a larger room. Toe in is VERY slight. How far apart are yours?

      1. my tweeters are around 144″ apart – and toed in quite a lot. they are about 126″ from my listening position and 75″ from the front wall – these are Tympani IDs

    2. I have .7s, tweeters out, slight toe-in. I check the toe-in with tape measure to ensure the tweeter section is an inch or two farther from my ears than the center of the mid/woofer section. With tweeters on the inside, a crazy amount of toe-in is necessary; with tweeters out, only modest toe-in is perfect.

  8. I love it when the soundstage extends outside the loudspeakers, but with a good setup, it shouldn’t happen all the time. Some recordings do it spectacularly on my system, while other recordings stay between the speakers. The mic technique and mixing have a huge influence. These days, there are plugins for digital mixing systems that allow complete control over soundstage width. My feeling is that if a system *always* images outside the speakers on all or even most stereo recordings, something’s wrong. In that case, one is not hearing what the mixer intended.

    I find that one of the biggest determinants of soundstage width is how close I sit to the speakers. An equilateral triangle is a good starting place, as the best soundstage almost always results with the listening position within a few inches of equilateral.

  9. Having to work within the confines of a small listening space (90sf), my room’s acoustic signature is naturally well balanced (not dead nor not too reverberant). Side wall architectures present good diffraction with lively front wall dispersion behind the stand monitors (2ft from both wall boundaries)! With complimentary 5 degree toe-outs of the monitors, placement and listening position presents an isosceles triangle that allows the 5ft baffle spacing and 7ft sweet spot to open up the soundstage Well Beyond any room boundaries. IME, at least 50% of the 2-channel magic I achieve is due to my music room’s acoustic tonal balance.

    As far as music source (CD), components (very humble pre/power), cabling (good stuff, but not “esoteric”) and transducers (superb designs and implementation), the synergistic blends (eq. + room) have gelled to allow the system to totally disappear, leaving a live, realistic and large holographic soundstage that can be jaw dropping in stature, timbre and spacial precision. With 95% of my music library’s acoustical genre, listening sessions extend for many hours as musicians appear live in the ambient spaces of the recorded venues!

    To My ears, my little quasi-near-field dedicated music room gets the Stereo Illusion Done!!

  10. I don’t know why anyone would choose a soundstage “stuck between the speakers.” Like Paul and most others, I prefer a soundstage that extends well beyond the outer edges of the speakers, but without loss of holographic image. I want it all. I have a very wide and deep asymmetrical room with many different angles to the walls and ceiling, furnished as a living room with good diffusion. I like my speakers spaced about 10 feet apart, slightly toed, about 8 feet from side walls, with the listening position about 12 to 13 feet in front of the center of the driver plane. This gives extension of the soundstage well beyond the outside edges of the speakers, a generous sweet spot and still a precise holographic presentation without being etched or unnaturally focused. I credit the speaker design, speaker placement, room characteristics, source and amplification gear and quality of the recordings for the soundstage excellence. Unless everything is right, it isn’t going to happen.

  11. I’m a toe in guy. I like the triangle sort of speak.
    Then again my speaker set up is absolutely meager compared to my headphone set up. Pad rolling on certain headphones can change the frequency response which is cool. 😉

  12. I find the toe-in arrangement places the soundstage further back from the plane of the speakers. With the speakers aimed straight ahead in an equilateral triangle as Paul prefers, the soundstage typically comes closer to the plane of the speakers (depending on the recording to some degree.)

  13. In my 20ft x 12ft room, I have my Maggies far left & right because of it being the front speakers of my home theater. When in that “toed in” position, tweeters to the inside sounds much better, and I’m inside the speakers not by choice.

    The best position for 2 channel is tweeters to the outside, and the speakers closer together. They also have so little toe in that most would think there is no toe in at all. The best positions I have found is speakers roughly 1/3 the length of the room away from the front wall and seating position roughly 2/3 away. Counter to logic… at that 1/3 into the room position, the sound snaps into place, getting harmonically richer with better bass.

    Additionally, I have found that when I want tweak the soundstage in the manner Paul discusses, I simply change the distance between the speakers, and NOT control it with toe in. Every time I try to toe them in any more than the very slight toe in, things get out of whack in a way that can’t really be fixed.

    I’m definitely in Paul’s camp of sound outside the speakers.

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