Obvious vs. faith

September 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

My small home theater has 12 loudspeakers that cover the walls and ceiling making it pretty obvious why a movie plays in surround sound.

You are surrounded by speakers.

The idea of getting “surround sound” from a two-channel audio system, on the other hand, requires a leap of faith.

It doesn’t look possible to achieve a holographic three-dimensional soundstage from two speakers.

To make matters worse nearly no one hears a holographic soundstage from their two speakers. It is only the rare few we call audiophiles that have invested the time and resources to maximize their two-channel listening experience in order to achieve this seeming miracle of sound.

No wonder people shake their heads in disbelief when they hear us talking about the joys of our systems.

“I had no idea!” Is a common phrase I hear when we first play the system for a newbie.

Of course! they had no idea.

It’s anything but obvious.

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15 comments on “Obvious vs. faith”

  1. To explain, I use to compare holographic soundstage to the 3D pictures, one only recognizes when standing directly in front of them, waiting until the brain switches to the picture instead of the confused content.

    In case of a stereo system, not just imaging, but also tonality snaps in place when sitting in the sweet spot.

    But we audiophiles have to keep in mind that most folks perceive music over emotions, connected to its musical content and tonality/impact only. Simply because nothing else except a high end home setup delivers holographic imaging in reality. No club, no concert (at least extremely limited), no car stereo. People don’t know this from anywhere else in reality and don’t know why they should need it. Not even a true singer standing in front of you, sounds holographic.

    However, the effect of holographic imaging, which makes music sound more realistic, is immediately appreciated.

  2. I would not use the term 3D-sound image because on most stereo recordings there is no sound image behind the listening seat or even directly in front of the listener. Mostly you hear sound images in a plane reaching from the left to the right loudspeaker and sometimes a bit beyond the loudspeakers and you get an impression of more or less depth behind the loudspeakers – rarely „depth“ in front of the loudspeakers. Most seldom there is an impression of „hight“ meaning sound images are distributed between floor and ceiling. And because perception is always characterized by multi-modality the width and depth is limited by the side walls and front wall unless you close your eyes in order to avoid any visual input. In some strange demo rooms I sometimes could hear sound images from behind the listening seat – stereo artefacts due to rear wall specific reflections and the individual filter effect of my own HRTF. I get the best holographic sound imaging from some binaural Chesky recordings. In summary: holographic stereo is all about fooling our ear-brain system and the better the stereo system including the listening room the better the degree of fooling. But who wants to be fooled? Maybe that’s why a majority of stereo skeptics never perceives a holographic sound image? Or on the other hand: that explains why there are so many snake-oil tweaks being successfully sold to audiophiles. 🙂

    1. Mr Squirrel,
      You make a valid point about the height dimension.
      To be completely honest I can’t really remember how much realistic
      soundstage ‘height’ I was getting from my Harbeths thirty years ago.
      I will say this though, & this was the illusion that really made my jaw drop, that when I got
      a strong sense of the drummer being behind the rest of the musicians that’s when I realised
      that the illusion of depth from a 2 channel/2 loudspeaker home-audio rig is achievable.

  3. Firstly, I’m not an audiophile; I’m an audio-enthusiast.
    Secondly, I’m not going to blather-on about my experience discovering
    holographic 3-D soundstaging from my 2-channel rig back in 1993 again,
    as I’m sure that you’ve all read about it enough times over the last 2 years.
    Thirdly, when it comes to A/V surround sound, well, I’m just a simple old
    Rat, with simple tastes.
    I have a loudspeaker either side of me (180 deg.) shoved in the corners to
    boost the bass, like a huge, open-back set of cans that will move the sound
    from left to right & vice-versa when required; after all, it’s only a movie 😎

  4. Do you wanna understand why ‘Magico’ loudspeakers are so damn expensive?
    Recommended viewing…

    Part 2: Research & Development (Magico Factory Tour)


    (At the 9-minute mark you can see, & marvel at, the way the solid
    aluminium billets are machined into sections of the cabinet build,
    including the all-aluminium internal bracing…fascinating!)

  5. Going from Faith to Obvious happened for me in one moment 45 years ago (Rogers LS3/5a)! Achieving a 3D holographic 2-channel stereo in my own home environment became a life long journey as I just couldn’t “un-hear” what was possible! A major obstacle (blessing) in the way was raising our 4 children, so the journey was in a state-of-limbo (relatively) for 30 years.

    Once on track (these past 15 years), been slowly moving forward making changes (creating dedicated music room, discarding/buying to build a synergistic system of components, expanding high end source library, tweaking, fine tuning, etc.). These past 3 months I’ve accelerated my pursuit of audio nirvana…New amp + removal of pre-amp (have 1 source w/variable outputs) + high-end premium MA speaker cables = Completely Divorced Stereo Monitors!!!

    Other than acoustical clues that appear all around me (well tuned small 90sf listening environment), now the soundstage starts about 1ft behind the front wall, can extend up to 40-60 ft of depth, 20 to 30ft of width (speakers have 5ft of separation), and height that can reach 50ft (cathedral live recordings).

    For me, the joys of home music reproduction just went Totally LIVE!!!

  6. I use 7 ceiling speakers for home cinema, although there are a further 5 (3 extreme left, 2 extreme right) that I can include. I works extremely well for home cinema because of the dispersion design. There is no sense of where the sound is coming from.

    My stereo system for music is designed in a completely different way, to provide focus and imaging.

    I use the cinema speakers for ambient music as well, but the two systems are completely different.

    1. My home theater room is 20’ x 12’. I have a 7.2.4 setup. The 4 ceiling Atmos speakers made a huge difference. Next on the list is “front wide” speakers. I hear it’s a mixed bag with the front wide speakers, but what the heck.

  7. I have found that for me, closing my eyes to eliminate input from our primary sensory system, the eyes, is essential for to experience 3D stereo system image. On the best recordings I “see” sound coming from all around me, including from beside and behind me. I find that the 3D imaging event is highly dependent on the record producer and what he is trying to convey in his recording.

    Over the last 5 years I have completely upgraded every cable in my system to a single manufacturer, Synergistic Research. Throughout this effort I made one change at a time with a clear idea of my goal, which was to get the best 3D image I could get. It was really fun to hear the changes as the project developed. No one cable was a “magic bulett”, but all added incrementally to the result. I bought in to the Synergistic Research products because their design approach matched my desired result of 3D imaging. The changes also included room tuning with their products like the Atmosphere active and passive room tuning modules and the cable tuning the cable tuning modules provided with the cables. I think that every cable in the system is important and that it is beneficial to have a clear idea of your goal, and to stick with one manufacturer.

    I went about the system building by buying good components first and sticking with the ones I liked best. I also have built a surround system with 7.2.8 speakers (7 floor, 2 sub, and 8 height speakers). The stereo system forms the front channels, but is completely separate from the surround system. I have found the clarity and quality of the stereo system is better for music, so the surround system is basically for movies.

  8. You mention time and effort to adjust and create a good soundstage for your system. The sad part is that in my opinion it does not even take that much time to get it dialed in properly to achieve said soundstage. Of course, a desktop system is a bit of a cheat, you can reach over with your hand and move the speakers around, but, even then a full sized system is also not that hard. I little move here and there and the speakers can easily disappear and everything just seems to be coming from all sides in the front of the room. It is a fun listen indeed.

    I cheated in my family room and threw in the towel and bought a soundbar for that area. It has Atmos speakers built-in the top and uses beamforming to bounce the sound off the walls and the ceiling to create a soundstage. It is actually quite convincing, the DSP works well with it.

    The basement two-channel listening area is now just finishing up and I won’t have as many speakers as Steven but will have two on the ceiling, four around the perimeter and then the fronts and center plus 2 x subs. I will crank out some 5.1 Pink Floyd remaster or something to test that out when it’s done. Happy listening everyone.

  9. I still remember the first time I started to be a critical listener instead of just a listener. I stopped in to Stereo Exchange in NYC in the late 1990’s. I cannot remember what gear I wanted to hear, but the guy sat me down in a listening room that was well setup and told me to relax, close my eyes and just listen. They were using Paul Simon’s “Graceland” for the music. All of a sudden Paul was singing about 10 feet in front of me. I was shocked and opened my eyes to see if Paul was there. There was no Paul, just a stereo power amp between two speakers.

    That was the first time I had ever heard an acoustic image. I did not hear a sound stage that day, but as I auditioned more gear at other B&M audio stores I got an image of a sound stage and started to notice how wide or narrow and appropriate it was.

    It wasn’t until I had my own first “hi-end” system and was able to tweak and tweak the speaker position that I got a 3D sound stage. I exclaimed “holly sh&t, Charlie is playing drums behind Mick and not in the same exact spot as Mick”. Thus, I had become a critical listener.

  10. I am comfortable with the front soundstage my stereo speakers create; across the front side-to-side, center image, and with some depth and height (in our living/great room). What I generally find lacking in stereo imaging is the rear fill. As such I’ve gone with an A/V preamp and run as a two+two. My main front as a normal 2 channel stereo with my selected amp (bi-amped 325w x4), with a couple of rear (ceiling) speakers powered by a smaller amp. For music the rears being set as ~only noticeable in their absence, and for a/v with a bit higher setting. I’ll leave the 9.1s- to 13+s for the theaters.

  11. I’m fine with two speaker sound for video. It’s actually three speaker sound since I have the phantom center channel between the speaker’s. All of the video is in front of me so why should any sound be behind me? I’m not opposed to a 4 channel setup up without the center channel that I don’t need but that’s about as far as I will go and also adding a subwoofer too. I just have not felt the need to go through all of that and the extra speakers and wiring even though I have a pretty good Technics surround decoder that to this day I never used.

  12. It is only obvious once you’ve tried it.

    Canceling out the Leap of Faith does remove some of the excitement in this hobby. I like taking chances. I like that I don’t know everything.

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