Stereo systems seek to recreate the three dimensional acoustical spacing of live venues. The term “soundstaging” refers to how well a stereo reconstructs the physical layout of a concert hall, jazz club, or other live stage. The acoustical height, width, and depth recreated by a music playback system can vary greatly. The more realistic the sound of any recreated 3-D music venue is, the better the soundstaging.
Once you’ve heard recorded music with acoustics that are so lifelike that it transports you to an actual concert hall, you’ll immediately understand why audiophiles value soundstaging so much.
Sonic “images” should appear at exact distances within a 3-dimensional soundstage. If the instruments have been recorded correctly, a high-end 2-channel stereo system should (emphasize that… should) be able to reproduce the individual instruments at exact positions within the soundstage. A drum kit should sound like it’s positioned at the back of the stage. The singer should *appear* out front in the center. The bass and guitars should be positioned off to either side of the singer and slightly recessed behind him or her.
Instrumental images shouldn’t overlap, blur into one another, or cancel each other out. Audio critics describe stellar imaging as being tight, focused, precisely located, and sharp. Poor imaging is described as being blurred, congested, opaque, confused, murky, overlapping, and/or lacking focus.
Studio recordings rarely achieve lifelike soundstaging or imaging. Audiophile recordings made at live venues or within real acoustical spaces using stereo microphone set-ups and a pure signal path are critical to achieving realistic soundstaging and imaging.
Audio critics also use differences in how well a stereo reproduces the size of instruments to determine how good (or bad) the imaging is. A recorded cello’s sonic image signature should have the height, width, and depth of a real cello. If the cello’s sizing is too large or too small, then the imaging isn’t accurate.
Pace, Rhythm, and Timing (PRaT):
If an audio critic refers to your stereo system’s PRaT as moving slower than an iceberg, odds are your stereo lacks accurate pace, rhythm, and timing. Live music has a rhythm, ebb, and a flow that’s undeniable. The toe-tapping drive of the music is what makes a listener want to physically bop their head and swing their hips around the room in time with the rhythmic beat of the song.
Errors in PRaT are caused by poor source components, lousy amplification, throw-away cabling, polluted A/C power, or room acoustics which suck worse than a 60 year old Hoovermatic. Get the PRaT wrong and the music has no chance of creating excitement or involving a listener.
Dynamics refers to the range of sounds from soft to loud that a stereo system reproduces. Large symphonic orchestras which go from whisper quiet to a full-throttle thunder have a dynamic range of around 100dB (decibels). Metal bands like Venom that play *LOUD* almost all of the time have a much smaller variance in dynamic range of about 10dB.
Different volume levels convey different emotional messages. Just as in the way we communicate, softly whispering or angrily screaming often carries more emotional meaning than any of the actual words spoken.
There are two types of dynamics: macro dynamics; and micro dynamics. Macro dynamics refers to the music’s overriding sense of impact and power. When a live 80 piece orchestra reaches a musical crescendo, it delivers a massive wallop of sound. The stronger the visceral sense of the *slam* that a 2-channel stereo delivers, the better audio critics consider said system’s macro dynamics to be.
Micro dynamics aren’t about volume, impact, or slam. They do, however, carry an enormous amount of bearing on how *real* recorded music sounds. The resonance of a delicately braised cymbal’s percussive accent is very subtle. It’s not meant to shake the foundations of any jazz club. And yet, getting the timbral accuracy, speed, and harmonic textures contained within the dynamic structure of a cymbal’s shimmering echo correct is critical towards achieving the sound of live music.
Just being able to play loud or soft doesn’t innately mean that a stereo system has good dynamics. Some low-powered SET (Single Ended Triode) tube amplifiers can deliver a goosebump inducing sound quality when playing a single acoustic guitar. Ask that same SET amp to accurately reproduce the scale and building shaking volume of a live Anthrax album and, more than likely, said low-powered amp will be turning purple with exertion. With far too many amplifiers, as the volume increases soundstage width decreases, the size and location of individual instruments compresses, (or even disappears completely), and the whole 3-D soundstage collapses.
Detail / Smoothness:
The term “detail” refers to the amount of low level sonic information that 2-channel components, speakers, and cables deliver. So how much detail is correct? This tends to be a personal thing. Generally speaking, though, too much detail makes the overall sonic presentation sound harsh, aggressive, and fatiguing.
As with many aspects of high-end stereo sound, the trick is to find the right balance between: a), the amount of detail produced; and b), how smooth and musical the overall sound is. Only state of the art products are capable of successfully walking along this razor’s edge of providing oodles of low-level sonic detail, while concurrently not inducing listening fatigue.
If the resolution is too low, the midrange and treble won’t have enough detail to make instruments sound realistic. Much like listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks synced with an 18KHz white noise warble tone, too much detail will quickly cause migraine headaches. To audio critics, excessive detail is like a sadistic form of torture. You’ll have an easier time raising sponsorship money for an adult film shoot at Kmart than getting audiophiles to tolerate bright and fatiguing stereo sound.
A 2-channel playback system’s ability to *gel* and make the highs, mids, and lows all sound like a singular sonic entity is referred to as “coherency”. A lot of speakers that mix ribbon tweeters and/or electrostatic panels for the mids and highs with cone woofers for the bass completely fail to sonically gel. Achieving an integrated sound across the spectrum of human hearing that’s organic and believable is a lofty goal.
The amount of satisfaction and enjoyment that a stereo system creates is called its “musicality”. Do you look forward to spending some quality time with your favourite records? How deeply do you sink into the music? Does your stereo’s sound give you goosebumps? Do you feel spiritually refreshed and emotionally recharged after listening to your system? Audio critics delineate how good a stereo is (or isn’t) by using the term musicality.
The bottom line is this: 2-channel stereo playback systems should make you want to listen to more music. Regardless of the type of music you love, listening to music at home should be fun and enjoyable. Trying different source components, pre-amplifiers, pre/power combos, speakers, cables, and tweaks all make audio a fun hobby, but it’s the music that matters the most. Try not to lose sight of that.