What Is Sound Imaging? (For Headphones)
What is sound imaging? Does it have a MAJOR effect on what you hear when you’re listening to your favorite music on your headphones?! The short answer is yes. But what does it mean and how does it change the way you experience music?
There are multiple factors that have an effect, including the microphone placement used during the initial recording, as well as the style of headphone you use to consume it. If you’ve ever been to a live show, you know what it’s like to see the guitarist break out into a tear-jerking solo or watch the drummer smash his drum kit until his hands bleed.
Ultimately, terms like imaging and soundstage wouldn’t exist without utilizing the live experience as our main reference point. Is it possible to capture that lightning in a bottle listening to your favorite song, wearing headphones in solitude?
What Is Sound Imaging?
Let’s be honest, most stock earbuds or headphones that come with the purchase of a new phone usually aren’t the best of the best. In fact, nine times out of ten, they have a below-average performance and only do their job at the most basic level. Nothing more, nothing less.
When you’re listening with stuck ‘buds, the music usually sounds like it’s happening inside your head. Each instrument, vocal passage, and sound effect becomes condensed into a tight and compact combination of audio vibrations.
When you’re standing outside listening to the birds chirping, dogs barking, and planes flying overhead – each sound appears to be coming from outside your head. You can hear the airplane or helicopter passing overhead. You know it’s there, but you also recognize it’s flying at an elevation.
How It Affects Your Gaming & Movie Watching Experience
How does this apply to headphones? Well, that’s because width, depth, and height all play an essential role. For example, if you’re watching an action movie (or playing a fast-paced video game), you want to be aware of where the sounds are coming from.
Width, Depth, and Height
The width represents your left and right channels. Depth is important for simulating sounds coming from below you. (Like when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff or waiting to drop out of a helicopter in a video game, for example.) In the example we used above, height helps pinpoint any sounds above you.
Gain A Competitive Gaming Edge
Accurate height reproduction can be especially important for gaming. Being able to pinpoint where you are in relation to the virtual environment will not only give you a competitive advantage, but make any game ten times more immersive.
If another character is sneaking up from behind or someone called in an airstrike, a good pair of headphones will accurately locate their position. That way, you can turn around or look up when you need to and quickly react to the incoming threat.
Watching vs. Experiencing Movies
When you’re watching movies with headphones, the same concept applies (except you can’t interact with the characters… yet). Would you rather feel like you’re watching a movie, or experience it as if you’re a part of the cast and story line?
Soundstage & How It Plays A Role
Another closely-related term that’s important to know is “soundstage”. A soundstage is pretty much exactly what you might be thinking. A simulated (or reproduced) stage where the sound (from your music/movie/game) is coming from.
The Typical Live Band Setup
Typically, the singer stands in the center of the stage and the other band members play on either side of the vocalist. The drummer is usually set up behind the rest of the band.
When it’s done correctly, it feels like the vocals are coming from the center of your head. Sometimes, it even makes you feel like you’re literally standing right next to the vocalist on stage (minus the crowd noise, of course).
3 Main Elements To Remember
Soundstage and imaging share what could be described as some sort of audio marriage. They both work side by side to best simulate and recreate the live experience. The soundstage is the musical backdrop, the music is the music, and imaging highlights where each specific sound (playing from your cans) is located.
All that is happening inside our cans while we sit back and enjoy our favorite songs! It doesn’t seem like a very complex process when you break it down into those 3 elements, but when it’s done right – it can make a world of difference.
That’s why it’s especially impressive when a pair of in-ear headphones (like the 1More Triple Driver) can pull it off relatively well. Tiny electrical components housed inside a fairly compact ear cup or earpiece almost seamlessly managing to emulate a live band or DJ! Does all that still apply if you’re listening to a low quality recording?
Initial Recording Process & Miking
Believe it or not, the original recording process also plays an extremely important role. In the world of recording, there’s a term called “miking”. Basically, it’s a fancy word for microphone placement and/or positioning.
There’s a lot more that goes into recording than simply grabbing a mic and singing into it. How and where each microphone was placed, as well as the shape and size of the mics used to record has a major effect on the final product.
Miking’s Effect On What You Hear
Miking is one of the most important factors that sets one song apart from another. Many of the most popular songs we’ve all heard at least once or twice implement specific miking techniques. If there was very little thought put into the miking process, your headphones can’t do very much to fix it.
Even the most expensive open back cans won’t be able to just rearrange and correct where it sounds like the instruments or vocalist are/were standing. Although you can convert audio files into high res formats, the initial recording still serves as the main foundation.
“Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix is a prime example of a recording that clearly highlights where each instrument is located in relation to the rest of the band. Listen to the full audio for “Voodoo Child” below to get a better idea:
Were you able to hear each channel fade and sway in and out? If you’re not a fan of Hendrix, here are a few more tracks to test your headphones. For the most part, the quality of a recording makes the most significant difference, although it’s still not necessarily the end all be all if you’re using a pair of quality (especially open back) cans.
The Sonic Hierarchy Of Needs
Once again, if you’re chasing pure audio perfection, even the most expensive cans won’t be able to alter the original recording playing from your DAP, desktop, or turntable. If there was a sonic hierarchy of needs (in order of importance), you would hope it fell within these general guidelines:
- Quality recording equipment
- Optimal miking
- Conversion to a high res audio format (optional, but makes a difference)
- Open back headphones that can properly reproduce the recording
That isn’t to say that it’s a life and death situation without those 4 guidelines, but they do make a significant impact. No matter what kind of headphones you’re currently using, you’ll still want to test them with the simulation below!
Test Your Headphones!
The short video below is a pretty accurate simulation for testing depth, width, height, placement, and real-life sounds (like a helicopter above you). It does a great job at visually illustrating everything we’ve covered so far.
Make sure you’re wearing headphones before you press play!
The test is pretty straightforward, but hopefully it helped clear up any confusion!
Top 3 Entry-Level Headphone Recommendations
If you made it this far, you might be curious about some specific headphone recommendations. All 3 of our top recommendations are open back models. Traditionally, open back cans have a much wider soundstage, which is why they’re the most popular choice for this purpose.
Here are 3 of the best entry-level open back headphones:
Most audiophiles agree that the HD600 are one of (if not the most) accurate open back reference cans. Out of our top 3 recommendations, they have the most narrow soundstage with laser-focused imaging accuracy.
The Fidelio X2 also do an awesome job at highlighting where each sound is coming from. They’re quickly becoming a popular choice for gamers, even replacing the use of many dedicated gaming headsets.
The Audio Technica R70x have a slightly more narrow soundstage, although not quite as narrow as the HD600. They’re great for picking up on the smallest of details and perform very well for a variety of listening settings.
Side-By-Side Comparison – Can You Hear The Difference?
Here’s the good news. You don’t have to own a $1,000 pair of headphones to experience the sensation we’re describing. On the flip side, stock Apple earbuds or AirPods aren’t exactly capable of this level of audio reproduction.
If you’re not ready to make the investment yet, but know someone who already has some open back cans – why not ask to borrow them for a day or two? Try watching a movie, playing a game, listening to music (or all 3) to see what you think! Put everything you’ve read here to the test and compare them side-by-side with your current pair.
Now that you made it all the way to the end, you won’t have to scratch your head and wonder what people mean when they reference sound imaging! The next time you read an extensive headphone review, you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about and why it’s important. If anything we’ve covered still doesn’t make perfect sense, leave a comment or question below!
We always respond (usually within 24 hours) and look forward to hearing your thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and learn about one of the most important audio terms, we hope you enjoyed!
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