Achieving Headphone Soundstage Umami

Soundstage is this subjective factor in headphone listening that is the holy grail secret sauce that everyone wants, but no one can pin down where the hell it comes from. As a quickie explanation, soundstage is a headphone’s ability to make whatever you’re listening to sound like it’s coming from beyond just your head. Headphones with this ability sort of disappear, and convince you that you’re in a concert venue, or in a room full of jazz musicians serenading you. It’s like suspension of disbelief in sound.

How it works is shrouded in mystery. It’s like someone who judges 10 different hamburgers as being wonderful, but then concludes that only 1 has the best “umami”. What the hell is that? It’s not just the sauce, or pickles, or the meat; it can’t be attributed to any one thing. It’s the perfect mix. It’s transcendent. Headphone soundstage is quite the equivalent in its I-want-this-but-cannot-for-the-life-of-me-explain-how-it-works-ness.

Well, I sit here now listening to some new headphones after about 1 jillion hours of reading reviews, forums, blogs, and interweb rants in search for the “ultimate” headphones for myself, which brought me to the AKG K550. I won’t be stupid enough to claim that they are the “best” at anything, but they definitely have an abundance of soundstage. And so I’m starting to think I’ve discovered how all of this works.

I’ll give my take on the ingredients for convincing headphone soundstage. I’ve tried my share of headphone types (which again, I’d love to write about later): earbuds, in-ear monitors, closed backs, open backs, on-ear, over-ear. In general, I believe good soundstage can be achieved if you have these things:

  1. A quality audio source. First, the recording itself needs to represent some feeling of space, which plays itself out with reverb and stereo imaging. If a recording is totally reverb-less or worst case in mono, then no headphone will be able to save this. Second, the recording needs to be quality enough that the higher frequencies (like 10khz+) are intact and pristine.
  2. Headphones with great treble response that can abundantly reproduce sounds well above the 10khz+ range. I’ll call this “air” or airiness. Put another way, you want headphones that can put out a lot of high end treble detail, but avoiding an abundance of sibilance that comes in the 6-8khz range that can detract from the “air”. Those highest frequencies are creating the wash of spacial accoustics that our brains want to hear to visualize the room that sound engineers originally intended for us to imagine.
  3. The wildcard is having open-backed headphones, which also helps. But I think this is an unnecessary mind-trick, and I’ll elaborate on this later.

So that’s it. These two or three factors alone are enough to give you that experience of listening to a song or movie and getting freaked out that what you just heard came from the real world when it actually didn’t. How do I figure? Keep reading:

For many years I owned Sony MDR-V6’s, very good headphones, closed back, but not “airy” (on a frequency graph they have a very strong drop off right after 10khz). There was an occasion when I’d been wearing them for a while, and I kid you not, I suddenly felt a wave of ear-claustrophobia and I just had to take them off. I couldn’t explain why, but my brain knew that they were trapped in a box and needed out.

In avoidance of that happening again, I switched to trying out various open earbuds. From this I found that the openness produced a very nice soundstage, didn’t break the bank, and weren’t overly sound leaky for office use. But then I soon discovered other issues with earbuds, like how impossible it is to get those deep, rumbly bass notes. And for whatever reason, tiny earbud speakers and wires love to fail so often, you would think that the things are almost suicidal.

My headphone journey switched lanes towards a set of open-back over-ear headphones, the Koss Porta Pros, which get raving reviews for their headphone umami and, well, their wallet-friendly price. And it’s true, Porta Pros deliver all the delicious sound-stagey goodness that they promise to. It’s an ear opening experience. It was all great until one day at the office I was enjoying “Gravity” from the Wicked Soundtrack, and I noticed that the rest of the office had been singing along with it. Reminder: open-back headphones and office spaces don’t mix and they never will.

Well, so then I was only left with my original closed back V6’s. But by this time I’d learned how to use an equalizer to resurrect those “airy” notes that had always been missing from those cans. As time went on, the V6’s grew to become one with me, happily void of any episodes of ear-claustrophobia. What changed? By improving the sound, my ears became convinced that they were no longer being boxed in. Get it? “Airy” means “soundstage”, which means “not boxed in”, which means “I can wear these headphones without my ears freaking out at me”.

Conclusion: If you want a large soundstage headphone experience, you need airy headphones which again, means headphones with great treble response in the highest frequence registers. The one loophole in all of this is that open-backed cans, even average quality ones, can also give you the perception of a wide soundstage. My theory is that they still allow some of the higher frequency noises of the real world into your ears, thus fooling your mind into believing that whatever you’re listening to is somehow part of the sound space that you’re sitting in and vice versa. I don’t think open-backed headphones in themselves create soundstage.

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