Seeing Sound with Your Ears
Article by Arthur Noxon, PE Acoustical Engineer
“See” Sound…with your Ears
Relentless pursuit of the “holy trinity” of high-end audiophile listening (musicality, sound stage, and venue immersion) is one thing we all have in common. This week we look at developing our ability to sense a holographic 3-dimensional sonic impression of a band or musician occupying the space around and between our speakers.
Some of you have already mastered the art of “hearing in 3-D,” while others among you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Try this exercise, and you may “see” what you have been missing!
Here’s an Experiment – Call it Sonic Image Training
I have developed this and it works. Its purpose is to get a person who is used to ear bud or headphone listening to expand their sonic horizon into the world of StereoSonic listening.
Take two small computer speakers and play some nice music. Make sure you have some extra cable so you can put one speaker in each hand and move them around. Turn volume down a bit and hold each speaker close to each ear…..this replicates the familiar headphone sound.
Next move the speakers away, straight out arm’s length, still pointed towards your ears. Maybe you need to turn the volume back up some. You still have a headphone kind of sound except your ears are not so close to the speaker.
Then swing both speakers together directly in front of you so they touch each while still facing you and held out at arm’s length. What kind of sound is that?
It is like a single or “mono” speaker playing right in front of you, like an old style radio…..and where is the sound coming from? Right in front of you. You can look at where the speakers are located. And that’s exactly where the sound is coming from.
Put the speakers down and wrap a big rubber band around the two speakers so they stay stuck to each other. Now, pick them up as before, at arm’s length, straight out in front of you…. Both pointing towards you. Again, you get a center stage mono signal.
Without moving your head, move that pair of speakers to the right. Where does the sound come from? Still comes from where ever the speakers are located, in this case a little to your right, also known as “Stage Left”.
(Stage left is to your left as you stand on the stage facing the audience. Your stage left is to the right from the audience perspective.)
Raise the speakers and where the sound comes from also raises. Lower them and it lowers. Help the speaker to fly around and it’s easy to keep track of where the speakers are located even while continuing to look straight ahead. It’s called “Echo location” which means to know where a sound is coming from.
OK, let’s put the pair of speakers down and remove the rubber band. Pick them up, again, one speaker in each hand. Return to the 2nd position, with both speakers held straight out to the sides and away from your head. This is the headphone removed position.
Now we are going to move the speakers simultaneously forward, back to the mono, center front position. Focus your mind on where the sound is coming from, which is straight in front of you. Don’t listen much to the music but focus your mind on the position of where the sound source is located. Then slowly pull the speakers apart while continuing to focus on where the sound source is located. Peek at the speakers and make sure they are still pointed at your head as you spread them slowly apart. Sometimes it is very helpful to close your eyes while trying to see the location of a sonic image.
Notice that as you continue to separate the speakers the sonic image tends to stay directly in front of you….until you finally get to the headphone removed position with speakers straight to the sides. When the speakers are located to the side there is no forward information coming to you and you lose the sense of an image being floating out in space in front of you. Instead, the image, if you can call it an image, is simply floating inside your head, sort of a scrambled “in-head” image experience.
Do this a few times and get used to seeing the floating image center stage out there in front of you. This is the magic of stereo recording and stereo playback. We have StereoScopic vision and we have StereoSonic hearing. If things are set up just right we can enjoy 3D StereoScopic vision and similarly, 3D StereoScopic sound.
But one word of caution….The attention power of vision is maybe 100 times more than the attention power of sound. When people are listening to music and envisioning the sound stage they always stare straight ahead and pay no attention to the visual world. Some even close their eyes, although that takes a distracting effort. Most tend to partially close their eye lids, so they are seeing through their eyelashes and still stare ahead.
Of course, for us now, we are truly distracted because we are holding up the weight of the speakers and keeping their direction pointing straight at us. If we could put the speakers down on some sort of speaker stand that holds the speakers at ear level, separated and out in front of us, StereoSonic listening to the sound stage that exists in every recording would be a lot easier.
– Art Noxon, Sept 2016
…and Finally, in Your Room, with Your Speakers…
You already have the acoustic center of the speakers vertically aligned with your ears, so you can relax your arm muscles and listen. You can adjust the speaker spread, speaker toe-in, listening chair setback, and the reflection strength off your walls, floor, and ceiling. For some guidance, check out these old newsletters:
Stereo Imaging, Part II
Sound Stage Depth Manipulation
StereoSonic 3D imaging is within everyone’s grasp, we just need to know how to hear it…and how to improve it. Try TubeTraps!