Is Imaging Worth Chasing?

Man, am I going to be torn apart for this. But I says what I says and I mean what I says.

Here’s a long term trend I’ve noticed in the audio press. Specs that used to be front and center in equipment reviews have essentially disappeared. Total harmonic distortion, for instance. Twenty years ago, THD was the start and end of the evaluation of any amplifier. Well, maybe power, first. Then THD. Armed with those two numbers, shopping was safe and easy.

The explanation for the disappearance is not hard to figure. Designers got so good in those categories that the numbers became meaningless. Today, most every amp on the shelf has disappearingly low distortion. Comparing .00001 to .000001 is a fool’s errand and both the writers and the readers know it. Power got cheap, even before Class D came along to make it even cheaper. Anyone who tries bragging about his 100 watts will be laughed out of the audio club.

Stereophile still needed to fill it’s pages and audiophiles still needed things to argue about so, into the void, stepped imaging. Reviewers go on and on about imaging. And within the umbrella of imaging, they write separately about the images height, width, and depth. “I closed my eyes and I could see a rock solid picture of the violas behind the violins.” “The soundstage extended far beyond the width of the speakers.” And on and on.

Now, most everyone who will read this knows more about audio equipment than me. But I know music. I know how to listen. And the number of times that I’ve seen imaging, that I’ve seen an imaginary soundstage before me, can be counted on my fingers. Maybe the fingers of one hand.

My speakers are 5-6 feet apart. I don’t have a listening chair qua listening chair but I’m usually 8-9 feet back. (This configuration is driven by many variables but sound quality is probably third on the list.) Not a terrible set-up, is my guess from reading lots of speaker placement articles. And God knows that, within the limited space available to me, I have spent enough time on getting those speakers just right. Plus, my LS50s are supposed to be imaging demons.

I’ve talked to people about this, including some people who work at high-end audio stores. Most of them commiserate. It’s a problem, they said. “It usually only happens with acoustic music,” most of them said. Strike one. My diet of indie rock and contemporary jazz doesn’t have much of that. “You’ve got to have your chair set up just right. And you’ve got to hold your head in just the right place.” Strike two. Who wants to do that?

(Most of the people reading this forum, probably. But I can’t think of any time or purpose for which I’ve held my head in a vise-like grip like that.)

It happens, every now and then. For some reason, I was once right up next to my speakers. Lots of direct sound, less reflections. “The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads” was playing. And I literally gave a start because David Byrne was standing on the coffee table. Cool.

But, generally speaking, imaging is something I only read about. And if that little bit of imaging is the dividend of dropping more money into my system, I’m not sure that I want to deposit into that account.

I think that I still have a few steps to take that will pay benefits other than imaging. But maybe the high-end is not for me.


@mijostyn systems that image are very common. Almost any near field system with good quality monitors will image very good if setup right, and with most of the market moving towards active monitors, left/right matching is near perfect. If near field systems did not image well, almost none of the music you have would as that is what was used to mix and master it.

My 16yo KPop obsessed daughter asked me if I had the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album and for the first time asked to listen to my system.  I was in a state of shock when she told me it was one of her favorite albums.  Upon reaching the end of side B where Stevie Nicks sings “Gold Dust Woman”, the soundstage became 3D and wow.  My daughter fell asleep on my shoulder, so she didn’t make it, but she introduced me to an album that has gone unnoticed by me and made me realize that some bits of music here and there have a wonderful presence.  


When I heard the LS50 I thought the imaging was their strong point.  IMO imaging is mostly about the room and setup.  When I treated the first reflection points in my room it really helped imaging no matter what speakers I use.  Also, the recording makes a big difference.  

To answer your original question, for me, imaging is worth chasing.  Along with dynamics, tone, and sizable soundstage.  You know, the best of all worlds in one package!   LOL, still searching!

Good luck!  

@thespeakerdude , Funny you should mention that. I am in the process of helping my son in law set up his first system. He has limited space so we are working on small studio monitors with subwoofers. We traveled around Denver and listened to a bunch of them. All of them near field. Only two made me believe they could perform at what I think is a reasonable level for a point source system, The Dynaudio Heritage Specials and the Harbeth P3ESR XDs. The 10 or more others ranged from garbage to terrible.  He went with the Harbeths as they are a much better value and the bass deficit will be made up by the subwoofers. What I find interesting is that my son in law, who has extensive exposure to my system went right for these two speakers without me uttering a word. We only talked after the auditions as I wanted him to understand the thinking of an audio sales person. My son in law is a robotics engineer so his understanding of technical issues is immediate. Other than my system and live concerts he is an inexperienced listener. In order to know what to listen for you have to have experienced it. The majority of audiophiles have not. Many of the might have fallen for one of those other speaker which could not image properly if their designers lives depended on it. Imaging is far more complicated than this instrument is on the right and this instrument is on the left. Proper imaging floats instruments and voices in space with nothing but blackness in between, giving each it's proper size and timbre. 

While near field monitors have definitive advantages they are all point source monitors and at the very best capable of a 90% image. Only true full range line sources can produce a 98% image (with the right recording). Even with digital correction and crossovers this is the best point source speakers can do. You can also never get closer than mid hall. With line sources you can get right up front without having to stick your head in the speaker. 

@mijostyn I can't agree with you on line source provide better imaging in a well set up room. In a poorly setup room, I definitely see your point as it is much easier to control the direct/reflected energy ratio. That is even more true when looking at direct/early reflections, however, for a panel speaker, you do have the rear wave can be a problem.

Can you comment on the rooms where those particular speakers that you like were placed? The speaker placement, room, room treatments can be far more impactful on imaging than the speaker itself. An inexpensive speaker properly implemented will image better than a very good speaker poorly implemented.