Live music, headphones, and speakers long

This is more of a comment than a question but I welcome feedback nonetheless.
I want to talk about the “location” of sound and music.

I was listening to quartet playing chamber music (unamplified) at a Christmas party. I walked around the room and listened from various positions, often with my eyes shut. No matter where I stood in the room, or how quiet the music was, it always appeared to come from and exist in three locations:

1. From where the musicians were seated.
2. From around me (room reflections and decays).
3. From in my head.

No one will be surprised by the first two locations but you may be surprised by the third. There are a number of reasons that one may not be cognizant of this property of hearing. One is because it doesn't with all sounds in all situations. A second is because we are very visually oriented. We see the violin “over there,” we know that the sound is coming from the instrument and we assume that is the only location we should perceive the sound to be coming from. And finally because it has always been important for our survival to know exactly where a sound (a predator for instance) is coming from.
I didn’t come across this 'sound in the head' phenomenon until I became an ‘audiophile’ and really started to analyze what is occurring in me when in the presence of an unamplified instrument. I find that it is still necessary to block out the visual distraction (i.e. close my eyes)of seeing the instrument "over there” in order to realize this dual location perception.

I have tried to articulate this before but I never got it quite right.
I used to talk about this as a “projection” of music from the instruments. Another word for this is 'action.' I would say that a great system had to be able to project sound from images such that the sound would wash over and engulf the listener. This is still very important but it falls short of telling the whole story.
I also used to confuse location 3 (in the head) with location 2 (around the room). I figured that a good system was one that could throw a huge, room-filling, room-energizing, soundstage and populate it with plenty of ambient detail and spatial cues. This too is very important but it doesn't tell the whole story either.
I now realize that a great system not only has to project the music and fill the room but that it has to put the music “in your head.”

Understand that I am not speaking metaphorically, nor am I referring to the brain’s neural processing when I say “in the head;” I actually mean the physical sensation/perception of music existing inside the skull.

This, I believe, is what many love about listening through headphones. One feels that the music is occurring in the skull. One feels the "music inside" and “inside the music.”
The feeling of music occurring in the head may be exaggerated by headphone listening but I submit that it is a phenomenon of hearing some sounds in some situations in the real world. In the three locations listed above, I rank it second in terms of strength as it is usually a much stronger sensation than room decays and reverberation.

This brings us to stereo systems using loudspeakers. I suggest that high end systems breakdown as follows in terms of locating the music:

1. Locates music as coming from the speakers.

2. Locates music as coming from a flat plane that extends between the speakers, on their axis. In other words: “music as wallpaper.”

3. Locates music as coming from an area that is wider than the speakers with the fore-edge of the soundstage along the axis of the speakers and the back edge of the soundstage many feet behind the speakers. If the system does not have ability to project sound out into the room, I like to think of this presentation as "music in a bubble." The listener will always sense a gulf between himself and the music that is in the bubble, 'over there.'
This is probably the most common presentation of high end systems. It is what I hear in just about every room at every show.

4. Locates music as in 3. but moves the fore-edge of the soundstage well in front of the speaker plane and also presents music (ambient information) as coming from the sides of the listening position. Assuming that the system has good natural 'action/projection' this type of system should sound very good, all other things considered.

5. Locates music as occurring everywhere in the room and beyond the room. The soundstage is the room and the room is the soundstage. The idea of a delineated soundstage 'area' virtually disappears because the fore-edge of the stage is now behind the listening chair. The listener either feels like he has been transported to the recording venue or the recording venue has been grafted onto his listening room. With this presentation and the sound properly propelling forward from the individual images I used to think that this was a good as it gets.

6. Locates music as in 5. but also locates it in the listener's head. One may never truly believe one is in the recording venue unless the music from the performers feels as if it is physically moving through the area between the ears, in the skull. When this magic happens you are truly engulfed in the music. The music is in you and you are in it. The distinction between the space inside your head and the space around your head is blurred. It may in fact be incorrect to use the phrase "music is in you" because the distinct impression of "inside" and "outside" starts to fall apart. The listener, the room, and music no longer appear as three disctinct entities.
With this presentation you can still choose to focus your mind and point to the exact location of a 3-D image of an instrument that may appeat 20ft. behind the right speaker but you can also let go and physically sense the sound of that instrument, the presence of the vibrations of that instrument, in your skull.
Well, there is certainly a distinct difference between stereo listening and headphone listening. With binaural headphone listening the right ear hears only the Right channel and the left ear hears only the Left channel. There is no time-delayed, inter-ear crosstalk to allow one to more accurately localize sounds.

With stereo listening, the left ear hears the left speaker plus more time-delayed sound from the right speaker (and vice-versa). The other effects you've described have much to do with your speakers and room. Since your speakers radiate 360 degrees, you have a higher proportion of reflected sound to direct sound in your room unless you have taken judicious steps to attenuate the room reflections.

You can learn more about sound reproduction and the way the ear-brain interface perceives and localizes sounds by visiting Ralph Glasgal's Ambiophonics Institute at

Happy reading, and Happy Holidays!
Very cool stuff! Thanks for the link. I notice that they too use MBL 101Es, though in a highly unconventional way, in their reference setup.
Exlibris, You're welcome. As you can see from the pictures on the Ambiophonics website, Ralph Glasgal's system is very elaborate, complicated and expensive.

His basic ambiophonic concept, however, can be tried out very inexpensively. All you need to do to try it is to put the two front speakers very close together (maybe 2.5 to 3 feet apart) and then position an acoustic barrier (like a mattress or large cushion turned on its side) extending from between the front speakers back to the listener, with the listener's head maybe 6-inches to a foot behind the end edge of the barrier. The purpose of this is to eliminate the inter-channel crosstalk between the speakers. Then just put on some regular stereo recordings an have a listen. You will be amazed at how expansive the soundstage appears with the front speakers so close together.

I am toying with the idea of converting my small-room stereo setup to an ambiophonic setup by using an acoustic barrier. Perhaps I can also add rear ambience speakers by using the old passive Hafler/Dynaco L-R circuit. And if I could implement an adjustable time delay to the ambience channels that could be very interesting. I think it would be very effective and a lot of fun to try.
I had read about or seen pictures of the acoustic barrier that you are talking about. I didn't know, however, that the speakers should be very close together.

The problem is that I know I wouldn't be comfortable sitting with the end of a mattress, or anything else, 6" to a foot from my face. The only way I can see living with this ambiophonic setup is if the barrier was very thin and non-obtrusive.


Yes, that's the problem most folks have with the acoustic absorptive barrier, but it is very effective and demonstrates the principle. It is kind of mind blowing that even with the speakers a few feet apart the stereo image appears wider than a two-speaker system with the normal stereo configuration.

Glasgal's system started out using the barrier, but now he implements it via computer-controlled electronics, which is also very effective but more expensive. I was merely suggesting you try the acoustic barrier configuration to understand the capabilities and sonic performance that can be achieved. It need not be a permanent thing...

That's a good suggestion. When I move to my new listening room I'll give it a try.

Is Glasgal's system the one in the photo with the MBLs at the front and the Soundlabs at the back?
I should have noted in my original post that my system rarely reaches level 6 and quite often doesn't even reach level 5.

I should also have noted that this post could just as easily have gone into the "preamplifier" forum because I believe that getting to level 5 and 6 is as much a function of the preamp as it is the speakers or room. The first, and only, time that I experienced level 6 in my room was when using an Aesthetix Callisto Signature linestage. I now have one on order.
while spatiality, dimensionality and dispersion are important. it is the naturalness or accuracy of timbre that is most important. i recently attended 2 concerts, one a string quartet, the other a trio of lutenists.

i attended the concerts with a friend. at no time did we peerceive music coming from or seeming to be playing insider our heads. we were sitting far away from the stage and were not conscious of locality.

nor is it that relevant to the enjoyment of the music. i was pleased to be able to appreciate the true sound of an instrument and unconcerned where it was coming from.

from what i read on this forum, timbre is under appreciated and staging is over valued.
Very well. My post only covers location, not all the other things that a system has to do properly.

The following isn't by way of argumentation it is just more ramblings about locality or, better still NON-LOCALITY...

You mentioned that you were not conscious of locality at the concerts. That's exaclty what I'm striving to achieve with my system (as far as the recording will allow).
At the concert the music was 'just there', it 'just was.' There was no need to think about where it was coming from because it was completely natural sounding as are all sounds in the real world. I agree that knowing where it was coming from wouldn’t add anything to the appreciation of the music.

I submit that it is only when we try to artificially reproduce the sound of the real world that the location of sound calls attention to itself. It calls attention to itself because it doesn't sound natural; it sounds wrong. If a recording of the concert you attended was played back on most systems, each of three lutenists would scream "look, we're over here.” Even if the timbre of the instruments was perfectly replicated, in a ‘spatially poor’ system I would be jarred out of my full appreciation of the music. This is the key: I would have to MAKE THE EFFORT to GO TO the music that is coming from the sonic images that are OVER THERE. With a level 6 system the music comes to you and simply exists; no effort required. As I said in my original post, if you WANTED TO make the effort you could focus your mind and point to where the instrument. You could have done this at the concert buy why bother; as you say, who cares where it’s coming from. I couldn’t agree more.
It's funny, an old friend came but yesterday. He had never heard a high-end system before. When I played him a song he did the usual 'jaw drop' thing and then went on about how he could see the singer there, the fingers of the guitarist moving along the guitar neck over there, the hammer hitting a piano string over there, and the brass section back there.
I just smiled and thought to myself, 'my system needs a lot of work.'
"The following isn't by way of argumentation it is just more ramblings about locality or, better still NON-LOCALITY..."

I think you hit the nail on the head here.

A few years back I had a system that localized instruments. You could sit and point out all the players. This I found quite distracting and un-natural. One of the mods I made was a step back- to tubes. This immediately brought a more natural presentation.

I surmised at the time that the series of SS amps I had been flipping through were somehow losing musical artifacts. 'Stripping the harmonics bare' or something.

Another step forward was a different type of speaker than what I had been using. I think small drivers and boxes are fast and superior for many things, but when I moved to a large driver combined with (oh no!) a horn the music was suddenly less hifi and more 'just there'. The ultimate step in my system was several more amp changes, (300b) and an improvement in the vinyl rig along with quality vinyl pressings. The route has been fun. I use a sub to augment in the lower bass region.

A payoff was last week when we had a party- the drinks were flowing and the tunes were playing. Low level, Louder, then a little louder... Many favorable comments- but the finest from 'Saxman' A good buddy that is a longtime player in a blues-rock band. He knows live music. He has also witnessed my system evolution. He shouted out 'You finally NAILED IT!' he then picked up his sax and played along with the album- It all meshed into a live presentation and dropped more than a few jaws.

I know there are many ways to 'nail it' enjoy the journey

Congratulations! It sounds like you have a great system.
Before I bought my MBLs I was actually actively looking for horns. May I ask which ones you have?
"Before I bought my MBLs I was actually actively looking for horns. May I ask which ones you have?"

They are an old, well known driver, Altec 604D. The boxes are vintage solid teak ply built in Hong Kong in 1958. (I have the original receipt) They are gorgeous and unique. The hand carving on the front is amazing.

Comparing to a typical speaker of today, thay lack precision especially in the higher hz, and they won't go low. They don't image quite as well. What they excel at is making the system disappear and leaving music. This gets back to the lack of placement of instruments. The stage is broad and deep. Combined with the proper amp and a sub for 80hz and below, it is a match made in heaven.

I don't advocate going back fifty years for sound, but in this instance, it works pretty well. I also have a second more modern system that is a bit more precise, but not near as fun ;-)
Just for the fun I tried a 20wpc, 300b SET amp on my MBLs. The spatial presentation and overall coherence in the soundstage is incredible. The time and phase correctness when running this tube single ended is astonishing.
I'm going to try a higher powered 845 SET and see what kind of results I get.