Audiophiles value features like soundstage in speakers and headphones. But can IEMs, which offer superb portability, a high level of noise-isolation, and great bang for your buck, also create a soundstage?
IEMs have soundstage, but it’s not as strong as what speakers can offer. That’s because IEMs sit directly into the ear canal and isolate outside signals. However, if the music piece was recorded and mixed with excellent soundstage qualities, you can have a great soundstage with IEMs.
Keep reading as we further expand on the concept of soundstage, how it’s different from imaging, and whether or not IEMs can have any soundstage.
For an audiophile, the quest to get equipment and music files is about getting as close to the live music production as possible. You want to feel like you’re in a concert hall or a recording studio capturing every bit of music produced by each instrument, each placed on a specific spot on the soundstage.
That’s what soundstage in audiophile terms means; audiophile equipment can make you feel like you’re in the soundstage and can recognize how big the soundstage is and how far instruments are from each other.
As a result, you can feel the dimensions of a recording, a 3-D listening experience primarily achieved through the last components of the sound stage, the speakers and headphones.
Soundstage vs. Imaging
Audiophiles and music enthusiasts sometimes use soundstage and imaging interchangeably. However, they’re two different things.
Soundstage creates a 3D virtual space that gives a sense of the distance between you and each instrument as well as the distance between the instruments themselves. So, it’s basically about distance.
On the other hand, imaging refers to the ability of speakers or other output devices to indicate the place and direction of each instrument on the soundstage. Just like when you’re in a concert, you can see where each musician is sitting and where their music comes from.
Here’s a short video explaining both soundstage and imaging in a great way:
The Biggest Soundstage in Audiophile Devices
The best component of the sound chain that gives you a proper soundstage is the speakers.
The number and quality of drivers and other internal components, coupled with how you place them in your room, affect the depth, height, and width of the sound you receive.
Another crucial component that affects soundstage is the ambient air. The sound produced by speakers interacts and is affected by the air in the room until it reaches your ears.
This interaction is important in creating a soundstage because of the way our brain interprets sound based on the signals and waves it receives. When the speakers emit sound signals, they bounce and reflect off different objects in the room and then reach our ears. This reflection can help our brain detect where each sound comes from and the general condition and dimensions of the space.
This element affects the quality of the soundstage in other hearing devices like headphones.
Open-back and closed-back headphones can deliver a great soundstage, with open-back headphones outperforming their closed-back counterparts. The main reason for the superior performance is the ambient air.
Even if a closed-back and an open-back headphone are built of the same materials and components, a closed-back headphone can’t produce the same soundstage as an open-back can because it blocks ambient air and noise.
So, while an open-back headphone has more leakage, it can deliver a greater soundstage.
The same goes for in-ear headphones, which sit directly in the ear canal and don’t allow ambient noise in. So, the sound received by the headphones can’t interact with the surrounding air and doesn’t produce that “airy” and wide soundstage we expect.
In addition, speakers can create a more accurate soundstage because you can manage the direction of these soundwaves by adjusting different factors in the listening room. For example, how far the speakers are from each other, from the wall, and you, the speaker’s height, and angles all contribute to the soundstage.
Soundstage in IEMs
Now, where does an in-ear monitor sit in this spectrum?
IEMs are wildly popular among audiophiles and professional audio engineers because of their in-ear form factor that doesn’t allow any outside noise to get in.
They pack in separate drivers of different kinds to cover different frequencies and crossover circuits and mimic the structure of full-sized speakers, offering the same quality for the output sound.
Nevertheless, superb audio quality doesn’t necessarily mean a great soundstage. The same factor that leads to the inferior soundstage in closed-back headphones is at work here, too.
Since IEMs sit closely inside the air canal, completely isolating the outside noise and air, they can have a more limited soundstage.
That’s because the sound seems to come from our heads instead of coming from outside. This way, the sound waves can’t flow freely and enter our ears. So, there’s zero resonance and less clarity.
However, it doesn’t mean that IEMs can’t reproduce soundstage.
On the contrary, you can find many high-end IEMs that deliver a big and wide soundstage. It just means that you won’t get the same soundstage as you would with speakers.
You can make some tweaks to the frequency response of your IEM to get a wider soundstage and more defined sound from different instruments. Some audiophiles from this forum suggest starting with the Harman Curve and tweaking the EQ until you get your desired soundstage.
In addition, the quality of the recorded music plays an equally crucial role as the output device.
In fact, the soundstage you get depends more on the recording process than the quality of the IEM or headphones.
That’s why even if you have a high-end IEM but the music isn’t recorded to deliver separate sounds, you won’t get a good soundstage.
Related article: Do IEMs Need Burn-In? Everything You Need To Know
The Effect of the Recording Process on the Soundstage
As mentioned, the soundstage is a quality created in the recording process and reproduced through speakers, headphones, or IEMs. In fact, if a music recording isn’t produced and mixed with each instrument separate from others, a high-end and accurate IEM can highlight these flaws.
Many factors determine the quality of the recorded sound regarding soundstage and imaging. The placement and quality of mics and even the recording room setup and size can affect the final result.
For example, if music producers want to create a wide virtual soundstage, they need to record their music in a wide physical room. This way, they can place the instruments far enough from each other and record the sound in a way that reflects this distance.
The placement of mics can also determine the proximity of instruments in the soundstage.
Music producers use other elements in the mixing process to create the illusion of space, instrument separation, and dimension. For example, they may decide to incorporate delays into the mixed sound to give the listener the impression of a longer distance.
These effects are captured in the mixing process and reproduced by speakers. As a result, the output device can’t have much effect if the music hasn’t been produced and mixed with these effects.
Here’s a video from Stuart Charles where he gives his thoughts on soundstage in headphones:
Soundstage is a sought-after quality in speakers and headphones that plays a crucial role in making you feel you’re in a live concert. It creates a virtual soundstage that has dimensions and produces the feeling that you’re in the real space, just like a physical soundstage.
While IEMs are praised for offering noise-free sound, the same feature prevents them from creating a great soundstage. Soundwaves need to bounce off physical elements in the space before reaching our eardrums to help our brain perceive dimensions. This feature is absent in IEMs because they sit directly into the ear canal.