Neutral sound signature with amazing soundstage?

Now that I have been promoted, it’s time to unleash the beast and start a new topic!

I asked a similar question in the general purchase advice thread, but I want to expand this into a slightly more theoretical discussion. Also, I think I was too specific in what I was looking for, so here’s my best attempt at asking the basic question.

Is it possible to have a generally neutral frequency response and truly amazing soundstage at the same time?

It seems that all of the headphones I’m seeing with awesome soundstage (HD 800S, Arya) are bright, and it’s hard to justify dropping massive $$ on a headphone that I’m just not going to enjoy for longer periods of time. This feels true even though I’m not necessarily looking for a new daily driver, as I expect my Focal Clear and HD 600 to continue to fight for that spot, but this would just be a different piece for the collection to enjoy a bit of novelty for days when I don’t want to feel like Billy Corgan or Aretha Franklin live in my skull.

I think watching @Resolve ’s reviews of a lot of popular headphones got me thinking about EQ with regard to this issue, and 2 additional questions came to mind. First, if I get something like the HD 800S (or Arya Stealth or Organic) and then chill the treble out with EQ, will I have also just killed the soundstage and imaging by bringing the highs down closer to the mids, making less of a scoop? Maybe a more surgical approach would work? Then the second question came up right after that, why not just take something like the Clear or LCD-X 2021 I already have and scoop out the mids with EQ? Would that create perceived space, or is there something more to it than just frequency response?

Thank you all for your thoughts on this!


I own the Arya Organic. In my ears there is no difference in soundstage when using EQ or not.


Spatial and directional sound information is carried in the higher frequencies. Low frequency sounds are inherently diffuse and hard to localize – this is why many home stereo systems have a pair of mid-upper speakers and a subwoofer shoved in a corner. You can typically get away with asymmetrical subwoofer placement.

IMO, all technicals-oriented headphones must be neutral to bright. They cannot be inherently warm, as the heavy bass will indeed kill the soundstage with thick fuzzies. I’m guessing you are thinking of recreating the 1980s “V” equalizer profile. They boosted bass for thump and exaggerated treble for space and zing. It’s not a natural timbre in the slightest, and can destroy the delivery of mid-oriented genres. Listen to some 1980s Hair Metal, or Madonna, or Whitney Houston music for examples.

A random example of the dominant 1980s EQ profile:

Another example:

Another strategy is to upgrade your amp (Class A if solid state, or move to tubes). I hear substantially more clean and deep bass when running the HD 800 S and Clear on my Decware amp – so much so that I’ve returned to regular use of the Clear after a couple years of ignoring it.


Maybe my answer is not the most helpful, but i had the same question many years ago and this is the conclusion.
Yes it is possible, with a properly positioned stereo speaker setup. :sunglasses:
I spent years to find anything decent (bright or not) on hp space, but without luck.
Please do not forget, the perception is subjective and may different person by person.
The hope dies last, maybe the new Grell give us the soundstage heaven.:crossed_fingers:


One significant aspect of proper staging, especially when it comes to depth-wise spatialization, relies on cues from the head-related transfer function, and the interactions of sound with your pinnae and a certain amount of delay/cross-feed between each ear.

There are complex ways to model this for an individual (and it is always individual) and simulate/approximate these effects via DSP, but the most complete, effective and convincing approach either involves using speakers, or headphones that have a more speaker-like interaction with your head, ear and hearing.

In order, the best options for this currently are:

  • RAAL SR1a
  • LB-Acoustics MySphere
  • Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC (w/ a forward cant on the cups)
  • HD800S

Only the first two, properly setup, can do actual width and depth-wise spatialization.

Otherwise all you’re getting is the “perception” of stage via simple stereo-width and frequency response. Though using DSP tools like OutOfYourHead, WavesNX or the Smyth Realizer can be very convincing with more conventional headphones.


I’ve said this in other places but soundstage in stereo headphones is an illusion (and there are reasons for this but it gets a bit off topic) - it’s really just a spaciousness enhancing effect that is a result of that FR relationship in the upper mids and treble. The other piece of the puzzle is psychoacoustic effects, and for that we don’t have a strong grasp of what predicts this quality, but I suspect having the driver a certain distance away from the ear doesn’t hurt.

Can you EQ ‘soundstage’ into headphones that are ordinarily less spacious sounding? Yes and no. You are somewhat at the mercy of the headphone’s transfer function. You have similar limitations to EQing this quality as you do with any kind of EQ, which is that the headphone’s behavior on the measurement rig may not match the behavior on your head. So you have to do some of this by ear.

But with that said, doing it by ear, yes you absolutely can improve the soundstage effect in headphones that ordinarily aren’t all that spacious sounding. What you can’t do, is turn the dial up for whatever psychoacoustic effects are also contributing to your experience.

In my view, ‘soundstage’ isn’t really all that important in headphones and it’s not worth chasing this effect given its tonal consequences. Psychoacoustic qualities, sure. But the FR balance responsible is less desirable to me.


I agree with Resolve, it’s just an effect and not worth sacrificing everything for an illusion. A low noise floor is really important, and imaging for accuracy. Try using a Topping L30 II for an example of the most quiet noise floor you can get, details in things will jump out at you like never before. A lot of sound stage is in the recording. I’ve had the HD800s and it’s a huge stage and layering is good, but it sounds a little artificial the way it’s achieved. The worst example would be the AKG K7xx which sounds big, but you can’t hear any details of the sounds that seem far away (bass is boomy too).
The best compromise would be the Hifiman Ananda Nano, but the Hifiman Arya Stealth is worth it if you have the funds. It’s my favorite headphone because they fixed the upper mid shoutyness in the original, requires no EQ as far as I’m concerned. For IEMs the best Ive heard is the Seeaudio Yume II with Dunu S&S tips which has a deep and wide stage (but recessed mids which need a bump at 600hz). For a bargain, the Truthear Zero Red has a very good soundstage for it’s design, excellent for gaming and music if you only want one all around pair for $50.


Off topic.

There’s more to stage than Frequency response (at least at a gross level), while I’m sure it has an impact, and may explain a lot of how headphones stage, if that’s all it were amplifiers that basically measure entirely flat wouldn’t present with bigger or smaller stages.

I’ve been building amplifiers recently, this is the measured Frequency response of the 2A3 amp, I’m currently messing with into a 30 Ohm load the -3dB points are somewhere over 30KHz and below 10Hz.
And yet it produces a perceptibly much larger stage than any of the SS amps on my desk that will measure equally flat. I could speculate why, but I’d be doing just that speculating.
But I do think the cup design is probably a significant factor in Headphones staging.


Without knowing what else is going on there it’s impossible to know what’s responsible - or even if the effect persists under blind/controlled testing.

Edit: And just to be clear, there are potentially other things that can cause some sort of effect - but those would also be measurable, even if it’s not clear they predict any such subjective quality.

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Obviously, we can pretty much measure anything, the issue with audio measurements generally isn’t the measurement, it’s the ability to map them to perception.

The amp above has no coupling capacitors at all, so they can’t affect phase, so the phase response is probably better than most (It’s the purple line of the graph).
It also has Zero feedback, and that does impact ringing and other artifacts that would likely be ultrasonic in the frequency response graph, and just based on the amps I’ve listened to is IMO a contributor to stage size. Again we can measure it.
The 2nd Harmonic distortion of the amp at listening volumes is ~-70dB’s, which will be close to inaudible as an effect, but again both that and it’s relative phase can be measured.
3rd Harmonic distortion is Dominant up to ~50Hz, declining constantly though the frequency range, then it’s all 2nd Harmonic.

We can measure all of it, what’s difficult is determining how those measurements map to the way we perceive the sound.


Agreed. Yeah if you have something else that’s predictive for various subjective effects by all means get more of that going and see how others perceive it. Harmonic distortion is also an interesting one, and its impact on the subjective experience.


I’ve never prioritized soundstage over other qualities of headphones. But that started to change when I encountered ZMF Headphones ADS (Atrium Damping System). Having heard that in action on the Atrium Open (owned and sold) and Caldera (own), I’m a whole lot more aware of soundstaging.

IMO, the Caldera (an expensive but very good sounding planar) would fully meet your description of a “generally neutral frequency response and truly amazing soundstaging.” Note that the FC response can readily be user-adjusted by selection of one of the four ZMF earpads designed for this headphone…probably the “stock” Caldera pad would do it.

Note that the Caldera definitely has bass (with real authority) but the overall frequency response does not, at least to my ears, diminish the mids (big and expressive) and treble (plenty for most) as a result.

PS: I heard an HD800 ~4 years ago, as well as the OG HEK1000. Both were too bright for me, though above average in soundstage (the HD800 notably so).


Thank you for the nostalgic moment. I remember having an equalizer that looked just like the upper picture. And yes, yes, yes; just like the photo, that’s just about the way the sliders were set. It’s just physics: higher frequency sound is more directional than low.


I’d be curious how the Caldera measures with the other pads - the ones that were measured did show it to be quite warm in the ear gain region. But if I recall, it did have some of those ‘widening effect’ features going on as well.

Have you heard the Caldera?

I have indeed, albeit briefly at an audio show. I certainly wouldn’t call it ‘neutral’, rather warm leaning. But I did like it as I find my personal tastes also align with a warmer leaning sound signature.

I definitely agree with this. I think hps are just like mini rooms and the same acoustic principles (managing pressure and reflections) apply, even if they’re open-back headphones.

Take the Yamaha yh-5000 which, imo, have well-engineered cup housings, have the most convincing stage depth of anything I’ve heard so far. And I’m sure that it’s largely due to a combination of the distance (and angle) of the driver, the larger-than-most internal housing, the circular waveguide, and the angled surfaces at the rear of the housing which meaningfully impact that perception. The result (to my ears) is an experience similar to that of loudspeakers in a room or well-engineered concert halls (for a headphone). The big catch, ime, is that the effect is also greatly influenced by the gear plugged into it.

Main takeaway is that I also think there’s more to staging than what a frequency response might suggest.


I love some Whitney Houston, Madonna, and hair metal, so I know exactly what you mean with that. I was more narrowly referring to the 2-3k dip that people mention for soundstage. Probably wouldn’t be as extreme as those pics :laughing: but still, similar idea of reducing upper mids relative to the rest of the mix.

I think my amp would give me a decent chance to tame the HD 800S - I’m primarily using the WA22 class A balanced OTC tube amp. I love me some tubes, and I didn’t plan for that to spill over into headphones, but of course it was going to, and here we are :laughing:

I think that’s the issue. I never listened as much to headphones (well, I listened, but never got into buying better headphones) until recently. Most of my audiophile activities have involved stereo speaker systems, vinyl, fancy DACs, and lots of tubes, so I think I might be expecting something different when I think of sound stage and imaging that might not be what others are referring to when it comes to headphones.


Thank you for the detailed response!

Some really wild options at the top of that list! I just watched @Resolve’s review of the SR1a, and I think he echoed what @Suraki right there in the video. That was very educational and it makes perfect sense that there are just limits to what traditional headphones are going to do based on physics. To that end, I still think I need to get my hands on a pair of HD 800S just to check out what it is all about. I just found a lightly used set on EBay for $900 including an XLR cable, and I just pulled the trigger. This will give me an idea of what people are talking about, but I doubt I’ll hang onto them long term, because I want to avoid fatigue / sibilance for daily listening, but this would at least give me a mental reference point for reviews of other headphones that I might be more interested in listening to in the long run… I definitely do think the trade offs are not worth it for the SR1a for me, because that setup isn’t going to be very portable at all, and I do want some fun bass in a headphone, and if I’m going to need to be home in a quiet environment to use those, I could just as easily step into my man cave and listen to the stereo for that flat-measuring FR and great imaging / staging.

This really clarified things, and I’m definitely looking for a bass shelf with a headphone and something I can enjoy listening to in other areas of the house.

In the meantime, I’m going to look into some of the DSP for fun and see if it would be something I would want to use from time to time just to make things feel opened up for a bit when I’m using headphones.

Very helpful all around!

Thanks @Resolve - I think that hits the nail right on the head for my question. It sounds like if I am chasing this effect, I’m going to be giving up the kind of FR that I like, and I don’t think that’s ultimately going to be worthwhile. It seemed like this might be the case from watching reviews, but one also gets the sense when just stepping into the world of higher end headphones that it might be possible to get any combination of tuning and technicalities with enough searching and watching YouTube. To that end, it’s really helpful to have this tradeoff spelled out clearly to squash some of the FOMO.

This is also very good to help distinguish what is meant by soundstage and imaging in the world of headphones vs speakers. Having started with speaker listening and just now really getting into headphones in a serious way, I don’t want to attempt to recreate an experience that is better had in a different setting. I think it will be best to dig into what headphones do best and appreciate what they have to offer on their own terms. So far it has been extremely fun, and I think this will help me shake off the feeling like everyone else is hearing something I’m not, because I was definitely thinking that people were hearing something like I hear on speakers. I also suspect, but don’t know for sure how to test, that I have a very strong sense of sound coming from “in my head” in terms of my own psychoacoustic tuning.

I did go ahead and grab a pair of HD 800S used on EBay, and I am guessing I’ll try them out for a few weeks to get the clearest example of this effect for a mental reference point, then sell them on to someone who will love them much more.

Very interesting! I have a pair of Atrium open on order, should be getting them in a few weeks. Having recently done some major room treatments of my stereo listening area, I was thinking that the ADS might make a significant difference with this by reducing reflections in the cup to create less of a sense of cans on the head and more of a sense that the sound is coming from a distinct point. I opted for the Atrium because of the praise from @Resolve @GoldenSound and DMS and my general desire for musicality, natural timbre, neutral to warm FR, and dynamic slam, but if I love them as much as I think I’m going to, I could absolutely see grabbing a pair of Calderas in the future as well (once the hole in my discretionary budget from the Atriums fills back in :laughing:)

Thank you to all who shared here. This is extremely helpful and I definitely feel like I gained +1 headphone knowledge and +1 faith in humanity on the internet :grin:


With all due respect to @Torq, @Resolve, @generic, @Polygonhell, and @Pharmaboy, I’m going to add my own far less technical take: the actual distance from the driver to your ear (eardrum, canal, etc.) can profoundly influence perceived soundstage.

While you do talk about a neutral sound signature, and my examples are not known (ahem…) for neutrality without some EQ, I’d like to point to the Audeze IEMs from the iSine10 and iSine20 through the LCDi3 and LCDi4, all of which have excellent soundstage for an IEM, and all of which have a driver located significantly outside the ear, further than most IEMs.

In headphones, I point to the Grado RS1e with Beautiful Audio pads. Also my minor experience with pad rolling on Sennheiser HD-580 putting the YAXI for Sennheiser pads on increased the ear to cup distance by roughly 3/16 inch over my old pads - and one of the noticeable changes was improved soundstage. (Yes the 580 actually is fairly neutral within it’s limits). I don’t know why, but those Grados have better soundstage than my higher end headphones, including the Rosson RAD-0 which has much thicker pads - perhaps its the hint of Grado house tuning (much subdued in this model) that is responsible.

Well there, I’ve said it. Just plain distance. Doesn’t work for stereo speakers, as once you separate them beyond a certain point sounstage is ruined and they each become point sources.

And now a question for the wise ones - binaural recordings. They certainly seem to have something quite different going on with regard to soundstage. I’m thinking of the haunting experience of “Amazônia” by Jean-Michel Jarre in binaural.