What Does Imaging Mean In Headphones?

What Does Imaging Mean in Headphones?


Headphones do have advantages compared to frontally placed loudspeakers, namely superior rear imaging and elevation localization. But what is headphones imaging?

To understand what imaging mean in headphones, you have to know the basics of imaging of headphones and soundstage.  

These are the two most popular terms used when talking about spatial qualities and localization of headsets. However, there are no universally and clearly accepted descriptions for them.

In this post, I am going to offer my definitions for headphones imaging and soundstage based on my research findings and user experience.

But before I go on I would like to stress that there are still some things that need to be figured out and improved concerning these two concepts.

What Does “Imaging” Mean In Headphones?

Imaging of headphones isn’t a very difficult paradox to understand, but I have to do a little explaining for those who have a hard time comprehending what imaging is all about.

What is imaging?

The gold standard for the sound quality of headphones is the perfect loudspeaker setup in the perfect room by any perfect means.

That is, you ultimately want your headsets to have a speaker-like soundstage, and to give a sense that the music is happening out in front of your room and not in the vacuum in your head.

Based on this context, I examined the differences between headsets and loudspeakers in terms of spatial properties and localization.

Imaging establishes how wide, how far, and where each object must be in the stereo image. In this case, best headphones imaging controls the stereo balance, transparency, and location of objects as envisioned by the sound source.

So, headphones imaging refers to localization as well as spatial cues integral to the sound content your headsets have to regenerate instead of create.  

What Affect Imaging of a Headphone?

Most music lovers use the best listening headphones they can find in the market in order to be able to listen to music for extended duration without fatigue.

Well, that is not usually the case because you will find out that the sound presentation is slightly odd after a few hours of listening due to untimely listening fatigue. This is a problem with poor imaging.

The main factors that affect imaging are:

  • Lateral position (where each object must be in the stereo image)
  • Depth (how far)
  • Width (how wide)

    There are some specific brands of headphones, such as AKG and STAX that have produced headsets with imaging properties similar to those of loudspeakers. To achieve this, the two brands place their diaphragms a little forward of the auditory canal. 

    Headphone Imaging vs. Sound Stage: What is the Difference?

    What should you expect from the best sound stage and imaging headphones? You should expect the best budget audiophile headphones to be able to preserve and regenerate the required spatial cues and localization integral to the sound content.

    Sound Stage

    What headphone users called sound stage refers to spatial cues and localization not integral to the audio/sound content. In this case, your headset has to generate them instead of reproducing them, which normally includes:

    • Crosstalk

      When listening to music on headsets, your right ear receives sound waves from the right channel and left ear receives sound waves from the left channel. But sound waves from left and right loudspeakers are received by both ears.

      • Early Reflections

        Usually, sound waves from loudspeakers undergo early reflections before they arrive on your ears. They intermingle with the room by bouncing off physical objects so as to develop highly corrected signals emerging from many directions.

        Your brain uses the properties of early reflections in relation to the sound source in order to estimate the acoustic features of the listening space as well as the dimensions and distance of the sound source.

        As far as headphones are concerned, there are no early reflections or delays. The ears are fed with direct sound waves from the channels. There is normally no indication how the signals will interrelate with a physical environment.

        • Distance & Angle of the Source

          You will normally position room speakers in front of you and at a thirty-degree angle. On the other hand, headsets are commonly positioned at a ninety-degree angle and at a close proximity to your eardrums.

          Basically, sound stage is the perceived space both forward and backward and left and right, and how long and wide that area can be.

          When using headphones, you can imagine of sound stage as a sphere of sound around your head. If it is a smaller sound stage the sphere is closer to your ears and if it is a wider sound stage the sphere is further away from your ears. 


          As I mentioned earlier, headphones imaging refers to the spatial cues and localization integral to the sound content. In this case, headphones with best imaging will have to regenerate the spatial cues and localization instead of creating them.

          Generally, imaging is the positional accuracy of a given sound within the sound stage. Headphones imaging can differ greatly from one product to another, so is the sound stage.

          Headphones with a wider sound stage are going to seem a little bit less accurate in terms of imaging because the manufacturer had to sacrifice a few things to have that wider sound stage.

          This may present some challenges for gamers who are searching for the best imaging headphones for gaming. However, there are some brands that have defied the rules of imaging and sound stage to provide gamers with what they need.

          Headphones Imaging for Gaming

          Shopping for the best sound stage and imaging headphones for gaming may be a bit of a challenge. But it shouldn’t now that you understand what imaging and soundstage is all about.

          As a gamer, I find imaging and well-balanced sound stage to be two critical elements to a satisfying gaming experience.

          Generally, I find open back headsets to have superior imaging than the closed back models. The best imaging headphones for gaming should also be outfitted with drivers that are angled towards your ears.

          The balance between soundstage and imaging depends on what you value most. If you want a very wide soundstage for your gaming experience, then you will have to sacrifice precise imaging. 

          Your gaming audio can be extremely annoying if your headset does not provide the ideal imaging in order to convey a superior center channel.

          For example, the X2 headphones have a considerably wide soundstage because of their physical design. But the soundstage is further exaggerated by the FR. Therefore, if you want a wider sound stage without sacrificing too much of imaging, you can consider such type of a headphone.   

          In Conclusion

          It can be easy to conclude that headsets do not have the ability of accurate imaging if you do not understand what headphones imaging and soundstage entail.

          But now that you know, you can easily agree with me that headsets are better at developing a feeling of the room in which the music was initially recorded.

          Also, on binaural recordings, headsets produce sound stage and imaging almost perfectly, delivering superb presentation of the music’s dimensional and directional affiliation to the listener.

          I would also like to remind you that imaging and sound stage are not the only factors you have to consider when shopping for the best listening headphones.

          There are other aspects to consider, such as the resonance, bass, treble, and frequency range of the headphones among other things.   

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