Revelations in Audio: Stereo Sound on Loudspeakers and in Headphones vs Binaural Audio


I’ve always preferred to listen to recorded music on speakers. I’ve had high quality hi-fi systems since I was 15, including a superb pair of loudspeakers I built myself from a Wilmslow Audio kit design.

For me, music reproduced through a quality system via loudspeakers, positioned carefully in a dedicated listening room, sounds natural and more the way I believe the artists and producers intended – very few albums are recorded and mixed to be heard primarily on headphones.

The soundstaging – the way a hi-fi system presents the music in stereo, with depth and stereo imagery – can be impressive. The first time I heard a high-end hi-fi system in the early 1980s was a revelation; the classic Linn Sondek LP12 turntable with its Ittok tonearm and Asak cartridge and Naim Audio 32/SNAPS Pre-amplifier, tri-amped Naim 250 power amplifiers and Linn Isobarik speakers, presented the music with tonal accuracy, dynamics and with such a focused soundstage that I could hear Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel standing in precise locations in the room, singing and playing guitars whilst their band was behind them and around them. The system reproduced the soundstage with depth and width of field, enhancing the mere left-right sound reproduced by less capable systems. The experience inspired me to use the stereo soundstage effectively in my own recordings, and to aspire to owning a ‘high-end’ hi-fi system.

By comparison, a stereo recording played through headphones is a more internal listening experience. The artists and instruments are heard as if they are somewhere inside the listener’s head, placed left-to-right, but without the presence and depth that a good set of speakers can project. Many people who may not have access to high-quality hi-fi systems like to listen on headphones as they allow listeners to hear details which are often lost by poor quality systems and speakers, or listening rooms that are less than optimal. For them, headphones can provide a more realistic listening experience. For audiophiles such as me, quality hi-fi replay through loudspeakers are the preferred way to listen to music.

Cinemas have for some time used surround-sound effects, to place sounds around the audience, including Dolby Atmos, which includes speakers above the audience to give impressions of height and depth to cinematic sound. Although home-cinema audio can use surround systems such as 5.1 and 7.1, these formats are a rarity for recorded music. The standard for domestic high-fidelity music reproduction remains as two-channels: stereo.

Binaural recording is distinct from stereo, it is a method of recording using a “dummy head” with microphones inside the dummy’s ears, to capture exactly the sound as it would be heard by a listener in the location the recording was made, or mixed using software to simulate the three-dimensional hearing of our ears. Binaural audio is intended to be reproduced using headphones to deliver the sound at the eardrums as recorded; it does not function effectively over stereo loudspeakers because of the positioning of the sound sources relative to the eardrums.

I recently had an audio revelation akin to the first time I heard the Linn/Naim system I mention above. On New Year’s Eve 2020, Jean-Michel Jarre broadcast online a live performance in which he was playing at his Paris studio, filmed in 3-D motion-capture which placed his avatar in a Virtual Reality recreation of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The performance was viewed live online by 75 million people, one of whom was me. The concert was recorded, and has been released commercially on several formats. As part of researching immersive audio for my MSc, I compared the stereo mix of the concert with the binaural mix originally intended to complement the 3D VR visuals, using Beyer Dynamic’s excellent DT990 Pro studio quality headphones.

The stereo mix was as expected: clear, focused, powerful, and internal to my head.

Jean-Michel Jarre live in VR – Stereo audio mix –

The binaural mix literally added extra dimensions to the listening experience.

Jean-Michel Jarre live in VR – Binaural headphone mix –

The music surrounded me in every direction – to my left and right, in front of me, behind me, above and below me, sounds were rendered in the distance and nearby, sometimes moving around me in any direction within the 3D soundfield, sometimes in point-source locations, sometimes enveloping me and swirling around me. Jarre used reverberation effects in mono, stereo and surround positioning to emphasise and animate the placement of instruments and effects. The difference between stereo and binaural listening was stark, akin to the Linn/Naim system’s superiority over basic stereo systems. Whereas the Linn/Naim system brought stereo listening to life, the binaural recording rendered music in a realistic three-dimensional world of sound, effective even with synthesised electronic music.

The luddite in me still prefers to listen to music in stereo on loudspeakers; they form a sonic “stage” on which recorded musicians can perform, it is a format I enjoy on a system I’ve built and nurtured over decades. And yet… I cannot deny that binaural listening is more akin to the way we hear in reality, and that in this age when many millions of people listen to music streamed online to earbuds linked to their phones, binaural audio can offer a new experience for them, as well as for audiophiles like me.

Reference: Korff c (2021) An Introduction To Binaural Recording – Use Your Head

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