Monday, July 10, 2023

Headphone Stereo Setup Improved, Part II

In the Part I of these post series, I presented the architecture of my headphone audio processing chain along with an overview of the research it is based upon. In the Part II (this post), I'm presenting test tracks that I use in the process of adjusting the parameters, and the framework and tools for understanding them. The description of the adjustment process thus slips to upcoming Part III of this series of posts.

A Simplified Binaural Model of Hearing

Before we dive into tracks, I would like to explain my understanding of binaural hearing mechanism by presenting a simple model that I keep in my mind. Binaural hearing a very complex subject and I'm not even trying to get to the bottom of it. I have compiled together information from the following sources:

Note that the models presented in these sources are different from one another, and as it usually happens in the world of scientific research, there can be strong disagreements between authors on some points. Nevertheless, there is a number of aspects on which most of them agree, and here is what I could distill down:

From my understanding, after performing auto-correlation and per-band stabilization of auditory images for the signals in each ear, the brain attempts to match the information received from the left and the right ear in order to extract correlated information. Discovered inter-aural discrepancies in time and level allow the auditory system to estimate the position of the source, using learned HRTF data sets. Note that even for the same person there can be multiple sets of HRTFs. There is an understanding that there exist "near-field" and "far-field" HRTFs which can help in determining the distance to the source (see this AES paper for an example).

For any sound source for which the inter-aural correlation is not positive, there are two options:

  • If the sound has an envelope (that is, a period of onset and then a decay), its position will likely be "reset" to "inside the head." This applies both to uncorrelated and anti-correlated sounds. I'm not sure about the reason of the "resetting" for anti-correlated signals, however for uncorrelated signals this is pretty obvious as no remote external sound source can produce unilateral audio images. So the brain decided that the source of the sound must be a bug near your ear, or maybe even inside it :)

  • If the sound lacks an envelope: a continuous noise or buzz for example, it can remain "outside the head," however it's position will not be determined. In the real world, I did encounter such cases in airport and shops, when a "secured" door left open somewhere far away is making continuous ringing or beeping, and the sound is kind of "floating" around in the air, unless you get youself close enough to the source of the signal so that the inter-aural level difference can help in localizing it.

An important takeaway from this is that there are many parameters in the binaural signal that must be "right" in order for the hearing system to perceive it as "natural."

The Goniometer Tool

For me, the best tool for exploring properties of the correlation between the channels of a stereo signal is the goniometer. In its simplest form, it's a two-dimensional display which shows the combined output from the left and the right channels, in time domain. Basically, it visualizes the mid-side representation which I was discussing in the previous post. Usually the display is graded in the following way:

Even this simplest implementation can already be useful in checking whether the signal is "leaning" towards left or right, or perhaps there is too much uncorrelated signal. Below are renderings of stereo pink noise "steered" into various spatial directions. I have created these pictures based on views provided by the JS: Goniometer plugin bundled with the Reaper DAW):

The upper row is easy to understand, the interesting thing though is that while purely correlated or purely anti-correlated noise produces a nice line—that's because samples in both channels always carry either exactly the same or strictly opposite values, the mix of correlated and anti-correlated noise sort of "blows up" and turns into a fluffy cloud. Also, when panning purely correlated or anti-correlated noise, it just rotates around the center. Whereas, panning of the mix of correlated and anti-correlated looks like we are "squeezing" the cloud until it becomes really thin. Finally, with initially correlated signal, adding a small delay in one channel destroys correlation of higher frequencies, and what used to be a thin line becomes a cloud squeezed from the sides.

To see the latter effect in more detail, we can use a more sophisticated goniometer implementation which also shows the decomposition in the frequency domain, in addition to the time domain. For example, I use the free GonioMeter plugin by ToneBoosters. Below is the view on the same signal as in the bottom right corner of the previous picture:

The time-domain goniometer display is at the center—the same squeezed cloud, and to the left and to the right of it we can see a frequency-domain view of correlation and panning. This is the tool which I used to get an insight into the techniques used for stereo imaging of my test tracks.

Test Tracks

Now, finally, let's get to the tracks and how I use them. Overall, these tracks serve the same purpose as test images for adjusting visual focus in optical equipment. The important part about some of them is that I know which particular effect the author / producer wanted to achieve, because it's explained either in the track itself, or in the liner notes, or was explained by the producer in some interview. With regular musical tracks we often don't know whether what we hear is the "artistic intent" or merely an artefact of our reproduction system. Modern producer / consumer technology chains like Dolby Atmos are intended to reduce this uncertainty, however for traditional stereo records there are lots of assumptions that may or may not hold for the reproduction system being used, especially for headphones.

Left-Right Imaging Test

This is Track 10 "Introduction and Left-Right Imaging Test" from "Chesky Records Jazz Sampler & Audiophile Test Compact Disc, Vol. 1". This track is interesting because apart from conventional "between the speakers" positions, it also contains "extreme left" ("off-stage left") and "extreme right" positions that span beyond speakers. This effect is achieved by adding anti-correlated signal to the opposite channel. Let's use the aforementioned GonioMeter plugin for that. This is the "center" position:

Midway between center and right:

Fully to the right, we can see that the inter-channel correlation across the frequency range is dropping to near zero or lower:

Off-stage right, channels have entered the anti-correlated state, note that the panning indicator at the top part of the time-domain view does not "understand" the psychouacoustic effect of this:

And for comparison, here is off-stage left—similarly anti-correlated channels, however the energy is now on the left side:

Considering the "extreme" / "off-stage" positions, we can see that although the stereo signal is panned to the corresponding side, the opposite channel is populated with anti-correlated signal. Needless to say, the "off-stage" positions do not work with headphones unless some stereo to binaural processing is applied. The brain is unable to match the signals received from the left and the right ear, and "resets" the source position to "inside the head." Binaural processing adds necessary leaking thus allowing the brain to find similarities between the signals from the left and the right ears and derive the position.

Following the binaural model I have presented in the beginning of the post, the "extreme" left and right positions from the "Left-Right Imaging Test" can't be matched to a source outside of the head unless we "leak" some of that signal into the opposite ear, to imitate what happens when listening over speakers. However, if the room where the speakers are set up is too "live," these "off-stage" positions actually end up collapsing to "inside the head"! Also, adding too much reverb may make these extreme positions sounding too close to "normal" left and right positions, or even push them between the positions of virtual speakers.

That's why I'm considering this track to be an excellent tool not only for testing binarual rendering, but also for discovering and fixing room acoustics issues.

Natural Stereo Imaging

This is Track 28 "Natural Stereo Imaging" from "Chesky Records Jazz Sampler & Audiophile Test Compact Disc, Vol. 3" (another excellent sampler and a set of test recordings). The useful part in this track is the live recording of a tom-tom drum naturally panned around the listener. I have checked how the "behind the listener" image is produced, and found that it also uses highly decorellated stereo. This is "in front of the listener" (center):

And this is "behind the listener":

We can see that level-wise, they are the same, however the "behind the listener" is has negative inter-channel correlation. Needless to say, correct reproduction of this recording over the headphones requires cross-feed. But there is another thing to pay attention to. As the drum is moving around the listener, in a natural setting I would expect the image to stay at the same height. In headphones, this requires both correct equalization of the frontal and diffuse components, and some level of added reverberation in order to enrich the diffuse component with high frequencies. If the tuning isn't natural, the auditory image of the drum may start changing its perceived height while moving to sides and behind the head, for example, it might suddenly start appearing significantly lower than when it was in the front of the head.

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert

This is track 7 or 8, depending on the edition, of Pink Floyd's "The Final Cut" album. The track is called "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert" and contains a spectacular effect of a missile launched behind the head and exploding above the listener. The perceived height of the explosion helps to judge the balance between "dark" and "bright" tuning of the headphones.

Another good feature of the track is the spaciousness. As I understand it, the producer was using the famous Lexicon 224 reverberation unit (a brainchild of Dr. David Griesinger) in order to build the sense of being in the middle of a desert.

The Truths For Sale (the ending)

This is the final 1/2 minute of the Track 4 from "Judas Christ" album by gothic metal band Tiamat. For some reason it's not a track on its own, but it really could be. I must say that I listen to this album since it was released in 2002, but never until I started digging into headphones tuning this fragment really stood out for me. It was a pleasant shock when I've realized how much externalized and enveloping can it sound. Similar to the Brian Eno's music (see below), it's very easy to believe that the droning sound of the track is really happening around you.

Being part of a metal album, this track contains a lot of bass. Perhaps, too much. It's a good test to see whether the particular headphones are too heavy on the bass side. In this case, their resonances seriously diminish the sense of externalization because, thanks to the sensation of vibration, your brain realizes that the source of the sound is on your head. That's why this track complements well the previous one when checking the balance between low and high frequencies.

Spanish Harlem

Track 12 from the album "The Raven" by Rebecca Pidgeon is an audiophile staple. It's the famous "Spanish Harlem" track, it presents acoustically recorded ensemble of instruments and a female vocal. I use it for checking "apparent source width" and also localization of the instruments when comparing between different processing tunings.

The producer of this record, Bob Katz, recommends checking for bass resonances by listening to loudness of individual bass notes in the beginning of the track. Although, his advice was addressing subwoofer tuning, it applies to headphones as well, as they can also have resonances. Luckily, bass unevenness is much less concerning with headphones.

Ambient 1: Music For Airports

This is Track 1 from "Ambient 1: Music For Airports" by Brian Eno. It doesn't have a real title, just a mark that it's track 1 on the side 1 of the original vinyl issue of this album. This is an ambient track with sound sources floating around and lots of reverb, another very good example of the power of the Lexicon 224 reverb unit.

For me, this track is special because with a more or less natural headphone tuning it allows me to get into a state of transcending inside the world built by the sound of the album. My brain starts to perceive the recorded sounds as real ones, and I get a feeling that I don't have any headphones in/on my ears. I think, this happens because the sounds are somewhat "abstract" and it makes it easier for the brain to believe that they actually can exist around me in the room. Also, the sources are moving around, and this helps the brain to build up a "modified" HRTF for this particular case.

It's interesting, that after "priming" the auditory system with this track, all other tracks listened in the same session also sound very natural. I can easily distinguish between tracks with a good natural spaciousness, and tracks that resemble "audio cartoons," in the sense that they lack any coherent three-dimensional structure. I suppose, this state is that's the highest level of "aural awareness" which usually requires a room with a controlled reverb, and a very "resolving" speaker system. I'm glad that I can achieve that with just headphones.


I could easily use the entire album "Mine" by Architect (a project of Daniel Myer, also known for the Haujobb project) for the purpose of testing source placement and envelopment. This electronic album is made with a solid technical knowledge about sound and understanding of a good spectral balance, and is a pleasure to listen to. However, I don't actually listen to this track myself during the tuning process. Instead, I render the track 5, Immaterial via the processing chain after completing the tuning in order to catch any clipping that may occur due to extra gain resulting from equalization. Below are the short-term and overall spectral views of the track:

We can see that the track has a frequency profile which is actually more similar to white noise, not pink noise, thus it features a lot of high frequency content, that is, a lot of "air." That means, if I tilt the spectrum of the processing chain in favor of high frequencies, with this track there is a higher chance to encounter clipping. The sound material on this album also uses quite massive synthesized bass. That's why it's a good track to validate that the gain of the processing chain is right across the entire spectrum.

Synthetic and Specially Processed Signals

I could actually list much more tracks that I briefly use for checking this or that aspect of tuning, but we have to stop at some point.

While "musical" recordings are useful for checking general aspects of the tuning, in order to peek into details, we can use specially crafted sounds that represent a specific frequency band, for example. Traditionally, such sounds are obtained from synthesizers or noise generators, however I've found that processed "real" sounds tend to provide more stable results when judging the virtual source position.

In my process, I use recordings of percussion instruments: tambourine, bongos, and the snare drum. By themselves, they tend to occupy a certain subset of the audio spectrum, as we can see on the frequency response graph below (the snare drum is the green line, bongos are the red line, tambourine is the blue line):

However, to make them even more "surgical," I process them with a linear phase notch filter and extract the required band. This of course makes the resulting sound very different from the original instrument, however it preserves the envelope of the signal, and thus the ability of the brain to identify it. I use the critical bands of the Bark scale, as it has strong roots in psychoacoustics.

I took these instrument recordings from an old test CD called Sound Check, produced in 1993 by Alan Parsons and Stephen Court. The CD contains a lot of good uncompressed and minimally edited recordings, and for me, it stands together with the demo/test CDs from Chesky Records.

Consumer Spatializers

So, I'm going this DIY path, however these days there exist very affordable spatializers built into desktop and mobile OSes that can do binaural playback for stereo, and even employ head tracking, after "magically" guessing your HRTF from photographs of your head and ears. For sure, I did try these, however consumer-grade spatializers do not perform well on all my test tracks. For example, the "off-stage" positions from Left-Right Imaging Test we not rendered correctly by any spatializer I tried, instead it was collapsing to inside the head. The closest to my expectation was the Apple spatializer for AirPods Pro in the "head tracking" mode, however even in this case more or less correct positioning was observed for the right "off-stage" position only.

Yet another problem with consumer-grade spatializers I tried is that for lower latency they tend to use minimum-phase filters, and these distort the phase and group delay while applying signal magnitude equalization. This essentially kills the perception of the performance space which I preserve with my processing chain where I always use linear-phase filters. Each time I tried to substitute an LP filter with an MP equivalent (in terms of signal magnitude), the reproduction was blurred down and degrading into essentially a two-dimensional representation.

If I have a budget for that, I would go with a "proper" binaural spatializer like Smyth Realizer. But I don't, and for me making my own spatializer is the only viable alternative to get the sound I want.


It's a really long road to getting to a natural reproduction of stereo records in headphones, and we are slowly making it. In the process of making anything well, good tools are of a paramount importance. I hope that the description of the goniometer, and its application to analysis of described test tracks, as well as their intended use, did help. A lot more material will be covered in subsequent posts.