Best Volume Settings?


I have read various past threads concerning volume settings to achieve the best performance. In the latest issue of Stereophile, reviewer Jim Austin addresses this topic in the review of the Benchmark DAC3. He stated " most systems achieve their best noise performance in the top half of their volume range". Additionally he also stated " with the DAC3 set to its highest output level - the default setting - it was too hot in my system".

Interesting concept, so I decided to experiment with the volume controls with both my Hegel HD25 DAC and Primaluna Dialogue Premium Integrated Amp. As with the Benchmark, the default level setting for Hegel was its highest setting at 100. As a comparison, I reduced the Hegel's output level to 80 and using a db meter I then adjusted the PL to match the volumes as best as I could. As a baseline, I tried to achieve the average output volume of around 85dB which wasn't easy based on the dynamics of various recordings. With the Hegel set to 100, the PL volume control was approximately between 10 o'clock and 11 o'clock. With Hegel set to 80, the PL volume control was between 12 o'clock and 1 o'clock depending on the recording. All the recordings included voices which I always use as a guide to determine the best sound. The recordings included early rock music and female singers from various genre. In order to do a true comparison, I switched the order of the output levels with each recording since our minds can play tricks on which sounds better.

So here are my results. Overall the system sounded best with the Hegel set to 80. At the setting of 100, it sometimes sounded a bit smeared or glaring. With some recordings it wasn't so easy to distinguish any differences. So is it the Hegel set at the max level or the PL set at the top half of the volume range or both? Either way the Hegel will no longer be set to the max.

I appreciate if anyone has had similar results with both the input and output levels.



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In the latest issue of Stereophile, reviewer Jim Austin addresses this topic in the review of the Benchmark DAC3. He stated " most systems achieve their best noise performance in the top half of their volume range".
I think the operative words there are *most systems* (certainly not all). Just "listen" to your amp with no source input by putting your ear up to the speaker (tweeter) and hear what happens as you raise the volume. The more efficient your speakers are, the more "sizzle" you may/can hear. 

All amps distort the more their volume is raised. My vote is less amp volume and more source gain, but again, you don't want clipping and that sort of thing so it could be a fine balancing act to optimize the two.
My preamplifiers volume attenuator has a mechanical range from 7-5 o'clock. At 11 o'clock the amplifiers were driving the speakers to a rarely used high volume.

The designer/manufacture of the preamp made an internal adjustment that made 1 o'clock my typical listening level. Not only did this offer a wider low volume selection there is a noticeable overall sonic improvement especially at higher realistic levels.   
  My vote is less amp volume and more source gain, but again, you don't want clipping 

If memory serves, that is standard procedure in the studio. Playback and recording starts at the source to achieve the highest signal to noise. But not all components can be maxed out, need to find the optimal setting.

Reducing sources digital domain volume control below 75% of full up can "bit strip" the music.
As Wadia and Mark Levinson know and issue these instructions in their user manuals. https://ibb.co/e8sQxb

Cheers George 
@gdhal I agree there is a balance between the settings. I wanted to experiment based on the reviewers comments if there was some validity. So I decided to set a baseline volume in order to hear any differences. It was easier to distinguish differences at 85db than 75db. The volume control range on the Primaluna is also between 7 and 5 o'clock as stated by m-db so the 12 or 1 o'clock positions is are not at the extreme. 

@georgehifi you are probably correct with the digital domain set below 75%. After experimenting with the Hegels level at 80, I decided to set it at 90. The point being at the extreme setting of 100 there was a slight reduction of sound quality.

"All amps distort the more their volume is raised"

That may be true but not necessarily through the entire volume range. The higher distortion at the (very) low portion of the volume range is a fairly widely agreed upon artifact of most amplifiers. Same is probably true for most attenuators perhaps with the exception of the fancier step resistors, etc. One other thing to keep in mind is many attenuators do not have linear adjustments by design and the lower portions of the control are coarser than the higher range, etc.    

There are many preamps that provide too much gain when paired with the higher voltage outputs of many digital sources. The ability to reduce the output from these sources allows for less attenuation within the preamp. Often a sonic benefit.
@kalali 

Good point, You are correct. My previous statement "All amps distort the more their volume is raised" is not entirely accurate, but the spirit of what I meant is that lowest distortion occurs when the volume is lowest.

This is a pretty good article (IMO) that, among other things, dives rather deep into distortion, the various types of distortion, causes and so on. 
http://www.rocketroberts.com/techart/amp.htm
Thanks for your various points of view so there is no correct answer depending upon the source and pre/amp design and specs. It was interesting and educational performing this experiment and is food for thought for anyone interested experimenting themselves.
Thanks for your various points of view so there is no correct answer depending upon the source and pre/amp design and specs. It was interesting and educational performing this experiment and is food for thought for anyone interested experimenting themselves.
This is thinking the wrong way, you should be utilising all of what the source has as this will give you the quietest noise figure, and then have less or no gain in the gain stage section after volume control in the the preamp.

Quote from Nelson pass:

"We’ve got lots of gain in our electronics. More gain than some of us need or want. At least 10 db more.

Think of it this way: If you are running your volume control down around 9 o’clock, you are actually throwing away signal level so that a subsequent gain stage can make it back up.

Routinely DIYers opt to make themselves a “passive preamp” - just an input selector and a volume control.

What could be better? Hardly any noise or distortion added by these simple passive parts. No feedback, no worrying about what type of capacitors – just musical perfection.

And yet there are guys out there who don’t care for the result. “It sucks the life out of the music”, is a commonly heard refrain (really - I’m being serious here!). Maybe they are reacting psychologically to the need to turn the volume control up compared to an active preamp"


Cheers George.

Sorry, wrong posters quote above it should have been this one.
There are many preamps that provide too much gain when paired with the higher voltage outputs of many digital sources. The ability to reduce the output from these sources allows for less attenuation within the preamp.

Cheers George

Rather than saying there is ‘no correct answer’, one should likely say, ‘there are several correct answers, just not a one size fits all answer, for every scenario.

Gain is the item to be corralled or administrated. Too much at each intersection, source > pre. Pre > ap. Adds up. Ends up too now and then, not necessarily being the optimum solution.

As was said previously, that source makers suggest strongly that the volume on a DAC should be at or above 75% to avoid drop outs, from that point is where one needs to find their system synergy or sweet spot in overall system gain.

Bel Canto said something quite similar to me on the BC DAC 3 I own. I was told keep the revs up to 100% when its being used as a line source wherein another controller is adjusting the volume.

I forget what was said in the scenario wherein the BC D3 is being used as a preamp driving the amp directly..

It would seem one solution alone is not correct either. Though two, actually do appear to be able to accommodate more particular situations.

I followed orders keeping the vol up to 100% for the first two weeks during playback as a line source connected to a preamp. I got edgy about so doing and finally gave in lowering the overall steady state output voltage a tad to 95%. Emphasis on leading edges came more into line, yet articulation and resolution did not suffer further. So it remains at 95% whenever I fire it up to play from the HDD library or stream online whatever thru it. It does not remain on constantly.

I can see too, if someone is running lengthy legs of ICs voltage could drop significantly and cause distortions or drop outs of info depending on the source output voltage. As.. higher gained output voltages could with stand longer RCA IC runs.

I get the impression with todays' DAC which double as preamps or have volume controls volume attenuation takes place in the analog domain, not in the digital domain where it is more critical.

Digging up a thread from last year....as the OP's testing mirrors my own experience concerning Dac Volume Control  vs Pre/Integrated Amplifier.

Like the OP, I own a Hegel HD25.  My amp happens to be a Belles Aria.

With the DAC set to 100%, my music gets "very loud" at 9-10 o'clock. It would be blowing the roof off at 11 o'clock.  My curiosity was prompted by a thread on the Harbeth User Group site, going back to 2014.  In it, Alan Shaw was adamant (as only he can be) that amps should be working towards the top part of their volume pot movement for best sound quality. i.e loud should be experienced between 2-3 o'clock.

Shaw went on the say that there must be something "seriously wrong" if you're spending most of the time listening in the 8-9 o'clock range.

Provoked by this, I spent some time over the weekend testing different combinations.  Here's what I found:

1) To achieve 2-3 o'clock on the volume pot for very loud music, I'd need to reduce the DAC volume to around 50%.  This produced a muddy, muffled sound quality.  Obviously no good.

2) Around 75-80% on the HD25 means "loud" is achieved somewhere in the 9:30-11:00 o'clock range.  The music is clearly more rounded and analog sounding than full 100%. It's more enjoyable and listenable for longer periods.  It still apparently has the detail and punch of full signal, without the glare.  I like it.

3) This evening I'll experiment a little more with 85-90%.  Could be the sweet spot, as the OP and others have found

4) 100%, I have concluded,  is too hot.  I've never experimented before as I accepted Hegel's recommendation that 100% is the preferred setting when using a preamp.  I never really cared about the volume pot position.  Having tried lower DAC settings and higher amp settings, I'm convinced this is the best solution.