Full detailed sound at 30 - 40 - 50 dB


I love the nuance you can hear when listening to music at loud volumes, but unless no one is home, it’s not considerate or feasible to listen at such high volumes. Plus I just had a baby so everyone is always home and volume levels are limited to 40ish dBs. 

Any recommendations for getting the most detail at these volumes? Additional gear or recommended integrated amps?

My NAD 7175PE has a loudness button which boosts the treble and bass a little, and that certainly helps things in the Kitchen. 

My living room amp is a Rega Brio-R which doesn’t have any tone controls. 

Any thoughts? Thanks!
leemaze
search out the source of any competing noise...
dimmers, appliances, etc...
I’m in a similar boat and researching speakers with great presence at low volumes..All my reading has yielded the single most important ingredient needed is high efficiency...I am looking at Spatial Audio,Reference 3A and the Silverline Audio Prelude Plus,check them out...
Another route is to put together a nice headphone system...A nice little tube amp and circumaural open back cans(HiFiMan,Audeze or Sennheiser's)will put a big smile in your ears and still allow audio connection with the outside environment,ie:crying baby etc..
Get a Schiit Loki EQ gizmo…I have one and it’s really useful for exactly what you describe, and pretty much mainly what I use mine for when needed during quieter late night listening. It’s also relatively inexpensive for a well made thing. Note I have very efficient horn loaded speakers and the phenomena of low volume frequency perception is still a thing, although perhaps to a lessor degree than with other designs.

I second wolf_garcia’s suggestion; the Schiit Loki Mini would work really well as a "loudness" switch. Set the desired attenuation/gain for each tone control level for quiet listening and then you can use the bypass switch to go "straight wire" when you’re listening at typical volume levels. Only drawback is that with the Brio there isn’t a tape monitor feature so you’d be limited to using the Loki for only one component; or one component at a time. :-)

Regards,

Tom

PS: Open back headphones are also a good solution. It's what I used when we had a baby in the house.

30,40, and 50db are pretty quiet. I bet many listening rooms have at 30db of background noise before music has started playing.  I listen at pretty low levels and it wasn’t until I got a tube based high efficiency setup before I could truly enjoy music at lower listening levels.  It made a world of difference.
seikosha I think you just pushed me into buying new speakers!
Get some good headphones. 
Get some good headphones.
+1

The quiescent noise floor in my listening room at best is 30db (measured). Personally and IMO, anything music wise lower than 50db wouldn't be worthwhile to listen to from an enjoyment perspective. Background while having conversation about something unrelated to music perhaps. 

Any recommendations for getting the most detail at these volumes?
Yes. Assuming you want to use speakers and not headphones, sitting closer to the speaker by a few inches can be helpful. In my case I like to listen at times in the low 90's, but usually find myself backing off to the mid to low 80's as it gets into the late evening. At one point I positioned myself about 8 inches closer to the speaker (I'm 7 feet away now) and the 8 inch difference was enough for me to lower the decibel range (again measured) by about 2.5. Even a 2.5 db decrease in decibels can be helpful at times.
Are you a male or female? If the former I want to know how in the heck did YOU have a baby"? What did you dilate up to before delivery? I'm sure your wife or girlfriend is pleased to know that fact. Now regarding your question about low level listening, have you considered room treatment? 
Get a pair of Quad ESL's! Probably the most revealing speakers ever!
Get a Decibel meter and measure the sound level in your room with EVERYTHING off. My bet is you'll see numbers in 40ish range. So regardless of the system, 40ish dB listening levels is basically background music at best. As most have suggested, get a headphone and crank it up to your heart's desire.
Lowering ambient noise as much as possible is indeed a first requisite. In a new house you can specify sound proofing glass for the windows, muffled ventilation, a quieter heating system, but in an existing house these are all hard/expensive to do. Even, so there may well be possibilities.
The headphone suggestion is a good one, it cures a lot of woes and can give you some great listening sessions, also keep in mind that the speakers are like an open window to your upstream components and are not going to cure any of their short comings. I myself have my system set up, in near field, such as to render all the dynamics and presence I need at low volumes. Most my listening sessions are late at night into early morning, while grandson is asleep and can honestly say that I don’t miss the higher volume but do crank it up when I can but absolutely don't miss the higher volumes when I can't.
Thanks for the suggestions guys. Ordering a Loki now, I’ll let you know how it goes. I think that’s the ticket.

I use only two sources: Airplay streaming through a DAC and a Rega Planet CD Player. I can EQ the streaming on my computer and the Loki will go in line with the CD player.

Cheers!
Also sitting closer to the speakers is definitely a helpful tip I’ve been using already - sometimes I just want to sit on the couch though :)


Note that creating an unusually quiet environment for a baby can condition the baby to not be able to sleep without utter quiet, sometimes not a good thing. I don't imply anyone should expect a baby to sleep through excessive loudness, but I've seen this happen with one of our grandkids…in a largish house everyone having to whisper if the baby's sleeping…actually a first in my wife's and my experience (raised 3 kids between us), and because we're "all knowing" grandparents, our expertise is, of course, unquestionable, although we could be wrong about everything as all kids are different.
Note that creating an unusually quiet environment for a baby can condition the baby to not be able to sleep without utter quiet, sometimes not a good thing.

I recommend a little background Grateful Dead music from time-to-time. The baby will grow older with that much more love in his/her heart.
@wolf_garcia oh don’t worry. This house definitely is not quiet.  :)

@gdhal lots of Prince and Brian Eno love here. :)
Play complicated jazz so the baby becomes smarter.
@leemaze I have also had to be volume conscious and found that a more sensitive speaker and tube amp make a big difference. I can listen at very low volumes and get all the detail and bass. Speakers are tekton di and they do remarkably well at low volumes.
regards,
greg
If you are wanting full detail at lower volumes, this is an area where tubes rule. This is because they tend to have a lot lower distortion at lower power levels. Something to think about...
If you are wanting full detail at lower volumes, this is an area where tubes rule. This is because they tend to have a lot lower distortion at lower power levels. Something to think about...
Hi @atmasphere 

Given your statement, at what decibel level do you consider the volume to be something "higher" than lower volume? The essence of the question is at what power level do tubes no longer "rule" over SS because of power concerns. Thank you. 
Tubes rule! Or not, but I didn’t know tubes were better for low volume (I learn something from Atmasphere about once every 4 and a half days), but I prefer tube amps anyway so I don’t recall the difference since I’ve had a tube amp in the rig for so long…I have noticed better low level sound since I put a pair of efficient horn speakers in the rig, but the tone issues with lower levels are always there so you’re going to need loudness compensation for that anyway if you want the highs (and lows) to get to your earballs…hense my Schiit Loki usefulness. One thing about the Loki is it’s single ended RCA only so balanced "pre to amp" users have to run it through a tape loop or something (although not all preamps have those these days). Maybe the Schiit-heads next EQ (Loki Maxi?) will be balanced. Also the immediate slam and general snappy response of a great tube amp (mine is a lowish powered Dennis Had Fire Bottle HO), along with the inherent tonal "rightness" (an official audiophile term), makes tubes at least "seem" balsier than most SS amps at higher volume when paired with appropriate speakers.
For sure tubes are FAR better at low level resolution than any SS .
 Only you know what loud is to you .Atmasphere is the THE tube expert on
here but from the maybe 6 tube amps and 30 SS amps I've owned I would say a tube amp with GOOD transformers putting out 30 watts is at least equal to a 100 watt SS .
Maybe the Schiit-heads next EQ (Loki Maxi?) will be balanced.
Exactly!

I mentioned that here: https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/schiit-reference-sytem-review-freya-into-yggdrasil-into-vidar... 
Given your statement, at what decibel level do you consider the volume to be something "higher" than lower volume? The essence of the question is at what power level do tubes no longer "rule" over SS because of power concerns. Thank you.
Its not so much a decibel thing as it is a distortion thing.

Take a look at the distortion curves of a typical solid state amp. At a certain lower power level, the distortion is at its minimum and as you go to lower levels the distortion can be significantly higher! This is not a given with tube amps, even push-pull amps (our amps are push-pull but distortion linearly decreases to unmeasurable as power is decreased).

So that power level is about 5-7% of full power with most solid state amps. If you've ever heard that bit about the 'first watt' being the most important, that's because its all about distortion (or in this case, the lack of it). BTW, Nelson Pass has a set of solid state amps called the 'First Watt' amps and they are so-named because they diverge from the usual solid state amps in that they too are very low distortion at low power levels. Their designs are also quite minimalist (even simpler than and not unlike tube amps in that regard) although they don't make a lot of power.

If you want good resolution so you hear everything (including good bass) at lower levels, this is what you have to do: tubes or a low powered solid state amp like a First Watt.

Now to the latter portion of the question- even at high power levels, the presentation continues to be all about distortion (or the lack of it). The thing is, the ear weights certain forms of distortion over other forms. What I mean by this is most people understand that the ear hears sound pressure on a logarithmic curve. What is considerably less understood is that the ear also detects harmonics on something that looks like a log curve. It is far more sensitive to higher orders (in particular the odd orders) than it is to the lower orders like the 2nd or 3rd harmonic. For this reason, we tolerate large amounts of lower ordered harmonic easily, but don't tolerate higher ordered harmonics well at all.

Audiophiles have terms for trace amounts of higher ordered harmonics; 'bright' and 'harsh' are common examples. This continues to be the big difference between tubes and solid state with regards to distortion! Now think about that weighting issue I mentioned: essentially, solid state amps have much **greater** amounts of distortion if you weight the distortion according to how the ear/brain system responds to it (all forms of distortion are converted to a tonality of some sort BTW). So a 7th harmonic at 0.005% is a much bigger sin in terms of coloration than a 2nd harmonic at 1%. Its a bit of an inconvenient truth.

Our measurement and testing regime is a good 40-50 years behind our understanding of physiology at this point, which is why there is still a tubes/transistors debate going on in high end audio.
@ leemaze

I'm amazed at how much deep bass I can hear at low volume after installing Cerious Technology Graphene Extreme speaker cables.  Yeah, yeah, let the flaming begin, but I've tried other cables.  In my case, I found a big difference and nice increase in being able to hear super low bass with the sound not turned up high at all.  That said, for intelligibility of vocals and higher frequencies, you do have to turn it up enough to overcome any ambient noises.


@atmasphere

I’m very appreciative of your rather detailed and informative last post herein.

I know I read from you elsewhere on the forum (and quite a while ago now and paraphrasing) that all amps distort less as their power level is decreased, but must have missed the fact that this would only by to a certain point, after which distortion increases.

Also rather interesting that you should point out the relationship distortion has with harmonics and how you consider "weighting".

Honestly your write-up is analogous to Shakespeare. You just can’t read it once and claim to understand it :) I’ll copy/paste to a word file so I can more readily refer to it.

Thank you so much.
Also rather interesting that you should point out the relationship distortion has with harmonics and how you consider "weighting".
There is always more to it...

We all know about Fletcher-Munson. The Fletcher-Munson curves show where our ears are most sensitive, which is birdsong frequencies. This is because birds are the first indication of a predator in the vicinity and their calls activate other birds to spread the alarm. It does not matter if you are predator or prey, if you can't hear birdsong you're likely hungry or eaten.

The harmonics of a good number of instruments happen to fall into this region which is up to 7KHz. So the instruments that are making the most energy in music have harmonics that fall in the range to which our ears are most sensitive. This is likely not coincidence, but it presents a daunting challenge to engineers if the goal is to get audio systems to sound like real music and not an audio system! 

Traditional engineering tends to ignore this, although we've known the Fletcher-Munson curves for decades.

One example of this is the use of loop feedback in amp and preamplifier designs. Feedback is known to bifurcate the input signal and thus generate harmonics of its own while also suppressing distortion. For this reason feedback usually contributes to brightness in all amps in which it is used; this brightness is caused by distortion rather than frequency response error. Our ears use the higher ordered harmonics to sense sound pressure, so any addition to these harmonics (or their presence where none was before) is easily heard, despite not being all that easy to measure.

The audio industry is a long ways from acknowledging this fact so we can expect amps to have a tendency to brightness for some time to come. One of the few areas where there are deviations from this norm is in high end audio. Its a weird world...


Number one thing to do is add a decibel meter to your Smartphone.
Plenty of them are free.
Check the actual sound levels..

I usually listen at 55db up to 70dB. Really really loud for me is 80dB.

For quiet listening, getting used to it is a big part if enjoying it. If you listen LOUD half the time, liking it quiet is really hard to do.

As for the best speakers, high efficiency over 95dB is the best audiophile choice.With a low watt tube amp.
@atmasphere 

Take a look at the distortion curves of a typical solid state amp. At a certain lower power level, the distortion is at its minimum and as you go to lower levels the distortion can be significantly higher! This is not a given with tube amps, even push-pull amps (our amps are push-pull but distortion linearly decreases to unmeasurable as power is decreased).

So that power level is about 5-7% of full power with most solid state amps. If you've ever heard that bit about the 'first watt' being the most important, that's because its all about distortion (or in this case, the lack of it). BTW, Nelson Pass has a set of solid state amps called the 'First Watt' amps and they are so-named because they diverge from the usual solid state amps in that they too are very low distortion at low power levels. Their designs are also quite minimalist (even simpler than and not unlike tube amps in that regard) although they don't make a lot of power.

If you want good resolution so you hear everything (including good bass) at lower levels, this is what you have to do: tubes or a low powered solid state amp like a FirstWatt.

Which First Watt would you recommend to the owner of high efficiency speakers (101db, 16 Ohm) ? Currently using push-pull tube amp designed (OEM) by Trafomatic Audio for WLM Acoustic back in the days. 
@mtrot +1 on the CTGE
I recommend you move the baby into the audio room and acclimate the kid to your hobby now. I learned to fall asleep to a bunch of dudes wailing on guitars in the next room...and look where it got me...posting bad advice on Audiogon. :-)
Congratulations on having a baby. One of life's great blessings.
Which First Watt would you recommend to the owner of high efficiency speakers (101db, 16 Ohm) ? Currently using push-pull tube amp designed (OEM) by Trafomatic Audio for WLM Acoustic back in the days.
A lot depends on your preamp as the single gain stage units need more drive.  I'd be looking at one of the 20 or 25W units since they will be making less power than that into 16 ohms.

FWIW a speaker like that is ideal for tubes. We make a 30-watt/ch OTL that would work great on that.
Post removed 
A subwoofer will do the trick . You will most likely feel bass is missing at those low volumes . You can listen at low background levels with a sub and get the full frequency range . 
@atmasphere maybe off topic but do you have a suggestion for a preamp to use with a passlab xa30.5 that will be used with 96db sensitive speakers?
Sure- one of our preamps will do that nicely :) (they're balanced).
The Pass amps are pretty easy to drive though- I would expect it to work with many different preamps.
I have Ascend Acoustics Sierra 2 speakers, and they sound great at lower volumes. I'm powering them with a Rega Elex-R, and live in a condo, so rarely listen at loud levels. I've had about eight pairs of good quality speakers over the years and these sound the best of any of them at lower volumes. Good luck.
@gdhal

Thank you for your ringing endorsement of Grateful Dead Music to produce a more peaceful and well-balanced child. I don’t have children, but I would recommend Dead for folks with a new puppy. My one-year-old is a jammin’ Deadhead dog, who asked me to buy him a tie-dye bandana for his birthday...(He is also a Jazz fan...) Like father, like son.
@cheapbob

You're welcome.

Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile 
I recently built a pair of back-loaded horn speakers using full-range single drivers and had a similar challenge as the OP since they are in a system in an upstairs room that I’m gradually converting into a small listening room. So low volume listening levels are important. What I discovered after experimentation using my own (SS) gear and borrowing gears from my friends was that a low powered tube amplifier with a very low damping factor - high output impedance, and using basic speaker cables, produced the best sound quality at low volume. The trade off however is the lower bass gets a little boomy at higher volumes. Ironically, the amplifier that gave the best result was a very moderately priced Chinese unit with only 8.5 wpc. Next best was a Decware integrated. So like everything else in life there’s always a trade off.

“Full detailed sound” can easily be heard at ambient noise + about 20 db. In general ambient noise will be anywhere between 35-50 db, depending on the time of the day and other running equipment in the room like Air Conditioners, Computers or others using cooling fans. Ambient noise of 30 db or lower will only exist in studios or specially treated rooms. Even people may believe that their rooms are as quiet as 30 db or lower usually they don’t have the equipment to support their assumption. To measure such low sound pressure levels your sound level meter should be able to measure as low as 25 db. Now, for all those owning a calibrated sound level meter, not the one on your mobile phone, please check the lowest end of the scale, mostly it’s only able of measuring as low as 30-35 db.

As for waking up the baby, it may happen a few times at first, but after some time the baby will adapt to the sound of music. I remember when my wife was pregnant, I used to play music at ambient + 40 – 50 db levels almost daily, so after the birth of my son we thought it to be better to lower the levels to ambient + 20 – 30 db or so. Now, all babies sometimes have their “crying hour”, including my son, but after some time we found that when we played our favorite music, ambient + 30 – 40 db, he became quiet, relaxed and would fall asleep real quickly. It almost worked as if the music to his ears was as familiar as his mothers’ voice. It came to the point that before sleeping we played Joan Armatrading (popular music 37 years ago when my son was born), he would sleep real quickly. Not surprisingly…. he is now into high end audio…

So, go ahead, enjoy the music, even with the whole family is in the house or in the room. Just remember that the ears of a baby are still much more sensitive than ours, so keep the sound pressure levels between 60 to 70 db at most….. Happy listening.


I want to come back to the preference for tubes with high output impedance playing at low level. Why could this be? I have two explanations. The first is that a particular tube amplifier may have a non flat frequency response emphasizing low end and top. This is not infrequenctly the case (see the Stereophile response graphs for many of them), and would act as a traditional loudness control. The second explanation could be that underpowered amplifers actually compress the signal. They depress the peaks, and this has the effect of raising the relative level of the quieter passages, for more 'detail'. This is then a crude version of the digital compression software as used by FM radio stations to keep the signal within the limited dynamic range of the FM format. Yes it works, but is it realistic? No. But then, no low level playing is a realistic representation of the real thing. Enjoy the baby - my kids have now reached the age when they like to play the audio at it's limits....

willemj, take a look at the article by Nelson Pass in First Watt Articles describing how current source amplifiers work with full-range single driver speakers. It was published in 2004. Lots of great info on that site. 

http://www.firstwatt.com/articles.html

There is always more to it...
@atmasphere 

Hi Ralph. I have a follow up question if you don't mind, as I mentioned I would be re-reading/re-digesting the rather informative information you've already provided.

Regarding the "weighting' where distortion is more problematic depending on which harmonic the distortion occurs, I note that manufacturers - including your own product specifications - provide "total harmonic distortion" and in some cases "intermodulation distortion". Other than subjective listening, how might a customer objectively derive from specifications alone at which harmonics the distortion is occurring? I guess what I'm asking is, is there a way to understand the individual numbers that comprise "total" harmonic distortion? Thanks.
Other than subjective listening, how might a customer objectively derive from specifications alone at which harmonics the distortion is occurring?
That is a good question. You can get some of that from the spectral analysis. this can be tricky- I've seen some of this done on our amps, but the methodology is was incorrect (one speaker terminal got accidentally grounded by the test equipment) so the readings were off. If the measurement technique doesn't introduce problems, this can be one way of sorting things out. 
But if the total is low, the  components must be even lower (or theoretically at most equal).
But if the total is low, the components must be even lower (or theoretically at most equal).
Right, but atmasphere is stating that "a 7th harmonic at 0.005% is a much bigger sin in terms of coloration than a 2nd harmonic at 1%". So even a very low THD still begs the question, "at what harmonic"?
+1 for good tone controls. :)
The Loki tone controls are really great.  Got the unit 5 days ago and used it to add just a touch warmth and boost the upper register.  It sounds really excellent - crystal clear, doesn't muddy anything at all.  I got matching AudioQuest ICs for the in and the out, and listening at night I no longer have burning desire to keep turning up the volume.

Worked like a charm - thanks for the idea @wolf_garcia @tketcham