Is Louder always Better?


i'm inclined to say yes.

first, context: you are not generating impedance mismatches when A/Bing gear, you have amps w/ more than enough power for your speakers / room (ie no clipping) and you haven't disconnected your tweeters (ala monster subs in cars) or sitting horribly off-axis.

the thing about home audio (digital particularly) is that as external noise is reduced, you are left w/ a purer signal--simple S/N ratio folks. generally, live instruments don't hurt your ears, but when a home rig does, i'd contend that its the noise riding on the signal, as its mostly concentrated on the upper mids thru treble, and this is where fatigue is generated (again, monster sub in car example for bass as non-fatiguing). the external & objectionable noise found in this frequency range determines final listening SPLs (the listener naturally arrives at a volume setting where the artifact noise doesn't cause overt fatigue). as noise is reduced, the final SPL level can be increased while generating no incremental listening fatigue.

but, at all volumes, it also implies greater microdetail & clarity (again higher S/N ratio), while also being more enjoyable---i consider those findings as evidence that 'louder is better' is a fine litmus test. if you make changes that result in your listening louder without your ears immediately objecting, you are highly likely listening to an improvement in home playback (given original context).

what is this getting at? external noise (aka Distortion) not only obscures micro-detail in the upper mids & treble, but it also causes listening fatigue and ultimately limits the volume you can listen comfortably at (ergo the thread title). i've found that external noise removal is a function of 3 efforts, all of which are equally important:
1) power conditioning
2) vibrations
3) room acoustics

(one visionary poster referred to them as the holy trinity of audio, i agree).

i figure i've put 10% of my audio budget into these 3, and it ultimately is the difference between a decent but disappointing rig, and a very satisfying one.

YMMV, but probably won't.
rhyno
Yes power conditioning to remove AC noise. I use filter chokes in the DAC, preamp and amps that I build. That helps remove the fatigue in the upper registers, gives you the detail without the etch and the dynamic micro-to-macro passage swings are not congested at all. My preamp and DAC are also transformer coupled DHT designs.
Yes, Rhyno, tend to agree w/ your statements.
for me, louder is better and more palpable in sonic terms.
I am an avid Jazz Head, there is always a time to swing and swing loudly.

The same can be said for Rock n Roll (all genres). Clearly, this music was designed to be "amplified" or played loudly.

Lastly, classical music must be played loudly as well, to appreciate the many crescendo(s) to scale properly.

Thanks! for sharing- JA
+1, Rhyno, to all points regarding lowering the noise floor.
Louder is usually better but up to a point. Beyond that, your ears start to hurt with hearing loss and ringing over the long term.
Happy listening! J.
Rhyno,
I agree with some of your points & disagree with others...

the thing about home audio (digital particularly) is that as external noise is reduced, you are left w/ a purer signal....
after having read your entire OP where you "decoded" the meaning of "external noise", I now understand what you are trying to say & I agree. Really what you are talking about is "distortion" that adds to the existing noise floor thereby reducing the S/N.

....i consider those findings as evidence that 'louder is better' is a fine litmus test.
I'm not sure I agree with this - even tho' one's system might be low distortion, it doesn't mean that the volume should be cranked up to listen. Not all music sounds right with the volume knob cranked up. For example, unamplified/unplugged guitar music does not sound right when it's being played at overly high volumes. It sounds better & correct at a lower level that might be more representative of the SPL you might get in a hall with an unplugged guitar.
I've also found that when one's system is low(er) distortion then playing music at lower volumes is equally satisfying because the micro dynamics & macro dynamics are both present.
From the title of your post & your OP, I don't get that same feeling, which is a quite a big difference in my thinking & yours. You seem to think, write & prefer cranking up the volume to get the micro & macro dynamics which makes me want to believe that your equipment is not upto par to play at low(er) SPLs & still deliver the micro & macro dynamics. If that's the case, you still have more work to do.....

i've found that external noise removal is a function of 3 efforts, all of which are equally important:
1) power conditioning
2) vibrations
3) room acoustics
I think you skipped a big step & put the cart before the horse - one's electronics & speakers. Before one goes onto making improvements to your above 3 cited items, one needs to ensure that the electronics + speakers are low distortion otherwise one will simply end up revealing the flaws of one's equipment & be limited by the same.
In your "context" para you did cite not creating imp mismatches, avoiding clipping, having suff output power, not disconnecting tweeters, etc but those conditions do not include selecting electronics + speakers with low(er) distortion.
Again, by noting that "louder is better" for you, you have some work to do in upgrading/replacing your electronics &/or speakers with lower distortion equivalents.
In my experience as distortion is lowered and S/N ratio increases ,listening can be done at lower SPL levels and is very engaging and involving. There's less need for higher volume in order to enjoy music reproduction. True resolution reveals nuance and dynamic gradients/emotion at a lower listening volume. This improvement means cranking the sound is not needed for compensation due to lower resolution systems.better resolution means less volume is required.
Charles,
source material quality always matters, as do electronics. but folks spend fortunes here and never get this right, ergo my post. a sony receiver will never amount to much due to its inherent S/N ratio, but thats self evident i think.

in context of my premise that louder is better, its always in relation to 'fatigue', and not a function of enjoyment at a particular volume (which is more plausible as S/N ratio improves). you simply aren't as limited by the noise (via fatigue) when reaching for the volume setting. the louder you can listen without fatigue, the better your system is, given some selective assumptions as defined originally.

good listening folks

I find the use of the term S/N ratio and "noise" confusing here. Is noise a catchall for harmonic and intermodulation distortion, phase anomalies, frequency response variation, and signal/sound that is uncorrelated with the musical content (what I consider to be "noise") and any other forms of distortion? If that is the case, all that is being said is that if bad stuff is lower in level relative to signal, that is better than when bad stuff is higher in level and does little to explain what are the most important types and sources of distortion.

If what is being discussed is noise (uncorrelated with the signal) as measured as S/N ratio, I would think this is of minor importance once noise falls below a certain level. A lot of cheap gear will have vanishing low levels of noise, as measured by S/N ratio, that high end tube gear will never come close to matching, and that hardly matters.

As far as what I look for in gear, I am with Charles1dad. I have little interest in how loud I can get the system before fatigue sets in. I look for the very oppposite--I like gear that is resolving, sounds full and satisfying, and has great dynamics when playing at lower volume levels; the better my system has become, the LOWER I tend to set the volume.
Larry
Yes, that's exactly my point and observation. Superior resolution induces lower listening levels due to improved intelligibility.
Charles,
Now that I think about it, Rhyno is probably referring to headroom--how loud a system can get beyond normal listening level before distortion, in all of its forms, becomes too obtrusive. It IS important that the amps not distort or clip before reaching the highest level that the listener wants to listen at, and it IS important that the speakers not compress or the speaker cone be free of excessive "breakup" (non-pistonic) behavior. However, we each have different loudness levels we like, and different priorities. I don't place as high a priority on being able to play loudly as I do on being able to play very softly and sound good. It is a VERY rare thing that a system can do it all without compromises.

I have replaced the midrange driver and horn in my system with another that is, to me, extraordinarily good at low volume levels. I accept that it does have a tendency to "shout" at lower levels than other similar drivers, but I value its abilities at low volume enough to accept that compromise. It is equally understandable that someone else would hate the compromise I made because they place a much higher priority on high volume abilities. System building involves determining what one likes (priorities) and then finding the best way to minimize compromises.
Lots of good comments above. As Bombaywalla and Larryi alluded to, I think the OP is conflating noise, and the ratio of signal-to-noise, with distortion in its various forms. Noise and distortion are very different things, having different causes and different effects.

As I see it distortion, which can exist in many forms, is what will typically cause listener fatigue, and also often result in the listener preferring to listen at a less than realistic volume and/or at a lower volume than he or she may otherwise prefer. And as Bombaywalla indicated, and assuming good source material, speakers and system components are likely to be the main contributors to distortion.

That is all consistent with comments Ralph/Atmasphere has made many times, to the effect that certain higher order odd harmonic distortion components are used by our hearing mechanisms as loudness cues, and minimizing or eliminating those distortion components is essential to the system being able to replicate, or at least approximate, the sense of "ease" which characterizes the dynamic peaks of unamplified music heard live.

Noise and the ratio of signal to noise, on the other hand, which I certainly agree can be helped in many cases by power conditioning, and in some cases also by vibration control, but which can also often be limited by the intrinsic performance of the electronics, involve low level effects that can adversely affect resolution, inner detail, ambience, micro-dynamics, and other such things. But I would not expect noise, or its relation to signal level (i.e., S/N ratio), to have much if any effect on the maximum volume that may be preferred.

Regarding the comments by Charles and Larryi about listening at relatively low volumes, I certainly agree that the ability of a system to perform well at those levels is a desirable attribute. But given the premise that we want our systems to reproduce well recorded music as realistically as possible, my feeling is that that cannot be accomplished without listening at a volume level approximating, or at least approaching, the volume level at which a particular piece of music would typically be heard when performed live. One reason for that being the Fletcher-Munson Effect. The tonal balance of our hearing mechanisms is different at different volume levels.

Most of my listening is to classical music, and IME the dynamic peaks of most live classical music, when listened to from a decent seat in a good hall, are LOUD. Not only in the case of orchestral music, but even when it comes to small chamber ensembles, solo piano, etc. Jafant alluded to this point in his post earlier in the thread.

For that reason, while I almost always agree with just about everything Charles and Larryi have to say in these forums, with respect to this particular point, which as Larry indicated is subjective and a matter of individual preference, I see it somewhat differently.

Best regards,
-- Al
I actually believe Larry, Al and I are in agreement. Lowering distortion thus improving resolution is an advantage in both directions of volume levels. You don't "need" to crank it up to hear nuance, detail and enhance one's engagement. On the other hand you can listen at louder levels with less strain or discomfort. I believe true natural resolution is an all positive proposition regardless of preferred listening levels. The end result is much more SPL flexibility
Charles,
Thanks, Charles. Yes, I agree completely with your very well stated post just above.

Best regards,
-- Al
good post, Almarg. We are in agreement & I also indicated in my post that each music has a volume setting that makes it sound correct. Pretty similar to what you wrote.
I had to read the OP's post several times to try to understand his usage of S/N & noise - very confusingly used, I agree.
It's all about keeping noise and distortion to a minimum at any volume.
Al,

I listen to a lot of classical music too. While I agree that it is nice to have the ability to play large orchestral pieces at realistic volume levels, practically speaking, it is not something that can be done because recordings simply do not have a realistic dynamic range--if you set the volume for realistic peaks, the softer passages are WAY too loud. No recording provides a realistic range because the public would object (the recording would be totally unlistenable in a car, for example).
Hi Larry,

I certainly agree with your point with respect to the majority of classical recordings. However, as you no doubt realize there are nevertheless many classical recordings, especially on smaller labels that prioritize sonic quality and know how to achieve it, which are produced with minimal or even no dynamic compression. Despite the fact that, as you indicated, such recordings will be unlistenable in a car or other noisy environment.

For example, the following statement appears on many of the Telarc LPs of the 1980's:
As with all Telarc recordings, once an appropriate microphone placement and recording level have been established, no further adjustments are made during the course of the session. This leaves the responsibility for dynamics and balance in the hands of the conductor and the musicians. During the recording of the digital masters and subsequent transfer to disc, the audio chain was entirely transformerless. Nor was the signal passed through any processing devices (i.e., compressors, limiters, equalizers, etc.) at any step during production.
Also, out of curiosity I once looked at the waveforms of the CD version of the Sheffield Lab recording of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, using an audio editing program I have on my computer. I found that the difference in volume between the loudest and the softest notes was an amazing 55 db. And sure enough, when I play that CD, or its original direct-to-disc LP release which I also have (which has considerably better sonics, btw, as might be expected), peaks reach about 105 db at my listening position, while soft notes reach down into the 50's.

To put that 55 db figure in perspective, btw, I'll add that it means that about 316,000 times as much power is required to reproduce the loudest notes on that recording than is required to reproduce the softest notes. And I have many other recordings in my collection which I feel certain approach that figure. The Telarc recording of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," conducted by Robert Shaw, being one of many examples I could cite.

One of the priorities I've had as my system has evolved is to be able to play such recordings (I have many of them) with no sense of strain. As you indicated, though, priorities will differ among different individuals, as will the kinds of recordings they listen to.

Best regards,
-- Al
Hi Al,

I actually have the Romeo and Juliet recording on the direct to disc LP and I have the Telarc Firebird, also on LP. The dynamic range of those recordings is quite staggering. The classical recording with the wideest dynamic range that I have is probably a CD made by Clarity of the Rites of Spring; it has a big warning on the cover about the potential to damage speakers.

The vast majority of my recordings don't come close to those in terms of sound quality. These days, most of my classical music listening is from CDs and very few are "audiophile" recordings. Still, I am quite pleased with most current releases, in terms of sound quality, even though dynamic range is not realistic.
I would say, yes. Louder is always better.
Most audiophiles are deaf like a stone, they can hear a difference but they don't know what to do with it. Turning up the volume gives the impression to do it right, because they think "Live = Loud" and then it is done. But when the System is one of those which needs min. 50W to wake up (most have that as an addition, too), you also need "the Louder is always Better" turn on the volume to hear subtle details. And when it is so loud that your wife will leave the house, then it is definitely better.
Classic Syntax ;-)
Charles, we have the same speakers, and while I would love to hear your amps alas I can't spring for them right now. Truth is I would love to be satisfied at lower volumes and after coming across a BPT 3.5 Sig Plus some of that has been realized. 
As to amps, I run McIntosh MC60s so plenty of headroom there and I do take advantage of it. Do you sense any lack of headroom with the BS amps? When you do listen loudly are you approaching clipping? Can you hear it and does it limit you any way?
What you need is a loudness curve.
Hi dentdog,
That’s a good question you asked. For  my genre of music  (predominantly jazz) and desired listening levels my 8 watt SET amplifier is ideal for me. I own a 100 watt PP amplifier  (mono blocks with 6550 tubes). This amplifier can ultimately go louder than the SET but this is a moot point,  the SET simply goes loud enough to satisfy my needs. 

Overall the 8 watt Frankenstein is just better (and more natural ) than my excellent PP amplifier despite its additional power. The Total Eclipses really sing with this SET.   As a result this fine PP amplifier has been collecting dust as it is in hibernation. However depending on what you may  want dentdog the more powerful amplifier may be your preference. The choice will clearly be determined by specific objectives /goal.
Charles,