Low level listening

I enjoy listening to music at lower levels. Is buying a speaker with a low sensitivity rating the answer? Or is that the most economic answer? In short what I am asking is.....Can a speaker with a low sensitvity rating with more power actually be better for low level listening (although maybe not the most economic choice). What is the best setup for this?
Usually a high efficiency speaker design is better for low volume listening... so pretty much the opposite of what you're thinking. You want speakers with light cones and large motors that can react more readily to track the music signal. That way, less detail is lost to inertia.
electrostats are low sensitivity (quads are exceptions) and has superb low resolution.
Agreed. I do a lot of listening at low levels (apartment dweller) and I like medium-high efficiency speakers (94db) with single-ended triodes.

I have power to spare with my Thor's (Tyler's mid line qualifies in this benifit as well), even though my room is large I listen at low/mid volume. Speaker designs that use Seas drivers are rated as low efficient, like 87, but still a little 40 watt tube amp drives them with full rich sound, vol control between quarter/half power. Its like Star says on the Thiel topic, "nothing that dominates the room both sonically and physically". ...lets see I've got Debussy's La Mer on (a work that has recently been voted by some members over at Gramophone as a bit "over-rated", IOW, "out-dated"...????, I guess they suggest I listen to a Brahms' sym instead..??)...anyway the vol is at 10 oclock...now at 11 oclock. Its at this vol the KT90's show some weakness. A bit of stress shows up, steely sounding , which is why I keep it at 10 oclock, the sound is pure and clean. Also I might add La Mer has very soft passages and great cressendos, these climaxes can resonate through the house in which a cry will follow, "turn down the stereo!!!"...., so 10 oclock serves well. If the KT88's arrived and show up the KT90's in terms of crisper mids, , then I'm gonna wonder why Jadis even stuck the 90's in the JOR in the first place.
Hope I answered some of your question. There is no connection between low sensitivity / low volume being at odds. Also it should be said that the old myth that tubes can not deliver in bass and slam, is just that a myth, and not to be believed. As my little 40 watt Jadis blew out the water my Rotel 100 watts per channel ss amp.
In my experience electrostats and high efficiency speakers do the best job of giving you good clarity and detail at low volume levels.

In my opinion a fullrange electrostat is probably the optimum, but also a fairly expensive approach. A high quality single-driver speaker would probably be a more cost-effective approach.

Multidriver speakers have multiple challenges. Different drivers often have different power compression characteristics, such that the tonal balance of a multidriver speaker can vary with volume level. With low and medium efficiency speakers this level-dependent tonal balance shift is often significant within the volume range encountered in a home system. You may have heard speakers that sound dull at low volume levels, just right at medium to perhaps medium-high volume levels, and bright or even harsh at high volume levels. That's level-dependent tonal balance shift. If you'd like I can explain one of the primary mechanisms behind it. High efficiency multi-driver speakers can have it too, but it generally sets in at higher volume levels than are likely in a home setting.

Personally I place a high priority on low-level articulation even if the speaker is going to be played at high volume levels, because there will still be lots of low-level detail going on. And in my experience a speaker that still sounds good at very low volume levels is less likely to become fatiguing over a long listening session, so I encourage listening at very low volume levels as part of a thorough audition when you're speaker shopping.

FWIW, I agree with Bartokfan that there is no contradition between successful low level and low sensitivity speakers. Being able to listen at low volume levels has always been a priority for me since I listen late at night after the rest of the family has gone to bed, and all the speakers I've ever owned have fallen into the low sensitivity category.

In my experience, the critical factors to success in low level listening have been resolution, consistency of tonal balance across the frequency range, and ability to resolve microdynamics. Speakers that have worked well for me for late night, low level listening have included: Celestion SL700s, Vandersteen 2Cs, Eidolons. None of these are high efficiency speakers, but all meet the three criteria I mentioned. I've also found that tube electronics help me in low level listening because of their greater resolving capability.
I agree with what Duke said. I still say that speakers that have light diaphragms and powerful motors will provide the most detail and will perform better at low levels. Although some electrostatic speakers do not have high efficiency they do have a very light diaphragms and proportionately powerful electro-magnetic force to control the diaphragm.

Then on the other hand, in the area of psychoacoustics, systems that are compressed in their dynamic range would also tend to sound good at low listening levels because the intensity of the loudest sounds is closer to the intensity of the lower level sounds.

I remember that years ago I used to use a dbx compresser/expander to compress my system's dynamic range for lower-level listening. Come to think of it I do that now in my Home Theater system. It is so dynamic that if you leave it at a decent level for dialogue the loud passages will blow you off the sofa. So I normally use moderate compression on my HT receiver, which tames the power peaks a bit and also boosts the low-level sounds so that they are more intelligible. And my family appreciates it too. :)
Duke makes an excellent point that all of us should pay attention to:
Personally I place a high priority on low-level articulation even if the speaker is going to be played at high volume levels, because there will still be lots of low-level detail going on. And in my experience a speaker that still sounds good at very low volume levels is less likely to become fatiguing over a long listening session, so I encourage listening at very low volume levels as part of a thorough audition when you're speaker shopping.
...moreover there is the perception of loudness. The more your sysytem distorts the more loud it appears to be playing. Noise is louder than music.Hence high resolution systems appear to be playing much softer than the they really are.
A good speaker should play well at very low and very high levels - so I would agree wth Duke. Although this kind of speaker is very expensive and is typically used in studio control rooms where it is crtical that the tonal balance remains unaffected by variations in listening levels.

If you only listen at low levels then you can probably find a much lower cost speaker that only plays well at low volumes...in fact you may deliberately choose a small speaker with less dynamic range over a large speaker as some audio compression may actually improve the audibility at low levels ( where you may run into ambient noise floor problems from AC's etc.)

I would not worry too much about sensitivity given your low volume level requirements ...just audition and select a speaker you like. There is no rule of thumb that says high sensitivity is better than low sensitivity. In fact, I would stay away from extremes in sensitivity as speaker design is all about balanced compromises and an extreme in one area often implies a bigger compromise somewhere else.
i agree with Duke and others that low level dynamics and articulation is very important. i'm not one that knows the science part too well but i have come to appreciate this issue.

currently i don't have any limitations as to noise level since my room/system is in a separate building from my home. OTOH i have come to realize how important having your system be able to dynamically energize the room at reasonable SPL's is.

my previous room was 12' x 18' x 10' and my previous system was easily able to energize it at very reasonable SPL's. even though my speakers at that time (Kharma Exquisite's) generally needed some SPL's to 'get going' they were 'lively' in that room. i then moved that same system into my new acoustically designed (21' x 29' x 11') room and the system could not be dynamically engaging at lower SPL's. forgetting about the fact that it could not do low bass; the system could not get me 'involved' without really pushing it.

i did switch to the Von Schweikert VR9's and this speaker was much more dynamically alive at lower SPL's. further, it energized the room without a feeling of strain. the volume can be low enough for me to talk on the phone and yet can be so engaging to be a real distraction. there is never any feeling of strain or compression. it helps to have (2) 1000 watt integral subs, 4 channels of darTZeel amplification and 96db of speaker efficiency.

my conclusion is that a speaker needs to be properly scaled to a room dynamically for that low level information to be rendered with ease and naturalness. if a system does not engage at low levels it likely will not work well at high levels either.
Rushton "consistentcy of tonal balance across the fq range". "Tube electronics achieves excellent resolution in low level listening". 2 excellent poiints.
As I listen to Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach's Painted From Memory at 1/4 vol, I hear only the EXACT playback medium, IOW the weakness'/strengths of that recording co,me thorugh, with almost zero coloration/distortion from the Jadis, though its said the Jadis has a "house sound", and is true. The Thos's as well have their slight coloration and in fact every/all components have their trademark color. What we look for is the components with the least distortion, one that is most pleasing to our ears.
My ststem picks up the poor quality of the Costello recording at low volume, now at 50% vol, then the Jadis begins to show stress.

I also played a few minutes of a New Orleans folk cd, Kermit Ruffins Drop Me Off In New Orleans. Here is a much better quality, and its as clpose to live as you are going to get, at 1/4 vol. The Jadis/Thor only project the exact playback.
This is why Rushton says that tubes at low volume can bring forth the finest in resolutions.
Greg also has a good point, "Noise is louder than music...Hense high resolution systems appear to be playing at lower volumes than they really are"
IOW with high resolution/superior fidelity systems (amp/speakers/cdp) at low/mid volume, one only hears the EXACT playback, as close as it gets.
My listening room here in Baton Rouge is 30X35 with a church style V cathedral ceiling, and at 1/4 vol, its plenty for the ear.
Yet the bigger Cayin is calling me, and I must answer.
Good topic; lots of experience and wisdom expressed above.
In my opinion low level listening and detail retrieval can only be appreciated in the nearfield position.I run and Eico HF81 with a pair of RS LX5's with linaeum tweeter in the nearfield and am always amazed what they can do in low level listening. In my main I run Quad ESL 63's with a DK 100MKII and this cannot touch the Eico setup on low level. Full level listening is another matter.
"speaker should play good at low and high volume". Why is it necessary to play at high volume?
I'd bet less than 25% of audiogon members listen at high volume.
I've never understood the idea behind loud listening levels. Does music become better at high volumes? The only thing loud stereo does, is bother our family, our neighbors and our pets.
The objective behind all our system investments is to find a image that produces the lowest distortion at reasonable volume level.
I've heard many a system that was cranked up at a half volume and sounded like c**p. These systems were valued at $$$ more than mine and more than twice the size.
I would never invest in a speaker that weighs in at more than 100 pounds each. I think my Thors are like 70 pounds each.
Wow, I'm surprised that you fellows who are generally very knowledgeable about audio topics seem to know nothing about this topic.

No one (myself excluded) has mentioned the effects of compression or expansion and no one has even brought up the old Fletcher-Munson Loudness Curves: http://www.webervst.com/fm.htm

Basically, systems that are more compressed and have prominent highs and bass will tend to sound better at low listening levels. Unfortunately, as the volume raises to higher, more normal levels, flatter, non-compressed sound becomes more desireable and correct.

These factors are equally or even more important than ultimate resolution when listening at low levels.

In other words, two ways to preserve proper tonal balance and perceived resolution at low volumes are to use a loudness contour control and/or a compressor to compress the dynamic range...

These methods will work regardless of the system's resolution or transparency. Putting a compressor in the tape loop and dialing it in for low-level listening could work very well in many cases.

I used to employ a dbx compressor in conjunction with a set of Stax electrostatic headphones many years ago and that setup worked very well.
Would someone translate Plato's comment...guess I'm an Aristotleian...

I'm not really sure what needs translating, but I'll give it a shot.

Compressing the sound results in a higher average perceived sound level. Making softer sounds closer in volume to louder sounds results in a perceived fuller balance for low volume listening. That's why you can listen to a cheap radio and feel like you're not missing that much -- because the sound is so compressed that all the musical sounds are presented at nearly the same volume level.

The Fletcher-Munson loudness curve has been known for decades and is the reason for a "loudness" control on many integrated amplifiers and receivers. The curves show that as the average volume level is decreased both the low frequencies and high frequencies must be boosted by increasingly higher amounts (in dB's on the graph link I supplied)in order to be perceived at the same relative volume level.

So beyond electronic means to compress the sound or supply loudness compensation, systems that are naturally compressed or have elevated bass and treble (as referenced to the midrange) will sound more natural (fuller, better-balanced) at lower listening levels. And these effects would be independent of system resolution.

I'm just saying that there is more than one reason why certain audio systems seem to sound good at low volume levels... And it may not always be the audiophile-preferred reason (immediacy or resolution).

One of the qualities that many audiophiles (myself included) strive for in sound reproduction is uncompressed dynamic range. Yet, if you think about it, the most dynamic systems should have the worst low-level listening balance because the volume difference between the very loudest and the very softest musical notes is the greatest. The quietest musical sounds/notes/passages can then be lost in the ambient room noise as volume is substantially decreased.

Therefore, the most dynamic audio systems would require compression and loudness compensation in order to sound correct and well-balanced at very low listening levels.
Agree, just about any stereo sytem sounds good to excellent at low volume levels. I'm refering to less than 9 o'clock on the control. Now just after 9 o'clock on the contriol, this is point where any average sounding amp, begins to show its coloration/distortion.
As you crank the control even higher to say 11 o'oclock, this is where the coloration/distortion make for fatigue.
Same applies to pseakers as well.
So when testing equipment, don't listen to low/nor to loud. Too loud will overwhelm the senses and if you are not experienced in what is true fidelity , you may be misled.
I'm amazed at how poor some audiophiles senses are when it comes to high fidelity. When doing a comparison listening, try to be as objective as possible. Your mind should somehow make the hearing sense as an objective function.
I had a friend back in new orleans had a $$$$ system with a Audio Research 200 tube amp and pre, Cary 202, Talon speakers, and Mirage One speakers. Sounded aweful, I did not enjoy the sound one bit.
I imagined he thought his system sounded great.
btw since he had the power, he use to listen loud, which made it worse.
Big money does not ever equal great sound. And never ever forget that.

A good speaker should be able to reproduce actual volumes of the instruments acoustic ones in particular along with its dynamic range.
An accoustic piano among all instruments has the largest dynamic range. So if accoustic piano can sound on the same volume level as real with the same dynamic range, than speaker is considered to be good one.
how many folks actually own apiano to compare the speaker with it?
How many here actually listen to only piano solo?
After having heard more than 50 speakers in the past 5 yrs, I can tell you there was not one that matches the Thors. A few had deeper bass, but then those speakers had either smokey fatiguing mids and/or steely "fake' highs.
None matched the Thors as a balanced in all 3 sprectums. ..., even though the Thors were among the lowest in price range.
"Big money does not ever equal great sound. And never ever forget that."

It is so easy to attack an absolute statement, I will not bother. Suffice it to say there are many expensive systems that make beautiful music.

Designig to a price point always means compromise...
piano is the key in this case.
If it sounds natural in your speakers than the rest of music possibly piece of cake.
Bartokfan writes:

I'm amazed at how poor some audiophiles senses are when it comes to high fidelity.
I'm amazed by your generalizations.


Good points....perhaps you explained it much better than I did....some audio compression and colouration at low listening levels can actually sound better compared to a perfectly flat speaker (unless you know what to expect at low levels). Mix engineers know this....when they mix something intended to be played very loud then they tend to mix the bass to sound a little thin at lower levels just so it will sound full and accurate when cranked up.