Low volume listening dynamics


Hey all, question: I listen to music at a relatively low volume, but I still want the clarity to hear the details. So, will a high sensitivity speaker/driver (95 and above) give me more detail at lower volume than a less sensitive speaker? Or am I on the track in my logic (not the first time)? Or are my ears getting old? Thanks all!
tmalkki
You are right on track a high sensitivity speaker will give you more liveliness and detail at lower volume. 95db is very high sensitivity my speakers are 93db and do the job nicely as low volumes.
Great, thank you for the feedback. You're right, 93 is already very sensitive, I may not need to search higher. Thanks again.
Nothing better for low level listening than a pair of either Quad 57's or 63's! I have two pairs of 57's. The newer Ch*nese-made Quads are also a possible choice.
high sensitivity speakers are important, but even more significant is the ’first’ watt of your amplifier. most music lives in the quiet subtle passages, and some amps suck at low volumes. they need to get going to come alive.....especially some (but not all) high power amps with lots of ’junk’ in the circuit that the music has to ’come through’. the speaker can't overcome a degree of sluggishness for an amp at low volumes. it's just the messenger.

so it’s the combination of speaker and amp that is significant.

a great ’first watt’ typically comes down to a great power supply and a good, low noise, power grid. minimal parts count in the amp circuit and zero global feedback also contribute to a great ’first watt’. it frees up the energy to be more immediate and alive at low volumes.

good luck in your quest.......if you can put the whole picture together it will improve the musical involvement.
Great advice from @mikelavigne as usual and another thing high sensitivity gives you is a lot of choice in amps. I run my speakers on a 17 watt class A triode wired pushpull EL34 amp and they sound great at all volumes. Consider a good lower powered tube amp if you can.
You need a loudness switch or speakers tuned to be loud. What I mean is, a frequency response characteristic that promotes the treble and bass. You can get this via electronics, or you can find speakers that have this built-in.

Brands that come immediately to mind are Dali, Dynaudio, Golden Ear, and B&W to a lesser extent.

Give the mid-range Yamaha integrateds a try, their loudness dials are pretty interesting.

Best,

E
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mikelavigne nailed it. As the Great Robert Harley once said, "If the first watt isn't any good why would you want 200 more of them?"
Great feedback, thank you guys. Perhaps this is the nudge I needed to whet my beak on the tube side of life with high sensitivity drivers. A private and personal musical experience, if you will.
Completely agree about the quality of the first watt and high sensitivity of the speakers for quality low-volume listening...but also consider high efficiency speakers with a flat impedance to really coax some magic out of a low volume.
I went down this path a couple of years ago and now use a 2 wpc SET amp to drive my speakers (94.5 dB). Low level listening is wonderful. Happy as a clam at high tide.
Clams are happy, and so will I be too. Don't want to dominate this format at all, but would like a couple of suggestions on a good first timer tube integrated. Will probably build my own full range speaker pair, concentrating on high efficiency drivers. Most of my listening is CD and HD streaming. No vinyl at the moment unfortunately. Thanks guys for the feedback this far. I have lots to learn.
If you are going with very low power you may want to consider speakers as effecient as possible. I have a pair at 106db.
A high sensitivity speaker may or may not be more detailed than a low sensitivity speaker. The most detailed speakers are ESLs and they are not so efficient. 
The problem of listening at low levels is that our ears sensitivity to bass and treble is greatly diminished so unless you have some way to compensate for this low level listening is always going to be low fi. 
Compensating for this means loudness compensation for the volume you like listening at. Only a digital room control system with the ability to create custom target curves can do this effectively. 
The other solution is.....just turn it up:)
I am running Klipsch Forte III's (99db) with a First Watt F7 (20wpc) and the combo sounds great at low volumes.
Yes only as good as the first watt! So do you have an idea of the db level your trying to archive at low level? I have a pair of Magnepan 0.7's that have a lot of inner detail/soundstage and are driven by a high watt/current D class amplifier that is very musical to say the least. I normally listen around 72 lb with a few peaks depending on the music With all that wattage and current from my amp the music still has dynamics and energy, even at lower levels 
I listen to music at a relatively low volume, but I still want the clarity to hear the details.

I'll take a different tack from most of the posts here. The most important thing for clarity at low volume is the room. What is the background noise level? Has bass overhang been controlled? First reflections? Slap echo?

The cleaner the acoustic, the more detail you will hear.

Here is a neat article for your enjoyment.  

https://www.decware.com/paper43.htm

It may help you with your quest for low volume listening. It is biased to tube/SET amps, but it also works for any setup (solid state). My latest amp purchase was a 1959 Motorola tube amp that was pulled from an old console stereo. They are real sleepers.

I am using it to run a pair of Decware Imperials. based off of the 1956 Jensen Imperial Reproducer.  Just bought a pair of Altec 811b horns to go with them.

I was using Tube Depot's tubecube 7 to run them. It is a neat little amp and a cheap way to try a set amp at $180. I own two. Got the second one on sale.  It is a toy and the stock tubes suck. Buy some Sovtek EL84s and a 12ax7lps. I have also rolled some Amperex 8bq5 power tubes and a Raytheon 12ax7 backplate in it. All I have to say is WOW!
Not just sensitivity of the speaker but also how resolving they are matters 
amp at lower volumes loose these resolutions 
most class A amp do a good job 
But very few has special loudness button 
that helps to beef up the music and dynamics at low volume 
try Luxmans 590Ax Int amp
and......of course......there is always the ’sit closer’ idea for times when you want more immersion at lower SPL’s.

it does allow for less ’room’ and more ’direct signal’......so the energy does not dissipate as much.

i’m in the near-field all the time anyway. but my room is ’super-tuned’ to be balanced at ’warp-9’ even when i’m in the near field. took many years of work to do that. room reflective glare drove me back until i figured it out. but at low volumes that reflective glare is much less. so it’s a quick and easy (and free) thing to try.

might need to adjust toe in for tonal balance and imaging for sitting closer.....but the advantages might be worth it even if those are slightly compromised if it's occasional.
I plan on getting a new Luxman integrated amp soon and one of the things I like about the Luxman is that it has a loudness button on the remote. My old Denon integrated amp from the 80s had a loudness button as well. Not sure why newer amps don't have a loudness button---it's definitely good for lower listening levels.
A little expansion on some points others have made.
Higher efficiency speakers may help, amp cleaner and faster at low power may help, and room and distance can also help. Clean fast response of both Amp and speakers with minimum ringing and resonance are what can make music sound musical regardless of efficiency and power. There are low efficiency speakers that combined with the proper amp can be more musical than high efficiency speakers with any amp. Remember that speaker efficiency is just a measure of sound pressure at a reference frequency at a reference power level. It really doesn't say much about how musical the speaker is. It is only really helpful when trying to match multiple speakers in surround applications to try to even the response.  Waterfall charts can help you find speakers that you may find more musical to you regardless of efficiency, and they will likely sound more musical regardless of the volume level.

My own observations and experience are that you need close to 20 db range above ambient noise level for music to start becoming musical. 30-40db starts to get real. Below that you can tell it is music, but nothing you do will make it musical as in detail, depth, soundstage and revealing. Loudness compensation does little to change that, just helps hear some frequencies that are masked by the background.

So the real questions are what is your background noise level, and what level above that do you consider low volume.

I am in an apartment and have a bg noise level of 40-45dbA at the minimum. It can commonly be 50-55dbA with appliances and fans running in my apartment and adjoining ones. In my main listening area with minimum bg noise level, volume at 65dbA peak begins to sound musical and gets better up to 85-90dbA. Above that room reflections and reactions start to counter any increased musicality.
In another room I have a work station and a near field setup. With computer and drives running the bg level is higher on average, but since I am near field, 20 dbA above ambient is not only fairly musical, but has some depth and height, no sub or loudness control needed.

YAMMV
All the answers are here...low ambient noise, good 1st Watt, effective tone controls for shaping the source to sound balanced at your listening level, and controlling the room's reflectivity around the speakers.  I disagree about needing high sensitivity speakers entirely.  I would say a bigger factor is to have speakers that are not lacking in bass extension, b/c at low volumes, that exacerbates the lack.  I agree with Erik in recommending looking at Yamaha...if the model has their variable loudness, like the AS701 or AS801.  Interestingly, their new higher end models drop that feature...although they do have bass and treble controls (with unspecified characteristics).  I have a vintage McIntosh C20 that has a fantastic variable loudness control that really works well.
Mike, sitting closer is just turning up the volume. It certainly helps negating any room problems.
The beauty of having 8 foot line source dipole speakers is that you are always near field even 12 feet away. 
Irregardless of the equipment being used and the room are in you can not magically overcome the Fletcher-Munson effect. Bass and treble have to be boosted to match the volume level or you will be missing low bass and detail. 
The only way to overcome this without an advanced digital system is to adjust the volume until things sound right and there is not a single level. It depends on the way the recording was mastered. Some records don't sound right at lower levels others hurt if you play them too loud. 
This is for serious listening. For background music it really does not matter. 
Not trying to open up a can of worms but I did get some low level punch when I got a dedicated circuit with only the amp on the line. I also listen mostly at low volumes. Speaker placement/room characteristics I'm sure help...but probably the thing I've noticed the most is that component matching really helps.

That said, my Primaluna Evo 400 power amp does a wonderful job with low volume bass.  
 

Thanks to everyone for sharing your expertise and experiences. Gives me a ton to think about.
Your ears are NOT old enough to remember loudness.
Buchardt seems like they have figured it out.
The future.
A lil bit of AI will fix you up.
RME ADI-2 DAC has dynamic loudness compensation for low volume listening. 
Check out Decware. They do have some great DIY stuff like speakers and a forum. You can dig up a couple of the plans if you are paying attention. Also has some amp kits. I have two Zkit1 amps I am working on. The only complete kit he sells is the Zkit60. A 60watt solid state amp. It is on my list of future projects.
I have sensitive ears, and so I like to listen at low volume. No EQ, just a good room.

I use 2 pairs of the new-ish series of Quads, heroically pure power, Class A DIY solid state amps (full complementary push-pull - and BLACK). Full range ESL's are the only way to go for me, although Magnepan is a decent second.

I've just swapped over to the 4 ohm taps on the Primaluna EVO 400 Integrated playing through my Klipsch Forte III's.

I'm stunned!

More body in the sound. Bass more rich and defined. Totally solid sound at high listening volumes.

Late night low volume listening is also absolutely awesome. It's like hitting the Loudness button in the 'good ole days' but with equal mids and highs mixed with beefy bass!

I'm shocked! But oh so happy!


Am I confused? If you want to listen at a low volume (say 60db) the only difference between high and low sensitivity speakers will be how hard your amp is working to create that 60db, no?
superultramega, you're not confused the most effective way to improve low level listening is loudness compensation. The first watt the last watt the watts in between can't change the way our ears work. 
Is someone confusing dynamic range with loudness? And with resolution? Tsk, tsk! And at low volumes one can’t get full dynamic range. You might as well get a Bose radio.
This discussion is intriguing as most of my listening is at low volumes and it seems my existing system (Harbeth P3ESRs and vintage 1990's Rotel 120 wpc amp) is not ideal for such.  I'm looking to change out both.  What are some good examples of highly efficient bookshelf speakers, new or used, for less than $2K?  And ditto for an integrated amp with DAC to drive them for less than $2K?  I like Spendor which are more efficient than the Harbeths but are not as efficient as is being discussed in this thread.
One of the best parts of this (sometimes maddening) hobby is the range of choices, ideas, thoughts, methods and such. Somewhat recently I purchased a Primare I30, wanting to experience more of what reviewers were commenting on. It's an excellent integrated, but its strength is not low volume detail based on my personal listening. It gets phenomenal as the volume increases, seems to be the same with different speakers in the mix. So, the journey continues. Boy do I love this:-)
Although great sounding systems sound better at ALL levels, you can't deny Fletcher/Munson, and you obviously can't address that without some EQ. Although my rig is running at a lower level as background music a lot of the time, I have a Schiit Loki that can deal with that but doesn't...because when I'm actively listening I turn things up to where it sounds right, and raise or lower the levels of my 2 REL subs if needed. The Loki is out of the system unless some weird recording needs help...and that's rare.
superultramega,

No you are not confused. Efficient speakers are not going to have any advantage at low listening levels. There is 0 logic in that. If anything, they could be worse, as they will exacerbate any issues with distortion at low power levels. If you claim high efficiency speakers are better and need for an amp with better SQ at low volume levels, then you probably have not thought it through.

Flatter bass at lower frequencies may help w.r.t. the statements about equal loudness contours. Early bass roll-off is made worse at low levels. You may find some peaking of bass in your room response, which normally would be a negative, be turned into a positive. As pointed out, can't deny equal loudness contours.
@wolf_garcia , actually the (2001?) update flattens the low level curves somewhat. At least above 100Hz. Below that, room effects dominate anyway. So listening 10 or 20 dB below your normal listening level should reduce room distortion in the bass, but won't otherwise affect the balance enough to compensate for the tone control distortion. IMO.

But that bass boost can be fun sometimes, can't it?
I have 4 pairs of speakers with low-ish efficiency ratings (82 dB, 85 dB [2], and 86 dB). All 4 pairs sound nice but rather anemic at low volume levels. They really need some juice to hear what they're capable of and it's frustrating when you want/need to listen with the volume turned down and that magic is gone. My nicely efficient Omega's (94.5 db) sound wonderful at low volume levels. I no longer experience any of that frustration which annoyed me so.
Did I get an update in 2001? Was it from Fletcher or Munson? And I have a great sounding room likely due to a  high sloping ceiling and my impeccable taste in furnishings.
I always found that low level detail was a strength of tube amps. I dont really think the efficiency of the speakers is as critical as others on this thread.
Would that all had your good fortune, Wolf. It's ISO 226 (2003), on the 70th anniversary of F-M.
It is more the kind of speaker rather than its
efficiency rating or the amp pushing it. 

A couple of the above posts gave you an accurate answer.

Electrostatics are better at low levels than box speakers.


Own an old pair of BIC v830’s , 
powered by a relatively new odyssey kismet pair.
  Low volumes, the bass is super deep, and highs are crisp, midrange chunky and wicked, Malmsteen, Gary Moore, megadeth, 
 to the nice plucking of Donovan and Jackson Browne.

 It’s amazing. These speakers have never sounded better.

 
Assuming a good and proper impedance match, can a DAC direct to amp be another pice of the puzzle to get to good detailed lower vol listening?  
jriggy, in short no. Some people here on definitely on the right track. This is a moving target and there are many variables that are difficult to control. The most difficult one is the recording itself. Some records sound good at low levels others not. Systems that are boosted in the mid bass and treble for whatever reason are going to sound better at low levels. 
The variable that you want to be able to control is the frequency response of your system. The industry has know this for a long time. My father's HH Scott preamp from the 60's had tone controls and a loudness compensation switch. Then equalizes came along in the 70's but audiophiles were beginning to shun them because of the damage they did to imaging. In 2000 or so TACT audio came along with digital equalization and room control. Before TACT went out of business They evolved to the 2.2X which has Room control, Time alignment, bass management and dynamic loudness control. The loudness compensation changes with volume. The result is the system sounds the same at all volumes. The unit also allows you to design any response curve you can think of and load it into memory. You can switch back and forth between curves with the remote. This was an amazing education for me and would be for any audiophile. As long as everything is phase/time correct and early reflections are minimized you can make a system do anything except change imaging patterns created by the type of speaker used. You can't make a point source speaker sound like a line source. 
So, if you want more detail at low volumes you create a low volume curve with even more added bass below 100 Hz and more treble above 6000 Hz. The TACT 2.2x is the ultimate tweak. Current units that come close are the Anthem STR preamp and the Trinnov Amethyst. Unfortunately they have yet to include dynamic loudness control. Radomir Bozevic where are you when we need you! Radomir designed the Lyngdorf units. They were the bottom end of the TACT range. 
Please explain ISO 226 and I promise I'll try to understand...regarding my seeming "good fortune," are you referring to my ceiling or my furnishings? I do own an oil painting of some gigantic fruit in a road...
Your good fortune in all these things, Wolf. ISO 226 is the name of an official EU publication.