More power for better sound at low volumes?

Hello All,

I'm wondering if a more powerful amp will provide better sound at lower volumes, all other things being equal. For example, my Jeff Rowland Concerto is rated 250 into 8ohms and 500 into 4. A Bryston is rated 300 and 600. Does that mean I could get better low volume sound with the Bryston? If not, what is the secret to better low volume sound?

As usual, thanks in advance!
Hi Rustler,

I tend to find that the lower the noise floor, the lower the distortion, the better my system sounds at low volumes. Mainly because even at lower levels...i can still hear everything on the tune...from bass to high.

Given the amps you are considering, both are plenty powerful for lower levels into [almost] any speaker load you could imagine.

I would probably focus on very, very quite noise floor. Harder to measure, but that is where i have [by far] found the greatest improvements in my ability to listen at low levels.
Power alone has perhaps the least of anything to do with low volume sound quality. Almost everything else matters more. THere is lots of good info in threads scattered about here on A'gon already about what goes into getting good sound at lower volumes. Best to go through some of that first and then ask more questions here as needed.
I tried finding ideas on a-gon, but I must have used improper search parameters.
I forgot to mention I use Martin Logan Spires, effeciency at 91.
I'd guess that your present speakers couldn't use all of the power presently available to them with your amp, and even if they could you would leave the room or loose some hearing! :-)

Personally, just on principal alone, if I were in your place I would look about for a very high quality low(er) power, high current, Class A amp. At least one highly esteemed amp designer/manufacturer has long proclaimed that its the first watt that really counts.

BTW, in my experience, quality low volume sound levels are more the function of the speaker than anything else. A lot of speakers really don't open up until they reach a mid level volume regardless of the amps used. Both dynamics and electrostats/panel speakers anyway. Don't know about horns but they don't take much power anyway.

At least one esteemed amp designer/manufacturer has long proclaimed that it's really the first watt that counts.
The amp designers who post here would be best-qualified to answer your question. But it seems like full sound at low volumes is, at least in part, a design intention. For example, Bryston says of its 28B-SST2:

A significant part of the design criteria for the 28B SST2 was to develop a very powerful amplifier that would drive any speaker on the planet but maintain an ideal power curve at 1 watt as well as at 1000 watts and every power level in between. Most amplifiers exhibit a power curve whereby the best noise floor, drive capability and distortion is maintained from about 1/3 power and up.

The Bryston 28B-SST2 Mono amplifier maintains its power curve right from the first watt. This results in a BIG POWERFUL amplifier that sounds incredibly detailed and musical at very low levels and maintains that same sophistication and drive capability with even the most difficult, inefficient speakers, large or small.

Is this merely marketing copy? Maybe. But they do sound both full and delicate at very low volumes, and maintain their tonal balance irrespective of volume levels. I'm not sure how much of that's attributable to their brute power, but the literature suggests not all of it.
Yes big power = nice low volume listening. I also totally agree with Lloydelee21 that lower noise contributes to low listening accuracy. With each upgrade I've made, all of which lowered the noise floor, the volume knob was reduced for much of my listening. Before replacing my 500 watt amp with 1200 watt monos I suspected I might have to play at least at a moderate level to perceive a balanced performance. I couldn't have been more suprised when the higher powered amps sounded great at well under 1 watt on the meters. This is no doubt due to the lower noise and balanced power delivery high power amps can deliver at all levels.
I have found the most engaging sounding amplifiers to be those with lower power. Just my experience.
What do you want the system to do better at low volume? Do you have an SPL meter to measure what you consider low volume?
A good set of headphones is your answer.
A lot of vintage gear used to have loudness controls and other tone control features that due to how the human ear works were useful at low volumes sometimes but required manual interaction to activate/use.

Its possible that this could still be part of an amplifiers design, ie internalized auto equalization in essence for the purpose of optimizing sound at all volumes.

Sounds like at least a couple makers might do this but do not know for sure. Some might advertise as a feature or some might keep it under wraps so as not to offend audiophiles that object to equalization solutions but like good sound at all volumes.

IF done well, I think this could be a good thing/feature if any makers want to fess up?
A Audio Research LS9 is the answer.
The fact that any good system sounds different when playing at low volume usually has zero to do with the system, and everything to do with your ears and your brain. The spacial cues provided by treble get lost, and the bass stops interacting with everything...clearly a good, even response system does sound better than a crappy one at all levels and obviously a near field system can play lower and retain fidelity because it's closer to your head. Remember, sound is made of waves travelling through the dense air in your room, to the dense brain in your head. I prefer that amp designers not put any low level frequency boosting in my amps, and I can reach for the damn headphones if I need 'em.
Good points by the Wolf man.

Differences in sound at low volume may have some to do with the system, particularly the speakers, but yes a lot to do with you and how room acoustics work.

"sound is made of waves travelling through the dense air in your room, to the dense brain in your head"

My listening room and I both resemble that remark!

Also I realize now that a pressure controlled listening room might be the ultimate tweak, though more costly than fancy fuses. Anybody out there have one of those?

In all seriousness, I truly do think that my system sounds better on high pressure weather days than on low ones at all volumes. A scuba suit with acoustically transparent ears might also be required for the ultimate tweak to go along with the pressurized room!

Also in all seriousness, has anybody say in a mobile home ever a/b compared their system set up in the mountains at high altitude (lower air pressure) compared to down in the valley at lower altitudes/higher air pressure? I would expect some differences.
I tried filling my listening room with a gas to see if it made any difference, but I passed out before I got to hear anything.
Bad beans I think. With some discrimination as well as expert advise I'd imagine you could do better. :-)
I would think your amp's input sensitivity and your speakers' sensitivity are the main factors. Also I think the noise floor and distortion figures are a contributing factor in that the lower they are, the higher the volume you can comfortably tolerate, therefore perceived loudness will be less. So i find some of these responses a bit skewed. Ssglx's point is well taken. The smaller the amp, the more relevant the parameters I just mentioned will be. This has been my experience.
I would expect those Martin Logan's and and any good electrostat to sound pretty good on the grand scale compared to other speaker types at low volume. Same with Maggies/planars. Traditional cone designs can sound as good at low volume or even better (Example the Triangles I own) but are more hit or miss in general.
Not true, electrostatics do not usually sound good a low levels, quite the contrary. Low efficient speakers with high output amps are what you are seeking.
Rustler 06-19-12:
I'm wondering if a more powerful amp will provide better sound at lower volumes, all other things being equal.
If everything else is indeed equal, including the input sensitivity of the power amps (or the power amp sections of integrated amps), noise levels will be worse with a more powerful amp. If input sensitivities (the input voltages required to drive the amps to full power) are equal, it would mean that the more powerful amp will have higher gain, which will amplify any noise that is introduced or generated at circuit points downstream of the volume control by a greater amount.

I suspect that in those cases where it has been found that a higher powered amp provided better results at lower volumes than a lower powered amp (with the same speakers), the reason was not the difference between the power ratings of the amps in itself, but other differences between the designs of the two amps.

Have you tried listening from different distances, compared to the distance you listen from at normal volumes? Perhaps you can find a listening distance at which differences in room acoustics will partially compensate for the reduced sensitivity to low and high frequencies that our hearing mechanisms have at low volumes (the Fletcher-Munson Effect, that was alluded to by Wolfie and Mapman).

Also, along the lines of Newbee's comment, it would seem to make sense that an amp that operates in Class A, at least when it is putting out low power levels, will generally tend to have lower distortion at those levels than a Class AB design.

-- Al
My old Quad ESL57's were champs at low volume, so I have to disagree with Tmsorosk.

Anything you can do to lower the noise floor should help. Do you use any power conditioning?
Why is everyone assuming that noise is the biggest issue at low volume? I would think it is the lack of dynamics and bass.
I'm no longer sure what folks here believe the issue is evidenced by. FWIW I measure the low level resolution by the height/width/depth of the soundstage.

Tmsorosk, FWIW I agree with you in part. My experience with electostatic speakers (Quad 63s and Accoustats) which I used over 8 years, support the observation in you first sentence.

Where we part ways is in the second sentence. For example my Silverline Boleros (92db) sensitivity have excellent low level clarity and create a fully dimensional soundstage at SPLs in the low-mid 70's when driven by low power tube amps or high power tube amps. I believe this is not unique. To further contest your statement I owned Paragon dynamic speakers with a 86db sensitivity, 5ohm min/8ohm average impedance, that when driven by 160 tube watts still did not open up until you reached the 80 to 85db spl level. A big difference, for me at least. Think crossover issues perhaps.
I have noticed better low volume sound as the efficiency of the speakers goes up.
... and i think i have also noticed that low efficiency speakers tend to sound better at higher volumes than high efficiency speakers. I could well be wrong of course. Others here have wider experience than me.
Magnepan and triangle are the low volume champs i have owned. The lightweight yet rigid paper cone used in tbe triangle bass/mid driver is a big reason. The Triangles are fairly efficient, maggies not, so that does not support any efficiency theories.

Ive heard quad and ml sound very good to my ears also at low volume in dealer systems though i am not a ml fan overall.

My less efficient ohms are also quite good at low volume though they excel at higher volumes. My dynaudios are average at low volume and very good at higher volumes despite their small size.
Here's my best guess at how to get a satisfying listening experience at low volumes, in roughly descending order of importance...

1. Protect your hearing.
2. Make the room dead quiet.
3. Make the system dead quiet.
4. Sit closer to the speakers.
5. Listen to small scale music.
6. Use EQ to compensate for psychoacoustic effects.
7. Select speakers with high efficiency.
8. Select an amp with low gain.
9. Select a preamp with low output impedance.
10. Select speakers with 1st or 2nd order crossovers.

Of course, all this is highly debatable.

There are many factors that play into this. It's complex. Suffice it to say, I would look for a low wattage ultra amp, like the Threshold SA3.9e, a class A 60 watt stereo amp. These low wattage ultra amps are designed to sound there best - the sweet spot, soundwise - at much lower levels as compared to higher wattage amps, which have a sweet spot a bit higher.

Case in point, the SA3.9e had fully body, detail, etc. at a much lower wattage. This is part of the design parameters of such an amp. Now if you compare that to the SA6e monoblocks, rated at 125 watts, they have to be pushed to higher levels to get the same body, details, etc. Because that is its design parameter.
This topic is almost meaningless if you can't specify exactly what constitutes "low volume" or "high volume" as these things are relative to the individual actually listening (except regarding extremes in level like REALLY LOUD or REALLY SOFT)...Also, do amp designers really design to a "sweet spot?" Does that spot adjust to musical dynamics? Isn't the wattage rating absolutely subject to speaker load? Isn't it obvious that a speaker with recessed treble and/or bass will seem to get quiet quicker with lower level? Where am I? I'm frightened now...
Edwyun, I kind of see where you are going with your statement, but I believe speakers are a bigger factor in low volume detail. I have to agree with Drubin and other posters on this subject regarding Quad speakers. I attribute Quad's low volume detail to their ultra low distortion.
I concur with the 1st post, better resolution has to be an advantage at low listening levels. Lower noise floor in components is one way to improve resolution.
I do note in my travels that in the US there is a tendency to overdampen rooms, and suspect that if a listening room is overdamped, details get lost at lower listening levels.
Al, Perhaps erroneously, I would have assumed that "all else being equal" extra power would have provided the muscle to reject external noise from seeping in?
"I do note in my travels that in the US there is a tendency to overdampen rooms, and suspect that if a listening room is overdamped, details get lost at lower listening levels."

I would agree.

My wife bought me a very nice plush recliner for my listening room for Father's Day. I think I am noticing this effect to some extent now as a result of the additional damping in the room due to the added presence of the recliner when listening in it. On the sofa about 5 feet closer to the speakers, no problem still.
In my mind the 'overdamping' issue just serves to demonstrate that our systems (most anyway) are best served by being heard in rooms which add information (from reflections) which are not in the source. No one listens to music in an anechoic chamber but it might be interesting to hear in other than a nearfield set up what all of the subtle detail sounds like without interference from all of the reflections which would mask them, especially the higher frequencies. Just a thought.........

Maybe we like all of the reflections because our basic systems are just not up to the task and they mask a lot of crap?
"No one listens to music in an anechoic chamber but it might be interesting to hear in other than a nearfield set up what all of the subtle detail sounds like without interference from all of the reflections which would mask them, especially the higher frequencies. Just a thought........."

One word: "Headphones".

The down side of course is that most of the spatial cues in the (stereo)recording involving acoustic instruments will not be reproduced in three dimensions correctly with headphones so that is a form of distortion that is inherent with headphones that can mask detail in a different way. For mono recordings, headphones may be golden in terms of detail delivery.

THe fact is that the sound of most music is a 3 (actually 4 including time) dimensional phenomenon that requires three dimensions and room acoustics to reproduce accurately without distortion.

The best panacea I know of for listening to detail is nearfield listening with a pair of good omni-directional speakers set up well for that application.
Not really Mapman, with earphones you loose the open soundstage effect of a well set up system which I value as I know you do as well. Although not stated I recognize that there are speaker designs which depend on reflections for their imaging characteristics (need I tell you? :-)Other than that I find the headphones (mine anyway) very rewarding. I bought 2 sets (headphones and tubed amps) for my main system and, where they really shine, in the TV system where soundstaging is not a big deal.
Newbee, you are right of course.

Check my last post again. I had edited and expanded it to cover that exact caveat.
When you operate a high power amplifier at low power levels quite often you have higher levels of distortion. This is because most high power amplifiers are push-pull and with rare exception, most push pull amps (tube or solid state) will have their lowest distortion at some point well above zero watts and then the distortion increases again as power continues to decrease.

At low power in particular, it really is that 'first watt' that makes the difference! Due to the ear's masking principle, if higher distortion is present, detail will be obscured IOW such an amp will be less detailed at lower volume levels. Also as others have pointed out the noise floor will be higher too.

Amps that do not exhibit this dip in distortion, IOW amps that have a linear decrease in distortion as power goes down to zero, will have unmeasurable distortion as power levels fall below 1 watt. They fall into two categories: either SET, or fully-differential with little or no negative feedback.

I can go into the why of this if anyone wants but it gets technical.

Unsound, more power in the amp will not reject external noise. The way to do that is to have a fully differential balanced circuit (whether tube or solid state).
Listening to most really good stereo recordings on headphones is in fact the stereo equivalent of watching a 3-D encoded movie without the required glasses. Room acoustics are the equivalent of the 3-D glasses for a stereo recording. And of course no two rooms share exactly the same acoustics, including studio or hall recorded in and listening room at home, so the reproduction will most likely always be different to some extent and not exact no matter how "good" the stereo system is.
06-21-12: Unsound
Al, Perhaps erroneously, I would have assumed that "all else being equal" extra power would have provided the muscle to reject external noise from seeping in?
Hi Unsound,

No, I don't see it that way. Higher amplifier power will loosely correlate with higher amplifier gain, since amplifiers tend to be designed such they they will be driven to their maximum power capability, whatever that may be, when their input voltage is in the same general area (commonly, although of course not always, in the general area of 1 to 1.5 volts, for unbalanced inputs).

So as I indicated, any noise that is generated or introduced downstream of the volume control will, more often than not, be amplified by a greater amount if the amplifier is higher powered. (Noise originating upstream of the volume control will normally be unaffected by that gain difference, because the volume control setting will be turned up or down to compensate for the gain difference, affecting the signal and noise that originates upstream equally).

Best regards,
-- Al
IMO clarity/resolution is the solution to better sound at any volume. It starts with your soure and then the preamp. All that gets passed through to your amp which basically just magnifies the signal. Most preamps have to use a little juice to get them sounding good basically becasue of the caps in the signal path. Use a direct heated triode preamp that is transformer coupled and you won't have that issue. If you are using a CD Player how old is the laser? That can have a significant affect on clarity/resolution.

Happy Listening.
You raise an excellent point with nearfield listening. I often use to pull my chair up to within 3 ft of the speakers ( Martin Logan CLS modded at the time ) and listen nearfield. I believe it removes the room effects and you get a much larger soundstage behind the speakers and can hear into it.
Reminds me of a one on one I had many years ago with Dave Wilson of Wilson Audio. He positioned me in a nearfield position, 3ft from each speaker and dead centre, and proceeded to run through many of his recordings to demonstrate his recording and microphone techniques. In this nearfield position all was revealed.
Dover, yes i know what you mean.
Wow! You folks are great; i didn't know I'd unleash such a flurry of excellent commentary. I'm trying to sort this all out now!
Hi Rustler, I read some of the answers, some well grounded some out there .. . that's us audiophiles for you.I read somebody even recommending a preamp .. go figure
Listenning to low levels and wanting to listen and hear good music deals more with the speaker/room interaction than your choice of amplifiers.
my question is with a speaker efficiency of 91 dB you shoudl need any more than 100 WRMS per channel.
in reality you will never use more than 25 or 30 watt off of that. your ears will not take it.
The secret (not really) to hear good music at lower levels is simple as the efficiency of the speaker, the higher the efficiency the beter it sounds at low volumes.
now let's take that one step back for a minute.
not all speakers are created equal or voice the same (Thank God for that) . . .
so for (what i call) intimate listening sessions @ low volumes, you only need a good source, a good preamp and a very good tube amplifier or if solid state of the likes of the ones made by Nelson Pass's First Watt,
then a horn loaded or a scoop loaded or .. . you get it, high efficiency speaker and a well balanced room then you will be in heaven.
Some speakers sound pretty bad at low volumes I heard throughj the years the Sequel, the Requests and other fine Martin Logans and they all sounded great to me but also required to be properly excited with power and excite the room in a very special way and with good power like what you are describing.

it seems teh system you describe is wonderful and sounds very good i'm sure @ higher levels but if your tastes lean more toward "intimate listening" then you need something a little different perhaps.
I drive my WHT (Wide Horn Technologies)PR-1 Falcons (96 db/W/m @10 ohm) with a Heavily modified Audible Illusions preamp and a triode amp with some 28 WPC but i'm sure i never use any more than 8 or 9 watts i'm sure, i could be using an SET amp and sound even better but .. this is what I have right now.

You need to see what works for you and go get it.
Start by not buying any more or different gear, just treat the room differently ( evidently whatever room treatment you have is not working for you) and then go from there.
That's my 2 cents .

Enjoy the music

Do you have any local friend or audio buddy who has a good pair of high efficiency speakers and an SET amp?
go for a visit, bring a bottle of good red wine though . . .LOL!
you will not find better sound at low volume with high power amps, they are not the answer my friend sorry to say, if they were i would have a one system at home and would be perfectly happy with it (naahhhhh . ..)
I have 4 systems @ home, the one I use for my intimate sessions is the one I described before (WHT speakers with triode strapped PP dual mono design 5751/6SN7 & KT88 now using NOS 6550 circa 1964), then I have some amazingly beefy amplifiers y Threshold, Aragon (Poor man's Krell D'Agostino design), Classée, some very limited hand made in Europe monoblocks that look and sound beautiful, some others by Sunfire (Bob Carver's child), Crown, and a hybrid integrated by DK Designs (150 WPC on 8 Ohm, 300 on 4Ohm)
all of them driving lower efficiency speakers such as 86 dB/W/m at 4 or 6 ohm, others @89db etc. they all sound better with a good solid state amp,now . . don't ask them to play great at low volume they will play alright but the music you want to hear @ 3 AM . .. if you know what I mean . .
I think we've all been at a late listening session looking for the holy grail of music.
you will look for the ideal all your life, the ideal is that you're happy with what you have until you find that ideal holy grail of system. which my friend is a life long search.

Good luck;

take care;

I agree with lowering the noise floor. My most memorable musical experiences always involve low ambient noise. Late nights, an isolated room, a quiet venue. Make the room quiet.
Based on my reading, there's an additional factor that might be of importance. That would be the ratio of power supply wattage to output wattage. I'm not a designer, but one told me long ago one of their general rules is that for a 40+40 RMS output amp the typical designer would spec a power supply at about 240 watts, give or take. Many great sounding amplifiers up that ratio greatly. Accuphase, as an example, I believe runs their amps at about a 10:1 ratio, which has the additional benefit of doubling wattage into declining impedance, all the way to 1 watt. Just another thing to consider.
My vote is for low noise (battery power is amazing) and hi efficiency speakers.
Gonzalo, I disagree with your answer to the question that wasn't asked.