Sound quality vs. volume

Looking for a bit of expertise here:

I recently made a few changes to my setup and while overall pleased with the results, I’m on the quest for better.  I’m hoping you all can help me diagnose an issue I’m hearing.

When listening to music at lower volume levels - say less than 1/2 total volume, the clarity, imaging and dynamics come across far more coherent and “in focus”.  To use an often over-coined phrase “It’s like I’m there in the room”.  As I start to push the volume up a bit, closer to live-performance levels, the sound becomes increasingly “mushy”.  I know, a highly technical term, but the best way to describe what I am hearing.  The bottom-end loosens up - getting a bit boomy, the crispness of the mid-range and highs fade and the imaging falls out of focus.  These are all incremental with volume until I get to the point where it’s just unbearable.   

I’m no expert by any means but feel it might be room acoustics.  I already know I have a less than ideal setup with a nearly square room (21x20ft) with 60% of the surface covered with clear birch wood paneling. Some things we can’t change (easily).  I do not have any acoustic treatment, just lots of soft furniture.  What I find interesting is that my old setup (Magnepan 1.6) didn’t suffer to such a degree.  Maybe with the new setup there is more to loose?  A mystery.  

For a bit more context:  
Speakers:  Dynaudio Contour 60
Streamer: SoTM sms-200 Ultra
Amplifier: Peachtree Nova500

Within the 20x21ft. room, my speakers are 4ft. from the wall, I am seated 13ft. from the front wall (a bit back from room center). Speakers are 9ft. apart.

Any thoughts?  

Wondering if with low volume the room is not causing so much trouble, but with higher volume the room becomes more apparent. Is your room treated? This is mandatory, especially with your style of speakers.
Try sound treatments(to absorb as much as possible) behind your listening position(live end/dead end). I’ve found, in a home listening room, the opposite of a studio(ie: dead front wall), works very well(kills ,"slap echo"). With planars; diffusers on the front wall, where the most direct sound(back waves) from the panels, will hit the wall, help a lot. Also- a listening position, closer to 2/3 of the way, back from the front wall(gotta experiment, to find the best spot). The higher the SPL, the more you’ll excite/notice room modes(reinforcements/cancellations), and overload. That CAN be overcome, to a great degree, by applying the above! If all else fails to satisfy, consider DSP, to control some of the more difficult issues. Of course, the better the room’s treated, the better DSP works too.( ( ( (
Here’s a cheap version of Auralex, which works very well at controlling resonances, when applied correctly. Anyone that tells you different, is simply ignorant/inexperienced. The thickness of the foam is important, with regards to the frequencies affected. 2" is a good bet, for home audio. Don’t forget those corners, to control bass reinforcements. Hopefully; you have autonomy, with regards to room asthetics(WAF can vary, SO widely).( and
Insufficient headroom at high output., room treatment will help some but will not make up for headroom deficiency
With 88dB speakers and(a rated) 800wpc(into 4 Ohms), listening 9’ from the drivers; one would have to be deaf, or- want to be deaf, to run out of, "headroom". Of course: anything’s possible.
Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons why systems generally become distorted and congealed at higher volumes is beyond the scope of this forum. Suffice it to say that even with the best you can do with ordinary means, you know what I’m talking about - room treatments, damping, vibration isolation, suspension of cables, cryogenics, aftermarket fuses, CD treatments - distortion of the sound remains, and dynamic range compression and a loss of musicality when the volume is pushed up past moderate levels. There’s nothing wrong with your system. It’s got nothing to do with dynamic headroom. Electronics generally don’t distort when only at 3/4 full power.

It has to do with LOCAL effects that are independent of the system, including the electrical grid, electronics, cabling, room acoustics, house wiring. It’s a long way to Tipperary. You have to take algebra before 🔙 you take calculus. The reasons for the distortion are for the advanced class. You could call it extra sensory perception. An ordinary man has no means of deliverance.
Thinking about the OP’s amp(800WPC) and speaker ratings(390W max); I’m skeptical, for the same reason I cited above, but- it’s entirely possible he’s driving the speakers into compression, trying for some ridiculous levels(I try to give people the benefit of the doubt). If he was satisfied with his Maggies, his new Contours should be slightly better, from the output standpoint. Are they broken in, yet? From the description given, regarding what’s being experienced, it could be either(but, still- probably room overload).
The way to tell if it's your speakers or your room:
Sit 3' away from them. See if the mushiness goes away.
It’s not really an either/or situation 🔛. It doesn’t have to be either the speakers OR the room. I.e., when you’re sitting 3’ from the speakers and the sound is still distorted, congealed and irritating what’s the next theory? 😬 The trouble is we’re very used to the distortion and lack of clarity because that’s how it’s always sounded. You get used to a certain amount of distortion. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “But it sounds good to me.”
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Hi @geoffkait Thanks for not asking questions about my suggestion, in particular why this would do anything, why it works and what it could reveal about the room/speaker interactions.

In this way I can be certain you neither understand my suggestion, nor why it matters, so I don't need to actually respond.



No doubt that higher volume will exacerbate room reflections and other problems and that the 3' test will tell the or equipment.
@wanderingmoo as I read your second paragraph room reflections was what first came to my mind. You could try something simple to begin with: use some pillows or cushions around your head to create a sort of narrow listening cone towards your speakers. If that seems to reduce the problem (at least in the midrange and treble) then it sounds like you're on the right track.

Your Magnepan 1.6 speakers would have produced much more directional sound, being a vertical panel and a dipole.
One thing you could try, WMoo, is to place your speakers so that they aim diagonally from one corner to the opposite corner.  Put them out from the wall until the bass is too light compared to the mids/highs.  Your equipment can be on one of the walls if you have long ICs or SCs.  If not, put the equipment in that corner.  Place your listening chair or couch somewhere on the line of those 2 corners facing the speakers.  Experiment with the closeness of the speakers to the chair.  It would be best logistically to have the speakers and stuff where there is no door to get in the way of entering or leaving the room.  

In near square rooms, this often gives the best shot of achieving the best sound you can expect with the dimensions given.  It's free and MAY give you a good boost in SQ.  Nothing to lose trying but a little moving of stuff.  I'd do this and get you sound to the best you can and THEN start messing with room treatments as needed.


I agree with gillatgh. I was using kef blades 2 running through parasound jc-1 and jc-2 setup . When I raised the volume the sound stage used to get collapsed and mushy. I changes to ayre mx-r twenty and kx-r twenty . The sound stage stays open and not mushy even at loud volumes / loudest volumes . Same speakers same asc room treatment. Electronics does play a major role for clarity at higher volumes .

Less than 1/2 volume, and everything sounds good. Is this based on the volume control setting on the Peachtree, or, with an spl meter ? Closer to live volume levels ? Could be terrible room reflections, and improper bass loading because of the high pressurization taking place ( my 1st guess ). It could be dynamic compression of the speakers ( I use horns, and I hear this compression a lot from other speakers, especially at louder levels ). It could be your hearing, as many people cannot listen loud. It could be the system is highly accurate, and at louder volumes, you are hearing production problems in the recordings. The system components might be mismatched. I am also a believer of everything geoffkait addressed ( he is a brilliant man ). I would try the near field listening test suggested by Eric. Cables can be " wrong " as well, since systems need to work together. Enjoy ! MrD.
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These are the times that try audiophiles’ souls. This phenomenon of distortion and congealed sound arising when the volume reaches more than a moderate level is a symptom of something that audiophiles haven’t figured out. It’s not only newbies that experience this. At least judging from the number of rooms filled with Tube Traps, walls covered with SONEX, blankets and carpets on the walls, mattresses on the walls, egg crates on the ceiling, thick curtains covering all the windows. Ten pounds of crystals on the walls. Changing equipment and changing cables incessantly. Getting bigger and bigger amps. Isolating and damping everything. Yet the distortion and congealed sound persists. They even have a name for it. Audio Nervosa. It’s enough to make audiophiles pull their hair out. 😩 As Bob Dylan says at the end of all his songs, good luck to everyone. 
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If you want to listen loud in a smaller room without specific treatments you need to control the bass. I'm quite certain your Dynaudios overload the room at higher levels. And makes a very boring listening. Change speakers or start using DSP like DSpeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 or similar. You will still have a lot of reflections. Also listen to good recordings. Most recordings can't be played really loud because of distortion, overemphasized mids, voices or anything. The latest Steve Miller remastered ultmate hits is a recommendation.

Got the same problem yesterday with a used pair Harbeth P3ESR SE I took delivery of. For desk top use. No loud levels here though. But still very muddy in the bass and no treble at all. After som DSP, Arc 2 in this case, taken down the bass and flatten the freq curve to 4000 Hz, they started to sing rather nice with fine dynamics (crossed att 100 Hz to a couple of JBL 310 subs). 
“It’s what I choose to believe.” - Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, science officer, Prometheus

It didn’t work out too well for her, did it? Mistakes in judgment oft stem from not knowing all of the facts or denial of reality.

”You may think you know what’s going on, Mr. Gittes, but believe me, you don’t.” - Noah Cross to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown.

Excellent recommendations, thank you!

I’ll start with room treatment.  I figured as much but wanted some validation.  WAF is a very real concern so I will have to see what can be done.  The egg-crate look is definitely in the no-fly zone.   If anyone has recommendations on half-reasonably priced, GOOD looking room acoustics drop a recommendation here.  

I did try every variation of the foam plugs that came with the Contours.  Ended up with the bottom port plugged completely and half of the top port sealed. While I like a good solid low-end, these speakers have a full-fat sound.  What I didn’t expect was the imaging and mid-highs to suffer so much but it might all be in my head :-). 

As for the headroom comment, anything is possible but I experienced this with the Maggies years back.  Too little power so I overcompensated with the Nova500.  While I know I could have gone fancy with Naim or Moon, I figured the Nova would hold me over (and the WAF is just off the charts) with enough power.  If anyone seriously thinks my problem lies in the Nova500 I could grab my friends Diablo 300 and give it a try.  Might do that anyway just for fun :-)

If I can’t get the room to cooperate I’ll try a DSP or other gizmo.  In my limited past experience with digital room correction, the results were somewhat boring - making the music a bit sterile if that makes sense.  I’m sure technology has moved along since then.  

If all else fails, I’ll pull out a good pair of cans and call it a day.  

Thanks again, 

Nice looking speakers. I think your rear ports primarily, and speaker placement perhaps, combine to create your problem.

Ports are simply to get some extended bass out of a smaller enclosure, not a lot, just a bit more audible extension. Let's the manufacturers publish lower bass response. Demo rooms produce too much bass, but, a brief listen is impressive.

Ports are very room reactive, potential for problems should be considered larger than any potential improvement.

My speakers are very large, internal volume 6 cubic feet, with horns and 15" woofers, very efficient, need very little power to rattle the neighborhood.

Mucho bass, but when younger, I just had to try to port the 15" woofers to get more than anyone else had ever heard from them. Been there, done that, learned from it. I have my rear ports closed now in this room. I used them open in the prior location. Never needed to begin with, but satisfied the itch.

Ports open, closed, knowing what I know now, especially now that good subs exist, I would not buy a ported speaker. Get the best imaging out of the primaries, and if you must, add a sub, play with it's placement. I have a sub in my home theater, and a sub in my office. I get just a little bit, now really aware until you turn them off, that's the way it is supposed to be, same with surround speakers, not too obvious, but, off, the sound 'collapses' into the front.

What I would try:

They need to be away from the corners, but, not equally, say 3 feet from rear wall, only 2, or 4 (not 3) feet from rear wall. An asymmetric corner behind them,

Start farther apart, then toe them in more than you think. left speaker directly facing center listening chair, thus angled quite away from side walls. which is why you can start closer to the side wall than now. same for right. This will give you a very nice wide center effect, as left of center faces right speaker more directly, but is physically closer to left speaker, (opposite side similar) like the DBX do for home theater wide center. 3 people wide can get very nice imaging using this technique. Center is perfect of course, best depth.

Next, you need to angle them up some, so that the bass is not exiting 'flat' to the floor ceiling, and the rear wall. This usually aims the tweeter up, often directed at seated ear height which is best.

Now bass is not too close to rear wall, and angled away from the side walls, and approaches the floor and ceiling differently approaching you, and the floor, ceiling, rear wall will all interact differently.

Cost: Zero. Room Decor: wife stays happy.

A final attempt would be to stuff one or both ports. You could stuff both on left speaker only, move around, learn something, keep messing about. You could close all 4 ports, happily listen, if not enough bass after a period of time, start the search for a sub, and don't try to get too much out of it.

good luck, let us know if any of this works please,


oh yeah, I put 3 wheels under mine, and push them into the corners for more space in the rooom when not listening, roll them out some for listening, and roll them out to ideal location for extended focused listening. If it is not easy to re-position speakers, unless a dedicated space, you are stuck with a compromise location usually.
There is one way of separating the system from the room and know for sure "is it system or room?" Set the system up outside in your driveway, far from any walls or boundaries.  Set up your seating position in the same place.  Repeat your tests and see if you get the same audible effects with level.  Its a simple test but an effective one and always a dramatic experience to hear what your [nearly] boundary free system sounds like!  Now you can better identify what is a system problem vs a room problem.  It's much easier to find a fix when you can clearly identify the problem.   Audio problems are so often solved via a process of elimination.   

Like Geoffkait said, there are so many different problems affecting system + room behavior that most of us cannot figure out where to start or where to end.  It's usually beyond us as the science of it is truly complex and overwhelming.  Just from the myriad of answers above it is easy to see that almost any place you start applying a fix yields a difference.  But is this difference better or just different?  That's the real question that is very difficult to answer without some kind of a baseline, a reference of some sort.  

Lone Mountain Audio
TransAudio Group

Hi wanderingmoo, what you describe has nothing to do with room acoustics. You are just running out of power supply. You can prove this to yourself fairly easily. The Peechtree has a preamp output. You will have to borrow a large AB amp from your dealer or a friend, hook it up to your speakers and use the preamp section of the Peechtree to drive it. If distortion at high volume improves you have your answer. The Peechtree just does not have a power supply big enough to support the volume you like listening at.
Go get a pack of Roxol/rockwool for $50. I like the packs that are 12 slabs of 3.5 inch thick panels 47 inches tall by 15 wide. That’s enough to diagnose room problems. Stand some in the corners, then lay some along the base of the wall behind the speakers, maybe stand some up on the wall behind each speaker, then try at the first reflection points. Try other locations and combinations. When you notice it changes the sound, that’s  an area that you need to work on with real room treatments.  Don’t spend money guessing what treatments you need and where. $50 bucks and a weekend of experimenting with rockwool will lead you to know your room better. Yes there are more scientific methods. This is one method everyone can do. I’ve used these rockwool slabs to help many people find room problems. 
+1 vinylfan
No, dsp does not make for a boring sound. Quite the opposite. It clears the low-mid and gives you back the imaging, the transients and the liveliness. Toghether with a deep and tighter bass. Maybe if you use dsp also for higher frequencies, up to 5 -10 khz, it may make a lot of speakers sound very close! Naturally there are better and worse dsp. Nothing is perfect. If you go for Lyngdorf they have very usable fixed eq curves from 200 Hz and down that I use depending on what the recording needs. No recording is perfect.
If you do not have subwoofers, they could lighten the load on your mains to be able to play at lower volumes to decrease distortion.
Some things off the beaten track to reduce compression, distortion and congestion at moderate-high volumes:

1. Remove all unused electronics and cables from the room.

2. Remove all musical instruments from the room.

3. Remove all CDs and LPs from the room.

4. Remove all books and magazines from the room.
Improving my amp did reduce distortion at high levels, but the room is still the main issue.  Simple music sound amazing, but complex and loud overloads smaller untreated rooms in my experience.  In an open space the complex music sounds much cleaner and less muddied, but bass response is much lower also.

"As I start to push the volume up a bit, closer to live-performance levels, the sound becomes increasingly “mushy”."
I would take that as a warning. Turn the volume down. Not many things are better at destroying hearing than some live-performance sound pressure levels.
@glupson: definately not that loud. About the place on the knob where you start to feel the music but way before my ears start to bleed ;-) 

Just be careful. Music often feels good when it is a little louder while, in fact, it is already too loud. I am as guilty about it as anybody else. Get a measuring device, basic ones are less than $20 in the USA, and check the levels you are talking about. If for no real reason, but for fun. It gets interesting. At times, it gets you thinking. The quietest moment, middle of the night and windows closed, in my room is 35 dBA. The music, when it starts "being felt, but not appearing too loud" is around 70 (for me).
Trying to respond to a few of the comments:

I’ll try experimenting with Rockwool panels.  Sounds like a fun way to spend a Saturday.  I will also try wiring in a power Amp to see if we have a power shortage/amp headroom issue. 

As for ports, they are are almost closed.  I tried sealing them completely and backed out a bit. Speakers are 4 ft from each side wall and 4 ft from the front wall and toed in so they converge about 5 ft behind my head.  At lower volume levels, this gave me the best of imaging and clarity without making them a tripping hazard to the kids.  

I don’t have much in the room except the necessities for family entertaining when we watch movies.  No musical instruments or other gear really. 

I have a sub (REL B3) but not for music listening.  Use it for movies.  


As someone already advised you, don’t have the same distance to the speakers from corners and sidewalls, watch this, should give you a clue
Problems with the system itself producing distortion or congestion is actually probably better described as a dynamic range issue as opposed to a volume or loudness issue. That’s the primary reason why CDs in particular are frequently overly compressed - higher loudness levels can be achieved without producing certain types of distortion such as clipping.
Great wanderingmoo, I'd love an explanation for that username. Anyway, those speakers are quite capable of a clean 110 dB with the right amp in your room. Subs will increase your headroom and lower distortion in the mid bass but do not bother until you can afford two. One sub can be very frustrating for listeners who cherish accuracy. This is what gives Subs a bad rep in some circles. As for your room acoustics because of the dimensions you are going to produce standing waves around 40 Hz. As you walk down the room the bass will go from too loud to almost non existent then back again. We use to deal with this by placing the listening position where the bass was right. Now we have room control. You could also bulldoze your rear wall down;)  For upper frequencies, to improve your imaging and smooth out your frequency response you want to dampen the four strongest primary reflections (PR) in your room. Basically you are playing pool with your room. if you roll a ball from the listening position to the side wall you want to hit the point at which the ball will rebound into your speaker. That point is one PR. The arrival angle of the ball from a line perpendicular to the wall will equal the departure angle from the same perpendicular. Look at the geometry on paper. You want to find 4 PRs one on each side wall and two on the front wall between the speakers. Once you locate the PRs make  3 X 3 or 4 X 4 foot panels at each one at ear level using 12" acoustic foam tiles. They are dirt cheap. I tack them up with double sided tape. 
Glupson, actually our ears will tolerate 100 dB just fine as long as you get there correctly. Start off at 85 dB and go up in 5 dB increments every five minutes. This gives your stapedius muscles time to clamp down on the occicles, the three little bones that attach the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to the oval window of the cochlea (microphone). Impulse noise like a gunshot at 100 dB is far more damaging. No time for the stapedius to damp down the volume. Always warm up your guests accordingly.
@wanderingmoo. In my opinion the compression that happens at higher volumes is related to electronics and room . I can listen at 105 dB in my listening chair after changing electronics ( monoblocks, preamp, dac) from parasound to ayre and cables from kimber select to cardas clear without compression. Speakers and room acoustics are the same . The sound opened up at louder volumes . The performances sound real and there . 
Room acoustics and smearing I had talked to acoustic sound company , they sent me an audio file via email and we did the “Matt test” to identify reverb and echo in my room in my listening chair . They then made their specific recommendations. Nothing random, nothing textbook . But based on data collected from my room. You can contact them and they can help you. They work with the decor of the room and waf also 😊. Good luck . 
Let me say this about that.

Once anyone gets a very satisfying balanced system and speaker/room setup, most often you will find you very rarely listen as loudly as you used to. You are busy being immersed, involved, hearing things previously undiscovered.

Once a level of involvement is achieved, it is time to move to superior content, broaden your interests/experiences, move into phono if not there, move into Reel to Reel if not there, ... all of which enrich the experience far beyond tweaks.
It's the amp that causes 'mushiness' at higher volume levels. Upgrade your amp.Some big/heavy "high current" mono blocks.
The last three posts are correct in their own way except newtoncr 105dB is pushing the danger point for your ears. Tweek the bass and the treble up just 1-2 dB and 95 dB will sound just as good. Elliot you can have a marvelous sounding system that will not push comfortably beyond 85 db. But id you have a system that will do 95 db comfortably that is heaven for some music not all. A string quartet at that volume would sound rather ridiculous. jkbtn right on.
Unfortunately, distortion sets in way before high volumes are reached. There is distortion even at moderate levels. But the higher the volume the higher the distortion. You’re just used to it, that’s all since it’s always been there. You’re unaware of the distortion until it’s removed. It doesn’t have anything to do with amplifier distortion. It is more mysterious. Much more mysterious. it’s not really a secret because no one knows about it. 😲
Been away a few days - I pulled out my SPL meter and mushy stars right around 80db. (A-weighted) I know someone asked.  

I took your advice and plugged the ports completely and the sound improved.  Less but much tighter/cleaning up the lower few octaves.  

I also played around with poor-man sound treatments.  This also seems to help.  I put egg-crate foam behind a few paintings and prints on the back of the room.  This reduced reflection.  I was getting some “slap” from the back wall.  No doubt more can be done here.  Wondering if ceiling treatment might help?  It’s the easiest place to treat without disturbing the look of the room. I’ll keep at it.  I have a 110” projector screen between the speakers - maybe sound panels behind the screen?  

As for the Amp.  I have no doubt mono-blocks carved out of mountains of billet aluminum would yield an improvement.  I haven’t tested that theory yet.  Stay tuned...  and thank you for all the advice!
No, room treatments may help, but you will still find that the sound is clearer and more focused at lower volumes.  Even in my dead room due to clutter, this is the case.  The ear is less sensitive to bass, so it takes higher volumes to give a sense of loudness in the bass.  The whole spectrum of freq is downshifted to give more emphasis to the bass than higher freq.  More bass does give more fullness, but with sacrifices to clarity and focus.  Even with live unamplified classical music, these statements apply.  In audio systems, the lower volume you listen at, the more you have to listen carefully, so that is also a factor in your perceptions.  There is a tradeoff at what volume you choose to listen--too low, you hear less of everything but it is all focused, and too high, you hear bloat and lack of focus.  Also, since all audio systems are veiled and distorted compared to live unamplified music, trying to get live volumes out of an audio system will doom you to mushy sound.  It is better to accept the facts of reality, and get more clarity and focus from your system at lower volumes.
Yes elliottb: "Once anyone gets a very satisfying balanced system and speaker/room setup, most often you will find you very rarely listen as loudly as you used to. You are busy being immersed, involved, hearing things previously undiscovered."  ...  ...   It is my case also, rarely I listen loud, because I focus on the details of the music, so 20% of the total power is good for me. Some times, I need to lower the volume just a bit.  The quality of the electricity is a major factor to have an easy listening session.  I also use Cathedral panel in each corner of my room.
Agree with the comments on loudness.  Very rarely do I push things 90+db.  There are those few "classics" that demand to be played loud but that's usually more of a party than critical listening.  

We are having some electrical work done in the next few months (renovation) and I'll ask if the electrician can pull a new 20amp circuit down into my listening room.  I think this, combined with some quality plugs, sockets and cables could make an improvement.  Sometimes I think the lights dim a little when I crank up the volume ;-)

In the meantime, I have have a DIY project for this weekend to build some acoustic panels and bass traps.  Placing them behind my projector screen, along the back wall and in the window bays.