What makes a speaker perform well at low volume?

A newbie question, for sure.

I have seen threads that attempt to identify speakers that are good that perform well at lower volumes. I am curious to hear what, if any, quantative attribute make a speaker perform well at lower volumes.

For instance, higher sensitivity? Higher/Lower impedence, etc?

All speakers change "Q" ( tuning ) as they are driven at different levels. As such, they all have a specific point where they will operate most linearly. The problem with a multi-way design is that it is possible for each of the drivers used to experience their "optimum Q" after warm-up in different spl regions. The end result is a lack of cohesivity unless one can find an SPL that presents a happy medium to all of the drivers simultaneously. Most of the time, this won't be at a low listening level either.

Now factor in that all ported / bass reflex designs are subject to variations in the flow velocity of air within the vent as SPL is varied. Unless a vent uses a gentle radiused flare at both the inlet and outlet side, the bass tuning will be optimized over a very narrow SPL range. Once again, if one is trying to listen outside of that range and / or in a range where the other drivers aren't hitting their stride in sequence, the end result is less cohesive sound. In this regards, sealed designs are more linear over a MUCH wider spl range and retain a higher percentage of "bass weight" as spl's are reduced.

As such, it is easy to see why / how speakers using one dynamic driver ( Walsh's / Lowther's / Fostex, etc ) and / or full range planar / E'stat type speakers excell at low volumes. That is, there's only one driver or type of driver to excite and all of the operating characteristics will remain consistent over the entire band. In effect, the speaker is more uniform in its' presentation, regardless of spl range. There is no "confusion" as to when each of the drivers is working optimally as they are all working in unison sharing the same load and electrical characteristics. On a dynamic multi-way system, each driver has individual electrical characteristics and they are VERY different from one another. If they weren't, there wouldn't be a difference between a woofer, a tweeter and a mid.

On top of that, many of these designs, especially E'stat's and Planar's, have very considerable surface area to radiate signal from. Even though one is not moving a lot of air due to a lack of excursion, spreading the sound that is being radiated out over a larger surface tends to present a slightly different tonal and transient presentation to our ears and brain due to the way that it excites the room. The fact that ambience cues remain more consistent with omni & dipolar radiators regardless of spl range also factors in too.

Outside of that, you also have to consider the noise floor of the electronics, how linear they are at low power levels, etc... Most high powered amps don't do all that well at very low power levels, hence the move to lower powered levels and / or higher bias Class A or richer Class AB designs. SET amps are a "double blessing" in that regards as most are both lower powered and Class A biased. The reason that the higher powered amps don't do well is that they make use of a multitude of output devices, which typically aren't matched all that well. At low levels, they are all doing their own thing and it isn't quite in perfect unison. It is not until the drive levels are increased that they begin to work as a team and everything begins to fall into place. The end result is that there is greater "slack" or "tolerance" in the circuit at lower levels, resulting in poorer, less cohesive sound.

As such, there are many factors that add up to "good sound" at low listening levels. If one is going to do a LOT of listening like this, one might want to build their system specifically for this purpose. It is tough to achieve stellar performance levels at both high and low spl levels with good extension and it typically takes a LOT of money to do so. Factoring in realistic expectations as you build your system may make for both a more enjoyable and less costly experience than having to change everything as you find out your listening habits aren't quite as "wild" or "mild" as one originally thought.

As a side note, one of the things that i like most about my Ohm's was the fact that i could listen at low spl's and still achieve staggering bass extension out of this design. It is the only speaker that i know of that can shake the floor at very low spl's. Then again, in stock form, this speaker is not capable of high spl's with good linearity, so it is somewhat of a specialized speaker. As i mentioned above though, i took this factor into consideration when building the system that i use them in. That system is right in the same room as my computer, where i do a lot of late night, low volume listening. The fact that the amps driving them run in Class A up to 50 wpc with 800 wpc at actual impedance of the Ohm's ) assures both high levels of linearity with an iron fist in terms of control : ) Sean

PS... These speakers are about 82 dB's and present a nominal 2-3 ohm load to the amp. NOT an easy speaker to drive and many amps aren't up to the task, even though their power ratings say they should be.

Currently listening to Cake: Pressure Chief on Redbook CD
Everyone - thanks so much for the time and effort. This has been very educational for me. Searching the internet (and suprisingly - especially this site, which at first, I thought was only about selling used stuff) has opened my eyes to a lot of options I did not know existed.

This all started with thinking about getting decent monitors to act as my primary music and TV sound source (and maybe building out a 5.1 system).

I have been thinking a lot more about what I value (i.e. - I know I won't critically listen to movies, only music; I won't have many opportunities to run the system "wide open") has then directed me to stay in the 2 channel world, and consider tube power. Then, just last night I stumble over information about single driver speakers (hornshoppe is one that caught my attention via some threads elsewhere). So many options.

It is not clear to me if horn-loaded single driver speakers are really feasible though. These won't be in a dedicated listening room (i.e. - can't get 100% choice in placement) - so it is not clear if these would work for me. I hope I can find some place around here (central jersey) to have a listen. I all liklihood, I will need to keep looking at monitors.

I digress. There is an amazing range of choice out there. I am facinated by the information and options out there.


Be especially careful when demoing horn-loaded speakers. They are usually dynamic and may sound exciting at first but many horn owners complain of listener fatigue over time due to their "in your face" response.

You need a speaker that doesn't shout and produces what is on the recording, nothing more, nothing less. And be careful with true studio monitors, they are usually uncolored and very revealing but don't have the mid range magic our ears enjoy over the long term.
As a single-driver speaker user, I can tell you that this is a very careful path to walk, if you want to really get what they are capable of. The entire system needs to be of a caliber that will work best with these types of speakers.

Basically, you need a low power SET amp of high quality to drive the single-drivers. The reasons are complex, but basically that's what works best. Most single-driver speakers are very efficient(especially any horns), and they are very detailed and revealing. This means that the whole system needs to be almost free of any noise or any synergy problems. High power amps are not needed, because the speakers will play loud with only a few watts. Go for the purity and coherence of a good quality SET amp with that kind of speaker(which accentuates the purity and coherence itself, and is one of the main reasons for single-drivers).

Personally, I experimented with the smaller Fostex drivers like are used in the Hornshoppes, and found that they lacked the surface area needed to get reasonable SPL in my room. I eventually found my needs were filled by Lowther 8" single drivers. They play quite loud on a few watts, and sounded much better than the Fostex to me.

With single-drivers, the pathway is very narrow, if you want to get the best from them. But, the rewards are very good, for the strengths that come from a system like this.

Beware, that very low bass is not a strong point of systems like this. But, the sound that you do get, from about 40-60Hz(depending on speaker) and up, is very very nice.

My advice is to use a larger driver of around 8" diameter, instead of the small drivers in the Hornshoppe. Also, using rear-loaded horn enclosures(like Hornshoppe style),or Voigt Pipe, and avoiding front-loaded horn designs, will keep the sound from being too colored and "in your face" like some front horn designs can be. Real high-end front horns can be very good, but in the budget range, I'd avoid them.

Try to avoid solid-state amplification when using speakers like this. The advantages of SS are not useful with this type of speaker, and the disadvantages are clearly heard.
I think Cinematic_systems is right on!!!

He gets my vote for Post Of The Year.

I almost NEVER hear audiophiles discuss the Fletcher - Munson Curve, and it is why I feel just about all systems have nothing for me at lower volumes. I don't feel the music comes alive until about 85 dB. Below that, the frequency response of a system is all out of kilter. People eschew the use of loudness and tone controls, but I just about never hear music sound as it should through an audio rig at 70 dB.

Bravo, Cinematic_systems!