Which speakers excel at low volume?

I do much of my listening at lower volumes than I imagine most of you do: 60-70db for me much of the time. I understand why many speakers are designed to sound correct at live-music levels, and the hell with how they sound at lower levels. But that doesn't work for me. I need a speaker that resolves details, conveys proper tone and timbre, expresses microdynamics, and has a respectable balance, including a sense of weight, even at low volume. (Low volume does not mean low amplifier power.) This is an aspect of loudspeaker performance that is rarely addressed in reviews. It must be that most audiophiles don't care about it, or that reviewers feel it is not a criterion that loudspeakers are or should be designed for. Fair enough, but I still want what I want.

I used to have original Quad electrostatics, which were terrific at low volume. My ProAc Response 2.5s aren't bad (though they don't resolve detail too well even at high volume). The Thiel 1.6 is pretty good, the 2.4 less so.

What have you heard, particularly in dynamic speakers, that fits my requirements?
My Quad 63's do a very good job at low levels, much better than my cone speakers. In fact if I didn't want the dynamics that cones bring the Quads would go back into the system.
Drubin -

Let me explain two mechanisms that detract from most loudspeakers sounding good at low volume levels, and then see if I can offer a few useful ideas.

First, imagine you're pushing a car. Small pushes do not show up in a corresponding movement of the car. Now imagine you're pushing a tricycle. Much smaller pushes show up in a corresponding movement of the tricyle. So in general, very lightweight diaphragms give better articulation at low volume levels (and better low-level resolution at all volume levels). This analogy isn't perfect, of course.

Second, different loudspeaker drivers have differing compression characteristics, and in general woofers compress more than do midranges and tweeters. So let's say you have an 85 dB woofer with a 91 dB tweeter. Obviously, the tweeter will have to be padded down to match the woofer. What is not obvious is that, because of their differing compression characteristics, they will only be precisely matched at a certain volume level. So let's say the designer wants them to sound great at about 85 dB at the listening position. Because the tweeter compresses less, up around 95 dB the tweeter may be 2 dB louder than the woofer - so at high volume levels, the speaker sounds bright and forward. But at lower volume levels - say 65 dB - the tweeter will now be 4 dB lower in volume than the woofer, so the speaker will sound dull and lifeless. This is a rather extreme example, but I hope you get the idea.

The reason original Quads sound so great at low volume levels is they have a very lightweight diaphram so they are very articluate, and the bass and treble panels have very similar compression characteristics. I peddle Sound Lab electrostats, which use a single driver and an even lighter diaphragm, and they are probably unexcelled at low volume levels. In fact, I often listen down around 50-60 dB late at night and as long as the ambient noise level is quite low, I don't feel like I'm missing much. And with the volume down low, it seems like I can relax deeper into the music.

If you don't want to go the planar route, then I'd suggest a high-efficiency (lighweight diaphragm) single-driver loudspeaker. The little Omega Super 3 is a very articulate and nicely voiced little speaker for ballpark $540 - $740 depending on which version you go for. The bottom end isn't real deep so you might want to add the new matching (sub)woofer, whose price I don't know offhand (just called the designer but he's out of town right now).

Other lines you might consider are Cain & Cain, Fostex (sold by Madisound; drivers only), Supravox (drivers only) and PHY (divers only). I'm a dealer for Omega and PHY.

Best of luck to you in your quest!

My Quad ESL 988.
I have heard that the Green Mountain Audio Europas are very good at low volumes. I cannot speak from experience however. I recently purchased a pair, but I am still in the process of putting together the rest of the system. That characteristic was one of the reasons that I chose that particular speaker (among many).
I own the Green Mountain C1.5i 3-way floor standing speakers. I agree with Jb3 that the GMA speakers (his prelim Europa recommendation & my C1.5i reco) sound good at low volumes. I listen often at night 11pm & later when the rest of the house is asleep & my volume levels are in the 70-75dB level. The C1.5i are quite excellent at this volume. Per the manuf. advice I had to break them in to get this performance. Just as an aside, Roy Johnson recommends that music be played at both sane & insane levels (absolute level to be determined by the user as each person's sane & insane level is different). This loosens the woofer cone & allows it to respond better at low volumes. The drivers are superbly integrated (w.r.t. Duke/Audiokinesis nicely explained write-up) so the speaker is very non-fatiguing to listen to. Listening session is often hours & hours & only dictated by when I cannot sit down any longer.
anything by Reynaud
I second (or is it third) the vote for planer type of speakers. I used to own the Martin Logan Sequel II's and you got a lot of bang for the buck with them. They imaged great at low volumes, which was good, since they really were a bit brittle at really high volumes. (I don't know if the Quads will get loud, but I have heard them and they sound really nice.)

Good Luck in your search.
The sense of weight can be solved by adding a powered sub in my experience. When I'm listening quietly (when we're trying to get the little one to sleep) I notch the sub up a little (only a very little) and this compensates for the psycho-acoustic effect of reduced bass at lower volumes. When I want to play loud I turn the sub down a bit and prevent boomy wallowing bass from taking over my small listening room.

My main speakers are Spica Angelus, and I think that they do the imaging and microdynamics very very well at low volumes. In fact they're not so good when it gets louder, but for me that's fine.
Your problem would be greatly reduced if you got yourself an old-design preamp with "Loudness" compensation. If you can't do that, don't be afraid to use tone controls or an equalizer. "Loudness" compensation is really best because the equalization curve is expressly designed to compensate for the known characteristics of the average human ear.
Eldartford ... we must have posted at exactly the same time (and on the same wavelength !)
I'd venture a guess that you're looking at the wrong component.

I believe it is the appropriate amplifier (more so than the dynamic speakers) that will provide what you are seeking.

Quad ESL
My best low level set up was
B&W matrix 804s
Anthem Amp2
great at low level.
Too strident at high volumes.
At the risk of starting a giant discussion, the truth is that almost no speaker sounds good at low volume. This is not the fault of the speaker, but rather the ear's nonlinear response at differing volumes. Do a search for "Fletcher-Munson curves". The suggestions above are correct: a loudness contour button (shudder) is going to get you closer to a "realistic" sound at low volumes than anything else.

In order to hear the proper balance, you have to play the recording at "live" levels, end of story. Listening at any other level results in the perception of an incorrect frequency response. Any speaker that seems to have a "correct" balance at low levels has a deliberately non-flat frequency response and will sound absolutely awful when played at "live" levels. It isn't possible to design for both situations simultaneously because the requisite frequency response is very different.

To answer your question directly, though, I would suggest Vandy 2c's. Due to their inherent "warmth", they tend to sound good at less-than-live levels (although the downside to this is that they sound thick and oppressive at live levels).
Do you mean whatever is the baseline volume when recorded in the studio? WHo is to say what is Live Volume otherwise...
For what ever it's worth I always thought Quads and Spicas were good in this regard.
Karls: Vandies are not so much "warm" as they are tough loads for most amps at high frequencies. For some reason, most amps take a dive in output levels above 9 - 10 KHz when driving Vandies. I don't know if it has to do with levels of reactance, impedance, specific phase angles, etc... or a combo of all of the above, but most amps simply do not load up well into Vandies up top. Finding an amp that is both relatively load stable and possibly has a slight rise up top would tend to level things out when working with Vandies.

My Ohm F's seem to hold their tonal balance quite well at low listening levels. They probably work best there or at medium levels. Once you start to drive them harder ( anything above about 92 - 94 dB's at 10' ), they start falling apart in terms of top to bottom coherence. You might be able to get them louder than that but the recording would have to be on the lean side. Sean
Surprisingly "Silverline" . Their efficiency ratings are for real.
The Vandy 5As are particularly good a lower volumes, I believe, due to the integrated subs. I find myself listening a lower volumes than I did with my 2 Cis and still experiencing the fullness and impact of the bass.

Sean, I have noticed a drop in the 5As above 10K, as you mentioned, using a RS meter, but how can I separate the contribution due to the amp from the contribution due to the room?

How did you make measurements to come to your conclusion?
I agree with both Karls and Darrylhifi. There are tradeoffs for reduced volume, but I've been happy with Silverline SR12's and SR17's at low volume. The benefit of the 17's is that you can crank 'em too. You can get satisfying bass out of the 17's too with proper stands and positioning, even at low volume levels. Not as good as playing them loud, but still enjoyable listening.
I would second Stenho's suggestion that this is as much (or more) an amplifier question as a speaker question. For example, I would try something that runs pure Class A for at least 5W. I also think that power conditioning can make a huge difference in low level playback, as electical noise seems to be proportionately greater at lower volumes. When I added a modest PC to my bedroom system, the bass weight and tunefulness (articulation) was virtually transformed. Produced major grins, as I had been contemplating a monitor upgrade that would have cost at least 2x. Now I'm perfectly happy with the old ones.
Thiel CS6, fully broken in and powered by a Krell 400cx, do very well at low volumes. They retain all the uncompressed dynamics and frequency response and still allow me to fully engage in the music during "microbreaks" I take every now and then, while working at the computer, writing, editing etc.
Zargon: I did a LOT of research on the subject. Had out every piece of test gear that i owned, paid for consultants to come in and analyze the results, ran confirmation tests to verify out thoughts, etc... It was both exhausting and exhilerating to say the least.

Actually, all i did was read a very interesting Stereophile article on the subject of "impedance interaction" between various amps and various speakers. This specific test used Vandy 2's as part of the procedure and that is what i based my above comments on. Sorry for the big build-up in the first paragraph, but i just hadta do it : )

While some amps load up better / more consistently into various speakers, it is pretty easy to see that some of what we hear is directly related to the stability of the amp being used and how it responds to various impedances. As can be seen here, some amps operate in a FAR more linear mode than others. As a side note, the tube amps are the worst in this respect i.e. offer the least accurate portrayal of what was fed into them with this type of load. The scary thing is that the frequency response that they produce will vary from load to load, so you might hear something completely different from them on a different speaker. At least the SS designs were relatively "linear" even though they too showed high frequency roll-off on the Vandies. At least it was a gentle slope rather than the very noticeable sag that the tubes produced. This is not to mention the erratic bass and mid-band performance on some of the other amps.

This article and testing not only confirm the thoughts that many have voiced concerning Vandies being slightly dull sounding, but that "synergy" and "system performance" really do exist. As such, it is not just a matter of selecting good components on an individual basis, but more a matter of selecting components that work well together. This is one of the reasons why i have a hard time writing reviews and / or accepting the thoughts presented by most reviewers. Changing one component in the system may alter the audible results of that specific signal chain.

This is why i have such great respect for the "audio scientists" such as J. Peter Moncrieff. Not only did he listen to those interactions ( which anybody can do and guess about), he took the time to better understand why those results were occuring via scientific testing and document them. After doing such, he broke things down to the bare essentials and was able to logically show why those measurements verified what our ears were telling us. It is he that led me to believe that some pieces really ARE "superior" to others for design / engineering / implimentation reasons. At the same time, he also explained why some "lesser" designs might work nearly as good given specific conditions and how one could take advantage of that. If one reads various audio magazines, you can see his influence ALL over the place. Most, if not all, independent reviewers try to fill his shows but fall far short. Combining Peter's "scientific know how" with Enid Lumley's "golden ears" made for the most enjoyable AND informative audio reading possible. Sean

Other than concentrating on speakers only there is a device that improves the sound @ very low listening levels.

It is the TDS Passive Audiophile. I'm not certain if it's still produced as TDS/PA as I have seen the same/similar circuitry marketed under the AR label (the inexpensive AR units have cheesy looking plastic cases unlike the heavy metal ones used by TDS).

Don't have a clue as to how it works (passive device that offered an audible amount of volume increase in the systems I used it in - approx. 3 dB I would guess), but I liked what it did for late night listening.

I did not care for it's sound @ higher sound levels and only used it for low (very low) level listening.

It helps if you have a tape monitor to make use of the unit, but there are other ways to incorporate it into a system.

Megasam here originally turned me on to the product, though in his system he had better results @ all volume levels (think he liked using it with headphones as well). He mentioned that it may have not been a good match for the 300B DH/SET amp I was using @ the time (i.e., higher volume ), but still I used it for a couple of years for the late night/low volume application.

I lost mine (the TDS) somewhere in our spare/junk room and have been trying to locate it for the past 6 months. Would like to try it out in a non/Hi-fi 2-channel HT system in the bedroom for late night listening.

The TDS units had an optional on/off bypass switch and I'm not certain what the AR units offer in this regard. As I used it as a low volume only remedy I preferred to have it completely out of the line @ other times (an on/off switch was not of any use to me). The street price of the AR version sells for approx. $50-$80/new online, though I have seen them sell for as little as $15 on Ebay. TDS produced 2 main versions (I think) with the first one being more expensive. Their second version retailed for approx. $250.
I have to say the speakers I have heard that excel at low volume are all the pure electrostats except the old Koss. Infinities Kappa 8 and 9's. Some little swiss minimonitor I can think of the name of it.
I have the Europa's and they may just be the best sounding speaker I have heard at lower listening levels. Having sold retail high end audio for many years I have heard a lot of speakers. None I have heard, including stats sound as good as the Europa's at low volumes. Highly recomended.
The Europa's need stands and sub, don't they?

By the way, thank you everybody for your responses in this thread. Good discussion. I'll have more to add in a little while. --Dan
So I've done a little reading on the Green Mountain Europas. Design principals seem very similar to Thiel: first-order crossovers, time coherent. But I have an impression that they don't sound anything like Thiels. Any thoughts?
Any of the Avantgarde horn speakers excel at low volumes.
One humble recommendation for the Von Schweikert VR-2. I have owned this full range speaker for 3 months now and am consistently impressed at the resolution I get a low volumes. Also, I will second the recommendation for what a good "loudness" (equalization) button can do. My McIntosh 6900 integrated has such a button which boosts the lower frequencies -- it makes quite a difference at the lower volumes. Good Luck,

I have never heard any Thiels so far but I do own GMA floor standing speakers. I think that the Europas & the speakers I own have the same GMA "house" sound. Here is some info that be of further assistance (if you haven't already read these):

(1) http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?cspkr&1065145277&read&3&4&

(2) http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/m.pl?forum=speakers&n=137238&review=1

As nice sub like a Rel or Vandy can help with the Feltcher Munson curve syndrome. At lower levels to me a good sub is a must.
I have the Green Mountain Audio Continuum C-3's. They are very good at low volumes and they do not sound similar to Thiels. I have always found Thiels to be a little clinical and dry. The C3's are richer and more organic sounding without being ripe. Really amazing speakers that should be heard if you have the time.
Wilson Watt/Puppy 7
Martin-Logan CLS w/ Entec or Kinergetics subs
Quad 63s w/ Entec subs
Avantgarde Duos
I would have to offer a third vote for Avantgarde Duos. Because these speakers are so dynamic they are involving at very low volumes.

- rmf
Martin Logans excel.
Anything that resolved low-level detail. Crossover-less speakers help in this regard and poor crossovers and poor passive parts (XO, terminals, wiring, etc) kill this. The result is having to listen at "louder than live" volume to compensate. Great speakers sound great at all volumes. No loudness button is needed.

Actually 60-70 dB SPL isn't that low, especially for acoustic music (jazz, classical, folk). I'd say 50-60dB is pretty low (night time volume). I think you'd be surprised that a lot of us aren't listening at 85-90dB SPL or louder. I don't even listen to death metal that loud (82-ish). I don't need to.
I think looking for the right amplification will do far more for you than looking for the right speaker.

With the right amplification, most any speaker will sound a whole lot more efficient, rich, detailed, and full even at lower volumes.

With the wrong amplification, it matters little which speaker you choose. Regardless of volume.

I think Aroc and Stehno are both right. When I had some Soundlabs the low level detail was astounding with some pushpull tubes. On some multidrivers a single ended pure class A amp brought out more detail at lower levels. Marry the 2 and enjoy. I'm pretty new to the SET/single driver-no crossover idea and like it more each day. Besides the detail, the sound stays balanced at the low level.
I have Innersound Eros and they are great at low level
Pick a speaker that CAN"T play loud. Speakers that play loud are a compromise when all you need is quite listening levels.
I agree about x-overless designs. Try Epos M12/M15; single driver Fostex, Jordan or paper driver speakers like the old Virgo II's.
My take on this subject-

The PS audio GCC-100 amp is great at low volumes becuase there is no volume control in the signal path. Even my excellent tech labs Bob Crump built vol pots in my spectral pre-amp dont sound as transparent as the GCC- and especially at low volumes.

2- go with mini monitors and a powered sub. That way you can compensate for fletcher Munson curve, etc by bring the subs higher giving a full sound at low volumes.
other things being equal, it probably makes sense to focus on speakers that imaging champs if you mainly listen low levels....will able to "hear" more detail and depth than usual....this may also mean a narrower sweet spot so need to be consider.
Interesting point, Henry.

I am now evaluating a CD player with excellent built-in attenuation, so I am trying it direct to amp. What I am hearing lends credence to Stehno's position about amplification, because the sound is so pure and the background so quiet that the music and detail shine through even at very low levels. I think that detail is a real key to low-volume listening.