Why does it sound better at lower volumes?

Hi, I have a Krell, a Slim Devices Transporter, and Aerial 7B speakers with Zu spekaer and ICs. The thing is this combination sounds fantastic, among the best systems I've ever heard at lower even moderate volume levels. The Krell volume control is incremented from 0-150. Anything less than 50 sounds sounds fantastic across the frequency spectrum. But when I go higher on many pieces the highs take on on a harshness that is like an axe chopping broken glass.

Don't get me wrong - a number of pieces sound great - often classical and even some rock such as Fleetwood Mac sound great. I'm trying to figure out if many of the newer i.e., last 20 years, recordings with compression and boosted highs are the problem. Is my system just too good reproducing the dreck out of studios these days?

I've noticed in the car many of the same recordings sound ok with the background noise competing with the boosted highs. They boosted highs are still there but aren't as annoying due to the road noise and limitations of the car stereo.

I've just purchased a balanced cable - the Transporter has native XLR and it's often said Krell sounds noticeably better with XLR. It hasn't arrived yet.

Secondly, I'm thinking about a power conditioner. The guy at the Cable Co. said my system is just very detailed and probably needs power conditioning. Interestingly he wasn't pushing a cable at all.

I live in a new house but the power source isn't discrete. I can wire a discrete one but don't really want to go to the trouble. I have a discrete source in the crawlspace powering a single bulb down there and one outlet. I'm thinking about running an extension cable from that to my system just to try a discrete run to see if I should go further down that road.

Lastly I'm thinking about changing amps. Again is the Krell too good for my own good? :) I've heard a lot of amps from the big and small names and I like the Krell. It simply sounds fantastic... on probably 20% of my music. But I'm starting to think maybe I don't need that 20% like I need the other 80%. :) Maybe some coloration and rolling off of the highs is better at the end of the day.

I have a Sqeezebox as well and have A-B'ed it against my Rega Apollo. The Apollo was a little better but the SB did pretty well against it. I moved on up to the Transporter but haven't A-B'ed it against the Rega.

I've got to do something here, I guess other than listening at lower volumes. I may try a new integrated, say, a Plinius, MF, or go to tubes. Problem with tubes, my speakers aren't efficient so I'd need to eventually change speakers if I go that route. I have recently heard a Manley Stingray on Spendors and Quads and the sound did have that certain ineffable quality of warmth and a good sound. Also same with an SLI-80 and Theils. OTOH, I've heard my 7Bs sound fantastic on other systems such as Theta.

Any thoughts on this conundrum would appreciated. At 46 years old maybe it's just my ears acting their age.

regards, David
Sounds like a room problem to me..also try borrowing a Conditioner first before buying one..It might not be the problem..Dedicated lines and Room treating may be your cheapest and best way out..
If the problem is volume related, either your room is getting over-driven at higher volumes or physical vibration is upsetting your front-end. The latter can be solved by proper equipment stands and anti-vibration platforms- probably for the signal sources (transport) and the preamp.

For the room, diffusion devices are helpful. You might try clapping your hands in the room and seeing if you have any slap echo. Large windows, flat bare walls parallel to each others are anathema at higher volumes!
Speaker placement. Try aiming your speakers straight ahead for higher volumes, this should remove some of the beaming that you translate as harshness. I believe that a little drop off to the sides (off axis) can actually help tune speakers for higher listening levels. Also the bass should come back up.
There are two potential technical explanations.

1- Most of the power amplifiers increase their level of distortion with output. You can look manufacturer's web site for specs. Many of them gives distortion level at outputs of about 10 watts (and 1 kHz frequency). Some, on other hand, provide distortions level at full output.

2- Many audiophiles pay too much attention at continuous power (rms) values whereas at normal listening levels you need may be 10% of that. On the other hand during the peaks like crescendo you power needs may go up a few hundred times. Pay attention to the following three specs:
a) peak power - self explanatory
b) duration of the peak power - if peak power can be hold for very short period of time, say 20 msec - you will not hear it
c) peak voltage - many power amplifier have it at about 65 volts but if you measure peak voltage from the recording, directly, frequently it will be more then 100 volts

This may lead to clipping, soft or hard.

Additionally, you may have room acoustic and/or other interactions which became highly noticeable with power output.

There are two simle technical explanations.

1- Most of the power amplifiers increase their level of distortion with output. You can look manufacturer's web site for specs. Most of them gives distortion level at outputs of about 10 watts (and 1 kHz frequency). Some, on other hand, provide distortions level at full output.

2- many audiophiles pay much attention at continious power (rms) wheras al normal listening levels you may need may be 10% of that. On other hand during the chrescenso you power needs may go up a few hundred times. Pay attention to the following three specs
a) peak power - self explanantory
b) duration of the peak power - if peak power can be hold for very short period of time, say 20 msec - you will not hear it
c) peak voltage - many power amplifier have it at about 65 volts but if you measure peak voltage from the recording, directly, frequntly it will be more then 100 volts

Additionally, yoi may have room acoustic and/or other ineractions which became noticable with power output.

I can't really say what's going on. Luckily many folks are willing to help.
Here's my take on it:
The amps are the problem, or it could be the speakers. (Although I've never heard either one you mention). But, I have a propensity for the tube "sound". Several tube amos have visited my room, and a few SS amps too. Twice I tried much more powerful amps (than my tubes), one a BAT and recently a Pass 250.5. These amps are indeed powerful and high current, BUT either flat sounding (no soul) and/or lean and grain, especially at moderate to high volume. Most tube amps with decent speakers do not present this problem. Sometimes tubes might be a tad weak and sloppy in the lower frequencies, but, they are listenable and non-fatiguing.
Presently, bass is tight and articulate, not lean. Mids and highs are sweet and natural. I can listen for hours to either CD 20%, or vinyl 80% and even at very high volumes when the groove is on and the fire is lit, it's pure magic.
Good tube mono amps at 30 watts and decent speakers.
This (my experience) does not happen with SS.
Sounds like you're overdriving the room. As a recording engineer I'm surprised to find people don't understand room acoustics or when they've been exceeded.

Get yourself an SPL meter and see what kind of level you're getting to before it goes south. I'd be you'll be surprised at how loud it is.
Simple solution.Ditch the Krell and acquire a tube amp.
As Atmasphere and Nickword have stated: Sounds like your room is being over-driven. I treated my back wall with Auralex, and corners with LENYRDs to eliminate the same issue(with marvelous results). I'm lucky to be single in that regard(among others). Ebay has a number of options listed under "acoustic foam".
this "overdriving the room" is a common problem- at lower volumes you're listening to the system; as you crank things up you're hearing more and more 2ndary reflections from the walls/ceiling. echobusters and/or lots of cloth and/or foamy surfaces in and around the listening area will help to tame/smooth out the upper-mid/lower treble shreik- this is what your ears are unfortunately designed to hear particularly well. hurray for high-end audio!- designed to let you hear these frequencies with unrelenting accuracy. i had a nasty slap-echo problem- by whistling i could hear a well-delayed echo coming from all over the place. i got 5- door-sized echobuster panels and they helped ALOT- plus they look nice too. now i just have just a bit of echo which i actually feel is beneficial- it still gives the room a "live" quality. but i have to keep the volume at what i consider to be a "sane" level, or it's just not music anymore.
I ran into this first hand. With my Hafler DH-500 at 255WPC I knew it was not distorting, yet it sounded terrible when I increased the volume. Also the sound would change drastically at different parts of the room.

Bought accoustic panels, the OEM version of owens corning 703, ~$50 for 6 panels, 2'x4'x2"(exact same product, no brand name on box, so much cheaper) at the local spi-co dot com office.

Placed most of them behind the speakers using the DELE method (Dead End Live End). Instantly the volume level dropped, but the sound became much cleaner, because before I was hearing the same sound multiple times as it bounced around the room. Previously I could not reach 0db on my pre, now I was easily getting there and wanting more.

Yes, it looks like crap, but no WAF, and everbody is amazed at the sound. Need to cover the panels in fabric. Best tweak for the money, no doubt. Also now I hear much more detail, including other things vibrating, windows, the TV, but that's another story.

BTW I had to upgrade the speakers before I damaged them. They were only rated at 100wpc (B&W DM602s) and they don't care about how it sounds, only about how much current I'm driving through them.

Atmasphere, Nickword and many others could be right - if your listening room is without acoustic treatment. Regardless of your equipment you MUST use acoustic treatment of your room first- even if you are happy with your sound - in this case you will be much more happier.
All The Best
I'm trying to figure out if many of the newer i.e., last 20 years, recordings with compression and boosted highs are the problem. Is my system just too good reproducing the dreck out of studios these days?

This could easily be your problem. The other issue could be that you are overdriving your speakers. The room may also be part of it.

If you try Sheffield Labs Drum Track CD then you should be able to crank it. Also George Bensen Weekend in LA "On Broadway" live can be really cranked without any strain. Almost everything you buy has been compressed in one way or another ( especially drums ) - so it is just a matter of limits - certainly a fair portion of modern pop/rock of the last 20 years is often pretty badly compressed and unlistenable at high volumes that you would experience at a concert. When you go to club the DJ will often monkey with an EQ to get a sound that works at loud levels...(usually it requires a cut in the mid range)
when the sound is good at lower to moderate volumes and then the higher the volume the harsher it gets, it is usually caused by one of 2 things: 1) amplifier is not up to the task of driving this particular set of speakers, thus you hear how it struggles in a form of compressed dynamics and harsh high frequencies, or, 2) the room has acoustic issues that need to be addressed.

I would suspect in your case that it is your room acoustics that result in this problem.

Do you have any room treatmens? Anything in corners behind the speakers, up by the ceiling? It could be creating a horn effect when it gets overloaded at higher volumes.

I would hold of on any equipment purchases until the room is fixed.

Take a look ar either the echobusters or eighth nerve acoustic treatments. Compact and effective.
I'm thinking it's the room. Unfortunately WAF prevents much in the way of room treatments. Most I could do is probably something on the wall behind the speakers or some temporary panels I could pull out and set out along the wall when I wanted to listen at louder volumes. I'm consider moving the system to another large room where I have more latitude.

However, in the meantime I've made a few purchases that I'm going to try...
1) Bought a Zu Gede XLR cable. Also thinking about trying Cardas Golden Cross or Gabriel Relevations which both consistently receive good word of mouth.
2) Bought a Furetech TP-609. Additionally I'm going to test a single run back to the breaker box with that as well.
3) Bought a pair of DH Labs rca to bi-wire speaker cables. Just did this on a lark really. Saw them for sale and said what the heck, my speakers are set up with bi-wire anyway.
4) Will experiment more with speaker placement.
5) Might pick up a tube amp and do a direct DAC to amp setup.

I plan to follow up with the results.

p.s. are you all saying you want no audio echo whatsoever say similar to an anechoic chamber?

thanks for all the advice.
regards, David
should not be an anechoic chamber. Overdamping will kill the dynamics and will muffle everything. You don't want that.

Placing narrow panels such as Eighth Nerve Seams in the corners(between ceiling and floor) behind the speakers could do wonders. If you add the Triangles up by the ceiling above the Seams, this will tame the reflections nicely. Place a rug on the floor as well.
Changing cables or amps or any other piece of equipment will not do much, if anything. If the room isn't right, everything else is pretty much a waste. Besides, the better your system gets the more this problem will be obvious.

Instead of messing around with XLR cables - get a PEQ and just cut the mid range by about 6 db SPL from 1 to 5 Khz - that should do the trick to get rid of harshness, as this is the range where your hearing is the most sensitive to nasty distortion and loudness.

By the way, your speakers are probably very efficient - in which case your powerful Krell may be overdriving them into distortion due to exceeding their linear excursion range of the driver (at very high levels only of course). If I recall these speakers are often mated to lower power tube amps which would be less likely to cause this kind of extreme issue...
Well I have to say I pretty much solved my problems with the highs. I tried most of the stuff suggested and went through two amps and finally bought a McIntosh MC402. I had really given up on all the stuff such as room conditioners, power conditioners, cables, etc., etc., etc. I was going to go retro and buy either a Mc integrated with tone controls or an Mc amp and preamp with tone controls. The heck with accuracy, I needed something I could sit and listen to.

Also considered various DACs - was about to buy a MF tri-vista tube Dac. Didn't really want to do that because I had a DAC (Transporter) already. Not many PEQs out there either.

So I was going to get the Mc with tone controls. I A-B'ed the integrateds against the separates. There was sizable difference in sound. So much so that I had to rule out the integrated (6900). They didn't have the MC7000 to listen to so no way was I going to buy one when the separates sounded so much better than the 6900.

So... I bought an MC402 with the idea that I would buy the preamp shortly thereafter. The MC402 weighed 180 lbs shipped and my wife thought I was crazy. After unpacking it I didn't have a lot of argument against her appraisal.

I went directly from my DAC to the amp. It sounds great! I found myself sitting there listening for long periods of time and liking CDs all the way through. This is as close as I've come to analog since I left it in the early 90s. The Mc is musical. I could write more about it but I'll hold off for now.

I've kinda put the pre-amp on hold as was kinda afraid to touch anything. You know how we are though, I ordered a pair of Cardas Golden reference XLR ICs yesterday.

The Mc is working out pretty good. Still trying to decide whether to get the pre-amp or not. I'm thinking about getting one of their tube pre-amps but in no hurry unless a deal comes up. Thanks for all the suggestions.

regards, David
I am glad you solved your problem - your soultion was #2 in my post:


You sertainly did not care about solution #1 and its your right, of course.

Finally, in just a few years, when switching power supplies will be able to comptete with traditional ones (in sound that is), your 180 lbs tube amp will weight may be 90 lbs.

Enjoy your tubes!!!!

Simon, 402 is a solid state amplifier.

Hey wireless, I suggest you do get a preamp. I recently had a Bel Canto DAC3 for demo, as well as Slim Transporter. To make it short, DAC3 is an awesmoe dac! But, run directly into my amp, yeah, the sound was good, but it was 2-dimensional and had very little to offer as far as being involving. However, inserting my ARC LS25 tube preamp back into the loop changed things dramatically. Everything takes a shape, soundstage gets deeper, sound is more natural. So I suggest you consider a preamp in the future, and possibly a tubed one, like McIntosh's own MC2200. Will take your system a notch higher.
Added Golden Reference XLRs today. Improved an already good sound. I was wary of anything that would increase the highs of course. I took a chance with the GR after having read the Golden Cross was super smooth.

The Golden reference ICs brought out additional detail but it was actually more depth than treble. Very good improvement from top to bottom. I hate to admit but the expensive cables worked. They cost 6 times as much as the RCAs I removed but it was clearly an inprovement. I noticed it immediately. I had tried a lot of different cables but this one really changed the whole sound for the better. It wasn't subtle. A lot more depth, clarity, and definition without edge. I really feel like the sound is getting to a sweet spot.

The preamp is still a question. I can get a c45 at a reasonable price just really no place to put it on my rack. And of course don't want to mess with a good thing. I like to have the trigger though so I wouldn't need to turn the amp on and off manually. And the tone control though it seems less relevant than before.

Earlier tonight I actually considered buying some Golden Reference speaker cables after hearing the difference the ICs made. A pair of 2M Golden reference are very expensive. Maybe it would sound better but even I'd have to admit I'd be crazy to pay that much for cables.

I'm talking myself out of it by saying the speaker cables handle higher voltages whereas the ICs are much lower voltages and thus more sensitive to the type of cable used.