Why magic at 80 db?

I have Salk SoundScape speakers that have an Accuton midrange driver. When I listen to music at moderate levels, the music sounds plain. There is little that would make me think that I was listening to a great speaker. When I turn the music up till it reads 80 to 85 db on my Rat Shack meter, magic happens. I guess it is like that with live music, but I am not sure. I never take my meter with me. I am just confused. Anybody have any comments?

One factor that is probably involved is the Fletcher-Munson Effect. The sensitivity of our ears to low and high frequencies, relative to their sensitivity to mid-frequencies, decreases at low volumes.

-- Al
You are probably right that it is a strong factor, but why did I only notice it with my new speakers!? Is it just that I am slow? LOL

What were your previous speakers? Some, like Quads, do a better job of delivering the goods at low volumes than others do.
It's funny. I think of 80-85db as rather quiet. And, of course, Fletecher and Munson got the high frequency varience with loudness more than completely wrong, which lead to many crappy loudness controls. The Robinson-Dadson equal loudness curves corrected this error and also refined the low freqency sensitivity.
If your speakers can deliver clean undistorted sound it will generally get better and better as the SPL inceases, up to a limit of between 95 and 100 db SPL. Generally 105 db SPL and higher at the listener is becoming uncomfortably loud.

The better the recording the more you can enjoy the music at louder (peak) levels.

It is likely that your previous speaker was so distorted that it did not sound good at increased levels.
It may not be your speakers. I have owned Salks before (HT3's) and didn't experience this phenomenon - but have in the past.

It actually turned out to not be the speakers.

This may or may not be your amp - but I would look there first. The reason I suggest this?

Some amplifiers really "come into their own" / "sing" / etc at a certain level. This isn't just volume, but amplifier load as well as matching the amplifier with the speaker. If using a tube amp, try the 4 ohm taps instead of the 8 ohm taps. Perhaps try another amp?

There are some amps that excel at low level details/dynamics - for instance the six moons (.com) review on the KwA-150. Some amps deliver great current and control at lower volumes. Other amps need to be "goosed" a bit before they open up and sound more effortless.

Just another angle of thought - as I have run into this phenomenon in the past as well.
Been hanging out with a professional sound engineer off and on, tweaking
my speaker placement, talking trash and such -- and it turns out that the
golden number where virtually all music is mastered in the studio is at
83db. He can pick it out be ear, just magically knows when it is at the right
level, as that's where it hits the grove and does what it was recorded and
mastered to do. (And must admit, the amount of information he can hear
and explain about the mastering and mixing decisions behind any given
track is astounding). But if it sounds like it all comes together and the
magic happens just north of 80db, that's because it was mixed that way
very much on purpose. Short version: all our collective fascination with
hardware permutations notwithstanding, i suspect this one is pretty much a
software issue. (Personally, I find 83db to be rather loud in my room,
louder than I listen 90% of the time. Feel that I get all I need from lower
volumes -- but, must admit, once you spend some time at or around that
baseline level where things were mastered, it starts to get awfully
yeah, I noticed that too on just about every system I have put together. I think it is a major challenge to put together a system that really comes to life at DB less than 80. So between 80 to 85 is where I mainly listen. From a hearing protection standpoint, am I still at safe levels?
Looking back at my post above, occurs to me that I may have stumbled into an old chicken and egg conundrum: do things sound best at just above 80db because they were mastered at that level to sound their best, or are things mastered at 80db because that's just inherently where things sound their best to the human ear over a prolonged period? Dunno, but I suspect ultimately a mix of both. But, either way, seems like a known factor.
To support Mezmo's observation: (http://www.digido.com/honor-roll.html) Also- some systems take more power, before they, "come alive" than others. How many hours do have on your speakers(are they a recent acquisition)? Most driver compliances take time to break in/loosen up, before they sound their best and most dynamic.
80 db IS background level.....;-}}

So between 80 to 85 is where I mainly listen. From a hearing protection standpoint, am I still at safe levels?

According to this -- the first plausible link from a google search -- yes:


Personally, I'd have guessed no; 85db seems pretty loud to me, and I'd fatigue pretty quickly at that level. I'd be curious to hear what more expert people say.

IMHO I don't agree with the Fletecher and Munson or Robinson-Dadson effects suggested but I do agree with the possible effects of your drivers not being broken in & your amp-speaker interface.
Additionally, I believe that the sensitivity of the drivers used in your speaker could also be an issue. the drivers are likely not very senstive to very low music signals meaning that you don't get much pistonic action hence not much output SPL from them. 2ndly, even if the drivers themselves were sensitive to low music signal, the cross-over circuit could be attenuating that low level music signal & preventing it from reaching the drivers.
it's quite an art-form in speaker design to make a cone driver speaker responsive to low music signals; most of the speakers in the market simple do not make this grade.
This is where electrostatic, ribbon & planar speakers win big time - the mass of the driver is much, much less than the mass of a cone driver hence the responsiveness of planar speakers (due to sloth I'm clubbing all 3 categories into "planar" speakers) is well-known by almost all in the user community.
This is an interesting topic. I beieve it`s a combination of components and software. Some Cds sound very vivid,energetic and alive at 60-65db levels in my system. Other s require a sound level of upper 70s-85 to provide the same effect.

I`ve notice since the noise floor and resolution of my current system has improved considerably, I can listen at levels much lower and avoid the flat and lifeless character of prior systems. Conversely when I do choose to play louder volumes(85-upper 90s range) the presentation is unforced and maintains a sense of ease and relaxation.

I believe high efficiency speakers and low noise floor electronics make a hugh difference as far as preserving dynamics and involvement at lower listening levels.
Best Regards,
What wonderful comments to my question. Thanks guys.

Durbin, my previous speakers were Salk HT1s. They had a Seas Excel magnesium midrange.

Thinking back, I did prefer the 80-85 db range on them too, but the difference wasn’t as pronounced. If I had to guess the I would say that I was not only listening to the musical instruments, I was also listening to slight colorations in the sound at lower levels that made the music more interesting down there. That is just a WAG at a solution that is not given with any conviction.

I have heard that said about Quads before. I wonder if they can play cleanly at 80 db without any distress since shorter transients are probably much louder.


That was an interesting comment that it might be my amp. I have a McCormak 225. I will keep your possibility in mind.


I find your comment most interesting of all. One clue that the mastering level might be a key point is that when I listen to a classical orchestra at 80-85 then the passages that are much softer still sound pretty special too.


The speakers have been on almost 24/7 for a year. :D

...because we hear with our whole bodies, not just our ears. There are many deaf musicians that keep time and "hear"...they being more sensitive to this effect, however, we all have that ability to some degree. At rock concerts there are those that protect their ears with plugs, but still feel that pounding in their chest with which rock music must have.
I live next door to Bob and I really wish he'd turn his damn speakers off. They've been on 24/7 for almost a year!

Doesn't the listening level depend on your mood, the type of music, the time of day, the ambient sound level in the room (cat snoring, young starlets calling my name from the hot tub outside), and humidity? (I tossed that one in). I have one of those Studio Six iPhone SPL meters (they claim it's WAY better than the Shack meter...but then why wouldn't they?) and it's almost interesting to see what playback level I need. I discovered I'm all over the map, my speakers sound great at low levels (surprisingly), and I still practice electric guitar a bit too loudly (albeit with a 5/15 watt tube amp...so sue me...my "Bob" revenge).
Wow, you guys are pretty low... must have significant others or neighbors that keep you in line!

My systems have always been very dynamic meaning there's a large variation in volume from the softest to the loudest sounds... This does require that you play at a fairly healthy average level in order to not lose the softest sounds. The effect is that the greater the dynamic range the lower the relative average level seems. Those who claim otherwise simply have a lot of compression going on in their systems whether they know/admit it or not. Another factor that can determine how loud you need to play your music is the ambient noise level in the room. The higher the ambient noise, the higher you're likely to turn the volume. It's simple science. Whether that's good or bad is all in how you view it.

But I like my big/good system to duplicate the kind of dynamics I hear live whether amplified or non-amplified (sometimes a little less)... and both these levels are far lower than what you are subjected to when you visit your typical movie theater, which surely play at a level sure to cause hearing loss. I always need to bring ear plugs to enjoy a movie in a theater. Why more people don't complain about these ridiculous levels (or bring along some type of ear protection) is beyond me. Could be some really big class-action law suits out there waiting to happen.
Many good posts. The better the system with less noise and distortion the better it will sound at both low and high levels. And everything in between.
I'd say, yeah, my system too sounds best at probably 70db-80db. Go louder - significantly more distortion, go lower - lose something. But my amp is not so good; with better amp it would be somewhat different. Still, the figure of 80db sounds about right to me.
Software matters, that's for sure.
Rodman99999-Thank you very much for the website digido. A wonderful lesson in mastering and re-mastering regarding loudness levels. A bookmark for sure.
I've been a professional musician for many years...guitar, loud bands, live sound mixing...blah blah blah...I was sitting in a movie theater a couple of years ago (rare for me as I usually wait for films to be available for home) waiting for the film to start and I was ASTONISHED at the high sound level of the previews...wow. I looked around thinking people must be stunned...and the crowd seemed oblivious. Amazing. The features seem a to run less hot, but still...wow.
To follow up, here's some extended discussion from a mixing/mastering forum concerning how to set an 83db "reference level", how fatigue plays out at that level, different opinions regarding the potential for hearing damage based on time of exposure, etc. You guessed it, there's a forum for everything. If you're interested, you can also find extended discussions of mastering styles and theories, the benefits and evils of "compression glue", and all manner of other stuff that goes into the decision tree behind any given track. Personally, spent a bit of time digging into this stuff recently, but ultimately decided that ignorance is bliss on this one. (Figure I enjoy sausages a whole lot more for not knowing how they're made, either. But that's just me.)
That's how they are made...ah, forget it. I wish I could too.
The features seem a to run less hot, but still...wow.
observe the same thing on your TV set - the feature presentation will be at a lower volume compared to the ads that come every 10 minutes or so. MAke a note of this the next time you are watching TV (don't touch the sound level on your remote when the ads come on).
There's been a move in Washington, to try to control commerical loudness levels: ( http://www.livescience.com/5737-effort-shush-loud-tv-commercials.html ) I hate hype, and immediately mute my system's sound, when they come on. The fake excitement, noise and blatent lies...... oh well.....!
Answer: DVR. I refuse to watch commercials EVER.
Low-efficiency speaker like ATC and Dynaudio have this problem. Some with heavy cones need more juice before they come to life too.

Just food for thought, but for anyone who thinks 80dB is quiet, try 80dB with active (no passive crossover), line arrays (multiple drivers in a vertical arrangement) in a small room. There is something called room pressurization and dynamic range that can make 80dB sound quite loud.

FWIW, people complain that they cannot talk over my speakers at 75-85dB levels.
Tell those people to stop talking over your speakers.
Funny, circular definition issue, I've been told that one of the easiest ways to dial in ~83db "freehand" is that it will be just a touch louder than anyone could or would comfortable want to talk over.... Seems like we've all triangulated the same, relatively narrow volume range coming at it from entirely different directions.
If I remember right, when background noise at work is 84 dB or 104 dB and above, during a 8-hour time weighted average, OSHA requires single and double hearing protection, respectively. Sound pressure doubles with each 6 dB of volume gain.

If your hearing is good enough to enjoy all the music near 80 dB, that's great. The sensitivity of our hearing naturally rises much quickly near 80-86 dB and up. Too much sound pressure causes our ears themselves to add distortion, with or without pain, our warning system to back off.

Smoother, well-balanced systems can obviously be played and enjoyed at higher sound pressure levels. Moderate music volumes sound good, yet, there's a premium sound pressure window that's a combination of the music system and our uniquely different ears. As the sound pressure approaches 80 dB, the doubling of sound pressure with each 6 dB gain pressurizes our ears when they're naturally much more sensitive to volume gains.
Incredibly interesting thoughts here by you.
When I listen, I try to set the volume at what I could imagine Nancy Wilson, Renee Olstead would be singing at, IF they were in my room with me, standing between my speakers.
Anything more or less leaves me wanting, or in pain.

Great thread...great.

Good listening,
i use to have this problem...kinda was running a krell s-300i into aerial 7b's. it never sounded great at low listening levels but improved once above the 80db mark. never understood why but think this thread sheds some light on it. things got *much better* after upgrading to an ml432. spec wise...the ml is overkill in the power department for the 7b's. real world wise, it's just right. seems certain speakers need more power then the mfg's rating to really shine imho.
Lrsky, thanks for your kind comments.

that is right Levy03,I have experienced it with dynaudio and krell combo in free space outside house,then speakers really rocks ,amazing dynamic blast in overall sound presentation:)
I've read any sound over 85 db can cause hearing loss.

I suspect our ears are naturally tuned in general to perform best with levels somewhat below that.

For our ears to perform at lower levels than they are tuned to (<80 db?)normally requires extra effort, focus, attention, whatever you want to call it bu the result is we have to work harder to do it well so the results are less enjoyable, certainly not "magic" at its best.

The stars align when recording and system synergize to produce quality sound at our ear's "sweet spot" in terms of our ability to hear, at somewhat less than 85db I suppose.
Sound higher than 85db sustained over a long period can strip your aural gears, so to speak. Peaks in music can get somewhat higher and cause no harm, other than making you boogie around the room bumping into things.