You're probably listening too loud

After many years of being a professional musician and spending hundreds of hours in the recording studios on both sides of the glass, I believe that most listeners undermine the pleasure of the listening experience by listening too loud and deadening their ears.

As a resident of NYC, there are a million things here that make the ears shut down, just the way pupils close up in bright light. People screaming, trucks, subways, city noise. Your ears keep closing up. Then you go home and try to listen on the hifi, but your ears are still f'kd up to get to the point. Try this experiment.

Hopefully, you can all have some degree of quiet when you can sit down and listen. Start with a record or CD of acoustic music with some inner detail and tonality. I like to use the Naim CD with Forcione and Hayden, or the piano/bass CD with Taylor/Hayden. Just simple, relaxing music. Real instruments doin' real things.

Start by sitting back and leaving the volume just a little lower than you find comfortable. Just like you want to turn it up a bit, but leave it down. Sit back and relax. I would bet that in 7-10 minutes, that "too low" volume is going to sound much louder. That's because you're ears have opened up. Now, without changing anything, that same volume is going to sound right. Step out of the room for a second, but don't talk with anybody. Just go get a glass of water and come back - now, that same volume is going to sound louder than you thought.

Sit back down and listen for a minute or two - now, just the slightest nudge of the volume control upwards will make the sound come alive - the bass will be fuller and the rest of the spectrum will be more detailed and vibrant.

Try it - every professional recording engineer knows that loud listening destroys the subtleties in your hearing. Plus, lower volumes mean no or less amplifier clipping, drivers driven within their limits and ears that are open to receive what the music has to offer.

Most of all - have fun.
Marc some valid observations, thank you. I have noticed this myself as well.
You're referring to an acoustic phenomenon known as "threshold shift".
Threshold Shift:
Very well written. I always have a tendency to turn up the volume to hear more into the recording and ended up listening too loud. That's where frustration sets in and the listening session ended much earlier than I thought most of the time. I'm glad to know that more people are beginning to realize the importance of listening to music at comfortable levels and to protect the ears from permanent damage. By the way, I am a fan of Antonio Forcione too and his music does sound good.
Hmm, looks like this is the Forcione fanclub. I will never make a decision on whether I like certain gear unless I've heard some of Antonio's "Live!" with it (+ a few other reference recordings).

Over the years I've made the acquaintance of a few people - including some that wanted to sell me something - who would tell me I should crank up the volume to really enjoy and be able to tell how good the gear is. Well no! Of course I'm not going to get live atmosphere (or am I?) but to experience fine detail, microdynamics, the beauty of the musical flow, the inner workings (I'll stop here before this becomes a philosophical essay) I know "my" volume is right.

P.S. I am however not exposed to N.Y.'s cataclysmic sonic tapestry
P.P.S. Sometimes I do let the horses run free ;^)
Another score in the wimpification of America...

I'm sorry, but if you want to experience realism in this hobby, the so-called absolute sound, you need to listen at what approach realistic levels. Check out live, unamplified music and you'll get a true picture of the true volume an instrument is played. That should ALWAYS serve as the reference.

The laws of physics are still applicable, in this case, the Fletcher-Munson curve. Simply put, if you listen at lower volumes, you are losing a lot of musical information - most importantly in the lows.

I don't know about you, but I'll take my music straight up.

Well wrtiten and very true.

Straight up it is.
I agree with both points of view, but, more with Trelja's. I find that my home listening is a little lower in volume than what I typicaly hear at live venues, but, louder than what the average Joe plays in his home. I believe that most home listening rooms are too small to play at true live levels. On the other hand, I believe that many average Joe's might be offended by loud listnening levels in home envionments because they have been more often than not exposed to home systems going into distortion at higher volume levels. Once the average Joe can learn to relax without fear of impending distortion, he can enjoy more realistic volume levels. Let me repeat a story I've mentioned here before. Some years ago, I had a musician friend visit me with his trombone in tow. As soon as he came in the door, he commented that the volume being played through my system seemed rather loud to him. I replied that I thought the volume was in scale to the room. He then heard a track that he wanted to play along with, to his astonishment he couldn't play low enough to properly play along. Even instruments that are typicaly considered "soft", like acoustic guitars, clarinets, flutes, etc., will often sound louder when played in a domestic room, than a HiFi system playing "big" instruments like electric guitars, drums, horns, etc., in the same room. Without proper volume one can not appreciate the full scope of the intent of a symphonic orchestra, big band, or heavy metal group. Compressing volume, compresses dynamics and a sense of bass.
I was told by an audioligist some time ago, that NASA commissioned a study to find out why the astronauts had a difficult time hearing command even though their headsets were at a very high level. THAT was the problem.
Someone, apparently not an audiologist, thought that for the astonauts to be able to hear Mission Control above the den of noise inside the spacecraft, that the 'phones' would have to be at a high level. That wasn't true, because as their study showed, the ears begin to shut down with extreme volumes. I am going on memory so this won't be right, but it went something like this.
The study showed that:
After continual 80 db virtually no loss
85 db neglible loss across the audio spectrum,
90 2/3db after 15 minutes,
95 6 db after 15 minutes
100 >6db, and so on.
So the result was, that their 'turning up the volume' had the inverse effect of helping, and in fact shut down the pilot's ears.
This information may be useful to audiophiles. The next time you begin listening, start at a lower volume, because, you're working against physiology by starting out too loud, it only serves to 'shut your ears down'.
Hope this helps someone.
As to realistic sound levels...I don't want to listen to rock or electronica at live levels all the time. These days I find most rock concerts too loud and it feels like my hearing is being damaged. Most of the time when I'm at home I know I'm listening to a reproduction and I don't pretend I'm at a concert. For some music like classical having the volume lower than realistic levels makes me listen more carefully and I end up enjoying it more because I'm concentrating harder. Don't get me wrong though, my system is also set to boogie and when it's time I let it loose and I'm glad I'm at home in the best seat in the house with better fidelity than most concerts I go to. It is nice to have the choice-something you don't get with live performances.
One can listen at high volume levels but the real question is how long can the ears tolerate that. Constant exposure to loud music is malicious to the ears in the long-run and can be a cause to tinnitus. Of course there is no harm in having a blast once in a while but it won't be doing any good to the ears with prolonged listening sessions. On the other hand, one can listen to music at low to moderate volume levels for hours without much issues. My perception of loud is >90dB.
Wimpifikation..wonderful, a new great word, thanks Trelja.
You can buy a little program for your iPhone, a SPL-meter. I tried it out at the last symphony concert I attended. Peaks there were at around 95db (Prokoviev "Classical Symphony"). At home with the same music it was at 88db peak for me to feel happy. A good classical symphony has to be played at realistic levels to make it feel right and if I listen to a small jazz combo or voices, I want them "in my room". All else is less than satisfying for me.

Lrsky is right by the way. At least I can corroborate the findings, because when sitting down to listen, I start out more softly first and crank up the volume until it feels "right".
So insitinctivly, intuitively I obviously do the right thing here for once.

Besides, I have found, that audiophiles who listen unbearably loud, generally crank up their system too much to compensate for a lack of dynamic swing inherent in their set up. If the dynamics are realistic from pppp to at least fff you don't really have to listen at ear splitting levels to be satisfied.
Just my two cents.
My latest equipment addition is a Radio Shack Digital Sound Meter.
I listen at 70 to 78dB. Mostly around 74dB (on my digital Rat-Shack meter) at my seated listening position.
I am lucky I work in a quiet place. (no radio, no Musak, no industrial noise)
I recently was at a local dealer, and he turned the level WAY up. I was unhappy, And said so.
As an aside, I NEVER go out to the movies, mainly because the sound is always at a deafening level. Why would I want to have to wear industrial earplugs at a cinema, in order not to have my hearing permanently injured?
The idea that you need it to be at 'live' meaning amplified live? or small group, acoustic live? is silly. If the equipment cannot resolve the music at low levels.. then where ARE the low level contents of the material? Does this mean it is not present, unless the rest of the material is at 95dB? That is B.S... IMO.
(However I do like to hear Opera at louder levels.. 85dB)
Good for you Vegasears!
That lets you know exactly where you are beginning, and more importantly, ending in your volume settings.
Since getting the device I try to keep the listening levels below 80db.
I'm with Trelja. There's more enjoyment for me when music is at live volumes. It's a visceral experience that involves more than the sense of hearing.

Listening at low volumes is fine for background, but it doesn't do the job for me if listening is the primary focus.

There seems to be little in life that offers pleasure without some pain (translate: danger, deleterious effect on our health, etc.).

I agree with Chayro. Better to start low and bring it up as needed. Part of the problem many of us face is little toy speakers and make believe woofers. Get some sizable horns and the dynamic capability of compression drivers. This enables one to enjoy the full dynamic potential of the music without resorting to overkill decibel levels. A 15 inch woofer is likewise a good idea. As the man said, you can't make 20 violins sound like a cello or 20 four inch drivers sound like a 15 inch woofer.
when i listen at sound pressure levels approaching 85 db, my wife complains that the music is too loud. she is 20 feet away from the speakers and not in the listening room.

while one may miss certain detail at, say 80 db, hopefully, the brain will fill in some of the "empty spaces". one cannot always indulge in one's passions, unchecked.

in addition, one person's "realistic level", may exceed another person's threshold of pain.
The point I was trying to make was not that people should listen at low levels. I was trying to convey that the normal deadening of the ears due to worldly noise caused us to turn up the volume more than necessary to achieve individual bliss. Even to those who like to crank it, I suggest that, by starting softer than is normal for you, you will end up with a softer overall level.
It all depends on the dynamic range of the music. A lot of my listening is to classical symphonic music, usually on well engineered recordings (meaning with little or no dynamic range compression). I would definitely feel that I'm missing out if I did not turn the volume up to some approximation of what I hear in a concert hall, and in so doing I have no concerns about effects on my hearing because average power levels are so far below the brief and infrequent peaks.

I once sat in the very front row at a concert at Tanglewood at which the BSO performed Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." The closing passages contained probably the loudest sounds I have ever heard, aside from a 105mm howitzer that I once heard go off at a distance of about 30 feet.

While I would not want to be exposed to that sort of volume regularly, playing more typical symphonic music at less than say mid-hall volume levels I would consider to be a waste of the capabilities that I developed my system to be able to provide. With highly compressed rock music, it would be a completely different story, and concerns about my hearing would definitely be a consideration.

A good classical symphony has to be played at realistic levels to make it feel right and if I listen to a small jazz combo or voices, I want them "in my room". All else is less than satisfying for me.


-- Al
Chayro, you make good points, and I agree with you.
For me, the argument that a system played at 70 something dB is the height of resolution and therefore, audiophilia, has always sounded more like some sort of perverse blend of arrogance and defense mechanism on the part of its devotees.

The Equal Loudness (Fletcher-Munson) curves are such that if one listens to a 1 KHz tone at 70 dB, the corresponding 100 Hz and 10 KHz tones would need to be almost 80 dB to sound as if they're being produced at the same level. Reverse that, and if listening to those same 100 Hz and 10 KHz tones at 70 dB, the corresponding 1 KHz tone would need to be played at about 55 dB to sound in balance. Given that tone controls are considered anathema to the audiophile experience, it certainly wouldd be rare to see a system capable of that much correction - not that we'd even desire it.

I personally don't demand a high-end audio system be full range in the truest sense of things, but 100 Hz and 10 KHz are frequencies I most certainly consider fundamental. And while I know plenty of people who do, I believe one who listens at less than 80 dB, where the frequency spectrum is beginning to come into balance, is truly kidding themselves in trying to wear the badge of "audiophile". That person leaves an incredible amount of music outside of what is actually taken in. They may like the sound being produced, and the music may possess true and deep meaning, but it's the antithesis of reality, or even high-fidelity. At 85 - 95 dB, things have evened out nicely, and that is probably what could be considered a sweet spot.

By the way, very few people realize that OSHA recognizes the Fletcher-Munson curve, and set its guidelines (levels for which a person is not at any statistical risk for noise-induced hearing loss) for loudness in accordance with it. Beyond that, the SPL/time ratios (I think most of us are safely inside the lines) are as follows:
85 dB for 16 hours/day
90 dB for 8 hours/day
95 dB for 4 hours/day
100 dB for 2 hours/day
Trelja, another good post. Bravo! It's not loud volume in it's self that is dangerous, but, loud volume for prolonged times. There are those that seem to listen to their systems nearly all the time. A love of music? Justification of expense? I can listen for fairly prolonged periods, but, just the act of seriously listening can become fatiguing. Unfortunately too much of todays pop music is recorded way too loud, and the subsequent lowering of volume destroys the dynamics. Too much of my favorite meal, too often, ruins that enjoyment too.
Modern acoustic instruments are nearly always designed to fill large acoustic spaces. They are loud instruments. Unless it's a purist recording with two microphones suspended in mid-air at a distance from the performers, typical recording technique is to position the microphones inches from the instrument. I argue that this combination of instrument type and recording technique allows the in-home audio playback SPLs to be lower than the performance SPLs amd still retain sufficient detail and immediacy. It's also my experience that purist recordings need to be played at high volume levels in order to sound correct.
The recommended guidelines set by OSHA is mainly applicable at the workplace, probably in construction sites where most noise is present. With sound levels approaching to those levels, employers are encouraged to provide protectors such as earplugs or earmuffs to workers exposed to this sort of environment where most would like to avoid.

The American Hearing Research Foundation and NIDCD have advised against continuous exposure to loud noise at 85dB or above to avoid noise-induced hearing loss(NIHL). It was further noted that approximately 15 percent of Americans, approximately 26 million between ages 20 to 69 have high frequency hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud sounds, noise at work or in leisure activities. All individuals are recommended to practice good hearing health in everyday life and acknowledge the noise level limits to prevent NIHL or permanent damage.

And while I know plenty of people who do, I believe one who listens at less than 80 dB, where the frequency spectrum is beginning to come into balance, is truly kidding themselves in trying to wear the badge of "audiophile". That person leaves an incredible amount of music outside of what is actually taken in.
Although there is certain truth behind losing a lot of details in the music when listening below 80dB, I am not too sure whether this would disqualify the person from being an audio enthusiast. As much as I would like to enjoy listening at levels above 80dB for extended periods(occasionally I still do), I have refrained from doing so too much these days as I now suffer from a mild hyperacusis due to constant exposure to very loud music probably in the region of 100dB during my younger days. My ENT doctor has informed that there isn't any cure for this hyperacusis and advised against listening to loud music at prolonged sessions to avoid any discomfort to the ears and potential damage in the long-run. The specialist thought I was working in a nightclub or something when I told her I often listen to music at high volume levels that has caused discomfort to my ears.

My advice is enjoy your music the way you like it but try to avoid listening at high levels over a long period of time. Your ears may be fine when you are young but will constantly deteriorate with age, further accelerated by continuous exposure to loud sound that may inevitably lead to immediate hearing loss or permanent damage depending on how loud is your music and how long you listen.

Speaking of noise and NYC:

(1) One thing I hate about Yankees and Mets games is the incredibly loud P.A. systems (the bad food, cramped seats and poor pitching also hinder the experience). A lot of young people go to ball games and presumably the din is something that makes them feel like they're part of a big show, but it is off putting to me. Shea was really bad.

(2) Every morning, thousands of people walk past locomotives idling on the platforms at Grand Central on their way to the 47th Street exit - my God is it loud, especially when you're sandwiched between two of them. One day, I'll bring my SPL meter - it has to be well north of 100 db. It's nasty.

PS - But not as nasty as "YMCA" turned up to about 120 db. at Yankee Stadium.
If it sounds fatiguing and is not normally, then it is probably too loud.

If its not too loud but still causes fatigue and the desire to stop listening, then there are probably things happening in the reproduction that are not desirable and things will sound better at reasonable volumes if the problems are addressed.

Obviously louder is harder on the ears in general, but I would not be prepared to make any judgements about any particular volume being inherently better sounding than another.

I would say that having a naturally quiet listening room is of clear benefit in regards to being able to listen at lower volume without distraction or other external noises infringing into the listening experience.
IMO, lower levels of system distortion allow lower listening volumes with detail equivalent to what one would hear at louder volumes.

Ironically, if a system requires the volume to be increased to hear sufficient detail, then often the same system will seem too loud sooner than the system with less distortion that allows detail to be heard at lower volumes.
Although sound thresholds vary person to person and there are very real limitations for every human ear, the most significant factor for listening pleasures is and always will be the amount of distortions that induce sonic harm into the presentation.

For example, one of the most (but not the most) serious forms of distortions inducing harm comes from inferior or no AC line conditioning. Even the most fabulous recording played at 82db on a SOTA-level system can drive one from the room after 10 short minutes without proper line conditioning.

Properly addressing this and the other sources of distortion should provide hours of listening pleasure in the 92 - 110 db range.

Obviously, these distortions inducing much sonic harm into the presentation are not something that OSHA and many others take into consideration, but should.

On the days when my wife works and I am home alone, I'll turn up the volume to near realistic levels at times. When she arrives home, I'll drop the volume quite a bit, so we can talk about the day, and I find that it is actually still too loud to hold a normal conversation without raising our voices. I had thought the volume to be rather low when I initially decreased it. After a little while it doesn't sound too low, as it did when I had turned it down. My ears adjusted. Chayro makes a valid point.
what's more important than realistic sound pressure levels is the comfort level of the listener. if someone prefers listening at spls, never exceeding 80 db, it matter's not what is realistic or not.

the hobby is about entertainment and the only precept that matters is : enjoy yourself.
Mr T said, "the hobby is about entertainment and the only precept that matters is : enjoy yourself."

Yea sure and you want to be my reviewer:)

Mr T is right
When I speak of fatigue, I'm refering to the the fatigue of concentration. I can listen for many hours with out such fatigue. I suffer no more fatigue than I would at an unamplified live performance. My point (though obviously poorly expressed) was that I think some use their systems as a source of Muzak, playing continuously and subsequently requiring less volume and compromising true fidelity (or at the very least, the attempt there of) in the process.
hi bob:

what else mattters besides enjoyment of the experience of listening to music ?

the equipment is subservient to the pleasure of listening.
This was good advice. This morning I had the house to myself and the system warmed up. No background noise at all- even the cat was asleep. My ears were fresh from a good nights sleep.
I started with the volume several clicks below my normal level. It sounded great. Later, I turned it up a little bit but then back down. In the back of my mind I knew this about lower volume but hadn't thought about it in a while. With my wife and three teenagers in the house, it is difficult to get the background noise down to near zero.
btw- Critical listening fatigues me too. After one or two albums I need to take a break. I can't play my system as background noise. It sucks me in whenever I play something.
Will folks define what they mean by critical listening? What exactly is everyone critiquing that causes so much fatigue?
A fatiguing (Based on another thread, I prefer the term, irritating) system is indicative of something wrong, somewhere.
I'd say it is listening to the music and concentrating on the notes, words, details, expressions and the sound stage. It's what I started doing years ago to relieve stress after a hard day at the office. It gets my mind off of work. It is concentration and not daydreaming about work issues, problems, etc. Music works for me to help get my mind off all those things for a while.
Other hobbies can do the same thing- but I always come back to music for both the stimulation, pleasure and to get away.
On average, I listen a little less than once a week. Sometimes I go two-three weeks. But after a hard day, I will turn it on.
Unsound: Fascinating experiment with your trombonist friend. People accustomed to hearing acoustic instruments in a large auditorium have no idea how loud they sound in a small space like a home.
Excellent thread.

I too agree that 80 dB is right about where a system comes 'on song' - sounds reasonably realistic. I'm talking primarily about acoustic jazz, which is 75% of what I listen to.

My normal level is about 85 dB. That surely puts peaks around 90 dB (on the 'slow' setting of the meter; probably actually 95 dB). I picked that level because it sounds best to me and because this is around the level (85 dB continuous) where there's no expected hearing loss after any amount of exposure. I typically listen 2-3 hours/day with my wife, sometimes longer on weekends. (When baby comes, soon, this may change.)

If you're feeling fatigue either it really is much too loud or you have a system problem - I think the latter is *far* more common. I also think things like non-oversampling digital, analog, and SET amps do a lot to ameliorate fatigue-producing artifacts.
I agree with Trelja on everything he said.
I typically listen b/w 85-88 dB, peaks at about 90-92 dB.
Below these levels, it's simply not exciting enough for me.
Listening fatigue, like Trelja said, has more to do with some frequency aberrations, than with the SPLs.
I find that 90 db SPL is generally most pleasurable but I do enjoy up to 100 db SPL continuous when Angus is playing three chord rock ;-)

...some people forget that music is dynamic and exciting but I agree with those who say it should not be deafening. (A lot depends on RMS average levels ....the latest Metallica at 90 db is dreadful but a great recording with plenty of dynamics or brief transients can be pleasant even at 100 db SPL)

Fatiguing = audio compression (either from the system or more often due to the recording)

I suspect you are quite tuned into dynamics and your system is one of the more dynamic around as a result.

I recognize compression as artificial, but I'm not sure I consider it so much fatiguing as just an unnatural annoyance.

I find I can forgive compressed dynamics if the production otherwise is good, but I certainly would not want to have to live with it regularly as an artifact of playback as opposed to the recording.
Distortion = Fatigue, for sure, and with many rock and other popular recordings distortion is introduced both intentionally and unintentionally. Dynamic range compression would make the fatigue induced by that distortion all the more severe, I would think.

-- Al
I'm not advocating compression, which is without doubt a type of distortion, but I'm just thinking that one benefit of compression is that it makes things less challenging for the ear to decode, which would result in less fatigue perhaps than otherwise.

I'm just struggling to think of compression as a primary cause of fatigue. I'm thinking, all other aspects of distortion aside, that compression does result in less fatigue in general since there is less impact on the ears as a result.

Geez, I never thought I be out here defending a considered blight on good sound like compression..........
with many rock and other popular recordings distortion is introduced both intentionally

You bet it is. Nearly everything is compressed which naturally adds odd harmonic distortion (square wave is all odd harmonics). The terrible masking that occurs in most restaurants, bars and commuter's cars (the target market for much of what is produced) means that compression is pretty standard. Drums almost never sound even remotely like the real thing. Some of the stuff produced for nightclubs and the movies generally seems better due to the target market being equipped with better systems and an environment for listening.
BTW - odd harmonics somehow tells our ears/brain that it is loud - so adding compression can make something sound subjectively much louder. This is why the teenage daughter with the tiny PC speakers cranked can sound unbearably loud (distorted) whilst massive speakers in a dedicated system can sound effortless even at 20 db SPL higher levels. Audio perception is a weird thing.
Jimjoyce25, your comment is bizarre - a player of any acoustic instrument is VERY aware of exactly how loudly they are playing at all times, in all types of rooms, if they are at all competent. Where do you think we practice????
Good for you to chime in. I could not agree more.
High SPLs by the way do certainly not make for listener's fatigue, not even for female ears, if you have built up a system which can take it. Anyone who says to the contrary, probably, I would surmise, does not know what is possible, always given the right software of course.