Size matters

November 24, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One of the easiest ways to achieve proper volume levels for a given track of music is to measure the size of the center image.

I am not suggesting some sort of magical measuring apparatus. No, it’s simpler than that.

All one needs to do is turn the level up or down until the center image is of a lifelike size.

A voice sounds like it’s coming from a person.

Too loud and the voice is too big. Too soft and the opposite.

It’s a simple formula but one that seems to escape so many.

Size matters when it comes to level.

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42 comments on “Size matters”

  1. I am not sure that this finding is generally valid for every stereo system/set-up of loudspeakers. In my system reducing the volume let the voice move farther away while increasing the volume gives the impression of moving towards the listening seat.

  2. Since I mainly listen to Rock ‘n Roll the volume has to be right up there, not quite at ’11’ but at what I would consider to be a realistic sound level, so that I get the full aural experience.
    Naturally if I put on Brooke Miller or Katie Melua then I will judge the ‘correct’ volume level from their voices, as Paul suggests.
    And if it’s an instrumental jazz album I’ll usually try to listen to where the double bass is & how realistic it is, volume-wise, within the soundstage.
    With full-on EDM I will usually plug the bass ports with ski-socks & go as loud as I can.

    Peter Jackson’s long awaited ‘The Beatles’ documentary
    will be on the Disney channel in a few days.
    A 6 hour extravaganza divided into three 2hr episodes
    cut from 56 hours of archived film footage.
    It should be quite a nostalgic HOOT, seeing the lads
    behaving like chimpanzees at the zoo again 😀

    1. Hey Fat Rat!
      I never once thought you listened to jazz!
      I figured you to be a hard rock n roller.
      But my take on the sonic center image, to each their own.
      Turn the volume up a little too high, either your ears will bleed.
      Or, you’ll blow out the voice coils in your speakers.

  3. Not sure where this came from 😀 – assuming it was suppose to be Mondays post or visa versa? (Holiday celebration started early?)
    But todays ( nov 21st) e-mail was titled birds.

    Any way- squabbling birds – nothing new – assertive personalities nothing new –
    but did you ever notice that when trouble appears they all act as a group? This despite the petty squabble. It’s also Funny how people like to apply human characteristics and traits to wild animals. Maybe some one should put on a big yellow feather suit and sit under the feeder and explain that the food supply will be abundant until spring. ✌️ 😀

    or maybe someone should poke the hibernating bears and tell them there’s a seed smorgasbord right down the hill…

    1. Now that I see where the bird comments showed up, and then I fat fingered my comment to size matters and it disappeared. I’m giving up before someone (me) gets hurt today…✌️ 😀

  4. I assume this is something to do with good old Messrs Fletcher and Munson. I’m starting the day with a DSD file (one of the 5 that I purchased) of Julia Fischer playing Mozart violin concertos. Being a violinist, she doesn’t sing, or even speak. The recording has the violin focused very central and prominent from the chamber orchestra. This is not always the case. Besides mood and the time of day, I suspect the mix has as much to do with ideal SPL.

  5. Paul, I remember you stating this simple adjustment before and follow that at every listening session!! Volume setting to obtain “proper sized” vocal, instrumental, keyboard, ensemble and recorded venue (ambient cues) Works, I do it all the time (especially with acoustical music)!

  6. I always thought it’s a goal of a good speaker design that this doesn’t happen (too much).

    But maybe it’s just a physical law. Anyway, then it’s the same with different live volume levels (e.g. of a singer).

    How do we know what’s too big or small? Should the correct size of an opera singer be the one standing 20 ft in front of him or sitting in the audience?

    As aside of that, imaging size is also depending on the character and make of the recording, maybe even on post processing, I’m not sure about the real value of todays hint.

    How should we get any realistic piano size out of the Octave Grusin recording with any SPL?

    1. I would agree. I listened to Harbeth and Wilson at about the same level, PMC louder and Quad ESL quieter. One of the main factors choosing speakers is that they work well at the level you want to listen to them. With PMC, they didn’t work as well at lower levels, which is why I decided to change them.

      A good pair of speakers is to be able to achieve a nice solid sound at relatively low levels.

  7. Now that I’m finally on the ‘right day’ …

    I don’t know what to make of size matters. If one is sitting up and away in a concert hall the stage characters can look tiny so your eyes might expect tiny sound. Yet to your ears the sound can and probably will be big.

    When at home, Choosing volume based on mood, the music, the room size, the recording & the equipment, seems much more ‘real world’. If you find that special recording(s) where the sound stage is ever present and awe inspiring the by all means dial it into the size you want.

    1. Paul also said, there’s a certain optimal volume for every recording tonality wise, which is more helpful imo and contradicts today’s in terms of the final result to achieve with volume leveling. Anyhow both might be influenced by volume level…but we can only practice one of them 😉

      1. IME, I’ve found each recording has an optimum playback level that allows the presentation to sound close to the realities I’ve heard with live performances. For Me, that playback level does respond very close to the volume setting concept of “size matters”!

        However, often I’m making adjustments due to different studio recording levels?!

        1. I don’t doubt your personal experience, but the following speaks at least theoretically against it:

          When we have a recording with a rather bright tonality, this usually means a by trend smaller perception of voices compared to a very rich sounding recording which usually means a little larger perception of voices.

          When listening, we would now usually tend to turn a brighter recording rather down than up in volume and a richer, darker recording rather up than down in volume. This would mean, we would make a voice which is perceived smaller due to the recording’s bright tonality already, even smaller in imaging because we’d turn the volume rather down than up. The opposite with a rich sounding recording.

          This is why I say the two recommendations by principle contradict each other. However it doesn’t mean that no recordings exist, where both indeed fits together, but I think it’s rather luck than the rule. I think the rule in opposite more or less is, you have to decide which of Paul’s SPL rules you’d like to follow, the one which connects SPL to ideal tonality or the one which connects it to ideal imaging size.

          1. Some Rules were made to be broken? I’m trying more and more to get out of the critical listening phase and not worry about what’s wrong versus what’s correct. Just kicking back and enjoying the music for what it is on my system. Otherwise it turns into a chore and a never ending spiral. Kinda Like being sucked in while the music enjoyment is being sucked out.

            I’m breaking in some new equipment and have just been letting the system shuffle all the files I have. So some volumes are higher than others based on the recording and digital format. So I’ve been playing a lot with volume levels over the last few weeks. As I said earlier it’s more about my mood and ears at any given moment.

            1. Fully agreed. Setting volume level is a matter of mood and pleasant tonality mainly. Other theories may have their justification, but are in practice less relevant imo.

              1. I find another relation – listening space and reverb in reaction with direct sound (shortly setup). In my space and my sweetspot Pauls rule of size works well for tonality and soudstage. But i found several places, where tonality is better for price of almost mono sound, the sound is sweet and mono in the kitchen corner (100% indirect).
                My listening space is 5×4,5m + 3×2,5 (kitchen corner on the right side), loadspeakers mounted on a library covering full long wall.
                Volume setting is varying some 10db depending on recording for “listening session”.
                Friend of my struggles big room with big expensive loadspeakers setup in small area of his space (WAF) and to say I am much happier with my little humble system at home then he is (I recon his system itself to be far superior).

                1. Definitely the listening position in the room is another factor. But here I assume all of us discussing so far limited arguments to the one sweet spot position.

  8. I have had some interesting experiences with volume, but when in doubt I take guidance from my old Radio Shack SPL meter. I try to keep the volume around an SPL of 75 dB. Like FR, I mostly listen to R’nR so sometimes the volume goes up, but that is mostly a mood thing.

    Just before the pandemic hit we had some friends over. He is into audio and has an Audio Note system at his home which is quite nice. It was the first time he heard my system. He is in his 60’s and he kept asking me to turn up the volume, which I did. I checked the volume after they left and it was about an SPL of 85 dB. To me that is too loud although I can feel FR cringing right now. 😉 I guess I am paranoid about protecting what hearing I still have.

    1. I think an SPL level of 85 dB is getting up there. It’s rare that I set my volume higher than a number like 85 dB. I’m guessing that your friend needs to have his hearing checked or possibly have excess earwax removed.

  9. I am glad I don’t listen to my cd’s the way PmcG suggests in this post.
    If I understand correctly what Mike is saying (4:12 comment), I totally agree with him.
    Listen to the “size” you want.
    In my world listening to music is supposed to be fun.
    Instead of following “rules” that supposedly give me the “best” sound, I listen to music the way I like it, including volume.

    Off topic: The other day I watched some “youtubes”. In one of them PmcG answered a question about
    rca-caps and said never use those caps on output connectors. Well, I’ve been using those caps (rca and xlr) on all my devices on input AND output connectors. No problems the last 20 years.
    So I wonder…what could possibly go wrong ?

    1. I use those caps on all my RCA inputs and outputs since I switched over to XLR connectors. Prior to that I used the same RCA caps on unused Inputs. I see no problem with them.

      I can’t remember ever seeing one of Paul‘s videos that talked about this subject and why it’s important not to use them. The caps that I use have removable center pins which I would never use on an output connector so I unscrew the center pin and that leaves a hollow cap that has no signal contact. It seems to function like a dust cover (open circuit) without the center pin.

      1. Thanks for your answer Stimpy2.
        Like you I only use XLR connections, not one rca. The rca caps I use don’t have center pins.
        The video where Paul mcG. talks about this topic is “Should you cover your audio inputs ?”
        If you’re interested, Google a bit and you’ll find it within 20 seconds.

        1. I found the video, thanks. It’s exactly what I above. Caps with pins go into input jacks and no pins (unscrew them) if you want to cover the output jacks.

  10. I just don’t experience this. My stage etc is pretty consistent regardless of volume. I think this is a room reflection thing and prob room dependent. My speakers are 10’ off the front wall – Maggie 20.7. Maybe that makes a difference

    1. With speakers like 20.7’s you may not have this problem. I have 3.6R’s and after doing some really careful speaker placement adjustments several months ago everything locked in the place and it’s been like that ever since. Only poor quality recordings may not present a true soundfield.

  11. I think playback volume is mostly dependent on the proximity of the microphones to the recording artists. Put a singer in an isolation booth and place the mic almost in her mouth and whatever the playback volume her head will be the size of the jolly green giant.

    1. This is a good point. Recording engineers make things sound how they want – which is not necessarily real. But. As long as things sound good I don’t really care. ‘Real’ is too arbitrary. Real based on what? A concert hall? A jazz club? A small dead recording studio?

    1. Great article! A bit lengthy but worth it. However, one could argue that my musical tastes might pair well with cheap American bourbon. lol. I prefer Cognac though.


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