The perfect level

January 18, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

Every musical track, speaker system, and room has a perfect volume level. It isn't based on the time of day or the listener's mood. It's based solely on what works. And that is something rare.

The Mahler 3d really only works at one level. Too little and the quietest passages are missed. Too loud and the blaring horns are too big. But just at the right volume, everything works. For that recording. In that room. With those speakers. In those circumstances. On that day.

Everything else is wrong.

When we go to trade shows (and by the way, we have signed up to be at Axpona in April) we train our system operators what the correct volume level is for each track. But that level varies depending on the number of people in the room. So, this idea that the perfect level is a simple number is only correct for a given set of circumstances.

It takes a well-trained ear to know what to set it at.

And no, you cannot achieve this with a simple amplitude meter, something I understand will panic those who can't stand the idea of trusting their own hearing, but it's a fact. Once you're aware of this fact, it's not hard to train yourself to get it right.

I've put together a video on the subject you can watch here. Something went amiss with the stupid microphone on this video so please forgive its awful sound quality.

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51 comments on “The perfect level”

  1. You seem to have a thing about Mahler 3. He set out his challenge to audiophiles at the very beginning of his first symphony, which has you straining to hear live and at home you should keep the remote handy. It's the trouble with composers trying to convey the primordial thing, the birth of mankind, a new dawn etc. (with the exception of Aaron Copland, who most likely jumped out of bed every day wide awake). The worst in audiophile terms must be Shostakovich 2, an honest recording of which would have much of the first movement inaudible. I think they took their lead from the symphonic master himself, Beethoven, but at least the opening of Beethoven's fourth symphony does allow the whole thing to be listened to at one level. Mahler, bless him, did reconcile himself with audiophiles by the time he got to his last complete symphony, indeed I understand the purpose of the work was to reconcile himself with the world generally in the light of his fate. He did end a bit like he started, with the 'ersterbend', although he can be excused for writing perhaps the most profoundly moving piece of music ever composed, beating Beethoven at his own game.

      1. Eastman Kodak had over 100 years of patents and brand value, so it was well worth trading out of its bankruptcy in 2013, which it did by reinventing itself as an imaging business. I have no idea what a cryptocurrency is.
        The new to photographers is that they are about to start making Ektachrome film again, which was very high quality ISO 100 colour positive film.
        Kodak were contracted to make the sensors for Leica's M9 range of cameras. Kodak went bust and the sensors started to degrade. It caused huge damage to the Leica consumer brand and Leica had to spend 2 years developing a replacement.

        1. My apologies for hi-jacking your thread, personally i prefer Beethoven.

          Are you’re saying you exclusively shoot film, that’s cool. As far as cryptocurrency is concerned, that’s a good one, i’ve watched this for six months now and still trying to grasp a simplified explanation of the methodology and security of the transactions.

          To the best of my understanding so far cryptocurrency is an open source peer-to-peer network and worldwide payment system. Transactions take place between users directly, verified by consensus through the use of cryptography and stored in a public digital ledger. The system essentially is a decentralized digital currency as the system works without a central bank or single administrator, software changes can be subject to the community. Transaction fees are reported to be much lower.

          As Kodak attempts to re-invent themselves with a new digital strategy, intellectual property and cloud management, they also have created their unique version of digital currency. I see they launched a new Super 8 film camera at CES last week as well. Stock has tripled over the last week.

          http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42630136

          1. I do some film photography and then scan the negatives. This is a bit like my using a turntable and then letting Devialet do A/D conversion. Purists will argue this is a crime, the signal should remain analogue throughout and I should develop the old fashioned way. The fact is film scans retain the colour and subtlely of film prints and my turntable still sounds analogue even after A/D and D/A conversion.
            There are many psychological equivalences between spinning vinyl and using film. I have seen lots of people around using old Canon A-1's and the like, both are on an upward curve.

            1. I am just seeing this comment from earlier and smiling that you and I seem to be on a similar path with things other than audio! I have thousands of negatives from my photo days, and had bought a Nikon film scanner probably 15 years ago with the thoughts of digitizing most of them. After realizing how long and arduous of a process it is to get just one image at 2400 dpi I kind of gave up.

              I did buy an HP scanner that was an anomaly in that it had a light box in the lid large enough to scan five 35 mm strips at one time so I can make contact sheets. I’ve matched those with the negatives in binders and at some point could always do a much more hard-core scan using the Nikon of anything I might want to print.

              As it relates to music I do have a lot of concert photos I have done little to nothing with. I have a Dave Brubeck one that I’m particularly fond of and some close-ups of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Brian May at a small venue they played in the US before moving on to stadium shows. I somehow got in the front row and was allowed to lean on the stage while taking photos.

              I always developed my own black-and-white but lacked the patience to do color developing. Looking back my technique at developing film was far less sloppy then my prints LOL. My negatives after 30+ years still look pretty good many of my prints have not fared very well and are old and whithered!

              1. I got a professional mass scan of negatives at a very good price. I use an Epson V800, bought ex-demo 40% off when the V850 came out. It is a bit slow, but effective. I use VueScan software. The other way I've tried is a tripod rig over a light pad, using a Leica R 60mm macro. The latter is cheap, very sharp and easy to sell on, but is a very good portrait lens as well. The images need to be RGB reversed, which is a bit of a pain.
                This 30 year old image https://flic.kr/p/23uuiEN was part of the bulk scan and has no post-scan edits at all.
                Audio seems to be about the last 1% of perfection. What I like about photography are the imperfections and personality of lenses. Leica have just released a reissue of the 1935 Thambar 90mm that is ultra soft and objectively is seriously flawed, and only costs $6,500. Its images are stunning.
                I think there is a lesson to be learned and audiophiles generally need to take a chill pill, I personally don't think unattainable perfection is worth the worry, effort and money.

                1. I honestly had never thought about investigating a bulk scan service, thank you for the tip on that one. I had sent away all my 8mm movies for conversion but didn’t have that many and found the results satisfying (I have never been as picky about movie quality but mine are all family vacations and things like that).

                  I looked up the scanner and it appears to offer the features my HP has but on steroids! Now I know I have alternatives if mine fails to function!

                  Time to head on over to today’s post now to learn about biamping. Have a great day.

                  1. I have a local store that does professional film developing and scanning and they use an Epson V750. So don't worry about slightly older machines. The key thing is the scanning eye bit and apparently it hasn't changed over recent models. Depends how much of a bargain you want. It comes with software, but I would recommend VueScan. Skip bi-amping!!

                    1. Such a quick response ha ha. I had not made it to today’s post yet I was busy creeping on all your photobucket pictures. I like the architecture shots and the cliffs. I upgraded all my software to LaserSoft SilverFast and have been happy with it as well, however for my flatbed it does not work for anything beyond Windows 7 so not sure what I will do when I finally upgrade my operating system.

  2. I know that, with the background noise level in an urban setting. there are some orchestral pieces where I cannot set the volume level high enough to hear the softest passages without being deafened by the full orchestra. Were I to be transported into the depths of the country on a windless day the level would be easier to set because there would be less background noise. Setting an ideal volume level can thus be a compromise. I would say that you can choose an optimum level, but would hesitate to call it perfect,

  3. Hello everyone, in relation to this post, in some revisions for speakers in audio magazines it is mentioned that a speaker sounds good both at low volumes and at high volumes.

    Can someone explain to me what is due, is it a specific design issue, what?

    Thank you,

    1. In the first place, it is not necessary to believe, in everything what the Audio magazines say, because in the actuality, they respond to conflict of interests, because the majority of the manufacturers pay enormous amounts for the publicity of their products. Naivety must be left aside.

      The most serious manufacturers of speakers, use anechoic chambers to test the response of their products, so that they are more assimilated to the postulates of the curves of Fletcher and Munson, recalculated later by Robinson and Dadson or lately by the ISO 226 (which is approaching more to the studies done in 1933 by F & M).

      If you check the isophonic curves on your own, you can see that the human ear is more sensitive to mid-high frequencies and less sensitive to the frequencies at the lower and upper ends of the audible range.

      At the beginning of what was known as Hi-Fi, pre-amplifiers or integrated amplifiers came with a switch called loudness contour, which was nothing more than a compensator for the frequencies at the ends of the audible range (in accordance with the isophonic curves of F & M), and the idea was that when listening at low volume, or at night, it was not necessary to raise the volume so much to obtain a required tonal balance.

      After the advance of the Audio technique, and in response to the preference of the "purists", these "Loudness" controls, as well as almost all tone controls, disappeared from the market, in part due to new speaker designs, in which new drvers were incorporated, both for the low frequencies and for the upper end of them, as an example we can mention the most expensive models of Infinity and more recently the Focus of Legacy, which contains 3 drivers of 12 "for bass, and a ribbon as super-tweeter for the end of the treble.

      Despite what is indicated in the previous paragraph, none of the examples referred to, sound the same as low volume, than a larger volume. This larger volume depends mainly on the physiological state of the listener's auditory system and the kind of material being listened to. It is absurd and unreal to listen to a quartet of strings at high volume, as well as listen to a Bruckner symphony at very low volume. There will always be an optimal volume that is a function of the parameters indicated here, as well as the volume of the sound room.

      So to say that a speaker sounds just as good at a reduced volume as at a larger volume, lacks technical foundations, and more like cheap charlatanism.

      1. Thank you very much for your comments and teaching, Audiomano. What you would understand from his sayings and from others in this post, is that the level of recording or real live level is what should be "fixed" in the listening room.

        Lately I have been tempted to change my speakers and I am in the process of choosing the most suitable, which is difficult because in Chile it is difficult to be heard in showroom or sales rooms, so with reviews of magazines and comments on the Internet is the only thing I have to evaluate.

        1. Although you did not give me indications of what kind of speakers you alluded to in your first comment, what I described refers to conventional speakers, but there are modern versions of the "all in one" of the console era: Philco or GE of yesteryear, which come with DSP, which in turn can contain digital circuits to compensate for the normal hearing deficiencies in every human being, and which were studied by F & M in the 30s and 33s of the last century.

          If this is the case, it may be possible what you read in that publication is true, as long as it was equipment with these advances.

          As for the lack of supply of good speakers in your local market, nowadays it is easier with the use of the computer to learn to design speakers, acquiring the drivers in the market of northern Europe or North America that are known by its excellent quality There is no other way.

          1. Thanks again, well, I have Advent speakers, Heritage model (early 90's) not designed by Henry Kloss. They were the last to deal with relatively good quality. I changed the cables inside with Audioquest Crystal and improved the sound noticeably.

            As I was saying, now I'm tempted to change them for new ones. I lack time to design and make them myself. B&W recently launched new line 700 series S2 (I am particularly interested in the top of the line, the 702 for $ 4,500.-)

      2. Well, take the reviews of the ATC SCM40A. Reviewers who liked the speaker a lot were virtually unanimous that it didn't distinguish itself at lower volume levels. So either those reviewers were overlapping between reviews, copying each other, cheap charlatans, lacked technical foundation (relevance?) or they were onto something. Not having heard the speakers, I don't know. At the same time, reviewers of the SCM19A didn't draw find such a difference, which I can heartily confirm.

        1. The principle of isophonic curves has been used in medical audiometry for a long time, although there is also an audiometric method of the acoustic impedance of the eardrum membrane.

          have never taken seriously what the reviewers write, even more, I have not read them for a long, long time, for the reasons I have explained. .

  4. I'll never forget being in Music Room One with you, listening to Frank Sinatra. At the original volume, the image was of a 6' 2" Blue Eyes. You turned down the volume and the image snapped into a 5' 8" Frank.
    Being larger than life is cool; being accurate is wonderful!

  5. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record (haha) but this is an ongoing question I have for those (often classical fans) who are always going on about compression and/or dynamic range in recordings. When you are at a classical concert (given a decent seat and nominal hearing), you never have a problem with it being too loud or soft.

    So - granted - in most rooms with most systems, you cannot reproduce the dynamic range of a Mahler symphony realistically (i.e. that sounds simply normal to the ear) without either adjusting the volume or having some sort of limitation on the dynamic range - one reason many classical fans may prefer vinyl. It isn’t just about SPL. Or is it the “scale”? I don’t claim to understand what it IS about. More of a, “Whassup with that?” question.

    Glimmie may be able to reproduce the sound of a 747 taking off overhead recorded from the runway. But it still won’t sound anything like it, even if the dynamic range is preserved.

    P.S. - please don’t turn this into a “stereo sucks” argument. Thanks.

  6. Glad to hear, Paul, that you will be at Axpona. I am looking forward to this event in its new location. Hopefully you make it this time, as I recall a couple of years ago you were to be on one of the panels but could not get a flight out due to weather.

    As far as the post today goes, I have gotten the Mahler recording after seeing it mentioned here and for me it’s just not something I would listen to normally. I greatly prefer the sound of a trio of screaming electric guitars and a rousing bass line over an orchestra, but that’s just me. I also think that the tweaking that has to be done in volume and seating placement and all is just, for me, too much work for the end result. It satisfies the one or two people who can sit in the sweet spot, but does nothing to engage a larger gathering of people, or the family as a whole. My primary system is a double duty one, serving as home theater and music playback, but offers a full range of sound (notice I did not say accurate soundstage although there is a sweet spot for this system that does give you that) throughout the whole first floor of the house, which allows everyone to hear what’s being played. For me at least that inclusiveness is more import than total accurate dynamics and range.

    Maybe since I followed Steven and got rid of all my separates and went the all-in-one route I can no longer claim to have any audiophile leanings, grin, but I still like to rock ‘n roll! I do have a second system tucked away in a private space in the basement but find myself not using it as much anymore as it leaves me isolated from everyone else in the house, which is not good in other ways! Your mileage may vary!

    1. The inclusiveness has reached an endpoint where the other day I turned off the all-in-one from the remote and accidentally forgot to stop the Kindle stream, that was on a loop. My younger son then complained when he wanted to start sending Spotify to it that I he got my rubbish music. My music was via upnp so it didn't stop him using Spotify, but it gave him a reason to complain.
      It was not the plan, but we use it for AV and it's fantastic. The other day we were streaming a movie (The Last Portrait) for my macboook, the video was going to the TV via HDMI and the sound to the stereo via Airplay.

      Mahler is a bit like The X-Factor on TV. You need a bit of back-story about Romanticism, the Second Viennese Succession, etc., to see where he was coming from. More importantly, you need to go to a live performance. That will be the acid test. It may affect you profoundly, else stick to the screaming guitars!

      1. I have never had an opportunity to go to a Classical concert as far as I recollect, but, I totally can agree with you that the experience live would be absolutely different than trying to recreate it at home. Seeing the musicians, taking in the atmosphere of the concert hall, etc. I am not a huge jazz fan either, but, having seen some jazz live at festivals it does give a new perspective. I don't even try to ever duplicate at home the atmosphere of anything that I listen to, but know that many strive to do this, and for some it's satisfying and for some a series of endless frustrations. OK I have just added a new "to-do" to my 2018 list.

        Funny about your son, yes, a reason to complain. I have made it point to stay abreast of some of the modern music and like much of it, but this hip-hop stuff full of constant obscenities designed not to add anything to the lyric or story of the song is lost on me, I don't get it. I don't see any speaker system of any kind making that sound better to me, ha ha.

        PS: Did you demo those Kantas and how were they?

        1. I did not get to hear the Kanta's, but I heard they were very well received and are a very clever move by Focal.

          You raise a key point about listening at home. A lot of audiophile argument is about getting an audio system that can reproduce at home live musical experiences. Some people spend truly astonishing amounts of money doing so. I used to do a currency conversion of the cost of audio components into concert or opera tickets. When you then realise how many years of live performance I could go to for the cost of a new component, and I go to quite a lot of performance, the cost of high-end audio becomes totally unjustifiable. For example, Paul referred to interconnects that he has that cost the equivalent of 10 pairs of good stalls seats for the opera at Covent Garden. That's about 2 or more years of Covent Garden opera for me.

          So I chose a long time ago not to even try and get my audio system to listen to such big works that will never work at home and, if I do listen to them, I use headphones.

          What's more, I know plenty of people with money who spend the sort of high-end audio money on going to music festivals around Europe - the Schubertiade, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne, Aldeborough etc, which, frankly, makes more sense to me.

  7. Hi Paul...you were right the audio sucked...however I think that you are so gracious to share your knowledge, intuitiveness and opinions to whomever wants to listen, read and learn.
    What can I add here except maybe one point I think you overlooked and that is that all recordings are not created equal and the not all producers use the same techniques while recording.
    Mahler is not one of my favorites...I am more incline to listen to Beethoven, Alan Hovhaness and Mendelssohn. However, my tastes dabble with all kinds of music.
    I thought your video was informative and I thank you
    BTW Does Nipper follow you around the office?
    He seems to have grown a bit!
    Frank

  8. I've often thought that the best level to set, assuming a good mastering engineer, was the level it was finally mastered at thinking that was the level all the sonic factors were in best balance. Of course we don't know what that level is and end up setting level by ear and our own preference.

  9. In my experience, many audio hobbyists tend to have a favored volume level they use for playback of nearly everything. But I agree with Paul, that really needs to be fine-tuned for the situation.

    And that is the major reason to have a remote volume control, so that fine-tuning can easily be done from the listening seat. In addition a remote balance control can be very helpful as well (for poorly balanced recordings) but that is not commonly found.

    1. If that latter really true? I had the local high end shop come in and fine tune my speaker placement last year, balancing the sound levels and placing singers we were listening to dead center. Nonetheless, I find in a majority of my listening singers image a bit to the left. Assume clean ears and reasonably balanced hearing (balance tests come out ok). Since the source is an Oppo 203, USB or CD, I set the speaker distance on the right to be a little farther to compensate, and that has helped with some music, but far from all. Which makes me wonder...While it would seem to make sense for engineers to put the singer in the middle, is that really standard practice? And if it's a live performance with a group, isn't it harder to do in some situations?

      1. All I can say is with my system set up so that most recordings appear to be centered and balanced, not all are. And it is not only with a solo vocalist. Sometimes the whole music presentation can be shifted more to one side than the other. ?!

        But remote balance is not nearly as useful as volume control.

      2. "Putting the singer in the middle" implies you are listening to totally fake stereo created by "panorama" controls mixing multiple mono tracks in the studio. This is also a safe assumption because this is 99.5% of music production. The sensitivity of "imaging" to minute details like two degrees of toe-in is because your brain is grasping at straws. The difference in level between left ear and right ear is less than 1% of true three dimensional sound.

        In my music production software, balance is coded as 100 left to 100 right, or slightly under 8 bits - and I defy anyone to hear the difference of an LSb. This means that for a 24 track master, the 24 balance controls have a total information content of around 20 bytes for the entire track mix, out of about 30 MegaBytes for a 3 minute pop song.

        Timing differences between left and right are richer in spatial content, but hard to transmit through a pair of speakers because of cross-feed and listening room reflections.

        Real imaging includes the timing and direction of arrival of the room reflections, which are different for the physical location of every instrument and voice in the source event. The only way to make a sound come from a point in acoustic space is to put a physical source in that location.

        Further, to hear any vestige of real imaging from two channel or fixed speaker "surround" systems you need to ignore the spatial cues which locate the speaker in the room. For this reason, speakers have evolved to be locationally vague, developing accidental "cloaking" so you can't hear where the speaker is to increases the false, learned illusion of imaging coming from two speakers.

        I develop speakers that mimic the spatiality of physical instruments to better represent them on stage. The fake illusion of stereo coming from left and right PA speakers is proven to be a lie by looking at the stage - the visual image never matches the sonic, even from the "sweet spot" directly in front of the sound board. Your brain resolves this cognitive dissonance with time spent listening to PA systems, but they are an anathema to people who listen to music without a PA.

        I have the technology to produce transparent live amplification, samples and processing using one targeted speaker per instrument. Each speaker has to be the same acoustic size and shape as the instrument it represents, and located in close horizontal and vertical proximity to the target rather than overhead or on the sides of the stage.

        These speakers image themselves, the same way the original sources do - but this ability to hear where the speaker is located destroys the stereo illusion when they are used for playback of mixed tracks

  10. When I'm attending a concert at Davies Symphony Hall in SF, I can always hear the quietest passages and the loudest extremes are not painful. Yet, many of us have to ride the volume when listening at home - a quandary.

    1. There might be lower background noise in a concert hall, although I have never found them conspicuously quiet. I suspect that we may be more tolerant of loud passages in concert than in a domestic environment, but this is pure speculation on my part.

      1. Concert halls are measurably quieter unless you live on a dead end street, use no motorized appliances (kitchen, power tools, heating/cooling systems, lawn care), have nothing moving in or around your building (including water and air) and are many miles away from highways, trains, air corridors and shipping lanes. I am two miles from I95, AMTRAK and the Merritt Parkway and I can hear them through double paned windows. They are probably shaking the ground enough to hear in a concrete bunker. I also suspect one could hear commercial shipping up the channel of Long Island Sound, which is an additional two miles of water.

        Concert hall levels will cause unlistenable distortion in audio systems, short of an IRSV brute force solution - and given enough diaphragm area, speed and horsepower they will shake, rattle and roll your house.

        I have heard seven speaker systems that can reproduce orchestral levels cleanly, and all of them are bigger than the IRSV: a Klangfilm horn that was big enough for three men to walk in abreast; Andrew Jones' three way horns that took more floor area each than a New York apartment; Wisdom Audio floor-to-ceiling 3-way line source twenty feet high; Ralph Glasgal's cylinder of eighteen 12 ft2 Sound Lab electrostatics (there were no gaps in the 360 degree surround); and professional line arrays by Renkus-Heinz, Meyersound and L'Acoustique. Honorable mention goes to Tom Danley's Unity, which will make the list when I hear them with his subs, and Stage Accompany makes systems that can do this by the specs.

        If real level is your goal, you should be shopping professional stage contractors instead of high-end audio boutiques. For example, 1" dome tweeters are too inefficient, too little volume displacement and too little power handling. I use AMT1 tweeters which are ten times as efficient, forty times the surface area, three times faster and handle ten times the power of the best 1" direct radiating drivers.

        OR, you can DIY line sources. There is no magic to this design approach. If you get the gaps to under 1/2 wavelength, including the floor and ceiling gap, it will act like an infinite length cylindrical source. You can use relatively inexpensive midrange and tweeter drivers as the distortion is reduced by the number of drivers.

  11. I don't know about music recording but for motion picture and now often television too, the standard room level is 85db. I think it's too loud, I perfer the THX 75db myself.

    But that's what it is and is supposed to be what you hear in a calibrated movie theater, but don't count on that these days.

    1. Theater systems have a lot of problems (they are optimized for speech, have a wall to wall audience with few sweet spots and rarely conform to standards), but the horns do have much higher output with lower Doppler distortion than direct radiator systems. Distortion corresponds more to perceived loudness than actual loudness, so an undistorted system can play louder with ease.

      I had an experience consulting for a contractor friend of mine who had a bar management unsatisfied with his sound installation. I went for a listen and the first thing I heard was the low bitrate of the satellite feed, which I found unlistenable. I fed in some ALAC of clean recordings from my iPod Touch and the distributed 8" 2-way Electrovoice speakers sounded amazingly good from solid engineering. He explained that they used DJs and wanted club levels, so we just needed bigger speakers.

      We found some 12" EVs with a novel computer designed horn to reduce the echo on the narrow brick room and had 12dB more output, then added massive 15" subwoofers. I used CAD to get even coverage and hung the speakers to the correct angles with hand knotted climbing rope to isolate them from the ceiling. We fired them up and got solid, undistorted 115dB from 40Hz-15KHz and turned it over feeling proud of our work.

      Then they turned it up way past clipping and said yes, it is now loud enough. I could not stay in the room more than five minutes with earplugs in. I guess if the sound is clean, then people can talk instead of drink; so in their world, if it is not distorted, it is not loud enough.

  12. Absolutely correct...I always counted this volume level fact as a limitation of certain recordings and even more of HiFi in audio rooms compared to live music in general for certain instruments.

    1. This is a factor for uncompressed recordings. If an orchestra fits in your living room, it is because the dynamic range is reduced in the recording to account for the high background noise levels, limited undistorted output of home speakers and the potential acoustic overload of a small room.

  13. I find that if I play music at home at "concert hall volume" that many people find that the level is too high. I believe that there is a general tendency for music to be played below the "correct (= concert hall live)" volume in a domestic setting. I find this a little curious, or perhaps we are moving to a time where people spend less time listening to live music?

    1. I think many people think concert hall levels are actually louder than they actually are. I once measured peak levels in Disney of only 106dB. Loud but not uncomfortably so. I find the biggest obstacle to correct levels is the dynamic range of the room. The noise floor of the room requires a minimum volume and the rest of the system limits the maximum volume unless your like Paul with music room 1.

  14. Listen to a well done live recording made in a jazz club...

    Too low? You are sitting in the back of the room.

    Just right? You are listening to the live performance.

    Too high? You are listening to the performance being mic'd through the PA system.

    1. There is an absolute level which contributes to the sense of reality.

      Ignoring the highly plastic human loudness curve, acoustic instruments change their timbre with loudness of playing, and your position in the room is sonically differentiated by the quantity and quality of echo as well as the sound pressure level. If the playback has up close acoustics and is too quiet, it is wrong; and likewise if it sounds distant and it too loud to account for it you need to turn it down.

  15. Here, here! I long ago determined that every work, recording actually, has one volume at which it sounds correct. It is hardest to set the right level for solo piano in my experience. The dynamic range of a concert grand strains the best systems to sound realistic at both the pianissimo and fortissimo levels. My 2 cents.

  16. You forgot two important factors: noise pollution and the time factored listening history of your ears. Typical living rooms are too loud for real dynamic range, 10-20dB higher noise levels than concerts halls - which in turn are 10-20dB noisier in modern metropolises than when "Classical" music was written.

    Exposure to loud sounds changes your threshold of hearing and loudness curve. I get this all the time from musicians who live in New York City and travel by subway. I always have my earplugs in while in transit.

    My typical audience is skewed by 12-15dB, and generally prefers amplification too loud for my perfect level - and they practice acoustic instruments daily! I am accommodating because the city noise during performance results in a 35-45dB SNR both live and in recording, so I often amplify Chamber Music over 10dB transparently to make it perceptually closer to 18th or 19th Century experiences both live and later.

    You also passed over perhaps the biggest limit to distortion-free dynamic range in reproduction: Doppler distortion. You have one of the lowest DIMD, highest output speakers in history. Those who have less than eight woofers will have a severely compromised "right level", or train their brains to ignore the high levels of DIMD and various forms of clipping distortion.

  17. For some reason this post (with which I concur) brought to mind an account in the Christian Science Monitor of a conversation with Picasso in his studio...

    JUST then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. "How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?" I asked him.

    "Let me tell you a story," Picasso said. "Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph.'"

    Picasso burst out laughing. He turned to Jacqueline. "It sounds silly, I know, but it's true." Then he turned back to me. "Eh bien, it's the same story here—" he pointed to the canvas above Jacqueline's head—"it's a question of optique."

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