The perfect loudness

December 27, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

One thing we can be certain of. Perfection is specific to the individual, the time, and the circumstance. What works for me today may not work for you even in identical circumstances.

And yet, there is a perfection we can both achieve as long as we recognize what’s perfect in one instance will never be the same as the second instance.

Take for example loudness for a particular track. Much depends on the room, the track itself, the number of people in the room, the speakers, the cabling, the mood, the time of day—even the room lighting.

What we can agree upon is that every track has a perfect listening level specific to that moment in time. What I think is often confusing about this observation is that it is never the same for two systems or two people. Thus, me telling you that the perfect listening level on Flying Blind from Temporary Circumstances is X on the BHK isn’t going to do you a lot of good when it comes to duplicating what I want you to hear.

That is, of course, because everything for me is different than for you.

What we can suggest with some confidence is that getting the volume correct is critical. And you will know it when singers Jessica and Giselle are in the room with you.

More than that we cannot say.

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31 comments on “The perfect loudness”

  1. I concur, Paul.
    I would even go so far as to say that what sounds ‘right’ to me in today’s listening
    session can sometimes sound less so the next day…ears…brain…mood…go figure.

  2. I fully agree.

    It seems to be tonality in dependence of the criteria you mentioned. Also a bit of preference influence for calmer and louder levels.

    What can be said, too, is that certain masterings (due to their choice of tonality) also lead to a later listener preference for certain levels, as they also strongly determine the overall tonality.

    If we had a mastering standard (or tone controls of any kind), we’d possibly more or less hear every recording at the same level.

  3. I’ve noticed that I tend to turn it up a bit later in the day or right before bed. Certainly nothing like the “crank it to 10 and rip the knob off” a local radio station advocated in my youth, though substantially louder. What sounds I’ve been exposed to during the day also have an effect, but it seems to be opposite of what you’d expect. After using a saw, grinder or my tractor I prefer much quieter levels of audio. Go figure.

      1. I have for the past decade or so, wish I would have started a lot sooner! Live and earn, at least my hearing isn’t being deteriorated by anything other than age these days.

  4. “Jessica and Giselle in the room with you.”
    Exactly.
    I had invited in a neighbour to hear my hifi err… to hear some music.
    Amanda McBroom, ‘Dreaming.’
    Will he say the treble is clear or the bass is scary or …?
    No.
    “[expletive] it sounds like she is in the room!”

    He was right. I was wrong.

  5. The confusion in terms “loudness” and “volume” are being used interchangeably above. However, they are not the same. Volume is the knob you turn to send more power to a speaker. Loudness is based on the amplitude of the waveform, (Fletcher Munson Curve) and that changes depending on the volume one has chosen, due to the characteristics of human hearing.

    Both “volume” and “loudness” need to be addressed in the reproduction phase. Problems setting the correct volume happens when the pre-stage doesn’t allow proper selection or adjustments to “loudness” to compensate for listening “volume” levels.

  6. The perfect listening level has already been stated.

    What shook up a few synapses this morning is the talk of “level”. That happened when reading the background bio of ‘ Clandestine Amigo’ again. The town Levelland came up along with the names of Gisselle and Chris and their contributions….

    Little details and coincidences can be missed or forgotten when the level isn’t just right…

      1. I heard them live BCovid at the Greek theatre, open air. I was relatively close. My dBA was peaking at 120. That song was amazing, just like the entire concert. Three drummers! Fripp hiding in the background, almost no lighting with him. Amazing musicality. He did not say one word the entire night. None of them did. Not even thanks at the end. Just a bow together.

        I cannot listen to them again live. Way too loud. Unless I seat half a mile away.

        1. Back when I was a geology grad student at University of Kansas, a friend and I attended a Philip Glass Ensemble concert at a university recital hall. Our student tickets were about mid hall. After about 15 minutes, we retreated to the back of the hall, but it was still way too loud. Although the musical program was quite interesting, at the intermission we agreed as to the better part of valor and took our leave. At least the half price student tickets made our decision easier and prevented overmuch hearing loss. The guy at the mixing console may have been experienced as to the equipment setup (3 multi-synth arrays for Glass and band mates as I recall, plus a drum kit and assorted exotic percussion), but he was probably legally deaf (or maybe just sadistic).

  7. When you’ve been in a dark room for a while and then go outside into the bright sunshine your eyes have to get used to the light before you can open them completely.
    When I start playing a cd then at first my ears have to get used to the loudness.
    After a few minutes my ears get used to the volume and I turn up the volume a bit. And after some more minutes a bit more until finally I reach the “desired” volume.

    1. Happy is that person who has equipment that can use a calibration mic with white noise to set the proper “loudness” in relationship to “volume” levels.

      Many of the early CD’s were mastered using pre-emphasis from the RIAA master used to cut the vinyl. These over emphasize the upper frequencies and leave the lower range lacking. These can be corrected with software, but simply realize that this is an issue with modern CD playback with older CD’s.

    2. I second Martin‘s ‘Exactly’.

      Just about every CD that I listen to has been recorded at a different level so it takes a bit of a listening and then some volume adjusting (always higher). It doesn’t take long to find the proper listening level though.

  8. Paul, I agree as well.

    I have a surprising number of audio pals who seem to play everything at the same level. That makes no sense to me but possibly they’ve found the “sweet spot” for level with their system?

    For me it makes more sense to adjust for differences between listening to a symphony and Joan Baez singing with solo guitar.

  9. Also agree Paul!

    Every musical genre, played back in each individual listening environment (components, speakers, room acoustics, various recording style/quality, personal taste) will “sound best” at various listening levels! With the majority of music I listen to, I enjoy volume levels that yield averages of 75db to 80db in my sweet spot position. With different recording labels/music genre (and sometimes various cuts on each), my volume settings vary to reach that “live-you-are-there” presentation. Once I reach that “perfect setting”, the recording soundstage becomes real, musicians occupy proper space and “suspension of disbelief” becomes jaw dropping!

    Usually, my specific volume settings for each album (CD) remain very consistent. Sometimes I enjoy it a little bit Louder, but more often, a little bit Softer (probably dependent on how my tinnitus is doing)!! 😉

  10. Volume and loudness sometimes defy intuition. In my system I can hear a big difference going up to around 60 or so on the volume dial, but the difference in perceived loudness diminishes in the range between 60 and 75 or so. Then as I raise the volume above 75 or 80 distortion becomes more noticeable. I typically will set the volume at the lowest setting that gives me the full dynamics, weight and presence of the particular recording.

    On the subject of loudness: when you have one sound source, like an organ pipe and then add a second identical sound source, like another organ pipe with the same pitch and design, playing the two together does NOT give you twice the volume, due to the superposition of sound waves. At some point, adding more pipes of the same pitch does not significantly increase the overall volume at all. To get a perceived higher volume, you must add pipes of different pitches, such as harmonic intervals.

    I imagine a similar wave interference phenomenon happens in our listening rooms. Raising the volume of the loudspeaker output raises the level of room reflections such that the reflected waves interfere with the direct waves from the loudspeakers resulting in superpositioned waves that may not be much higher in amplitude. At least that is how I partially rationalize the zone in which raising the volume is not always perceived as being louder. Of course, there is another theoretical factor–the human brain that modulates incoming audio nerve signals, sometimes acting like a compressor. Setting the volume where the brain applies the least compression is probably ideal.

    1. Superposition works in both ways. There was a 2 year satellite survey of ocean waves that found a handful of MONSTER waves from superposition, where waves travelling at different speeds and in different directions summed to over 30m high! In the same way, live music on a proper musical stage for performers to hear each other (reflective dropped ceiling, back and side walls) has peaks of +18dB in the top octave, between 10KHz and 20Khz.

      Recording with microsecond fast peak reading meters, I have clocked string quartets at 115dB peaks. This does not hurt your ears because the total energy is small, and it registers perceptually as somewhat attenuated – but ears that are well trained to live music will hear the difference if the audio chain attenuates or limits these occasional peaks.

      These peaks are missing from nearly all recordings. If you notice that your audiophile disks (Chesky, etc.) play at much quieter average level, it is because they have left the real musical peaks in. These are a good argument for 24/96 or DSF formats, high efficiency speakers with ultrasonic extension and large surface area direct radiator tweeters (AMT).

      1. Have to exercise the eardrums once in awhile. I been lucky so far. Still have the Goldenears. I worry more about the noise environment at work than music at high volumes. They do provide us with the earplugs and earmuffs. Just need to use them…………….

  11. Todays post brings a question to mind. Do any of you use volume leveling? We all have albums/tracks that are louder than others so I can see where the idea of leveling might be appealing. I’ve always assumed volume leveling an entire library had to be adding distortion somewhere so I just raise, or more often, lower the volume as needed. Is my assumption correct or does it depend on what’s doing the leveling?

    1. OHT,

      Volume leveling? Yes, manually with my pre-amp remote control! 😉

      However, adjustments really depend on the type genre, the recording level and my mood at that moment!! 🙂

    2. I recall years ago seeing advertised a volume leveler device for televisions. Television commercials are typically louder than the broadcast television programs. The device would sense these volume jumps and either lower the volume or mute the sound.

  12. Loudness curve varies by listener and recent history of sound levels. When I set levels in New York City and people arrived by subway, it needs to be louder – which is why I amplify chamber music. I use earplugs when traveling so I would choose 10dB lower for my own listening.

    That said, the ideal volume level is the same as the original musical event adjusted for background level. I have one album out of 4,000 where the recorded SPL was mentioned in the liner notes, so some guess work is involved.

    Another variable: where your season subscription seats are located. Mine are between 7th and 10th row in various halls, which means I need more peak volume and clarity than people in the excessive reverberations of the cheap seats.

    Unfortunately, in many systems the optimum volume is set by the peak transient capability, DUMAX, slew rate (including inductance limiting), power compression, and Inter-Modulation Distortion, especially the Doppler variety. This is why I only listen to AMT tweeters and big, high efficiency, high power mids and woofers. If you increase the volume on small drivers you get more DIMD and power compression, same for low efficiency.

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