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Course & Fine Volume Control - the best tweak I never knew I needed


markkpa
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I recently listened to a video where someone suggested dialing in the volume; something like, “go slightly too loud then back it down a notch”. This has done more to bring songs musically to life, make them sound alive, than any DAC or cable I've tried.

The problem was I never had enough granularity to dial it in - but didn’t know it. My preamp's volume control is digital or stepped - somehow I needed to adjust the volume in between those steps. Before, I just thought some recordings sounded magically engaging whereas others didn’t - wrong! If the studio used a decent sound engineering, nearly every song can be dialed in to sound alive and engaging. That’s right - each song has to be dialed in individually to hear the magic. It’s about finding just the right impedence for the speakers to a match the song at the listening levels required by my room. And, as I’m sure you know - it’s not linear which can be frustrating (do you twist the knob a lot or a little - it’s different every time). 

I dug out my old Placette remote volume control and placed it between the DAC and preamp. This unit was specially made with xlr terminals - it uses Vishay S102 foil resistors - xlr configuration requires 3 times as many resistors. I paid a pretty penny for it twenty years ago - over $1,200.00 then. Importantly, it has an RF remote and be controlled from the listening position - that’s a big deal here.

What I do now is use my preamp for course volume control (finding the slightly too loud spot). I then begin with the Placette set to the lowest resistance value and gradually reduce the volume until I hear the magic.

This is the single biggest change I’ve made to increase the musical enjoyment of my system. I’ll give you an example. I was streaming Julien Herve playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major (NoMadMusic, 24/48kHz on Qobuz). When the solo clarinet starts playing, I readjusted the “fine” volume control on the Placette. Suddenly I could hear the resonance of African hardwood of the clarinet. I play the clarinet - I suppose my ears are dialed into this sound. Just one click away I couldn’t hear it; at least not the way it sounds in a concert hall. It brought even more enhancement to an electric guitar. Joe Bonamassa's High Water Everywhere - Live from the Royal Albert Hall - never sounded more alive (J&R Adventures 16/44.1kHz over Qobuz).

What!? I always thought I would need to buy a more expensive DAC to hear this level of detail - nope. Course and fine volume control appears to have been at least part of the answer.

Curious - has anyone else had a similar experience?

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For about a week now I've been fine tuning listening volume to find that "magical" sweet spot where music sounds more alive and engaging.  I was surprised how narrow the band is where the magic happens - far more narrow than I anticipated.  The Placette Remote Control uses discrete resistors, I realize impedance will vary with different settings - perhaps that's playing into it.

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Something like 10 years ago I reported the very same. That is, that there is a sweet spot for volume. I reasoned that it could be about consistency which only happens when playing back at the real level of how the instruments played during the recording. Or maybe: how instruments okayed through loudspeakers would only sound real at their real levels.

Since then I tend to tune/calibrate my playback around the real level of a grand (because I own one), which is 90dBSPL. But mind you, doing that makes all quite loud. In consistency a crash cymbal is at 110dBSPL. And when your system is capable of rendering cymbals well (mine does that), then 110dBSPL is really (really !) loud.

 

For fun I'll ping @acg; he may remember me talking about this in my own forum, although I recall that not much response came from that. But at least he owns a Placette too. Haha.

His (very) fine system may encourage for the same happening.

 

Yesterday @roberherrera talked about the same, though in a very different context. Hopefully he can contribute in this thread ?

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I'm not sure about an absolute best volume but there is often a specific volume I want for my listening mood—and that very often falls between available volumes.

 

That's one reason I've ordered a pre-amp with 530 discrete steps on its volume control!

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My experience is that the perceived  increase in quality is really a function of the speaker. At low volumes you often lose detail and the frequency curve changes (unless you are using a full range speaker).

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Hola Chicos, I would like to chime here a little bit.

 

I will tell you my experience. Here in Costa Rica, we don't have big stages.  

 

The biggest is the Melico Salazar National Theatre were I listened our Symphonic Orchestra with a big Corus: The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.  At the stage were about 200 people and I was at the seventh rod center listening with my SPL meter weighting in C scale, and perhaps 10 meters away from the stage, the highest meter reading was 93dB!!! And I never have being exposed to that musical energy before!  My body was literally shaking with this SPL.  

 

Recently we had Roger Waters here at our National Stadium.  The level was a little bit more than what I usually listen to my system, but WOW!!!  These guys really know how to adjust the level of the musical instruments and voices.  And through all those big speakers, in surround, quality was there too. Crystal highs with incredible definition with what were on the stage.  Fantastic.

 

Then I decided to play my system loud...one of my friends said: Roberto, this almost the same as the National Stadium with Roger Waters.  I only had it for 3 minutes and lowered the volume.

 

I think that we (humans) have a built in sound compressor into our ears, and I could stand for a moment hight SLP, but this is not for me.  I love my ears, and being exposed to a very high SPL, they start to whistle (tinnitus) and have it for two weeks...I don't like this. 

 

My liking not necessary must be your liking, but usually I am between 75dB to 85dB, peaks no further that 90dB!  Average SLP in 75dB is more than enough for me.  The stage, the musicians playing there with great realism with the fun that they are having playing together, with the right timbre and the right harmonic texture, air between them and having the main artist or performer in my virtual stage is all what I need.  I can focus easily with any musician or musical instrument at the recording. My system is simple, it is a Conrad Johnson ET-7 preamplifier and a Classic One Twenty SE power amp, with Nordost Reference SPM interconnects and speaker cables.  CD transport is a Bel canto CD3.  With a Holo May Kte dac with a LUSH ^V3 USB cable, my Apple Mac Pro and my ears...that's all what I need to enjoy all these fantastic musicians that are into our music files.  My speakers are Martin Logan CLXs with a BF-210 sub. 

 

Enjoy all those magical tunes!

Happy listening!

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Oh, I forgot to mention that I do not use a volume level compensator in my Audirvana virtual CD player. Between the files, there are sometimes a big difference in level.  My pre amp volume control is very good. It goes by steps and each step going up or down is .7dB. So, you are able to adjust the exact level that you would like to listen any song or track. 

 

Happy listening!

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Yes, there definately is a 'sweet' volume setting, and I'm fairly sure the song (recording characteristics) the system (speakers primarily) and the room are all involved. To me, it occurs when I reach a volume level where the music is fully engaging the room, and at that point my attention is fully engaged. Sometimes it can go louder and be (more?) enjoyable, sometime more volume decreases or eliminates the enjoyment. Sometimes it seems that the 'sweet' volume increases as I listen longer. My ears must be warming up. 

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Thanks to everyone who replied!  It brought me back down to earth.  I simply did not have enough granularity or fine adjustment in my preamp due to the DAC running too hot -the output voltage is too high.  In my original post I discussed detail, timbre and resonance which I now believe was caused by certain combinations of resistors within the Placette - other combinations or settings sound just fine.  I am now leaving the Placette "fixed" with one setting that sounds great and reduces the output voltage sufficiently to restore granularity to the preamp.  Ahh - life if good again!

 

By the way, the DAC itself has a volume control - many Chinese DAC's are designed to act as a quasi-preamp.  But the volume control is Digital.  Attenuating volume digitally adversley affects soundstage - especially 16 bit 44.1 kHz.  My system sounds best with zero attenuation within the DAC.

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12 minutes ago, markkpa said:

By the way, the DAC itself has a volume control - many Chinese DAC's are designed to act as a quasi-preamp.  But the volume control is Digital.  Attenuating volume digitally adversley affects soundstage - especially 16 bit 44.1 kHz.  My system sounds best with zero attenuation within the DAC.

I think there is a common misconception both ways that digital volume attenuation is great or terrible. IMHO, the two factors involved are: how is the computational volume attenuation done (including the dithering/noise shaping after the attenuation) and what is the low-level linearity of the DAC itself.

 

I’ve heard fantastic digital volume attenuation that makes the preamp moot, but I’ve also heard terrible digital volume attenuation from other DACs. But at the end of the day, to me, it’s just all mathematics and engineering. Of course, with analog volume attenuation, you can have other issues like left-right channel volume mismatch or other low-level linearity issues, in addition to other potential distortions.

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When is right the SPL?  When you find yourself tapping your foot along with the rhythm of the music, that level is right. When you have a steady stage, the SPL is right.  This is a matter of liking. Also it is a matter of enjoying the musicians playing for you, there, in your own place.  

 

The other thing is, believe what your ears are telling you.  Don't worry about what others are saying. If you like what you are hearing, that's what it is all about and of course it is OK.  Trust your ears, they are your final judges.  I don't care if you can fool my ears; that could happen...fooling ears is not my goal,  what is the most important thing is: enjoy those fine tunes! Enjoy the fun that they are having playing for you! Enjoy that fun...music is love!

 

Happy listening!

 

 

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18 hours ago, hopkins said:

My experience is that the perceived  increase in quality is really a function of the speaker. At low volumes you often lose detail and the frequency curve changes (unless you are using a full range speaker).

Combine that with the ears' differing sensitivity to different frequencies as the volume changes, then this gets very complex.

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On 10/9/2021 at 1:04 PM, PeterSt said:

Or maybe: how instruments okayed through loudspeakers would only sound real at their real levels.

 

Yeah, this is a thing.  I really like to set the volume something close to what it would be in concert...I listen to a lot of live or concert recordings.

 

 

16 hours ago, roberherrera said:

My liking not necessary must be your liking, but usually I am between 75dB to 85dB, peaks no further that 90dB!  Average SLP in 75dB is more than enough for me.  

 

Fortissimo piano peaks are about 105dB and the sound in the orchestra where the microphones are placed for the recording is often somewhat similar.  I will set my playback to hit these same peaks at the listening chair although most of the music is much, much less than this, say 85dB - 90dB average.  You can't do this with a lot of audio systems because they fall apart at lower volumes and will load the room and sound loud but my highly directional horns don't sound loud at these volumes and you can generally hold a conversation with others in the room should you please.

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