Volume vs Sound Quality

Matthew Cox | May 31, 2022 11:48 pm

The relationship between volume and sound quality and understanding the trade-offs.

I think everyone can agree that things more often sound better when played louder, and I don’t just mean in a party or concert environment when adrenaline and emotion become part of the equation; I’m talking about loudness within a private listening environment using headphones, earbuds, or your home speaker system. 

Several things happen when music is turned up to a higher volume for many people. These effects differ between people, listening systems, and the material you’re listening to.

What Happens When The Volume is Turned Up?

A commonly-noticed effect of louder volumes is the bass response seeming to be tighter, punchier, and fatter when the volume knob is turned. This also gives a piece of music more energy as the subtleties of the low-end power becomes more apparent. Some musical content also seems to become more precise and sharper at higher volumes, and finer details in the high end become more noticeable. 

The exciting thing is that these effects aren’t the same for every genre of music- even when you’re listening with the same playback system and set of ears. Here are some examples from my personal experiments:

When listening to older masters (up to the early 80s), I feel there’s space for loads of fiddling with the volume knob. In the days of tracking to tape, signals had to be hotter to minimize system noise, and so in a way, they’re almost engineered to be cranked! For example, if you spin a record by Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, or early AC/DC, you might notice improved low-end response and an all-around punchier experience. 

Again, this doesn’t apply to every recording from this era: some Zeppelin records begin to distort pretty heavily at higher playback levels. It all depends on the album in question (and its production methods and tonal qualities) as well as your listening medium. 

Loudness Wars

You may be familiar with the Loudness Wars, which spanned several decades, where artists and engineers were determined to push the volume limits of their productions, as psychoacoustics shows us that louder seems to sound better. While this had a positive effect on the success of some productions, many suffered due to the resulting over-compression and severely diminished dynamic range, leading to an uncomfortable listening experience (check out Metallica’s 2008 release, ‘Death Magnetic’ for a great example of this)

More recent productions tend to ‘open up’ as the volume knob is rolled closer to the maximum parameter, though this isn’t always the case. Some bass-heavy music can begin to distort and throw the tonal balance of a mix upside-down, and often the higher frequencies start to sound harsh and unpleasant. 

Volume vs Sound Quality 1

What factors are at play here?

The way a piece of recorded material sounds across the volume spectrum is affected by various elements:

The Source Material

As I mentioned, some older productions are far more enjoyable when turned up to 10, while some seem to fall apart at higher volumes. Whether a track was engineered on an analog (tape) or digital (software) system dramatically affects this. However, digital audio artifacts are becoming less noticeable as technology improves. 

Furthermore, a song with a notably ‘darker’ feel will begin to reveal some clarity at higher volumes. This is due to reduced low-end mud and the tonal balance seeming to widen, allowing for more uncomplicated dissection of the mixed elements. 

Listening Medium

It goes without saying that a small, cheap Bluetooth speaker can’t be compared with an extensive home stereo system or large, powerful loud Bluetooth speakers, especially when volume levels are the point of discussion. Smaller Bluetooth speakers are also limited as far as full-range audio representation is concerned.

Aside from the size of the speakers and their power handling capabilities, one must also consider the technical attributes of the device in question, such as the speaker driver itself and its materials, the enclosure’s material and construction methods, the preamp and power amplifier in use, and of course, cabling. These elements come together to give a specific speaker its tonal characteristics and should not be overlooked. 

Your Ears

Our ears are the last step in an audio signal chain and arguably the most crucial feature. Everybody’s ears are different as far as sensitivity is concerned relating to volume levels and tonal content: some are most sensitive to high-end information, and a top-heavy track can quickly become harsh or painful to listen to, while others lose intelligibility of this range and therefore aren’t as sensitive to it. 

It’s also worth noting that our ears do not behave linearly regarding perceived loudness across the frequency spectrum. The Fletcher Munson Equal Loudness Contours (pictured below) show that we are less sensitive to lower-frequency energy at lower volume levels. This means that a low tone of around 50Hz needs to be played much louder than a 200Hz tone for us to identify them at the same volume. 

This explains why the bassline of a dance track suddenly seems to ‘bump’ once the volume level is pushed above a certain point: it’s not that it only sounds better when louder; it simply is because we can hear it better at those volumes! 

Volume vs Sound Quality 2
Fletcher & Munson’s Equal Loudness Curves show that lower frequencies require more volume to be heard at the same perceived level as higher tones. Note how the contours are closer together at higher frequencies.

What can we take from this?

In summary, the abovementioned points tell us the following: 

  1. Larger, high-quality speakers will sound better at high volumes than cheaper, smaller units. However, even the world’s loudest and most powerful speakers can reach a point where their limits are reached, and sound quality will begin to suffer.
  2. A poorly-produced piece of music won’t sound any better at louder listening levels. Driving the volume knob to infinity can reveal impurities within a recording or its magnificent hidden details. 
  3. Our ears are more sensitive to low frequencies at higher volumes. Depending on the music style/mix in question, this can lead to an overpowering bass response that conceals much of the clarity and detail in a song within the upper midrange and high-frequency bands.  

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Author: Matthew Cox

A sound engineering student and musician, Matthew enjoys writing and performing music, working in the studio, and geeking out over anything audio-related.

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