System Changes And Volume Setting

Here is an important issue with volume setting and listening to changes. We often experience customers getting very fastidious about setting the volume level exactly the same when swapping and comparing a new piece of gear in their system. And then making an assessment partially based on any perceived changes in volume, or with an idea that a different volume setting will mask any differences in the performance of the new product. But in our view this is a misleading procedure and it can actually detract from the real results of the change.

Remember that the volume control changes the gain to your power amplification stage. And your power amplifier amplifies music, plus noise, plus distortion. So when you listen at any particular volume, you are listening to the summation of all 3 of these. Swap a source component for one with less distortion say, and by this logic you may well get less energy arriving at the power amplification stage with the same volume setting. Also remember that distortion is more obviously loud because its harsh in nature, and we reel away from it. So our suggestion is this. Firstly if something initially seems a little quieter, don’t condemn it, it’s quite possibly producing less distortion. Spend some time listening with your favorite music – stuff that lifts you emotionally and not just a 10 second snippet of an audiophile recording – and adjust the volume to where it sounds musically correct, to give you the level of engagement that feels right. Allow plenty of time to listen, and look out for new surprises in your favorite recordings. After a while perhaps do the letterbox check as well (see below). If it turns out that the new bit of kit is is genuinely better, you will hear real improvements to the music and its presentation , and the system will perhaps now be more stable over a wider volume range too – there really is no need to worry where the volume knob is pointing.

The Volume ‘Letterbox’ Problem

Lets assume we own a system that is poorly put together. It has electronics that are not appropriate for the environment, the speakers and room are not a good match and there is no logical system infrastructure. What can we do to determine this system’s condition more accurately?

Well, one of the major characteristics of such a system is that it will have a poor response to different volume settings. At low volume it sounds weak and flat, there is not much tonal expression, rhythm or musical involvement. When playing low, the listener is instinctively aware of this problem and keeps wanting to turn up the volume to get the involvement he desires. When we do turn it up a bit we get to a volume level where generally the system sounds a little better – there seems to be some of the involvement we are after – but we are also aware that other sound quality aspects might not be as good as we would like, but this is what we have come to expect from this system.

There are also times though, when we want a louder, more stimulating experience, and want to crank up the volume 3 or 4 notches. And this is often when things become considerably worse of course, the reality being (although we might not want to admit it) that the sound becomes very bright and harsh, less controlled and timing is jumbled. Fatigue levels go up considerably. 

This is what we call the ‘letterbox’ effect; a narrow usable volume range where the dissatisfaction is minimized, and where, above or below this setting the system always runs into significant problems. Its like lifting the narrow flap of a letterbox, and squinting at your music through it.

However, as a system is improved by applying the systematic approach, we hear significant gains at different volume settings. Overall the music is smoother, richer and far more involving, and this quality remains at lower volumes. But the mechanisms of RFI/EMI and microphony are energy level dependent of course, so the greater the volume, the greater these distortion mechanisms interfere with the sound quality. A well set up system, that is defended from these threats, has the ability to play louder but smoothly, richly, with control and scale, delicacy and detail at the same time as drive and drama – and all of this without fatigue! In reality you don’t need to go up hugely on the volume setting, and you don’t tend to notice a great increase in the volume anyway because the system is not shouting (and its this bright sort of distortion that sounds ‘loud’).

Reposition Those Speakers!

One of the most common mistakes we find that customers make when upgrading to Vertex is to make changes but not reposition their loudspeakers to re-balance the speaker/room response. The classic example is that a system starts out with an overblown and waffly bass and the customer has had to position the speakers well out from the walls in order to compensate. He then installs some Vertex and says “generally there are significant improvements but unfortunately the products are bass shy”. “What?!!”, we say, “did you re-position your speakers?” “Er, no”, comes the reply. Of course when he does re-position them, he comes back saying he is now happy that the bass is much better than it ever was before.

The Human Brain

Keep thinking about the whole system, as an interactive entity, each time you make any change. And when you replace a standard component with a Vertex component you are not really listening to the differences in the components you have swapped, but the changes in the way the system is now interacting with itself.

Remember that your brain gets used to listening to your system in your home. This means that when you go to do listening tests elsewhere, like at your dealers’, your listening ‘algorithms’ will not be fully tuned in. Of course, this also goes for when you replace an item in your own system. So not only do you make changes to your system, and that needs to be adjusted and allowed to settle in, but you have to give your own listening perception time to re-adjust too. And when it does suddenly click in, this can be a surprising and startling event.

For example, sometimes customers have never spent time with a system that really images properly. They put some Vertex gear in and soon comment on the general tonal and timing improvements – but then a couple of days later, once their listening algorithms start to re-adjust, they suddenly become aware of the 3-dimensionality that is there. Once this has happened they can easily go back and forth, with the Vertex gear in and out, and clearly hear the soundstage step in and out as well. But before they broke that truly subconscious barrier, they never really ‘got’ the whole imaging thing. Once there, however, they discover just how much more enjoyable listening is when you can place images in a soundstage – listening is, after all, designed to be a 3-dimensional sense.