Factors affecting low level listening

Hi everyone, I’m trying to understand why some speakers are better than others at low volumes.
It seems as though speaker sensitivity is often mentioned when audiophiles talk about the topic, with higher sensitivity speakers being preferred in that circumstance, but is that the only factor? Would a 95 dB speaker always sound better than a 90 dB speaker at low volumes? Does the box size matter? Does it matter if it’s a box speaker or a dipole? Do driver sizes matter? What about driver types- coaxial vs. cone vs. dome, ribbon, horn, electrostatic, planar magnetic… Does nominal impedance make a difference? Does directivity matter? Ported vs sealed? Is amplifier head room an issue even if you’re hardly using a watt?
I’m asking because I just can’t believe that speaker sensitivity is the single and final determination of how good a speaker sounds at 35 dB or so. Also, I am aware of Fletcher- Munson, but it seems like that curve should be consistent at any given volume regardless of what speaker is conducting the playback.

Speaker sensitivity can make a difference, but is not a general rule that applies with every speaker.
Choice of amplifier make a difference.
Tubes can have more of a “fuller sound” at lower volumes.


Not just amplifier quality but sources as well…as well as cables.
Room treatments also.

Speaker positioning, listening spot…

Best wishes


And getting the “invisible” noises levels down. Common grounding, shielding (where appropriate)… that kind of good stuff.


I’ve heard low level sensibility increase immensely with the same kinds of speakers, no matter of its principle.

The clue was simply the permeability of the signal path from source over amps and cabling. If you will, it depends on the speed and transmissibility…besides the general conductivity and micro dynamics, defined mainly by amps I’d say.

The latter certainly also means, the combination of either low powered amps and high speaker sensitivity or lower speaker sensitivity and suited amps (doesn’t have to be nsanely high powered amps) also plays a role. But I’d say it’s rather micro dynamics and transient response than macro dynamics which rule.

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Great summary jazznut!!

Best wishes

When folks talk about “blacker backgrounds”, whether they realize it or not, they’re addressing your essential question.


Okay, so while I appreciate all of the responses thus far, they are all unrelated to speakers. While I’m aware that the quality of the room, the speaker placement, the darkness of the background, and the quality of amplification are all of great importance, surely there is a major contribution from the speakers themselves.
If I have exactly the same room, quality sources, quality preamplifier, quality cables, power amplifier, etc., two different loudspeakers will perform differently at low level listening than one another, right?
I run a PS Audio DirectStream DAC, Cary Audio SLP-05 preamp, and Pass Labs X260.8 monoblocks, all fully balanced, and my background is absolutely silent even on my Klipsch Forte IV’s which are 99 dB sensitive.
I’m looking to upgrade speakers, and while I almost never listen below 60 dB, I’m still curious what factors to consider relative to low level listening, if for no other reason than to simply understand what the variables are.

I think unless one of them has really too heavy/slow drivers, it’s crossover design. Crossovers of a high order need very good parts to sound fast I assume more than I’d know from experiments. Chris Brunhaver would know from experiments :wink:

What I experienced is, that speakers with a low order crossover, as well as active speakers by trend have a faster accession.


The reason that I mentioned amplifiers is that there was a noticeable difference in low level listening quality when upgrading from the M700 to the M1200. The same speakers do not do as well with lower level listening when solid state pre and power amps are connected.

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“Tubes can have more of a “fuller sound” at lower volumes.”

Yet another indication that tube amplification adds harmonic distortion. The distortion increases the signal amplitude, therefore the perceived volume over the noise floor.

Ask the expert! @Chris_Brunhaver may be willing to give you some advice.

May the power of the forum be with you!


If you don’t have tone controls, which most high end gear doesn’t, having a sub with remote control variable slope or x-over, can be boosted to give a sense of fullness at low volumes (or bass shy recordings).

Maybe something with a ribbon tweeter would sound alive at low volumes? I find my TADs with beryllium drivers sound good at low volumes, even though they are only about 86db efficiency.

Of course the ultimate test is to audition speakers at low volume (at a similar listening distance and size room to yours) to see what appeals to you.

The voice of Yoda, hear it, I can

A given tube circuit may sound more full at low volume as it is more linear at low levels than a particular SS amp to which the tube amp is being compared.

There is no overall general rule as to what will sound best. One cannot simply assume a given topology will sound better, be more linear, whatever.


When you frame a question, sometimes those with experience to bare have another dimension to add for you to consider. I don’t think satisfaction with one’s system at lower levels can be reduced only to the choice of loudspeaker. It’s more complex than that. Open your horizons. Those responding to your query are making good points about the other contributors to how a system sounds at lower sound pressure levels. I for one have found my system in its many forms over the years has, in every iteration, a certain range where it sounds its best and I’m certain it’s the combination of source, electronics and speakers, not any one element alone. Heck, I’ll go even further. It depends on environment. I have repeatedly confirmed my system sounds better at all volume levels, especially at lower volume, late at night and during the weekends. Despite using good quality power conditioning, I’m of the belief it has to do with a quieter power grid and RF environment after business hours.


I found that better gear drives speakers better allowing greater engagement at lower volumes. But that is so not the answer you are looking for.

For a speaker related answer I believe multiple small bass drivers are more engaging at lower volume than a single large driver.

The FR30s are an excellent example of this theory.


Interesting hypothesis, Al. This may well be correct.

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Speakers, like everything else in audio, are intended by their designers to have a preferred range of operation. Some speakers are designed to sound good at low volumes and some are not. The room can have a lot to do with sound quality at low volumes as well. As many folks have already said, some folks just don’t like the way music sounds at low volume.

To my taste most of the speakers that have sounded good to me at low volume have been on the efficient side of the spectrum, and usually in a system with subwoofer(s).


haha until i read your answer i was going to totally say that a highly sensitive single-big-driver unit would be just the ticket, like a pair of Klipsch Cornwalls.

Based on no experience or reality whatsoever, only that I’d like to have a pair of them in my house.

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