How LOUD is TOO LOUD & Does it Sound Better? An Honest Audiophile Listening Level Challenge!
Playing music loud is something that we all have done and experienced at one point or another in life. Who of us hasn't pushed the volume knob higher than the norm when our favorite song comes along or when the kids or co-workers are annoying loud and need to be drowned out? Loud music is all around us but does it sound better the louder it is played? These are my thoughts on listening volume levels and if cranking the volume knob improves the sound or not.
NOTE: Please keep in mind that I am not a professional sound engineer, producer, musician or vocalist, etc. I have not done any scientific research, measurements or in-depth testing of any kind; just my own listening, comparing and internet reading. I have very limited real life experience with recording, mixing and mastering gear. I have been involved since my teenager years with various churches as the sound booth dude. Currently, at my church, we use an Allen & Heath QU-24.
Secondly, this write up is based on impressions from an audiophile who mostly uses headphones and IEM, not speakers.
Please take these thoughts, opinions and reasonings as just that, my honest audiophile thoughts, opinions and reasonings.
For years I listened to music way too loud, whether in the car, at home with earbuds, headphones or with speakers. My friends and I would sit just a couple feet away from his Pioneer stack and blast AC/DC, Aerosmith, Rush and Metallica at crazy levels just so we could see the woofers on the verge of explosion and we could feel the impact of the air movement.
When I was about 30 years old; I started working with a friend in our church sound booth. He asked me one day why I always turned the speakers up loud and if I thought that sounded natural and accurate. I immediately answered with a defensive "YES" and was taken back a bit by the question. Was my friend accusing me of being deaf? Did my friend think that I was doing something wrong? It was his response that really threw me for a loop. He told me that louder doesn't mean better and that I need to learn how to listen at lower volumes. I scoffed and told him that at lower volumes you can't hear the details and you can't feel the music. He challenged me to start listening at lower volumes and to see if that changes my mind on details portrayed and feeling the music. He recommended that I start slow and consistent over several weeks. He said to listen to my favorite music at normal levels and then to turn the volume knob down just one notch per week. Continue doing this until I can no longer hear what I believe I should be hearing. Several weeks later, I noticed that I didn't listen to music at ridiculous levels and that I was hearing more in the music then ever before. My mind was blown; I was actually enjoying the music instead of just blasting it for the laughs and hopes that the drivers would explode. I found that at church I wasn't blasting the speakers so that everyone in the building, including those in the boiler room in the basement, could hear but I was portraying an accurate and natural sound that all could enjoy without having to put their fingers in their ears.
Here are some simple examples about noise levels:
Keep in mind that the average use of personal audio devices is 94db but only for 1 hr of exposure. It is recommended that you lower that 94db by 30db and no less than 15db so you should be listening somewhere between 64db and 79db on average,
I have created a list of songs that I think do a good job of portraying sonics that can be heard at all listening levels. I challenge you to give these songs a listen at your normal listening level and then lower the volumes little by little over time and see if you don't still hear the same or more detail and dynamics along with a more natural and accurate reproduction. Also, try listening with gain on low, medium and high and see how that affects your listening experience, not all gear needs high gain.
Honest Audiophile Listening Level Challenge playlist:
Harry Connick Jr. - Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
Molly Johnson - What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra - The Pine of the Appian Way https://tidal.com/browse/track/12064811
Bela Fleck, The Flecktones - Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
Nils Frahm - My Friend the Forest
Quincy Jones and His Orchestra - Soul Bossa Nova
Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey - One Sweet Day
Yosi Horikawa - Grasshopper (YoggyOne Remix)
Sarah McKenzie - Paris in The Rain
Brian Tyler - Escape Room
Rene Marie - Bloero/Suzanne
Ilhan Eshkeri - 47 Ronin
Cher - Believe
Two Steps from Hell - Ulthuan
Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You
Mariah Carey - Hero
Reba McEntire - You Lie
New England Conservatory Chorus - Las Agachadas (Vocal)
Yanni - East Meets West (A Medley of the Best)
Baha Men - Who Let the Dogs Out
Pearl Jam - Alive
Vangelis - Echoes
Vangelis - Conquest of Paradise
Madsonik - Boom Goes the Dynamite
Kraftwerk - Geiger Counter/Radioactivity
Michael W. Smith - Agnus Dei
Atli Orvarsson- Babylon Requiem
Todd Rundgren - Bang the Drum All Day
AC/DC - Back in Black
AC/DC - Highway to Hell
Tony Bennett - My Favorite Things
Amber Rubarth - Good Mystery
Queen, David Bowie - Under Pressure
Madonna - Material Girl
Enya - Orinoco Flow
Britney Spears - Toxic
Confederate Railroad - I Hate Rap
Little Texas - Some Guys Have All the Love
Lorne Balfe - Terminated
Lorne Balfe - Bad Boys for Life
Rush - Tom Sawyer
Iron Maiden - 2 Minutes to Midnight
Europe - The Final Countdown
Run-DMC, Aerosmith - Walk This Way
Karen O, Willie Nelson - Under Pressure
Ronan Hardiman - Love Song
Jerry Goldsmith, London Symphony Orchestra - The Generals
Petra - St. Augustine's Pears
Kelly Clarkson - Never Enough
Houston Person, Ron Carter - You Are My Sunshine
The Piano Guys - Lord of the Rings
Hans Zimmer - Crimson Tide/160 BPM
Jerry Goldsmith - Valhalla/Viking Victory
Ear protection is important and with unhealthy ears we can't enjoy the music as well as we can with healthy ears. Do all you can to protect your ears now so you can enjoy the music just as much in the future. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions about what you all hear and experience with this little listening challenge.
Remember to Enjoy the Music and Honesty is the Best Policy!