How to Make Your Speakers Sound Great at High and Low Levels

Happy New Year!

Ohm has reopened after our 16-day long winter’s nap. Thanks to everyone that placed orders on our website. It is nice to come back to the factory with lots of new speakers to build.

Please call us at 800-783-1553 for order updates and questions.

One of our New Year’s Resolutions for 2019 is to publish here more regularly than we did in 2018. So check back here periodically to see what’s new and to read what we’re thinking about a variety of topics relating to speakers.

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How do you make your speakers sound great at both high and low listening levels?

It’s not as easy as it was in Golden Days of Audio!

Our ears and brain make a powerful audio analysis system. Our ability to discriminate frequency balance varies with sound level. At low levels, we hear the voice-frequency range the best. Bass and treble become easier at higher levels. Intuitively, this would seem to be an evolutionary adaptation to ensure our survival as hunter-gatherers.

Speakers are designed to sound their most ‘natural’ and ‘accurate’ at a specific listening level. At Ohm, we have chosen the sound level heard on the ground floor, rows K-P in Carnegie Hall – be it a solo violinist or full orchestra and chorus.

It is not the most scientific; but I have been going there for over forty years and have sat in hundreds of seats. I am confident that this gives the most balanced sound and sharpest imaging. Any kind of music sounds great from these seats.

What does this mean for you and your system?

At home, when you want (or need) to listen at lower level, your hearing not as good at registering the bass and treble. This is not a problem if you are listening to talk radio or many movies, as you can hear voices very distinctly at low levels. But, the light tapping of a bass drum and the sizzle of brushes on a cymbal is missing. How do you get them back?

If you have a classic receiver or integrated amplifier from the 1970-1980’s you probably had a Loudness Control (either a switch or variable pot) that you dialed in to compensate for your hearing’s restricted response range at low levels. This control boosted the bass and treble to ‘full high fidelity’ range. Most of these controls worked pretty well. Some of the adjustable ones worked remarkably well. The best loudness controls varied with your volume control giving less boost at higher volume settings. So most people set it and left it on.

If you didn’t have a Loudness control, you most likely had bass and treble controls that you could turn up to compensate for your natural hearing limitations at low levels. Even the Marantz 7C control console (above) had separate bass and treble controls. You needed to set them for each listening secession since these operated independently of the volume control. It took a little extra work, but it did the job.

Today, few audio products have loudness controls. Some 2-channel audio products have independent adjustments for treble and bass. AV processors and receivers often have bass and treble controls buried in the setup procedure. Some have loudness on/off controls. These extra features may or may not go away when you request ‘pure direct’ or similar non-processed sound.

Of course, the higher up you go in price, the fewer features are included. Many high end units only have an input selector and an output volume control. To get these to sound good at different levels usually requires changing the speaker layout in the room to enhance the bass and treble when listening at lower than reference levels.

If you are in this dilemma and own Ohm speakers, please call us at 800-783-1553 and we may have some tips.

An easier solution maybe to add equalizer like the $149 Schiit LOKI…but equalizers is a topic for another day.

Songs to Make Your System Sing!

Introducing a new feature to this blog for 2019. With each article, we’ll highlight one track that we think highlights the qualities in your system that can really make it sound impressive.

For our first week, we chose “Mama Told Me Not to Come” from the classic album Odetta Sings. Odetta has a long discography using titles in this format. (eg, Odetta Sings the Blues; Odetta Sings Bob Dylan, etc.) The one we’re concerned with here is the original one, titled simply Odetta Sings.

What should you listen for in this track?

Odetta’s voice, most importantly, should image front and center. She was mic’d very well in the studio, so her voice should sound natural and very clear, with a believable amount of weight to it, but not overly heavy.

This recording is very dynamic, so the drums should jump right out at you, which makes it a very engaging, fun listen. The hi-hat and the tambourine should both image from a very tiny, well-defined point in space, while the Fender Rhodes piano will seem to float, disembodied in the ether, adding to the general ambiance of the sound stage.

Once of my favorite things to listen to in this recording are the special effects in the beginning: these are mixed farther back, so on a system with good imaging they’ll actually seem to be coming from farther away, yet they were recorded so well that they suffer no loss of clarity. They really seem spacious and lifelike.

Finally, this recording shows off the frequency extension of your system in both directions. The deeper your speakers can reproduce, the more support that kick drum will have; it should feel solid but not smeared. And the high frequency harmonics should extend high into the upper range of your hearing. Even for an old man like me, the cymbals and guitar strings sound as they would in real life.

Because of this last quality, you can use this track to demonstrate the effect we described earlier in this article. Turn the volume down, and you’ll notice the drums receding into the mix; but Odetta’s voice will appear distinct and present. Turn the volume up, and the whole track comes alive in your room. Yet, Odetta’s voice will remain clear, even as the drums stand out in sharper relief. With a loudness control, you can retain this dynamic quality you hear at the louder level, even when you turn the volume back down.

Deal of the Day

We’ve been getting questions about this item in our Outlet Store. The F-5015 in Bird’s Eye Maple. People wonder if it’s a mistake that the “sale price” is higher than the “list price”.

It’s no mistake.

Bird’s Eye Maple is a very beautiful premium finish that we don’t normally offer at all. These speakers have never been used outside of the factory and sound like gangbusters. We feel that the price we’re asking is really a bargain, for the right person who will really appreciate this very fine, unique pair of speakers we’ve put together.

We have them set up right now at the factory; so if you’d like to hear them, please give us a call at 800-783-1553 and we’d be happy to schedule an audition.

Thanks for reading to the end of this, extra-long New Year’s edition of our blog. We promise to try to keep it shorter next time! ‘Til then,

Good Listening!


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John Strohbeen Author

John Strohbeen was the President and Chief Engineer of Ohm Acoustics from 1978-2023.

John Strohbeen

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