Loudness Wars

shelbourn-com-loud

For over a decade, music producers have been fighting a loudness war.

Louder is more exciting and superficially appealing. This is important when you are competing for the attention of the music-buying public. It also helps overcome ambient noise if you are listening to music whilst in a vehicle.

Rather than just boost the ultimate sound pressure level of a piece of music, the trick employed is to bring the quiet parts up to match the louder sections. In this way, the overall dynamic range is reduced. The listener loses a dimension that is part of the complexity and richness of music.

This may be one reason why some enthusiasts prefer original vinyl releases to CD or streaming counterparts; it’s nothing to do with the carrier format, it’s how the music has been mastered. It’s certainly true that in some recordings we’ve explored, the remastered, more modern release can lack the dynamic range of the earlier – to the extent that we default to the earlier version wherever possible.

Here is an excellent primer on the loudness wars, viewed from the production perspective and published in industry magazine Sound-on-Sound:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/dynamic-range-loudness-war

Bookmark the permalink.

10 Comments

  1. Good article – agree wholeheartedly. The shame is most people have got used to a substandard combination of speakers and recording mix so really don’t know what we are talking about! The beauty of the Jordans is that you can instantly tell the difference between production compression.

    • Indeed Kevin. The Jordan units do reveal more about recordings than any other speakers I have owned. In a funny kind of way they’re almost too good for many recordings, but get it right and they reveal lots of detail and image better than any other speakers I’ve heard,even what I’d call the ‘silly money’ ones. As you say though many systems and listeners may be blissfully oblivious to the compression on less revealing systems and speakers.

      • Yes but I am convinced the ‘system’ i.e. amp and playback apparatus really plays little part in the equation, assuming they aren’t seriously lacking in drive capability for the speakers (which is very rarely the case with solid state). Now some people have moved back to under powered valves, with all their foibles – insanity! What we really need is honest reviews based on double-blind trials to sort out all the misdirection from the facts!

  2. Yes, agreed. Honest reviews based on double-blind tests with perhaps a panel of listeners to find some general consensus would probably be more reliable and somewhat less suspicious than the magazine reviewers who always want to seem to promote a ”flavour of the month” product. This certainly raises a degree of excitement about a product for readers, but is very open to bias from the reviewer and could be fuelled by a need to sell the magazine and encourage advertising too. The last thing any mag would want to do is annoy potential advertisers by giving a poor review of their products!

    Regarding the dynamic range topic,the mastering of CDs do certainly seem to be a bigger culprit of compression than the playback system as you say. However,I do feel there can be some loss of dynamic range with equipment though if it has a higher noise floor. This could then potentially mask the quieter sounds relative to the louder ones resulting in both a loss of information and dynamic contrasts. I’ve found the Jordan units to be both revealing of different recordings and also the electronics with which they are fed,so I do personally feel the system as a whole contributes to the potential retrieval of the dynamic range and other artefacts, so as long as the recording is not too compressed in the first place.

  3. Well of course – the system could potentially limit dynamic range. Does it do so audibly in practice, even with the Jordans? That is where the DB trial comes in as it is a very controversial area! I personally have never heard any background hiss from modern amps at listening volume, for instance.

    • I can only speak from my own experience with having used different electronics with the Jordan units as well as other speakers over many years. I have witnessed some brands of solid state amps that have possessed audibly noisy transistors when played at moderate to high listening levels (I’d rather not name them though!). I also have experienced what I feel to be inferior audio performance due to the higher noise levels of poor jitter clocks in CD players as well as the noise emitted from power supplies which I felt have led to both an apparent subjective reduction in the resolution of detail and dynamic contrasts. The noise generated from these parasites are not so obvious as say in the form of hiss from cassette tapes, or the surface noise from LPs for example,but appear to be more notable by their absence. You tend to notice their effectiveness on the music once their impact has been reduced.

      I personally felt in my own experience that the changes made in my own system(s) with respect to these parameters had so obviously elevated the performance that double-blind listening wouldn’t have been necessary in this instance. However I always welcome the opinions of other hobbyists though and that’s where a panel of listeners carrying out double-blind testing with the opportunity to express their thoughts based on their own experiences adds to the fun of this hobby to my mind.

  4. Well it so happens I can help you a bit here. Having personally done some AB double blind trials on a range of amps ranging from £50 to £4000 I could find no audible difference at all. Nor could any of the 6 people I invited to try the trial, which involved switching between the 8 amps (some budget, some valve, some high-end solid state, some bottom end ) in question at will. The sound volumes were balanced within 0.5 db. Nearly all the people expected to hear a difference between a £50 am and a £5000 one (and swore they had heard obvious differences) but just could not tell the difference during the test. Incidentally we were using twin Jordans each channel in MLTL cabinet. Very revealing indeed, but the result did not surprise me as an electronics engineer/musician.

    • That’s interesting to hear. So,is it fair to say that you use lower budget electronics with your Jordans given the lack of perceived differences? I cannot say hand on heart that my experiences mirror these findings personally. I am very aware of the potential for confirmation bias to dominate the outcome of any trial and feel that any differences have to be obvious in order for me to feel certain about them. Otherwise I’m pretty dismissive that any differences exist.

      I do genuinely feel that I have heard very real and obvious improvements in performance as my system has changed over the years though. One way or another we both are enjoying the Jordan units and our music with our respective electronics. It’s nice to hear from a fellow Jordan fan!

      • I´m not a hifi-nerd at all, but have a pair of Jordans at home (purchased about 5 years ago from Kevin Warne (thanks a lot, Kevin!), and they have and are giving me listening pleasure.

        When Kevin mentions AB-blindfold-tests, I would simply trust him and give up any attempts to improve my music system buy buying a “better” amplifier (I´ve got a NAD amp).

        What I would like to say here, is that your own listening attitude matters. If you listen to music or acoustic environments in an active way, so as to discover the meaning of it, and as a result listen at or just slightly above normal living room loudness and talk, then the Jordans are the right choice and unmatched. Meanwhile, as I have grown older, I dislike hearing music at a louder level at all, because music then presents itself to me in an insistent, forcing way, so that you want it to end or yourself to flee, and that´s not, what I want to get out of an encounter with a mysterious secret. That sounds rather psychological and maybe odd, but I think, that’s the point or nucleus of music reproduction for me.

        Leif (from Germany, so excuse my English!)

        • Hi Leif,

          Your English is so much better than my German, so you are definitely excused. I too these days like to listen at a similar volume level to live speech for very much for the same reasons as yourself. So many times I have heard systems being played too loudly to try and impress in demonstrations. Much in the same way as the ‘hyping up’ of the quieter sounds during the mastering of CDs as mentioned in the Loudness Wars article. I find very high volume level tends to become rather grating for long term listening where I like to relax and enjoy the music. Also,if played too loudly the distortion levels go up quite objectionably further distracting from pleasure of listening.

          I’m pleased that you enjoy your Jordans. I too feel they are unmatched when played at more moderate levels. I must also add that I feel they are definitely the best speakers for quiet listening too. Where other designs have sounded compressed at low level I have found the Jordans to possess the same levels of clarity and detail when played at barely a whisper. Perfect for late night listening without disturbing the neighbours.

          Regarding your amplifier of choice, I would always use the old adage that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. NAD are a reputable brand and if that amp and speaker combination works for you then stick with it.

          Happy Listening!

Comments are closed