Which Component Has the Greatest Affect on Low-Level Listening

I'm looking to get out of HT 5.1 and go strictly to 2 ch.  I generally have music playing all day, often just sitting done to listen to certain tracks.  

I've read that "some" speakers don't sound "good" until high listening level, and also an integrated such the Luxman 505 don't sound good at low levels (is that the reason they include loudness?).

Which component, the amp or speaker, has the greatest impact on low level listening quality?
Any good system should sound acceptable at lower levels. Which component contributes most ? In my experience - electronics.
Many speakers are better than they may seem, give them the right amp and preamp.
Your amp should have a "stiff" power supply. A good power supply retains it's character at low-levels...
A good power conditioner and power cords.  Drops the noise floor.  Lower noise floor increases signal to noise most dramatically at low listening levels.

Look into the Core Power stuff
My Benchmark HPA4 preamp had the biggest positive on low level listening. It has a volume control with 256 settings and it is quieter than any other source component you will use with it. Once of the reasons I got it was for late night low volume listening. It has exceeded expectations on all fronts.
Speakers. You probably need a powered sub or two practically with most setups to sound best at low volume because our ear sensitivity drops off and we do not hear nearly as much as we do at louder volumes.

Equal-loudness contour - Wikipedia
mapman linked


You want a system with automatic ’loudness’ circuit. It is completely misnamed, it is a ’low level boost’ to boost bass progressively as volume lowers, (boosts highs also, less importantly). Maintaining bass at low volume will maintain involvement with the music, otherwise it becomes background noise.

To compensate ONLY when listening at low volume. Raise the volume, eliminate the boost, otherwise the bass is too prominent as well as the highs will get screechy.

As you raise the volume, you want the circuit to automatically/progressively reduce/remove the ’loudness’ boost, back to normal for normal or louder.

This unit has a built in automatic fletcher munson circuit, and remote volume, remote balance, I wouldn't live without it.


Vintage receivers have ’loudness’ filters.

Loudspeakers. Good lightweight cone loudspeakers that are designed to sound good at low levels. Triangles come to mind. 
I lean towards speakers also, especially high efficiency with 10" or better woofers. My Cornwall 3's sound great at the low listening levels where they spend most of their time playing. 
Speakers make the biggest difference, followed by amplifiers.  Horn systems are particularly dynamic and engaging at low volume.  If you look at Japanese audio magazines, it is common to find serious audiophiles putting gigantic horn systems in their small homes and apartments.  Given the close living conditions and cultural emphasis on being polite and considerate, systems cannot be played very loudly, hence the desirability of horn systems.

I find amplifiers also play a big role.  Tube amplifiers, particularly low-powered tube amps, deliver lively and engaging sound at lower volume levels.  I find output transformerless tube amps to be particularly dynamic sounding.
Bass boost or loudness control is the right idea but powered sub is better. It provides extra muscle to provide the power hungry bass without taking it away from the rest. An amp driven less hard typically sounds better with lower distortion. Power demand increases exponentially as frequency lowers. It takes a lot of power for flat response to 20hz even at lower volume.  Especially in a larger room. 

To me super efficient speakers driven passively by say a Schiit Aegir 20w Class-A. are the way for low level listening, "IF" you can handle their colorations/distortions, I can’t, "especially" horns.

Cheers George
Music tends to sound thin at low volumes, that's why the Fletcher-Munson Loudness curve was developed.  Most higher-end stuff doesn't have a loudness control, nor does it have tone controls.  For me personally, the addition of the Schiit Loki allowed me to tailor the sound both for different headphones as well as for speakers at low volumes.  BTW, the suggestion for power conditioning and power cords is pure nonsense.
You answered your own question while asking it.

It is amplifier with a loudness control.

It is admirable that amplifiers strive to provide a linear frequency response.  But that is completely the wrong pursuit.  Engineers knew this about 50 years ago when they were designing amplifiers.  Since humans listen to them, and human ear has a NON linear way of hearing frequencies, all amplifiers made for humans should all include a loudness control.

THAT is the most important component.  It can be adjusted to overcome the shortcomings of a turntable, speaker and what not.  You cannot say the same for any other component.

Yep agree, a Loki is the Schiit, for this sort of thing, discrete very transparent, I use one "flat" as a buffer to drive my two sub woofers very transparent.

Cheers George
Loudness control, how about that! How quickly we forget they ever existed. Good for Schiit, and good for efficient speakers. Still, aren't we hypothesizing near-field listening and a low noise floor?  Because if I want to hear from any distance or at any tangent, the amp needs to crank well above its Class A threshold, equalizers notwithstanding. 

Which component, the amp or speaker, has the greatest impact on low level listening quality?

The sensitivity of speakers

what components are you using now? What are you going to replace or remove? What kind of speakers will you be using?
It all matters.. but for example if your using super efficient speakers and a quality solid state amp, yet it doesn’t sound good at low volume there could be a number of culprits in your system that are causing this. You may be able to get what you want without a component upgrade or swap?
 If you currently have a home theater processor in the chain then theres an obvious weak link.

 Whats your source? Do you use a preamp? Hows it all hooked up?

Someone said in an earlier post that power didn’t matter... well that all depends on your power and what else is going on w your whole home. For example I chased what I thought was a ground loop for the better part of a year. The more and more refined my components in my system got the more I could hear this buzzing sound. Then one afternoon I am cleaning out the garage and converting it into a play room for my boys. I removed an LED bug zapper that was screwed into a light socket in the garage... I went into the house for a break and immediately noticed that the buzz was gone. Screw the bug zapper back in the buzz was back. I guess the bug zapper was putting DC on my line and my rig was picking it up.

Another example, I have a Marantz processor,  one of the top of the line ones. After I would watch a movie, and the movie would end, and the Apple TV would just sit there with its screensaver, I could start to hear this buzzing sound. If I didn’t do anything or if I didn’t change inputs on my preamp the sound would get louder and louder. Well one day I’m messing around in the back trying to figure out the source And I decided that I would hook up my Marantz processor to my preamp (which has home theater bypass) via XLR instead of RCA. I had not even unplugged the RCA’s that went from the processor to the preamp and is soon as I plugged an XLR cable into the processor I heard the buzz disappear. it was like there was a static electricity build up that needed to be drained. Somehow there was some kind of electrical buildup or static buildup going on inside my processor that was feeding into my system.

 I guess my point is: for me the pursuit of lowering the noise floor has brought me closer to the music at low volumes. Not only that, I find it that my family enjoys the music more. If a system Has to be turned up to sound good most likely your family is not going to appreciate it but if the system can sound great at low-volume then you can have music playing all day all night and no one‘s gonna complain.
Just my two cents feel free to reach out
Your ears!   @jnorris2005 beat me to it.  Fletcher Munson Curve.

Having said that, clearly some speakers are better at low volumes than others, otherwise Studios wouldn’t have Nearfield, Mid & Full Monitors.

I’ve sold off a long list of speakers & Hifi kit for this very reason.   Thin, lifeless sound at low volume.

I’ve now got a little Bluetooth speaker / DAB radio (Revo) that sounds lovely & rich & full at low volumes.   I can listen to that for hours.   If I want to play at gig levels, I’ve got my main system.

That's an 'effect' silly OP.
The answer is exactly the same as the answer to the same question about normal level listening.  See other string posted yesterday.
In my experience high sensitivity loudspeakers do a good job on low volume. At least my 98dB Ocellia’s do a very good job at low level listening. 
Start with clean power feeding your Amplifier Perhaps a conditioner regenerator or as stable as you can get it into your system. Then as much power as you can supply with your amplifier.
I work from home and 75 % of my listening is low level
High level electronics will make good speakers sound great
Speakers with high sensitivity and paper cones usually sound good at low volume. I own a pair of Tekton Enzo 2.7 which are rated 98 db sensitivity and have 2 8" woofers with paper cones per speaker. Due to an upcoming move, I had to move the speakers into a small room, where I sit about 6 ft away and play at a low level most of the time. They sound good loud, soft or medium. The bass is surprisingly good at very quiet levels even without any eq boost and as long as you’re sitting relatively close. I also used to own Zu speakers which were similar in this regard - again high sens. and paper cones. In my experience, speakers with poly/plastic cones need to be cranked before coming alive. 

Modern Equipment without 'Lousness' filter:

Perhaps a sub with remote control would be nice, to boost bass to your ears for any volume/listening location/content. Or for full range speakers, remote tone, boost just the bass like you would boost the sub individually.

Remote, from my listening position is what I find so beneficial.

I listen to a lot of Jazz, and maintaining the Bass Player at low volume is what keeps the music involving at those low levels, maintains my awareness, while 
All the audio components through which electricity passes will have an impact on listening at any level.  
As an audio salesman for over 45 years, I will give you my answer...given countless times to clients...a "properly calibrated" loudness contour, and speakers that do not lack for extended bass response.  Start with bass shy speakers and they will shut down all the faster at low levels.  This is why the "high efficiency" response is counterfactual...high efficiency is achieved at the expense of bass extension in any given cabinet size.  True, with bass reflex a speaker designer can engineer a "bump" to mask the lack of extension, and that may make it more palatable at low levels, but then when played a "normal" audiophile levels, it will boom.
The "properly calibrated" loudness is rarely achieved.  If you have separates, and the preamp has a loudness function, then the amp MUST have input level controls to allow the system to be calibrated to the speakers' in-room response.  A "Variable Loudness" control, a staple of Yamaha products, is a fair compromise.  My 1962 McIntosh C-20 preamp has an excellent variable control, but hardly anyone is doing that nowadays.

My 5.1 was Marantz preamp and amp with Paradigm speakers all the way around, nothing high end. I want to get out of HT and go 2 ch. I visit a couple local shops and realize my equipment is poor for 2 ch.

Sell all that and upgrade to some quality gear, but it's important that when I just want to play music with the family around, it still sounds reasonable - my Marantz/Paradigm was terrible ITR.
As someone who grew up in the late 60's through the 70's and had always been used to having hi-fi amps and receivers with tone and loudness controls, I find it ridiculous that many hi-end amplification systems have nothing but an on/off and volume control. If you want tone control, you need to purchase yet another piece of equipment to add in the chain. Still others say tone can be achieved through use of certain cables. IMO- which is clearly "old school", having an amp or receiver with tone and loudness controls is a no-brainer. Why wouldn't you want to have more options to tailor the sound to your ears as opposed to fewer, or none at all? Don't want that much bass, mid or treble, cut them back, or run them flat. Many receivers have a switch to bypass the tone controls altogether. Nearly all recordings will differ in some way or another, through microphones, analog vs digital, studios, producers, mixing, mastering, you name it. The tone controls allow the listener to very easily make changes tailored to their own enjoyment.
Higher efficiency speakers are far better at low volume levels than power hungry higher spl speakers. You can overcome some of it but there are physics behind it as well that you can not overcome as well.
I would look for a good class A amp that will not change over to A/B until 5 watts. Low level class A sounds really good.
I’ve had very good results at low volume, with 97db horns and about 4-5 watts (300B).
mapman Interesting answer about sub, I think trying a REL 9Ti with my stereo gear.  Thank you
Start with a very low noise room.  A rule of thumb is that your ambient noise level should be at least half of your average music level.  It's hard to get below 35dB ambient.
If I were to name a single component, I’d have to agree with yyzsantabarbara that a very well executed line preamp with attention paid to stable linear gain attenuation will have the most dramatic impact of fullness at ALL playback levels. 
Tone controls on the preamp to compensate for lower volumes. Took me years to realize this as for 30 years my equipment had no tone control.
A full range full frequency response speaker will have the most effect on low level listening. Also a full sounding amplifier will help at low levels.
No component, except one that includes loudness or tone controls.

Speaker response changes a bit with volume, but any competent speaker will not change even remotely enough to compensate for how much the response of your ear changes with volume.  If your amplifier has high distortion at low volume, you could loose some detail at low volume. Could happen with a pre, but unlikely.

It's your ears/brain that are changing and they are changing by a large amount. Only way to compensate is to change the response of your system.   This is one of the problems in audio. Different listening levels all present a much different balance of frequencies.



No doubt that more dynamic is available, more the listening to low level is confortable...
Try to compare mp3 vs cd or hi res..
Physiologic correction with loudness ( fletcher)remains artificial but efficient compromise  with hifi standart components..

As far as the amp reproduce the "matter" I would say that electronic is involved in the result..


There is nothing artificial about compensating for loudness contours.  Not compensating could be argued to be the most unnatural wrt the original.
Which makes me ponder if maybe the Loudness button on my old NAD 3140 back in the early '80s didn't have a buffer-amp in the circuit?

There's a truth in what several are describing here, and I really appreciate Raymon's comments about convincing dynamics at lower volumes making the experience enjoyable.

I've heard Preamps and similar buffer amps (taking the upstream VC out of the equation) make such changes in a system. Fullness of dynamics, tone & spacial characteristics at all volumes. 
The preamplifier, doubtless.  Why?  Because unless it is forty or more years old, it lacks a "Loudness" control, which was specifically designed to solve this problem  It emulated the Fletcher-Munson curve in reverse according to the level set.  So you got all the frequencies regardless of level, if you wanted that.
Good speakers are #1. All the rest of what you have will work to the level of your speakers and not a single bit more. Spend a million bucks and your limit is still the speakers.
a very well executed line preamp with attention paid to stable linear gain attenuation will have the most dramatic impact of fullness at ALL playback levels.

This is the best advice, it makes sense. I have 80 db sensitivity speakers and they sound great a low levels, plenty of good bass. My preamp made the most difference for low level listening, attenuation is very linear in my preamp.
I didn't count, but a guess the responses are 50/50.

I have been reading more since posting the question:

- horns (which I've never owned) seem to have good impact at low levels
- loudness (which I do have) also has made a difference

Maybe combining the two will produce good results:
Luxman's new integrateds
Klipsch Heresys or Cornwalls

Just thinking about some possibilities, since low level listening is about 90% of my listening from morning til evening.

Thanks for all the replies!
Higher efficiency speakers will allow your amp to go further and should help when bass is boosted by a loudness control as well. 
In theory.....proof is in the pudding. 🙏
No matter what amplifier I was using my Harbeth SHL5's and 40's always sounded great at low levels. All the Harbeth's I have ever heard have played very well at low volumes. Almost every review of any Harbeth speaker seems to mention this. From my point of view the speaker is more important than the electronics for a satisfying low volume listening experience. Good Luck!