Killing the Myths of Low Volume Amp Performance

Time and again we see misinformation expressed as fact. This article is designed to give readers the necessary understanding to counteract the myth.

Killing the Myths of Low Volume Amp Performance
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Time and again I see threads pop up with questions and/or assumptions pertaining to amplifier wattage and low volume performance. They often look like some variation of these:

"A 100 watt amp is too loud for home/apartment/bedroom use."

"I'm looking for a 5 watt amp so I can get great tone at low volumes."

"Will the 50 watt version have better tone than the 100 watt version at bedroom levels?"

"I need an amp under 5 watts so I can crank it up without it being too loud."

"Is 30 watts too loud for home use?"

There are of course all kinds of other questions and claims that pop up about this stuff, but you get the picture. There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings abound when it comes to amplifier output power and low volume performance and I wanted to share some information to help clear up some of it for whomever may be interested to learn more. Shall we?

Rule No. 1: An amplifier's output power does not dictate its low volume performance or tone quality.

I just want to make sure that is clear first off. A 5 watt amp can sound great at low volumes, or it can sound like crap at low volumes. Doesn't matter that it's 5 watts. Likewise, a 100 watt amp can sound great at low volumes, or it can sound terrible. Having 100 watts of output power isn't the determining factor.

Cool? OK, so let's look at some factors that play an active role in how good an amp will sound at low volumes. Here's a summary first, and if you care to take it further, I'll provide some elaboration below it.

1. Output transformer design & quality

2. Power supply design

3. Signal path circuit design

4. Speaker(s)

Output transformer design & quality

The thought of the output transformer playing a significant role in low volume performance may not have ever crossed your mind. But it's a fact. The output transformer couples the power amp section of a tube guitar amp to the speaker(s). But due to the nature of what a transformer is, this connection is not direct. The output tubes are connected to what is called the primary winding of the transformer. The speaker is connected to what is called the secondary winding. These windings are not physically connected to one another though. So how does your output signal make it to the speaker?

When the AC output signal is introduced to the primary winding by the output tubes, it is inductively transferred to the secondary winding via the magic of electromagnetism. This is where we can make or break tone quality at any volume really, because there lies the opportunity for losses and inaccuracies during that "translation" from one coil to the other.

An ideal transformer would cause no losses, degradation, distortion, or inaccuracies when performing its function. But ideal transformers only exist in theory. In the real world we have core materials and design approaches to deal with. Lower quality transformers (characterized by both material and design inadequacies) are inconsistent performers. When presented with a low amplitude signal (as when an amp's volume is turned down low), the transfer of the output signal from primary to secondary - as a whole or only for various frequencies - may be inconsistent with that which occurs when it is presented with a high amplitude signal (as when you turn the volume up). There may be a lack of certain frequencies and too many of others. There may be distortion artifacts that present themselves in non-musical ways. This will cause unsatisfactory tone at low volumes.

Conversely, higher quality transformers (in materials and design) will be more transparent, cause less loss, degradation, distortion, and inaccuracies overall. As a result, performance will be a great deal more consistent at all volumes. This contributes to better low volume performance.

Power supply design

The power supply of any tube amp is easily one of the most overlooked and underappreciated parts of it. Essentially, when you are playing through a tube amp, you are "playing" the power supply. More specifically, your guitar signal is modulating the power supply via the tubes.

How tube amps work is beyond the scope of this post, but let it suffice to say that a well-designed power supply is critical to an amp's performance - including how well it performs at low volumes. A shoddy power supply design will undoubtedly reduce the low volume performance potential of an amplifier.

Of course, what constitutes a "well-designed" power supply depends heavily on the rest of the circuit design. So there isn't a black & white, one size fits all standard.

Signal path circuit design

Like the power supply design, the signal path circuit design also plays a role in low volume performance. It's impossible for me to provide a universal explanation of what constitutes a good or bad design here, because there are an incredible number of variables that play into it - and it's somewhat of an "application-specific" issue.

Nonetheless, design quality and component quality will work in conjunction with one another to play a role in an amp's low volume performance.

Speaker(s)

Here is an item that almost never gets discussed in low volume amp performance discussions. Speakers are an absolutely critical factor in this! One of the most important in fact!

First let's address sensitivity ratings. Take the following scenario into account: we have two 112 cabs, each loaded with a different speaker than the other. The cabs are identical otherwise, and are being driven by a hypothetical amp at a set volume. As you may or may not know, one speaker can be louder than the other despite the two being driven by the exact same output. Why? Because of something called sensitivity.

Sensitivity most usually refers to the dB output of a speaker when fed a set frequency at 1 watt output power. It is typically measured at a set distance from the speaker. Speaker sensitivity ratings for typical guitar speakers can range from dB levels in the '80s to over 100dB. Let's look at an example.

A Celestion Vintage 30 has a sensitivity rating of 100dB. One can infer that when fed 1 watt of signal, the speaker will produce 100dB SPL (sound pressure level).

Let's wait a moment here and think about something. It only takes 1 watt of output power to get the speaker to create 100dB? As a reference, you'd experience the same level of loudness standing next to a motorcycle while the engine is being revved. If you brought a motorcycle into your bedroom, fired it up, and began revving the engine, do you think anyone in the house, or outside of the house would be able to hear it? If 1 watt of output power can create this level of noise, do you think that a low wattage amp is necessarily the solution to being able to play at low volumes?

So back to sensitivity. We just learned that a Celestion Vintage 30 is rated as having a sensitivity of 100dB. If we take a look at a Celestion G12T-75, we find that it has a sensitivity rating of 97dB. 3dB less than the Vintage 30 at the same output power.

Is 3dB a big deal? Let's have a look at how much extra power is required to get 3dB more volume out of a speaker.

To increase output by 3dB, we actually have to DOUBLE our amplifier's output power. So for a G12T-75 to put out 100dB, it has to be fed 2 watts, versus the Vintage 30 only needing 1 watt. But let's take a look at how this exponential relationship begins to widen the gap between the two. Below I have output SPL's listed, and how much output power would be required to achieve it with each speaker.
SPL (dB)      100 103 106 109 112 115 118
V30 Watts 1 2 4 8 16 32 64
G12-T75 Watts 2 4 8 16 32 64 128
So to drive a V30 to 118dB only requires around 64 watts. To get the G12T-75 to that same loudness would require 128 watts! Hopefully this sheds a little light on one aspect of this in terms of speakers. This is of course a very theoretical example based on a single frequency signal in very controlled conditions, but it illustrates the point that some speakers will seem louder than others at the same given level of output power.

The next point I want to talk about with speakers is efficiency. Efficiency has to do with how well a speaker creates varying frequencies at a given output power level. Efficiency and sensitivity go hand in hand. When we are looking at sensitivity, we are looking at loudness at a single frequency (like 1kHz for example). But our guitar signal contains a broad range of frequencies, so we are interested in looking at efficiency across that range.

If you have ever seen a frequency response plot for a speaker, you are basically looking at a panoramic view of the speaker's efficiency at a set output power level for all intents and purposes. The output levels of each frequency vary, which gives the speaker its "voice." Speakers could be thought of as the most significant EQ curve in your entire rig!

What's important to note is that speaker efficiency will vary for any given frequency at any given output power. In other words, as we turn volume up or down, that speaker's EQ curve is going to change in places. This is one of the prime reasons why tone changes when we turn amp volume up, versus turning it down. There is a dynamic relationship between output power and frequency response.

Some speakers stay truer at low volumes, and some speakers just flat-out SUCK at low volumes. That's really what it boils down to. Have you ever experienced excessive "fizz" with high gain tones at low volumes, and then it starts to go away as the volume is turned up? In many cases, the speaker can be the prime culprit in that phenomenon. At low volumes, low frequency efficiency typically goes down the tubes and higher frequencies become more dominant. We get a skewed "EQ curve" that takes away certain frequencies and seemingly "cranks up" others. It's inaccurate.

And if we think about what we learned regarding output transformers, the variables get even thicker!

It should be mentioned that a speaker's behavior will most definitely be influenced by the cabinet design. In fact, cab design can play a role in how well any given speaker performs at low volumes due to the physical interactions that happen in real world application.

Moral of the story

I hope this sheds some light on some of the big factors that determine how well an amp will perform at low volumes. I hope it reveals the fact that the amp's output power does not directly correlate to how well it performs at bedroom levels.

Ultimately, because of the complex nature of everything that plays into this, the only thing anyone can really go on is personal experience. And even then we have to approach advice with caution, as we enter the territory of human subjectivity.

So go forth, take your newly acquired knowledge, and have educated discussions about low volume performance!

About the Author:
This article was extracted (with permission) from writings by Craig at CECAmps.com.

27 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    karstaag666
    You forgot branding. Branding makes an amp sound better. It's why Marshall charge you extra for it.
    medialint
    You can remove the LLs from your Marshall, it will greatly reduce the low end but will give you a more shrill upper register.
    K33nbl4d3
    I feel that; I wanted to get a bit more gain on my Twin Reverb, so now it just says "end".
    T4D
    everyone know tone comes from your fingers the fact is you need fingers to get the money from you wallet to pay for a Good tube amp that sounds good to you, if it doesn't sound good to you,. your fingers at less likely to get the money from your wallet.
    theogonia777
    But how does fragile harmonics and crystal lattice factor in?
    stratman_13
    The fragile harmonicas add a bit more soul to the amp's sound. The crystal lettuces are really only there for style points but depending on the positioning of the moon can make a bit of difference.
    leo4sf
    The signal path circuit design is by far the most important factor, and is the one this guy is incapable of explaining. Like anything, it all has to do with what tone you are looking for. I have a 5150 100w head that sounds amazing a low volume because it is all pre-amp distortion and AX7's will break up very nicely at low volume. On the other hand I have a SUNN Model T that is basically a clean amp until the master volume hits about 5. This is due to the distortion coming from the power amp section and 6550's take a lot of power before they break up. I can cause the breakup a little earlier with a clean boost, but at lower volumes the amp looses all of its balls. If you want great tone at low volume you need an amp with more pre-amp distortion or a power section that will break up at lower volume (usually lower wattage). Obviously transformers, speakers and power supplies all matter, but choosing the right amp for your needs is the most important factor. If you are buying a V-4 to play in your bedroom you are fucking up.
    Arby911
    The actual author, Craig at CECAmps.com, is perfectly capable of explaining it, given that he has personally designed several exceptional amps, but it's not going to happen in a short article that started life as a couple of posts. Several of us have been pestering him to write a book for quite some time now...
    taytay8b
    My 5W amp still has to be REAL loud before it sounds "good." These are some good points.
    eddiehimself
    I totally agree that buying a 5W amp just because you want to be able to crank it and make it sound "better" at bedroom levels than a 50W amp is just fucking stupid. It's like buying a Citroen 2CV so you have to have your foot to the floor all the time just to do 50mph, because you think it makes it handle better or some shit like that.
    Leather Sleeves
    There's a misconception about that misconception. If you have less clean headroom you can achieve power amp distortion at lower volume and thus, incidentally, achieve better tone at lower volumes with a lower wattage amp. So there's some truth to that.
    Arby911
    Clean headroom is almost always a function of the preamp, not the power amp. As to the rest, Yes, but that "lower volume" is still REALLY loud. 5W through a V30 is more than enough to get the cops called...
    Leather Sleeves
    Wattage IS clean head-room, essentially. And, yes, 5W can still be quite loud. The best bet to drive an amp at lower volume is just get an attenuator.
    Arby911
    Well, I think I understand what you're saying but I can't agree, at least not completely. An amp can be designed to stay clean all the way to max. volume and that would be a function of the preamp circuitry, but in an amp that does eventually break up, more power amp wattage may (but does not always) provide you with more clean volume at a low preamp setting. I'm unaware of any amps that have a power end designed to break up at low volumes?
    Leather Sleeves
    Maybe I'm wrong. Based on other articles I've read, the wattage RMS was the max continuous power the amp could provide without break-up (pre-amp and power-amp included. Many amps, (SS guitar especially), are designed to prevent this, and I'm don't know how that's achieved. But don't tube amps offer separate pre- and power-amp controls (gain and volume/master)? Because, if so, on a 1 watt tube-amp you could dime the master (power amp) level and achieve power tube distortion at a relatively low volume.
    Arby911
    No, a power tube doesn't distort until it's over its maximum clean power output, which pretty much means maximum volume. On amps that have master volumes they limit the signal into the power amp, not the power output. There is no such thing as power tube distortion at low volume levels without external aids such as an attenuator and they have issues of their own.
    plbrynt
    "That sound" (you know, the one you are looking to recreate)may really be a product of actually having a physically loud amplifier shifting lots of air and making the walls shake. Something special definitely starts happening at neighbour enraging volumes and its not just power amp distortion - It's like the very air comes alive... (maybe)
    Most_Triumphant
    I agree, an amp through a PA will never sound as good as three amps slaved together powering a wall of guitar cabs. Of course, this isn't practical in anyway.
    cwjohnson1985
    The amp through the PA creates a better overall mix though. If only part of the crowd hears those very directional 4x12s, a good time will not be had by most.
    shadowie60
    For me last time I shopped it really came down to whether or not it dials down at all. When I tried a Micro Terror through the 8" matching cab even with really low levels and a tiny gain it was very loud. I ended up kicking the 8" cab to the side and running it through the headphone jack into a set of decent PC speakers and it's just what I needed, I can use the speaker volume + my distortion pedal to throttle the volume levels and it gives a solid tone, but there's some electrical feedback from all the wiring I have going on, I can live with it though. Also have a blackstar ht-1. It's different, maybe a little bit worse in some areas, but I like the clean channel with some cranked up gain run through a neck pickup. If I had to choose between them for my bedroom I'd take the Micro Terror. They both put my old Spider 3 to shame.
    Solitude_BBA
    1st I also believe that the speakers need enough juice to move, thus sounding good. 2nd if you play just with your amp without any pedals you also need that "push" to have a good breakup sound.If you are in your bedroom though, you can use a pedal to do that "push" of course.This is exactly why when you have you an amp already "pushed" - adding an overdrive/distortion pedal doesn't do anything
    kevinwo72
    When practicing at home or wherever, I never have a problem with tone or volume. After all, I am practicing technique not trying to wow a crowd. It is practice not performance were talking about.
    Arby911
    Perhaps, but there are a lot of bedroom players with no intention of ever gigging, and they still want to sound good.