Where should I control volume from in a series?
October 21, 2016 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Where should I control volume when I am listening to music on a device with a volume control through one or more devices with their own volume controls?

I listen to my iPhone through Bluetooth headphones with their own volume control.

Sometimes I listen to my iPhone through a headphone amp with its own volume control. And sometimes I connect to a network of Sonos speakers, each with their own amps and volume controls.

Obviously, I'm not going for the highest audiophile standards--it's all compressed digital files. But to the extent there is a better way to adjust the volume when you have multiple places to step up the signal, where should I be doing it?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Technology (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I believe it's "at the end". In the days when I would plug an iPod into a tape adapter, turning the iPod down and the radio up resulted in less distortion than vice versa.
posted by papayaninja at 6:55 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think it's going to be a case-by-case basis, and you'll have to experiment to find out which works best with your setup. Contra papayaninja, I still regularly listen to audio in my car from my phone via a cassette adapter, and for me phone up/cassette player down works best, as my cassette player introduces a noticeable hiss at higher volume settings. YMMV.

But when I listen to audio from my phone via earbuds with their own volume control, I haven't noticed a difference in quality one way or the other. There, I usually have my phone up and control volume through the slider on the earbud wire, not because there's any difference in quality AFAICT, but just because it tends to be more conveniently placed.

Experiment. See which works best with your setups, both in terms of quality and convenience.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:15 AM on October 21, 2016


Yes, I'd assume that I'll get a cleaner signal amplifying at the headphone amp than at the iPhone, but as between the Bluetooth headsets and the iPhone, I'm not sure which would be better. And it's hard to do a comparison, because I can't switch back and forth quickly!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:52 AM on October 21, 2016


So yeah, "at the end" or more specifically where the actual amplifier is. For bluetooth devices it can be hard to tell as sometimes the device supports AVRCP for remote volume control and some don't so then the phone will attenuate the stream instead.

I listen to my iPhone through Bluetooth headphones with their own volume control.

So definitely the headphone volume controls, maybe the iPhone volume controls.

Sometimes I listen to my iPhone through a headphone amp with its own volume control.

Amp's volume control.

And sometimes I connect to a network of Sonos speakers, each with their own amps and volume controls.

I think the only volume control here is the one in the Sonos app and that should be the amp's volume.
posted by GuyZero at 8:42 AM on October 21, 2016


A nice simple rule of thumb that serves in myriad audio circumstances: Turn every element up to its max, then control volume at the very last part (e.g. on-headphone volume control).

Amplification is where noise and distortion enter. Don't distribute the amplification. Lowering volume never introduces problems. So do that at the end, where it's most convenient to you.

There are exceptions, but they're pretty arcane and unlikely.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:31 AM on October 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


What you're trying to do is maximize your signal-to-noise ratio.

You know how you can sometimes hear a small hiss when no music is playing? That's your "noise floor" which means nothing will be quieter than that baseline noise.

If you were to turn your first device up just barely enough to be louder than the noise floor, you'd hear about half hiss and half music. Imagine you then used an amplifier later in the chain to amplify your quiet hiss + music signal, you'd end up with a much louder version of half noise, half music.

The solution is to turn up the first source to achieve a line level signal to your next device. This will provide the most dynamic range possible, which is a good thing.
posted by reeddavid at 4:50 PM on October 21, 2016


The recording noise floor will be amplified when you turn the volume up (with whichever volume) and reduced when you turn the volume down.

Mains Hum may or may not be proportional to the volume level depending where it is being introduced. For battery powered equipment this won't apply unless you set the iPhone down next to a large unshielded power transformer.

Total harmonic distortion, most analogue equipment will give the lowest distortion somewhere around 70% volume.

For all practical purposes on modern equipment, it isn't going to make any discernable difference where you control the volume.

Can you hear a difference?
No, then it doesn't matter.
posted by Lanark at 10:33 AM on October 22, 2016


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