A question came to my desk this week from a customer who would like to connect a third-party streaming device to his Beolab 50s. He plans to use a USB-Audio connection and his question was “Should I control the volume of the audio signal in the streamer or in the Beolab 50s?” There are three different ways to configure these two options:
- Control the volume in the streamer using its interface, and send a signal that has been volume-regulated to the Beolab 50s, which should then be set to have a start up default volume such that the maximum volume on the streamer results in a level that is as loud as the customer will ever want it to be. In order to do this, the Beolab 50s need to be set to ignore the volume information that is received on the USB-Audio connection.
- Set the streamer to output an unregulated signal, and set the Beolab 50s to obey the volume information that is received on the USB-Audio connection, then use the streamer’s interface for the volume control (which would actually be happening inside the Beolab 50s).
- Set the streamer to output an unregulated signal, and set the Beolab 50s to disobey the volume information that is received on the USB-Audio connection, then use the Beolab 50’s interface for the volume control (which would actually be happening inside the Beolab 50s).
Of course, one way to answer the question is “where do you want to control the volume?” For example, if it’s with a remote control for the Beolab 50s, then the answer is “use option #3”. If you’d prefer to use the streamer’s app, for example, then the answer is “use option #1 or #2”.
However, the question came to my desk because it was specifically about the technical performance of the audio signal. Which of these three options results in the highest audio “quality”? (I put the word “quality” in quotation marks because it is a loaded term, and might mean different things to different persons…)
The simplest answer without getting into any details is “it probably doesn’t matter“. However, that answer is based on a couple of assumptions that may or may not be wrong.
Hypothetically, the Beolab 50 can output an audio signal that peaks at about 122 dB SPL measured at 1 m in a free field, albeit not at all frequencies present at its output. (This is because there are some physical limitations of how far the woofers can move, which means that you can’t get 122 dB SPL at 20 Hz, for example.) The noise floor of the Beolab 50s is about 0 dB SPL measured in the same place (again, this is frequency-dependent). So, it has a total dynamic range at its output of about 122 dB.
The maximum output level is a result of a combination of the loudspeaker drivers, the amplifiers, and the power supply, however, these have all been chosen to reach their maximum outputs approximately simultaneously, so changing one of the three won’t make a big difference.
The noise floor is a result of the combination of the loudspeaker drivers’ sensitivities, the amplifiers’ noise floors, and the signal that feeds the amplifiers: the DAC outputs’ noise floors. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m sticking with a digital input, so we don’t need to worry about the noise floor of the ADC at the loudspeaker’s input.
If you have an audio signal at one of the digital inputs of the Beolab 50, and that signal is at its loudest possible level (for a sine wave, that’s 0 dB FS; or 0 dB relative to Full Scale). At Beolab 50’s maximum volume setting, this will produce a peak output level of 122 dB SPL (depending on the frequency as I mentioned above).
All digital inputs of the Beolab 50 accept at least a 24 bit word length. This means that the dynamic range of the digital input signal itself is about 6 * 24 – 3 = 141 dB. This in turn means that the hypothetical noise floor of a correctly-dithered 24-bit signal is 19 dB below the noise floor of the loudspeakers even at their maximum volume setting. (because 122 – 141 = -19)
In other words, if we assume that the streamer has a correctly-implemented gain function for its volume control, using TPDF dither implemented at the 24-bit level, then its noise floor will be 19 dB below the “natural” noise floor of the Beolab 50. Therefore, if the volume is controlled in the streamer, any artefacts will be masked by the 50s themselves.
On the other hand, the Beolab 50s volume control is done using a gain function that is performed in a 32-bit floating point calculation, which means that it has a dynamic range of 144 to 150 dB. (See this posting for an explanation and comparison of fixed point and floating point systems.) So the noise generated by the internal volume control will be somewhere between 22 and 26 dB below the “natural” noise floor of the Beolab 50.
So, (assuming my assumptions are correct) the noise floor that is produced by controlling the volume control in either the streamer or the Beolab 50s is FAR below the constant noise floor of the DAC / amplifiers.
In addition, the noise floors have roughly the same spectra (in other words, you don’t have pink noise in one case but white noise in the other; they’re all producing white noise). And since both are so far below, it really doesn’t matter. Arguing about whether the noise is 19 dB lower or 22 dB lower is a waste of good argument time, unless you paid for the four-and-a-half-hour argument instead of the five-minute one…
If the customer was asking about using the analogue input, then the answer MIGHT have been different.
Also, if my assumption about a 24-bit signal coming from the streamer, or that it has a correctly-implemented gain function for its volume control are incorrect, the this answer MIGHT be incorrect as well.