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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
Have you ever wondered what all of those extra features on your head unit do? You know them, they are the features that everyone tells you to turn off, the “gimmicks”, the evil bass boost, and the sound effects. These are the features that everyone says will degrade the sound quality of your system; they cause clipping, and ruin your chances of having a respectable system. Turn them all off!

But, what do these features actually do, and should you be afraid of using them?


LOUDNESS
We’re going to take a look at a particularly interesting feature, the Loudness setting. If you aren’t aware of what Loudness is supposed to do, it is designed to boost (oh no!) the low and high frequencies of your stereo at low volume levels. The amount of boost is designed to taper off as you increase the volume.

What’s the point of the Loudness feature?

It’s actually a pretty clever thing. In order to understand the usefulness of the Loudness feature, you need to be at least somewhat familiar with the Fletcher Munson, or Equal-loudness curve (or contour). The wiki link is below, but basically what Fletcher Munson discovered was that our perception of frequency response changes depending on the amplitude of sound. At low amplitude (aka volume, aka SPL) we don’t perceive low or high frequencies as being as loud as they actually are. At high amplitudes, the lows and highs begin to sound as loud as they really are in relation to the midrange. To illustrate this, listen to a fairly dynamic song at a level you would consider enthusiastic. Nothing so loud that it’s uncomfortable, but the kind of level that you would listen at when you are really into the music. Make note of the frequency response, particularly how the lows, mids, and highs all balance out. Now, turn the music down to roughly conversation level, and you’ll notice that the perception of balance falls apart. The bass is gone, the highs are gone, and you just get mostly midrange. When you turn the volume down, the dynamics are gone, and the perceived frequency response changes. Instead of lowering all frequencies equally, the perception is that the lows and highs fall off much faster than the midrange as you turn the volume down. That is what the Flutcher Munson curves explain, and it’s the reason the Loudness feature exists.
Equal-loudness contour - Wikipedia

Now, let’s take a look at what the Loudness feature does from an objective standpoint, and help people understand if it’s useful, or if it really is the devil people claim. Most head units have a feature like this, on my Kenwood DMX906S there are 3 settings, Low, High, and Off. I believe the Loudness that Pioneer uses is just On, or Off, and I’m not sure how Sony, or Alpine implement this feature. This thread will specifically focus on Kenwood’s version because that’s what I have to test, but I suspect the results will be similar across all brands.

This first graph shows the current frequency response of my system at a volume level of 15. This volume level is pretty low, certainly audible, but not particularly loud, especially while driving at any appreciable speed. I would consider it background volume level, you could hear it well enough to sing along to a song you already know, but you probably wouldn’t hear a new song well enough to learn the lyrics, it’s a pretty low volume level based on how my gains are set (more on gains later), but still a level I use when I have someone in the car and we are chatting, but still want to hear the music well enough.

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The bottom line (sorry, I can’t tell what color it is, I’m not so good with colors, I should have changed this before saving the image) is the frequency response of my system at volume 15, with the Loudness Off. I need to do some work around the mid/tweet crossover, but that’s not relevant for this thread.

The blue line shows the same volume level with the Loudness set to Low.

The green line shows the same volume level with the Loudness set to High.

Obviously, the low end is boosted, and so is the high end, but the midrange stays (basically) the same. From 800hz to around 4khz the response is relatively unchanged regardless of whether or not the Loudness is Off, Low, or High. This is exactly what you would expect to see.

These boosts are what scare people. If you spend all your time tuning for a relatively smooth, and balanced curve, you don’t want the low end, or high end being boosted, right? There’s a chance of clipping the signal with that much boost in the low end, right? Well, not really, and here’s why.

This graph shows the same tune, but at volume level 30, instead of 15. The way my gains are set 30 is pretty loud, not unbearable, but around that “enthusiastic” level I mentioned earlier in the post. This graph also shows the response with Loudness Off, Low, and High, but you’ll notice how different this is than the previous graph.

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At volume 30 the frequency response is exactly the same, regardless of whether or not Loudness is Off, Low, or High. The only difference is that with Loudness on (either Low, or High) the amplitude is higher, but it’s evenly higher, there is no bending of the frequency response. So, by the time you reach 30 on the volume level of your Kenwood stereo, Loudness isn’t doing anything at all (except adding a few extra clicks to the overall volume level), it only affects the response at low volume levels.

Due to this feature only changing the response at low volume levels, there is no risk of clipping due to the extra boost. This final graph shows all 3 measurements together, as you can see, even with Loudness on High the low end still measures lower than it would at volume 30. So, it is easily within the limits of your system, and you are not risking clipping at all by using this feature (as long as your gains are set correctly).


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GAINS
Setting gains doesn’t need to be complicated, you don’t need an o-scope, and you really don’t’ need a multimeter, but the way you set your gains is still important for this feature to act appropriately. The stereo is not measuring the SPL to determine when to taper off the boost, it’s only basing the amount of boost on the actual number on the volume knob. If your gains are set too high, and you use the Loudness feature, then you may be at pretty high listening levels by volume 15, which means that there is a lot of boost happening. It’s important that your gains are set low enough that you are using most of the volume range within the head unit. On this Kenwood, 40 is the max volume, so a listening level of 30 is a good level for pretty enthusiastic listening. You can go a bit higher on the volume knob, and having some extra for low recordings is good, but you want your max volume to be up in this top ¾ range. You do not want to set your gains so that your max listening level is down in the 15-20 range. If you do that, the boost that Loudness provides will be unpleasant, and you could risk clipping, depending on the response curve you’ve tuned to, because you will never (or rarely) reach a volume level on the head unit where the Loudness actually tapers off.


That’s in for now, instead of fearing the Loudness feature, you now know what it does, and can choose to use it if you wish. I think that if your gains are set correctly, the feature is actually really clever, and I keep mine set to Low at all times. This gives me a perceived frequency response that matches my target curve over a much wider range of volume levels. Even at low volume, I still have good bass response, and dynamics. Even though the volume is low, it still sounds like music, and not just vocals. As I increase the volume, the effect tapers off, and by the time I’m at enthusiastic levels there is no boost at all, and I am listening to the response that I tuned for.

I hope you found this useful. I’m considering exploring some of these other built in “mystery” features, and posting the results here, if you all want to see the results. I'm undertaking a quest to see how good a basic active head unit, with limited EQ can actually sound, if the tuning features are fully understood, and used to my advantage. We'll see how far I can get with this Kenwood DMX906s before a standalone DSP is a must.

Thanks to Alex aka. Redliner99 for lending me his mic to take all of these measurements!
 

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I actually like the idea of a variably-adjustable loudness feature (instead of just on/off or low/high/off). I've found that a lot of times, it's just "on" or "off" and the "on" setting just causes too much boost, so most don't use or recommend it. At least your head-unit has "low/high" settings.

The Helix "Augmented Bass Processing" feature is actually a variable "bass boost" of sorts and I do use and like it. It boots bass at lower volumes, but not at higher volumes - works out well - and is configurable.
 

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Cool tests and write up! Really appreciate this type of post with the data and graphs.

Just as an FYI Pioneer 4400NEX has loudness Off, Low, Mid, or High. I run on Low and have never even tried Mid or High because Low brings plenty of boost to my ears.
 

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Discussion Starter #4
I actually like the idea of a variably-adjustable loudness feature (instead of just on/off or low/high/off). I've found that a lot of times, it's just "on" or "off" and the "on" setting just causes too much boost, so most don't use or recommend it. At least your head-unit has "low/high" settings.

The Helix "Augmented Bass Processing" feature is actually a variable "bass boost" of sorts and I do use and like it. It boots bass at lower volumes, but not at higher volumes - works out well - and is configurable.
What you described wouldn't be a typical "loudness" feature. The entire point of this feature is to adjust FR based on volume level. If it's boosting too much, then it's probably a case that the gains are set too high for the boost to be defeated at the appropriate volume level, or whatever feature that is being used as loudness isn't actually a loudness feature. So, even if you don't have variable adjustability, simple On or Off should work fine as long as the gains are set at a level to take advantage of the feature. I know that Pioneer calls it loudness, and although I don't have measurements of it working from a Pioneer head unit, I've used many of them, and the feature does respond based on volume level. I don't know about other brands, so maybe there isn't a universal agreement on what to call the feature, but both Kenwood and Pioneer call it Loudness, and they both work the same way.

Thanks JMikeK for clarifying the options on the Pioneer 4400NEX.
 

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What you described wouldn't be a typical "loudness" feature. The entire point of this feature is to adjust FR based on volume level. If it's boosting too much, then it's probably a case that the gains are set too high for the boost to be defeated at the appropriate volume level, or whatever feature that is being used as loudness isn't actually a loudness feature. So, even if you don't have variable adjustability, simple On or Off should work fine as long as the gains are set at a level to take advantage of the feature. I know that Pioneer calls it loudness, and although I don't have measurements of it working from a Pioneer head unit, I've used many of them, and the feature does respond based on volume level. I don't know about other brands, so maybe there isn't a universal agreement on what to call the feature, but both Kenwood and Pioneer call it Loudness, and they both work the same way.

Thanks JMikeK for clarifying the options on the Pioneer 4400NEX.
Of course it adjusts the FR based on the volume level - but since there is no "standard" for this type of feature, the exact FR changes and amounts is different for every brand - maybe even every unit. The only units I've really tested this feature on were units that didn't even use any external amps - but who knows exactly how they implemented the feature - maybe they boosted the bass area too much per volume "increment" - or maybe not enough for it to be useful - or maybe the range of freqs they boosted wasn't optimal, etc... You get my point. There is no one size fits all for this type of setting, IMO.

Just because it works good on brand X in car A doesn't mean that it will work good on brand Y in case B. Maybe they don't stop boosting at low enough volume - or maybe they stop boosting at too low of a volume causing louder volumes to sound "thin". Or maybe the user prefers more bass boost than treble boost per volume level increase. Too many variables.

Without being able to alter the "parameters", it's a one-size-fits-all function - which is probably why most people don't use it - it usually causes issues at one end of the volume scale - or just doesn't fit he users preferences.
 

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Discussion Starter #6 (Edited)
Of course it adjusts the FR based on the volume level - but since there is no "standard" for this type of feature, the exact FR changes and amounts is different for every brand - maybe even every unit. The only units I've really tested this feature on were units that didn't even use any external amps - but who knows exactly how they implemented the feature - maybe they boosted the bass area too much per volume "increment" - or maybe not enough for it to be useful - or maybe the range of freqs they boosted wasn't optimal, etc... You get my point. There is no one size fits all for this type of setting, IMO.

Just because it works good on brand X in car A doesn't mean that it will work good on brand Y in case B. Maybe they don't stop boosting at low enough volume - or maybe they stop boosting at too low of a volume causing louder volumes to sound "thin". Or maybe the user prefers more bass boost than treble boost per volume level increase. Too many variables.

Without being able to alter the "parameters", it's a one-size-fits-all function - which is probably why most people don't use it - it usually causes issues at one end of the volume scale - or just doesn't fit he users preferences.
I appreciate your point of view, and I'm not trying to push this feature on anyone, I'm simply trying to take away the mystery, and show people what the feature actually does. With that information they can choose whether or not to use it.

I would like to address what seems to be your biggest concern. How do we know that the boost is going to taper off at an appropriate volume, and not continue to boost when we don't want it to? For this I'm putting some trust in the manufacturer, I know that can be foolish, but here's why I think it's acceptable in this case...

I believe that any manufacturer that understands the Fletcher Munson curve well enough, and goes out of their way to create a feature to combat it, must certainly understand that it's affects are only welcome at low volumes. That's the entire point, and I don't think any manufacture would create this feature only to make it useless by not having it taper off soon enough in the volume range. As I mentioned, this test was done with a Kenwood DMX906S, I don't know how Pioneer or the other manufactures would look on a graph, but I suspect they understand the equal loudness curve well enough to make it useful as well.

Like you, I am still curious about how wide of a frequency range this affects across the different manufacturers, anyone with a Pioneer, or other brand that is willing to take some measurements could offer some interesting data to this thread.

That leaves the end user to adjust their gains appropriately, if this is not done, then the problems you describe would certainly be real. Someone who's gains are set such that they only use the lower 50% of their volume knob would experience issues because they boost wouldn't taper off before their music reached a good listening level. This is a problem with their gain structure, not the Loudness feature.

The usefulness of this feature is certainly dependent upon the user setting their gains appropriately, which may be too much to ask of some users. I can understand the apprehension some people may have about using this feature, especially if they aren't certain how their gains are setup.

The great thing about this feature though, is it's the only way to have the perception of listening to music based on your intended target curve at all volumes. With this set to off, low volume listening will lack bass, and treble, you could create a second EQ preset for this, but that's a lot more work that using the Loudness feature. Having a bass knob to increase bass at low levels is nice, but it won't affect the treble, and it won't extend far enough into the midrange to ensure that the frequency response is still perceived the same.

It's a neat feature, and now that you know what it does you can choose to use it or not, without the mystery of how it affects the frequency response, and what it's doing to the tune you spent so much time getting right.
 

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It's all good - I didn't mean to sound "argumentative" at all. Just discussing the topic and why I personally don't normally use it. Really, the only times I even had the option were in cars with no external amps (so no way to adjust gain) - with just a loudness on/off setting. It just didn't work out for me on those head-units - but who knows if it was properly implemented or not - a lot of times on "lesser" brands, I have a feeling that they just boost bass and treble at ALL volumes - obviously, if that is the case, it's not implemented properly.

'Personally, while I do like increased bass as lower volumes, I haven't really felt the need for increased treble at lower volumes - at least not in my current car with my current equipment. I guess maybe a little treble reduction at really high volumes may be beneficial - not sure though - I'd have to test it. I'm pretty much happy with my sound at all volumes right now though.

Curious to hear what others think. Interesting topic!
 

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Discussion Starter #8
It's all good - I didn't mean to sound "argumentative" at all. Just discussing the topic and why I personally don't normally use it. Really, the only times I even had the option were in cars with no external amps (so no way to adjust gain) - with just a loudness on/off setting. It just didn't work out for me on those head-units - but who knows if it was properly implemented or not - a lot of times on "lesser" brands, I have a feeling that they just boost bass and treble at ALL volumes - obviously, if that is the case, it's not implemented properly.

'Personally, while I do like increased bass as lower volumes, I haven't really felt the need for increased treble at lower volumes - at least not in my current car with my current equipment. I guess maybe a little treble reduction at really high volumes may be beneficial - not sure though - I'd have to test it. I'm pretty much happy with my sound at all volumes right now though.

Curious to hear what others think. Interesting topic!
You didn't come across as argumentative at all. Any input people have on the topic is welcome! This board should be for discussion, even when that means people have differing opinions... Actually, especially when people have differing opinions. Someone out there may have a very good reason why we really should avoid using this feature, but my testing seems to show that it can be very useful.
 

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Another potential issue with a "static" loudness feature is if you have multiple "sources" and there is a significant level difference between the sources. For example, in my Challenger, XM is crazy loud, USB is what I consider "normal" and Android Auto is significantly lower. So the loudness function would effect each of those inputs differently since the volume level used for each is significantly different. Unless, of course, it works based on measured input levels and not just "hardcoded" volume level settings?

Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with you that generally speaking, a "loudness" function can be great - but there are just so many variables that make it harder to be useful in the real world. That is why I mentioned a "variably-adjustable" version of it would be nice.

I wish every head-unit had more "per-source" settings (levels, EQ, loudness, etc), because the overall level and EQ between sources can also be different depending on the source (since XM is a crappy source, for example, it would be nice to be able to EQ it differently than other sources). I'm sure a lot of aftermarket head-units have some of this "per-source" functionality, but aftermarket head-units are becoming harder and harder to implement - and in a lot of cases, with newer cars, replacing the head-unit is completely out of the picture - so you're kind of stuck with the factory head-unit (and whatever features, or lack thereof) that the car comes with.

While the Helix DSP.3 does have the Augmented Bass Processing (which is basically an advanced loudness function for the bass only), it would be cool if it had a similar function for the treble. It does have a "ClarityXpander" function which increases the highs, but I don't think it's variable depending on volume level - although, now you have me wondering if maybe it is volume dependant. :) I'll have to confirm that with some measurements. :) So little detailed information available for the Helix "FX" features.

Anyway, I'm really curious to hear from some others who are much more knowledgeable than myself about this topic! :)
 

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I thought the "Drive Equalizer" function worked similarly no? For the record, I don't use either currently by now I'm curious.
 

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GIJoe, thank you for taking these measurements. I asked the same questions about my Kenwood 9903s loudness function and the only answer that I ever received was don't use it.

I am overdriving almost every speaker in my system so I basically don't use any gain overlap. If I find a song that is too quiet to hear then I turn up the Kenwood's volume offset from minus -5 to the max of -3. At minus -3 volume offset the Kenwood 5v outputs will max out the JBL MS-8 inputs 2.8v inputs.
 

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That's something you don't hear much of is too much input voltage which can obviously overdrive an amplifier/processor input stage. It's usually the other way around.
 

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Bchester6, we are getting a little off subject but, when installing a MS-8 it tells you when the signal is too high while playing a track with all high bits. So it would probably be hard to clip the DSP for more than a millisecond on regular music but, why risk it?

So I set my headunit and amp gains to the level that my DSP says that it likes and have plenty of headroom with everything.
 

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Discussion Starter #14
Another potential issue with a "static" loudness feature is if you have multiple "sources" and there is a significant level difference between the sources. For example, in my Challenger, XM is crazy loud, USB is what I consider "normal" and Android Auto is significantly lower. So the loudness function would effect each of those inputs differently since the volume level used for each is significantly different. Unless, of course, it works based on measured input levels and not just "hardcoded" volume level settings?

Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with you that generally speaking, a "loudness" function can be great - but there are just so many variables that make it harder to be useful in the real world. That is why I mentioned a "variably-adjustable" version of it would be nice.

I wish every head-unit had more "per-source" settings (levels, EQ, loudness, etc), because the overall level and EQ between sources can also be different depending on the source (since XM is a crappy source, for example, it would be nice to be able to EQ it differently than other sources). I'm sure a lot of aftermarket head-units have some of this "per-source" functionality, but aftermarket head-units are becoming harder and harder to implement - and in a lot of cases, with newer cars, replacing the head-unit is completely out of the picture - so you're kind of stuck with the factory head-unit (and whatever features, or lack thereof) that the car comes with.

While the Helix DSP.3 does have the Augmented Bass Processing (which is basically an advanced loudness function for the bass only), it would be cool if it had a similar function for the treble. It does have a "ClarityXpander" function which increases the highs, but I don't think it's variable depending on volume level - although, now you have me wondering if maybe it is volume dependant. :) I'll have to confirm that with some measurements. :) So little detailed information available for the Helix "FX" features.

Anyway, I'm really curious to hear from some others who are much more knowledgeable than myself about this topic! :)
Great point, and this is worth noting. Different source volumes will affect Loudness much the same way as less-than-optimal gain settings. Luckily, the Kenwood I'm using has a pretty good Volume Offset feature to allow the user to adjust the relative volume of each source. I should have mentioned that I set this up long ago, and I would recommend anyone with this option does the same. This alone won't fix the problem completely, but it will help. For example, I'm using wireless Carplay, so I use my personal music from my phone, Tidal, and Amazon Music, all of those play back at different levels, but they all fall under the Bluetooth volume offset. I would need to change the settings within Tidal, Amazon, and my Music app so that they all play back at the same level.
 

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Discussion Starter #15
I thought the "Drive Equalizer" function worked similarly no? For the record, I don't use either currently by now I'm curious.
The Drive Equalizer is different, and I may make a thread about that next, if anyone is interested. Hell, as long as Alex lets me borrow the mic for a while longer I can test a wide variety of these settings to give people a better idea of what they do.

I suspect the Drive EQ will affect a much more narrow, or specific band of frequencies, and will probably boost those frequencies more than Loudness does. This is pure speculation at this point. I'm also curious if this relies on the Speed Pulse wire, and if that means the car's actual speed plays a role. That would make sense, but if that's the case it will be much more difficult to test because I'm not planning on fiddling with a mic and REW while driving around. I'll consider recruiting a helper to see if we can learn something. To be honest, I don't really know how the Speed Pulse wire works, all I know is that if you decide to cut it in order to tidy up your wiring harness, that you had better put the sensor back on correctly, it's a diode so it only works in the correct polarity (want to know how I learned that? Haha).
 

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I just put in a Kenwood DDX9906S and did this exact test last week. I'm of the opinion that most of the loudness haters simply don't understand it and hear only that the head unit is "messing with" their hard-won frequency response and knee jerk to "don't use it." In real-world listening, I see no downside. It (like most of the tuning things we do) is just compensating for another bit of the weirdness of the way we perceive sound. Why reject the science behind F-M? It's no worse than distinguishing between ITD and ILD to fix our head/ear perception when setting driver positions and crossovers. Is it "wrong" to set things up to give you a stage height that's higher than the drivers producing the sound? Nope. You're using the shape of our ears and the way we distinguish vertical position to your advantage. It's no worse to use features to compensate for the F-M oddness of our ears. I think the hate comes from the fact that the head unit handles it invisibly, so we don't trust it. If there was some feature that allowed us to do it the hard way, everybody would be ecstatic and start digging into creating a boost curve that tapered off... exactly like what is already there.

My only question when I switch head units is where the loudness tapers off. I do a few volume settings just like outlined above first thing. Then I do all my mic sweeps/crossover adjustments/eq changes above this point. This ensures I'm safe for clipping and then the system takes care of the perceived drop in the highs and lows at more moderate volume levels.

In general, it's a great practice to check the loudness adjustment and settings of any different head unit exactly like gijoe lined out.
As long as you understand the system and what it does, loudness is just another tool in your belt to put a smile on your face on that boring commute.

Also, I've never dug into any of the other features (like the drive equalizer). I am curious and it's on my list of things to look at... someday. Gijoe should just do it all for us and write up a report. :p
 

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Discussion Starter #17
One thing that I still intend to do, and I'll post here, is find out where the Kenwood actually stops boosting. Obviously, it's doing quite a bit at 15 on the volume knob, and it's not doing anything at 30, but I don't know what it's doing at 20, or 25. Knowing this could be useful, so I'll plan on posting those results up eventually. It might not be until this weekend before I get a chance to do some more measuring.

I'm happy to explore these features, but I'm freeloading the mic from a friend, and member here, and I should probably give it back soon, haha. I sat this hobby out for a while (at least the technical stuff), so I need to get my own mic again. I've been happy with the Audio Frog mic though, it works well.
 

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My guess is that "Loudness" functions were not always so "proper" - and that is probably where the hate comes from. Just like anything else, things get better over time - and maybe the "loudness" function in modern aftermarket head-units really is that good and useful - but people just still have a bias against them from when they weren't so well implemented. Just a guess though.

My current head-unit (stock, not replaceable) doesn't have such a feature, so I'm out in the cold on this one. :) Going to explore the Helix FX functions a little closer now though. Speaking of, you'd think that DSP's would have a proper "loudness" function built in as well. Wonder why they don't...

I definitely have heard head-units where the "loudness" function just boosts bass and treble across the entire volume curve though - and when it's improperly implemented like that, I think that is where a lot of the hate comes from.

So yeah, I agree that it's definitely worth exploring. A few measurements will tell you what it's doing (and so will your ears, for the most part). Personally, I'm a "setting" guy - I like trying all of the different settings on "stuff".

We need to get @gijoe a UMIK-1 so that he can keep creating cool threads like this going forward!! :)
 

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One thing that I still intend to do, and I'll post here, is find out where the Kenwood actually stops boosting. Obviously, it's doing quite a bit at 15 on the volume knob, and it's not doing anything at 30, but I don't know what it's doing at 20, or 25. Knowing this could be useful, so I'll plan on posting those results up eventually. It might not be until this weekend before I get a chance to do some more measuring.
It is boosting the entire signal by about 4dB. But that just means I'll reach max volume sooner. I wonder why it does that though.

I have the DDX9905s. I'll give loudness a try.
 

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It is boosting the entire signal by about 4dB. But that just means I'll reach max volume sooner. I wonder why it does that though.

I have the DDX9905s. I'll give loudness a try.
I was wondering the same thing. I'm thinking it may boost the entire signal at the point it stops boosting only bass and treble just so the perceived volume level doesn't go "down" once you get to the point where it no longer boosts bass and treble. Otherwise, if you turn up the volume one notch when you reach that point, the overall volume would go down a little instead of up a little. I think... :)
 
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