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How To Calibrate and Level Match Your Speakers

by October 23, 2014

Level matching your speakers isn’t a topic that gets talked about much these days. With auto-calibration systems like Audyssey MultEQ, Yamaha’s YPAO, Anthem’s ARC, etc., it’s generally done for you. However, while these systems usually yield good results in this respect, it’s never a bad idea to double check the calibration. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do, as we’ll explain in this short editorial and the related YouTube video below.

 How to Use an SPL Meter to Calibrate Speakers Levels YouTube Video

To manually calibrate speaker levels, first you’ll need an SPL meter set to C-weighting, slow. Place the meter with the microphone facing up towards the ceiling at ear height in your primary listening position. From there, set the master volume to 0dB (assuming a relative volume scale) and navigate your A/V receiver’s settings to get to its trim controls / tone generator. While in this menu, your receiver will output pink noise from your speakers, one at a time, and allow you to adjust their relative level.  Fine tune the volume until your SPL meter reads 75dB for each speaker and your subwoofer…and that’s it.  If you’d like an extra helping of bass, you can boost the subwoofer level 2-3dB to adjust for preference. Likewise, you can also bump up the center channel a dB or three if you have trouble hearing dialog.

Denon level control screen

Level control / tone generator screen of a Denon A/V receiver.

Why Calibrate to a 75dB Reference?

Only one question usually pops up during this process: what’s so magical about 75dB? On most A/V receivers that utilize a relative volume scale, including all THX certified models, calibrating your speakers to 75dB will make the 0dB master volume setting correspond with “reference level”, which is the specific level at which movies are mixed in the studio. Reference level itself also ties in with actual dB levels. At reference, each of the main channels (left, center, right, surrounds) may be asked to deliver peaks up to 105dB at the main listening position, while the LFE channel can deliver peaks up to 115dB. Make no mistake, reference level can get VERY loud, and we don’t recommend exceeding it for the sake of your hearing.

Still wondering why 75dB got chosen to be the magic number? It’s not a bad question, particularly in light of the fact that commercial cinemas calibrate their speakers to 85dB, as opposed to the 75dB home standard. The difference came about due to simple practicality. While a professional calibrating your local Cineplex might not be bothered by pink noise playing at 85dB, many consumers would be (85dB being roughly as loud as a lawnmower at 1 meter). 75dB on the other hand was better tolerated in a home environment, while still being loud enough to totally overcome the rooms noise floor.

Summary

In the age of auto-magic calibration systems, the art of manually fine tuning a system seems to be getting lost. While we put a lot of faith in these algorithms, it never hurts to double-check the results. Part of that is dusting off the old SPL meter to make sure your speakers are properly level matched and adjusted to the correct volume.  Once done, all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

If you're attempting to calibrate your system for multiple rows of seating, we have a tip that you should read that addresses that too.

Happy listening!

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About the author:

Steve Munz is a “different” addition to Audioholics’ stable of contributors in that he is neither an engineer like Gene, nor has he worked in the industry like Cliff. In fact, Steve’s day job is network administration and accounting.

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