Gain Setting Frequently Asked Questions
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Q: My speakers are being ridiculously overpowered and I'm afraid of damaging them, what do I do?
A: This really falls on you and how much trust you have in your own self-discipline; there is no "correct" answer unfortunately. Part of the problem is you need a set definition of what the gain is really there for. Is it used so that your speakers hit full output at full volume, or is it used so that your amp hits full output at full volume?
If it's the latter (this is my school of thought, it's not necessarily right, but you need to make this decision for yourself) then following any of the previous methods will give you the right setting. From there the weight is on your shoulders, if your speakers are being drastically overpowered then at the volume you did all of this setting at the speakers will blow, so for the first few weeks you need to pay very close attention to your speakers whenever you're using the stereo. If you hear any hint of distortion then turn it down. If it's coming from your mids then you can try raising the highpass filter, if it's coming from the sub then, well just be careful. After a while you'll get an idea of how high you can turn the volume without endangering your speakers for each highpass setting and musical content.
If it's the former then the previous methods won't work for this overpowering case, and you're going to have to set them a new way. There are a bunch of different methods here, I'll try to go through a couple of them.
One way is similar to what I went through above, you would turn the amp's gain to min, put your headunit's volume to about 3/4, and put on some bass heavy music (make sure your normal hp/lp filters are in place). Slowly turn up the amp's gain until you hear distortion coming from the speakers and then back off slightly. This is your new gain setting, and 3/4 of your headunit's max volume is your new "max" volume. Unfortunately the final result in this process depends entirely on the music you play while doing the test. It gives you a false sense of trust in that "3/4 volume" setting, and there's a chance you could blow your speakers relatively easily if you play something recorded at a higher level or with more midbass than you used for the test. In the earlier method at least you realize that the max volume will change depending on what you're playing, and the idea that you might need to turn it down if you hear something odd is right at the front of your mind. With this method, if the volume is still below that 3/4 level then you tend to ignore odd sounds and blame them on the recording, even though this might be the speakers telling you there's a problem. Like I said before, you build a false sense of trust in the 3/4 volume setting and that can be very dangerous.
Another way is to go back to method 3 earlier, but instead of using the amp's capabilities for your voltage calculations, you use the speakers' rated power handling. This method just doesn't make much sense to me, the speakers' real world power handling is entirely dependent on what you're playing through them, a set of 100rms speakers could blow with 20rms or be perfectly fine with 150rms depending on the frequency. Again this will give you a false sense of trust in the 3/4 volume because you think to yourself "these are 100rms speakers, the amp is set for 100rms, so they can't blow". If you manage to convince yourself of this then you're right back in the same boat as the last half of the previous paragraph, which is not a good place to be. I'll try to keep myself from ranting, just remember that if you do either of these last 2 procedures, the 3/4 volume setting is not a "safe" volume to play at, you could very well blow your speakers even with the volume less than this, it all depends on your specific setup and what you're playing.
Q: I followed all of those steps on the last page, but now my speakers/subs are way too loud/quiet, what's wrong?
A: This is a tough one to deal with, mainly because in order to fix it many times you have to go against everything you were just told. This is a pretty common problem though, normally the issue is that the sub is too weak and it's being overpowered by the front stage. Surprisingly, many times this is actually set up right, and you're just so used to a boosted low end that it just sounds lacking. But, regardless of whether it's actually right or not, you're not going to be happy with it like this right? So it's time to fix it.
1 - First, what is too loud, the front stage or the sub stage? Whatever it is, lower the gain/level on the louder one until you get a balance that works well for you. If your headunit has independent level controls for each (not an EQ, a full preout level control) then you can turn that down instead, if not then just turn down the gain.
2 - Now that they're matched, if you turn up the volume to what you set the gains at earlier (make sure to listen for distortion, especially from the front stage) is the system loud enough for you? If so then good, all you needed was a little level-matching. If not then go to step 3
3 - So someone told you that a 10" sub on a 200rms amp would be plenty huh? I think it's time to hunt them down....anyway, this is where it gets a little sketchy and risky. Past this point I can't really condone or support any of these actions because this is honestly what leads to most blown speakers out there. I've had to do it and never had a problem though, as long as you use some self-discipline then you should be fine. Remember, throughout this whole process you need to listen closely to your equipment to make sure it's not stressing, I'm not going to specifically say it in every step so just remember that it's implied. Uh, I guess that's all of step 3, onto step 4
4 - So right now your system sounds balanced, it just doesn't get loud enough. Slowly raise the gain on the front stage amp until it's loud enough for your tastes. When you find that point, start raising the sub amp gain until you get a balanced sound again
5 - At this point your system should sound balanced and be loud enough for you, so I guess you're done. Just be careful and watch out for distortion. With things set as they are, a little bit of distortion could be the warning sign of something about to go very wrong. You might want to go back and find out where your amps are actually clipping now by using one of the methods discussed on the previous page, but you don't need to.