Fletcher-Munson Curves

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A Discussion: Dynamic Compression

(Fletcher-Munson Curves Re-Examined)

(These are the notes from an address to the Audiophile Society of NSW on 24th June 2007. Please note they contain generalities due to time constraint and also keeping the audience in mind. This is not a complete treatise on the subject but intended to raise questions as much as answer them.)

Most audiophiles are fairly intelligent people, and if you make the effort to explain clearly, most will usually understand. So please pay close attention as we shall try to clearly explain why Dynamic Compression explains why various similar equipment ought to sound the same and yet doesn’t.

For example: Have you ever wondered why two amplifiers (or indeed two speakers) can measure flat down to the same frequency and yet they often sound VERY different. I remember a Classē DR-9 amp were compared with a really good valve/hybrid amp and one listener said the 100 Watt Class A amp had "no bass." The valve amp was in fact less measurably flat than the Classē .

How can that be? Well, your ears are not lying. While we all understand what frequency response is, here we are talking about something that goes beyond frequency response. Keep this in mind; it is not the frequency response but the dynamic behaviour that is the key.

To help us understand we shall look at the famous, or rather infamous, Fletcher-Munson curves.


Fletcher-Munson curves were conceived in 1933 and although there have been the later revisions (Dadson-Robinson) and the newer ISO standard variation. These are essentially minor changes. Our discussion remains the same.

Take a look at the F-M curves. They are not frequency responses but EQUAL LOUDNESS curves. At lower volumes the bass needs to be boosted to be equal in loudness. Because of this F-M curves became mis-used in earlier Hi-Fi equipment and became the false reason for Tone Controls and some of us will also remember the Loudness Control switch on amplifiers. Those days are behind us.


We have dB-SPL on the Left. Phon in the centre is relative to 1KHz (a kind of reference point).

The BOTTOM line is the Threshold of Hearing.

The TOP line is the Threshold of Pain.

These two extremes define the 120dB dynamic range of human hearing.

Now what is 120dB in real terms? If we were to take a sound at the Threshold of Pain and divide that by the smallest sound we can hear and then converted that into amplitude terms, the ratio would million to one. But since it takes energy to move sound through air, the real ratio is much higher than that. Would anyone like to guess? 1,000,000,000,000:1 or a Trillion to One.

We can see that above 1KHz the curves are evenly spaced and all very similar/consistent. But below 1KHz we see something rather different. As we lower the frequency the lines bunch up.

Note the large vacant area at the bottom left hand side (sub 1KHz), NOTHING can be heard.

For example, at 30Hz we hear nothing below 70dB SPL. Yet that is the level of normal speech. At normal speech volume there is NO BASS!

Level of loudness to we experience:

Silent room: 40dB-SPL (C weighting or 25-30dB A weighting).

Soft whisper is 50dB.

Speaking normally and clearly is 65-70dB

Very loud talk is 80dB (louder than this)... and real loud yell 90dB.

A full orchestra climax is typically 95dB.

So if 70dB SPL is normal speech is considered average loudness, not loud really. We just do NOT hear real bass at that level.

Another example of Dynamic Range we find is our sight.

Why is it that when you walk into a dark room it seems totally black but after a short while you start to see things. Also, if you walk into the light after being in the dark can be a painful experience. We have the same kind of thresholds, minimum and threshold of pain. The pupil acts as an aperture that regulates the amount of light that enters into the eye.

The pupil acts in a similar way to a volume control, and AUTOMATIC volume control. The technical term is AGC, Automatic Gain Control.

Does ear do the same? Does the ear have an inbuilt AGC? Yes!

Anyone know how it works? For example, in the Middle Ear, we three bones or ossicles, Malleus, Incus and Stapes (hammer, anvil & stirrup). Various nerves and tissues tension these and other factors vary the sensitivity of the ear. Hence we have a mechanism to compress Dynamic Range.



They don't vary ALL frequencies the same. In fact the progressively do so less as we go below 1KHz - as F-M curves indicate.

Question: Can we redraw F-M curves, not as equal loudness curves, but as frequency responses? YES!


They have only been redrawn below 1KHz, as above 1KHz there is little change. By redrawing in this way we can now examine the dynamic behaviour of the ear at frequencies below 1KHz.

"DYNAMIC" behaviour, what do we mean? "Dynamic" is the opposite Static.

Static means constant and dynamic means constantly changing. A bit like stationary versus moving.

For example, measurements of audio equipment are STATIC in nature; sine wave based frequency response, distortion figures, Noise etc., they are all STATIC measurements.

But music is not static in nature. It is DYNAMIC. Constantly changing in level and frequency.

So is it any surprise that our hearing is DYNAMIC (just as our eyes are dynamic)?

BTW, all our five senses, hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste, are dynamic. Therein lies the spice of life.

Basically at mid and high frequencies our hearing is compressed. Yes, we have dynamic compression built into our ears and for good reasons. Here compression is not necessarily bad. Of course the last thing we want is our equipment to have compressed dynamics. But look very carefully and you will realise that dynamics gradually become less compressed below 1KHz and by 30 Hertz there is little or no compression. Note the even 10dB spacing at 30 Hertz.

Here we come to the main punch line of our discussion. We can make TWO statements:




In that case, what initial conclusions can we draw from those two statements?

1.  If 70dB SPL (or 70 Phon) were not compressed by 70dB - speech would be virtually inaudible, because 70dB would become the new threshold of hearing. Regular day speech would largely be impossible. We would constantly have to scream at each other.

2.  Deep Bass is virtually inaudible below 60-70dB (SPL) because of lack of compression.


Example: High Voltage Lines

Let's change subject slightly and ask: Why are high voltage lines so thin? Because the higher the voltage, the less current is required. There are fewer losses at higher voltages and cables also will sag less and run much cooler. Typically HT lines can be as high as 500KV, half a million Volts.

True or false, voltage does not compress, current does? Yes! The current is the problem.

Is this why many of us love valve amps? Does valve amps have superior and more natural dynamics because they are high voltage and low current devices.

Believe me when I say that is much easier to mess up power supplies in transistor amps that it is in tube amps. Typically voltages in tube amps are up to ten times higher than transistor amps and that means up to one-tenth the current.

Also, because AC is converted to DC, in typical power supplies the peak current drawn out of the transformer can be 7-10 times higher than the current required by the amplifier. So if the speaker requires 5 Amps, then the peak current drawn in your power transformer can be 30 to 50 Amps. AC has gaps in the power delivery, the power supply's reservoir capacitors in-rush current has to compensate. Yes, current is the problem.

Current equals dynamic compression unless very close attention is paid to it. Tubes are less prone to compression.


Why is compression so more audible at lower frequencies?

Let’s say we drop the volume at 1KHz by 10dB while listening at a healthy 90dB SPL. The ear now corrects that so we only hear it as a 3-4dB drop. Drop volume down to 70dB SPL (-20dB total) and the perceived drop has barely increased to -5dB. Yes we can hear that. But at 30 Hertz we hear the total 20dB drop because there is no compression.

At mid frequencies 2dB drop is noticeable, but 1dB much less so and 0.5dB would hardly be noticed if at all. But these small changes would be FAR MORE noticeable at low frequencies where the changes are dramatically expanded.

Specifications show measured distortion, freq responses etc, but nothing about the equipments dynamic behaviour. In all cases it is because the better component has lower compression and superior dynamics while still remaining acceptably low distortion. Now we know why Classē DR-9 had "no bass" even though specifications disagreed. We heard an amplifier deficient in dynamic behaviour that specifications cannot reveal.

Here are some more over-looked examples:

Dynamic (conventional) speakers are inherently compressors of sound. Is that why some like panel speakers like Quads. Why do others love horns? Answer is obvious. But why do some like Lowthers? Because they generate less heat in the voice coils - heat causes compression. More insensitive speakers are more prone to dynamic compression.

(I note that the point was made during the discussion that putting a horn in front of a driver did not reduce heat in the voice coil. Quite correct. But if you only require a quarter of the power for your desired volume level, does that not mean your voice coil only have to dissipate a quarter of the same heat? And is then the opposite not also true? If a speaker is less sensitive you have to put more power into it, more heat and more compression.)*

Why are some claiming some magnets in speakers sound better than others, like Alnico magnets? Could it be that they are more stable under dynamic conditions? And on it goes!!!

Some other observations that reveal dynamic compression:

Have you noticed that people resort to loudness to compensate for poor dynamics? Loudness is not the same as dynamics. Just look at in-car stereo systems. They seem to only sound dynamic when the volume is wound up excessively.

Separation of musical instruments? We all know what that means and like to hear it. Separation of musical instruments is related to dynamic behaviour, it should be effortless. True dynamics are never FORCED! If your system is not able to separate instruments, you have poor dynamics.

Masking effect:

IF a loud sound exists at the same time as a soft sound, the ear will adjust the dynamic range to accommodate the loud and tend to mask the softer sound. But this is LESS true of low frequencies. Because there is little or no compression, we can hear more distinct level of bass with virtually zero masking. We can hear quite loud bass and a delicate mid or treble sound clearly at the same time. Some composers unconsciously take advantage of that.

Dynamics are as much DOWN as it is up:

The best equipment seems to defy at times the masking effect; Allen Wright has dubbed this as DDR, Downwards Dynamic Range. Tympani sound fast when they stop fast. Bass overhang - after the event - slows down dynamics. Dynamics perception is enhanced by sudden stops.

Have you heard some reviewers referring to some pieces of equipment having a “black background”? That indicates low compression as well as low noise.

We have only scratched the surface. There is much more.

One final example:

For dynamics to be effective at mid frequencies, it must have a sharper leading transient edge. Compression has a response time. Our hearing is more susceptible to damage at mid frequencies. Our low frequency hearing is more robust. At mids and highs the response time is quite fast (protective, but don't over do it) but at low frequencies, which have lower rise time, much less so.

This may indicate that we are even more discernable to dynamic behaviour than even F-M curves indicate.

Give it some thought.

Joe Rasmussen

At The Cross Roads.


Why does heat cause compression in coventional cone driver (also called 'dynamic driver' but not to be confused with our topic)? Efficiency ηo is defined by the following equation  :

ηo is defined by three Thiele-Small Parameters as shown, Fs (Free Air Resonance), Vas (Compliance Value) and finally Qes. It is the last one that is of interest here as it is related to the driving force. The higher the Qes the lower the efficiency. But heat modifies Qes by the same ratio as the increase of the DC resistance of the voice coil. Heat increases DC resistance (DCR), so if DCR is increased by 10% then Qes also goes up by 10%. This will likely cause about 1dB loss. It is not difficult to understand that a voice coil heat rises on the crest of a musical transient and hence the transient is being slowed down, not rising to its full level (a softer transient immediately afterwards is also effected as now the level has changed). We have a classic mechanism causing compression.

Flat membrane speakers do have an inherent advantage. In the case of ribbons (both real and pseudo) we have a large area acting as a natural heatsink and likewise electrostatics have no enclosed voice coils. But conventional speakers have voice coils trapped in a confined gap and has to radiate heat into the magnetic/motor structure. That is why some drivers have hollowed out pole pieces and/or raised spiders (suspension). These methods help reducing heat and keep things more thermally stable. This also shows the designers as being aware of the problem. BTW, metal cone drivers must also have some advantage (but as all other things are not equal, all drivers will have other problems as well, unless they are perfect - hah hah).


Total Design Responsibility, Joe Rasmussen of Custom Analogue Audio & JLTi

Part Financial Sponsor & Prototype Box Construction, Bernard Chambers of Sutherland

Sounding Boards, Michael Lenehan of Lenehan Acoustics & Brad Serhan of Orpheus Loudspeakers



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Last modified: Monday June 08, 2015

Just had a terrible thought. If "intelligent design" is unscientific, then who will design our audio equipment?