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Using Test Tones to Set Amplifier Gain

When the hum turns into a buzz, it's clipping

Buck in the Crutchfield Labs

Setting a car amplifier's gain properly ensures the best sound

In an amplified car system, to enjoy your music’s full range of dynamics and frequency response — hearing all the notes clearly, whether loud or soft — you need to set your amplifier’s gain correctly. Setting an amp’s gain right results in the highest signal and the lowest noise and distortion. You’ll feel your music’s impact better and hear exciting details that otherwise would get lost in your car.

Setting the gain by playing music

Most manufacturers recommend playing familiar music with the amp gain low, raising the receiver's volume until the music distorts, then backing it off until the music sounds clean again. Next, you turn up the amp's gain until you hear the distortion again, then back it off slightly, and you're done.

Autosound 2000 Disc Four Amplifier Optimizer Test CD

Using test tones to set amplifier gain

The other methods of setting gain involve using test tones, like those found on the Autosound 2000 Disc Four Amplifier Optimizer Test CD. A test tone is a single note played at a specific frequency, and is typically found on a level-setting disc, but can also be found online for downloading. In the Crutchfield Labs, I ran a set of tests and determined that “doing it by ear and music” works, but not quite as accurately or scientifically as using test tones.

1. Test tones and oscilloscope

Each tone creates a reference-level (0 dB) sine wave that you can observe on an oscilloscope screen. Instead of listening for distortion in music, as you adjust the volume and gain, you can see exactly at what point the signal of each frequency distorts and where it plays clean.

Soundwaves%20on%20the%20oscilloscopeAn example of a clean waveform (left) and a distorted, clipped wave (right)
2. Test tones and speakers

But seeing as most people don’t have oscilloscopes, I thought that maybe by listening to the tones through speakers, one could also set an amplifier’s gain correctly. A non-distorted sine wave test tone sounds like a pure hum. When it distorts, you can clearly hear it buzz. By using test tones played through a speaker, I wondered how accurately could I set an amp’s gain as compared to setting it by the other methods. 

Welcome to my Crutchfield Labs project

I went into The Crutchfield Labs and set up an amplifier, wired to a power supply, a receiver (a Pioneer DEH-3400UB), and a pair of speakers. I also attached two sets of probes to a pair of speaker wires, one going to a voltage meter and the other to an oscilloscope. This way, we could see what the sounds look like and read the resulting power level the amp produced.

Pioneer DEH-3400UB CD receiver
First set the tone controls to the way you listen

The receiver and amp’s EQ and crossovers needed to be set to where they normally would be when playing music. This is so the gain would be set under real-world conditions. Adding boost, at any frequency, after setting the gain, can make the amp clip, distorting the sound and endangering speakers and subs. I let the receiver stay in its factory preset “Dynamic” EQ setting, which boosts the bass and treble for a fuller sound. That meant certain frequencies would play louder than others. I needed to find out which tone clipped the receiver first, at the lowest volume setting. Then, I needed to use that receiver volume setting at that tone’s frequency to set the amp’s gain.

Part 1: Setting the gain with the oscilloscope

How loud can the receiver play and still play clean?

I started with the amp’s gain set to its minimum, and the speakers disconnected. I played the first tone, 40 Hz, a low bass note, only fit for subwoofers, and set the scope to view the sine wave. Then I turned up the receiver’s volume until I could see something bizarre happening to the wave’s shape. It didn’t “clip” at the top and bottom, it distorted in the middle. But I could see exactly at what volume level the distortion first appeared, and where it disappeared.

I took note of what the receiver’s volume reading was: 52. (The receiver’s top volume number was 62.) That meant the receiver played 40 Hz clean and at its loudest at its “52” volume.

Test Tone CD Track 7 40 Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 52
Test Tone CD Track 8 100 Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 51
Test Tone CD Track 9 400 Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 57
Test Tone CD Track 10 1K Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 59
Test Tone CD  Track 11 4K Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 56
Test Tone CD Track 12 8K Hz Maximum Clean Volume = 55
This receiver plays loudest at volume 51, otherwise 100 Hz notes would clip

I measured the receiver’s distortion-free top volumes for the other test tones on the disc. The 100 Hz tone stood out as the strongest — I had to turn the volume to its lowest setting to get it to play clean. Because that volume represented the level that all the tones would play cleanly through the receiver, I used the 51 setting for the receiver’s volume for the next step. Because the 100 Hz tone was the strongest, and would clip the amp first, I used the 100 Hz test tone to set the amp's gain.

The amplifier’s turn

I played the tone and looked at the sine wave while turning up the amplifier’s gain knob. Any waveform distortion I then saw came from the amp, not the receiver. Turning the gain back down until the distortion disappeared, I set the gain exactly where the amp and receiver were both at their maximum clean output levels: perfectly gain-matched.

Sound Ordnance M-4050 4-channel amplifier
Setting the gain right optimizes the amp’s output

I turned up the gain to the amp’s top clean-playing point and read the volt meter. The volt meter read AC (alternating current) voltage, and the amp I used (a Sound Ordnance M-4050 4-channel) showed a top clean output for 100 Hz of 17.6 VAC. That translated to about 77 watts. Not bad for an amp rated at 50 watts RMS per channel.

Bench testing results in higher power readings

What was going on was the power supply the receiver and amp used was 13.5 volts DC, about the same as a running car’s system usually provides, but the amp wasn't connected to the speakers and so wasn't loading down the power supply with the increased current demand of the speakers. That explained some of the “extra” power. But the amp definitely performed above its specified rating. If I had wanted to, I could have set the amp’s output to exactly 50 watts, by turning the gain down until the voltage read a targeted number, in this case 14.14 volts AC.

Math formulas — skip this paragraph

The wattage equals the voltage squared divided by the speaker’s impedance in ohms, 4 ohms in most cases. The voltage equals the square-root of the product of the wattage times the speaker’s impedance (also usually 4). 50 watts times 4 ohms equals 200; the square-root of which is 14.14 volts AC. 14.14 volts through 4 ohms of impedance creates 50 watts of power. These formulae are based on Ohm’s and Joule’s Laws and you can’t break them if you tried.

Part 2: Setting the gain using speakers and my ears

The noisy part of the test

Kenwood%20KFC-6984PS%206%22x9%22%204-way%20speakersKenwood KFC-6984PS 6"x9" 4-way speakers

I then repeated the whole performance with one speaker connected — a Kenwood KFC-6984PS 6"x9" 4-way. I want to say, in advance, that this was not a pleasant experience. Two hours later, my ears were still painfully ringing from the very high 8K Hz tone. Jordan, also in the Labs area at the time, complained that the 4K Hz tone was still ringing in his. This method can produce high-pitched, annoying, ear-drilling sounds that could hurt your hearing if you expose yourself for too long, and definitely will bother everyone within listening distance.

For using tones and your ears to set an amp’s gain, I recommend sticking with only the 40, 100, 400, or 1K Hz tones. They don't hurt at all. The 100 Hz tone alone will do for both subwoofer and full-range speaker amps.

When a hum starts to buzz

A sine wave sounds like a hum. When it distorts, you can clearly hear it buzz. Again, the 100 Hz tone was the first to buzz, and at the exact same 51 volume setting. With the receiver at that top distortion-free level, I played the tone again and turned up the amp’s gain until I could hear the tone buzz again. Then I backed it off until the hum alone remained. The place the gain knob was set and the voltage readings were exactly the same as it had been using the scope.

Speaker%20buzz
Speaker%20hum

I did this test after working hours so no one else would be disturbed. But I proved to myself, at least, that the ear-and-tone method worked just as well and as accurately as using a scope. The 40 Hz tone couldn't really be reproduced by the speakers, so was useless. The 100 Hz tone rattled everything on the desk, so it was a little difficult to pick the buzz-point out of the crowd of reverberations. The 400 Hz tone was the best tone to detect clip-points, with a very clearly defined hum-to-buzz point. 

I hear music

Finally, I tried music and my ears alone. I performed this test twice, days apart, and also afterhours. Not everyone wants to hear my songs played loudly over and over again. At first, I played a favorite R&B-type song full of percussion, bass, horns, and lots of production — but I couldn’t hear it distort, only get loud. So I switched to a clear-voiced female vocalist singing swing. I also played a male singer, to see if it would be any different — it wasn’t.

Your hearing gets more acute when you close your eyes

I closed my eyes when I did this test, so no numbers were used to set the receiver’s top volume. I turned it up until I heard something go wrong with the vocal — it seemed thinner, not as bell-like, and harsher. The male singer's voice suddenly developed a rasp. After turning the receiver down a little, restoring the fine quality of the singer’s voice, I turned up the amp gain until I heard the same thing.

Instructions for gain-setting using tones
  1. Set the receiver’s EQ presets and the amp’s bass boost to the way you normally listen to your music.
  2. With the amp gain at minimum, play a tone from the disc (we recommend 40 or 100 Hz) and turn up the receiver’s volume until you hear it buzz. Back off the volume until the hum returns, and write down or mark the volume setting.
  3. Repeat Step 2, noting the top clean volume settings, using the 400, 800, and 1K Hz tones.
  4. Pick the tone with the lowest clean volume setting and play it again at that setting.
  5. Raise the amp’s gain until you hear it buzz, back off until it hums, and you’re done.

The two times I did this test, I got two different results. The first time, the receiver's maximum volume setting ended up one notch below the tones and scope setting. The second time, it was one notch higher than the tones and scope setting. But both times, the amp gain setting was exactly the same as the other methods.

The differences can’t be heard

On the first day, setting it by ear and music alone, I ended up thinking I should never turn the receiver higher than 50, and the gain was set so that at that 50 volume, the amp put out 15.7 VAC at 100 Hz, or 62 watts. On the second day, it ended up that I could turn it up to 52, and get 18.8 VAC at 100 Hz, or 88 watts. That 100 Hz tone was indeed slightly distorted visually, but it wasn't audible in the music. Plus, I don't usually listen to music full-blast for very long periods of time, so in real use, I would likely never be able to hear the difference.

It’s all about the music

I think either I was a little more or less sensitive to the singers’ voices on different days, and noticed changes at different levels than I could see in the waveforms’ shapes, or the music CDs I used were recorded at a different reference levels. I certainly cranked some swing those evenings in the Crutchfield Lab.

Whatever the differences between the methods were, they all resulted in having the receiver and amp properly gain-matched, and loud, distortion-free music ensued. Using the test tones disc was easier than listening to music. even without the oscilloscope, the tones made it possible for me accurately set the gain. It was very easy to discern when the hum distorted into a buzz.

Pick up a test tone disc and try if for yourself!

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