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Saturday, March 03, 2018

Volume slider's 100% limit is a massive usability failure

Headphone Kitty by Super Formosa from flickr (CC-SA)

We live in a world where all software sucks. I'm not talking about edge cases of some rarely used functionality, or compromises made for sake of backwards compatibility, or due to greed or other external constraints - we don't even get the basics right when nothing stops us.

This one is especially egregious because it affects almost all software.

Here's the problem - volume slider only going up to whatever the software considers "100%"

100% is a lie

100% means nothing. What's meaningful in audio is relative amplitude of various segments. All those ups and downs thousands of times per second are what makes the sound.

The same sound can be played at any volume you want, and it will sound just fine.

For technical reasons audio files, and that's true for both analog and digital, can be "louder" or "quieter". Does this level mean anything? No at all. The happenstance that a certain file goes from -1000 to +1000 or from -2000 to +2000 means absolutely nothing wrt best loudness to play it at.

What happened is that software decided that 1000 corresponds to some loudness at "100% volume", 2000 corresponds to some different higher loudness, and you can't do anything about it. Oh sure, you can make it quieter, but that's all.

Software doesn't even know how that 1000 translates to in any human units. It just sends some voltages to the speakers, and lets the speakers figure it out.

This usability failure was sort of tolerable back in the desktop era, because most desktop speakers have far more power than you'd normally use, so if you normally listen at 30%, then you can just bump it to 60% if software failure sends something particularly quiet to the speakers.

Unfortunately this is not true for shitty laptop speakers or shitty portable earphones. "100%" volume, very low power, and quiet audio, and it's barely possible to hear anything. Then add a crowded train to the mix...

Hall of Shame

  • Apple - 100% guilty
  • Windows - 100% guilty
  • Android - 100% guilty
  • Youtube - guilty (they at least apply server-side audio normalization for music videos, so they're less affected, but all other content has this problem)
  • VLC - desktop version amazingly goes to 200%, but mobile version (which needs it a lot more) just as guilty anyway

Dynamic range adjustment

For a bonus related failure, there's a problem of dynamic range. Movie tend to have much louder (usually action) and much quieter (usually dialogue) parts - which is perfectly fine when watching in otherwise quiet cinema.

Unfortunately at home your choices are:
  • only watch with headphones, alone
  • adjust volume up and down a lot
  • watch it at high volume so you can actually hear the dialogue, and screw the neighbours
  • watch it at low volume so you your neighbours don't complain during action sections, and use subtitles to not miss anything in the the dialogue
  • have software which flattens dynamic range to more reasonable values
At least in this case the excuse is that this kind of adjustment is not quite as trivial as bumping the volume to 100%.

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