Surround Receivers

Why AV Receivers Display Volume in Negative Numbers

Home theater can be a confusing hobby. So many terms and acronyms are thrown around as if everyone knows what they mean. But you’ve muddled your way through and now you’ve got a setup that you really like. But that AV receiver? It’s still a little confusing. Like, what’s up with those numbers? Why do AV receivers display volume in negative numbers instead of something normal? Let’s discuss!

Relative versus Absolute Volume

You may be asking the exact opposite question. Your volume display may show positive rather than negative numbers and you are confused why everyone is referring to -10 on their volume dial. Either way, welcome to the wonderful world of relative and absolute volume.

Relative volume uses a common metric to display volume. Most AV receivers display volume in relation to reference volume. AV receivers use zero on the dial as reference volume, and your display will be in relation to it. That’s why most people see negative numbers for volume on their AV receivers’ display. Because reference level is LOUD. Think “watching a movie at an IMAX theater” loud. Most people don’t want the volume that high regularly.

Absolute volume is more arbitrary. Many times AV receivers won’t display negative volume numbers at all. But the range isn’t standardized. We’ve seen 0-100, 0-80, and other combinations. The absolute numbers will (usually) correlate to the negative numbers. On a 0-100 scale, for example, 80 might line up with 0 on the relative scale. Therefor 70 would equate to -10 and so on.

Can I Change the Scale?

Maybe the negative numbers trigger you, or maybe your spouse/kids just don’t seem to understand it, but you’d like to switch scales. Is this possible? The answer is maybe. Probably. We’re not sure.

Many AV receivers have the ability to display volume in either of the scales (so you can see whole or negative numbers as you wish). You’ll have to search your user manual to see if your receiver can swap. In our experience, the higher-end (and higher-priced) AV receivers usually can. The entry-level receivers are usually stuck with whatever scale they have.

Is There Any Reason to Choose One Over the Other?

As you can probably guess, if all you are doing is changing the volume on your AV receiver, then it doesn’t matter if the numbers are positive or negative. It is totally your choice. But there is one time when the relative display scale (with the negative volume numbers) is preferable with AV receivers. That’s when you are manually calibrating your speakers.

Most of us don’t do this anymore. We use our AV receiver’s room correction program. But if you have your own SPL meter (not one of the SPL apps) or are using REW and you want to calibrate your speakers manually, you’ll need to know that you are at reference level. Can you just look up what reference level is on your AV receiver’s absolute scale? Yes. But using the relative scale will be easier.

Also, when you are talking about your settings with others, no one will know what volume level 72 is on your AV receiver. Using the relative negative numbers that AV receivers all display will allow people to relate to your volume level. So there’s that.

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