About Decibels (dB)

Prepared by Gregg Vanderheiden Ph.D.

Trace R&D Center   Univ of Wisc.

What is a Decibel (dB)?

A dB or Decibel is a logarithmic unit of measure of the ratio between two numbers.

dB and Power   (20dB = 100x)

When talking about power, a 3dB represents a ratio of two to one or a doubling of power. 

·         Thus,  a gain of 10dB would represent a ratio of ten to one for power - so 10 dB be 10 times the power

·         A 40dB power gain would be 10,000 times the power. 

dB and Voltage gain    (20dB = 10x)

 When talking about voltage, 6dB represents a ratio of two to one or a doubling of voltage.

·         20dB would represent a ratio of ten to one for voltage - so 20 dB would be 10 times the voltage. 

·         A 40dB voltage gain would be 100 times the voltage.

dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level)  (20dB = 10x)

The term “SPL” stands for sound pressure level. SPL measures are taken with respect to the minimum threshold for human hearing.  A 20 dB difference in SPL represents a ratio of ten-to-one in sound pressure. 

·         Thus, a  40dB SPL would be a sound pressure level that is 100 times greater than the sound pressure level of the quietest sound that normal human hearing can detect.

Perception of Loudness   (20dB = 4x)

Interestingly, our perception of loudness is not the same as sound pressure level.   Although the actual formulae

is somewhat complex,  as a rough rule of thumb, an increase of 10db SPL is perceived to be approximately twice as loud.  

·         Thus a 20 Db gain would seem to be about 4 times as loud.   

·         And a 40 Db gain would seem to be about 16 times as loud.   

dB SPL in Real Life

To give you an idea of how a dB SPL measurements relate to daily life, a listing of the approximate sound pressure level for various sounds is provided below.  (From http://www.state.me.us/spo/landuse/docs/NoiseTABulletin.pdf - with the “Approximate Loudness” column added)   (see also  dB SPL and dB(A) SPL discussion on next page)



Threshold of hearing 0 dBA SPL Don’t hear anything
Broadcast studio interior or rustling leaves 10 dBA SPL 1/32nd as loud as conversation
Quiet house interior or rural nighttime 20 dBA SPL 1/16th as loud
Quiet office interior or watch ticking 30 dBA SPL 1/8th as loud
Quiet rural area or small theater 40 dBA SPL 1/4th as loud
Quiet suburban area or dishwasher in next room 50 dBA SPL 1/2 as loud
Office interior or ordinary conversation 60 dBA SPL Ordinary Conversation
Vacuum cleaner at 10 ft. 70 dBA SPL Twice as loud
Passing car at 10 ft. or garbage disposal at 3 ft 80 dBA SPL 4 times as loud
Passing bus or truck at 10 ft. or food blender at 3 ft. 90 dBA SPL 8 times as loud
Passing subway train at 10 ft. or gas lawn mower at 3 ft. 100 dBA SPL 16 times as loud
Night club with band playing 110 dBA SPL 32 times as loud
Threshold of pain 120 dBA SPL 64 times as loud as conversation
(twice as loud as night club)


Where to get more information.

 A good resource on this topic (referred to from the Acoustical Society of America Site  http://asa.aip.org/)

·         Acoustics FAQ  -  http://www.campanellaacoustics.com/faq.htm


What is difference between dB SPL  and dB(A) SPL?

 The following is from http://www.campanellaacoustics.com/faq.htm

A sound level meter that measures the sound pressure level with a "flat" response will indicate the strength of low frequency sound with the same emphasis as higher frequency sounds. Yet our ear perceives low frequency sound to be of less loudness that higher frequency sound. The eardrum- stapes-circular window system behaves like a mechanical transformer with a finite pass band. In EE parlance, the "3 dB" rollover frequencies are approximately 500 Hz on the low end and 8 kHz on the high end. By using an electronic filter of attenuation equal to that apparently offered by the human ear for sound each frequency (the 40-phon response curve), the sound level meter will now report a numerical value proportional to the human perception of the strength of that sound independent of frequency. Section 8.2 shows a table of these weightings.

Unfortunately, human perception of loudness vis-à-vis frequency changes with loudness. When sound is very loud - 100 dB or more, the perception of loudness is more consistent across the audible frequency band. "B" and "C" Weightings reflect this trend. "B" Weighting is now little-used, but C-Weighting has achieved prominence in evaluating annoying community noises such as low frequency sound emitted by artillery fire and outdoor rock concerts. C-Weighting is also tabulated in 8.2.

The first electrical sound meter was reported by George W Pierce in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, v 43 (1907-8) A couple of decades later the switch from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles in cities led to large changes in the background noise climate. The advent of "talkies" - film sound - was a big stimulus to sound meter patents of the time, but there was still no standard method of sound measurement. "Noise" (unwanted sound) became a public issue.

The first tentative standard for sound level meters (Z24.3) was published by the American Standards Association in 1936, sponsored by the Acoustical Society of America. The tentative standard shows two frequency weighting curves "A" and "B" which were modeled on the response of the human ear to low and high levels of sound respectively.

With the coming of the Walsh-Healy act in 1969, the A-Weighting of sound was defacto presumed to be the "appropriate" weighting to represent sound level as a single number (rather than as a spectrum). With the advent of US FAA and US EPA interests in the '70's, the dBA metric was also adapted by them. (Along with the dBA metric has come an associated shortfall in precision in accurately representing the capacity of a given sound to produce hearing loss and the capacity to create annoyance.)

[Editor's Note: A single number metric such as dBA is more easily understood by legal and administrative officials, so that promulgation, enforcement and administrative criteria and actions are understandable by more parties, often at the expense of a more precise comprehension and engineering action capability. For instance, enforcement may be on a dBA basis, but noise control design demands the octave-band or even third-octave band spectral data metric.]

The most commonly referenced weighting is "A-Weighting" dB(A), which is similar to that originally defined as Curve "A" in the 1936 standard. "C-Weighting" dB(C), which is used occasionally, has a relatively flat response. ""U-Weighting"" is a recent weighting which is used for measuring audible sound in the presence of ultrasound, and can be combined with A-Weighting to give AU-Weighting. The A-Weighting formula is given in section 8 of this FAQ file.

In addition to frequency weighting, sound pressure level measurement can be time-weighted as the "Fast", "Slow" or "Impulse" response. Measurements of sound pressure level with A-Weighting and fast response are also known as the "sound level".

Many modern sound level meters can measure the average sound energy over a given time. this metric is called the "equivalent continuous sound level" (L sub eq). More recently, it has become customary in some circles to presume that this sound measurement was A-Weighted if no weighting descriptor is listed.