A decibel might seem like an obscure or intimidating concept, only accessible to scientists or engineers using delicate equipment. This is not the case however; decibels are simple measurements that anyone can use to keep track of the sound levels around them.
A decibel (dB) is the unit of a sound’s intensity, or in other words how loud a sound is. Imagine the volume of a normal conversation: how loud do you think it rates scientifically? The answer is about 60 decibels.
What’s the quietest sound you can think of? The rustling of leaves is barely audible to the human ear at about 15 dB, while anything 85 dB or over, such as a rock concert, can cause permanent hearing damage.
Whilst sound measurements are useful in many professional and occupation settings, monitoring your personal decibel exposure on a regular basis can be a big help when it comes to your ear health and the prevention of hearing loss.
Decibels are easy to measure and there are a host of cheap and even free tools you can use to measure the sounds around you. First, let’s have a look at some phone apps that can help you measure the decibels in your environment.
Apps for measuring decibels
This Android app has a user-friendly interface and clean design, displaying decibel measurements on a dial, with supplementary sound charts. A handy reference list of various sounds and their corresponding dB values gives users some context on what the measurements really mean.
The app displays the minimum, average and maximum loudness of sounds recorded in your environment. Highly rated by users and well suited to sound measuring novices, this is a free app with some ad placements.
Also available on Android, deciBel achieves a high standard in programming and accuracy. Developer BSB Mobile has utilized a Fast Fourier Transform algorithm and an A weighting filter in an effort to achieve as accurate readings as possible for a phone app.
A slightly more complex display shows 3 types of chart which track sounds and times. Also displayed are the current, minimum and maximum sound values, as well as information on sound frequency, a dosimeter, FFT and digital sound processing.
Data can be exported to an SD card, though it’s necessary to calibrate deciBel before use. Overall, this is a popular and comprehensive app, which is free for use with ads, or you can upgrade to a paid pro version.
3. Sound Analyser App
One of the few free apps without ads, this Android app works as a Sound Level Meter and Real-time Audio Analyser. It offers measurements for both decibels and sound frequencies, with a range of weightings and parameters to choose from.
These technical options make Sound Analyser a good option for people already familiar with the technical workings of sound, who may want to vary weightings and sound exposure levels. Sound Analyser comes pre-calibrated, but users are able recalibrate it themselves.
4. Decibel 10
Available on Android and the iPhone, Decibel 10 offers a range of functions packed into a stylish and easy to use interface. A real-time dial displays current environmental sound levels and you can choose from several wave or bar graphs to track decibels over time.
The average, minimum and maximum decibel levels are displayed, and users can select a range of measurement functions and weightings. Unique features include a tool for long recordings (up to 24 hours), an “InstaDecibel” function which allows users to share recordings on social media and easy export options.
Decibel 10 is pre-calibrated but custom calibration is available. Compatible with most Apple devices, this app is free with ads, or upgrade for an ad-free version.
5. dB Volume Meter
Suited to beginners, casual users or even kids, this iPhone app has a simple, colourful design which is easy to read and use. This app makes no claims to be of a professional standard, but is aimed to take general measurements for fun and education.
A colour-coded gauge makes it easy to identify your sound levels, and adds some context to help users interpret the data given. Readings up to 70 dB, harmless to the human ear, are given in green, while dangerously loud noises of 100 dB and over are represented in red, for example.
As a paid app, dB Volume Meter has no ads, and offers additional features such as a “hold” button, peak measurements and an adjustable response rate.
How accurate are apps for measuring decibels?
You might be wondering, just how accurate are phone apps for taking sound measurements? The truth is that though apps are a convenient and easy-to-use option for basic use, even the most advanced app is not a scientific instrument.
While phone apps are a reasonably accurate option for people looking to make some casual decibel readings, they aren’t the ideal tool to attain really accurate or professional level measurements. Decibel measuring apps are restricted by the limitations of the microphone built into your phone. Such microphones are manufactured specifically to transmit the human voice and therefore there is a limit to the range of sounds they can register.
As regular conversations are generally around the 60 dB mark, sounds over 90 dB may not register correctly on your phone. Not only that, but microphone quality can vary according to phone brands, manufacturers and even models, which can lead to variations in recording quality depending on the phone you have. Any app is limited by the hardware used to take the sound readings.
A study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that only a fraction of smartphone decibel meter apps had the features or degree of precision necessary to take professional level recordings. Of those apps deemed to meet a professional standard, the study found an average level of +/- 2dB accuracy. While not as accurate as a specialized decibel meter, a good phone app is not a bad option for personal or basic occupational use where data doesn’t have to be exact.
If you need a really accurate reading or a greater value range, it’s a good idea to go one step further and use a decibel meter to take your sound measurements. There is a wide selection of meters on the market; check out these options:
GRDE Decibel Meter
This portable device is a good basic option for people who want quick and easy data on their sound levels, with minimum expense. With a measurement range of 30 to 130 dB, you can measure most sounds that people are likely to encounter in their daily lives and even in a professional context.
A hard shell, back-lit screen and small size make this meter handy to carry and use almost anywhere. Users have the ability to lock in measurement or sound values, including the minimum and maximum settings. This decibel meter requires calibration before use, but once set up it should have an accuracy rating of +/-1.5dB.
Tacklife SLM01 Classic Digital Sound Measurement Level Meter
A slightly more advanced option, the SLM01 is pre-calibrated and has a greater accuracy rating of +/- 0.15dB. This meter also features a sampling rate of two times per second and data-hold function to lock in the minimum or maximum reading until a significantly different sound level is detected.
A simple design and functionality make this portable device easy to use in a range of environments and it has a measurement range of 30 dB to 130 dB. A range of certifications and standards are included, making this meter a good option for professionals or serious hobbyists.
Anybody can begin to analyse the world of sound that surrounds them on a daily basis; measuring sound intensity has never been more accessible or convenient. Whether for the purpose of maintaining your hearing health, occupational use or even just curiosity, there is a decibel meter out there to suit your needs.