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Sound Levels

Decibels (dB) are most commonly used as a measure of sound level, but they are also used in electronics, signals and communications.

Sound is a variation in pressure detectable by the ear, whereas noise is undesired sound, or any sound which causes disturbance or annoyance to the recipient. The unit used to describe sound wave intensity is the bel, named after the inventor Alexander Graham Bell. The human ear is sensitive enough to detect changes of as little as 1/10 of a bel, and so sound intensity levels are described in decibels.

A sound wave’s intensity is the average amount of energy transmitted per unit time through a unit area in a specified direction. The sound intensity level, I, in decibels is 10 times the logarithm of the ratio of the intensity of a sound wave to a reference intensity.

Reverberation Time

The ‘reverberation time’ of a space changes the way the space ‘sounds’ and can affect the intelligibility acoustic information. A high reverberation time can make a room sound muffled, loud and noisy. Rooms designed for speech typically have a low reverberation time, whereas a higher reverberation time can add depth, richness and warmth to music.

The reverberation time of a room is defined as the time it takes for sound to decay by 60 dB after an abrupt termination. It is linked to the total quantity of soft treatments and the volume of the room.

Sound Absorption

The loss of sound energy when sound waves come into contact with an absorbent material such as ceilings, walls, floors and other objects.

The Decibel Scale

The decibel scale gives an approximation of human perception of relative loudness. This is because the human ear has a logarithmic response to changes in sound level.

On the decibel scale, the smallest audible sound (near total silence) is 0 dB. A sound ten times more powerful is 10 dB. A sound 100 times more powerful than near silence is 20 dB.

The logarithmic nature of the dB scale means that each 10 dB increase represents a 10-fold increase in acoustic power. A 20 dB increase is therefore a 100-fold increase in power, and a 30 dB increase is a 1000-fold increase. However, an increase in acoustic power of ten times does not mean that the sound is perceived as being ten times louder. The ear perceives a 10 dB increase in sound level as only a doubling of sound loudness, and a 10 dB decrease in sound level as a halving of sound loudness.

The lower threshold of human hearing is around 5 dB. Normally speaking voices are around 65 dB. A rock concert can be around 120 dB.

Sounds that are 85 dB or above can cause hearing damage, and the higher the sound pressure, the less time it takes to cause damage. For example, a sound of 85 dB may take 8 hours to cause damage, whereas a sound of 100 dB may start to cause damage after only 30 minutes. A sound of around 150 dB can cause instantaneous hearing damage.

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