How Decibels and Watts Affect Loudness and Power

The difference between decibels and watts

Decibels and watts are common terms used when describing audio equipment. In general, decibels are a measure of loudness, while watts measure amplifier power. The specifics can be confusing, so here is an explanation of what these specs mean and how they relate.

What Is a Decibel?

A decibel is made up of two words: deci, meaning one-tenth, and bel, which is a unit named after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

Bel is a unit of sound and a decibel (dB) is one-tenth of a bel. The human ear is sensitive to a range of sound levels—from 0 decibels, which is complete silence to human hearing, to 130 decibels, which causes pain. The volume of 140 dB can cause hearing damage if endured for a length of time, while experiencing 150 dB can burst your eardrums, immediately damaging your hearing. Sound above this level can be physically damaging and even lethal.

Some examples of sounds and their decibels:

  • Human breathing heard from a close distance is about 10 dB.
  • A normal conversation is about 60 dB.
  • A vacuum cleaner is often around 80dB.
  • A jet engine at close range is about 120 dB (that's why you see the crew on the tarmac of an airport wearing protective earmuffs).
  • An ambulance siren is also about 120 dB up close.

The human ear is capable of hearing and recognizing an increase or decrease in the sound level equivalent to about 1 dB. Anything less than +/-1 dB is hard to perceive. An increase of 10 dB is perceived as being approximately twice as loud by most people.

What Is a Watt?

A watt (W) is a unit of energy, like horsepower or joules, named after James Watt, a Scottish engineer, chemist, and inventor.

In audio, a watt is a measure of the energy output of a receiver or amplifier used to power a loudspeaker. Speakers are rated for the number of Watts they can handle. Using an amplifier that produces greater watts than a speaker is rated to handle can blow out and damage the speaker. (When looking at speakers, take into account speaker sensitivity.)

The relationship between units of power output and speaker units of volume is not linear. For example, an increase of 10 watts does not translate to a 10 dB increase in volume.

If you compare the maximum volume of a 50-watt amplifier with a 100-watt amplifier, the difference is only 3 dB, barely greater than the ability of the human ear to detect a difference. It would take an amplifier with 10 times more power (500 watts) to be perceived as being twice as loud—a 10 dB increase.

Keep this in mind when purchasing an amplifier or receiver:

  • Doubling the power output (watts) will result in a 3 dB increase in loudness.
  • A ten times increase to the power output will result in a 10 dB increase, or sound that is twice as loud.
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