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# The Decibel (dB) and the Violin/Piano Recital

by Alan Lofft October 01, 2008
Contributors:

Concert Hall

One of the most difficult-to-understand terms for newcomers (and even experienced enthusiasts) in audio and sound reproduction is the decibel, partly because it’s a measure of relative intensity or power in both acoustics and electrical circuits. It may help to understand it better if you know how the engineers at Bell Laboratories, back in 1924, came up with the term from which the decibel was derived.

One “Bel,” named in honor of the brilliant inventor and communications pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, represented the relative reduction in audio level that a mile of telephone cable imposed on the telephone audio signal (and you were worried about 30 or 40 feet of speaker cable!). It became shortened to “decibel”, which represents one-tenth of 1 bel (1 bel = 10 decibels). So a decibel expresses relative intensity, and it’s logarithmic in nature, based on multiples of 10. In terms of loudness and acoustical intensity, the decibel can conveniently express a huge range in sound pressures to which the ear responds (far greater than one million), from 0 dB (the threshold of hearing in young, undamaged ears) to 120 dB, the loudness of a jet engine or front-row seating at a rock concert. An increase of 1 dB can also be thought of as a just barely noticeable change in loudness, or the sound intensity generated by a mosquito flying at a distance of about 3 meters, or 10 feet. Can you hear a mosquito in a quiet cabin flying 10 feet away? Young, undamaged ears likely can.

On a more practical level, we often wonder how amplifier power output in watts relates to changes in the acoustical output (loudness), of loudspeakers. Now for the really amazing part: although it seems that doubling the amplifier power in watts would also double the loudness, disappointingly it only increases loudness by 3 dB, a change in volume most of us perceive as “slightly louder.” That’s why going from an amplifier of 75 watts output to one of 150 watts output only increases the actual acoustic output a bit—again by 3 dB. To make sounds subjectively “twice as loud”—an increase of 10 dB—requires ten times as much power from the amplifier. So if your speakers are using 5 to 10 watts (a fairly typical value) to produce reasonably loud sound in your average-size room, and you want to make your music twice as loud, you’ll need ten times as much power, or about 50 to 100 watts. That’s why it’s important to have plenty of reserve power in your amplifier/receiver to handle the peaks in loudness that may be at least 10 dB louder than average levels. In fact, I have a classical CD recording where the loudest portions of the music are almost 30 dB louder than the quietest passages. Think about how much amplifier power that requires cleanly reproducing the 98-dB peaks in my 2,200 cu. ft. living room. Bring on the Axiom A1400-8!

Most of us have seen the charts that document the relative loudness of various common sounds—rustling leaves, 10 dB; a very quiet library, 30 dB; average conversation, 60 dB; street traffic, 85 dB, a full orchestra, 98 dB, and so on (see decibel charts). But it’s fun to actually measure the relative loudness of various types of music heard live; moreover, it’s amazing how accurate even an inexpensive sound pressure meter is, and how closely the values relate to our subjective perception of “quiet” and “quite loud” music and to universally measured sound pressure levels.

A practical illustration of real-life volume levels of two acoustic instruments occurred at a violin and piano recital I attended by a young virtuoso violinist, Yuri Cho, and her accompanist, Michael Tan, at Merkin Concert Hall, a small 300-seat venue in New York City. Mr. Tan played a big Steinway concert grand piano. Ms. Cho was standing about 5 feet in front of the piano. I sat in Row B, only about 15 feet from the two performers. In the background hush before the recital began, I could easily hear the whirr of the hall’s air-exchange system, which was constant and measured 55 dB (all C-weighted), the latter quite high compared to some of the newest halls with baffled air-exchange systems that are almost silent at 35 or 40 dB. With my RadioShack meter in my lap, during the pianissimo sections, where the two recitalists played very quietly, the sound levels averaged about 70 dB; when things got loud (forte), the measurements rose to peaks of 87 and 89 dB, which certainly sounded very loud.

The higher strings of Ms. Cho’s violin had a somewhat hard and steely edge from my seat in Row B, so after intermission I moved to row F, which about doubled the listening distance from the piano and violin to 30 feet. According to acoustical laws (the inverse square ratio) the sound levels should have dropped to one quarter of their previous values (in an anechoic chamber that would happen) but in the hall, sitting midway back in Row F, my ears were receiving a much more rounded blend of direct and reflected sounds. Amazingly, the measured levels were only slightly less loud. On dynamic peaks in Gershwin’s wonderful Three Preludes, the sound levels still peaked in the range of 85 dB, only about 3 dB less loud than sitting up close. In Row B, the direct instrumental sounds were very dominant, with very little ambience, which is why the violin sounded hard (yes, some real instruments can sound harsh and edgy close up; I ought to know, I studied violin for 15 years). Back in row F, my ears were receiving lots of reflected sounds from the hall’s side walls, which combined with the direct sounds to produce a much more pleasing blend, with hints of the small recital hall size.

Special thanks to Axiom Audio for allowing us to reprint this article.

mtrycrafts posts on October 02, 2008 00:48
cbraver, post: 463531
…It's interesting to me the difference required for something like a 87dB/w speaker versus a 90dB/w speaker. It's pretty significant.

Yep, 2X the power
gene posts on October 01, 2008 22:52
What this article doesn't take into account is the additive SPL effect of multiple speakers playing in the room.

What separates the A-1400 from most high power amps is you've got that high power in a high efficiency design in a compact box that also appears to offer very high quality audio, comparible or exceeding some of the better class A/B amps. When I get one in for review, I will find out
cbraver posts on October 01, 2008 19:51
I must say some of the Internet brands don't seem to be passing the savings on very much anymore. Almost four grand for this thing, and when you see MSRP on a typically amp you can expect to get a significant chunk of that off when you actually buy it. Not saying this isn't a good product, but, just talking out loud. You could get a stack of Crown XTi amps with variable speed fans (important for noise) and much more power per channel (overkill) for less money. I guess the packaging and having it in one box is certainly important for a lot of people though.

mtrycrafts, post: 463528
Yes, interesting but

In fact, I have a classical CD recording where the loudest portions of the music are almost 30 dB louder than the quietest passages. Think about how much amplifier power that requires cleanly reproducing the 98-dB peaks in my 2,200 cu. ft. living room.

With his example of that small 300 seat concert hall, not reducing the intensity by 6 dB when he moved, although two different pieces were played and may not have had the same peaks to begin with, it was about a 3dB reduction or so.

Now, a 90dB spl 1w/1m speaker would need say 10 watts to make it simple, for that 98 dB peak at 1m or 100 watts for 108 dB spl. Now if he moves back to 12 ft, say a 6dB to 8 dB reduction at the most, that would be 100 dB spl peak, like the one in that hall And the quiet passage on that Cd would be 70dB, still rather loud So, no I don't think he needs his super duper amp

https://www.crownaudio.com/amp_htm/amp_info/how_much_power.htm

Also this calculator:

https://www.crownaudio.com/apps_htm/designtools/elect-pwr-req.htm

It's interesting to me the difference required for something like a 87dB/w speaker versus a 90dB/w speaker. It's pretty significant.
mtrycrafts posts on October 01, 2008 19:44
One of the most difficult-to-understand terms for newcomers (and even experienced enthusiasts) in audio and sound reproduction is the decibel, partly because it’s a measure of relative intensity or power in both acoustics and electrical circuits. It may help to understand it better if you know how the engineers at Bell Laboratories, back in 1924, came up with the term from which the decibel was derived.
].

Yes, interesting but

In fact, I have a classical CD recording where the loudest portions of the music are almost 30 dB louder than the quietest passages. Think about how much amplifier power that requires cleanly reproducing the 98-dB peaks in my 2,200 cu. ft. living room.

With his example of that small 300 seat concert hall, not reducing the intensity by 6 dB when he moved, although two different pieces were played and may not have had the same peaks to begin with, it was about a 3dB reduction or so.

Now, a 90dB spl 1w/1m speaker would need say 10 watts to make it simple, for that 98 dB peak at 1m or 100 watts for 108 dB spl. Now if he moves back to 12 ft, say a 6dB to 8 dB reduction at the most, that would be 100 dB spl peak, like the one in that hall And the quiet passage on that Cd would be 70dB, still rather loud So, no I don't think he needs his super duper amp
mtrycrafts posts on October 01, 2008 19:23
cbraver, post: 463449
Doesn't 150wpc just mean you have 50 watts more headroom than the 100wpc amp?

The 100 watt amp with a 3 dB headroom is capable of 200 watt dynamic output. That 150 watt amp is capable of about 187 watts dynamic out with that 1 dB headroom.