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How to find out how loud your headphones are

Figuring out how loud your headphones are can be great for understanding your daily exposure to sound and preventing hearing loss.
March 10, 2023
The Philips Fidelio open-back headphones on a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 desktop interface.

Knowing how loud your headphones are can be really important for ensuring you’re listening at a safe volume. To really find this out, you’re going to need to measure your headphones decibel level. Measuring how loud your headphones are can help you gauge the sound level you’re exposing yourself to regularly and what measures to take to prevent hearing loss.

Editors note: this article was updated on March 10, 2023, to update links and address a frequently asked question.

What are decibels?

Decibels (dB) are a unit of measurement based on a ratio of two values of power. They’re used in many different applications, but here we’re discussing decibels as a measurement for sound pressure level. In acoustics, decibels signify how loud a sound is using a calculation based on the ratio of two values of sound pressure level, one being 20 micropascals (the quietest sound a human can hear) and the sound pressure level of the sound being measured. It’s on a logarithmic scale, so an increase of 10dB signifies a tenfold increase in power. For example, 20dB is 100 times more powerful than 1dB. To the human ear, an increase of somewhere around 6 to 10dB is sensed as being about twice as loud.

What is the ideal decibel level for my headphones?

A CDC-provided chart of listening levels by decibel.
Centers for Disease Control The CDC says keep your tunes lower than 85dB.

Human hearing is very subjective, but hearing loss can begin at objective decibel levels. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends 85dB as a maximum to prevent hearing loss. 85dB is pretty loud for listening to music, so this shouldn’t be hard to abide by. With that, the maximum duration for exposure to 85dB is eight hours, after which you’re likely causing noise induced hearing loss. If for some reason you’re listening to music for 12 hours a day, make sure the volume level is well below that. If your headphones are blaring music as loud as a chainsaw, you should turn those things down fast to preserve your hearing well before that.

How do I measure the decibel level of my headphones?

The easiest and most accessible way to measure how loud your headphones are is by using a sound pressure level (SPL) meter. You can either use a physical decibel meter, or an application on your phone (here’s a highly-rated one for Android and a NIOSH-developed one for iOS). Neither choice is perfect, but the physical decibel meter is more likely to be accurate. You need to get a reading of the sound pressure inside the enclosed ear cup of your headphones while playing a continuous test track at various volumes to see what your results are.

What complications are there with measuring decibels?

The HyperX Cloud Stinger Core resting on a computer monitor.

Whether you’re using a phone or a physical SPL meter to find out how loud your headphones are, you’re going to run into some accuracy problems. You’re depending on the microphone of whichever device in order to pick up the sound you want to measure, and it’s hard to know how or if a mic is calibrated.

Another issue is placement. It’s impossible to reproduce the exact placement and acoustic loading of a pair of headphones as they would sit on your head using this method.  Holding the microphone of the SPL meter at about the same distance that your ear whilst cupping your hands around the headphone’s ear cup should get a ballpark reading. The environment around you should be as quiet as possible, preferably in a room without much ambient noise from electronics or appliances.

There's only one button the right ear cup, and it controls the ANC and power.
The only button on the right ear cup is the power button on the bottom, which also lets you turn off or on active noise canceling if you double tap it.

Additionally, different headphones will output at different decibel levels depending on their sensitivity and impedance. Sensitivity is how many decibels the cans will output for a given input (one milliwatt, for example) and impedance is a measure of resistance to current, measured in Ohms. How loud your headphones are depends on those variables, which can vary a lot between manufacturers and individual models.

Different music will also produce different decibel levels. On the same headphones, frequency response effects the volume based on what you’re listening to. For example, less bass-heavy classical music will output a lower decibel level than something bass-boosted on a pair of Beats Studio3 Wireless headphones, because the bass is much more emphasized on those headphones.

While there are complications with finding an accurate decibel reading from devices, you should be able to get a general idea of how loud your headphones are, and adjust your volume accordingly to enjoy your listening at a reasonable volume while preventing hearing loss.

Frequently asked questions

First, it’s important to use headphones at a safe volume so as to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. To prevent this, you shouldn’t listen to music over 85dB(SPL) for an extended period of time, and the 85dB limit is also for a duration of 8 hours.

If you’re certain that your headphones are too quiet and it’s not related to hearing loss, you can use an amp to make passive headphones louder. Take a look at the specs for your headphones, and take note of the impedance and sensitivity. The sensitivity is how loud the headphones will be with one milliwatt or millivolt of input, and the impedance is the ability of your headphones to resist current. Basically, if your headphones have a higher impedance, you might benefit from an amp. This is usually only the case with more niche audiophile headphones. For more detailed information on understanding this, read our article about whether you need an amp.

We have a whole separate article on this subject if you need more information.

Yes, volume limiters exist that can limit the volume of your headphones. Some kids headphones come with volume limiters built-in. Android and iOS also have built-in options to set a volume limit, known as media volume limit and headphone safety, respectively. But note that volume level limiting isn’t always reliable, i.e. you can’t rely on the advertised loudness. Note that headphones built or sold in the EU and Switzerland have to follow EN 50332 standards, meaning their output must be limited to 85dB(SPL).