How loud do you like your music?

How loud you listen to music depends on the circumstances, but there are ways that you can minimize the long-term effects on your hearing.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

The Sound Level Analyzer Lite in action

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

It's a polarizing subject: loud music (or loud anything). While a lot of people say they don't like loud, they're perfectly OK in loud restaurants and bars, but can't handle loud music at home. Or it might be the other way around -- crazy-loud music is fun, but restaurants or rowdy bars, not so much.

Continued exposure to loud music and other environments can have potentially adverse effects. When I was a kid I loved loud music, the louder the better, but by my early 20s concerns over preserving my hearing made me seek out earplugs, which I've used ever since. 

Do you play loud music at home?

It's a Friday night, and you've got your favorite song cranking, but could this impromptu sing-along be doing you any harm (apart from the neighbors calling the cops)? There are several ways you can minimize the damage that loud music can cause.

The decibel (db) is the unit we use to measure the intensity of sound, and the higher the number the louder the sound. A quiet living room will be around 40 db, a noisy city street 70 db, a thunderclap is 120 db, a fighter jet taking off from an aircraft carrier is an eardrum-crushing 140 db!

Of course, the louder the music, the more distortion your speakers will produce, especially if they're smaller models. At moderate levels (under 90 db) distortion will be negligible, but at higher volume the distortion will start to affect sound quality. The amount of distortion depends on things like the speaker's design and size. More succinctly, larger speakers sound better played loud than do smaller speakers. If you like loud music or movies, buy big speakers. Even if you mostly play your system quietly, but every now and then enjoy cranking it up, buy big speakers.

I rarely listen at anything approaching live concert levels, but while writing reviews I listen at high volume for short periods of time to check the product's ability to handle high playback levels. Sound bars rarely do well, but even some tower speakers stumble when played loud.

How loud is too loud?  

I've tried a number of sound meter apps to measure loudness, but I've come to rely on the free Sound Level Analyzer Lite app in day to day use. The meter settings I use are the app's "C" weighting and "Slow" response settings. If you'd like to get a better handle on loudness, I suggest installing the app on your phone and trying it out at concerts, noisy restaurants, sporting events and so on -- it gets loud out there. Easily in the mid-90 db level, but don't be surprised if it hits well over 100 db! Once you get used to loud sound you might not notice how loud it really is.  


It can get loud

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Checking loudness using the app with the Ramones' Rocket To Russia album the level was averaging a sedate 83 db on a Saturday afternoon. For me, 90 db or higher is pretty darn loud.

By chance, as I was thinking about writing this piece, I heard a solo drummer in the New York subway. He had a basic kit, just a bass drum, tom toms, snare, and a few cymbals. I stood about five feet in front of him and took out my phone and used the app to gauge the drums volume levels. The train station noise level was in the high 70 db range, but the drummer was averaging mid-90 db with peaks hitting 104 db! He sounded great!

So I played some rock music at the same volume over a set of big Klipsch Forte III speakers, which sounded awfully good and had a very live feel, but the subway drummer's power and intensity outpaced the Forte IIIs. Live music is a very different experience.

It's not just rock concerts

Loudness is a part of modern life. Sporting events, snow blowers, restaurants and bars are all loud. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends limiting exposure to 100 db sound to less than 15 minutes; at 103 db, less than 8 minutes. Louder than that for even a few minutes is tempting fate. At some point you'll start to experience hearing loss, and once it's gone it won't come back. Invest in a pair of high-quality earplugs if you regularly attend live events. Your future self will thank you.

If you regularly experience ringing in your ears, have your hearing checked by a local audiologist.