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How loud do you listen?

Real talk from the real world: “We have very thin walls and floors, and someone upstairs is walking around, using furniture and pulling chairs across the floor, sitting down, standing up constantly (I can hear every move they make) after midnight until sometimes 3am. It’s loud and disrupting my sleep (it’s non stop and they are constantly moving). I have informed this person that it’s disrupting my sleep and they got quite defensive but said they’ll try to be more considerate but haven’t changed their behaviour – I suggested they could put down carpet but they weren’t interested.”

Search the Free Advice Berlin Facebook group for ‘noise’ and you’ll find it littered with similar complaints (to that above) of boisterous, unthinking neighbours or advice sought from the subject of such complaints.

Berlin’s problem isn’t it’s heavy-footed residents but its Alt-Bau-heavy housing stock where old buildings have been split into apartments with little consideration for intra-floor insulation. Wooden floors are left naked to wow the eye more than the ears below and sound finds easy passage between floors.

Top floor residents aside, high ceilings do nothing to diminish ongoing reminders that you’re living beneath somebody else. Take an apartment in an Alt-Bau and expect to hear every footstep (from neighbours above should you have them) as well as TV and music spilling from both directions.

In Berlin, legislated quiet time (‘Ruhezeiten) is enforced: 22:00 – 06:00 and all day Sundays. Non-compliance can attract a visit from the Polizei.

How does the passionate audiophile survive in a city with such poor sound isolation? The answer is an Neu-Bau – a new building constructed with concrete between floors and walls. One month in Berlin in an Alt-Bau (see above) confirmed that the people of Free Advice Berlin do not lie – such apartments offer very poor noise isolation.

I took my search for a long term apartment, one in which I would need to be able to listen to music throughout the day, to the (literal) next level: a top floor Neu-Bau apartment beneath which sits five floors of office space. Within spitting distance of historic Gendarmenmarkt, I can make as much noise as I need; and with relative impunity.

I don’t…but it’s nice not to have to worry about upsetting neighbours when going deep into Clark’s Death Peak at 11am. The walls here are solid concrete too. Not that I generally play it obscene with the volume control when conducting reviews and/or listening for pleasure. Ultimate Ears’ iOS SPL meter* reports an average of 76db in my 6m x 5m listening room; lower, toward 70db, and player positioning becomes too vague and dynamics lose hip thrust. Higher, toward 85db, and low frequencies overwhelm to ultimately smear the midrange.

That’s how it plays out in the DARhaus listening space. Of course, this same degree of Devialet Expert 200 volume turn applied to the same ELAC Uni-Fi F5 floorstanding loudspeakers would produce a lower SPL reading in a larger room – like that of my Alt-Bau Air-BnB – and a higher number in a smaller one.

This got me thinking: how loud do you listen? Perhaps you live in a German Alt-Bau are forced to keep it below 60db in the interest if neighbourly harmony; or maybe you reside on a Queensland cattle station with a room size to match and you like to crank it hard, over 90db? Most likely it’s somewhere in between.

If you’ve an SPL meter, hardware or a smartphone app, fire it up and let us know your ideal listening level. 

Also in the comments section below, feel free to tell tales of your listening conditions including distance between you and your loudspeakers.


* I am aware of the possible inaccuracies of smartphone-based SPL meters that depend on the host device’s microphone.

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR from which he derives an income from its ad revenues. John is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
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30 Comments

  1. John

    I live in an apartment in the UK. Luckily it is a new build with good sound insulation. The ambient noise is around 30 dB. So I only need to have the speakers at around 60 dB to have a really enjoyable experience. I rarely go above 70 dB. In the evenings I prefer around 50 dB. I can still hear the music clearly and my delicate ears can hear everything I need to enjoy my music.

    I think there was a survey in Stereophile magazine which said that the average person listens at 83 dB.

  2. I generally keep the average in room SPL about 75-80dB, with peaks close to 100dB. I agree that you need at least this much SPL for music to come alive. With classical music, the average is much lower and the peaks higher.

    I was experiencing muddy sound when cranking up the volume. The bass was overwhelming my smallish (14x15x9 feet^3) dedicated room, but after putting in significant acoustic treatments, now the limit appears to be hearing safety and how much my ears can tolerate.

  3. John, concrete walls and a floor that’s truly ideal!
    Lucky and smart you! And it’s not just about transmitting noise. Imagine what thin Sheetrock walls and thin wooden floors do to the sound! In such environment one cannot listen to music without the whole room interacting and destroying the sound. Headphones or nearfield listening. Love to use a sealed sub or two (in stereo) for serious listening as it moves the enjoyment to another level. In New York – no problem with 8″ concrete floors and heavy plaster and cinderblock walls. Here in California the cheap construction shows real colors and render subs unusable as it literally makes the whole house vibrate. All of my critical listening is done nearfield now at average of 78dB with peaks hitting 84-86dB. This is at listening position. However this would have been too low in New York where ambient noise is 65dB on average.
    Here ambient noise is 30dB!!! Pros and cons…:)
    See you in Munich? Halle 1 D10, if time permits stop by for a beer! Cheers!

    • Fellow Californian suburbanite here with the 30dB ambient noise floor, which allows for enjoyable late night sessions even with an average of say 60dB. I have a hardwood on concrete floor, but sheetrock walls. It took a lot of room treatment (10 big bass traps, 7 mid/high freq panels!) to tame the room. I now feel the room is no longer an issue.

  4. ~80dB in the seat for ‘normal’ sessions. That makes it about 4 metres from the speakers in a room 5.5 x 15 metres. For introspective late-night sessions, it can go well below 60dB, making it vital that the system and speakers remain involving and intelligible and don’t require more juice to sing…

  5. Mid 70s on average for me does just fine.
    I have tinnitus so treat my hearing abilities with more respect.

  6. I generally listen around 75db; sometimes with classical music l turn it up so peaks are 85-90 and quiet parts are more readily audible.

  7. iPhone app DB10th

    65db is adequate for listening to classical/jazz
    90db max peaks with other more bass heavy music.

  8. German Alt-Bau here 😉 But ground floor, so there are no people below my I could harm.
    65-70dB is a good and enjoyable listening level and luckily I’m living in a house where all of us give the other some freedom. A party two levels up till 3am which shakes the glasses out of my shelf … fine! Gives me the freedom to turn up the volume another day.

    Ok, one day I exaggerated a bit and was playing James Blake’s Limit to your Love at maybe >100 dB … at 1am. The knocking on my door was understandable 😀

  9. Pretty much 76db for me as well. I live in a detached property in the outskirts of town so no neighbours to worry about but any louder in my room causes the sound to become a bit muddled. I have big speakers for the room (sopra no2) in a 4 by 4.m room.

  10. Listening for 100 seconds to Schwebebahn from the Nits I got these measurements: min 47dB, average 73dB, max 83dB. Listening conditions: listening distance 2.5m, my wife has left the house, the kids are asleep, nice concrete walls, floor and ceiling. App used: SPLnFFT. It says: too loud, exposure time limited.

  11. I use the Android Sound Meter Pro app. l always try to average 76dB. For me that’s the sweet spot for the sound being dynamic. I’m lucky to have no issue with my neighbors.

  12. Question: How do you account for existing background noise if your listening room is not dead silent to begin with? Street noise entering my Chicago (i.e., urban) listening room is typically around 48 dB (except late at night when the traffic has died down). If my (very noisy) central AC is operating, that number rises to ~55 dB.

    Listening to some chamber music at a level where I could decently hear it over the ~55 dB ambient noise, I got a reading of ~70dB. But a lot of that 70 dB is background noise; right? Or am I misunderstanding how SPL measurement works.

    For reference, I used the free Sound Level Analyzer Lite from toon, llc. Per their instructions, I set it at “C” weighting to minimize the roll-off of low and high frequencies.

    Thanks!

    • Those with street noise might play louder. I don’t have to because, at night in Stadtmitte, you can hear a pin drop.

  13. We live on an acre and a half wooded lot at the end of the road and my home office / listening space is above our detached garage… so noise isn’t much of a problem. That being said, I do have a calibrated mic and use AudioTools on my long retired iPhone4 to minimize the chance of hearing damage. I stay at or below the mid 80’s on average with the occasional peak in the low low 90’s.

    Listening to a Clark album on Tidal now, I like. Do you share any playlists on Tidal by chance?

  14. It depends….Background music 50-70…serious listening 65-90+. I’m lucky to live in a single residence and have a dedicated theater room for my equipment. My ambient noise is 30 ish…

    But hell is all about signal to noise right….that’s where digital shines beyond vinyl IMO.

  15. I own a house in the USA. Currently listening to Bike (solo project of Andrew from Straitjacket Fits) at a cruising altitude of 85db, peaks at 90. The Zu Soul Superflys are filling the room nicely. Life is good when you can shut your windows of your well insulated home and rock.

  16. My listing room has a high ceiling right up to the roof and a kind of semi opening during the day therefore during the day I need some power from 72-80 dBA during the night when aim closing all sliding windows/door 70-74 dBa is enough .My office is not large ( a flat ceiling ) and normally I listen from 70-74dBA .Depends what music you listen to >
    some music need to play a bit louder to appreciate .
    Aim using a deciBel Pro SPL Meter (on my HP)

  17. I am also from Germany and fairly new to two Channel Audio and only have a humble setup.
    I got a Riva Turbo X which I drive from my Chord Mojo. Since this weekend I added two DIY Fullrange ‘ Satelites’ to expand the sound stage of the Riva, which works surprisingly well 🙂

    I did a quick test in my lunch break with the Android App Sound Meter and am quiet surprised by the result. I was listening to Sleaford Mods IMHO at quiet high levels, considering that the Mittagsruhe is scheduled from 1pm to 4 pm in this little Kaff, I live in.
    3 Meter from the speaker the average SPL was around 68 dB… So the way I see it, I can crank up the Volume to 11 (the Riva can go to 11 in Turbo mode), since I live in a single home and don’t care for my neighbors 😀 and if they complain I can still tell them ‘it’s Kunst… you bloody cu…’

    Cheers

  18. I live in USA, and am lucky to live in an apartment with concrete walls . My only sound system is a Riva Turbo X, but I did have a Peachtree nova150 and Aperion Verus II Grand speakers a while back with subwoofers, which I returned.

    My neighbor did complain about the sub being too loud (Hsu VTF-1 MK3). Otherwise, things have been good for me.

    Now I just need to save money and buy a decent pair of speakers and an integrated…

  19. I have pair of genelec 8351s with a 7360 sub, set up in near field in a 1.2m sided equilateral triangle to the listening position. Using the genelec loudspeaker management software and a genelec calibrated mike held in the listening position, I average 73 – 77db, and dont exceed 80. Any lower leaves detail but no excitement.

  20. I don’t live in an Alt-Bau, single family home on one acre in the Texas Hill Country, but I have a wife that limits my average listening level. I was curious, however, regarding your comments about volume and speaker performance. My experience is that some speakers actually sound fairly decent at lower volumes, while others don’t open up until you turn them up. My brother-in-law’s pair of Klipshorn’s sound pretty good at low volumes with his old tube amp.

    There was a reviewer at 6 moons (can’t remember the name) that made a point of evaluating speakers at “late-night” listening levels, and I found that fairly useful information. Indeed, I recall reading a review of your Spatial Audio speakers (may have been the M3’s) in which the reviewer noted that they were one of the better speakers to listen to at low volumes.

    In short, is it your position that all speakers need a certain decibel level to open up, or is it a function of the speaker design?

  21. I generally listen to music in the mid 70s db and I’m about 7 1/2 feet from the speaker which are about 8 1/2′ apart. My head is almost against the rear wall and I have wool carpets directly behind the speakers to mitigate the sound somewhat as it travels downstairs. My room is about 10 1/2′ X 15′ with the speakers along the long wall with one side opening to the rest of my place. All of this is situated on the 2nd floor which wall to wall rugs over concrete over wood. Just like a regular apartment in my neck of the woods.

    Even with the windows closed I can hear it when outside but I’ve been here for more than 20 years (time to move!) so my neighbors are used to me, even when I forget to close a window. I only go above 80db when playing something like Trent Reznor’s soundtrack to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. I just have to swim in something like that as it requires a fully fleshed out soundscape for my ears to claw their way through. 🙂
    Heck, it can reach the 90s db sometimes but even I become too aware of what I’m subjecting my neighbors to so I always relent and turn it down.

  22. Ambient 35db, peaks of 75db sounds good to my ears in my current setup. A few years ago i tried to see how loud i could get my system. I was running reasonably effecient main speakers and a 10″ sub. With all the walls and floor shaking (its a timber construction house), I got up to 98db. And that volume was actually quite alarming. It was summer and everyone on the street had their air conditioning on. We had been experiencing issues with people drawing too much power off the grid in our suburb that summer. Anyway this volume lasted for about 5 minutes until the local mains transformer shut itself down. Whoops.

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