Tutorial: How to think in dB

July 09, 2014 // By Eric Bogatin
The dB (decibel) is one of the most common units in engineering, yet also one of the most confusing, especially when it comes to manipulating S-parameters. Here is how not to be confused.

The Bel is a fundamentally new unit, which was originally established in 1928 by The Bell System to describe sound levels. This scale has since been generalised to relate to the log of the ratio of any two power levels.

The most important principle of the Bel scale to keep in mind is that it is, without exception, by definition, the ratio of powers. It originally related to sound level powers, but has since been generalised to all types of powers.

Sound level power has a huge range. It starts at the threshold of hearing (TOH) with a sound level of about 10-12 W/m². The onset of pain is about 10W/m², and the power level to rupture an eardrum is 1000W/m².

The loudest recorded man-made sound is from rocket launches. The Saturn V produced 100W/m² of sound level power about 1 mile from the launch pad. It only got larger closer to the launch pad.

This amount of sound power reflecting off the launch pad could have easily damaged the Space Shuttle. This is why a 900,000 gallon per minute of water sound suppression system was installed on the launch pad. Even with this system, the sound level power at the position of the Orbiter was about 100W/m².

There are 15 orders of magnitude between the threshold of hearing and the rupture level. When there is such a large dynamic range, it is more convenient to describe the values in terms of the log of the ratio of the power levels to a reference level.