How accurate are dB meter apps?

How accurate are dB meter apps?

Smartphone users worldwide will total 1.75 billion in 2014. Apple iOS and Google Android platforms account for 93% of those devices Smartphone developers now offer many sound measurement applications (apps) using the devices’ built-in microphone (or through an external microphone for more sophisticated applications).

The use of smartphone sound measurement apps (decibel meters) can have a tremendous and far-reaching impact in the areas of noise research and noise control in the workplace as every smartphone can be potentially turned into a dosimeter or a sound level meter . However, in order for smartphone apps to gain acceptance in the occupational environment, the apps must meet certain minimal criteria for functionality, accuracy, and relevancy to the users in general and the worker in particular.

Large demand for quality research

NIOSH noise researchers received numerous requests from stakeholders, safety professionals, and the public to address the accuracy of the many sound measurement applications, or decibel meters,  available for smartphones and whether they can be relied upon to provide an accurate assessment of the ambient environment. As a result, the researchers started a pilot study to select and characterize the functionality and accuracy of these apps as an initial step in a broader effort to determine whether these apps can be relied on to conduct participatory noise monitoring studies in the workplace. The resulting paper, Evaluation of smartphone sound measurement application, was published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Selecting the apps

The researchers selected and acquired a representative sample of the popular smartphones and tablets on the market as of June 2013. Smartphone apps were selected based on their ability to measure occupationally relevant sound level values. A total of 130 iOS decibel meter apps were examined and downloaded from the iTunes store, of those, 10 apps met their selection criteria. A total of 62 Android decibel meter apps were examined and downloaded, however, only 4 apps partially met their criteria and were selected for additional testing. As a result, a comprehensive experimental design and analysis similar to the iOS devices and decibel meter apps study above was not possible.

The research

The measurements were conducted in a diffuse sound field at a reverberant noise chamber at the NIOSH acoustics testing laboratory. For their experimental setup, they generated pink noise with a 20Hz ‒ 20kHz frequency range, at levels from 65 dB to 95 dB in 5-dB increments (7 different noise levels). Reference sound level measurements were obtained using a ½-inch Larson-Davis (DePew, NY) model 2559 random incidence microphone. Additionally, a Larson-Davis Model 831 type 1 sound level meter was used to verify sound pressure levels. Smartphones were set up on a stand in the middle of the chamber at a height of 4 feet and approximately 6 inches from the reference microphone as shown in Table 1.

AppNMean (dB)S.E. (dB)Mean (dBA)S.E. (dBA)
Adv Decibel Meter1683.780.25-5.040.27
Decibel Meter Pro168-8.650.32-13.17A0.27
iSPL Pro168-7.420.27-2.57C0.25
Noise Hunter168-12.210.33-1.92B0.27
Sound Level Meter1686.760.293.600.27
(Real) SPL Meter168-5.580.30-13.13A0.27
SPL Pro1682.780.232.480.11
SPLnFFT1680.060.35-2.27B, C0.25
Means of differences in unweighted and A-weighted sound levels using Tukey multiple pairwise comparisons. Means that share the same letter designation (A, B, C, or D) are not significantly different.

The results

For un-weighted sound level measurements three apps had mean differences within the ± 2 dB of the reference measurement. Since (US) national standards and occupational guidelines specify that type 2 sound measurement instruments have an accuracy of ± 2dBA, some of the above-mentioned apps could potentially be used in the occupational setting, especially if they’re used in conjunction with a type 2 external microphone such as the MicW i436.

The difference between Android and iOS

Android-based apps lacked the features and functionalities found in iOS apps. This is likely due to the iOS advanced audio capabilities compared to other platforms, the open ecosystem of the Android platform, and having so many different Android device manufacturers using different suppliers and components.

Challenges remain with using smartphones to collect and document noise exposure data. Some of the main issues encountered in recent studies relate to privacy and collection of personal data, sustained motivation to participate in such studies, bad or corrupted data, and mechanisms for storing and accessing such data. Most of these issues are being carefully studied and addressed.

In conclusion, smartphone sound apps can serve to empower workers and help them make educated decisions about their work environments. They may be useful for industrial hygienists and OS&H managers to make quick spot measurements to determine if noise levels exist in a workplace that can harm workers’ hearing. The ubiquity of smartphones and the availability of these sound measurement apps may also present new research opportunities for occupational hearing scientists and researchers.

source: NIOSH Division of applied research and technology, Elacin