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Sunday, October 9, 2011


The decibel (dB) is a logarithmic unit that indicates the ratio of a physical quantity (usually power or intensity) relative to a specified or implied reference level. A ratio in decibels is ten times the logarithm to base 10 of the ratio of two power quantities. A decibel is one tenth of a bel, a seldom-used unit.

The decibel is used for a wide variety of measurements in science and engineering, most prominently in acoustics, electronics, and control theory. In electronics, the gains of amplifiers, attenuation of signals, and signal-to-noise ratios are often expressed in decibels. The decibel confers a number of advantages, such as the ability to conveniently represent very large or small numbers, and the ability to carry out multiplication of ratios by simple addition and subtraction. The decibel symbol is often qualified with a suffix, that indicates which reference quantity or frequency weighting function has been used.

For example, dBm indicates a reference level of one milliwatt, while dBu is referenced to 0.775 volts RMS. The definitions of the decibel and bel use base 10 logarithms. The neper, an alternative logarithmic ratio unit sometimes used, uses the natural logarithm (base e). A change in power ratio by a factor of 10 is a 10 dB change. A change in power ratio by a factor of two is approximately a 3 dB change.


The decibel is commonly used in acoustics to quantify sound levels relative to a 0 dB reference which has been defined as a sound pressure level of .0002 microbar. The reference level is set at the typical threshold of perception of an average human and there are common comparisons used to illustrate different levels of sound pressure. As with other decibel figures, normally the ratio expressed is a power ratio (rather than a pressure ratio).
The human ear has a large dynamic range in audio perception. The ratio of the sound intensity that causes permanent damage during short exposure to the quietest sound that the ear can hear is greater than or equal to 1 trillion Such large measurement ranges are conveniently expressed in logarithmic units: the base-10 logarithm of one trillion (1012) is 12, which is expressed as an audio level of 120 dB. Since the human ear is not equally sensitive to all sound frequencies, noise levels at maximum human sensitivity—somewhere between 2 and 4 kHz—are factored more heavily into some measurements using frequency weighting. (See also Stevens' power law.)


In electronics, the decibel is often used to express power or amplitude ratios (gains), in preference to arithmetic ratios or percentages. One advantage is that the total decibel gain of a series of components (such as amplifiers and attenuators) can be calculated simply by summing the decibel gains of the individual components. Similarly, in telecommunications, decibels denote signal gain or loss from a transmitter to a receiver through some medium (free space, waveguide, coax, fiber optics, etc.) using a link budget.
The decibel unit can also be combined with a suffix to create an absolute unit of electric power. For example, it can be combined with "m" for "milliwatt" to produce the "dBm". Zero dBm equals one milliwatt, and 1 dBm is one decibel greater (about 1.259 mW).
In professional audio, a popular unit is the dBu (see below for all the units). The "u" stands for "unloaded", and was probably chosen to be similar to lowercase "v", as dBv was the older name for the same thing. It was changed to avoid confusion with dBV. This unit (dBu) is an RMS measurement of voltage which uses as its reference 0.775 VRMS. Chosen for historical reasons, it is the voltage level which delivers 1 mW of power in a 600 ohm resistor, which used to be the standard reference impedance in telephone audio circuits.


In an optical link, if a known amount of optical power, in dBm (referenced to 1 mW), is launched into a fiber, and the losses, in dB (decibels), of each electronic component (e.g., connectors, splices, and lengths of fiber) are known, the overall link loss may be quickly calculated by addition and subtraction of decibel quantities.
In spectrometry and optics, the blocking unit used to measure optical density is equivalent to −1 B.

Video and digital imaging

In connection with video and digital image sensors, decibels generally represent ratios of video voltages or digitized light levels, using 20 log of the ratio, even when the represented optical power is directly proportional to the voltage or level, not to its square, as in a CCD imager where response voltage is linear in intensity. Thus, a camera signal-to-noise ratio or dynamic range of 40 dB represents a power ratio of 100:1 between signal power and noise power, not 10,000:1.Sometimes the 20 log ratio definition is applied to electron counts or photon counts directly, which are proportional to intensity without the need consider whether the voltage response is linear.
However, as mentioned above, the 10 log intensity convention prevails more generally in physical optics, including fiber optics, so the terminology can become murky between the conventions of digital photographic technology and physics. Most commonly, quantities called "dynamic range" or "signal-to-noise" (of the camera) would be specified in 20 log dBs, but in related contexts (e.g. attenuation, gain, intensifier SNR, or rejection ratio) the term should be interpreted cautiously, as confusion of the two units can result in very large misunderstandings of the value.
Photographers also often use an alternative base-2 log unit, the f-stop, and in software contexts these image level ratios, particularly dynamic range, are often loosely referred to by the number of bits needed to represent the quantity, such that 60 dB (digital photographic) is roughly equal to 10 f-stops or 10 bits, since 103 is nearly equal to 210.

Suffixes are commonly attached to the basic dB unit in order to indicate the reference level against which the decibel measurement is taken. For example, dBm indicates power measurement relative to 1 milliwatt.
In cases such as this, where the numerical value of the reference is explicitly and exactly stated, the decibel measurement is called an "absolute" measurement, in the sense that the exact value of the measured quantity can be recovered using the formula given earlier. If the numerical value of the reference is not explicitly stated, as in the dB gain of an amplifier, then the decibel measurement is purely relative.
The practice of attaching a suffix to the basic dB unit, forming compound units such as dBm, dBu, dBA, etc., is not permitted for use with the SI. However, outside of documents adhering to SI units, the practice is very common as illustrated by the following examples.


Since the decibel is defined with respect to power, not amplitude, conversions of voltage ratios to decibels must square the amplitude, as discussed above.

A schematic showing the relationship between dBu (the voltage source) and dBm (the power dissipated as heat by the 600 Ω resistor)

dB(1 VRMS) – voltage relative to 1 volt, regardless of impedance]
dBu or dBv
dB(0.775 VRMS) – voltage relative to 0.775 volts. Originally dBv, it was changed to dBu to avoid confusion with dBV. The "v" comes from "volt", while "u" comes from "unloaded". dBu can be used regardless of impedance, but is derived from a 600 Ω load dissipating 0 dBm (1 mW). Reference voltage V = \sqrt{600 \, \Omega \cdot 0.001\,\mathrm W}\, \approx 0.7746\,\mathrm V
In professional audio, equipment may be calibrated to indicate a "0" on the VU meters some finite time after a signal has been applied at an amplitude of +4 dBu. Consumer equipment will more often use a much lower "nominal" signal level of -10 dBV. Therefore, many devices offer dual voltage operation (with different gain or "trim" settings) for interoperability reasons. A switch or adjustment that covers at least the range between +4 dBu and -10 dBV is common in professional equipment.

dB(1 mVRMS) – voltage relative to 1 millivolt across 75 Ω. Widely used in cable television networks, where the nominal strength of a single TV signal at the receiver terminals is about 0 dBmV. Cable TV uses 75 Ω coaxial cable, so 0 dBmV corresponds to −78.75 dBW (−48.75 dBm) or ~13 nW.
dBμV or dBuV
dB(1 μVRMS) – voltage relative to 1 microvolt. Widely used in television and aerial amplifier specifications. 60 dBμV = 0 dBmV.


Probably the most common usage of "decibels" in reference to sound loudness is dB SPL, sound pressure level referenced to the nominal threshold of human hearing:

dB (sound pressure level) – for sound in air and other gases, relative to 20 micropascals (μPa) = 2×10−5 Pa, the quietest sound a human can hear. This is roughly the sound of a mosquito flying 3 meters away. This is often abbreviated to just "dB", which gives some the erroneous notion that "dB" is an absolute unit by itself. For sound in water and other liquids, a reference pressure of 1 μPa is used.
One Pascal is equal to 94 dB(SPL). This level is used to specify microphone sensitivity. For example, a typical microphone may put out 20 mV at one pascal. For other sound pressure levels, the output voltage can be computed from this basis, except that noise and distortion will affect the extreme levels.

dB – relative to 1 Pa, often used in telecommunications.
dB sound intensity level – relative to 10−12 W/m2, which is roughly the threshold of human hearing in air.
dB sound power level – relative to 10−12 W.
dB(A), dB(B), and dB(C)
These symbols are often used to denote the use of different weighting filters, used to approximate the human ear's response to sound, although the measurement is still in dB (SPL). These measurements usually refer to noise and noisome effects on humans and animals, and are in widespread use in the industry with regard to noise control issues, regulations and environmental standards. Other variations that may be seen are dBA or dBA. According to ANSI standards, the preferred usage is to write LA = x dB. Nevertheless, the units dBA and dB(A) are still commonly used as a shorthand for A-weighted measurements. Compare dBc, used in telecommunications.
dB HL or dB hearing level is used in audiograms as a measure of hearing loss. The reference level varies with frequency according to a minimum audibility curve as defined in ANSI and other standards, such that the resulting audiogram shows deviation from what is regarded as 'normal' hearing.

dB Q is sometimes used to denote weighted noise level, commonly using the ITU-R 468 noise weighting

Audio electronics

dB(mW) – power relative to 1 milliwatt. No reference impedance is assumed, although 600 ohms is common in audio equipment.
dB(full scale) – the amplitude of a signal compared with the maximum which a device can handle before clipping occurs. Full-scale may be defined as the power level of a full-scale sinusoid or alternatively a full-scale square wave.
dB(true peak) - peak amplitude of a signal compared with the maximum which a device can handle before clipping occurs. In digital systems, 0 dBTP would equal the highest level (number) the processor is capable of representing. Measured values are always negative or zero, since they are less than or equal to full-scale.


dB(Z) – energy of reflectivity (weather radar), related to the amount of transmitted power returned to the radar receiver; the reference level for Z is 1 mm6 m−3. Values above 15–20 dBZ usually indicate falling precipitation.
dBsm – decibel measure of the radar cross section (RCS) of a target relative one square meter. The power reflected by the target is proportional to its RCS. "Stealth" aircraft and insects have negative RCS measured in dBsm, large flat plates or non-stealthy aircraft have positive values.

Radio power, energy, and field strength

dBc – relative to carrier—in telecommunications, this indicates the relative levels of noise or sideband peak power, compared with the carrier power. Compare dBC, used in acoustics.
dB(J) – energy relative to 1 joule. 1 joule = 1 watt per hertz, so power spectral density can be expressed in dBJ.
dB(mW) – power relative to 1 milliwatt. When used in the radio field, the dB is usually referenced to a 50 ohm load, with the resultant voltage being 0.224 volts. There are times when spec sheets may show the voltage & power level e.g. −120 dBm = 0.224 microvolts.
dBμV/m or dBuV/m
dB(μV/m) – electric field strength relative to 1 microvolt per meter. Often used to specify the signal strength from a television broadcast at a receiving site (the signal measured at the antenna output will be in dBμV).
dB(fW) – power relative to 1 femtowatt.
dB(W) – power relative to 1 watt.
dB(kW) – power relative to 1 kilowatt.

Antenna measurements

dB(isotropic) – the forward gain of an antenna compared with the hypothetical isotropic antenna, which uniformly distributes energy in all directions. Linear polarization of the EM field is assumed unless noted otherwise.
dB(dipole) – the forward gain of an antenna compared with a half-wave dipole antenna. 0 dBd = 2.15 dBi
dB(isotropic circular) – the forward gain of an antenna compared to a circularly polarized isotropic antenna. There is no fixed conversion rule between dBiC and dBi, as it depends on the receiving antenna and the field polarization.
dB(quarterwave) – the forward gain of an antenna compared to a quarter wavelength whip. Rarely used, except in some marketing material. 0 dBq = −0.85 dBi

Other measurements

dB(hertz) – bandwidth relative to 1 Hz. E.g., 20 dB-Hz corresponds to a bandwidth of 100 Hz. Commonly used in link budget calculations. Also used in carrier-to-noise-density ratio (not to be confused with carrier-to-noise ratio, in dB).
dBov or dBO
dB(overload) – the amplitude of a signal (usually audio) compared with the maximum which a device can handle before clipping occurs. Similar to dBFS, but also applicable to analog systems.
dB(relative) – simply a relative difference from something else, which is made apparent in context. The difference of a filter's response to nominal levels, for instance.
dB above reference noise.

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