Sunday, December 3, 2023

How loud is too loud for your smart devices?

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When people buy smart speakers like Google Nest or Amazon Echo, one of their common concerns is whether the audio is loud enough to fill a room. Can it run a party? Can you hear it over kitchen cooking sounds?

Now we want to ask similar questions from another angle: Can today’s powerful smart and Bluetooth speakers get also loud? What are the risks of playing audio and higher levels? Is it always good to turn on the volume when you feel a little extra bass? Let’s go into the details.

Smart speakers and hearing damage

Let’s deal with health care first. When people listen to a sound that is too loud for a long time, they may develop hearing problems, including tinnitus, hypersensitivity to sounds, and hearing loss. These diseases tend to occur due to the use of headphones, where it is easy to get lost in louder sounds – but can it also occur with home speakers?

According to the World Health Organization, it’s all about the decibels. You can listen to extra-loud sounds that reach 100dB (think approaching aircraft engines, standing next to a noisy subway train, or stepping into the midnight club) for about 15 minutes a day. Longer than that and you risk hearing damage. For sounds that record at 85dB, a higher average level, people can listen for up to eight hours a day without risking problems.

How does that compare to smart home speakers? There is not much danger. Tests of speakers showed that the latest Amazon Echo reaches 81dBa (adjusted for human hearing). Other smart speakers land in similar locations, with the Nest Audio reaching 81.3dBa, and the HomePod Mini growing to 70.2dBA. So, if you sit right next to a smart speaker and have it explode with the absolute maximum volume it can reach. all day long (forget to have conversations while this is happening), then you risk hearing damage. Otherwise, there is little threat.

Damaging your smart speaker

A woman using a smart speaker while working in an office.
Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Human ears are not the only risk of damage when audio goes up. Speakers are also made of delicate components, and these can be damaged by extreme sounds. Coils can overheat, vibration can start to damage drivers, and so on.

The good news is that serious damage is unlikely with smart speakers. Today’s home speakers usually have built-in limits to avoid the level and type of sounds that can damage the speaker. However, vibration and extra-loud hearing can still cause wear and tear over time. If you really like to raise the bass, you can’t expect your speaker to last that long and deliver the same sound fidelity. Eventually, it will simply wear out faster. Aim for 75% of maximum volume to help avoid these risks.

Dealing with distortion

The Amazon Echo 4 on the counter.

Smart home speakers contain a lot of sound in a tiny bundle. That does come with some drawbacks, and one is that high volume levels are more likely to run into misrepresentation problems. You don’t want your favorite song to be ruined by blurry audio when you turn up the volume to really enjoy it.

Volume distortion problems are more likely on small smart speakers, such as the Nest Mini or HomePod Mini or Echo Point. These devices are not really designed to deliver a roomy sound. Larger smart speakers can handle higher volumes more faithfully, but pushing them too high can still create problems. Again, the magic level is usually 75% of maximum volume to prevent misrepresentation issues. If distortion occurs lower than that, the problem is more likely to be an audio connection or formatting problem. For more sound with less risk of misrepresentation, you might consider something like the great Echo Studio, which is built for serious home sound systems.

Annoyingly loud voice assistants

Sometimes, “too loud” just means annoying. Smartphones with voice assistants can sometimes run into this problem – no one wants a voice assistant much louder than the music they play or loud enough to wake someone up in another room.

The problem is that, for common voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant, there is no way to independently control voice assistant volume against universal sound. If your volume is loud, your voice assistant will be really loud. This can creep in if you have a routine that automatically turns up the volume every morning or if you listen to music for a long time without using the voice assistant.

Usually, the best way to avoid problems is to turn down the volume before you start using your voice prompts on voice assistants. If there is a significant sound difference, you should also try restarting your device to see if there is a bug that needs to be removed.

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