As speaker technology continues to advance, we seem to be increasingly interested in ‘loudness’ and how it is achieved. It has been theorized that we favor louder sounds over quieter ones, especially when listening to music, and some researchers suggest that a song played louder than the previous one will actually sound better. There is no evidence to support this, however, it did fuel the ongoing ‘loudness wars’ that took place over several decades and no longer has much relevance as streaming services are regulating output levels and compression.
This whole psychoacoustic thing got me thinking about our obsession with loudness, and the effects of louder sounds on our ears and bodies. While researching speakers for our article on the Loudest Bluetooth Speakers, I became curious as to what decibel levels the loudest speaker in the world could generate. We did some research and have compiled a list of the loudest speakers in the world at the present moment. Sure, some of these are not available on the public market- but it’s interesting stuff nonetheless!
How Loud is the Loudest Speaker in The World?
Before we jump into the countdown, let’s quickly recap the decibel scale and the effects of loud sounds.
|10dB||Quiet breathing, distant rustling leaves||None|
|40dB||Quiet library, average home background noise||None|
|60dB||Conversation speech at 3ft||None|
|75dB||Vacuum cleaner at 3ft distance, curbside of a busy road||Slight|
|90dB||Diesel truck in close proximity, bar background noise||Moderate|
|100dB||Chainsaw when operating||Irritating|
|120dB||Large jet plane takeoff||Painful|
It’s worth noting that this scale differs from person to person- while one may find discomfort in sounds at 75dB, another may have a pain threshold that allows them to reach volume levels of 100dB.
1. The 60-inch Subwoofer by Georgia Tech
It’s no secret that car audio enthusiasts are some of the biggest bass-heads around. The 60-inch subwoofer was originally designed as a bass experiment for vehicles in the late 90’s but never saw an installation as it was simply too powerful for any vehicle to handle. The subwoofer’s cone would move up to 6 inches from peak to peak and even when tested at 50% volume, this speaker was just too ridiculously strong to use. At half power, doors were flying off of cars and vehicles were ballooning several inches in and out as the subsonic energy circulated within the vehicle which is designed to reach 188dB.
Bass is a tricky thing to handle, and we’ve seen it all when it comes to overly-powerful low-end energy. From speakers catching alight from the load to people’s bodies shaking uncontrollably and suffering some unfavorable conditions thereafter, bass can be incredibly dangerous if the wrong gear falls into the wrong hands.
2. 9918Z by Digital Designs
The 9918Z is a speaker and subwoofer combo that can collectively reach shockingly high levels of up to 180.5dB. Digital Designs offer other speakers in the 9900 range that you can actually buy. The 9918Z is based on an 18-inch subwoofer, standard size for large concerts and movie theaters where the lowest audible bass frequencies are reproduced and succeed in giving you that thumping feeling in your chest. This is no toy!
3. WAS 3000 by Wyle Laboratories
The WAS 3000 by Wyle Labs is a 300W monster, capable of reaching playback levels of 165dB. The WAS 3000 is not used to play music or broadcast announcements, though. It is used predominantly as an airstream modulator- a noise reduction technique that employs large systems to play a reversed-polarity version of the unwanted noise, along with compressed air and nitrogen, generating pockets of sound where noise reduction can occur. This has been utilized in airports where the low-frequency rumble of aircraft needs to be tamed, as well as for battlefield simulations for the United States Military.
The WAS 3000 dominated the number one spot as the loudest speaker in the world for many years but has been unseated by more modern designs.
4. ESA Horns in Noordwijk, Netherlands
The European Space Agency (ESA) has an acoustic division that developed a series of 4 horns to ultimately assist with shuttle take-offs. The 4 horns act as a noise reduction device, similar to how the WAS 3000 is used in order to limit the unwanted air pressure that surrounds the space shuttle, satellites, and other delicate equipment on the launchpad.
If you’ve seen a satellite launch you may have seen them dumping water on the launch platform- many people think this was to cool down the engines but in actual fact was used to absorb some of the acoustic energy that would have caused serious damage to the shuttle. These ESA Horns fire sound at a volume of 154dB, which is around the level of multiple large jets taking off at once.
5. Matterhorn by Danley Sound Labs
The Matterhorn speaker is comprised of a total of 40 drivers, each playing their part in crafting this powerful wall of sound, capable of pushing around 152dB of volume at its peak, and 104dB at a distance of 820 feet. The speaker is driven by 40,000W of power and makes use of nearly 1,100 ft of 12-gauge cabling and 23 pounds of .003 welding wire. This really is an impressive build!
The Matterhorn was designed and built as Danley Sound Labs heard about the requirement for an incredibly large and powerful military subwoofer. Their chief engineer, Tom Danley, assembled a team and set out to make this speaker. Danley had previously built other military-grade instruments for various uses including sonic boom generators and ground zero bomb simulators to test troops’ abilities to maintain focus when deafening conditions arise.
While not the loudest speaker in the world, it still commands some serious respect.
The Effects of loud sounds on our ears and bodies
Hearing damage can occur from short exposure to a very loud sound (such as a gunshot in close proximity) or prolonged exposure to sounds such as heavy machinery or loud concerts. Hearing loss also occurs as we age and the higher frequencies are the first to go, leaving us with difficulty to decipher clearer tones as we are older.
If you’re experimenting with volume levels of your speakers, or plan on buying any loud party speakers at some stage- I’d highly recommend wearing ear protection when operating such equipment. At the very minimum, short-term damage will occur. Just because it doesn’t hurt does not mean it is not still causing damage to our ears.
Aside from short or long-term hearing damage, ringing in your ears, or headaches, there are also several other non-aural outcomes of prolonged exposure to dangerously loud sound levels.
Studies have shown that ultrasonic frequencies (above 20kHz) at volumes around 180dB can cause physical damage and can be used as a weapon where the pain area can be localized. Scary stuff! Similarly, subsonic frequencies below 20Hz cause vibrations that will rattle some of your insides- the first and most noticeable of which will be your eyeballs, which will shake uncontrollably, making it impossible to see clearly.
Aside from ultra-high and low frequencies, the remaining audio spectrum which we can hear can still be extremely dangerous if experienced at higher volume levels. As we saw in our chart, the threshold for pain and human hearing is around 120-130dB, anything more than this is extremely painful for us. Sounds around 150dB can cause complications within our lungs due to the large air pressure changes, and our vocal cords and bones will vibrate.
A good example of weaponizing sound at these volumes are flashbangs (also known as stun grenades), which while used as a non-lethal weapon by law enforcement, are able to cause permanent hearing damage if the explosion is close enough to the victim. Flashbangs can typically create between 165 and 180dB of sound.
A sound this loud will also simply blow your eardrums and melt your ear wax. These sound pressure levels should not be experienced by humans.
If the sound is directional and loud enough it can cause organ collapse and ultimately, death. This might not happen instantly, but it certainly won’t take too long. Scientists have described the sensation as being similar to being trapped underwater… interesting stuff!