Pressure level meters—also called decibel meters—are devices that can quantify the volume and decibel level of the sound. They’re handy tools for sound engineers and venue owners, letting you gauge the crowd noise and adjust the balance accordingly. These unique devices look like a cross between a thermostat and a microphone, and are capable of measuring minute changes in the air pressure caused by soundwaves. More sophisticated models can give you a more detailed record of the sounds happening around you, including the frequency range and the decay rates; just how many features you need will depend on your industry.
For a musician, DJ, or club owner, a simple model that simply gives you an idea of volume will probably do well enough for your needs. Sound engineers, though, may find the extra features available on more complicated models helpful, especially when they’re recording live shows. Below we review 4 such models. These are, in our humble opinion, the best SPL meters on the market.
This meter was designed with sensitivity in mind, measuring in .1 decibel increments throughout the range and accurate to within two decibels for most types of sound. This subtlety and sensitivity makes it perfect for sound engineers, who will be as interested in the relative fine-tuning of dynamics as they are in the big-picture volume level.
The meter (see full specs) also records the maximum and minimum volume over time and gives you a visual representation of the sound through a bar graph that displays on the easy-to-read LCD display screen. Weighing in right around half a pound, this Extech meter is also very portable, easy to throw in to your gear back or stick in your tool belt for quick readings. It’s one of the best decibel meters for the money.
Galaxy Audio CM140
It’s the details on this Galaxy Audio model that really set it apart from other meters. The screen is wider, first of all, but the rest of the device is smaller and more compact around it. At half a pound, it’s one of the lightest SPL meters on the market. This makes it both very portable and easy to read, even in a dark club. It’s powered by a 9-volt battery that gives you over 100 hours of use.
The maximum range of the device (see full specs) is 150 dB, higher than a lot of meters in lower price points, and it has an accuracy of within 1.5 decibels thanks to its ½” Electret condenser microphone. It also picks up an impressive range of frequencies, from around 30 Hz to as high as 8KHz. Overall, a meter that’s powerful and sensitive enough for use by professionals in all fields, and has our stamp of approval of being one of the best SPL meters on the market.
BAFX Decibel Meter
The accuracy and range of this BAFX meter are impressive considering the price point. It takes readings between 30 decibels and 130 decibels, with a frequency response from around 30Hz to around 8.5 KHz. It automatically filters out the effects of wind to make sure your readings stay accurate, even when you take it outside. The accuracy is within 1.5 decibels, on par with other professional-level meters.
It has a slightly lower battery life than some meters on the market, but you’ll still get about 30 hours of use out of it on a single 9-volt battery. Combined with its easy to read, back-lit display, this makes it a handy meter to take with you to any show or session.
Dr. Meter MS10
Dr. Meter is in the business of making accurate measurement instruments for professionals—and it delivers these professional products at an exceptional value. The MS10 decibel meter sells for just over twenty bucks and gives you all the functionality you need. It’s lightweight and easy to use, but does require a bit more care in the handling to avoid damage to the microphone.
It picks up volumes ranging from 30-130 decibels. It’s one of the best SPL meters for picking up the big-picture, overall volume in a space but it’s not as fast to respond on sharp noises as meters used by professionals. Still, if all you want to know is whether this club is loud enough to warrant ear protection, it will give you the information you need without having to pay for the features you don’t.
Care of Your Meter
It’s important for tools to be durable. Sound pressure level meters are only valuable if you can take them with you on the job, and while all of the models on this list can handle standard wear and tear, it’s good to keep in mind that sound pressure level meters do use a microphone. If you drop your meter or bang it against a hard surface, you can break or damage the wires that allow the microphone to pick up shifts in volume or frequency.
Pricier models generally have better built-in protection for the microphone and tend to be more durable in the long-term. If you know you’re going to be carrying your meter around with you a lot, it’s probably worth it to spend a bit more for a more rugged meter. You can also help protect your meter by keeping it in a hard-sided case, just like you would any other microphone. This keeps other equipment in your bag from damaging the mechanisms. After all, even the best decibel meters are only as valuable as the accuracy of its readings, and it’ll be no help to you if it’s giving you bad information.
Other Helpful Functions
Many meters will do more for you than simply tell you the decibel level as it stands right now—they can also remember how loud it was earlier in the evening and make a comparison between the two. A function like this can help you keep the volume level at reasonable levels throughout a show, preventing the volume from creeping up too high over the course of the night.
Sometimes it’s helpful to save the readings you take so you can analyze and compare them later. For this, sound pressure level meters with USB capability can be especially helpful, letting you plug your meter directly into your computer.
Though it’s accuracy you’re ultimately after, take a moment to consider the meter’s size and design before you make your purchase. If you perform in a lot of dark clubs, make sure to buy a meter with a backlit display screen so it’ll be easier to read throughout your set. If you’ll be using it for long stretches at a time, battery power will be more of a concern to you than if you only plan to turn it on once or twice to check the levels.
Being aware of the decibel level in a space is important for preventing long-term ear damage, especially for musicians and DJs who spend a lot of their time in these environments. Investing in the best SPL meter you can afford can help you better protect your ears’ long-term health.