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How Loud are AirPods & is iOS Headphone Audio Level Accurate?

Last updated: 6 months ago
5 min read

More and more people have headphone-induced hearing loss. So, we decided to test the loudness of the most popular headphones on the market: Apple AirPods.

We tested AirPods 3 and AirPods Max. This is what we found out.

Apple AirPods Max measuring loudness
CONTENTS (show more)

    We discovered that AirPods play slightly quieter on iOS devices and that Apple AirPods 3 are louder than Apple AirPods Max during real-world use.

    Furthermore, the Headphone Audio Level feature in iOS tends to exaggerate the actual loudness of your AirPods.

    So, are AirPods safe to use? The full results are much more fascinating. More on that below.

    Apple AirPods 3

    Based on results from our first test using white noise, Apple AirPods 3 reach the loudness of 105.7dB at 100% volume.

    The recommended exposure time at that loudness is less than 4 continuous minutes. You can learn more information about safe headphone volume in our separate article.

    Furthermore, they have a consistently lower loudness than AirPods Max at the same volume level. On average, AirPods 3 are around 4.4 dB lower.

    Here are the AirPods 3 loudness results and how long you can listen to them at different volumes:

    Loudness percentageApple AirPods 3Recommended listening
    time (before causing
    hearing damage)
    100%105.7dB3min 45sec
    90%100.8dB11min 54sec
    80%95.5dB37min
    70%89.8dB2h 38min
    60%83.5dB10h
    50%77.5dBMore than 25h
    40%70.6dB/
    30%63.3dB/
    20%54.6dB/
    10%44.9dB/
    Recommended listening time according to CDC – NIOSH

    However, the second test with music, representing real-world usage, is where things get mesmerizing.

    Apple AirPods 3 become louder than AirPods Max by an average of 4.7 dB. We repeated the test twice and got similar results.

    Here are the results from our second “real-world” test, with AirPods 3 playing at 100% volume.

    ResultsApple AirPods 3Recommended listening
    time (before causing
    hearing damage)
    Song test (IPAD)91.9dB1h 35min
    White noise track (IPAD)83.4dB12h
    Song test
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    95.8dB38min
    White noise track
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    84.1dB10h
    Song test (HP LAPTOP)96.1dB37min
    White noise track
    (HP LAPTOP)
    84.2dB10h

    Why is the max volume lower?

    Read our possible explanation as to why that happened under the discussion below.

    Apple AirPods Max

    Based on our white noise measurements for the first test, Apple AirPods Max are the loudest AirPods, reaching 108.3dB at 100%.

    That means that listening to anything at 100% volume for more than 2 minutes can result in hearing damage.

    Moreover, the first test also shows that AirPods Max appear louder than AirPods 3.

    Here are the AirPods Max loudness results and how long you can listen to them at different volumes:

    Loudness percentageApple AirPods MaxRecommended listening
    time (before causing
    hearing damage)
    100%108.3dB2min 10sec
    90%104.4dB5min
    80%99.8dB15min
    70%94.1dB1h
    60%88.3dB3h 50min
    50%82.3dBLess than 16h
    40%75.5dBMore than 25h
    30%68.2dB/
    20%59.4dB/
    10%49.8dB/

    Interestingly, in our second test with music showing real-world usage, AirPods Max are actually quieter than AirPods 3 by roughly 4.7 dB.

    Here are the results from our music test using Apple AirPods Max at 100% volume:

    ResultsApple AirPods MaxRecommended listening
    time (before causing
    hearing damage)
    Song test (IPAD)83.4dBLess than 12h
    White noise track (IPAD)81.5dBAround 16h
    Song test
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    88.7dBLess than 4h
    White noise track
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    82.3dBLess than 16h
    Song test (HP LAPTOP)88.6dBLess than 4h
    White noise track
    (HP LAPTOP)
    82.5dBLess than 16h

    How does the Airpods Max and AirPods 3 loudness compare?

    Here is the comparison table showing the results from our first white noise test between Apple AirPods 3 and AirPods Max:

    Loudness percentageApple AirPods MaxApple AirPods 3Difference
    100%108.3dB105.7dB2.6dB
    90%104.4dB100.8dB3.6dB
    80%99.8dB95.5dB4.3dB
    70%94.1dB89.8dB4.3dB
    60%88.3dB83.5dB4.8dB
    50%82.3dB77.5dB4.8dB
    40%75.5dB70.6dB4.9dB
    30%68.2dB63.3dB4.9dB
    20%59.4dB54.6dB4.8dB
    10%49.8dB44.9dB4.9dB

    And here is the comparison table showing the results from our second test at 100% volume with music between Apple AirPods 3 and AirPods Max:

    ResultsApple AirPods MaxApple AirPods 3Difference
    Song test (IPAD)83.4dB91.9dB8.5dB
    White noise track (IPAD)81.5dB83.4dB1.9dB
    Song test
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    88.7dB95.8dB7.1dB
    White noise track
    (SAMSUNG PHONE)
    82.3dB84.1dB1.8dB
    Song test (HP LAPTOP)88.6dB96.1dB7.5dB
    White noise track
    (HP LAPTOP)
    82.5dB84.2dB1.7dB

    Related:

    Discussion About Results

    Loudness anomaly between the first and second test

    By comparing the frequency spectrum of REW-generated white noise and the white noise from Spotify, you can see that Spotify’s noise is much more bass focused.

    Apple AirPods 3 and Max white noise spectrum
    White noises from REW and Spotify and their frequency spectrums from Apple AirPods 3 (blue) and Max (red).

    The graph shows that the difference between AirPods 3 and Max is much more significant in higher frequencies on Spotify white noise than on REW’s white noise.

    That could be one of the logical reasons Apple AirPods 3 appear louder: they simply boost higher frequencies more than AirPods Max.

    In contrast, REW’s white noise has a more even spectrum. So the louder sub-bass might have played a role in why REW’s noise appears louder on AirPods Max.

    Related:

    Sound from iPad is quieter than Android & PC

    On average, AirPods play 2.7dB quieter when using iPad compared to an Android smartphone or a Windows laptop.

    The table shows the difference in loudness between iPad and an Android smartphone during our tests:

    Loudness from iPadLoudness from AndroidHow much is
    iPad quieter
    Song test
    (AirPods Max)
    83.4dB88.7dB-5.3dB
    Song test
    (AirPods 3)
    91.9dB95.8dB-3.9dB
    White noise track
    (AirPods Max)
    81.5dB82.3dB-0.8dB
    White noise track
    (AirPods 3)
    83.4dB84.1dB-0.7dB

    We tested AirPods in Bluetooth mode to exclude bias by using a wired connection (which is possible in AirPods Max). Meaning that only the hardware built into AirPods can influence their sound.

    However, our article about Bluetooth codecs mentions that different devices encode/decode Bluetooth codecs more efficiently than others.

    Apple is known to have superior AAC processing quality and efficiency. However, it’s possible that their processing orders headphones to play audio at a different loudness. Or it could be a translation anomaly from OGG (the audio format used by Spotify) to AAC.

    Here’s a guide on how to fix AirPods low volume issues.

    Is iOS Headphone Audio Level Showing Correct Loudness?

    On average, the loudness displayed by Apple’s Headphone Audio Level feature in iOS was 6.9 dB higher than the loudness measured on our MiniDSP.

    Here are the loudness results at 100% volume measured by our MiniDSP H.E.A.R.S and iOS:

    Measuring
    tool
    Apple AirPods 3Apple AirPods Max
    MiniDSP
    (White noise)
    84.2dB82.5dB
    iOS HAP
    (White noise)
    91dB87dB
    MiniDSP
    (Song)
    96.1dB88.6dB
    iOS HAP
    (Song)
    98dB92dB
    “HAP” stands for Headphone Audio Level feature

    Apple implemented the feature in iOS 14, which shows how loud your headphones’ audio is in real-time.

    You can find it in Control Centre. Otherwise, you have to add it:

    1. Go into “Settings.”
    2. Find “Control Centre” and tap on it.
    3. Add “Hearing” in INCLUDED CONTROLS by tapping “+.”
    iOS enable Hearing feature

    Remember that the feature only works with Apple headphones (not tested for Beats headphones).

    It uses a microphone built inside the AirPods that is normally responsible for the AdaptiveEQ feature (continuously tweaking the EQ so that the listener always hears the sound as Apple intended).

    Apple AirPods Max internal mic
    That tiny dot in the internal microphone inside the AirPods Max’s earcup.

    But why is it inaccurate?

    That’s probably due to the mic’s placement right in front of the driver, meaning it gets full-blown sound directed at it.

    AirPods 3 song IPAD
    Loudness displayed by Headphone Audio Level feature.

    However, the sound loses intensity with distance and when hitting obstacles (your pinna, ear canal). So when it reaches your eardrums, the loudness has already dropped a little.

    Nonetheless, the feature is still very useful in letting people know they’re listening to music too loud. Hopefully, more people will decide to lower the volume and protect their hearing.

    How We Made Our Tests

    Initially, we calibrated our MiniDSP H.E.A.R.S to show the accurate loudness values.

    First test

    We connected AirPods to our Windows laptop via Bluetooth and made our first test by using “Noise Generator” and “SPL Meter” tools inside the REW (Room Equalizer Wizard) software.

    We then measured the AirPods’ loudness from 100% to 10% volume, each time lowering the volume by 10%.

    Second test

    We made this test to represent real-world usage better.

    We used 3 different devices:

    • iPad (running iPadOS 15)
    • Samsung Galaxy S21 (running Android 13)
    • HP laptop (running Windows 11)

    For consistency, we decided to use Spotify as our only audio source.

    For the song test, we picked:

    • Intro from “Friend or Foe? (Album Version)” by Riverside (between 0:49 and 0:56)
    • “White Noise 3 Hour Long” by Erik Eriksson

    We then placed AirPods on our MiniDSP and left them there until all tests were complete. Switching between all 3 devices, we observed the loudness at 100%.

    Conclusion

    Our in-depth testing showed that AirPods Max and AirPods 3 are much quieter in real-world situations, even though they can get dangerously loud in controlled tests.

    Also, we learned how much a sound signature and even Bluetooth codec encoding/decoding can affect the end loudness.

    Despite the differences between the two AirPods, both are more than loud enough for daily use. Our measurements show that AirPods 3 will cause hearing damage after just 40 minutes of music listening at 100% volume.

    Therefore, remember to keep the volume down and protect your hearing.

    Read more on how long AirPods last, how to fix AirPods not charging, and fix AirPods connected but have no sound.

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